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Posts Tagged ‘Rotten Tomatoes’

“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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“I love the concept that your friends, your neighbors, the people you know best and trust most become your enemies, and that’s a pure, primal concept that digs deep into the soul and human psyche and human fear. I thought, what a great subject to explore.” 
Director Breck Eisner
(A quote not about a documentary on the Hollywood film industry, but the concept behind his film The Crazies)

Last night I went to see The Crazies, the first full-bore Hollywood feature that was shot & widely released as a part of the Iowa film incentives. (Yes, the ones that are fading away.) I’m not really into the zombie-like thing but was pleasantly surprised how good the film was and how enjoyable it was to watch. (72% on the T-meter over at Rotten Tomatoes and a healthy box-office.)

The cast led by Timothy Olyphant was super and the pacing of the movie was excellent. Screenwriters Scott Kosar and  Ray Wright set the George Romero remake in a small town in Iowa. The Midwest peacefulness was shattered from the start when the first crazy walks onto a little league baseball field with a shotgun. It was an effective way to set the tone early. Some stories need a little setting up, but like Jaws, The Crazies sprints out of the gate and never really stops until the end.

I didn’t know until after the film was over that former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s son, Breck Eisner, directed the film. Turns out the director who is in his mid-thirties is a USC film school grad and spent 10 years directing big budget commercials as well as some TV programs and the film Sahara starring Matthew McConaughey. Even though he’s Michael Eisner’s son (which I’m sure has its advantages and disadvantages) he’s still been at it for 15 years as he develops his craft. (A favorite theme of mind.)

“The greatest moviegoing experience of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe just after Star Wars. So there was an element in me who as a kid just loved those kinds of movies and was excited to make one. When it came to The Crazies, getting an opportunity to do a darker, more intimate, character-based, more personal movie was something I really jumped at and wanted to do. It’s much looser, much more intimate – it’s a completely different type of movie, for sure. It’s not about scope; I really got to dive into character and relationships and really spend time in those worlds.

But still, shooting horror is like shooting action. They’re very closely-related cousins. You’ve got an action sequence, it’s built up, you’ve got a number of shots to build up to the big climax, and then you quickly resolve it and hopefully do a couple of spins on the way. With horror it’s the same way – it’s all about the suspense, it’s all about the pieces and shots and angles and how you build up to the big climax and the resolution, so it’s a similar muscle that’s flexed.”
Breck Eisner
Cinematical interview with Todd Gilchrist

Scott W. Smith

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“It still boggles my mind that people went to movie theaters to go see a movie about corn.”
Aaron Woolf (on his film King Corn)

On Saturday, while on a flight from Des Moines to Detroit, I met documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf. He was in Iowa to show one of his films at The Fleur Cinema & Cafe. (The Fleur is a funky little theater that is supportive of the arts and helping develop local talent. Over the years I’ve had several short films shown there.)

This wasn’t Woolf’s first trip to Iowa. Before he moved to New York, he received an MFA in Film from the University of Iowa. He also produced & directed the 2007 Peabody Award-winning documentary King Corn which was shot in Greene, Iowa. King Corn played in theaters and on PBS. Woolf gave me a DVD of Big River which he produced as companion to King Corn. Big River also features Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who were the two young men in King Corn who set out to see what happens when one tries to farm one arce of corn.

King Corn is still off many people’s radar but  it did receive a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune wrote that the film was,  “A breezy diary from a pair of first-time farmers, as well as a wry rebuke to a nation devoted to eating cheaply but not necessarily well.” After seeing the film, you may never hear or read about high-fructose corn syrup without thinking about Iowa.

Woolf’s narrow focus on making a film about corn is part of a strategy that Woolf thinks is good advice for documentary filmmakers:

“Find the smallest focus possible for your film…In our case, it turned out that even the story of one acre of corn was a colossal topic, and we were still left with dozens of storylines that died a lonely death on the cutting room floor.”
Aaron Woolf
Independent Lens

Woolf’s latest documentary is Beyond Motor City, a 90-minute look at the rise, fall & future of Detroit. The film will air on PBS February 8, 2010.

Scott W. Smith

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“Anything that comes to me from the Los Angeles zip code is subjected to a 99% skepticism test.”
Walter Kirn
author Up in the Air

My third look at the film Up in the Air involves a closer look at the original writer of the book (Walter Kirn) that inspired director Jason Reitman to make the film. Kirn has solid Midwest roots being born in Ohio and raised in Minnesota. Though a jock in school he was also aware of the talents of the St. Paul writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). And he was smart enough to go to Princeton University where Fitzgerald attended for a while.

Kirn graduated from college in 1983 and moved to New York and ended up writing for a variety of magazines and published his first of several books in 1990.  His book Thumbsucker was made into a movie in 2005 starring Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn. Along the way he moved west to Livingston, Montana and married the daughter of actress Margot Kidder and writer Thomas McGuane. Kidder is most known for her role in Superman and McGuane for his book Ninety-Two in the Shade. Though now divorced from his wife, it would be interesting to know how the relationship with Thomas McGuane influenced Kirn’s writing development over the years.

I remember become aware of McGuane in the 70s from stories about his hanging out in Key West with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Tennessee Williams.  In fact, Buffett has a song on the soundtrack of the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe that starred Jeff Bridges and was written by McGuane. It’s not a surprise that Kirn lives in Montana as it has a rich tradition of literary talent.  I grew up on Buffett’s early music which often had references to places in Montana like Missoula, Livingston, and Ringling, and was taken by the place and I finally got to visit the place in 1984. It’s a state built for reflecting on life. Something Kirn seems to have a knack for.

(If my facts are correct, Thomas McGuane married Jimmy Buffett’s sister in the 70s, so while Kirn was married to McGuane’s daughter he and Buffett were related.)

One thing is for sure, if Up in the Air, is nominated for an Academy Award then Kirn will have fared better in dealing with Hollywood than both Fitzgerald and McGuane. And much of that credit goes to director Reitman.

Up in the Air was first published in 2001 and was selling well until September 11, 2001 when like a lot of things the sales just dropped off. Though Kirn’s book was optioned and he had written a script based on the book it seemed doomed to never be made. But after a few years of laying dormant the book’s stock was back on the rise. Kirn writes;

“The ascent commenced with a brief email from Jason Reitman, a thirtyish film director who, at the time he wrote me, was not well known, but would soon become famous for his first two movies: Thank You for Smoking and Juno. He was writing a script from my novel, he informed me, and would get back in touch when he was finished. Right. Heard that one. Though another one of my novels, Thumbsucker, had by then become an indie, I knew from experience—my own and others’—that when Hollywood promises to get back to you, it’s best not to wait by the phone. You’ll starve to death.”

It would still be a few years before Reitman would finish the script and then several months after that when George Clooney came on board to star in the film. Kirn was starting to believe the film might actually get made. And once the film finally did get made he had a simple prayer request before he viewed the film for the first time, “Please let this not be crap.”

His prayer seems to be answered. The film is not crap, and has garnered solid reviews across the board. (91% from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes.)

“Up in the Air is a defining movie for these perilous times.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

And while the film is different from the book in many ways Kirn is glad that the DNA of the book is intact.

“(Up in the Air), which I started writing at the peak of the dot-com mania, was conceived, in part, as a morality tale about the spiritual distortions forced upon people by techno-capitalism. It was also a satirical treatment of the drive to pile up useless wealth. But mostly it was a character study of someone (or a class of someones) who I felt was invisible in literature despite being all around me in real life: the pretzel-eating, mini-bar-raiding nomad, his existence pared down to a single carry-on, but his soul the same size as everyone else’s.”
Jason Reitman
George Clooney Saved My Novel
The Daily Beast

Perhaps the film resonates with me because Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham is a character I recognize from my travels—perhaps even in myself. I flown enough over the years to earn enough frequent flyer miles to fly free to Alaska, Hawaii and Europe. On one trip to the west coast I remember being gone from home for three weeks for productions in San Diego/Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. A friend said to me on that trip, “Don’t you hate traveling?” I remember thinking, “I could live my whole life on the road.” Up in the Air is an exploration of one such character who does just that and it ends up being a reflection on our culture.

Of course, once Reitman finally got the script to the point where it could actually get made, he had to make the film and did a super job of guiding the solid cast that included Clooney, Vera Farming, Anna Kendick, and Jason Bateman.

It’s a fitting end to 2009 to be talking about another Jason Reitman film. For it was his movie Juno, based on Diablo Cody’s script (as well as her life’s story that included a stint here in Iowa) that inspired this blog in the first place. (See post Juno Has Another Baby.) Kirn sounds a lot like Cody when he talks about the Reitman’s film based on his story, “Sometimes miracles happen and this was one of them.”

Happy New Year.

Scott W. Smith


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jdpps.gif VS.      VeggieTales Pirate Do you think when Johnny Depp is home in France with his kids they sit around and watch VeggieTales videos? It’s possible. He may even like the videos more than the rest of his family.

But the real question is in a swashbuckling ultimate fight could Depp’s pirate character Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies take on Bob the Tomato of the recent release The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie?
That could remain one of life’s great mysteries –like could Rocky Graziano beat Ali? Or how did Marilyn Monroe really die?
Where better to find out how Bob the Tomato would fare against Jack Sparrow than to ask Phil Vischer, the creator of the animated VeggieTales and voice of Bob the Tomato? “Bob’s lack of hands certainly doesn’t help much in hand-to-hand combat situations, but I believe Bob could outwit Jack and confuse him using only his wit superior intellect,” said Vischer.
Vischer was raised in Muscatine, Iowa. Known as the former button capital of America. It’s the town that Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi, “I remember Muscatine —still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them.”
That quote alone should make you take stock of your perceptions of fly-over country in general and Iowa specifically. I’m serious when I say I hope to encourage writers and filmmakers outside of L.A. and I thought it would be good to talk to Vischer about his work and to plug his new film in theaters.
If you are not familiar with VeggieTales it’s important to know that Vischer lead a team that created the most successful direct-to-video series in history. More than 50 million units have been sold since 1993. In its prime Vischer turned down a $20 million offer for the animated vegetable franchise.
Vischer has had an amazing career since launching what would become Big Idea Productions at age 22. He’s been an actor, writer, composer and/or producer on more than 30 VeggieTales videos including the 2002 feature released nationally Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
Jonah’s box-office numbers surprised some in a Hollywood because it was a faith-based kids film. Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote in his book Purple Cow, “As I write this…the number-two movie in America is a low-budget animated movie in which talking vegetables act out Bible stories.” (In Godin lingo Bob the Tomato is a good example of a purple cow, i.e. something different that gets people’s attention.)
Unfortunately, the film didn’t do well enough to offset some problems that would eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the company. You can read Vischer’s account in his book, Me, Myself, & Bob – A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Vischer Book
(Does anyone else think Vischer looks a little like Steven Jobs’ younger brother?)
Remember that not all your screenwriting has to be for the big screen. There are many avenues for your writing. Vischer started small and just got bigger and bigger and was well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming the next Walt Disney.
But like a scene out of a VH1 Behind the Scene special, (cue the music) “Then one day….”And just like that his dream was gone.
In his book he lists as the #5 thing he learned from that experience, “Bigger is no longer better.” Didn’t Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire say the same thing in his mission statement? Vischer had a painful front row seat to watch his dream fade away and the company eventually changed hands.
But when dreams die (as they are prone to do), new ones spring up from the ashes.
Vischer still lives in the Chicago area and continues to work on VeggieTales productions as well as having a multiple-vegetable personality doing the voices of several characters. He’s also started a new company Jellyfish and keeps a blog at PhilVischer.com.
I’ve had the privilege to talk with Phil at gatherings in Denver and Chicago and have even had the opportunity to work on a couple small projects for him. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for Screenwriting from Iowa.
Q. There used to be a Heinz ketchup factory in Muscatine, Iowa while you where growing up. Is there any connection there between that fact and your creating Bob the Tomato?
Vischer: “No, I don’t think so. I actually came up with Larry the Cucumber first, then was looking for a complimentary shape for a sidekick. Tomatoes and cucumbers seemed to go together like Laurel and Hardy.”
Q. Have you gone online to Rotten Tomatoes and seen how the film has done on the tomatometer?
Vischer: “But of course!”
Q. One tomatometer critic wrote: “I have to admit that this animated VeggieTales endeavor is far more entertaining and artistically competent than anything offered in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.”
Vischer: “Yeah, that quote kind of surprised me. Overall, the reviews are pretty mixed, which is certainly more than you can say for the Alvin & the Chipmunks. Of course, most filmmakers would give up good reviews for $200 million at the box office!”
Q. Screenwriter/novelist Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition) lives in Muscatine, Iowa. What’s in the water there that would inspire Bob the Tomato’s creator and foster another writer known for pulp fiction and crime noir?
Vischer: “Um… I think it’s the tomato residue from the Heinz plant. Or perhaps the corn residue from the Kent Feed plant.”
Q. Any advice or encouragement for screenwriters living outside L.A.?
Vischer: “Screenwriting is a beautiful thing, in that you can live anywhere, and work on a project anywhere. And living in a non-Hollywood locale gives you the benefit of being able to write stories outside the Hollywood norm. The Coen brothers channeling their Minnesota childhoods into their film Fargo is a great example. It’s very hard to imagine a Los Angeleno writing that film with anywhere near the authenticity. Interesting stories come from interesting places!”
In the coming years you’ll hear a lot from Vischer. Support a fellow writer and take your little band of pirates to see The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie. And don’t forget to catch one of those Mississippi River sunsets in Muscatine.
© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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