Saturday, 27 February 2010

A month that ended with me shouting a lot....

So I spent an hour on the phone on Friday night having a very heated argument over the fact that I've just wasted a month writing a script no one wants. But that's not really safe to talk about yet. Instead here's a story from last year about another wasted month that made me about as angry then as I am right now.

To make things easier and so I don't have to tip-toe around mentioning anybody's names I'm going to call the collective entity I worked with on this particular project Jeff. For the purposes of this story Jeff is both the writer and the producer/director, though in reality Jeff was two separate people.

The first time I became aware of Jeff was at a party in Cannes, which I talk about here. I only really became aware of him as someone who stood around drinking while the majority of us were helping to clean up. Little did I know then that we would soon be working together.

Later in the year a production company I'm working with sends me a script. It's written by Jeff. They are possibly going to put some money in but have asked for my opinion on the script first. So I read it.

The script is awful. It's 148 pages long for a start. Now I have to be careful here as the latest draft of one of my scripts I've been rewriting since last year is 130 pages. And as much as I know 130 pages is too long I'm reluctant to cut anything at the moment because most of it is a) good stuff even if I do say so myself and b) it's stuff that other people I'm working with suggested I put in. So yes, sometimes scripts will be longer than the recommended 120 pages and that doesn't always mean they are terrible. But this wasn't the only problem.

I can't really go into the story although I'm not sure why anyone would want to rip it off, but there were two major issues - genre and character. The genre was martial arts. It was a film about a martial arts tournament. There is no way you could possibly call it anything else. Martial arts films are not two and a half hours long. There are exceptions - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the obvious one. A Touch of Zen is over three hours, but it's three hours of awesomeness. This script was not 148 pages of awesomeness. There was an easier way to do it. There was a way to cut it to 90 pages and make a solid martial arts film. But Jeff didn't want to do that. He thought martial arts films were trashy and didn't want to be told that he'd written one. Jeff was convinced that this script was Fight Club (which, incidentally, is a 150 page script. I checked hoping it was much shorter so I could use it to argue my case).

Again, I want to stress that I'm not saying genre films can't be interesting because my opinion as a fan is completely the opposite of that. I consider genre films to have just as much right to be called art as anything else and I think they often have a lot more to say than their more worthy counterparts, even if they didn't necessarily intend to say it. Interestingly I'm also having the same problem with the script I'm working on right now. It is a genre film, there is an easier way to do it that would make it 90 pages but less interesting and we've chosen to focus on the characters more than the genre elements. It's a problem I understand. But it doesn't make Jeff's script any better.

Onto those characters I mentioned. There was no central protagonist, that role was split between three people. That can certainly work, but here only one of those protagonists actually did anything and the other two took turns at taking up meaningless screentime. The female protagonist took a lot of drugs (a lot of research had clearly gone into this as the descriptions went on forever) and got raped a lot. Worst of all, none of the characters had changed by the end - they were miserable and directionless at the beginning and all three ended up the same way.

The other character problem was to do with the antagonist. This role was split between two characters but their relationship was almost impossible to understand. They were rivals in one scene, they worked for each other in another scene, it was never clear what they were supposed to be doing and worst of all they were in the script more than the protagonists. I later found out that while only one of the protagonists had been cast (one of which Jeff was going to play which is perhaps a source of the problems) the biggest names Jeff had managed to attach to the project were going to play the two bad guys. And they had read the latest version of the script and agreed to do it based on this version (presumably they just looked at how many pages their characters appeared in rather than actually reading it). So it became a film about the bad guys who did lots of drugs and violence and raping and yet they took up half the script in a way that suggested we should care about them. And again there was no development here, they started out one way and they ended up the same way.

So those were the fundamental problems. Here's the problem with the actual script itself. In fact it's probably easier if I just show you. This is a sample scene and it's one that's been done a billions times before (so it's funny to find it here, in a script that is apparently not a martial arts film). In this scene a trainer meets with a down-and-out fighter and asks him to take part in a tournament. It should be a single page long, if that. This scene was 6 pages long. Here's an extract. I realise I'm on possibly dodgy ground here so the character names and odd bits of dialogue have been changed, but otherwise this is all as it appeared in the script.

The scene takes place in a diner. We'll call the fighter Jim Awesome and the trainer Captain Plot:

Jim Awesome and Captain Plot are sitting at a table. The Waitress (woman, late 40s, stocky, resolute, motherly type) comes to the their table.

(removes a notepad from her apron and a pen from behind her ear)
Hi, what'll it be?

I'd like a small “Big double Cheese Burger”

I'm sorry, we don't do that in small. Otherwise it'd be called “small” instead of “big”.

Oh, hmm ...
(studies the menu)
Do you have something similar to the “Big double Cheese Burger”, just a little smaller?

JIM AWESOME hunches down over the menu and tries to ignore the two of them.

(blowing out of the corner of her mouth in an annoyed way)
(pointing to the open menu in front of Captain Plot with her pen)
Why don't you take the "extra spicy cheesy cheese" then.

Oh, that sounds delicious!
But with an extra helping of mustard.
Mh, wait. No. Make it BBQ sauce.

JIM AWESOME looks around, embarrassed.

(jotting, now more annoyed)
Anything else?

Yeah, those crispy little potatoes.

(bored, writing)
"farmer wedges"

Yeah, exactly. And a lemonade
and sour cream.
Say, is the sour cream low cholesterol?

(shouting in the direction of the kitchen)

(giving Captain Plot a warning dirty look, then talking quickly to the waitress)
It's okay, it's okay. Just bring it. And get me the same, but without sauce.

The WAITRESS turns and leaves.

Jim Awesome, how's little Sally Exposition doing?

Haven't seen her for years. Seems she lives with her new flame now, some rich guy.

The drinks arrive.

(slurping his lemonade)
But wasn't she married to that musician Glenn Character Who'll Never be Mentioned Again?

That was her first husband.

The food arrives. CAPTAIN PLOT carefully flattens his burger with his hand. The sauce drips out, he licks all his fingers and presses down on the burger again. JIM AWESOME watches him, puzzled and disgusted.

(looks at JIM AWESOME'S plate)
Oh shit, you got my burger. Can we swap, please?

I don't think I want to swap.

JIM AWESOME bites into burger quickly. Both munch up their burgers. CAPTAIN PLOT SMACKS his lips and licks his fingers at intervals. CHOMPING, CAPTAIN PLOT sticks his hand into his pocket and pulls out a creased piece of paper.

(smacking and chewing, lays the paper on the table in front of JIM AWESOME)
I almost forgot.
(licks his thumb clean)
Here, I've got something for you!

(glances quickly at the paper, bites into his burger and asks nonchalantly)
What's that?

And what follows is a load more exposition about the tournament. This is a particularly bad example of the kind of writing that continued throughout the script. And in case you're laughing along with the scene and thinking this is good character building stuff for Captain Plot, he doesn't really appear in the script too much after this moment and certainly doesn't get any more 'comedy' dialogue. It's a waste of pages that should've been used to set up the underdeveloped Jim Awesome character if at all. But maybe I'm wrong, maybe I just don't know good writing when I see it and if that's the case send me an e-mail and I'll put you in touch with Jeff. Although you may not want to work with Jeff after I explain what happened next.

So I go back with my extensive notes. Jeff agrees with some but is mostly defensive about his script. The production company I'm working with agree with all of it and tell Jeff they'll only get involved if he lets me rewrite the script. Jeff isn't happy with this. He wants to come over to England to work with me on the script. He means literally that Jeff will be in my room standing over my shoulder while we go through pages and pages like the scene above with me trying to make them better and him telling me why they work as they are. I've got no interest in doing this. We come to a compromise - Jeff will come over and we'll discuss the script in person before he decides whether he's happy to let me rewrite it.

So Jeff arrives and is in town for three days. We have an intensive meeting about the script going through all the issues I've raised. Most of the problem seems to be the amount of research that has gone into it, so all my issues are met with 'but that's how it really is'. And yet despite all that this is not a gritty, dramatic depiction of real-life events, it's a martial arts film. Eventually we agree that I will go away and rewrite the script but that there are several things I can't change, most importantly the amount of screentime the two antagonists get.

In the following weeks there's some negotiation about agreements until a deal is eventually reached. Again, I can't go into too much detail but essentially I'll get a fee upfront and then a bit more later on. It's the fee upfront bit that's important. And what I did next.

Due to a combination of naivety and bad advice I went ahead with the rewrite. I didn't see that it was going to be a problem. I'd invoiced Jeff for the initial fee, everyone seemed to be on good terms and it was all fresh in my head so I wanted to get on with it. Added to that, I was due to go on holiday in a month and didn't want it hanging over me while I was away. So I did it. I spent a month on the script and what came out at the other end was shorter, more efficient and generally better. It still had problems due to the things I couldn't change and the fact that I didn't want to rewrite the whole thing from page 1 as that wasn't the deal, but it was much better script. And then I waited for the fee I should've already been paid by then.

I won't go into too much detail here as this is the part that gets really frustrating. I spoke to Jeff several times over the next few months and there was always some excuse about not getting my e-mails or having to wait for people in his office to get back from a break or something stupid. Behind the scenes what had happened was that the deal with the production company hadn't quite worked out, and if that wasn't going through then they didn't need my rewrite. And if they didn't need my rewrite why should I get paid? Well, obviously I should get paid because I had a signed agreement that said I would. But that didn't seem to matter anymore.

So I chased it to the point that I threatened collections agencies, but after that it turned into something where I would need to put in my own money to pursue what I was owed. The fee wasn't all that much really so after a few months of chasing I let it go.

What did we learn from this, kids? There's the obvious one, that if you're offered money upfront wait until you get it before doing any work. But there's another lesson here too, and one I didn't learn at the time because I still got into a situation this year that ended with me shouting down the phone on Friday night. And that's to not get involved with people or projects you don't like the look of from the beginning. It's not worth the hassle.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

If only all music videos were like this one...

Been too busy to blog recently with finishing off one script, writing the first draft of another and finalising wedding plans, but I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors last night and had to post this:

Wow. All film-related music videos should be like that one.

Enjoyed the film a lot too, although it's definitely when the series stops being scary and becomes more about spectacle. If it wasn't so violent it would actually play quite well as a Goonies/Monster Squad kids adventure film. It's a pretty satisfying sequel and builds upon the ideas and characters from the first film really well. I particularly liked John Saxon's role where he gets some closure on his character. But the strongest element of the film has to be the effects and there are all kinds on display here from stop-motion animation to an early example of CGI. Some of it looks a bit clunky now but when it works it works really well. And when it doesn't work it's still pretty satisfying to watch in a nostalgic way.

Also made the effort and saw one of the 'Oscar' films, A Single Man, on Friday. Colin Firth was awesome and should win if only because he seems like a nice bloke and he's been awesome in a lot of things. The first half of the film was also awesome and looked great and had some interesting moments. But after that it just seemed to lose all of its momentum and seemed to almost forget what the story was about - I certainly had at that point. I haven't read the book but it's one of those adaptations where I can see how it would work as a novel but somehow just doesn't translate to screen. And therefore it's an 'Oscar' film - a film that looks great and has an amazing central performance that I will probably never watch again.

Also, lots of my friends have been doing cool stuff...

My friend (and soon to be Best Man) Geraint got to the finals for the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry last year. Here he is performing:

Another university friend, John, directed an adaptation of Huckleberry Finn which I saw in Ipswich last week. It was really well staged and the performances were awesome so I recommend checking it out if you can make it to any of the shows. Full details of the tour are here.

Two Brighton bands I know have been nominated for an Emerging Talent Award. This posed something of a dilemma because you can only vote for one. I won't tell you which I voted for, but here's a music video for both so you can decide whether you want to vote for one of them too (which would be awesome of you) and if so which one:

Here's Child of Nicotine by The Badje, a couple of whom were in my class at Brighton Film School:

Support The Badje in the Emerging Talent Awards

And partly as an excuse to post Brother Pete's music video again, here's Soldier by Bitter Ruin:

Support Bitter Ruin in the Emerging Talent Awards

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Antichrist & the Oscars...

Saw Nicholas Roeg give a talk in Brighton last night. After we watched a few clips from his films he was asked what he thought watching them now and he said 'I'm just glad we managed to get them made'. It's somehow reassuring to know that even films that influential and iconic were tough to get off the ground.

So I'm still rewriting the script I was rewriting all over Christmas - I'm hoping it does make it into production at some point because I think that's the only thing that will break the cycle! I finished draft 10 the other night and as I was sending it off to those concerned starting thinking of things that were wrong with it and things I could work on in the next draft. Which I think may go on forever until someone stops me.

Thought I'd give my limited opinion on the Oscar nominations although I've not seen many of the films this year. I like the Oscars. I know it's all a bit daft and doesn't really mean anything in the real world or even in determining whether a film is any good or not, but I like that for one day of the year films are suddenly more important than anything else. I even like the cheesiness and people going on and on about 'the magic of cinema' and celebrities fumbling over auto cues that attempt to explain the more technical awards to thick people. And I like the dead people bit, although there always seems to be some controversial omission.

So this year, in attempt to make up for not nominating The Dark Knight last year (which was stupid as it was better than all the other best picture nominations) there are ten nominations for best picture. Which is confusing. I like the idea of it, I like that the nominations won't just be 'Oscar' films (by 'Oscar' film I mean a film that seems to have only been made to win Oscars and though they look pretty and are full of worthy performances they'll be forgotten about before the next awards season) and there is some genre stuff in there too. But it's confusing and it makes me think about all the films that haven't been nominated in the past.

The problem is, it's been a bad year for big movies. District 9 is good, but it's really just a strong example of a good genre film. Paranormal Activity is also a good example of a strong genre film, but is not nominated. So is Star Trek for that matter and that isn't up for Best Picture. Avatar is an example of a fairly average genre film and should not be nominated outside the technical categories, in my opinion. And to be honest I think Watchmen was more of a spectacle so why isn't that on the list?

The point is, it just opens up a can of worms. As you are probably aware, I'm a huge horror fan so if we're saying anything can be nominated where are all the horror films? Can we go back in time and nominate The Mist for best picture? It certainly deserved it. How about Martyrs for best Foreign Language Film? And if we're saying sci-fi is now Oscar-safe, where's Moon? Moon was way better than Avatar, and arguably better than District 9 as well as being more Oscar-friendly, and yet there's not even a nomination for Sam Rockwell who deserves to win an Oscar just for accumulated awesomeness. If the trend for only nominating 'Oscar' films is considered a bad thing then this isn't doing anything to stop it - it feels like a patronising nod to to non-'Oscar' films to say 'we acknowledge that some other films came out but they've got no chance of winning'. And if it goes the other way, if Avatar wins Best Picture that will be no good either because it's a very average film. Yes, it did amazingly well and yes it has advanced film-making technology but have these things ever been important to the Best Picture winner before?

Some other thoughts...

I do think District 9 should win in the best adapted screenplay category because it's rare a film as tightly structured as that ever gets nominated. The scripts of most 'Oscar' films are incredibly flabby and this is one of the first that's as tight as we're all told film scripts should be.

Christoph Waltz is awesome and should definitely win best supporting actor.

Coraline should win Best Animation but it's up against some 'worthy' competition so I'm not too sure of its chances.

The thing I'm most happy about is that the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack is nominated, partly because Hans Zimmer is awesome and should've been nominated for the Dark Knight soundtrack, but mostly because it's a really good soundtrack. It's interesting and experimental and while it complements the film perfectly it's also a really good soundtrack to listen to outside of the film. Good for writing to anyway. I never thought it would actually get nominated because like Moon it really deserves it so I thought it would be omitted. I've been proved wrong, now I just hope it wins.

Also, Antichrist which I just saw the other day should be up for something, even if it's just Best Director. I like Lars Von Trier, and I also hate a lot of his films and that's kind of why I like him. I was a massive fan of The Kingdom, loved Europa, The Five Obstructions and Element of Crime but Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Breaking the Waves made me angry. And I mean they actually made me angry, not that I just didn't like them. Which I later realised was probably the intention and began to appreciate the fact that he'd provoked a strong reaction, even if it was a negative one.

I think Antichrist is kind of the perfect Von Trier film. It's powerful and challenging and definitely raises some interesting issues but at the same time it maintains a consistently creepy atmosphere and has some great horror moments. As I've said a few times I'm a huge fan of horror films that take themselves seriously, and this one certainly does that. It's also the first film in ages that actually made me look away from the screen a couple of times. I'm actually kind of glad I missed it at the cinema, although at the same time I can see moments of it would work spectacularly well on a big screen.

There are also rumours that Von Trier's company, Zentropa, are developing a video game of the film. I am very excited.