Thursday, November 08, 2007

On screenwriting format and queries

Every time I say, "This will probably be my last post for a while," I end up writing a few more posts before finally breaking away from my computer. But with the strike, it's a strange, uncertain time, and writing here gives me a little comfort through the chaos. I've spent so much energy on reading and reviewing scripts these last few months, I haven't really talked about writing itself. So here I go...

There are scores of books out right now on how to write a great screenplay. Each one of them dishes out advice on structure, character, dialogue, blah blah blah. Some are more useful than others, true, but before you whip out your Borders or Barnes & Noble club cards, ask yourself: Have any of these self-proclaimed "experts" ever had one of their scripts actually produced?

(I throw that question out there with a bit of sarcasm. For here I, "The Unsung Critic," who may write somewhat condescendingly about other people's work, have yet to have any of my own work produced!)

I happen to believe that there is no gauranteed path to screenwriting success. No book or teacher can make you a great writer. Sure, they may impart wisdom and sage advice, but if you want to improve as a writer, sit down and write, write, write. Write until your mind hurts. Until your fingers are numb. And most importantly, get feedback on your writing. An objective, sincere opinion can do more wonders for improving your work than any class. (Even if it is that
$10,000 class offered by Michael Wilde.)

Only you can make yourelf a great writer. But there are things -- easy and inexpensive to get -- that can make you a better writer.

First, if you're looking to learn more about proper screenplay format, let me recommend THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE by David Trottier. (I've never met Trottier, so don't think that he's paying me to say this.) It's a really great resource in the technical part of screenwriting, from how to break down a scene to the nitty-gritty of writing descriptions and action -- most valuable to novice and spec script writers, though I still refer to it myself from time to time. It also has a very useful section on how to write a good query...

Speaking of good queries, let me share with you Adam McDaniel's query for his script,
HEAVEN SPENT. It's pretty well written, so much so that when it came time to publish the novel, the text was basically recycled for the book's back cover.

When Micah Cohen was five years old, he lost his parents to a horrible accident. He was convinced he would have died himself, had it not been for his guardian angel -- in the form of a little girl he never saw again.

Now, over twenty years later, Micah is living in the frenzy of Manhattan. With Christmas right around the corner and no one to share it with -- add a thankless job, no close family or friends, Micah believes that his life has become too hard, his existence too inconsequential. Sadly, he decides to end it all...but the attempt fails ridiculously.

That's just when Coltan pops up in the middle of Micah's living room. Possessing supernatural powers and a sadistic sense of humor, this bumbling "agent for
the afterlife" has come to collect Micah's soul. But there are two slight problems: Micah is still alive, and now has second thoughts about committing suicide. Reluctantly, Coltan must admit defeat.

Rejuvenated by his new lease on life, Micah's determined to set things right. One good thing comes in the form of Christine, a young homeless woman he befriends. But soon Micah learns that she is more than she appears to be: his childhood guardian angel, now grown up. (Naturally, they can't help but risk upsetting the cosmic order of the universe by falling in love.)

Yet this happiness may be fleeting. Just as Micah realizes how wonderful his life has become, Coltan reappears to inform him that his days are now numbered -- for Death Itself is hunting Micah down. And so Christine, ever the dutiful protector, must prepare to do battle over Micah's soul.

Can she save him? What does Death have in store? And who -- or what -- is Coltan? Is he really working for Death as he claims, or a force far, far more terrifying?

HEAVEN SPENT is a darkly satirical, modern-day urban fairy tale concerning the adventures of a young man coming to terms with life, death, and all their crummy consequences.

I liked this query because it's clear, concise, has a bit of a dramatic buildup, and ends with a light touch of whimsy. It's not a summary of the story so much as a sly sales pitch, enticing people to actually want to read it. Best of all, it doesn't get too bogged down in describing all of the story's subplots, and it doesn't give everything away.

On that note, keep your own queries coming! After I get back from NYC I'll have a bit of time on my hands.

Small wonder.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

HEAVEN SPENT by Adam McDaniel

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write about this, the 2nd place winner of our 2007 screenwriting contest.

The last week has been a nightmare. I’m sure many of you can understand. Yesterday was spent at one of the WGA picket lines (I dare not say which), and I have to put in a few more hours this week. I’ll be off to New York next week visiting some long unseen relatives, so this may be my last post for awhile.

Had I not known HEAVEN SPENT was written almost ten years ago (
and already featured in another script review), I might have been suspicious of the similarities it shares with both Angela’s and Ian’s scripts. Like HELL FOR LOVERS, it is a twisted comedy about the afterlife, with some broad, silly laughs about heaven vs. hell…and like Ian’s BORN IN THE RAIN, it has parts that are tragicomic, bittersweet and surprisingly touching.

I’ll make no secret that I’m a fan of Adam McDaniel’s writing. Though I don’t think HEAVEN SPENT is as strong a script as IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY, it’s still very, very well written, and that it was his first attempt at a feature length screenplay makes it all the more impressive. Even if some of his scenes run a bit too long, or seem too forced in a few places, he clearly has a flair for describing things in a visual, cinematic sense, as well as a strong ability to combine sentiment and humor without being too mushy or contrived. I liked it, and I liked it a lot.

Best of all, now that Halloween’s out of the way and Christmas is taking center stage in every Wallgreens and ShopRite in America, I can’t think of a better way to kick off the season than reviewing this…

Screenplay by Adam McDaniel

Tel: 818-240-1756

Where to begin?

It starts with a prelude, featuring a little boy who survived a car/train collision in which his parents were killed. Barely clinging to life, he is saved when (from his point of view) a little girl walks toward him, kisses him on the head, and then flies away on a pair of shining wings. Was she an angel? A dream? Both?

Fast-forward twenty years. The boy, Micah Cohen, is all grown up, but now works as a thankless assistant within a large food corporation in New York City. Reduced to a virtual corporate punching bag, his life is lonely and miserable.

McDaniel’s script opens this up as an elaborate montage, with episode after episode of biting satire reminiscent of moments from OFFICE SPACE and BRAZIL to the opening of JOE VS. THE VOLCANO. Though I felt like I’d seen it all before, it was nevertheless genuinely funny and executed with a lot of panache.

But the humor takes a considerably darker turn when Micah, overcome with grief – it’s almost Christmas and, even though he’s Jewish, he hates the thought of spending another holiday alone – attempts suicide and fails.

From there, things get really, really complicated. Micah is unexpectedly visited by Coltan, an “agent for the afterlife” come ‘round to collect his soul. But as Micah isn’t technically dead yet, Coltan, still hoping to meet his monthly quota, tries to convince him into trying again…only now, Micah’s developing second thoughts.

This scene starts only about twelve pages in, so you can imagine what I was trying to make of it all. Unlike the demons in HELL FOR LOVERS, who really got on my nerves, Coltan is a genuine scene stealer. He’s the antithesis of Clarence in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: instead of trying to save lives, Coltan’s determined to END them. He’s absolutely psychotic, loves and hates his work just a little too much, and gets all the script’s best lines.

Apparently resigned to his fate, Micah strikes a deal with Coltan for another day of life. He then sets out to redeem himself by making amends with the curmudgeonly uncle who raised him, and exact his revenge on his evil bosses at work. This day alone has the makings of a movie in its own right, but again, nothing in this script turns out the way I expected, for just as Micah tries to set everything in his life right, he screws everything up and…well, let’s just say it all gets worse and worse.

But the central story involves Micah’s relationship with Christine, a young homeless woman he befriends, then romances, after a seemingly chance encounter. Given her name, it’s easy to see who (and what) Christine’s character actually is…so just as Coltan fights to depress Micah to the point of suicide, Christine’s determined to make Micah see the joys of the world.

(On a personal note, I have a major gripe with stories that deem suicide as a crime punishable by immediate damnation. It’s a rather harsh, immobile stance for a complex situation. To those of you who have ever experienced a loss, grief and suffering beyond words, I’m sure you can understand. Just my two cents.)

These are a lot of different subplots to juggle, and perhaps each of them feel more than a bit familiar – stuff borrowed, if not inspired from, other movies and stories here and there. But like McDaniel’s IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY, which spoofed and honored animated serial adventures and buddy films, HEAVEN SPENT starts out with basic, seemingly predictable elements, but then spins them into something new, surprising, and pretty wonderful.

You see, during the script’s first half, I absolutely hated Micah. He was everything a central character shouldn’t be: passive, depressing, inert, and pretty much uncaring to all these supernatural things around him. But that’s exactly the script’s best trick: we’re supposed to hate Micah at first, so that when he finally takes the initiative to make his life (and himself) better, we get a kick out of seeing him go so far.

It’s the screenplay’s second half where everything changes. Micah soon realizes that he’s not just a literal pawn in a game between life and death, but that a third potential consequence exists: he might not even have a soul to lose, and when death comes, he could literally meet his physical and spiritual end. To add to his troubles, Micah learns that his estranged uncle is dying, and Christine, whose divine powers are limited due to certain rules and regulations, is not allowed to save him.

Micah also meets a little deaf boy named Toby, with whom he establishes an immediate friendship. Toby, you see, also survived an accident, and was convinced an angel saved him. Micah quickly puts two and two together, and (finally) uncovers the truth about Christine’s identity, while developing a paternal friendship with Toby and finding some purpose in life. And just as Micah realizes how wonderful his life has become, Coltan reappears to inform him that his days are now numbered -- for Death Itself is hunting Micah down. And so Christine, ever the dutiful protector, must prepare to do battle over Micah's soul.

As funny as the first half was, this second half works better, for not only does Micah become a stronger character, but the tone of the writing changes from cynical and overly “showy” to more honest and sincere. If Toby is a plot device all too similar to Dickens’ Tiny Tim, it still gives the material a poignancy most writers would be too insecure to include. And Micah’s romance with Christine, as well as his attempts at mending his relationship with his uncle, are genuinely touching.

The finale, especially, is dynamite, jumping from Christine’s encounter with Coltan, to Tobey being trapped in a burning building, to Micah’s attempts to evade death. (The latter struck me as something out of FINAL DESTINATION, but McDaniel insisted to me that he wrote it before that film came out.)

In McDaniel’s tale, those in the afterlife, from angels and demons to even death incarnate, are simply members of a blue-collar working class, each assigned to specific shifts, people, and places. It also throws around a lot of dark humor about religion, skewering not only Christianity but all sorts of different faiths. (That the central protagonist is Jewish also adds a little kick to a mainly Christmas-themed story.) And while heaven and hell are openly discussed (and regularly debated) by the characters, they remain more ambiguous concepts only hinted at from time to time. The script teases organized religion a lot, but McDaniel’s “world” of the afterlife is quite an original one, beset by annoying rules and regulations, red tape, and a hell of a lot of paperwork.

My only real complaint with HEAVEN SPENT is that it seems to be trying just a little too hard; McDaniel crams so much in, he writes like an overzealous party host obsessed with making all of his guests happy. The script has a little bit of everything, with a lot of funny scenes ranging from all-out farce to extremely dark and malevolent satire in the first half, to dramatic, bittersweet, even sad scenes in the second half.

On the printed page, the script succeeds in holding things together and, by and large, it all works out very nicely. But as a film, HEAVEN SPENT would require an extremely skilled director to pull it all off with a consistent tone. Think a (restrained) Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, or especially Peter Weir.

With so many lazy writers – and lazy screenplays – out there, perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to nitpick an overachievement. This is a fine script, so much so that I was tempted to award it first place in the contest.

But while HEAVEN SPENT, the screenplay, was good, HOW TO SUCCEED IN HEAVEN WITHOUT REALLY DYING, the book, is even better…

...and THAT review is coming soon!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Spreading some internet love.

In lieu of ads, I figured it was about time I posted a few links that I feel are particularly useful to writers and screenwriters. Some of them pertain exclusively to writing, others shed light on the industry as a whole, and some are just really good fun.

If you have a site or blog that you'd like me to consider adding, drop me an email and I'll take a look. After all, this blog can't be all about ME, no matter how wonderful I think I am...

Friday, November 02, 2007


I hate this.

I hate, hate, hate, hate this.


The worst fears will soon be a reality, and, while I understand the hows and whys, it's a situation where everyone in the industry stands to lose. Not just the writers, but all the artisans, technicians, businessmen...anyone and everyone whose lives and careers involve movies and television.

The nature of this blog has always been to promote good writing. Whether the work is from a multi-million dollar, Oscar winning screenwriter, or a pimple-faced high school student who has yet to make their first buck, makes absolutely no difference to me.

I say this because I'm concerned that promoting the work of writers (who may heretofore be unknown and unrepresented) might be mistaken by some as a flaunting of potential "scab" writers during the WGA strike. This is not so. While I might talk a little about the industry as a whole, or at least from my own personal perspective (limited as it may be compared to more established writers), my blog is and has always been focussed on just one thing: GOOD WRITING.

If any of the writers mentioned here should be contacted by a studio, production company, or producer during the strike, I have absolutely no say or position on the matter.

OK. End of speech. I just needed to clarify things, in light of what could be a really tense situation.