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“Unless you’re trapped on an airplane or enjoying movie night at the penitentiary, you have no excuse for watching Killers.”
Jeanette Catsoulis
New York Times

Reading the reviews of the new Ashton Kutcher/Kathrine Heigl film Killers is a little like watching a boxing match where one boxer is delivering one punishing blow after another and you just want the defenseless boxer to drop and end the bloodbath. I’m sure Killers is not the first film on Rotten Tomatoes to get a 0% from top critics…but it’s the first I’ve ever seen.

No need to rehash the reviews except to say they all generally agree with the New York Times evaluation; “A brain-deadening collision of high concept and low standards. The Consensus: “Dull, formulaic, and chemistry-free, Killers is an action/comedy that’s largely bereft of thrills or laughs.”

Here’s the good news for screenwriters—it got made. And it got made with two name actors. I know that may not be inspirational to you at first glance, but trust me it is good news. And it’s good news for a few reasons.(Beyond the salaries that were covered in the $75 million budget.)

#1) Everyone knows how the statistics are stacked against screenwriters. There are upwards of 50,000 scripts written every year and only about 500 feature films produced. (And keep in mind that means that there are 49,500 scripts rolling over into the slush pile every year.) So the screenwriting gurus tell you that your film has to be perfect to get made. No it doesn’t. It just needs to be as good as Killers.

Sure, everyone wants to write the next Chinatown. Sure, it’s good to study Chinatown. But the gold is in Killers. That’s the poster you should have above your computer where you write. That’s the film that should give you hope for the screenplay you are currently writing. Killers is the film that should take your mind off of oil currently pumping into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the film that keeps you up late writing your script–and makes you wake up early to continue writing.

Because Killers is the film that makes you scream, “Dammit, I can do better than that!”

#2) Killers is also an example of a screenwriter who just keeps plugging away. The original story and script was written by Bob DeRosa who comes from my old stomping grounds in Florida. I’ve never met DeRosa but he comes from Orlando and is one of the survivors of Hollywood East back in the 90s. He wrote his first short story when he was 6, made videos and wrote scripts as a student at the University of Florida. He spent ten years working with an improv group, worked on commercials and corporate projects, and as an assistant programmer for the Florida Film Festival (during The Blair Witch Project glory days).  All the while writing scripts, watching films, meeting people and learning the business.

When he was 31 he moved to L.A. and basically started over with the help of manager/producer Christopher S. Pratt (also from Orlando).

“There were some pretty lean times. There were those big gaps between the jobs, and I was floating myself on credit cards. Then I’d get the next job, but I’d be scared to pay off the credit cards because I needed the money to live for the next eight months. It was a very precarious six years.”
Bob DeRosa
Interview with Jim Cirile

DeRosa ended up landing some studio writing gigs based on some spec scripts and eventually had the script The Air I Breath produced (written along with director Jieho Lee). In 2006, he wrote the script Five Killers and with the help of Pratt landed a big studio deal just before the writer’s strike. Credit cards finally paid off.

DeRosa was stoked when Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat came out and made some revisions based on it.  A top comic director (Robert Luketic/Legally Blonde) was attached to the script, and a top screenwriter (Ted Griffin/Oceans 11) was brought in to amp up the movie that became Killers. And yet here we are staring down the barrel of a big fat 0%.

At least, DeRosa can say (not that he has) “they took me off the picture and ruined my script.” (But that wouldn’t be the first time or last time that happens to a writer.) I will vote DeRosa’s title Five Killers is more intriguing than Killers. (And even with that 0% it still came in third this weekend at the box office pulling in almost $16 million. It doesn’t hurt that the Iowa born and raised Kutcher has over 5 million Twitter followers. But that film still has a long way to go to recoup its costs.)

All that to say that DeRosa’s long and winding road to paying off his bills and getting a studio script made should be of inspiration to you. On his blog he has a post written back in January of ’09 called How I Write a Spec Screenplay that’s a good read. And just to keep this all in perspective, despite the reviews, DeRosa is living the dream.

#3) Lastly, maybe, just maybe, Killers will be the film that makes some Hollywood studio executive reflect on the kind of films studios are making. Just long enough for him or her to walk over to a window in their office, open it and, in the tradition of Howard Beale in Network, yell out— “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

And, just maybe, we’ll all look back as that being the day that changed the kind of movies that got made. Don’t hold your breath. But do keep writing that killer screenplay you’ve been working on.

Related posts:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Screenwriting from Florida
Jack Kerouac in Orlando
St. Pete Screenwriter (Michael France)
Screenwriting & Florida Surfing

Scott W. Smith

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“With the exception of My Dinner with Andre, very few films can sustain interest in one type of location for too long. Mix it up with day and night scenes, interiors and exteriors. Too many scenes in one type of location will hypnotize a reader like the centerlines on a highway.
                                                             Jim Suthers
Common Screenwriting Mistakes

“I’m a little bit country…I’m a little bit rock-n-roll”
                                                            Donnie & Marie

On Tuesday morning in Cedar Falls, Iowa I got tired of trying to scrape the ice off my SUV windows and ended up riding my bike to work on the snow packed roads. (My office is only a few blocks away.) Three days later I was riding a bike on the beach in a much warmer and sunnier New Smyrna Beach, Florida. That’s quite a contrast.

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And that got me thinking of how contrast is used in screenwriting and in film/video/TV production.

It may only be something you become aware of in the rewriting stage or editing stage but how you handle contrast affects the flow of your story. If you’ve ever seen a production board of a feature film you’ve seen that there are different color strips for interior or exterior locations. Also listed are characters needed for certain scenes.

It helps producers and production managers get an overall feel of what is needed each day to bring a film in on time and on budget. It also helps a producer who is running over budget to know where to cut. And some contrasts begin to emerge in the story.

Some writers find it helpful to lay out their story in a similar way to see if there are any problems that jump out. Laid out in sequence you can see if there are x-amount of pages where your protagonist isn’t on screen ( a common problem).

Are there too many scenes in a row inside the same house? (Granted this works in a movie like Halloween, but is best to mix it up and move it around.) Let me give you another visual contrast from New Smyrna Beach of a sign a took yesterday.

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The mostly white sign pops against the deep blue sky. Contrasts are used across the board in production from the script, to the way the script is shot and edited.

By contrast I mean things like:
Hot/Cold
Rich/Poor
Big/Small
Light/Dark
Innocent/Guilty

As basic as this is many writers neglect addressing contrast favoring a more intuitive approach. But if we look over at our fellow creatives in the painting field they understand contrast very well. They are deliberate in their approach to color and composition.

Films are a visual medium and audiences enjoy seeing a contrast on screen. This can be seen in the biggest blockbuster of all time in how James Cameron deals with the world of the upper class wealthy and working class represented by Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.

It also contrast the arrogance of those who thought they had built a ship that couldn’t be sunk with the realities of hitting an iceberg. The film deals with a contrast between life & death as the unsinkable ship begins to sink. Another way to look at contrast in this story is wet/dry.

On the Legally Blonde DVD commentary the production designers talk how they designed Reese Witherspoon’s California sorority lifestyle to be a pastel and playful world  to contrast the serious world of East Coast Harvard law school..

In both Jaws and Cold Manor Creek there is a contrast between families leaving the mean evil big cities seeking calm small town living –only to have those small town utopias turn into dangerous places. (Just for the record New Smyrna Beach with all its charm is the shark bite capital of the the US if not the world.)

Romeo & Juliet is the contrasts between two families.

In Fatal Attraction & The Godfather the calm demeanor of the Glenn Close and Marlon Brando characters are just one side of who they are.

Hitchcock built suspense in many a scene and movie using contrasts.

You get the picture. And of course the reasons for the contrast goes back to conflict. (If you a haven’t read the post Everything I learned in Film School (tip #1), that covers much of this ground.)

So the equation looks like this: CONTRAST=CONFLICT

Look for it everywhere in your script.

And look for it when you watch film and TV shows. Watch how they handle contrasts.

When you watch A Place in the Sun look and see how Elizabeth Taylor is dressed compared to Shelly Winters, both of whom are of interest to Montgomery Clift. Listen to the music and sounds associated with each character. Great writers and directors are intentional in their choices.

Watch how directors and directors of photography and editors use wide shots, medium, and close-ups (and some times ultra wide & extreme close-ups) in making a scene effective.

In the circles I travel in we call this shooting a sequence, other people call it coverage. Where you are shooting the same action in wide, medium, and close up shots. Without that coverage you have no contrast and it can make it difficult for an editor to make a scene work.

If photographers don’t have contrasts in their photos they talk about the photo being flat. While at times you can use that to your advantage, it is best to avoid writing flat characters. And the way you do that is adding contrasts to every scene.

Extra Credit: Since the opening quote mentioned My Dinner with Andre, I’d like to know if anyone has heard the rumor that it was written by Wally Shawn in the Black Hawk Hotel in Cedar Fall, IA–not  a half a block from my office. Several people have said that Shawn lived at the Black Hawk Hotel for a time in the 70’s and performed with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I’d like to read some confirmation of that.

Update: The day before I flew back to Iowa it was 80 degree in Orlando and a windchill of minus 20 in Cedar Falls, that’s a 100 degree difference. Quite a contrast indeed.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith˙

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“Let’s talk about something important…coffee’s for closers only.”
Alec Baldwin’s character in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross

“During my time as a studio executive at MGM, I had over three thousand pitch meetings where writers, directors, stars, and producers would try to persuade me to buy their ideas. Most of the time, ideas are pitched poorly.”
Stephanie Palmer

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Are you good in a room?

I mean can you convey those great ideas in your head (or in your script) to group of strangers sitting across from you? Have you thought about how you’re going to connect with them and get them excited enough about your ideas to actually pay you money? That’s what this blog is all about as we interview former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer as she offers advice on how you can improve your chances of selling your screenplay.

As I’ve said before, I started the Screenwriting from Iowa blog a couple of days after seeing the movie Juno and hearing the unlikely story of its screenwriter Diablo Cody. (Who happened to go to college in Iowa and is now known as Oscar-winning Diablo Cody.)

But another piece of the puzzle was writer Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat. I think Blake’s angle on screenwriting is the most refreshing I’ve read in the last decade.

He also has a blog (www.blakesnyder.com) and that’s where I learned about Stephanie’s new book called Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience. Her book is directed toward helping screenwriters, but the book also applies to many business situations.

Stephanie was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions regarding her experiences in Hollywood and I think you’ll find them helpful in your journey.

1) How does one go from being born in Des Moines, Iowa to working on the biggest money-making movie in history (Titanic)?

Thanks so much for asking, Scott.  I’d have to say a combination of luck and hard work.  No one in my Midwestern family worked in Hollywood and I grew up in a house without a TV.  However, I read as many books as I could about the business, went to a great university and then started as an unpaid intern getting coffee, making photocopies and running errands.  Eventually, I worked my way up.  Titanic was just the beginning, but it was an incredible way to start.

2) You went from an unpaid production assistant to MGM Director of Creative Affairs. How did your degree in theater prepare you for that journey?

Well, I didn’t make that jump in one move.  I worked as an assistant for a couple years at Bruckheimer Films and at MGM, though I was given a rare internal promotion from assistant to executive.

In terms of how my theater experience prepared me for the executive side of the business, I think it helped me tremendously.  Many movie executives have backgrounds in business and finance, and sometimes, expertise in these areas is crucial.  However, I think that experience in storytelling is just as valuable.  My theatrical training helps me understand the challenges that creative people face.  With my knowledge of plays and experience directing and producing them, I have a wider body of knowledge to draw upon when developing a script or solving a production problem.

3) Carnegie Mellon has a long tradition of actors in Hollywood, did you find that being from Pittsburgh actually helped you after you moved to LA?

Being part of a network is always important, and so is having perspective.  Certainly, graduating from Carnegie Mellon put me in touch with previous graduates, one of whom helped me get my first job.  So that was incredibly important.  As well, coming from Pittsburgh, I was steeped in a culture that was more down-to-earth.  So when I got to LA, I had some perspective on the insanity.

4) In your time at MGM what did you learn that surprised you most about screenwriters?

How unprepared they were for meetings.  The fact is that the skills and talents required to come up with a great idea are different from the skills required to present it.  However, the skills that allow you to pitch effectively and with confidence can be learned by anyone.  I’ve seen the most shy, awkward people become good in a room—not because they transformed their personalities and became charismatic extroverts—but because they practiced the right techniques and developed their own style.

5) Now you have a consulting firm and have written a book called Good in a Room. Why is it important for a screenwriter to be good in a room if they’ve written a solid script?

Even great ideas don’t sell themselves because decision-makers generally don’t just buy scripts.  They invest in people who have great ideas.  Selling yourself is crucial to the success of your project.  When you sell something, you will be asked to make changes, adapt to new circumstances, and work with people whose opinions may differ from your own—for at least a year, if not more.  Therefore, before saying “Yes” to you and buying your script, the decision-maker needs to know if they like you, trust you, and can rely on you during the challenging process of making a movie.

6) A question that every writer outside of LA is interested in is “How does one get in the room in the first place?”

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different routes by which people have been successful.  Consider the story of Juno, where the writer of the script (Diablo Cody) was found by a producer who was just surfing the web, came across her site, and asked her if she’d written a screenplay.  To borrow from the cliché, she wrote something great and the world beat a path to her door.  I have seen that happen many times.

Of course, not every great writer gets discovered.  These days, to get in the room, at some point, you have to go where the meetings are actually happening.  This means… and I hesitate to say this… living in or near Los Angeles.  In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.  Everyone else needs to be ready to jump on opportunities when they happen.

I know that not everyone will want to move to LA, and it doesn’t seem fair to require it.  Why can’t you just write something fantastic and sell it?  Because studios and production companies aren’t just investing in your idea—they’re investing in YOU.  And if you’re not local, the perception is that you are not as committed to career as your competition.  It’s much more challenging to fulfill your function as part of the creative team.  Plus, you will have a harder time building your network and developing the relationships which help you get into the room in the first place.

7) Any closing advice for the writers in Iowa, India and other places beyond LA?

No matter where you live, you can develop your craft and learn how to present your ideas effectively.  One way to stay current is to subscribe to my free online newsletter, where twice a month I’ll send you a quick tip to help you refine and hone your meeting technique.  You can sign up at www.goodinaroom.com.  That way, when you do get that big meeting, instead of hoping that your script will do all the work (like most writers), you’ll confidently present both yourself and your ideas.  That’s what being good in a room is all about.


POSTSCRIPT
After I first posted this blog I heard from a writer in Minneapolis who was discouraged by Stephanie’s comment about screenwriters having to live in or near L.A.  Stephanie also said that, “In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.” It’s fair to say it makes the odds a little tougher on the L.A. outsiders if you go the studio route.

But there are other people around the country–around the world–who are writing and making films outside that system so don’t be discouraged. In fact, read my blog titled “Screenwriting from Ireland” that talks about the movie Once.  And this is as good a time as any to pull out a nugget I’ve been holding for the right moment and now seems as good as any.

Early in this blog I mentioned screenwriter & Save the Cat author Blake Snyder.  I asked Blake a while back if he had any encouraging words for screenwriters outside L.A. and here’s Blake’s response:
“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ’em!”

And the LA Times just reported that Brad Ingelsby, a 27-year-old who lives in the Philadelphia area with his parents and sells insurance for his father, just sold a script for $650,000 against $1.1 million. And just for the Midwest fans, the movie is set in Indiana. (I first learned about the Philadelphia sale via a helpful screenwriting site called mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com.)

While selling insurance, I bet Ingelsby learned a thing or two about being good in a room. And, hey, if money is what drives you…I’m pretty sure the average insurance salesman makes more than the average screenwriter.

STEPHANIE PALMER helps creative professionals who want to perform better in high-stakes meetings, set up projects, secure financing, and receive better assignments for more money.  As the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM, she acquired screenplays, books, and pitches and supervised their development, including 21, Legally Blonde, Be Cool and Agent Cody Banks.  She has been featured on NBC’s Today, CBS’s Early Show, NPR, and in the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Good in a Room: How To Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience

Related Post: Learning to be “Good in a Room” (Part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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