Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In the wake of DON'T BREATHE's success, what can we learn about writing horror films?

Horror is a genre that, as a whole, doesn't get a lot of respect. That seems a little unfair when you consider that the misses in that genre probably aren't significantly greater than the misses in any genre. Maybe the disdain has to do with the fact that slasher films have frequently been less highbrow and less polished efforts, while the respectable successes always get gerrymandered into more highbrow categories. Thus, we get the notion that PSYCHO isn't a horror film, it's a "Hitchcockian thriller." SILENCE OF THE LAMBS isn't a horror film, it's a "psychological thriller."

The success of DON'T BREATHE this past weekend should be a reminder of all the virtues of this much maligned genre. Here, in the waning dog days of summer, a new film opened up with $26.1 million. According to Box Office Mojo, that's up 43.5% from the same weekend last year. That fact alone would probably be reason to celebrate, but it gets even better. It was made for less than $10 million, which means it has a FAR shorter road to travel before its in the black and starts making money. And guess what? All of this was achieved with any big name stars.

That's the thing about horror - it's perhaps the one genre left where it's understood the concept is king. The box office proves that audiences don't need that extra nudge to go see something that looks interesting to them. I've always felt that same philosophy was transferable to other genres, but there remains this conviction that a project needs "marketable" names to earn a green light. (And if any of you have ever dealt with foreign financing, you understand how insane it can often be to try to put together a cast that the money men deem worth their investment.)

When I was still working as a reader, horror was probably one of the more frequent genres I read. Sadly, it was probably also the genre where I detected the most laziness on the part of the writers. Too many were seemingly satisfied with being generic. Perhaps it's that old snobbery at work again, it's "just" horror, so why work to make it good, right? Since DON'T BREATHE is likely to provoke another wave of horror writers, I want to pontificate about what I think makes a great horror film.

I took a look at many of the horror releases of the past several years and when you see the profit margin on the low-budget entries, it might inspire you to see how strong your affinity is for that genre. Blumhouse's success with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has been talked to death at this point. Of the six films in the series, five of them were made for less than $5 million, and until the penultimate release, THE MARKED ONES, worldwide gross was always well over $100 million. Then again, the final film cost $10 million to make and it only made $18 domestically. ($59 million was taken in overseas.)

When you look at the PA numbers, you can see the first dip happened with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, which is probably not coincidentally the first film in the series where the story really seemed to be treading water. The lack of payoff likely discouraged attendance at the next entry, and by the time the final film rolled around most viewers who had cared were long gone.

Blumhouse's other franchise THE PURGE seems to be holding strong. The first film grossed $64.5 million domestically and each sequel's domestic take has risen. The films keep getting gradually more expensive, but both sequels have taken in over $100 million worldwide. I didn't like the original film at all, but something about this hook really seems to appeal to people.


The INSIDIOUS films are also a huge success with regard to the budget to box office ratio. The first one cost $1.5 million and earned $97 million, and it's the lowest grossing of the three.

Lesson: in a franchise, keep finding new angles within the framework of the concept. Making a horror film cheap isn't enough; having an inventive story and scares matters.

So what kind of horror story do you want to tell? My own interests lean more towards the Hitchcockian end of the spectrum. I like character-driven horror stories. For me, it's always more unsettling when the evil is relatable to something in the real world. This is part of the reason that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was so effective - getting lost in the woods felt like something any of us could have done and the lack of any on-screen visual effects meant that viewers weren't immediately triggered to feel, "Okay, that's clearly fake so I'm now very aware I'm watching a construct.

Great horror stories start with primal emotions and fears. LIGHTS OUT had a supernatural killer, but the film cleverly reveals that her power is that she is strong in darkness and is invisible in the light. She might not be able to hurt you in the light, but you can't stay out of the dark forever. And when that moment comes, she's ready to kill you. It's a smart primal fear to build off of because studies show that fear of darkness is an evolutionary trait, not a learned one. On a visceral, gut level, the average person is likely incapable of NOT being triggered by this film.

A NIGHTMARE OF ELM STREET uses a variation of this, giving the killer power in his victim's nightmares. Everyone has nightmares and surely there are few people who haven't woken from a terrifying dream at some point. Those emotions are what makes Freddy Krueger such an effective bad guy. It also makes for a strong thematic through-line to hang a feature on. This will have to be a story about the heroine confronting her worst fears and surviving.

You can't neglect theme in horror films. Like the primal fears, these will be the elements that resonate with your audience on more than just a superficial way. LIGHTS OUT plays as an allegory for depression, and perhaps specifically trying to deal with a loved one who suffers from it. Any idiot can write a monster leaping out of the darkness and get a momentary scare from the audience. The REAL scare you want is the kind that lingers for days, that becomes a dull buzz in the viewers head even long after the end credits have rolled. You'll find these factors present in both supernatural and non-supernatural films, so no matter the horror subgenre you're working in, you want to be thinking about these questions.

Lesson: Theme matters, so have one. (And it should probably be in your mind as you're breaking the story, not tacked on after everything else is figured out.)

Let's take a look at some recent horror films that were either standalones, or the first in their series:

Supernatural horror
Insidious - $97M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Sinister - $77M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
Lights Out - $126M worldwide on a $4.9 million budget.
Ouija - $103.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
Unfriended - $64M worldwide on a $1 million budget.

For me, Unfriended is the one of the bunch I wish I wrote because it had the most inventive high concept premise (the entire film is told via laptop screen, through Skype calls and chatrooms.) It's a much smaller story than the others, but it understands how to use its limitations to reveal things about the characters. That said, Sinister's pitch-dark ending is the rare horror finale that really, deeply chilled me. It absolutely earns that visceral punch from everything building up to it.

Non-Supernatural Horror
The Purge - $89M worldwide on a $3 million budget.
The Gift - $58.9M worldwide on a $5 million budget.
The Visit - $98.5M worldwide on a $5 million budget.

THE PURGE goes for a less repeatable concept and casts itself in the near future, where the laws have established The Purge, a yearly free-for-all where all laws are suspended and anything goes, including murder. I didn't particularly like this film, nor did I find the premise credible at all. However, that same hook is what drew people into the theaters, wondering, "How will they pull this off?"

Lesson: Sometimes audiences will go for something wildly original even if it's implausible.

THE VISIT, however, is far better at drawing on real-world fears. There are themes of aging and dementia, even invoking our pity for the elder folks and seemingly kindly grandparents, who seem to be succumbing to senility. Seeing that visited upon adults can be very hard on children, though by this point, it's likely a part of most childhoods. There's a twist near the end that's inventive, but might be too clever for its own good. It's something of a knife to the gut, but it's also the point where the film trades any poignant identification for visceral thrills. To be honest, sometimes that can work. It's like when Spielberg was told that blowing up the shark in JAWS was a ludicrous twist. His reply was some version of: "If I've got them in my hand for two hours, they'll believe anything I show them in the last five minutes."

Lesson: Take an experience that one might find unsettling or uncomfortable and amp it up to its possible worst case scenario. The old folks' deterioration lingers far more than the twist the film pulls in its third act.

It's THE GIFT that casts its spell by being grounded from minute one. Simon and his wife Robyn meet Gorod, an old classmate of Simon's who is instantly a little TOO friendly. Simon remembers him as "Gordo the Weirdo," an awkward kid in high school. It's archetypical enough that every viewer will either identify with Gordo, or think of their own "weirdo" they knew in high school. Simon doesn't like Gordo's efforts at becoming a friend, but Simon's wife is more receptive. It's a neat writing trick that makes Robyn empathetic, gets the audience feeling a little bad for Gordo, and makes us wonder if Simon's just being protective, a jerk, or if he's right to be wary of Gordo.

Every twist in this movie comes from pure character, even as it escalates into a stalker thriller. Having written a stalker thriller, I learned that a key rule is to keep the stalker relate-able. In the case of my script, several people said they found themselves on the stalker's side and were hoping he could just explain himself in the end and make everything okay. I like a movie where it's possible to empathize with the bad guy because it usually means the writer has done a good job of making that person a fleshed-out character.

Lesson: Character is king. A good tip is to plot only the character stuff first on its own and see if it holds together without the scares goosing the excitement every 15 minutes.

With supernatural films, when you're using paranormal creatures to personify abstract ideas or fears, you can sometimes get away with a lighter touch on the character work. If your story takes place in the real world, everything MUST have depth to it. That's what makes Hannibal Lector so scary and fascinating at the same time. It's what draws us into Clarice Starling's crusade to capture Buffalo Bill and be taken seriously as a woman in a man's world. Those are Academy Award-winning roles because so much effort was made to make them more than just "the cop" and "the psychopath." If you're writing a movie like this, your standards must be higher

One of my favorite horror films of all time, SCREAM, would not work if there wasn't recognizable human emotion driving the killers' plan. You can argue that their motivations are taken to a severe extreme - people have killed for revenge and notoriety before, but few have probably gone after as many bystanders just to serve the narrative they plan on selling to the cops. Also, the film plays fair with all of its cheats. Every misdirection is clearly motivated and directed so that it makes sense in hindsight.

SCREAM's other strength is that its heroine is at least as interesting as her adversary. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET got this right in the first installment, then forgot it for several subsequent entries. Write the kind of role that could stay interesting across several films. The horror films that get a bad rap tend to have weak, barely developed characters.

Lesson: from a character standpoint, there's really no great distinction between writing a horror film and writing any other genre. Characters shouldn't be two-dimension just because they're eventually canon fodder for the slasher or supernatural threat.

This year has seen a lot of strong horror and thrillers, some low-budget, some not. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, THE SHALLOWS, and THE INVITATION are three that spring to mind with one thing in common - they're all limited locations. Two of them are confined not just in setting, but in time span too. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the exception, spreading its story out over several months, but that also uses the claustrophobia well, like a pressure cooker for inter-character tension. The situations are more extreme, but the intensity can work as a trigger for the viewers own emotions.

Also, I'm a sucker for these sorts of locked-room or limited location thrillers. If you can come up with an original hook to confine a story to a few sets, you might find yourself with some buzz around your story.

Lesson: containing your locations doesn't just have to be a limitation of budget, but can be an asset in forcing tension to a heightened and extreme level. This can be useful with a more heightened premise that doesn't immediately conform to some of the relatability issues I discussed above.

This obviously isn't everything you need to know about writing horror, but give it some thought when working on your next horror script. Do it right and you'll have created the sort of film that critics will keep finding reasons to label as "elevated genre" or "thriller" or whatever "respectable" term they're using for horror that week.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A tribute to Law & Order's Adam Schiff, Steven Hill

Longtime readers of this blog know of my deep affection for LAW & ORDER. It was one of three shows (the other two being ER and HOMICIDE) that acted as my gateway drugs into modern television drama in the mid-90s. For my money there has never been a better procedural drama than the original L&O. The caliber of writing was not just the best of its era, but it stands above many shows even in this later period of "peak TV." 26 years after its debut, the writing of the early seasons still holds up, save for a few instances where everyone has rather quaint views about the internet and cell phones. I'm trying to imagine TV drama from the 1970s holding up as well during the time frame when I discovered L&O.

I came into L&O casually in the fifth season and then fell hard for the show in season six after it did a then-unusual crossover with HOMICIDE. Pretty much concurrent with this, I was channel-surfing and stumbled upon L&O reruns on A&E. Except... there was something weird. There was no Jerry Orbach, no Sam Waterston. They were replaced by Michael Moriarty (whom I vaguely recalled having seen stories about a couple years earlier, when he quit the show after attacking the Attorney General in the press) and Paul Sorvino. So how did I know that this was Law & Order?

Because Adam Schiff was there.

Even with so much around him that was different, Steven Hill still held court with the same wry wisdom and "Make a deal" drive I was so familiar with from his scenes overseeing Sam Waterston. He was a comfortable presence, a constant amid the regularly changing casts. For a long time he was an answer to the trivia question, "Who was the longest-serving cast member of Law & Order?" Sometimes it was inaccurately claimed he was the only one left from the very beginning, though actually joined in the first episode after the original pilot. Still, he outlasted everyone else from the first season by the time he departed the show after season 10.

Steven Hill died this week at the age of 94. Just looking at that number makes me feel like we should be celebrating his longevity rather than dwelling on mourning his loss. It's never quite that easy, though, is it? The man's resume is quite remarkable. It makes it all the more ironic that to the best of my memory, the only project I saw him in outside L&O was The Firm. This is not a career-encompassing obituary. For that, I'll direct you to Variety's excellent memorial.

In the Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion written by Kevin Courrier & Susan Greer, Hill's co-star Jill Hennessy recalls an exchange with Robert Duvall. "On the set of The Paper, Robert Duvall said to me, 'So I hear you work with Steven Hill on that Law & Order. He's the best working actor today, bar none.'" In another anecdote, showrunner Rene Balcer fondly stated, "I love writing for Steven Hill more than anyone else. He's one of the few actors who will call and tell the writers to give him fewer lines. And then when you give him the lines, he'll say give him fewer words. Then you give him the words and he'll say 'Give me fewer syllables.'" He didn't need long speeches to make an impact.

Hill never thought the show would be a huge hit. "I felt, especially in the beginning, the format was so predictable," the Companion quotes him as saying. "I wondered how long people were going to be able to take this. I was never a detective story buff; I could really care less. I didn't have the patience for the whodunit puzzle but the audience never tires of it."

Schiff would usually pop up for three or four scenes in most episodes, often to get cranky about the state of the case on McCoy or Stone's desk and to advise them to "make a deal!" A lesser actor might have played Schiff like the demanding boss from hell. Instead, Hill was a presence that was at once fatherly, Yoda-like and disciplinarian.

Though he had been on the show for four years before Waterston arrived, the two actors quickly fell into a dynamic reminiscent of a father and son. With Jack's complicated history with his father, it was easy to see how he'd look up to Schiff, even while his rebellous nature often put him at odds with that same affection he sought. Jack McCoy needed Adam Schiff. The younger man's righteous crusades were as noble as often as they needed to be reigned in. In Schiff existed the one person who could yank McCoy's leash when needed and still have his back.

Law & Order always worked best when Jack was the crusader for justice who wielded the law like a sword in pursuit of what was right. But a character like that can only exist so long as he has someone above him bound by the rules of the real world, someone who can throw cold water on Jack's windmill tilting. Neither Dianne Wiest nor Fred Thompson's characters were up to that task after Hill left. Wiest was a wishy-washy presence at best. Thompson's character's more conservative nature led to some interesting clashes with Jack, but you never felt like McCoy respected him in the same way he did Schiff. If Jack pulled an end run that Schiff disapproved of, even if he got away with it in the courtroom, you knew there'd be consequences for the two men's friendship. Thompson's Arthur Branch felt like the sort of arrogant boss one would enjoy disobeying.

(This is also why I feel like Abbie Carmichael was a lesser assistant for Jack. On paper it seems interesting to give him a partner who's even more of a loose cannon than he is. The problem is that it weakens Jack to not be cowboy in the room, and it forces him to play Schiff's role, thereby rendering much of the Schiff/McCoy dynamic moot. It worked better when years later, karma got its revenge on McCoy by putting him in Schiff's office where he didn't have the luxury of bending the rules so far. And naturally, he was given an Executive Assistant DA who bent the rules even more aggressively than Jack himself did.)

People who accuse Law & Order of being nothing more than a plot-driven procedural have overlooked how much the character relationships are woven into the fabric of the cases. It's also escaped them just how important the actors and their characters are to the stories. Steven Hill was irreplaceable as Schiff. His dry comments often either helped cut to the core of a point for the audience, while bringing a bit of humor to the moment. I recall one moment when Claire Kincaid expressed frustration with a miscarriage of justice, only to be reminded by Schiff, "We don't make the system, we just try to survive in it." Hill gave those words the weight of a lifetime of experience. You could easily understand that he meant "we can argue about how the world SHOULD be for hours, but at the end of it, we'll still be back here with the same problem. Find a solution that works."

In another episode, former ADA Jamie Ross returned as a defense attorney and twice out-maneuvered her former bosses. Upon hearing that Ross's strategy had caught even McCoy with his pants down, Schiff remarked, "I knew there was a reason I hired that young lady." He even has the opportunity to rub it in later when another of Jack's strategies blows up in his face.

Steven Hill always played Schiff like he was the smartest guy in the room even as he was resigned to the reality he'd be ignored until proven right. And maybe three or four times a year, the writers would give Hill a story where Schiff had even more to work with. The seventh season finale "Terminal" involves a case where the governor wants the DA to seek the death penalty, but Schiff feels it's not warranted. Concurrent with this, Schiff's wife has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized on a ventilator. The governor removes Schiff under the pretense that the family crisis has impaired the DA's judgement. McCoy follows Schiff out the door and the two of them take the governor to court. There's a nice moment where the courtroom histrionics of McCoy and his adversary are trumped when the soft-spoken Schiff stands up and sums it up in a brief speech that ends, "The governor thinks he's above the law. He's not." Few actors have the presence that could make such a simple statement carry real import.

And then there's the moment at the end of that episode. After signing the DNR for his wife, Schiff stands by his wife's bedside as her ventilator is turned off. The entire action of the scene is played on his face. We hear the machines, the breathing and the heart monitor. We hear the ventilator deactivated, the heartbeat briefly continuing... and then clear beeps of distress preceding a flatline. Hill lets out a whimper - not an agonized cry but a brief whimper that one might mistake for "No..."

Even typing this now, I can hear that moan in my head and it's agonizing. His wife dies right before his eyes, and rather than going for overwrought tears, Hill chooses to play Schiff's pain in a more subtle way. It's all in his eyes and he looks so... lost. It's one of the most affecting depictions of death I can recall seeing on TV, and it's all evoked with such minimalist directing and acting. Hill made you feel Schiff's loss by allowing the audience to project their emotions onto him.

I could quote Schiff all day. My favorite Schiff one-liner might be from "Double Down," where he notes a defendant "confessed to a murder to avoid being prosecuted for a murder. I'm putting this one in my memoirs."

Someone pointed me to a collection of his best one-liners, and I'd like to end this on my favorite McCoy/Schiff exchange from "Showtime."

Schiff: "Started with a murder, ends with an execution. You got what you wanted. Take the rest of the week off."
McCoy: "It's Friday, Adam."
Schiff: "So it is. See you on Monday."

Farewell, Steven Hill.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Reader question: Microbudget films as exposure for writing

Rita writes:

Big fan of the blog. You've no doubt covered this before but is there any article i can reference that manages the expectations of someone who wants to make a microbudget film to get exposure for their writing?

My friend's boyfriend seems to be talking her into spending almost 50k she inherited on a film he would direct based on a play she wrote that is not filmic at all. It's a series of vignettes that sort of tie together at the end and she (and he) seem only vaguely to know what they're doing.

Is there even a market for this kind of stuff? I've seen some pretty lame films of this sort made as vanity projects but it seems to me that making a trailer or short first might make more sense?

This guy has never directed a feature before and there are no named actors in it but I guess since brothers McMullen people have succeeded this way. 50k though? She could produce three plays for that that people might actually SEE. 

A lot to unpack here, based on a lot of x-factors. $50k in some ways is both ridiculously small for a feature budget and also a helluva lot of money for one individual to put into a film on their own. My first piece of advice would be for your friend to not invest more money than they can afford to lose. If $50k represents the entirety of her nest egg, I'd proceed with caution.

Not having read the script, I can only go by your description of it. My gut reaction was that it didn't sound marketable at all, and then I realize you might as well have been describing the V/H/S series of films. My friends Radio Silence did a segment in the first of those and on the strength of that were hired to direct a film called Devil's Due. Another friend of the blog, Gregg Bishop, shot a segment for the third VHS and was then hired to direct the feature version of Siren, a short from the first V/H/S. Gregg, by the way, made his first feature for $15k.

So yes, the right concept with the right execution and the right marketing can open doors.

BUT

It has to be the right concept. The Blair Witch Project was a microbudget work of genius. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first found-footage film ever, but it definitely created an explosion in that genre of film. My concern is that you don't think the idea is filmic and that you don't think the director knows what he's doing. You need a strong hand at the helm for ANY film but it's especially important in a microbudget where corners may have to be cut and the director needs to know his vision inside and out.

My thought would be that if they really are a series of vignettes, is there any reason they can't just shoot ONE of them first as its own short film? At that point, she'll have seen him in action, she'll have seen how well his vision translates to storytelling, and it might give her a better idea of if she should invest in the rest of it.

But concept is king. This can't just be some run of the mill quiet drama. It's gotta be something like BURIED, which takes place entirely in a coffin, or THE UNINVITED, which takes place largely in one location and uses that claustrophobia to the film's advantage, or PRIMER, which is approaches time travel in a completely unique and complex way.

Also, while the writer probably will get some heat for a microbudget breakout success, it's important to note that the director will get a lot MORE heat for these projects. (Though often in these sorts of films, the director IS one of the writers, so from a certain point of view you COULD say the writers get some notice for these kinds of films. So from where I sit, your friend's boyfriend stands to gain a LOT from this arrangement - he gets a film paid for and he gets the lion's share of the heat if it breaks out. She's footing the bill and has to answer to him.

From where I sit, your friend holds all the cards and she's assuming almost all the risk. I'd just make sure she's thought all this through.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reader question: How does one join the union as a script reader?

Shayna writes:

I was hoping I could pick your brain about the story analyst world... 

I'm currently a freelance reader, whose potentially looking to one day not be a freelance reader. I've done the agency thing, I've done the publishing thing and I'm really hoping to steer clear of the assistant world going forward. The few freelance jobs I've had have basically come to me and I've been exhausting my search for additional jobs, but as you know they're nearly impossible to come by. 

If I were looking to get further into this, would it benefit me to join a union? And on a separate note, is there anywhere else to look for these jobs, besides entertainmentcareers.net?

She's talking about the Story Analyst's Union, which is part of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. There are benefits to Union Membership, particularly with regard to pay. A few years ago it was something like $27/hour. That sounds good, but you have to realize that before the Guild can accept any new members, they have to check their roster and make sure that not a single active member is available.

As you might expect, that usually means that it's a hard union to break into. Very early in my career, I asked the SVP of Development at my company about how one goes about getting in, and he laid out that above scenario, while noting it was virtually impossible to break in. I'd think it's even MORE difficult now as reader jobs have disappeared, leading the union members to cling even tighter to their claim.

All of this goes back to my earlier advice - you don't want to be chasing jobs as a script reader. Find a different area of the business that excites you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Aaron Sorkin MasterClass in Screenwriting is as awesome as you expect it to be

As longtime readers of the blog know, I'm very careful when it comes to endorsing products and services. So long as there are plenty of free and cheap screenwriting resources out there, I'm always wary of sending business to services and charlatans who charge hundreds of dollars for their expertise.

When I do endorse a product, I always make sure it's one that I've used myself. I've thrown my weight behind the Black List and I've paid to post four scripts up there. Last year, I was invited to check out the MasterClass video series with Dustin Hoffman and recently I was granted access to an even more relevant MasterClass - with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.



Aaron Sorkin probably needs no introduction, but manners demands that I do so anyway. His first film was an adaptation of his own play, A Few Good Men. Subsequent films include Malice, The American President, Moneyball and The Social Network, for which he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He's enjoyed similar success in television, having created Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom.

A Few Good Men is one of my favorite films and one of those that if I come across it while flipping channels, I have to watch the rest of it. The Social Network deservedly won the Oscar because it manages to tell a very complex story with complete clarity. The script deals in multiple timeframes, including two separate depositions as framing sequences and the audience is never once lost or disoriented. When this class was announced, I saw one snarky person retweeted into my feed who sneered, "I don't think there's anything at all about screenwriting I'm interested in learning from Aaron Sorkin."

Look, I'll admit I wasn't the biggest fan of Studio 60, but it's petty bullshit to use a writer's weakest moments as the disqualfier for anything they have to say about the craft, you need a serious attitude adjustment. When someone like Sorkin offers the chance to pick their brain, you shut up and listen.

The Master Class is a series of 35 videos that total nearly eight hours of viewing. That's $90 for eight hours of viewing. That's a cost of less than $12 an hour. Think of it like this - would you pay $25 to see Aaron Sorkin give a two-hour talk about screenwriting at the WGA Theater. I bet many of you would, and on a per-minute basis, that would cost you more.

Sorkin has broken the class into a suggested viewing schedule that paces the videos out over six weeks. I wasn't able to take that leisurely tour, but it makes sense to me and if you look at it that way, you're paying only $15/week.

There are several components to the class, delivered in Lesson Videos, which take the form of direct lectures and workshop sessions. In the workshop, Aaron works with about a half-dozen students. In some segments he reads a scene from their script and offers critiques. What's refreshing is he's a very encouraging teacher, always finding something positive to say and offering criticism in a way that's instructive without being rude. He's also upfront when he's out of his own depth. (He tells one student who's skilled at action writing that he doesn't know any advice to give because action writing is his own weakness. He jokes that if he had written that scene it would have just been two people talking.)

There's also a multi-video series where the same students become Sorkin's writers room and as an exercise, they begin to break what would be the first episode of the fifth season of The West Wing. (In other words, they try to figure out how Sorkin would have continued the show, had he not left at the end of the fourth season.) I've been able to see three different showrunners in action in their writing rooms, and I can tell you that Aaron leads the discussion very differently than most. (However, there's also a power disparity. In other rooms, you'll find co-EPs and midlevel writers who bring a lot of experience to the table. Aaron is essentially working with staff writers, so the dynamic is different.) I say this because it's not a perfectly accurate representation of a writers room, but it's still a very instructive series on a lot of levels.

The real gold is in Sorkin's direct lectures. If you are interested in screenwriting and either didn't attend college or your college didn't have a Screenwriting course, these lecture videos are an excellent way to begin thinking about the basics in a way that's digestible and encourages you to apply these lessons to deconstructing films you've seen.

One of Sorkin's fundementals is the idea of the "Intention and Obstacle." The Intention is what the main character wants, what's their goal, what's their drive? If the movie is about a cross-country drive to San Francisco, why is it important that they are going now? What are they going towards, and just as importantly, why do they need to be there at a certain time? Sorkin points out that it's a better movie if they NEED to be there by, say, Thursday for a job interview. That's better than if there's no tension at all for when they arrive. The obstacle, of course, is what is getting in the way of their intention, and Sorkin goes through a couple examples.

In other videos, Sorkin shows a scene from his work and deconstructs various aspects of the writing. He puts us in his head as he crafted the scene, showing why specific choices and lines of dialogue were chosen to carefully reveal something about the characters, or to push the drama forward.

I especially appreciated a video where Sorkin described himself as a "rules guy." He believes there are absolutely rules of drama, principles that all great works conform to. However, he wisely reminds the audience not to be led astray by "fake rules." The real rules come from Aristotle's Poetics. The fake rules would be guru-speak like "Never use voiceover."

Each lesson is accompanied by a PDF that recaps the basic point of the lesson and offers further assignments and resources. These assignments might be something like "Pick a movie to watch tonight. Critically look at why the movie works or doesn’t work. If you find yourself using snarky terms, remember, that doesn’t help you diagnose the script. Keep a journal and write down what works about your five favorite and what doesn’t work about your five least favorite movies. Share your findings with your MasterClass classmates and see if they agree or disagree."

I wasn't able to participate in any of the community discussions due to time constraints, but I'm sure they'd be a useful resource. Similarly, I wasn't able to make use of the Office Hours feature, where students can submit video and text questions for Aaron to answer. Even before factoring in that added value I feel like the class is well worth it.

I give the Aaron Sorkin MasterClass my enthusiastic endorsement. Particularly if you are new to screenwriting and really have a desire to understand the fundamentals, this class is a fantastic resource. In the grand scheme of things, $90 is a bargain for all of this. Christmas and Hanukkah aren't that far off, so if you can't commit that cash yourself, put it on your wishlist. You can find this and every other MasterClass at www.masterclass.com.

Monday, August 8, 2016

SUICIDE SQUAD is a massive disappointment

As the lights dimmed in my theater this weekend, I realized that despite the multiple trailers I'd seen, the trailers showcased the premise but nothing about the actual story. I still really didn't have any idea what the main plot of SUICIDE SQUAD was going to be.

Two hours later when the lights came up, I STILL wasn't sure I knew the actual plot.

It is not a good sign that each WB/DC movie gets successively worse in quality. I liked MAN OF STEEL quite a bit, probably more than most. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN was a massive disappointment, one not really reversed by the longer Ultimate Cut, and now arrives SUICIDE SQUAD, which might not be the Worst Superhero Movie Ever (CATWOMAN, STEEL and last year's FANTASTIC 4 all are objectively worse). On the other hand, if you're debating exactly where a particular movie falls on a "worst" list, chances are more than a few things went wrong on the way to release date.

Much has been made about the behind the scenes drama of SUICIDE SQUAD, particularly in articles like this one from The Hollywood Reporter. I don't know how accurate this story and those like it are. I've heard gossip rumblings both ways. Speaking as someone who has worked for companies that have made some real stinkers, I can tell you that with a movie this misguided, there's plenty of blame to go around. The culprit is never JUST studio meddling. The problems start when you develop the script wrong, or you hire the wrong writer, or you put the wrong director at the helm, or the producers don't understand the genre that they're making, or the film is miscast, and so on. You'll usually find bad creative decisions made at multiple levels and they all compound each other.

The strongest stretch of the film is the first twenty minutes or so. Intelligence advisor Amanda Waller, played wonderfully by Viola Davis, foresees that the next war will be fought with metahumans. Her plan is to bring captured criminal assets under the thumb of the U.S. Government, recruiting them for suicide missions in return for leniency. This is actually the fourth live action incarnation of Waller so far (following Smallville, Green Lantern, and Arrow) but Davis is such a cold sociopathic presence that she makes all other contenders irrelevant. There are a lot of questionable decisions in SUICIDE SQUAD, but Davis's casting is one point where writer/director David Ayer nailed the bullseye.

As she assembles her team, we're treated to flashbacks of these criminals' origins. At times, it's a bit choppy, but the sheer entertainment value of the vignettes eases those transitions. Deadshot, played by Will Smith is an early standout. He seems to be played a bit more irreverently than in the comic and Smith seems to be having more fun here than he has in a while. While he's not a metahuman, he IS an expert marksman who never misses his shot.

I'll get to the other members of the team in a minute, but first I want to address a plotting issue. In these sorts of team movies, it helps if everyone has a different skill set or super power, and that each one is essential to the solution. Think of OCEAN'S ELEVEN. You've got the charmer, the tech guy, the bomb expert, and so on. In superhero terms, look at the first X-MEN. It all builds to a climax where every character's power comes into play and is critical to how they work together.

I bring this up because it's a failure of plotting that SUICIDE SQUAD's objective doesn't rely on each character's powers. In fact, for much of the film, the end goal of their mission is only vaguely defined. Let's look at each character and consider the logic of their recruitment.

Deadshot - Okay, having a perfect marksman makes sense. He's in.
Killer Croc - mutant monster who eats people. Okay, muscle makes sense.
El Diablo - Shoots fire from his hands. Definitely some kind of application for that.
Captain Boomerang - Expert thief whose gimmick is boomerangs. Um... really?
Harley Quinn - Homicidal nut case with no super powers and armed with a baseball bat. Okay, Waller is just screwing with us at this point, right?

Harley is at least entertaining, probably the MOST entertaining member of the cast. Half the time you forget Boomerang is there, he's so boring. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, fully commits to the role of the Joker's girlfriend. The character is a bit of an odd fit for this mission, though. There's really no point at all where her recruitment makes sense, and the one instance where she DOES get to do something critical, it's a moment that could have been given to any of the characters.

Because Harley's involved, a subplot is built around the notion of the Joker coming to get her back. I feel very strongly that you could cut every present day scene of the Joker and not impact the plot at all. (My own theory is that Joker's involvment was once limited to flashbacks and at some point in the rewrites, they couldn't resist trying to beef up his role.) The most interesting thing about the Joker in this film is his seduction of Harley, and even that is only shown in fleeting glimpses. It's a waste to having him hanging around outside Harley's origin, and it might have been better to make the mission somehow involve a hunt for the Joker.

And just from an acting standpoint, Jared Leto won't erase anyone's memories of prior Jokers. The script doesn't provide many opportunities for the character's delightful lunacy to pop to the surface and this gangster incarnation had me longing for the days when The Joker was a ghoulish prankster who'd create smiling fish rather than a brutal sadist bent on topping how sick he was.

I'm going to have to wade into spoiler territory to discuss the film's other main villain - The Enchantress. She's a witch several thousand years old who's possessed an archeologist named June Moon. Waller arrogantly believes she's got her under control, but the Enchantress manages to betray her with the help of her brother and then begins building... some kind of machine that will supposedly wipe out humanity. This is the mission the Suicide Squad are assembled for.

Naturally with this being a superhero film, those end-of-the-world stakes are represented by a giant glowing portal in the sky. For everything in the third act to come down to this feels so uninspired. The character beats of the story are fun, but character is totally divorced from plot. I had a lot of problems with Batman v. Superman, but you can't deny that from the first sequence, there is a clear and distinct mission to link character motivation with the core conflict of the story. Even the battle with Doomsday is more motivated in character than SUICIDE SQUAD's climax.

So many beats are mishandled on the way to that climax. There's some business where the team is deceived about who they are sent in to retrieve from the war zone. This reveal is botched, both in when the audience is let in on the twist and then later when the squad members realize they've been duped. I wish to stay out of spoiling too many late-game turns, but Waller's status during the third act is another piece I really don't buy at all. I feel like the film plays it safe.

Speaking of Waller, I was glad to see her amoral attitudes made the transition from the comics mostly unscathed. Whenever she showed up in a storyline, I tended to loathe her, which is the exact correct reaction because she's usually an antagonist to the "good" heroes like Superman and Batman. Davis had so much presense that I found myself thinking, "Oh man, it's gonna be awesome to get her and Affleck in the same scene eventually. Batman facing off against her will be intense."

SPOILER

Well, they take that potential and they throw it away in a credits scene that has Waller and Bruce Wayne face to face. It's a fairly mundane scene too, and it also makes it clear that Waller knows Bruce is Batman, and that Wayne knows she knows. It takes so much potential tension out of that dynamic, robbing JUSTICE LEAGUE of a moment where we could see Waller put it all together, or have Batman realize his secret is compromised. Placed in this context, the moment is completely unearned.

END SPOILER

There's so much wasted potential in this film. I want to say that Robbie, Smith and Davis save it, but the truth is that they don't even come close. The plot, the editing, and the whole aesthetic are just too much of a mess. I haven't even gotten into the goofiness of how Katana is said to have a knife that captures the soul of the person she kills, and how the team BARELY reacts to a statement that nutty. (Later she talks to the blade.) Hell, Harley gets more reactions when she pretends to be hearing voices.

And the less said about The Enchantress's pelvic throbbing, the better. It was one of those points where I was physically embarrassed for the actress that this was what 70% of her scenes boiled down to.

When SUICIDE SQUAD was announced, it felt like it was going to be a weird one-off that played as more of a tangent to the DCU. After BvS under-performed, the narrative shifted to how this film would become the one critical to selling the mass audience on the DC filmic universe. Personally, I think the first expectations were more accurate. And if the box office doesn't come out the way WB expects, they'd better hope a lot of viewers see it that way.

This is easily the weakest comic book movie of the year. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE was an uninspired letdown that wasted a lot of talent on a weak script, but even that wasn't as eye-rollingly bad as this film is. This film left me wanting The Joker to get locked up in the DC Vault for a good long time until someone has a story worthy of his involvement.

SS is a dud, but it doesn't necessarily foretell doom for the rest of the franchise. I think this means that WONDER WOMAN probably really is their last chance to right the ship. JUSTICE LEAGUE will still be made, of course, but a botched WW film means a strikeout for WB/DC before JL gets up to the plate.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Ultimate Edition of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is more movie, but definitely not a better movie

About four months ago, I came away from the theatrical cut of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN with a lot of disappointment tempered by appreciation for some elements like Wonder Woman's cameo and Ben Affleck's Batman. This ended up being posted in a climate where battlelines were drawn - a lot of critics really hated it and it provoked the wrath of fanboys who loved it unconditionally (and who were sending the critics death threats before they themselves had actually seen the film.)

An interesting part about the reaction to my review was that I saw it being shared by the pro-BVS partisans, often with the caveat that it was a "fair" review. I was proud of that observation, as I always strive for intellectual honesty. However, it was weird to see it being use as an apparent brickbat against the "biased" critics because my post was fairly critical. Perhaps that was obscured by the fact that I didn't assign a grade of any kind. One friend told me he thought my review was "pretty damning," likely because it came from a Superman fan whose biggest issue was that it wasn't a very good Superman movie. If I had rated it from one star to four stars, as Roger Ebert used to, it probably would have been a two-star affair.

Even before the film was released, there were rumblings that an Ultimate Cut would be arriving. Not only would this version be rated R, but it would add an entire half-hour onto a movie that was already two and a half hours long. With so many scenes to be reincorporated, I was willing to keep an open mind. It was not unlikely that many of my issues with the theatrical cut could be resolved with the additions. Indeed, about a month ago, there were special screenings of the Ultimate Cut to hype its digital release, and a good deal of the advanced word seemed positive. However, upon closer examination, you might notice that the fans screaming "This is SO much better!" and "This is the version WB should have released" were often the same people who were way in the tank for the theatrical cut.

Last week I finally got a chance to watch it. The succinct reaction is that I'm baffled by anyone who thinks this cut is significantly better than the theatrical cut. Virtually all the cuts were smart cuts on the part of the studio. There's precious little in the new half-hour that shifts your perception of anything on screen. The vast majority of the restored material merely underlines beats that were already present. The additions make the film a longer movie, but not a better one. I'm stunned that the Ultimate Cut moved the needle for viewers in either direction.

The Africa subplot benefits most from the new scenes. In the Ultimate Cut the mechanics of how Superman was framed for the deaths in the village are made clearer. Bodies are burned so it looks like the work of his heat vision, key witnesses against Superman are coerced into giving false testimony. The bad news for the film is that the additions make the plot just clear enough that it's plain as day that this is a TERRIBLE subplot.

All of this nonsense in Africa is totally irrelevant to the core conflict between Batman and Superman. It adds nothing to why either of these two hates the other. Batman's distrust of Superman is perfectly laid out during the sequence that leaps back to the day of Zod's attack. That's probably the best sequence in the film and it lays out right there why Bruce sees Superman as a threat - AND it's thematically on point in terms of the question of if Superman is a good thing for the world.

The Africa storyline never intersects with Batman. At best, it's a device to make Superman mopey and question himself, which is one of the film's worst creative decisions. There needs to be a bigger contrast between Batman and Superman's worlds. Superman's world should be as bright as Batman's is dark. With Batman making the anti-Superman case, we don't need to see Superman the target of a PR attack until he's hauled into the Senate to testify. This is especially true since that plot comes to a dead stop when the Senate blows up. There's no need to burn so much screentime on this shaggy dog story.

I understand there's a case to be made that the Africa/Senate thread lays the groundwork for Lex's plan. He sets up the entire Africa scenario to convince a Senator played by Holly Hunter to let him import some kryptonite he's discovered, and give him access to both Zod's body and the crashed Kryptonian ship. It feels like there's a lot of unnecessary shoe leather here, particularly since Lex's "deterrent" cover story probably wouldn't even need the Africa incident to provoke things. If someone as powerful as Superman showed up, the U.S. government would immediately be figuring out what kinds of weapons they'd need against him.

So all of this is a long way of saying that adding more running time to the Africa/Senate deceit is not a positive in any sense. You might get clarity, but it's the kind of clarity where you clean your glasses and realize the dirty room you're in is actually a large septic tank.

The other big addition comes in the form of scenes showing Clark investigating the Gotham Bat. All this does is hit the same points that were already made in the theatrical cut. At least twice, perhaps three times, in the theatrical cut, we saw Clark being chewed out by Perry for chasing this story when he's been assigned other work. We get it - Clark doesn't like Batman's vigilante tactics. In particular, he holds Batman responsible for the deaths of criminals who get killed in prison because they've been branded with Batman's symbol. In fact, we even see one of those murders.

So let me get this straight - a criminal is sent to a secure facility with scars from the vigilante who put him there, and when the guy gets shanked by other prisoners, the crusading social justice reporter's issue is with... the vigilante? Not the incredibly lax prison security that facilitated those deaths? I mean, if it's happened enough to be an established pattern of what the brand means, why on earth hasn't the prison taken strong measures to protect those who've been branded? How are so many people being killed on the guards' watch and there's been no outcry? Clark, the story's not the vigilante - it's the incredibly poor administration at the prison!

Hitting these beats harder means I find it even less believable when Superman interrupts Batman's chase scene to let him off with a warning. Seriously? Several scenes communicate that Clark thinks this guy's a criminal and the best he does is wreck his car and give a stern finger wag? That's not even getting into the fact that Superman is entirely unconcerned by the devastation in that chase, or in stopping the actual bad guys who Batman was pursuing.

Don't get me wrong - I like that the UC has a little more balance between Clark scenes and Bruce scenes, but I wish Clark's screentime was more substantive and less mopey.

The same film, only more of it. That's my assessment of the Ultimate Cut. I've seen a few editorials that take WB to task for not trusting in the longer version, but I think they made the right call here. I don't think the UC would have been any better received critically had it been released to theatres. Virtually all of the elements that people took issue with in the TC are present in the UC. Chopping 30 minutes out merely reduced the agony.

They probably could have gone even further. Losing the dream scenes might have saved 10-15 minutes, and slicing out Wonder Woman watching Quicktime videos of the future Justice League would have saved another few. I'm sure the dystopian nightmare scene didn't come cheap, but it's unnecessary and is borderline incomprehensible to non-comic book fans. Neither it, nor the Flash's appearance to Bruce are germane to Batman v. Superman.

I'd like to be optimistic about future installments, and while there are things I liked in BVS, I'm perplexed at any reactions that this film is significantly better or worse than what we saw in theaters last March.