February 27, 2014

The Ecchh Factor

Pop culture pun.  I don’t do puns, normally, but it works.  As you’ll see.

This is mostly going to be for screenwriters.  Writers of prose—please don’t feel left out.  There’s a couple of things in here for you, too.

Tis the season for screenplay contests.  A few of the big names have opened their mailboxes for submissions, and there’s a dozen more noteworthy ones past that.  It’s a great way to get your name out there and even win some decent money, too, if you plan accordingly.


As some long-time readers know, I used to read for a couple of screenplay contests (four different ones, in fact). I have several friends who read for some of the same ones, and some others, too. This time of year used to be a time of great sadness for us. And also a time of great drinking. Usually for the same reasons.

For an average contest, I’d probably read about a hundred scripts per year. That means there were years I’d read over three hundred scripts, usually all in the space of three or four months. It was a fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) overview of amateur screenwriting. To be honest, it’s one of the big things that convinced me to start the ranty blog.

It also gave me a real sense of certain patterns. There were certain types of scripts that would show up again and again and again. And it got to the point that I (and most of my friends) would let out a groan—an Ecchh, if you will—when we opened the next script and realized it was another one of those stories. Usually we could tell within the first few pages. In rare cases, the story would go along fine for twenty or thirty pages and the big first act reveal was… it’s just another one of those stories.

I drank a lot during this period of my life.

Now, I’m not saying any of these are automatically bad scripts that no one would ever pay a dime for. We could probably check IMDb box office listings right now and find examples of more than half of them. But contests aren’t about the box office, they’re about the submissions pool. Unless it’s something truly, utterly spectacular, each of these all-too-common screenplays is going to get an automatic response from a contest reader. An Ecchh.  And that means my script is already starting in the negative. And even if the reader’s just subconsciously knocking off two or three points for being an Ecchh-inducing script, those points could mean the difference between making it to the next round or winning a contest.

So, a few types of screenplays you should think twice about before submitting.  I’ve mentioned some of these before, so if they sound familiar… well, I thought it was worth repeating.

The 50% Script
I’ve mentioned this idea here a few times. In any pool of submitted material, around half of the submissions can be usually be disqualified by page three. It’s when I submit my stoner sex comedy to a Christian values screenplay contest.  Or my romantic comedy to a horror contest. Or my five-act play to… well, any screenwriting contest. The same goes for short stories. Very few screenplay contests want to see short stories. Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.

The 50% scripts are also the result of me being incompetent and/or lazy. If I  don’t know how to spell, have only the faintest understanding of grammar, and no concept of story structure…  that’s a 50% script. Or if I send in a first draft with all its flat characters and wooden dialogue. Or if I don’t even bother to learn how to format a screenplay. Or if I wrote my screenplay under the assumption I’d be directing it from this draft.

If my script falls in that 50% group, the reader’s going to know very soon. And they’re going to Ecchh because a lot of contests require them to read the whole script… even if they know it’s not going to win. Most readers will toss a 50% script as soon as they can. Sometimes sooner, if they think they can get away with it.

The Writer Script
I’ve said this a dozen or so times. Do not write about writers. I did the math one year as a reader and it turned out almost 15% of the scripts I read had a writer as one of the main characters (yeah, I started keeping track of this stuff). When I was interviewing contest directors for Creative Screenwriting, one joked that if her contest banned scripts about writers they’d probably lose a quarter of their entries. More than a few professional editors have said they’ll toss a book manuscript if it opens with someone writing on their computer.

No one cares about the day-to-day struggles I go through as a writer. No one. Most of you don’t—you’re here to learn about the successes. Definitely not a bunch of script readers, many of whom are writers themselves. If I’m being sincere, I’m going to bore everyone (more on that in a bit). If I make up some idealized writing lifestyle, the readers will Ecchh over that because now I’m delving into fantasy.

Let’s assume they didn’t toss my script aside as soon as they saw the writer character. If they get to the end and said writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay and wins the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever… the reader will crumple my script into a ball and burn it so nobody else will have  to read the damned thing. Then they will get my personal information from the contest director, hunt me down, and cram the ashes in my mouth.

And I probably won’t advance in the contest.

The Current Events Script
I’m going to go out on a limb here. If we could look at the pool of Nicholl submissions for this year, I’d bet we’d see a fair number of Olympic scripts.  Several of them would be about stray dogs in Sochi. Also a bunch of screenplays that tie somehow to health care laws. A few on government gridlock, too. And most of them were probably written in four weeks or less.

Y’see, Timmy, if I saw a news report about some fascinating nuance of the world and realized it’d make a great script… it’s a safe bet at least a thousand other aspiring screenwriters saw the same news story and had the same idea. Probably more with the way stories spread on the internet. Even if only half of those writers do anything with the idea, and even if only ten percent of those people are sending their script to the same contest as me… that’s still fifty people rushing out scripts about the exact same thing I am. Even if half of them are completely incompetent and the other half are just barely on par, it means the contest reader is going to be reading a dozen scripts just like mine. Ecchh. And that’s if we stick to a thousand as our base number.

Mine may be the best in the batch, of course, but it’s going to lose a lot of appeal because now it’s a tired, overdone idea. And none of us want to be thought of as the best take on a tired, overdone idea.

The Actor Script
When people are trying to be positive about this one, they’ll call it “a character script.” It means my screenplay is just a thin plot with a handful of over-detailed character sketches piled up in it. There’s usually lots of deep and meaningful multi-page conversations about mundane things, often held in a few basic locations, and very little action. Of any sort.

The thing is though, is there anything remotely interesting about a story that’s indistinguishable from the boring, everyday life we all lead? Is there anything impressive about me putting all that boring stuff down on paper? Is there any sort of challenge there, for me as a writer or you as a reader?


As it happens, this leads nicely into…

The True Script
A kissing cousin of the character script is the true script. On the cover or either the first or last page (sometimes several of these) I assure the reader this tale is based on true events involving me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These true events are often stressed to give a certain validity to what the reader is about to take in. After all, they can’t call my story or characters or dialogue unbelievable if it really happened, right?

Thing is, no one cares if my story is true or not. Nobody. Ecchh. They just care that it’s a good story and it’s well-told.  So my tale of prepubescent paraplegic drug addicts in 1990s Los Angeles needs to be as enjoyable—on some level—as a story about Neanderthal superheroes battling prehistoric lizard men in 1990s Los Angeles. Whether or not one of them’s a true story is irrelevant. In the end, I’m telling a story, and it’s either going to be good or it isn’t. Reality doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for me.

The Formula Rom-Com
The man pursuing his dream girl realizes his best friend has been his real dream girl all along. A woman’s engaged to a condescending, controlling executive and then meets a poor artist and discovers he’s the real love of her life. Aphrodite/ Cupid/ an angel comes down to Earth on an assignment and falls in love.

Do any of these sound familiar? They should. Pretty much every one of them has been made into a dozen movies and a few thousand screenplays. Yeah, flipping the genders doesn’t make them any more original, sorry. Once it’s clear on page three this is a rom-com… Ecchh.

My romantic comedy has to be really spectacular and original to impress a reader. Again, it’s that sheer numbers thing. In four years of contest reading—a hundred romcoms, easy—I read one that stood out. Just one.

The Holiday Script
If you add in straight-to-DVD, movies of the week, and pretty much everything Shane Black‘s done, there’s a good argument to be made that holiday films are one of the best selling genres out there. However, just because my script is very sellable does not mean my script is very good. Or original. And if my contest is looking for good (see above), well…

The trick is to come up with something a contest reader hasn’t already seen again and again, to the point that they go Ecchh as soon as they see the mention of Halloween decorations. And—speaking from experience—they’ve seen most of it. They’ve Santa Claus quit, get fired, and get replaced by a temp, an elf, Mrs. Clause, his son, his daughter, his evil twin, his evil other personality, a robot, an alien, another holiday figure, another supernatural figure, Jesus. It’s all been done. The Easter Bunny has learned the true meaning of Easter, Cupid has learned the true meaning of love (see above… again), and Gobbles the Turkey has learned the true meaning of Thanksgiving. The hard way. Many, many times and in many, many ways.

There you are.  Seven very common types of scripts that will make a contest reader Ecchh. Probably more like eight or nine if you read between the lines a bit.

Again, I’m not saying I could never, ever win with one of these scripts. But I am saying that if I’m going to go this path I absolutely must knock it out of the park. No questions, no conditions, no exceptions.

Speaking of movies, next week I’d like to talk about the lessons we can all learn from that fine classic film Satan Met A Lady and its slightly more well-known remake, The Maltese Falcon.

Until then, go write.

May 30, 2013 / 6 Comments

Snip Snip Snip

            A few quick cuts.  A little off the top.
            Once again, I must make pathetic excuses for missing last week.  I wanted to post this Wednesday night before I left for Crypticon Seattle, but ended up bogged down in last minute preparations.  By the time I realized I never put this up, I was about two miles above San Francisco.
            Anyway, enough of my pathetic excuses.  Let’s talk about cuts.
            As writers, we all need to make cuts.  Our first drafts always have too much.  We put in every wild idea and detail and prolonged conversation.
            Before anyone says anything—no.  None of us write perfect first drafts.  Not one person reading this.  Not you.  Not me.  Definitely not that guy over there.  The only person who writes usable first drafts is Paul Haggis, and even he doesn’t think they’re perfect (Clint Eastwood does, though).  And Paul isn’t here, so we’re back to saying none of us.
            (Mr. Haggis—if you are here, thanks so much for the support.  You probably don’t remember, but I interviewed you twice for Creative Screenwriting and you were fantastic)
            All this means that in the second draft, third at the latest, we have to make cuts.  We want our books and screenplays and short stories to be lean and tight.  It’s a tough world out there, with a lot of tough publishers, and I can’t expect my story to get anywhere if it’s not at fighting weight.
            So, here’s a few quick, painless ways you can make some cuts and help your manuscript lose a thousand words or so…
            Adverbs—  As I said above, most of us get caught up in the flow of words, the impetus of a scene, and the thing that slides by most often is the all-but-useless adverb.  We try to pretend they’re important, but they can always be replaced.  When it comes down to it, adverbs are the Shemps of the writing world.
            Three out of five times if you’re using an adverb, you just don’t need it.  The fourth time odds are you’re using the wrong verb, and once you find the right one, again, you won’t need the adverb.  And that fifth time… well, maybe it’s only one in six.  If you’re using your vocabulary well, there aren’t many times you need an adverb.
            I was at a conference a few years back where writer/ Editor Pat LaBrutto tossed put a great rule of thumb.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s only a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging five or six adverbs per paragraph… maybe you should give them all a second look.
            In my recent editorial pass of the fourth Ex book, I cut just over 200 adverbs from the manuscript.  That’s almost a full page of adverbs, gone.  Search your manuscript for LY and see how many you find.
            Adjectives—People use a lot of adjectives to make normal, average things sound interesting.  Coincidentally, these folks tend to have a poor vocabulary.  So when I don’t know multiple words for shirt (like Henley, tunic, tee, blouse, polo, Oxford), I’ll just use multiple adjectives. 
            Of course, we all go a little overboard now and then  (anyone who says they don’t is lying to you) because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs extra description.  Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.
            There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fantasy writers—not only them, but enough to make it worth mentioning—to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence–often redundant ones like “gleaming chrome blade of pure silver.”  I’ve mentioned before that I used to help run an online fantasy game a few years back, and the other night I was talking with one of the staff members who’s still there.  And she and I hit on a wonderful turn of phrase that I think applies here.  Simply put, using more adjectives and adverbs doesn’t make me a better writer.  It just means I’ve got a weak vocabulary and I’m a very poor editor.
            That—People tend to drop that into their writing a lot, and a good four out of five times their writing would be tighter without it.  I used to be a that junkie until someone pointed out how unnecessary it often is.

She punched him in the same spot that he had been stabbed in.
He knew that the machine would not stop—ever—until she was dead.
Phoebe could see that the two of them were meant to be together.

            On that same Ex book, I cut over 130 that‘s—just over half a page.  Use the Find feature, search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find that at least half of them aren’t.

           Useless Modifiers— I’ve also called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times.  This is another one I wrestle with a lot, although I like to tell myself I’ve gotten better about it.  It’s when I pepper my writing with somewhat.., sort of…, a bit…, kind of…, and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they’re not doing anything except adding to my word count (not in the good way) and slowing my story (also not in the good way).  Use the Find feature again and see how many of these are doing anything in your writing, and look how much tighter and stronger your story is without them.  I cut another 200 hundred of these in the aforementioned Ex book manuscript.
            Appeared to be…   –This is one of those phrases some folks latch onto and use all the time.  Problem is, most of them don’t understand it.  It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description.  This phrase sometimes disguises itself as seemed to be or looked like or some variation thereof.
            The thing is, appeared to be doesn’t get used alone.  It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction.  So when I’m saying…

The creature seemed to be looming over us.

            …what I’m really saying is something along the lines of…

The creature seemed to be looming over us, but it was just the shadows making it look bigger than it really was.

            …and what I wanted to say all along was just…

The creature loomed over us.

            If I’m not trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn’t just wasted words– it’s wrong.
            “As you know…” –I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is.  Really.  Ignore everything else I’ve said here, but please take this one bit of advice to heart.
            Just by saying “as you know,” I’m stating that the character I’m speaking to already knows the facts I’m about to share.  So why repeat them?  Why would I have two people engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?
            When I put in “as you know” or one of its half-breed cousins, it’s a poor attempt to put some exposition in my story with dialogue.  If I’m using it, I guarantee you there’s either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for it because it’s already covered somewhere else.
            I might be able to get away with doing this once–just once–if I’ve got a solid manuscript.  I mean rock-solid.  And even then, it shouldn’t be in my opening pages.
            Anyway, there’s half a dozen quick, easy cuts.  Try them out and see if you can drop a few hundred words or more.
            Next time, I want to get back on schedule by quickly pointing out a possible problem.
            Until then, go write.
August 23, 2012 / 2 Comments

A Sly Discussion of Screenwriting

Have I mentioned that 14 has been in the top ten at Audible.com for the past week or so? It’s been a pretty amazing week for me.

That being said, I’m still trying to get caught up on a few things after Ex-Communication, so I think I’m going to let the ranty blog slide for another week or so.

 The good news for all of you is that “letting it slide” means I post another screenwriter interview. Even if screenwriting isn’t your thing, you might get a kick out of this one. It’s from two years ago—me talking with actor, director, and screenwriter Sylvester “Sly” Stallone. You may have heard of him. And, yes, I was told very specifically that he does prefer Sly. I talked with Sly (see, now we’re on a first name basis) about his career and his then-upcoming new movie, The Expendables

Now, I have to be honest. While it was very cool to be interviewing Sylvester Stallone… I wasn’t expecting much. Foolish as it sounds, I’d been sucked in by his characters and figured I was going to be on the phone with Rocky Balboa or John Rambo. The guy we all see parodied on SNL and Family Guy. What I actually got was almost an hour talking with a very smart, dedicated, and funny screenwriter who loves Peter O’Toole movies and whose lifelong passion project is a biopic about Edgar Allan Poe.  

 A few points I’ve mentioned before.  I’m the one in bold, asking the questions.  Also, a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out.  A long line of dashes (—————–) means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Mr. Stallone endorsed any of the ideas here on the ranty blog.  It’s just me linking from something he’s said to something similar I’ve said.  And by the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here.  If you haven’t seen the first Expendables yet, check it out.  You’ll get a bit more out of this discussion.

            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.


So, a few background questions…  I know you studied drama at school.  Was it your major or was it a side thing you expanded on?
It was my major, yeah.

Did you study screenwriting?
Well, what happened was I wasn’t getting any parts (chuckles). I decided…  I started writing these one-act plays.  There was this group that was putting on these shows. At the time they were called “happenings” which is kind of like stream of conciousness, they were plays that were like Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” or “Rats” by Israel Horovitz. And I thought, y’know, I’d like to try one of these one-act plays. So I started writing and performing them. They were one-man or two-man shows. And that was the beginning of my love for the written word.

There weren’t many how-to books at the time.  Did you study existing scripts or just kind of wing it…?
What I did was, believe it or not, after four years of college I got a job as an usher. I would watch a show, for example let’s say M*A*S*H, and I would watch it six times a day for two months. And I would break it down and I’d see what works and the timing and I got to get a sense of pace. Or I’d see a movie that wasn’t very well received–I remember, for example, there was a Martin Sheen movie called No Drums, No Bugles, and no one ever saw it. I was like, “Why is this place empty?” So I would go home and try to rewrite scenes in the movie that was playing. Just as an exercise.

Then one thing led to another and I started writing about my experiences in school with things that I knew about. It wasn’t until I went to the New York Library and checked out a book on Edgar Allen Poe that I finally wrote a screenplay that wasn’t solely about my experiences.

I was going to ask you… I know you did some work on Lord’s of Flatbush
That’s right.

…but were there any feature screenplays before RockyOh, many.  Many.  Probably twenty, twenty-five.  I look at them now and they seem kind of quaint.  And they were using the old-fashioned format, which would be the characters name on the left margin and to the right would be the dialogue down the side.  It was pretty archaic.

Rocky got the Oscar nomination for best screenplay.  Plus a bunch of wins.  Was it intimidating having so much success with your first produced screenplay?

Oh, yeah.  How do you follow that up?  The idea of Rocky, it was pretty simple but it touched people a lot more that I thought it was going to. That kind of simplicity and rhythm, I didn’t know if I could do it again.  I don’t even know if I ever achieved it again. Usually it was something that was kind of noticeable in the subsequent Rockys, especially 2 and in the last one, that I could fall into that rhythm which I felt very comfortable with. Having a protagonist that would be that verbal. When a lot of the action comes you don’t get a chance to write dialogue.

You’re an actor-screenwriter who wrote two major films to rekindle his career.  I think you’re unique in that.  Did you plan Rocky Balboa or Ramboas “comeback” films or were they just stories you wanted to tell?
The power of the pen (laughs). I wanted to close out the series, and at that time I wasn’t getting much work and I thought, if I ever get another chance, I owe a lot to these two characters because both of them ended on a note that was unsatisfactory. Especially with Rocky Balboa, that’s the premise. If it works it’s the perfect closure, whereas Rocky V wasn’t.  I didn’t know if it was going to catch on. No one believed it would. It took six years to get done on a budget that was pretty meager. It was quite a long shot. Put it this way– it was  a lot harder to get done than the first one (chuckles).

Do you write all the time?  Is there always something you’re working on, or do you wait for specific inspiration?
I try to write a little bit each day, even if it’s not very consequential.  t’s like painting.  If you put a brush on the canvas a little bit every day, you’re still in the game.  Your brain is subconsciously working. —- I always look at writing in a pretty basic way, which would be like an athlete who hasn’t participated in an event, say, in five or six years. Now he has to get back in the ring and he’s very rusty and insecure. But if he had been going to the gym all that time he would be somewhat prepared.

So what first sparked the idea that would be The Expendables?
I wanted to… and this is a real complicated journey here… I wanted to do a kind of “men being men” journey. It would be escapism but there would be some profound thought going on– in the sense of what about our mortality? What about our morality?–and insert that into the action film so it isn’t just about men blowing up things.

So I thought what was a good format? I looked at The Dirty Dozen and well, that’s World War II. Then I was inspired by Dogs of War. Now, I realized that my template would be a little similar, so we had to go out and purchase the Dogs of War script because I didn’t want to be accused of plagiarizing. Then I heard there was this other script which was, in my opinion, uncomfortably similar to Dogs of War written by David Callahan. I thought, well, I knew from the past we’ll be sued if there’s anything similar. It always happens.*** On every Rocky or whatever, someone’s always had that idea first. I said, this time I’ll just go out and see what’s out there that’s similar. So that script was purchased. Then I wrote what I think is an original, The Expendables, which doesn’t use one word, one comma, one iota from either screenplay.

When was this?
About a year and a half ago. It went through–and this is for real, you can come over to my office and see–it went through a hundred and forty rewrites.  I’m not talking about three or four pages, I’m talking about major rewrites because of budget and then cast changes. For example, Forrest Whitaker was in it and he played a CIA agent. Then I thought that’s not going to work, so that entire screenplay had to be done over.  Then Jason [Statham] came in and he talks a certain way.  Then Jet Li was brought in and I had to create a character for him.  hen I thought, you know, it’d be great to have Mickey Rourke in. So before you know it… every time you bring in a major character like that it would cause these concentric circles where it just keeps going out. What started out as a little idea affects all 120 pages.

A hundred and forty drafts? Is that like, here’s these first twenty that no one’s ever going to see cause this is my stuff, or was this all in production hitting a hundred colors of revision pages?
The first fifty or sixty drafts… and I swear I’ve never seen anything like it. We have close to two thousand pages.  Typed. It wasn’t until about three months before that we went through all the colors twice. My secretary was pulling her hair out. Then I had some help from a friend of mine, Robert Kamen. Robert came in and gave me a couple of ideas and I thought you’re right, let’s try to be more economical.  He was very helpful.

Do you like to write other characters for specific actors? Was Christmas always written with Jason Statham in mind? Was Gunnar always Dolph Lundgren to you?Absolutely.  If you spend a little time with them, everyone had a rhythm to their voice and a way they feel comfortable with dialogue. It’s almost a mathematical cadence to their speech patterns.  If you can capture that, the actor feels comfortable and you also know kind of how you can a make a sentence a little more clever using his speech pattern.  For example, in Rocky, Burt Young has a very unusual speech pattern.  He inverts words.  Instead of saying “You don’t like me?” he’ll reverse it, “Me you don’t like much,” which makes it very unusual.  So I would write according to their natural speech pattern.

How often do you have yourself in mind for the lead role while you’re writing? Do you just write and then think, Hey, I’d like to play this part?

I do.  I do (laughs).  But I realized in this particular ensemble you have to give some of your better lines away.  You just have to to keep a balance, to keep the law of nature working so one doesn’t overwhelm the other character and it’s lopsided.  That was the hardest part in Expendables, that everyone has their moment.  It has nothing to do with the action, it’s just an insight into what makes them tick. Then when you combine that with the action, you say, ahhh, I understand what this guy’s all about.  I know his motive and what really dwells in his heart.  Rather than just muscles.

If you don’t mind me stepping back, in general not just with The Expendables, it seems that most of the stuff you write is for you. Do you want to write for other people?  Would you be interested in writing scripts where you had nothing to do with the movie past writing it?
Well, for example, there was a page-one rewrite…there was a fellow, Norman Wexler, who had written the first Saturday Night Fever and he wrote Staying Alive.  They brought me in.  There were some issues with the script.  The studio didn’t like it at all.  It was a very, very dark journey that the John Travolta character, Manero, was taking.  So I sat down with John and I thought let it be a bit more optimistic.  Let’s take it in this direction.  It’s about redemption and so-on.  I took the script, put it away, and started from page one completely using John’s voice.  Spending time with him, getting his rhythms, and really touching on subjects that as an actor it’s the same thing with a dancer.  The insecurities, the constant awareness that the clock is running and you have a certain amount of time to cross that goal line in your career or you’re never going to make it, so on and so forth.  I love writing for other people.  It’s much easier, actually.

Nowadays, what’s your usual writing method? Has it changed over the years? Are you an outline guy, a notecard guy, do you just start scribbling on page one?
That’s pretty much what I do.  I’ll sit down and try to find, let’s say, the first ten scenes.  And there’ll just be one word– truck, airplane, meets girl, goes home, abandoned apartment– just write those, knowing that 90% of it will be unusable.  Maybe 95%. But the process has started and then subconsciously, if I’m being honest with myself, if I’ve got a story that holds up, it starts to take a life of its own. 

I’ve never been able to write a treatment.  Ever.

How long did it take you to get a first draft?
My first draft would maybe be two weeks.  It’s pretty quick.  But I know going in that it’s far from perfect.  Some writers will labor an extraordinary amount of time on each scene  to get it right before they move on.  I assume that it’s not going to be perfect but I’ll get it the third time, the fourth time around.  It’s like cutting a diamond.  Cutting the facets.  You’re not going to cut it perfectly the first time. You have to keep going back and polishing.  Going back and polishing.

How many drafts did it take with The Expendables until you got to something solid? Something you knew was good?
I would say it took a good twenty-five before we had what I thought was a workable film.  Then the elements of budget come into play.  You have to take a situation, a locale, that maybe had three hundred, four hundred people and you realize you have to cut it down to two (laughs).  In Rocky, the ice skating scene was meant to be in Rockefeller Plaza in New York, where they’re ice skating and there’s three hundred people on the ice and Christmas trees and caroling going on in the background when Rocky takes Adrienne on her first date.

Did something similar happen with Expendables?
Oh, yeah.  Hell, yeah.  In The Expendables we’re supposed to take on Somalian pirates in the first scene.  As you know, it’s very expensive shooting that.  I had it written where they climb on board, they go across the deck, camera’s dollying in, so on and so forth.  That would take about five or six days to get that all proper.  And I thought, all right, why don’t we just establish boat, next thing is cut inside the boiler room and you see the pirates and the hostages.  So we never see the Expendables arrive or exit.  They just appear.

Now, you kind of touched on this… is it tough on set, as the writer-director, when pretty much every actor in your film is used to being the leading man? I mean, you’ve got guys in bit parts who normally carry tentpole films. Do you like ad-libs from actors? Do you like them switching stuff around?
If they come up with something…  The format I follow is we do it as written the first take or two.  Then after that I say “Let’s tear it apart a little bit,” and I’ll purposely start to ad-lib.  Some actors are very good at it.  Some aren’t.  You have to know.  Mickey Rourke will roll with it.  Other actors are not comfortable with it and you have to write them in as they’re physically reacting to what you’re saying.  They’re looking away, they look bored, this and that, they smile.  So they’re in the mix even though they’re not verbalizing.  You have to find the strength of these stars and capitalize on them and not expect them to be something they’re not.

The names are a little silly in The Expendables. Harry Christmas.  Hale Caeser. Toll Road. What’s up with that?
Yep.  Well, it’s Lee Christmas now.  Every one of those characters is based on…  Lee Christmas is the world’s most famous mercenary, down in Honduras as the turn of the century.  I just thought, what a great name–General Lee Christmas.  Barney Ross was a great fighter in the ‘30s.  What  I was trying to come up across is every one of these guys, they don’t have an identity.  Their real name doesn’t matter.  They live in this kind of alternate universe where they have no social security cards, no driver’s license, nothing.  They’re fictional characters.  When Bruce Willis says ——-  I just love that when you have nicknames for characters that explain who they are.———Toll Road, Randy Couture, to get past him you’re going to pay a price.

We start right at the top with Gunnar pretty much snapping. Why did you want to start with one of the good guys essentially going bad?
Because you don’t expect it.  You know at one time this guy was a great warrior who, through a human frailty, a weakness, became a drug addict.  He was unpredictable.  Even though we don’t belabor the fact that he was a drug addict, you sense it with certain words.  “When a guy turns Crankenstein on you, you’ve gotta let him go.”  Or another one goes “Put a shot in speed racer’s shoulder.”  I don’t want to see him shooting up or snorting.  He just has a problem.  It could be pills or whatever, but he’s got to overcome this.  By the end of the film you really embrace the guy.  At least in the final draft.

I thought it was interesting that this isn’t just the movie title. They actually call themselves “The Expendables.”  Why did you want to have this be their real title?
Self awareness.  They realize that if they’re gone it really doesn’t matter.  They’re in an expendable business.  Every mercenary on the back of his mind must know when he goes to a foreign land there’s a good chance he doesn’t come back.  He’s expendable and he accepts that.

There’s a nice bit where Tool is talking about the girl on the bridge. It isn’t just about killing bad people–it’s about saving good ones. Where did that whole theme come from? Was it there from the start or did it develop through drafts?

It developed. Tool originally had a girlfriend who was half blind, going blind, and that was going to be Brittney Murphy. We just didn’t have it in the budget.  Brittney Murphy was also a wonderful singer. At the end of the movie people were questioning why would Tool be interested in this kind of girl when he has all these Hooter-type girls. Then when you hear her sing you think she has real soul, she has depth. That’s why he finally has come around to this kind of woman. Now when that was taken out I needed a moment when the character who seemed like the biggest bon viant, who doesn’t give a damn, in the end really is tortured because he didn’t do what he could’ve done to save his soul, his morality. And he’s saying to Barney, don’t make the same mistake. You’ve got to do something for nothing. 

No spoilers in the article, but I’d like to ask you about the ending and maybe talk around it, if that makes sense…  In the end the good guys win. Barney doesn’t get the girl and decides not to quit. Gunnar doesn’t die.  It’s almost like a reset button gets hit. Why not have more of a toll on the team?
Right. I thought about that. This is kind of a morality play where I wanted to see these men again. I always wrote it hoping there would be a backup so I could really get in-depth for the second one. I think when you’ve lived with people so long that to see them die… I don’t know, it just put a damper on the overall sense of exaltation at end of the film. That good can triumph over evil without having to cause death. I know that’s a completely unrealistic way to look at it, but I’d learned a lesson from First Blood. In the original First Blood, Trautman kills Rambo. He puts a bullet in his heart and he dies. We shot that ending. I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to do it, but that’s the way it was written. And then I said can we do an alternate where Rambo pours his heart out and he dies emotionally, but he’s given a rebirth. A second chance.  When we ran the first screening with Rambo dying, the audience was so depressed. I didn’t like the message that victory can only be achieved by spilling the blood of one of the heroes. If we could accomplish both at the same time–the bad guys are vanquished and the good guys prevail–I think in this kind of film you walk out of there feeling good, rather than walking out going “Oh, I wish Jason hadn’t died.” It puts a damper on it. I’m not trying to make a one-off statement. In Dogs of War everyone did die and it’s a whole other kind of film. This is totally escapist fair with some moral message slipped in.

After doing so many action movies–as the writer and the star–is it tough to come up with “new” action scenes?
Very hard. What we did with this one was just go back to very simple mano e mano, man vs machine. Very little CGI, and everything in the film is do-able by a professional.  Everything here could be accomplished. Barney is the greatest shot in the world. He’s so fast with the pistol it’s hard to believe. But I went on YouTube and researched the fastest shot in the world. There’s a man who gets off six shots in point-nine-tenths of a second and hits his target. So everything in there is achievable, it’s just so fantastic it’s hard to believe.

Last questions… in the past couple years you’ve done The Expendables, Rocky Balboa, I’ve heard you’re working on another new Rambo script… 
I’m not sure about that one. The last Rambokind of tied the ribbon on the whole journey. I don’t know if coming back out could spoil the whole thing. What more can you possibly do?  Really?

You mentioned Poe at the start.  I noticed you’ve got a Poe project in the works on IMDb. 
Yeah.  I’m really worried about doing it, though, because I’ve been talking about this since 1976.

So it’s the same thing?
It’s the same thing. Every five years I’ll look at it say  “Boy, it’s sort of dated.”  Even though it’s a period piece, the writing styles have changed so much and the audiences way of percieving films is not the way it was in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  A Lion In Winter is one of my favorite films, but it’s all dialogue.  It’s incredible dialogue, but that school of acting has fallen by the wayside.  Now you have to think visually, too, and that diminishes the amount of dialogue.  For example, the inner workings of Poe’s mind.  We now get into his subconcious and you actually see his great gothic stories unfolding in front of you.  You take a journey through his mind at certain points in his mind and see the black cat, see the House of Usher, you see where it came from.

Looking back thirty-odd years… have you learned anything about screenwriting that you really wish you’d known back when you were writing Rocky?  When you sat down to work on Poe for the first time?
I guess… I believe your first instincts, when you write with passion, are usually the best.  Quite often in multiple rewrites you become a little too slick, if you know what I mean.  You become a bit too polished and predictable.  When I was writing Rocky I just let it go.  For example, the speech in Rocky Balboa with his son, I wrote that while I was riding in the back seat of a car, just bouncing around.  One take, one time.  I was just writing from the heart rather than trying to get the audince on my side, trying to manipulate the audience.  I just wrote from my heart.  So to answer your question,  I think what I learned is try to get back towriting purely with your gut more than your brain.

Was there a point in there when you kind of forgot that?
No question about it. Rambo III became about the events around him and not the turmoil inside of him. For example, I do a little painting, but I’m not a photorealist. So people will say what is that and I’ll say it’s a flower.  “Well that doesn’t look like a flower.” And I’ll say no, it’s what the flower’s thinking. It doesn’t have to be so perfect. It’s what I think is going on inside of the subject rather than on the exterior. 

It’s all motivation. If you know why a guy is going to war, really understand, that you’re with him on the journey.  When you know Rocky goes there, that he realizes that he is a bum and he’s never going to win, he’s going to get killed.  But, if he can just stand up, that to him is championship.  The audience is not expecting him to win, but they’re with him on just surviving and that is a great moral victory.  So that kind of thing.  It isn’t just random.  Why are you here?  Why here and why now?


(***It’s worth pointing out that, ironically, Stallone ended up getting sued over The Expendables.  Because of this interview I was subpoenaed twice and deposed once.  He won his case earlier this year.)

July 21, 2012

Hour of the Wolf

            Sorry, still running behind.
            I’d hoped to do something a little bigger for the ranty blog’s 200th post.  Ah, well. We’ll have to celebrate #250.

            Here’s one more huge interview with a pro to tide you over until I get my act back together.  This time it’s David Self, the screenwriter behind Thirteen Days, Road to Perdition, and The Haunting, among other films.  Last I heard, he was working on the adaptation of the God of War videogame. 
            I got to chat with David for an hour or so about working on The Wolfman, the big-budget reimagining of the classic Universal Monster movie.  It was definitley a passion project for him (as you’ll see), and he was a lot of fun to speak with.  Alas, monster movies don’t do that well these days because too many people go in expecting horror and then blame the film for these expectations.
            A few points I’ve mentioned before.  I’m the one in bold, asking the questions.  Also, a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  A long line of dashes (————-) means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply David Self endorsed any of the ideas here on the ranty blog.  It’s just me linking from something he’s said to something similar I’ve said.  And by the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here (although I did cut out one big one).  If you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out.  It’s fun and you’ll get a bit more out of this discussion.
            Also, this is one of the rare cases where I didn’t get to see the fim before my interview (considering I was generally doing interviews two or three months before the films were released).  My questions are based off one of David’s earlier drafts I got to read, so you’ll see some back and forth as we establish what does and doesn’t happen in the movie, and why some changes were made.
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
You work in a lot of different genres as a screenwriter.  Horror, drama, political, you’re doing Deathlok for Marvel, I heard…  How do you keep from getting pigeonholed?
That’s just IMDb (laughs).  I haven’t been working on Deathlok in quite a long time.  I did a rewrite on Deathlok.

I guess I actively try to avoid boredom.  I want to find new intellectual arenas to challenge myself in.  I try to find projects that are different, have a different hue to them, work in different genres.  I make an effort to do that.  That’s my short answer, and I guess people buy it. (laughs)
How did you end up on The Wolfman?
This came to me from a good friend of mine, a producer, Scott Stuber.  I worked with Scott a long time ago.  He brought me actually three scripts.  Andy’s script, a script  by Paul Attanasio, and one Mark Romanek himself had been working on.  Kind of in the fall of 2007, just before the strike.  Actually, August, late summer.
So there were three actual scripts?
At that point Andy had done what was the main draft.  Then they’d hired Paul to do a rewrite.  He got about halfway through and didn’t continue.  Mark Romanek started to work on it himself.  Paul, I think, was working at Mark’s direction at that time, and Mark got halfway through the script as well.  So they had two half-scripts and Andy’s script. When I came in I really wanted to work off Andy’s script because it was the most coherent and consistent one.  It was a complete script so it was the easiest to start from.
Were you all that familiar with the original?
Oh, yeah.  I love the original.  The original film is a landmark.  It was my dad’s favorite film and I used to watch it with him when I was a kid and knew it well.  So there was a little trepidation in going back and trying to come up with a 2010 version of it.
Was it tough shifting the story to a modern day interpretation?  Were these things you were dealing with or had Andy dealt with a lot of them already?
Andy had really introduced a lot of the new elements that are in our version of the film.  In terms of the father-son dynamic and also, well… (David and I talked about a bunch of spoilerish stuff here that I’m not going to repeat for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet)  …That’s a major change from the original, obviously.  That idea was an idea Andy introduced.  Going back to your question— that was dramatically the biggest adjustment.
So what were some of the issues they brought you in to address?  Was it director requests, studio requests, straight script problems?
I think one of the things… In keeping with the original, Andy did well preserving the werewolf lore that the original film introduced to our sense of werewolves.  Changing at the full moon, being bitten.  Some of the rules we take for granted now.  Silver bullets killing werewolves.  There were a couple older films… you’d have to do your filmography… that this film all pulled together.  Those elements Andy was very particular in preserving, which I think was really important.
Among those things that was challenging is that the whole transforming at the full moon really limits…is a real structural issue that we struggled with for a long time.  How to make the plot advance quickly and turn our characters into a werewolf quickly when you’re dealing with this rule of having the full moon.
Yeah, you get four weeks between each action scene.
Exactly (chuckles).  So by nature, the earlier drafts of the script had a very extended amount of time before you got to see Benicio del Toro turn into the wolfman.  That was really the largest issue that I was brought in to solve–how to speed things up a bit.  It was still a very challenging thing, given the rules of our film.  That was the largest note that I had to contend with coming into it.
Let me bug you with a couple of process questions before we dive into any more specifics about the film.  How do you normally approach a script?  Are you an outline guy, a notecard guy?
I generally like to outline, and I try to do the outline in one sitting, so it feels organic, to one moment and impulse.  The length of it can vary from a page to ten pages, depending on how much detail I’m seeing right off the bat in my head.  I just try to catch the organic impulse of the movie in one moment.  And then it mutates from there.
Now was it a lot different for you when you’re coming onto with an existing script, rather than starting from scratch?
Yeah, this is a very different process.  It’s a film that is sort of a flashing green light to go.  There’s a lot more collaboration.  You’re working with a director, a producer, a studio, that all have things they need to achieve to get to where they’re confortable making the film.
Was everyone attached?
Benecio was attached and Mark Romanek was attached.  They attached Tony and Emily Blunt after the draft I did in November.  And Hugo Weaving.  Those guys all came on after.  Although Benicio was just sort of… he wasn’t actively involved in development at that point, he was just waiting for us to do our job. ———–  I turned in my draft the night before the strike started and that was what they cast off of.  And then I was out on the lines
Do you have a lot of writing habits?  Do you write so many hours a day or only in the morning?
I’ve become more nocturnal with the advent of four of my children in the past couple years. Prior to that I was more of a workday type of guy.  I sort of now have a patched together day, where I work half of the day-day, and then after supper in the eveneing, after the kids go to bed, I have another work period where I tend to be pretty productive.  It was different when I was younger.
Do you have a page count you’re trying to hit each day?
More of a scene or sequence objective I set for myself.  Not so much a page count.  One of the other things I like to do… I get slower as I get closer to the end of the script, because basically I read the script from page one again every day before I start writing again, so I can get everything in my head. It helps me with consistencey issues and voice issues.  I don’t have as much reading to do on day two or three, but when I’m getting down to the end I’m spending an hour and a half reading befoe I start writing new stuff.
So was this more of a page one rewrite or a scene-by-scene?
Several scenes, like the sequence in the asylum, I just loved those.  There were pieces of Andrew’s writing that I just loved that I just cut and pasted those into the script I was writing.  I would tweak a word or two just so it made sense with what came around it.  I did start with an empty script when I started rewriting, but I had his sitting next to me the whole time as a reference.
Now, Lawrence would be kind of a grim, haunted figure in this even if he wasn’t bitten by a werewolf.  Why change him so much?
Yeah.  It’s interesting, the character Andy —–  along was a haunted guy who had this sort of gothic, dark back story that preceded the film and becomes uncovered during the course of the film.  So he definitely structured that sort of psychological drama in that mode.  It was an important decision.  It’ll be interesting to see how it translates in the final version of the film, but the notion was this was a guy who had lost himself in theater and burned himself out.  He was a guy waiting to be saved.
In the original, Lawrence Talbot is an astronomer, now he’s an actor.  Why the change?
That was Andy.  He was a guy who was haunted, who lost himself, was estranged from his family and has to come to home.  He’s taken on the least manly profession (laughs) in contrast to his father, this big-game hunter, depraved nobility kind of guy.
Was Ben’s murder in the beginning an added scene?  Why?
Yeah, we had several different versions of that.  I think it was challenging because——  A lot of that changed because of the physicality of the location that we had to work with.  There were a couple different versions which we had worked out, given the contingencies of the set.  This is the one Joe settled on at the end of the day.
Right in the beginning of this story you’ve got the old man on the train with the silver cane.  Why this odd device of a complete stranger who never figures into the story again?
Yeah, that version hasn’t made it into the final film.  We had a notion that this was not just an old guy, but there was this sort of implication that the creepy old guy could be Satan passing the cane along.  It didn’t make it (laugh), he just has the cane in the current film.  I thought it was just a good idea, it’s just his from the start now.  With the 2010 kicker of it being a sword.——I definitely tried to find a few places of connection for little spiritual totems of the original.
What about the connection between Aberline and Jack the Ripper?
Yeah (laughs).  Aberline was introduced in Paul’s draft as a pursuing character that then we fleshed out.  He chose the name Aberline.  I didn’t really connect that with that notion when I first read it, but then I looked up the name and said ‘Oh, this is the guy from In Hell!’ (laughs)  We thought that was a fun grace note to have. 
——-No.  I mean, Paul didn’t bring it up that he’d been involved in the Ripper case previously.  We added that dimension to it.
Benicio Del Toro has been known to rewrite a script or two.  Did he have a lot of notes for you?
(laughs).  No, he didn’t.  Not the script.  Benny is sort of… the process in independent films is a little bit different than this sort of film.  He didn’t rewrite anything but we had lots of conversations about his dialogue.  He certainly wanted to plumb his lines and stuff like that.  Not rewriting per se, but he had a lot of ‘Could I say it this way…?’  He’s a real professional.
Without giving too much away for the readers… there’s a big switch in how Lawrence becomes the werewolf.
I think as soon as you see Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins are both in this film… (laughs).  I think the audience gets some satisfaction about having their suspiciions confirmed.  I think his sense of betrayal is a good thing. Rather than it just being (chuckles) Bela Legosi, just some guy who randomly bites him.  I thought this was a good, meaningful melodrama.
Is it tough to do spoiler-dependent films these days?
Knowing that you’re going to be outed?  (chuckles).  Yes and no.  I think it’d be much harder to pull off a Sixth Sense-style film these days that really depended upon that surprise.  I think that would be very difficult to pull off now.  On the other hand, if you’re creating enough engagement and suspense in the moment, you can know the outcome of a film.  Something like Thirteen Days.  You’re sitting in the theater so you know the world hasn’t blown up.  But you can create tensions and suspense, and if you’re doing your job, in the moment people will forget that fact.  ——–
—That’s the magic of it, that you can suspend disbelief there.  Watching something that’s well-told you can forget that you already know certain aspects of it.  There’s something anthropologically gratifyying about that to me.  The yarn-weaving and the storytelling is the social, fun experience, not the knowledge itself.

Would you say this film is horror or more of an action-adventure story?
I think it’s a classic Universal monster movie.  I think there’s a little bit of difference between a horror film and a monster movie.  This has got that broader pallate that you’re talking about.  I think it straddles that.  It’s got horror elements in a bigger action-adventure film.

Last question.  I know this sounds silly but… why one word?  The original Chaney is two, The Wolf Man.  Is that just some oddity that cropped up?

By the production! I’m so furious! (laughs)  Every single draft and every single email I write to this day, I still write two words,”Wolf Man,” because I just can’t accept the fact that they’ve condensed the title.  I don’t know how it happened.  I don’t know where it happened.  It just was a spiral thing that began, I think, in the production.  Somebody compressed it and I’ve fought against it.  It’s not a silly question, it’s my pet jihad!