Search Results for: mena
Premise: In the 80s, a rogue pilot becomes Ground Zero for the majority of the cocaine being smuggled into the US. The crazy thing? He’s being funded by the United States government.
About: This was a huge “spec” package early last year. Sold for 7 figures with Ron Howard attached to direct. It’s since nabbed Tom Cruise as the lead to play Barry Seale and Doug Liman (who teamed with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow) to take over directing duties. The script also finished in the top 10 of the most recent Black List. I remember reading Spinelli’s breakthrough spec five years ago – a clever idea about a man who kidnapped criminals and auctioned them off to rival crime bosses. It didn’t put him on the top of any studio’s list, but it got the town’s attention. He kept writing and, five years later, nabbed one of the top 3 spec sales of the year. It just goes to show that you’re playing the long game here. Break through with a cool spec, don’t celebrate, put your nose back to the grindstone, keep writing, keep generating material, get more and more people familiar with your work. Then one day, that opportunity presents itself for a huge payday and the ultimate goal of being a produced writer.
Writer: Gary Spinelli.
Details: 128 pages – 10/26/13 draft
It’s a new world. A biopic world. After American Sniper, scripts like Mena, Jobs, and that McDonald’s movie are top priority for studios sick of working on the next actors-in-tights SFX fiasco (I mean seriously – is anyone really that excited to work on Wonder Woman?). Now I could go on my rant about why I’m not a huge fan of biopics, but the first half of Mena makes my argument for me.
There isn’t a single dramatized scene in the first 67 pages of this screenplay. The entire first half of the script is voice over and exposition. This doesn’t seem to bother some people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It’s nice to learn fun tidbits about how we stole weapons from Palestine, then sold them to secretly win wars in South America. But unless you give me a few scenes with some actual suspense mixed in, I’m going to have a hard time staying awake.
But hey, I was singing the same uninspired tune after reading American Sniper. And look how that turned out. This could be a very good omen for Ron Howard and Co.
Mena follows our adrenaline junkie hero, TWA pilot Barry Seale, through the 1980s, when he realizes he wants something more out of life. Being a commercial pilot pays well. But “light rain” on the runway is hardly enough excitement to get Barry up in the morning.
So when Barry gets an offer from the CIA to fly small planes through South America to track revolutionary movements there, he takes it. Being opportunistic, Barry then uses the contacts he makes in South America to smuggle cocaine back into the U.S.
Thinking he’s sly, Barry is shocked to find out that the CIA knew what he was doing all along. In fact, they orchestrated it! By having someone in tight with the cartels of South America, it allows them to influence the factions of government that run things down there. They also start using the money Barry makes from the drug running to purchase stolen weapons from the Palestinian war and sell those weapons to U.S. friendly forces down in South America.
Confused? I sure as hell was.
Anyway, a local cop in the tiny town Barry lives in starts to suspect that Barry is a shady character (could it be the giant mansion he’s built in the cash-strapped town?) and begins looking into his suspicious activities. To make matters even more complicated, the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, declares a war on drugs, seeking to destroy operations like Barry’s, despite the fact that he’s unofficially funding him!
The next thing Barry knows, the FBI is moving into town. The attorney general wants to know what’s up. And Barry’s supposedly untouchable operation is at risk of imploding, bringing down himself, the South American drug trade, and the CIA. You can bet your ass though, that when those organizations are threatened, the last person they’re going to be thinking of protecting is Barry Seale.
Clearly, this was written with the hopes of getting Scorsese to direct. It’s got his signature “Mythology Breakdown” opening, where he over-examines the intricacies of the subject matter via copious amounts of voice over. Instead of Scorsese, though, we get Doug Liman. Which, while no Scorsese, is still an upgrade over Ron Howard. Ron Howard trying to pull off a Scorsese film is a little like Nicholas Sparks trying to write Fight Club.
Here’s my big issue with Mena, regardless of who’s making it. Barry’s external life is an interesting one. He’s robbing the very government he’s working for. He’s using his drug connections to make himself rich. He’s delivering weapons that are shaping the future of South America.
But go ahead and read back those accomplishments. They’re all EXTERNAL. It’s not Barry who’s interesting. It’s the situations he finds himself in that are interesting. Barry himself is a pretty basic dude. There’s no real conflict within him. He’s not battling any demons. His relationship with his family is practically an afterthought (at least in this draft). So what is Barry dealing with on an internal level?
At least with Chris Kyle in American Sniper, you could feel a battle raging inside of our protagonist. He’s been made a hero for killing people –in some cases children. And he struggles to come to terms with that. I guess I wanted more of a character study in Mena and not just two hours of “look at all this crazy shit that’s happened to me.” Especially because we’re not so much being SHOWN this crazy shit as we’re given an audio play-by-play of it.
Earlier I was talking about the lack of a dramatized scene until page 67. What did I mean by that? Well, the first 67 pages of Mena consist of Barry laying out the bullet points of how he smuggled drugs and ran weapons back and forth between the Americas. There wasn’t a single scene between characters that consisted of an unknown outcome.
Finally, on page 67, Barry is tasked with having to kill his brother-in-law and partner, who’s been captured by the police. After getting him out on bail, Barry plans to take his partner out to the desert and kill him. FINALLY! A SCENE WITH SOME FUCKING SUSPENSE! It was the first time I actually leaned in and was excited to see what happened next. For once, there wasn’t a Wikipedia voice over yapping away at me.
And that’s how I like my stories told. I like when writers set up uncertain situations that hook us into wanting to read more. I get that we have to set SOME story up first but, man, 67 pages is an awful long time to set up story.
There’s definitely something to Barry Seale. There are too many wacky components to his life to call this an ill-informed project. But we must remember that while the external stuff is always fun, it’s not what’s going to emotionally hook an audience. If you’re writing a biopic, you’re saying that first, and foremost, this is a character study. So give us a study of the character. Not just the shit he gets into.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A great way to write a suspenseful (dramatized) scene is to follow this formula:
a) Create a problem that results in a difficult choice for your main character.
b) Make the stakes of that problem as high as you can.
c) Have the outcome of this issue completely unknown.
d) Draw the scene out as long as you can.
This is why that scene on page 67 brought my full attention to the script for the first time.
a) Barry knows the only way to keep his step-brother quiet is to kill him.
b) If Barry doesn’t kill him, the CIA and the Columbians will come after Barry.
c) We sense Barry is going to kill his step-brother but we don’t know for sure.
d) This all plays out over a long car ride from the jail to the desert.
In honor of the year 2015, the year Star Wars returns to theaters, I’ll be writing a series of articles throughout the year to celebrate (and occasionally eviscerate), the greatest franchise ever. Enjoy! And may Christmas 2015 come faster than it takes Han Solo to do the Kessel Run.
The year was 1999. For movie nerds, that year marked the arrival of the single most anticipated film in movie history. It was the year The Phantom Menace came out. As millions of Star Wars fans left their local theater confused about how the magic of Star Wars could disappear faster than a womp rat on meth, I went back to my apartment looking for answers. Did George Lucas really just turn my favorite franchise into a bad Saturday morning cartoon?
In the time since, a lot has been dedicated to explaining why the movie didn’t work. But one of the things that doesn’t get mentioned that often – if it all – is the featured set-piece in the movie: the Pod Race.
The Pod Race, in George Lucas’s mind, WAS the movie. While good ole George was excitedly grinding everything from characters to sets into his digital blender, the Pod Race was the one thing he actually built stuff for. Every one of the vehicles in that race was a real prop.
So why is it, then, that a set-piece given so much attention, given so much screen time, given so much weight in the film, turned out to be one of the most boring races (and set-pieces) ever put on film? You watch that race and you’re not focusing on whether Anakin is going to win or not. You focus on why everything is so fucking boring.
The answer to this – once learned – will ensure that you never write a bad set-piece again (or at least one as bad as this). To be honest, set-pieces are typically one of the more boring parts of a screenplay. They’re often cut-and-dry “car speeds up, cuts other car off, joey shoots, brad ducks” blueprint-oriented scenes, rather than scenes written to actually evoke emotion (huge mistake). Truth be told, a lot of execs skim over set-pieces because there’s no important story information in them and it allows them to finish the read quicker.
If you’re doing your job, a reader will never EVER want to skim past a scene. They’ll be so caught up in your characters and your story that every little moment in that set-piece matters to them! So what did screenwriter George Lucas do so terribly to make this sequence, which should’ve been one of the classic all-time action scenes, so boring? Five things, to be exact. Let’s take a look at them.
“BORING MAIN CHARACTER” – I honestly don’t care if you’re the greatest set-piece writer in the world. If we don’t care about the person who’s at the center of the set piece, nothing you write in the set-piece will matter. I say this again and again on the site, but writers never do anything about it! Stop putting all your time into the set-piece and put it into creating an original, compelling, entertaining main character who we want to root for. Star Wars could’ve turned The Pod Race into a Bobbing For Apples contest and it would’ve worked if we cared about Anakin.
“NO MAIN CHARACTER FLAW” – In my newsletter, I talked about the importance of dealing with your characters’ internal issues in external ways. There’s no better time to do this than in a set-piece. And there’s no better way to explore it than through your hero’s unique flaw. If you’re going to build a ten minute race scene into your movie, it better challenge your hero’s flaw in some way. The problem here? Annakin didn’t have a flaw. He had some doubts, some fears. But he didn’t have a clear flaw. In contrast, Luke Skywalker didn’t fully believe in himself. That was his flaw. And that’s why him trusting himself in that ending Death Star sequence was so goose-bump inducing. A clear character flaw equals clear “external conflict” to play with during set-pieces, which creates a closer emotional connection between movie and viewer.
“THE BULLSHIT ARTIST” – Set pieces are your movie’s big performance numbers. In an action movie, they will often be what your movie is remembered for. So their reason for existing has to be airtight. The Rebels didn’t attack the Death Star in the first Star Wars, for example, because someone had a hunch that the base had a weakness. They had the Death Star plans that told them exactly how to destroy the base. In The Phantom Menace, we’re sold some cheap B.S. that winning this pod race (and using the prize money to fix their broken ship) was the only way for our group to get off the planet. As if two of the most important Jedi in the galaxy couldn’t have found an alternative way to leave. Once we know you’re trying to bullshit us on the reasoning for a set-piece’s existence, we turn on you quickly.
“OVER-COMPLICATION” – One of the things I continue to see amateur writers do wrong is needlessly overcomplicate their stories. Stop. Just stop! There’s always a simpler way. What you do when you over-complicate something, is you create confusion in the reader. If the reader is confused about why a big set-piece is going on, nothing in the set-piece matters. Before the Pod Race, Lucas injects an incredibly complicated bet between Qui-Gon and a local alien gambler that states if Anakin loses, the alien gets the pod-racer, but if Qui-Gon wins, he gets the pod racer, Anakin, and a part for his broken ship. The alien then doubles down, and if he wins, he gets the ship, the pod racer, the Anakin, and possibly Qui-Gon too. Qui-Gon comes back at him and doubles his own bet by asking for Anakin’s mom if they win as well. It’s so needlessly confusing, that by the time the race starts, we’re clueless as to what needs to happen. Confusion is NEVER EVER EVER good for your story and is especially bad right before a major sequence.
“REPETITION” – A set-pieces’ mortal enemy is repetition. If the cars that are chasing each other are doing the same dance for too long or if the bad guys and the good guys continue to shoot and duck in the same way over and over, we’re going to lose interest. A set-piece is a mini-movie. And just like any movie, you need to challenge and surprise your audience over and over again. Treat your set-piece like your portfolio and diversify. In the Pod Race, we were subjected to the same desert checkpoints again and again with little variety in the action or interactions between racers.
To me, the worst set-pieces are the ones that feel too technical. A set-piece is a complex series of organisms that have to work together. It’s great if you’ve come up with an imaginative set-piece. But if your hero isn’t battling his flaw as well (i.e. Neo fighting Smith in the subway when he didn’t believe in himself yet), then the set-piece feels empty. You might have the coolest location for your set-piece ever, but if you don’t establish big stakes and make those stakes CLEAR, we’re going to be confused about why the set-piece is happening (i.e. the race car set-piece in Iron Man 2).
Learn why the Pod Race, and other set-pieces like it, aren’t working, so that when it comes time to write your own set-piece, you’ll be ready to deliver.
We’re back for Day 3 of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to Monday’s review of The Empire Strikes Back.
Premise: (from IMDB) Two Jedi knights uncover a wider conflict when they are sent as emissaries to the blockaded planet of Naboo.
About: It is said that Lawrence Kasdan was approached to write the script for The Phantom Menace but that Kasdan felt Empire and Jedi were a step away from Lucas’s vision and believed that Lucas should write and direct the prequels so that they would remain in his voice. Hmmm, that personally sounds like a clever brushoff to me. Other rumors include Frank Darabont and Carrie Fisher being approached to write the script. But in the end, we got George Lucas. Hooray.
Writer: George Lucas
The Phantom Menace is such a poorly told story that as I started compiling the screenwriting mistakes to highlight in this review, I realized there were too many to choose from.
I guess we’ll start at the top. The first problem is the backstory. In the backstory for the original films, rebels were trying to defeat the Empire. It’s simple. It’s powerful. It’s focused. In this movie, we get the taxation of trade routes. In other words, it’s complicated. It’s confusing. It’s unfocused. Now complicated can be good if you have a screenwriter who knows how to navigate complications and who’s dedicated to the extra work required to write something of this magnitude. But George Lucas is neither. He’s openly stated that’s he doesn’t like writing. And since writing even a simple story can take 20-30 drafts to get right, you can only imagine how much effort and how many drafts something complicated would take. And if you’re not committed to all that extra effort, your screenplay’s going to suffer. And this is the main reason the prequels are so bad. Everything here is a first draft idea that was never developed.
Something feels wrong about The Phantom Menace right from the start. We’ve talked about storytelling engines all week and there is an engine here. But unfortunately that engine lacks horsepower. The goal is for two Jedi’s to convince the trade Federation to leave Naboo. In the opening of Star Wars, Darth Vader storms a rebel ship in search of the stolen Death Star plans. In the opening of Empire, Luke Skywalker is kidnapped by a monster and must be rescued. These are both strong and clear engines. Removing a trade blockade from a planet? Borrrrrrrr-ing.
Now to Phantom’s credit, there is one point in the film where things get kind of interesting, and that’s when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon discover an invasion army. This creates mystery. And it gives our characters purpose. They must now get down to the planet and figure out what’s up. When they get there, they realize the Naboo people are going to be attacked and therefore have to save the Queen. Okay, we actually have a little bit of story going on here. Saving queens is exciting. Right?
Unfortunately, once they escape, they get marooned on Tantooine and things start falling apart quickly. They do actually have a goal on Tantooine, and that’s to get off the planet. But you’ll notice there’s something missing from this sequence that’s been present in every single Star Wars movie up to this point. Urgency. Star Wars added it by making sure the bad guys were always on our tail. Empire did the same, with the Empire always right behind Han. Nothing is chasing them here. We feel like they could be here for months and there would be no consequences.
The thing is, George has a ticking time bomb for the Tantooine sequence – they need to get to the Senate to tell them what’s going on on Naboo before it’s too late. But he doesn’t do a very good job of reminding us of this urgency and the goal itself is so muddled and confusing, that even if he did, we still wouldn’t feel the importance of it. I mean, hasn’t the Trade Federation already taken over Naboo? What does it matter if they get there now or two years from now?
But The Phantom Menace truly dies when our characters arrive on Coruscant (the city planet). This is where I’ll be introducing a new term on Scriptshadow: Scene Of Death.
The Scene Of Death is any scene that exists only to…
a) Convey exposition.
b) Have characters talk to each other about their feelings.
c) Have two people talk about another person.
d) Have two people talk about their views or opinions on things.
Now let me be clear. You can have all of these conversations in your movie. But you have to have them during scenes where the story is being pushed forward. If the only reason the scene exists is to show one of these four things, that scene will draw your story to a complete stop. Now if you’ve had an incredibly intense stretch of really solid storytelling, you can sometimes get away with one of these scenes. But I wouldn’t recommend it. I think there’s always a way to get this stuff in while the story is being pushed forward.
Now your screenplay is in trouble if you write just one of these scenes. But imagine if half the scenes you wrote were scenes of death. Welcome to The Phantom Menace.
This is what happens on Coruscant. The main characters convene in a room and talk about the upcoming discussion they’re going to have with the Senate. Then we go to the Jedi Council where Qui-Gon Jinn says they need to teach Anakin. Then Anakin goes to tell Amidala that he’s saying goodbye. Then we have a boring Senate meeting. Then they go to the Senate committee to ask permission for something. Then Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn talk. Then Anakin gets tested by the Jedi Council. Then Amidala talks to Jar-Jar about their planet. Then Amidala talks to the Emperor about going back to her planet. Then Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon and Anakin talk to the Jedi Council yet again. Then Qui-Gon Jinn explains what the force is to Anakin. I might nominate this as the worst stretch of scenes in a big-budget movie ever. Out of these 11 scenes, maybe half are scenes of death and the other half so barely move the story forward or are so muddled in their execution, that they destroy any bit of momentum the movie had left. There is no engine underneath this sequence driving the story forward. And there is definitely no GSU. I mean what happened to the storytelling of the first two films?? If somebody wanted something in Star Wars, they went after it themselves. They didn’t go to a Senate committee. Choices George. You have to make interesting choices. Debating anything in a Senate is not an interesting choice.
And the scariest thing? That’s not even the worst part of the screenplay. The worst part of the screenplay is the characters. Even if Lucas had cleaned all this plot stuff up and made each sequence as tight and focused as Star Wars and Empire, it wouldn’t have mattered because we don’t like the characters. Let’s take a look at the six key characters and why they suck.
Qui-Gon Jinn – The mentor character is rarely flashy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be interesting. I’ll admit that the Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first films wasn’t exactly the coolest character ever. He didn’t do anything outrageous or shocking. But he had this intriguing mystical quality about him and he was very warm. Qui-Gon Jinn is as cold and as boring a character as you’ll find. Part of this is the way Lucas set up the Jedi. He implied in the original films that Jedis were sophisticated and ordered and honorable. Unfortunately, those are all traits that make a character boring. I would probably want Qui-Gon Jinn mentoring me in real life. But I definitely don’t want to put him in my movie if my goal is to entertain people.
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Much like Qui-Gon Jinn, there’s very little going on with Obi-Wan Kenobi. He doesn’t seem to have any character flaws. He listens to and attentively follows everything his mentor tells him to do without argument. And that’s where this dynamic falters. Whenever you pair two people together for an entire movie, you need there to be some sort of unresolved conflict between them. Without conflict, the characters aren’t struggling to find balance. If the relationship is already balanced, then there’s nothing for the characters to fight. That’s going to equal a lot of boring scenes. So you have two characters, both of them with no internal struggles, and no conflict between them. How the hell are you going to make that interesting?
Amidala – Queen Amidala is the worst character in this movie and may be the worst character Lucas has ever created. George tries to create this whole disguise storyline where Queen Amidala disguises herself as a handmaiden. The problem is, there’s absolutely no point to it whatsoever. Had she never disguised herself, absolutely nothing would have changed. This goes back to the use of stakes. If you’re going to disguise someone, ask yourself, what are the stakes to them getting caught? If there are no stakes, then there’s no point in disguising them. If it any point Amidala is discovered when, say, they’re hanging out on Tantooine, what happens? Maybe Qui-Gon Jinn smiles slightly and says, “Wow, you got me.” And that would be it. Look at a movie like Pretty Woman. Watch the scenes where Julia Roberts goes out with Richard Gere to a high-class dinner or a polo match. In those scenes, Roberts is masquerading as one of them. If she gets caught, and somebody realizes that Richard Gere is with a hooker, there are real consequences to that. Maybe the other businessmen don’t deal with Gere. Maybe his reputation takes a shot. Julia Roberts will be humiliated. The fact that George doesn’t realize the importance of stakes in this situation shows how little he understands storytelling.
Anakin – Anakin is a tough character to dissect. Much of our thoughts regarding Anakin have to do with our knowledge of what’s going to happen to him in the future (dramatic irony). Lucas is hoping that just seeing this young happy kid who we know will later become one of the most sinister dictators in the galaxy is going to stir up enough emotions that we’ll be interested in him. And the truth is, Anakin does have some stuff going on. He’s a slave. He ends up having to leave his mother. The seeds are here for a good character. Unfortunately, Lucas really botched the casting. The kid who played Anakin wasn’t a good actor and therefore we just never believed him. I do think that a better casting choice would’ve helped this film tremendously. But it’s also a reminder of a screenwriting tip I’ve mentioned before. It’s probably best not to include a major character under 10 in your script. Finding a good actor who can play a major role at that age is the equivalent of trying to win the lottery.
Jar-Jar – This is going to shock you. Jar-Jar is actually the deepest character in the story. Or I should say, the character whom George Lucas intended to be the deepest. He’s the only character in the group who has a flaw. He doesn’t take life seriously enough. And he doesn’t believe in his worth. That’s what’s led to all of the problems with his people, and why he was ultimately kicked out of the clan. So when you’re talking about unresolved conflict, there’s actually a lot of unresolved conflict going on with this character. Unfortunately, George undercut this with such a goofy annoying character that it didn’t matter. We’re not going to care if a character is able to overcome anything if we don’t like him. So remember, just adding a character flaw isn’t enough. You still have to make that character someone we’ll root for.
Darth Maul – A huge critical mistake that George Lucas made was not including a dominant villain. Not every movie needs a villain. However, if you’re going to write a sci-fi movie, you need a villain. And Lucas actually created a really cool villain here, but ended up portraying him as a nuisance more than a genuine threat to the Republic. The guy barely spoke. He didn’t do anything unless he was told to. He was a weak villain. And if you don’t have someone to point to as the ultimate threat in this kind of movie, then you’re never really scared for the characters. Lucas really should have made Darth Maul a major character with a lot more power. It would’ve helped this movie a lot.
Like I said, I could go on forever with this movie. I didn’t even get to the ending where the bad guys were destroyed by a baffling series of lucky coincidences. I’m just shocked at how much time and effort and money was put into something that was so poorly constructed. If there’s any lesson to come out of this, it’s that this is what happens when you don’t commit to rewriting your script until it’s great. As I struggled to figure out a rating for this film, I realized I couldn’t recall a single moment in the script that worked. For that reason, I have no choice but to give it the lowest rating.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This is why you shouldn’t try and write a complicated multifaceted multi-character epic with politics and secret objectives and dozens of vastly different locations. These are the most difficult movies to write by far. And this is often the result. A bunch of muddled objectives in a muddled plot that’s desperately trying to seem important but none of that importance comes through because it’s all so sloppily executed. To me, The Phantom Menace is an argument for the power of a simple plot. Keep the character goals clear. Keep everybody’s motivations clear. Keep the story goals clear. The first two films were basically bad guys chasing good guys. Even Empire could be boiled down to that. As long as you have that simple structure in place, you can try to find the complications within it. But if you start with an overarching complex story that lacks focus, it’s likely doomed from the get-go.
Who won a wild weekend? Was it Altered Carbon, Solo, Cloverfield, Avengers, Jurassic World, an unknown Swedish movie? The Super Bowl itself? Mish-Mash Monday has the answer and so much more!
I have a request to anyone who wants to join the “rip off Blade Runner universe” movement.
It’s done. It’s over. It’s 30 years ago. The aesthetic is tired. From the overpriced sequel to Ghost in the Shell to Altered Carbon to Mute. Stop.
First of all, it’s proven that the audience for this stuff is niche. I’ve seen more Bronies than Bladers. But more importantly, writers need to come up with their own shit! Duncan Jones’s Mute script (the next in line of the Blade Runner ripoffs) is terrible. It’s beyond awful. It makes no sense. There’s no story. It only exists so that Jones can play in his ripped-off version of the Blade Runner universe. Stop people. It’s over. Time to come up with something other than floating cars and giant TV ads on the sides of buildings with Japanese women. It’s over.
I’m so glad I got that out of my system.
Speaking of originality, I saw a movie this weekend I’m still trying to process. It’s called “The Square.” I sat down expecting, as I usually do when I’m about to watch a movie, something that made sense. But The Square had no intention of adhering to logic. I’ve never seen a movie like this. David Lynch’d walk out of this one scratching his head. It seemed to be written via a series of individualized sequences linked together by nothing other than they involved the same characters.
The movie, which takes place in the art world, starts out with a great scene. A man is leaving the subway with dozens of other people, and all of a sudden this woman comes running towards him, screaming. “Help! Help! He’s after me! Hellllp!” The man, a curator at a museum, is thrown into the role of protector. The fleeing woman leaps behind him while another man joins him as the crazed man approaches. They prepare for battle. The chaser barrels up, grabs our hero, then says, “Eh, never mind,” then walks away.
What’s so cool about this scene is the way it’s shot. We never cut away from the curator. We hear the crazed guy coming, but we can’t see him. We only see our guy preparing, the woman grabbing him from behind, screaming for help. In a Hollywood movie, we’d be cutting through 20 different angles as he got closer and closer. But staying with the man made the scene so much more harrowing.
The woman thanks him afterwards. Our hero high-fives the other guy who helped, then everyone goes their separate ways. A minute later, hopped up on adrenaline, our hero reaches into his pocket, only to realize that his wallet and phone are gone. He was scammed. It was such an unexpected development, I thought, “This is the way to start a movie! I’m in.”
The movie then cuts to the museum, a place that curates only the most cutting edge contemporary art. One of the exhibits is a giant TV screen with a video on loop of a 50 year old muscled man with bad teeth growling into the camera. To say it’s unsettling is an understatement.
This is followed by a 7 minute staff meeting that is shot so realistically and deals with details so mundane, you wonder if it was put in the movie by accident. Soon after, we get another endless scene, this time an interview with a famous artist. The scene focuses on a man in the audience with Tourette’s Syndrome who keeps screaming out horrible things, like “Show us your cunt” to the female interviewer. You get the sense that maybe this is an exhibit? Performance art? But the movie never lets on. It’s up to the viewer to decide.
Afterwards, a woman (played by Elizabeth Moss of The Handmaiden’s Tale) mistakes the curator for the artist in the interview, and, in an attempt to endear herself, mocks the event, “Show us your cunt!” she belts at him. The curator, who has no idea what she’s talking about because he wasn’t at the interview, mistakes it for a come-on. He then goes to her place and sleeps with her, only to find out she lives with an orangutan. Yes, you read that right. She lives with a giant monkey. You can’t make this stuff up.
Usually I HATE these movies where the script is all over the place. But the movie is shot so beautifully, so uniquely, and the events are so unexpected, it’s impossible to look away. If you’re tired of watching the same old stuff and need a movie that surprises you, by golly I’ve found it. Check out The Square and report back. I’m curious to see what you think.
I can’t do a Mish-Mash Monday without an update on The Last Jedi. The movie’s box office take has fallen even quicker than expected in recent weeks. Three weeks ago, a lot of box office experts had the film hitting $670 million. I thought it’d get to $630. It’s middling now at $615, making a paltry 2 million bucks over the weekend.
It’s finally safe to say that the majority of people who saw this film hated it. I know there are people out there who genuinely like the film. But they’re in the vast minority. More and more people are being honest with themselves and admitting the truth. This is a bad script on almost every level – pacing, plotting, characters, choices. And hey, if you’re still trying to convince yourself you liked it, I understand. I convinced myself I liked The Phantom Menace for a full year after it was released.
What’s odd about the whole Last Jedi thing is the Riansplaining Tour. I know Rian Johnson is just answering questions people ask him. But I’ve never seen a director spend this much time defending his movie. Ever. Tell me one director who’s ever done this. Some people didn’t like The Force Awakens. I think JJ Abrams did, maybe, two interviews responding to the criticism? Rian Johnson has done like 50.
For the purpose of sites like these, these explanations give us a rare glimpse into the screenwriting process of major franchises. It also highlights a rarely talked about trend that can be dangerous in screenwriting – using the tools of the craft to talk yourself into bad ideas.
I discussed this the other day, actually – this notion of tools. And how tools are there to help you. But they only work when used in conjunction with your gut. In a recent Collider Interview, Rian rehashed why he made the now infamous choice for Rey’s parents to be nobodies. This is what he said:
It was more a dramatic decision of ‘What is the toughest thing she could hear about her parents? What is the thing for her and for us what will make her have to stand on her own two feet and will make things the hardest for her?’ Because she’s the hero and that’s her job—to have things be the hardest for her.
This is a well-known screenwriting tool – making things as hard as possible on your character. But used in isolation, it can lead to some seriously bad choices. For example, if I wanted to “make things as hard as possible” on the hero of my latest screenplay, Lou, I could kill off his entire family. If critics who disliked the choice said, “Don’t you think that was a bit harsh? Killing off his entire family?” “No,” I’d say. “Because in storytelling, you want to make things as hard as possible on your hero. And you have to agree this made things hard on Lou, right?”
Uhhhh…but…well… I guess?
The missing element here is gut. While the tool is used to build the choice. It’s your gut that must decide if the choice is correct. If something in your gut tells you it doesn’t feel right? That means it’s the wrong choice. Rey’s parents being nobodies doesn’t FEEL right for a Star Wars film, regardless of whether the tool said the choice should work. And that’s the component Rian Johnson forgot to apply. Just remember, guys, a tool is something that builds a possibility. But ultimately it’s up to you to decide if the choice feels correct.
Moving on to the Super Bowl spots. I think it’s pretty clear who won the night. It’s Cloverfield, baby. For those who didn’t hear, not only did Netflix debut the first trailer for the film during the Super Bowl, they’re releasing the film TONIGHT! SAY WHAT!!??? First off, kudos to Netflix for continuing to change the game. They said, “What can we do that nobody else can?” What they can do is debut a movie whenever they want. They don’t have to send it to 10000 theaters. That’s what good screenwriters do. They ask, “What can I do with my concept that nobody else can do with theirs? What’s unique about my story and how can I exploit that?” Nobody has EVER DONE THIS BEFORE. Released a major movie trailer and then had it come out ON THE SAME DAY!!! Kudos to JJ for continuing to surprise us. Kudos to the marketing team for thinking up this clever stunt. When is a movie ever going to be in more demand than right after its Super Bowl commercial? Genius.
Sadly, not everyone hit a home run. I’m going to wait to talk about Solo since they’re releasing the new trailer tomorrow morning (I’ll add my thoughts to the end of this article when it debuts). Someone forgot to tell the people at Avengers Headquarters that a trailer is more than 5 close-ups and the words, “May 8th.” The Jurassic Park trailer was so bland. Rule number 1 for a sequel trailer. Show us what’s different this time around. They’re hoping that adding a girl’s bedroom will be different enough to bring in crazy box office? Yeah, good luck with that. Skyscraper, a script I reviewed here on the site, did nothing to improve my thoughts on the project. But The Rock is The Rock so maybe that’s all that matters. Mission Impossible looked pretty good but it’s the same problem. What’s different this time around? Tom Cruise broke his foot?
I’m stoked for the Stephen King Universe on Hulu. I’ve been DYING for a good TV show. This one highlights Shawshank AND has Pennywise in it? The exact same actor as in It? Uhhh… dial me up and call me Sally. This looks tremendous. I’m torn on Annihilation. It looks unique. It’s directed by Alex Garland, who wrote and directed one of my favorite scripts of 2015, Ex Machina. But I’ve started and stopped reading the book 5 times now. I can’t get through it. There’s something about it that doesn’t work. Paramount trying (and failing) to sell it off doesn’t bode well either. I’m actually shocked they’d pay for a Super Bowl spot. Usually when studios are unsure about a movie, they give it a smaller marketing campaign, not a bigger one. I’m hoping this is good.
I’ll be back when the Solo trailer debuts. The word on the street is that Alden Ehrenreich either can’t act, is unconvincing as Han Solo, or both. Some people who claimed to see footage have even floated the rumor that they’re considering dubbing him with a different actor. I doubt that’s true but, hey, it would stick with Star Wars tradition, right? So that’s what I’ll be looking for in the trailer – Han speaking. Because based on the small sampling of footage in the Super Bowl, the movie looks pretty cool. Almost to the point where you’re like, “What’s the big worry?” The big worry is a movie called “Solo” where the actor playing Han Solo is the worst part of the movie. Nothing else matters unless they get that right. I’m praying they do!
****Solo Trailer Reaction – Coming Soon!****
It’s here! The full Solo trailer. So what do I think?? I think it looks good! I tried to watch the trailer through the eyes of someone who had no idea about the film’s troubled production. As a trailer, all by itself, was it good? And I’d say the answer is a resounding yes. You’ve got lots of action. There’s a distinct look to this thing. There are some really cool aliens (who’s that badass masked drifter dude?). Han originally trying to work for the Empire. Even Woody Harrelson looks cool.
The question mark has always been Alden Ehrenreich. And while I don’t think he blows anyone away in this trailer, he doesn’t seem nearly as bad as rumors have suggested. One thing to keep in mind here is that Han Solo is not “Han Solo” in this movie yet. He wasn’t always a carefree wisecracking shit-grinning rogue. I think they were hoping to do three of these Solo movies, and one of the ideas was to show how Han got to that place. Which would mean starting from another place – one that was more serious. If you’re younger and more idealistic, your personality is going to be different. I’m guessing that’s what’s going on here. I’m not saying that it’s going to work. But that was probably their thought-process.
If we’re ranking pre-interest based on trailers for Star Wars films, I put this behind Force Awakens, but definitely ahead of Last Jedi and Rogue One. Actually, this feels like the movie Rogue One should’ve been. We were told with that film we were getting all these cool rogue Star Wars underbelly characters. Instead we got a bunch of lame boring losers. Solo seems intent on correcting this. These characters look more colorful (literally!) and more fun. By the way, is that Maz Kanata at 36 seconds in??
As Han would say, though, we’re not in the clear yet, kid. This is supposed to be the first “full” trailer and the title card arrives at 1:06. That seems early. Like they don’t have enough cool stuff to fill an entire trailer. Then again, I think they’re still shooting this thing. They literally might not have enough footage! I’m intrigued, though. I think this movie could be cool. Let’s hope so for the sake of this franchise! It has to win back fans after Last Jedi.
We’re one day away from the opening of the new Star Wars movie and you know, I have to say, this Star Wars press junket is the best junket for any movie I can remember. A big reason for that is Mark Hamill. The guy’s so darned earnest. He’ll answer any question and he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself. You have to remember that Mark Hamill ran from this part for a long time. He wanted nothing to do with Luke Skywalker because he wanted a career as an actor and Luke was typecasting him. To see him embracing the character again is awesome.
Gwendolyn Christie is hilarious. John Boyega looks like he enjoys doing junkets more than shooting movies. Watching Laura Dern react to anything is as fun as watching kittens play. Kelly-Marie Tran still can’t believe she’s in a Star Wars movie. Even Rian Johnson, who looks a bit shy and reserved, is surprisingly forthright with information. JJ has a lot of charisma but he didn’t give you jack squat during the Force Awakens tour. If you ask Rian Johnson about Porgs, he’ll straight up tell you some of his cast hates them. Ask him about his new trilogy – something you’d think would be completely off limits – and he’ll tell you everything he’s got so far.
All of this has me rooting for the film, even though I’m tempering my expectations as much as possible. I honestly don’t think Johnson’s a good writer, guys. And these rumors about the over-the-top humor and some prequel-like moments has me worried. But hey, a man can only worry so much. It’s a new Star Wars film, baby. There’s reason to celebrate.
Which brings me to today’s topic. How can YOU write the next Star Wars? That zeitgeist-altering journey to another time and place that’s so magical and so affects its audiences, it becomes a part of their very being? It becomes an inspiration that affects their lives moving forward? Sound impossible? Eh, it’s not easy. But it can be done. And I’m here to tell you how to do it. Here are ten tips that will help you write the next Star Wars (or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings)…
1) DON’T WRITE THE NEXT STAR WARS – The trick to writing the next Star Wars is to not write the next Star Wars. Or Harry Potter. Or The Matrix. You see, one of the reasons Star Wars became Star Wars was because there was nothing else like it. The fact that it stood out so much from all the other offerings was a big reason for why it became so popular. In other words, don’t write a science fiction space-opera. Star Wars has that market cornered. Don’t write about kid magicians. That market’s been cornered. If your idea doesn’t surprise people, you haven’t written the next Star Wars.
2) COMBINE TWO THINGS THAT HAVEN’T BEEN COMBINED BEFORE – One of the tricks to creating something original is to take what we know and combine it with something we don’t expect. Star Wars took the world of science-fiction and said, “What if we combined this with the world of Westerns?” Harry Potter took magicians, who had been doing generic magic things for 300 years, and said, “What if we combined that with going to school?” It sounds easy but it’s true. And it’s fun. Just start plugging things together you don’t think go together and see if you come up with something cool. I’ll get you started. The story of King Arthur. What can you combine that with that we haven’t seen before? Give us your take in the Comments Section.
3) BUILD AN EXTENSIVE MYTHOLOGY – If there’s one commonality between Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, it’s how elaborate and deep the mythology is. And that doesn’t come by accident. You have to do tons of backstory research into how this world came about, who’s involved, how it operates, the lineage of the characters, the lineage of the factions (Jedi, Elves, etc.) the lineage of the political climate. You often have to go back tens, even hundreds of years, to figure out how your world came together. Half-baked mythology leads to half-baked movies. So do your homework. Maybe don’t spend a year inventing a language like Tolkien did. But do your homework.
4) FOCUS ON THE STORY – Here’s where so many writers trying to write the next Star Wars screw it up. They create this mythology that’s so huge and so extensive and took so much time to come up with, that they want to show it off! So their movie becomes one big promotion for all the research they did. That’s not the point of creating a mythology. The point of creating a mythology is so you have the freedom to write a cool story within that universe. The mythology should exist in the background, only occasionally making its way into the story (“I fought with your father in the Clone Wars.”). This is one of the primary differences between Star Wars and The Phantom Menace. Star Wars was a relentless race to save the galaxy. The Phantom Menace was a show-off reel for all the political mythology Lucas constructed for the prequels.
5) AN UNDERDOG HERO WE CAN RELATE TO – When you write a protagonist into any script, but especially these types of scripts, you need to ask, “Is he relatable?” If you’re going to capture the imaginations of hundreds of millions of people, your main character has to be living a life that the vast majority of people feel like they’re living as well. To achieve this, anchor your story with an ordinary guy/gal. And to manipulate the audience into a little more sympathy, make that guy/gal an underdog. This is the formula for Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo, and Neo.
6) DRAW ON ARCHETYPES, THEN DESTROY THEM LIKE THE REBEL SCUM THEY ARE – Archetypes (the Hero, the Jester, the Sage, the Rebel) are your best friends when creating something for the masses. These are the types of characters audiences understand best. But remember, you’re not adapting The Hero’s Journey. You’re trying to create something fresh and different. That means for every archetype you embrace, you should destroy one. Luke is as archetypal as a hero can get. He’s a straight up everyday guy. Princess Leia, however, is nothing like the princesses we’ve come to know. She’s a get-your-hands-dirty fast-talking princess with an attitude. It’s how you play with archetypes that really sets your screenplay apart.
7) IT’S GOTTA BE PG OR PG-13 – If you want the most people possible falling in love with your story, you need the story to be accessible to children. Yes, you can write 50 Shades of Gray or Terminator. But something doesn’t truly tap into the zeitgeist unless you’re playing to the Age 5-25 demographic. This is your most impressionable audience. This is the audience who will most fervently champion your material. This doesn’t mean your writing shouldn’t have edge. Quite the contrary. It’s the “edge” that sets your material apart and makes that younger audience feel like they’re getting away with something. But if your material would clearly be rated R, it’s not the next Star Wars.
8) CHANGE WITH THE TIMES – If Lucas were writing Star Wars today, I’m pretty sure he’d be using the internet and social media in some for to do so. He would write an online graphic novel. Self-publish a novel. Drum up a kickstarter to shoot the trash compactor scene as proof-of-concept. We live in a different world than 1977 so the same rules don’t apply. A big part of Star Wars’s success was being on the cutting edge of so many ideas, taking chances in areas no one had taken chances in before. You must bring that same spirit to your own Star Wars. The rules are changing daily. Be creative and think outside the box to get your idea out there.
9) TAKE RISKS – If you want to create something as great as Star Wars, you have to be willing to take massive risks. The reason something takes over the zeitgeist is because it’s unlike anything that’s come before it. It’s new. Fresh. Different. Remember, before Star Wars premiered, Lucas’s friends were making fun of “the Force.” They thought it was weird and hokey. But that chance ended up paying off. The trick to taking chances is to ground those chances in your mythology. The Force was an integral part of Lucas’s world-building. It wasn’t like George said, “I have to take risks!” so he came up with something called the “KABLOWIE!” where every time Luke yells “Kablowie” everyone around him freezes. That’s not taking a risk. That’s stupid. The Force was existent in every corner of Lucas’s story, so when Obi-Wan or Luke used it, it made sense. But yeah, you have to take the kind of risks that are either going to result in Yoda or Jar-Jar. And the scary thing is, you won’t know until people see it. Gosh I love writing.
10) MAKE IT FUN! – I know this advice sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how few writers follow it. They want to write something that’s “Important” and shows what a “serious writer” they are. And look, I’m not not saying you can’t do that. But if you’re trying to write the next Star Wars or Harry Potter, the overall feeling of your story needs to be optimistic and fun. Not Blade Runner 2149.6.