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Genre: TV Pilot (Drama)
Premise: An “upstairs/downstairs” look at the daily activities that plague one of the most exclusive country clubs in the country.
About: This is a project David O Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) was spearheading with Susannah Grant (Erin Brokovich, Party of Five). Apparently the two went their separate ways over creative differences. But Grant is still pushing forward with it and the show will premier in 2015 on ABC. This is the last draft the two wrote together (for those looking around the net for this file, it goes by the name “ABC – Untitled David O Russell – Susannah Grant Proj”).
Writers: Story by Susannah Grant and David O. Russell – Teleplay by Susannah Grant
Details: January 13, 2014 draft (63 pages)

David+O+Russell+American+Hustle+Screening+K7XxFlMrk0MlDavid O. Russell

Maybe the British readers can help me out here. Why is it that this whole “upstairs/downstairs” thing, which is being explored most famously in the show “Downton Abbey, is such an obsession with you? Why do these rich/poor mingling-in-the-same-place explorations fascinate you so much?

I have a British actor friend who moved here and I asked him once why he decided to do so. He said that in the UK, it’s a lot harder to break out of your class. Whatever you’re born into, that’s who you’ll be the rest of your life. Whereas in America, nobody cares about that shit. So he’d much rather take his chances here.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Could it be true? One of the most distinguished nations in the world is still running a class system?? What is this? 1709?

I suppose that this would explain the fascination with these types of stories. If there is a class system still in place, the conflict that arises between the “haves” and the “have nots” is interesting, since the characters are locked into those slots. The question is, does that setup intrigue an American audience who’s never had a class system before? Where it’s not as “risqué” for a staff member to cavort with a club member?  Let us discover the answer together.

Members Only focuses on an upscale country club that caters to the “best of the best of the best.” The club was built by and is run by the Holbrooke family. The face of the club, and the de facto manager, is Mickey Holbrooke, a 40 year old beauty married to a hotshot Wall Street tycoon named Randy.

As you’d expect, the second Mickey walks into the club to begin our journey, there’s drama. The club is in huge debt, and it’s forcing the board to get creative. They want to hold a professional golf tournament here but they don’t think the tournament will agree because “we have no black people.” So the first order of business is to go out and find a black family to become members of the club.

Meanwhile, we meet Jesse, a kid from the projects who got this job by the skin of his teeth. He’s a new staffer and has been told that if he even looks at someone the wrong way, he can be fired. So you can imagine the torment he goes through when Mickey’s hot horny 17 year old triplets start a game of who can nail the Jesse first.

In the meantime, we meet TONS of other people. There’s Forty, a Holbrooke who just got out of jail for his 3rd DUI. There’s Ava, the cool as can be “I don’t give a fuck” staffer with a propensity for stealing. There’s Malcolm, the hot widowed husband who every housewife wants to bang. There’s Leslie Holbrooke, whose husband dumped her for, get this, her step-mother – a trophy wife to her alcoholic Senator father.

But the story doesn’t really get good until the midpoint. Two agents from the SEC corner Mickey and inform her that her husband is the biggest financial thief since Bernie Madoff. They’re going to take him down in two days. If Mickey helps them, they may be able to protect Mickey, her daughters, and the club. But if not, all bets are off. The duo kindly hand Mickey their card. If she doesn’t respond in 48 hours, they’re making their move. And just like that, Mickey’s life is turned upside-down.

Premiere+Sony+Picture+Catch+Release+Arrivals+h-Oo9MJkBuOl-2Susannah Grant

Members Only may be the most jam-packed pilot I’ve ever read. There were 30 characters in this thing. That’s one character introduced every two pages. On top of that, a TON of shit happens. Thefts, cheating, ménage-et-trois’s, death, embezzlement, a golf tournament, a party, several courtings, racism, sexism. I mean, wow. Grant and Russell need an award just for fitting this much stuff into a script.

And actually, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this “jam it all in” approach would work as a screenwriting exercise. You’re always taught to get through your scenes as quickly as possible, but that’s easier said than done. Well, when you write a pilot (60 pages) with so many characters and so many plotlines, you have NO CHOICE but to write scenes quickly. The average scene here was a page and a half.  Having to get in and out of a scene that quickly and still keep it compelling?  That’s a skill every screenwriter should have.

For example, in a scene where Mickey must call and convince the tournament sponsor to consider their club for the professional tournament, the scene starts with Mickey already on the phone mid-conversation. That’s how we get through scenes quicker. If you start with all the “Hi, this is Mickey calling from blah blah blah,” and the forthcoming formalities, you’re taking a looooooot longer than you need to.  Start us midway through the conversation to cut down time.

The problem with Members Only is that despite its best efforts, you can only maneuver through so much plot when you’re introducing 30 people, and for the first half of the screenplay, while I was admiring the work, I wasn’t fully engaged in the story. And I was wondering why.  Then it hit me.

Suspense!

There wasn’t enough of it. Meeting people, meeting people, meeting people, is not suspense. It’s meeting people. I mean, there’s a little bit of suspense in whether they’re going to get the tournament to play at their club, but it’s not enough to hook us for 30 pages.

Suspense can’t be treated like a blanket tool. There are variations in its intensity, and if you’re not going to give us suspense with a high level of intensity, our focus is going to wander. In this case, the Defcon 5 suspense plot point didn’t hit until the midpoint – this is when Mickey’s told that her husband’s embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars.

From this point on, the suspense is VERY high because we’re DYING to see Mickey confront her husband. We have to know what she’s going to say and how he’s going to respond. So anything you write between the beginning of this suspense thread and the conclusion of it is golden. We’re zoned into your story until that line of suspense is over.

And that’s exactly what Grant and Russell did. They drew it all the way out, not even telling us at the end of the episode. Which means we’ll have to tune in next week to find out! Suspense is the cornerstone of any good piece of fiction, but it’s especially important in TV where you’re repeatedly asking your viewers to come back after commercials and come back week after week.

Still, the intensity in which I became attached to the story after that suspenseful plot point makes you wonder: why not start the script with a suspenseful plot point as well? Something big and flashy to keep us riveted through all the character introductions? The more I think about it, the more I believe that every stretch of your screenplay should have a suspense thread going on. At LEAST one.

Members Only is a good teleplay but its success is going to depend on how it’s shot. Will it be shot in that dark serious tone that Downton Abbey is shot in? Or will it be treated like the glossy vapid Revenge? Being that it’s an ABC show, it’ll probably be more like Revenge, which would suck. Now is the time for the networks to start challenging the cable channels with riskier fare. If this show has any shot at lasting, it needs to go darker. I just don’t know if ABC is capable of that.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: “And” is a great place to start in a scene. It means we’re coming in on a character in the middle of a conversation. Which means a shorter scene. Which means you’re only showing the good stuff. During the scene where Mickey is on the phone trying to convince the tournament to play at the club, we come in on this line: “And I’ve been a huge fan of your tournament for ages, so this could be a match made in heaven! Excellent! Yes! See you then.” – “And” is a great place to start. But really, the goal is to start anywhere mid-conversation.

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All this week, I’ve been putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal is to learn as much as we can about dialogue. It’s a tricky skill to master so hopefully these exercises can help demystify it. And now, for our last dialogue post of the week!

All I know about our first scene is that it’s an introduction to Charlie Lambda, who’s a major character, and Diane, who’s a minor character. It takes place in a bedroom after sex.

The room is cluttered with furniture and wrinkled clothing.

DIANE sprawls across the bed in her underwear, awake. Charlie LAMBDA stands at a dresser mirror, shirtless, buckling his jeans.

DIANE: Leaving so soon?

LAMBDA: Night waits for no one, my dear.

DIANE: Neither do I.

LAMBDA: You wanna leave? Suit yourself. I’ve got money to make.

DIANE: You got a night job?

LAMBDA: Best there is.

DIANE: You a pimp, Lambda?

LAMBDA: You know, most women try to figure people out before they sleep with them.

DIANE: I like mysteries. I like solving them, too.

Lambda grabs a shirt, buttons it up.

LAMBDA: You play cards, Diane?

DIANE: I play poker sometimes.

LAMBDA: You any good at it?

DIANE: I’ve got bad luck.

Lambda chuckles. From the dresser, he picks up a deck of cards. He shuffles them without looking, and they fly from hand to hand and around the deck like magic.

LAMBDA: Luck’s just a matter of stacking the odds in your favor.

DIANE: You still have to shuffle the deck. That’s luck.

LAMBDA: That’s what you think.

He brings the deck over to the bed and hands it to the woman, who sits up.

LAMBDA: Find the aces.

He walks back to the mirror, produces a comb, runs it through his hair. Diane sifts through the deck.

DIANE: So you’re a card shark.

LAMBDA: I’m a professional gambler.

DIANE: And you cheat.

LAMBDA: That’s what makes me a professional.

DIANE: I can’t find the aces.

Lambda goes to the bed, sits beside her, and pats her on the back.

DIANE: You’d take cards over an easy lay?

LAMBDA: It’s better than sex.

DIANE: Oh, really?

LAMBDA: You don’t understand. Playing cards ain’t a game. It’s a way of life. It’s zen. It’s jumping into a pool of sharks and seeing who’s got the coldest blood.

DIANE: And that’s you?

LAMBDA: Babe, Charlie Lambda’s the coolest guy around.

Diane tries to hand him the deck.

LAMBDA: Keep ’em. I’m going hunting.

He goes to the door and opens it.

LAMBDA: Go back to sleep, Diane.

DIANE: If you’re not here when I wake up, I’m gone.

LAMBDA: Wanna bet?

DIANE: Some odds you can’t sway.

Lambda smiles and closes the door behind him. Diane rolls over to go back to sleep– The four aces are stuck in her bra strap.

In this next scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel is coming home on a train. Clementine enters the car and tries to find a place to sit. She eventually sits across the car, facing Joel. After awhile…

CLEMENTINE (calling over the rumble): Hi!

Joel looks over.

JOEL: I’m sorry?

CLEMENTINE: Why?

JOEL: Why what?

CLEMENTINE: Why are you sorry? I just said hi.

JOEL: No, I didn’t know if you were talking to me, so…

She looks around the empty car.

CLEMENTINE: Really?

JOEL (embarrassed) Well, I didn’t want to assume.

CLEMENTINE: Aw, c’mon, live dangerously. Take the leap and assume someone is talking to you in an otherwise empty car.

JOEL: Anyway. Sorry. Hi.

Clementine makes her way down the aisle toward Joel.

CLENTINE: It’s okay if I sit closer? So I don’t have to scream. Not that I don’t need to scream sometimes, believe me. (pause) But I don’t want to bug you if you’re trying to write or something.

JOEL: No, I mean, I don’t know. I can’t really think of much to say probably.

CLEMENTINE: Oh. So…

She hesitates in the middle of the car, looks back where she came from.

JOEL: I mean, it’s okay if you want to sit down here. I didn’t mean to—

CLEMENTINE: No, I don’t want to bother you if you’re trying to—

JOEL: It’s okay, really.

CLEMENTINE: Just, you know, to chat a little, maybe. I have a long trip ahead of me. (sits across aisle from Joel) How far are you going? On the train, I mean, of course.

JOEL: Rockville Center.

CLEMENTINE: Get out! Me too! What are the odds?

JOEL: The weirder part is I think actually I recognize you. I thought that earlier in the diner. That’s why I was looking at you. You work at Borders, right?

CLEMENTINE: Ucch, really? You’re kidding. God. Bizarre small world, huh? Yeah, that’s me: books slave there for, like, five years now.

JOEL: Really? Because—

CLEMENTINE: Jesus, is it five years? I gotta quit right now.

JOEL: — because I go there all the time. I don’t think I ever saw you before.

CLEMENTINE: Well, I’m there. I hide in the back as much as is humanly possible. You have a cell phone? I need to quit right this minute. I’ll call in dead.

JOEL: I don’t have one.

CLEMENTINE: I’ll go on the dole. Like my daddy before me.

JOEL: I noticed your hair. I guess it made an impression on me, that’s why I was pretty sure I recognized you.

CLEMENTINE: Ah, the hair. (studies a strand of hair) Blue, right? It’s called Blue Ruin. The color. Snappy name, huh?

JOEL: I like it.

CLEMENTINE: Blue ruin is cheap gin in case you were wondering.

JOEL: Yeah. Tom Waits says it in—

CLEMENTINE: Exactly. Tom Waits. Which son?

JOEL: I can’t remember.

CLEMENTINE: Anyway, this company makes a whole lie of colors with equally snappy names. Red Menace, Yellow Fever, Green Revolution. That’d be a job, coming up with those names. How do you get a job like that? That’s what I’ll do. Fuck the dole.

JOEL: I don’t really know how—

CLEMENTINE: Purple Haze, Pink Eraser.

JOEL: You think that could possibly be a full-time job? How many hair colors could there be?

CLEMENTINE (pissy): Someone’s got that job. (excited) Agent Orange! I came up with that one. Anyway, there are endless color possibilities and I’d be great at it.

JOEL: I’m sure you would.

CLEMENTINE: My writing career! Your hair written by Clementine Kruczynski. (thought) The Tom Waits album is Rain Dogs.

JOEL: You sure? That doesn’t sound –

CLEMENTINE: I think. Anyway, I’ve tried all their colors. More than once. I’m getting too old for this. But it keeps me from having to develop an actual personality. I apply my personality in a paste. You?

JOEL: Oh, I don’t think that’s the case.

CLEMENTNE: Well, you don’t know me, so… you don’t know, do you?

JOEL: Sorry. I was just trying to be nice.

CLEMENTINE: Yeah, I got it.

I chose these two scenes for a reason. In the first one, we’re looking at two strangers talking AFTER they’ve had sex. In the second, we’re looking at two strangers who’ve just met (before they’ve had sex).

Take note of the energy in each scene. In the first scene, the energy is relaxed, subdued, almost lazy. Which makes sense. They just banged. They’ve already reached the pinnacle of their coupling. Generally speaking, scenes where people are relaxed and happy are bad scenes. You’d rather seek out scenes where there’s tension, where there are problems that need to be addressed.

But in Eternal Sunshine, there’s still an entire world of possibility with these two characters because they haven’t consummated their relationship yet. As a result, their scene’s bursting with nervous energy. There’s excitement in the uncertainty of the moment. We feel tension. We feel hope. We want this to go right.

This is why, generally speaking, you don’t want to consummate the relationship until as deep into the script as possible. Once you do that, the dialogue between the characters loses something. The air will have seeped out of their “relationship balloon” so to speak.

But even if you took all this “consummation” talk away (I was told Diane wasn’t a major character, so maybe we shouldn’t hold her to that status), something’s still missing in that first scene. Let’s take a look at the first exchange. “Leaving so soon?” Diane asks. “Night waits for no one, my dear,” Lambda replies. “Night waits for no one, my dear?” That doesn’t sound like something real people say, does it?

That’s not necessarily a harbinger of doom, though. Some genres produce stylistic dialogue. Take the dialogue in “The Big Lebowski,” for example. Clearly, characters aren’t always talking the way real people talk in that film. The problem is, I’m not getting the sense that that’s what the writer intended here. I feel like this scene is supposed to be grounded. And in that case, lines like “Night waits for no one” come off as overly written, like the writer’s trying too hard.

This cuteness continues when the cards are introduced as a quasi-metaphor. Writing in metaphors (or analogies or clever explanations) is a very writerly thing to do. It gives the impression of depth and cleverness. And it allows you to talk about something by talking about something else. But if the only reason the analogy exists is to achieve this effect, it feels false. It reads as analogy for analogy’s sake.

Now I get the feeling that cards might play a larger role in this movie. If that’s the case, then the introduction of the cards isn’t as misguided. But I think the problem here is the same one we’ve encountered in most of the amateur entries this week. I don’t know what either of these characters wants in the scene! I don’t know if Lambda wants her out or if Diane wants to stay. There’s no clear objective, which means anything they say will appear as “babble” to the reader. It’s not that the dialogue is bad so much as we don’t know the point of it.

Looking at the Eternal Sunshine dialogue, there are two things that stick out. First, the dialogue is much more realistic. It’s short, it’s clipped, it ping-pongs back and forth uncertainly. But most importantly, it’s imperfect. It really feels like two people talking.

That’s a mistake we writers make often. We want our dialogue to be so beautiful, that we carve and mold each line into a perfect specimen of auditory delight. Put a bunch of these ultra-developed lines next to each other and the conversation starts feeling false. We don’t know why, but it does. It isn’t until we realize that no one would actually say any of these individual lines that we understand what’s wrong.

And we never see that problem in Eternal Sunshine. Words are flying by seemingly willy-nilly, with no rhyme or reason. It truly does feel like real life conversation.

Secondly, lots of writers get obsessed with balanced dialogue. Balanced dialogue is when there’s a perfect balance to the conversation. Each word, for the most part, is responded to with a word in kind. “Hey.” “Hiya.” “How’s it going?” “It’s going good. How bout you?” “Going good here.” And back and forth and back and forth in perfect balance.

Real dialogue is unbalanced. It’s often weighted to one side or the other, depending on the character or the situation. Read the bottom half of the Eternal Sunshine scene. Clementine is basically having a conversation with herself. Joel’s just there to hear it. That’s a big reason why this dialogue feels so authentic. Unbalanced dialogue is real life.

What about you? What stuck out to you about today’s scenes? The first one felt a little too “written” to me. But I can see some of you just as easily attacking the “rambling” quality of Eternal Sunshine. Share your thoughts!

What I learned: Balanced versus Unbalanced dialogue. There’s no such thing as perfectly balanced dialogue. Some characters are going to talk more than others. Some characters won’t always answer when asked something. No matter how many times you’ve rewritten your dialogue, it should always feel a little imperfect, a little unevenly weighted.

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TITLE: Watching Over Remie
GENRE: Psychological thriller
LOGLINE: A seemingly contented housewife slowly becomes obsessed with the idea of protecting her five-year-old daughter from possible harm, eventually turning to violent and psychotic measures to keep her safe.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: What do you get when you combine the best of French thrillers with a Hollywood bend? Had numerous offers to develop so far in both Europe and US. But the real reason to read is there are a few scenes that will disturb the crap out of you. Happy sleeping!

TITLE: The Boogeykids
GENRE: Horror
LOGLINE: Hell’s minions disguised as Girl Scouts ruin the trip of some weekend warriors.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I enjoyed your article about rewrites and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I also consider the film perfect so it’s hard to believe any version of the script was passed on. Anyway, I myself have been reworking a screenplay I never submitted to you. Most of the rewriting has been to develop my protagonist around the persona of Shia LaBeouf, who I like as an actor. The title, genre, and logline follow.

TITLE: Treasures of Fate
GENRE: Action
LOGLINE: Two grave-robbing brothers race a brilliant military bureaucrat to find ancient prophecies of immense value and power. But as secrets and betrayals continue to mount, their biggest obstacle may be each other.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: We think action films should be fun without being stupid. So this isn’t a script about invincible emotionless assassins, or time-travelling robots fighting vampire-Nazis. It’s an adventure centred around the relationship between two brothers, with big, twisty set pieces to keep pulses high. It’s like throwing Murtaugh and Riggs into an Indiana Jones film.

TITLE: #trending
GENRE: Satirical Dark Comedy
LOGLINE: When his girlfriend becomes an overnight movie star, a lady shoes salesman must now become famous or he risks turning into the next Kevin Federline.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Everyone nowadays dreams of becoming famous. You hit upload, wait around like a child on Christmas Eve, only for someone to eventually gift you a “like” on social media. Our melting pot is currently overflowing with fame whores who move to Hollywood, begging her to make their dreams come true.

As a fame whore myself, let me tell you… life is tough, life in Hollywood is impossible.

Imagine being one of the few in Hollywood who’s not a fame whore. You finally meet the only “great girl” in town, and then somehow you get her to fall for you. Sounds like a perfect Hollywood ending, right? But the only things in Hollywood that have Hollywood endings are Hollywood movies.

Your “great girl” lands the lead in the biggest movie in the world, becoming the next Jennifer Lawrence overnight. You sell ladies shoes. The “great girl” thinks that’s fine, and loves you for you… but the world thinks that makes you a loser, the next Kevin Federline.

Your name is Ernest Pope, and #TRENDING is your story. It’s a satirical dark R-rated comedy.

TITLE: The Anunnakis
GENRE: Sci-fi comedy based on ancient astronaut theory, UFO phenomena, and conspiracy schemes.
LOGLINE: When an advanced race of reptilians, descendants of the dinosaurs, threatens to wipe out humanity through spontaneous combustion, three misfits from Planet X put the fire out–even as a government shadow agency tries to stop them.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I am a legal alien living in Paris. I’ve written several plays, novels and screenplays. Produced in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris; published in France. Never quit my day job. The Anunnakis is my fourth attempt for a close encounter with Hollywood. Months ago an English theatre group in Paris did a public reading of it. The riotous laughter of my fellow expats took me entirely by surprise, making me regret not getting it on tape. However, I feel that my extraterrestrial comedy may crash unless I get some airworthy comments from the Scriptshadow fans, who, except Grendl, adore Carson as much as I do. So here I come in peace. My main concern is whether the story is easy to follow. I like simplicity, but I detest simplistic stories. My approach to comedies is slightly different than action movies. If an action movie is a steep climb, a comedy is a winding staircase. If it’s funny, it flies; if it’s not, it dies. This being said, you can fire back at me anything that doesn’t fly with you. You will be kindly rewarded with a sightseeing trip to the rings of Saturn. And if you happen to be an abductee or a cattle rancher, you’ll be handsomely reimbursed for your missing time or your missing cows :)

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You went searching for it, didn’t you? You went on a trek down the internet yellow brick road, through all its dark corridors and unsavory crevices, in search of the return of Mish-Mash Monday. You’d enjoyed it so much the first time, you just had to have more. It was like a moist Betty Crocker yellow cake with that chocolate frosting that’s light enough to float. I’d promised it would be back. So then why? Why did it disappear?

Well I have wonderful news for you, folks. Mish-Mash Monday is back! The special “Huge Screenwriting Advice” Edition. I’ll get more into that later, but first, I wanted to discuss one movie I didn’t see, and one movie I didn’t want to see, all in hopes of understanding this craft a little bit better.

It all starts with Spider-Man 2, a film I’d planned to see this weekend but couldn’t muster up enough enthusiasm to do so. I don’t know what it is about these Spider-Man movies, but if they were Christmas trees, they’d be that strand of lights right around the middle that’s always going dark. And no matter what you do, you can’t fix them.

I don’t know if it’s Andrew Garfield, who looks too tall and goofy to play the part of the web-slinger. I don’t know if the domination of the Marvel super-hero universe has made Spider-Man less relevant? I don’t know if the coolest aspect of Spider-Man (those fun POVs of him flying through New York) has run its course, not unlike Matrix bullet-time? But something’s definitely missing.

One thing that drives me bananas about these films is all the villains. Populating your superhero film with lots of villains so you can sell a bunch more toys is not a new idea. But Spider-Man always seems to go overboard with it. They almost look desperate, like they’re calculating, right there on the screen, that if they don’t have that third or fourth villain, they’re making 15 million less on toy sales and there’s no way they’re okay with that. I remember Sam Raimi complaining about this very problem in his last Spider-Man directing effort.

What the suits don’t realize is that this DOES affect the film. The justification for why a character is in a story is embedded into the very fabric of storytelling. The second a character feels wedged in for reasons other than the story itself, something starts to smell fishy to the audience. As writers, our job is to hypnotize. It’s to make the audience believe in what we’re telling them. And if you start planting things in that don’t make sense, the hypnosis starts to crumble, and before long, they’re no longer under your spell.

I watch these Spider-Man 2 trailers and you have Green Goblin, Rhino, Electro. It feels unfocused, like they’re unsure what the movie is actually about. That’s not to say other famous super-hero movies haven’t done the same. The gold standard for superhero franchises, Batman, had Two-Face and The Joker. But, for the most part, Nolan gave us one villain per Batman film, and he made that villain the star villain.

That’s the other thing. When you focus on one villain, you can actually give them depth. You can make him a worthy adversary to your hero. When there are two or three other guys, we’re only getting the bullet points of each villain. You don’t have enough time to delve into them, and the films feel more surface level as a result. So I’m not surprised to hear that’s a criticism these last three Spider-Man films have faced.

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On the flip side of that world is a small movie I saw last week. You know a movie’s good when it doesn’t need pyro-technics or VFX wizards or a half-dozen car chases to keep you entertained. All it needs is people and words. Which is why, so far, Philomena is my favorite film of the year.

For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a journalist, Martin, who’s recently lost his job. He somehow gets sucked into a human interest piece about a former nun, Philomena, who was forced to give her baby up for adoption 50 years ago by the nuns at her convent. Philomena wants to find her son and meet him for the first time.

The first thing I loved about this movie was the RESISTANCE they built into the main character pairing. Any time you team up two people to find something (in this case, the woman’s son), you want to create resistance between them (from one, the other, or both), as it adds conflict. It’s not overdone here. This isn’t Ride Along. But Martin isn’t happy that his career has devolved into escorting a rambling senior citizen around the country. It adds such a charming sense of humor to the relationship, that even if there were no story at all, you’d still enjoy watching these two, something every “two-hander” should strive for.

But it was the MYSTERY that got me. I thought this was going to be one of those non-dramatic self-important indie films where two mismatched people drive cross-country and learn something about each other. But it was much more than that. I’ll tell you why.

It coincides with the exact moment I got hooked, which was when Philomena and Martin go back to the convent to ask for the records on her son. The Head Nun is very skittish and borderline rude, almost to the point that she seems like she’s hiding something. Hiding something is ALWAYS good for screenplays. Secrets are what make drama go round.

The nun tells Philomena that all those old documents were destroyed in a fire. There’s nothing they can do. She does, however, locate something Philomena signed a long time ago, where she promised never to go looking for her child. While they’re able to convince an old woman easily, Martin’s not so sure. Curious, he points out, that this ‘great fire’ destroyed every single piece of information that would help Philomena find her child, yet has preserved the one piece of paper that would prevent her from doing so.

I don’t know what it is about this simple set-up: bad people trying to screw over good people, but if you do it right, it’s so damn effective. However, Philomena finds a way to add a turbo boost to that tried-and-true setup, one you, as a screenwriter, should always keep in your bag of tricks as well: IRONY.

If these were, say, big corporate assholes preventing Philomena from finding her son, we’d be upset, but we wouldn’t be surprised. Men like that are expected to act that way. It’s that this a group of NUNS who are doing this that gets us. The people who are supposed to be the most trustworthy are screwing our main character over. That’s what draws us in, that terrible people masked as righteous people are screwing a poor helpless old woman over. That’s why we want to stick around. Irony. Never forget how powerful it can be!

Ahh, but that isn’t the only lesson you’ll learn today. I have one more mish-mash story I’d like to add to today’s post.

Awhile back, I was chatting with a writer whose script I’d read. The script was pretty good, but it had a big problem: It wasn’t marketable. Based on how these movies had done in the past, I didn’t think anybody would go and see it. When I tried to explain this to the writer, he vehemently disagreed. He insisted lots of people would show up. I made my arguments. He made his. Then at some point, we realized that neither of us were going to change each others’ minds, and we moved on.

Many months later, a movie came out that was very similar to this writer’s script. It wasn’t the same idea, but it was the same genre, same tone, same dark main character, same TYPE of story across the board. The movie did poorly at the box office, but I was long past proving my point. It was just something I passively noted.

Not long after, I ran into the writer again. After catching up, I remembered the film and I was curious about what he thought of it. I didn’t bring up any of our previous conversation. I just asked, like you would any movie, “What did you think?”

To my surprise, he replied, “I don’t know, I didn’t see it.” “Didn’t see it?” I thought. What did he mean he didn’t see it? This was the exact kind of script he was trying to sell.

And then it hit me. He didn’t go see it because he wasn’t interested in it. He wasn’t interested IN THE VERY TYPE OF FILM he was writing. I pointed this out to him and at first he was dismissive. He made some comments about how the two plots were different.

But as the night went on, I could see his mind working. Finally, it dawned on him. That movie WAS very similar to his, and he’d never even considered checking it out. If HE, the very writer WRITING these kinds of movies, wasn’t interested in seeing this film, why the hell would he expect the general audience to do so?

It was a valuable lesson to both him and myself: Don’t write a movie that you wouldn’t go see yourself. It seems like the most obvious advice in the world, yet I’m constantly reminded how many writers ignore it. I remember this guy who used to write all these goofy comedies that never quite got the tone right.  It occurred to me after awhile that I never saw him actually go to any of these movies. So I asked him one day, “When was the last goofy comedy you actually paid for?” He thought about it for a moment, then conceded he couldn’t remember.  Of course you’re not going to get the tone right if you’re not even interested in watching those kinds of films.

Guys, you have to be realistic. If you’re not paying your hard-earned money to see the very types of movies you’re writing, then why would you expect anyone else to? It’s hard to put butts in seats. Hollywood spends billions of dollars to figure out how to do it. But the cheapest research is also the most telling. If your movie can’t even get you to show up, you shouldn’t be writing that movie.

Mish-Mash Monday out!

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So the Oscars are over and, as expected, it was nobody’s night. Awards were distributed evenly, which confuses news organizations and reporters because they love to splash across their headlines “IT WAS MOVIE X’S NIGHT!” Gravity won some. 12 Years won some. But nobody dominated. Were there surprises? You bet. American Hustle didn’t win a single award! And Barbrie Fontuno lost for Best Documentary Animated Short for the third year in a row. When is that guy going to finally get his statue!?

Which reminds me… Poor Leo continues to sit in the loser’s chair, despite playing more Oscar-friendly roles than any other actor in town and working with the best directors in the business. I don’t know what it is about Leo. He’s a good actor, but I don’t know if he’s a great one. He commands the screen. But there’s something in the back of his delivery that makes you aware that he’s acting. If he can figure out how to overcome that, the little golden statue may yet be his one day.

I was shocked that after Cate Blanchett won for Best Actress (which I think she deserved) she thanked every single person on the planet EXCEPT for Woody Allen. I don’t know if that’s because she doesn’t like Woody Allen or she’s afraid to give credit to a media-appointed child molester and deal with the backlash. But by omitting his name from the acceptance speech, she’s probably going to draw more attention about the director than had she just said his name.

In the director category, there is really no question that Alfonso Cuaron deserved to win. I’ve loved his stuff ever since that Ethan Hawke one-take running shot in Great Expectations, and then those amazing super-takes he did in Children of Men. But with Gravity, he topped them all. I mean, if you’re freaking inventing shit to make your movie, you get the Oscar. This guy invented the technology to make this film. That’s pretty awesome.

Matthew McConaughey for the Best Actor win. This was one of the only shoe-ins of the night. If there’s one thing that’s clear about this win, it’s that if you’re a good looking actor who loses 50+ pounds to look really skinny in your role, you increase your Oscar chances by 80%. This is a KNOWN FACT, and seemed to work for co-star Jared Leto as well. I think Matt had one of the funnier speeches of the night. With his confidence and that southern drawl, you’re captivated and believe everything the guy’s saying. But if you really listened to Matt, you may have noticed he was just babbling a bunch of nonsense. Somebody you look forward to? Somebody to be on top of? Somebody to call your hero? What??? I think at the end, Matt told the world that his hero was himself. Which is pretty much Hollywood acting in a nutshell.

So what do I think of 12 Years A Slave winning best picture? Well first of all, I haven’t seen the film. Let’s start there. Why haven’t I seen it? Two reasons. First, I think Steve McQueen is a self-indulgent filmmaker who doesn’t care about story. He just wants to get in there, shoot, and play around with the actors. “Shame” is one of the most unneeded stories ever to be written. It was a complete waste of everybody’s time except maybe Michael Fassbender. After that debacle, I decided I was never again going to watch a Steve McQueen movie.

Second, from everything I’ve been told about the film, it’s as if it was created specifically so that I would hate it. It’s over the top. It’s depressing. It’s more history lesson than film. I don’t have anything bad to say about the people who like it. But I go to the movies to be entertained, at least on some level. And this film has no interest in entertaining. Yeah, I get it. Sometimes movies are meant to challenge you. But it seems like the message of this film is one I already know. Slavery was really really really bad. I mean, if you guys can convince me that there’s another reason to see this that I’m not considering, let me know. But I just don’t see myself excitedly sitting down to watch 12 Years A Slave with a bucket of popcorn any time soon.

Which brings us to the only thing that matters about the Oscars – the screenwriting categories! Now in my newsletter, despite not feeling like there were any true contenders, screenplays that we would look back at in 10 years and go, “Oh yeah, that was an amazing screenplay,” I thought I could pick the winners. In the Adaptation side, we had…

Before Midnight
12 Years A Slave
Captain Phillips
Wolf of Wall Street
Philomena

I knew Captain Phillips had no shot. It’s basically a bunch of shaky cam with a Somali pirate occasionally saying, “Look at me! I’m the Cap-tun now.” Wolf of Wall Street was a copy and paste job from the book. And Philomena was way too small of an idea. That left 12 Years A Slave and Before Midnight. Since I had not seen 12 Years A Slave, I was making an educated guess. But from what I’ve been told, 12 Years A Slave was all about the acting and the directing. Of those three elements, the screenwriting was supposedly the least impressive of the group. On the flip side, Richard Linklater is known for being a kick-ass screenwriter, with the industry adoring the fact that Julie Delpy pitches in and helps write these “Before” movies. So I thought the Oscar would go to Before Midnight. But alas, 12 Years a Slave won.

But! The story is not over. For those of you conspiracy theorists, you may have heard a few days ago that Julie Delpy RAILED on the Academy, calling them a bunch of old white men who hadn’t done anything in forever, and who therefore needed money. So to win an Academy award, all you had to do was slip them some “presents” and you had their vote. She then went on to say that she could give two shits about Hollywood and the Academy and that she thinks almost everything that Hollywood makes sucks.

Wowzers! This is why I’ve always kept Mrs. Delpy an arm’s length away. You can see that, sort of, contained rage behind her eyes. You get the feeling that she just hates everyone and doesn’t appreciate what she has or the chances she’s been given. I think that’s why she was never really accepted into the Hollywood community. But either way, even though that only happened a few days ago, after the voting was in, I would not put it beyond the Academy to change some votes around to avoid this vitriolic woman coming up on stage and calling all of its members elitist criminals. So she may have done herself in and prevented herself from the opportunity to make a few more personal indie movies.

That leaves us with the Original Screenplay Nominees…

American Hustle
Her
Blue Jasmine
Nebraska
Dallas Buyers Club

I thought this race was between American Hustle and Blue Jasmine, both of which, I believe, were better screenplays than Her. American Hustle had a weird story and took chances, mixing humor with drama in a way that was unpredictable and entertaining. It was not only different (which is easy to do), but it executed its “different” approach almost flawlessly (which isn’t easy to do). Blue Jasmine was masterful in its character creation (this woman who was going nuts), in its situational setups (the repeatedly tough moments it placed its hero in), and then in its dialogue, which, with Woody Allen, is never stilted, always feels natural, and has that heightened lyrical quality to it, almost like you’re listening to two characters take part in an aural dance.

But upon reflection, I understand why Her won. It took the biggest chance of all. It created a romantic comedy without one of the key components of the genre – the girl! I mean, sure, there’s a girl, but we only hear her voice. To pull that off for an entire movie and keep us interested is a magic act. I just didn’t think Spike NAILED it, which is why I didn’t think it would win. But in a year of weak contenders, I guess a lot of people thought it was unique, and that was enough to elevate it against some flat competition.

Oh, and finally, I thought Ellen was great. She’s an awesome host. I want to eat pizza with Ellen and take selfies with her. How bout you?  How was your Oscar evening? Did your picks pan out?