Monday, January 22, 2007
In case you’ve forgotten, my blog also features reviews for unpublished books as well as undiscovered screenplays, and out of the 100+ queries I’ve received, only one was for a book manuscript…and not just any book, but a nonfiction book! Enter my first official review for 2007…
AGAINST A RAPID STREAM “With Arnold 1775”: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold, George Washington and the March to Quebec
by Mark A. York
10799 Sherman Grove Ave., #39
Sunland, CA 91040Tel: 818-352-5433
Yes, that title’s quite a mouthful, and while the book is similarly crammed with historical references and impeccable research, it is also written in a relaxed narrative prose which flows quite nicely, clocking in at a relatively brief 56,000 words.
This is a family chronicle of sorts, focusing on Reuben Colburn, who served as a Major in the American Revolution and to whom the book’s author is descended.
Reuben Colburn is a Major in the militia, a patriot activist, and the chairman of the local Committee on Safety. From his house in Colburntown, he travels to Cambridge three times in the summer of 1775, meeting with George Washington and Benedict Arnold, trying to help organize the Revolution. They eventually hire him to build boats for a trip upriver to capture Quebec City, with the promise that he would be compensated in the future.
Colburn builds the Bateaux and with his brothers, and Abenaki Indians Sabatis and Natanis, guides Col. Arnold and his 1,000 man army on the tortuous, ill-fated journey.
Arnold goes on to infamy, while Colburn has a successful career in local politics and becomes one of the voters to ratify the U.S. Constitution. But, in the book’s most bittersweet passage, Colburn’s fate would be to die almost penniless, as Washington never honored his promise of compensation for Colburn's efforts. Colburn's children even continue the dispute after his death, but to no avail.
I’m a sucker for history books, and I’m also fascinated by the relatively unknown tales—the smaller family stories passed down, generation to generation, which remind us that these titans of American history were, in fact, human like the rest of us. But it’s hard for me to really review a book like AGAINST A RAPID STREAM because it’s a fairly straightforward work.
As a document of history, this is to its benefit. As an emotionally gripping read, it presents a problem. I liked it, I admired it...but it also left me a bit cold.
York rather fleetingly mentions the research he made into his family’s past, involving years of traveling and exploration. This subject matter is interesting in its own right, and I wanted to know more. Perhaps if York interspersed chapters from his own life—a writer’s journey into his family’s past—with the historical accounts of his ancestors, it would give the narrative a more personal and emotional touch. I guess it depends on the type of document York is looking to create, as well as the kind of readership he hopes to entice.
Regardless, AGAINST A RAPID STREAM is a worthy read, and I recommend it.
Now if only that title wasn’t so damn long.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
TUC: Let’s talk a little about your writing background.
McDaniel: I don’t know if I really have one—I never considered myself a professional writer. It has nothing to do with selling or making a living, but a discipline I honestly haven’t developed yet. I write only when the inspiration hits me—I’m lucky if that happens once a year—and I think a real writer’s someone who can sit down and pound on a keyboard for x-hours a day, everyday, regardless of how tired or exhausted they are. My friend at Vassar, Jeff Davis, was always like this; he started out as an I.T. guy at Fox, working all day then coming home to write for four or five hours each night, even if he felt like shit. Jeff’s quite well known now, having gone on to create the tv series Criminal Minds. I’m not in the least bit surprised by his success. My only gripe against him is that he’s barely in his thirties and looks ten years younger, the fucker. (laughs)
TUC: You mentioned Vassar College. What was your experience there like?
McDaniel: Great, great teachers--Thaddeus Gesek, who I mentioned before, and especially Ken Robinson, who taught film production. I studied film and drama, and at that time my focus was much more on directing, production design, and cinematography than writing. I did write and direct a play my senior year—an intense, dramatic, three-hour vanity opus that had the misfortune of opening the same night as an on campus Billy Joel concert—but again, my interest was much more geared towards making short films. One that I did went on to win a few awards, and I was very proud of that. I didn’t develop much interest in writing until much later.
TUC: Well, let’s hear about it.
McDaniel: I started out by writing short film screenplays. Actually, if you want to get used to writing scripts, my best advice is to start out small—and shorts are literally the best way to do it. They serve you best as an educational experience, a way to develop your writing skills.
My first full-length feature script was HEAVEN SPENT, a dark comedy/fantasy that was like a sadistic version of It’s a Wonderful Life meets City of Angels meets The Devil’s Advocate. I wrote it in 1999, and in 2000 it was actually featured in a nice writeup on Harry Knowles’ entertainment website Ain’t It Cool News, as one of the best “undiscovered” scripts of the year.
TUC: That’s a nice bookend to my writeup on Thaddeus Thackeray!
McDaniel: Yeah! They don’t do amateur script reviews on that site anymore, so I’m glad we have you to fall back on. (laughs) That review on Aint It Cool got me a lot of calls from agents and production companies, and while everyone liked the script and my writing style, they said that the genre I was working in was too risky, citing films like Bedazzled, Down to Earth, and Little Nicky, which had all come out around this time and flopped.
TUC: Have you tried entering screenwriting contests?
McDaniel: I did on Heaven Spent, but not with Thaddeus yet. Unless it’s something major like the Nichol Competition, I think scriptwriting contests aren’t really useful, and usually they require a hefty fee that defeats the purpose of submitting in the first place. There aren’t many free contests out there. I did find one, “Words From Here,” that I submitted Heaven Spent to, and it was awarded second place. But again, I don’t like contests that charge people an arm and a leg—like what, forty, fifty bucks?—to fund “their” prizes.
McDaniel: Yeah, so be warned: if you ever start charging people fees for reading their stuff, I’ll have a major bone to pick with you. (laughs)
TUC: Don’t worry. (laughs)
McDaniel: Well, you can charge a little. Five bucks maybe.
TUC: Not my style, man.
TUC: Looking at your website I see that you’re not only a published author, but a stunningly talented artist! Of the two, which do you enjoy more—art or writing?
McDaniel: It depends, though I’ve always been a very visual person, and would have to consider illustration to be of greater personal interest and satisfaction.
TUC: Reading the Thaddeus Thackeray script, I noticed it’s very visually written. Has your art and film experience played a part in your writing?
McDaniel: Oh, absolutely. I’ve also worked as a cinematographer and set designer, and those have helped me, too. What I like about screenplays is that you can write visually without getting too bogged down in prose. I think I’m good when it comes to visual descriptions and dialogue, but coming up with the initial concept, the basic story, has always been the tough part.
TUC: You’ve also written two books.
McDaniel: One I’m still working on, the other came out in 2002—a “novelization” of Heaven Spent, retitled HOW TO SUCCEED IN HEAVEN WITHOUT REALLY DYING. (laughs) It’s available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and a bookstore near you. Hint, hint.
TUC: On your website you posted some big news…
McDaniel: Yeah, the book was recently optioned and is being developed as none other than a stage musical… (laughs) …the last thing on earth I ever expected! I think the workshops will begin in late 2007 or early 2008, but it depends on the composer’s schedule. He’s right in the middle of another project, so it'll be several months at least.
TUC: Will you be involved with the musical’s creation at all?
McDaniel: I’ll help only if asked. I pretty much handed over total creative control, which is fine by me as long as I get my percentage. I’m divorced enough from the material now that I think it’d be better for someone else to come in and give it a fresh makeover. I just want it to be fun more than anything else. I trust the guy in charge completely.
TUC: Tell us about the book you’re currently working on.
McDaniel: God, that’s a tough one—I need to shift gears. (sighs) It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever had as a writer, and one of the biggest personal challenges I’ve ever come across. It’s called CHASING ECHOES THROUGH THE DARK, and I’ve been working on it with a kid named Danny Wessler for over three years.
TUC: What’s it about?
McDaniel: It’s based on Danny’s experiences back when he was 16. He’s been blind since birth, and for years he suffered from sexual abuse. It’s hard to write because not only is the subject matter very severe, but since I’m writing it from Danny’s point of view—the view of a blind man—I’ve had to abandon all the writing conventions I’m used to.
TUC: The visual descriptions?
McDaniel: Exactly. But Danny’s also a sculptor—he’s had stuff in exhibits all over the place, even in Japan—so he really has an extreme tactile sense that in many ways compensates for his blindness. But try to put yourself in his shoes. Do blind people have visual imagery in their dreams? How do they fantasize when they can’t picture someone? These are questions we explore in great depth in the book. It’s so much harder than I ever thought it’d be, and Danny and I’ve faced a number of setbacks over the last three years that seriously delayed the project. Personal things—not with each other, we get along great, but emotional things that happened in each of our lives which forced us to take a break every so often, for the sake of the book as well as our sanity. But the book is coming along, and we’re going to finish it this year. (laughs) But I said that last year, too!
TUC: We have to talk about these (Thaddeus Thackeray) concept designs you sent me! They’re fantastic. Did you do them?
McDaniel: I wish! (laughs) They’re actually the work of Jeff West, a visual effects and storyboard artist. Now I like to think of myself as a pretty decent artist, but Jeff has a drawing style that really captures what I envisioned Thaddeus to be, and I can’t draw the way he can. It’s funny…I initially came across Jeff’s work on several Indiana Jones related websites, and, never having met him at that time, thought about asking him to work on Thaddeus. But I was too shy, and didn’t...until, lo and behold, a year later I start a new job, and, on my second day, I pass the workroom of a young guy with a gigantic Indiana Jones poster plastered to his wall. We introduce ourselves…and it’s Jeff! The guy whose work I’d loved all along! We’ve become good pals now, and are now collaborating on turning Thaddeus into either an illustrated book or an all-out graphic novel.
TUC: That’s great! It would totally work as a comic book, too…though personally, I’d prefer the big screen treatment.
McDaniel: Ditto, my friend. Ditto.
You can see more of Adam’s artwork at www.adammcdaniel.com. To learn more about Chasing Echoes Through the Dark, go to www.chasingechoes.com.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
But, as I’m sure you’re all aware, the internet has its downside. The first negative reaction I received was from a young woman whose screenplay I chose not to review; while I don’t care to elaborate, I will say that she has taken it very, very personally, and has now launched a negative campaign against all things Unsung.
The second negative reaction was even worse. Normally I would refrain from commenting on situations like these, but recent events have made it necessary. Someone named Michael Wilde recently made the following post on a popular newsgroup/chatroom for screenwriters:
"...there are quite a lot of complaints piling up against you at the writers guild, SAG and AFTRA, Editors guild, even producers and directors...want you closed down. You have been officially told on 4 occasions to cease and desist.”
While I’m sure that my anonymity may make some people skeptical as to the value of my word and truthfulness, please accept my sincerity when I say that the above statement is nothing less than an absolute lie.
Here are the facts:
- I have not received ONE cease and desist order from any person or organization, much less FOUR!
- I don't know what motivated Wilde to make the above statement, but he also said that he "knew people in the industry" who knew me--a fascinating (and again, completely false) claim, as I have not revealed my identity to anyone, save "Mrs. Unsung Critic."
- An actual member of the WGA, SAG and AFTRA was kind enough to contact me and say that Wilde "isn’t a member of any of my professional guilds, or unions, but constantly misrepresents us."
- I should mention that I myself am a member of the WGA (West), and I personally contacted their main office to see if there was any truth at all to Wilde's claim. There isn't...so this naysayer is, for lack of a better term, completely full of it.
- As I do not charge fees, ask for donations, or host any kind of paid advertising on my blog, I have not made a single penny from it. I therefore bitterly resent any accusations that I am any kind of thief or “gold digger out to scam people.” (This is, by the way, in sharp contrast to messages Michael Wilde posts, trying to promote his $10,000 class and "consultation" services!)
I hope this will clear the air of any negative buzz that might be clouding the newsgroups. Thanks for letting me vent.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
McDaniel’s been a hard man to reach these last few days, serving as a juror in downtown Los Angeles. I finally managed to talk to him by phone on Saturday morning. This is the first part of our interview, slightly edited for length.
TUC: How’s the trial going?
McDaniel: Oh God! (laughs) I’m not allowed to talk about it, but it’s been an interesting experience because I’ve got to see more of downtown Los Angeles in the past week than I’ve ever seen in my life.
TUC: Why did you choose to write a spec script for an animated film as opposed to live action?
McDaniel: Good question! Maybe it’s my way of trying to make things so much more difficult in my life, knowing that an animated spec is so much harder to sell! (laughs) No, seriously, I wrote “Thaddeus” as a cartoon because that’s what my imagination dictated. The idea of a cartoon excited and inspired me. I love the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, which still look stunning after what—sixty years? They’re fucking amazing. So I thought writing about a movie serial done in and around that time period would have a lot of possibilities. Animation, good animation, has a way of seeming fresh and timeless no matter what the decade.
TUC: Was writing a cartoon a new experience for you?
McDaniel: I’d never done it before, if that’s what you mean. It poses a lot of challenges, because animated films are usually much shorter than live action features. The Incredibles is the only cartoon I can think of that runs about a full two hours. Animated films also have a lot more action, and scenes move by faster, or are shorter in each of their running time.
The big part of it was the visual style. You can do a lot with animation that simply wouldn’t pass off in live action. I’m not just talking about character movements and scene layouts, I’m talking about the way in which audiences absorb what they see. I’m sounding weird now, I know, but cartoons simply have a unique magic that no other kind of art, film or otherwise, can really capture. You might see cartoonish sequences in some live action films—the Home Alone and Spy Kids movies are good examples. But it’s just not the same experience. Even films that try to combine those worlds, like Roger Rabbit or Space Jam, it’s not quite there. Animation stands on its own, and always will.
TUC: I wasn’t sure if the “real world” sequences in the script were intended to be live action or not.
McDaniel: No, it’s all a cartoon—not just the animated serial sequences with Dublin and Judson—
TUC: (I laugh as McDaniel pronounces “Dublin” as DOO-blin.) DOO-blin? I thought it was DUB-lin!
McDaniel: No, no, it’s… (laughing) I use the Irish enunciation, DOO-blin. “Dublin McGinn.” It sounds better, I think.
But it’s all meant to be animated. If you can have a movie within a movie, why not a cartoon within a cartoon? Funny thing is, some people in the industry who’ve read it think it would also work as a live action movie. I’m not so sure. With animated films, I think we’re even more likely to suspend our disbelief at certain things because the characters and settings are already divorced from reality to a large degree. So in a way, shooting it live action would render it more artificial, emotionally.
TUC: Who’s read it? Anything happening?
McDaniel: Yes and no. A talent scout at a major agency really, really loved the script and sent it to a few places, but there’s been no real movement on it for a while. It’s a sensitive issue, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth, but suffice to say he read it, loved it, and is helping me with it as best he can. He was very enthusiastic, but like you yourself said, animation’s a really, really tough sell. I’m just thankful he liked it. Same goes for you!
TUC: I didn’t like it. I loved it.
McDaniel: Wow, thanks man. That means the world to me. Everyone’s been so positive and supportive. Pity no one’s bought it yet.
The first reaction I got was from a friend who worked in the development department at Revolution Studios. I’d worked there once and passed the script along to him after just finishing it. This was back in the summer of 2003. He told me how much he loved it, but the powers that be at the studio weren’t interested. They’d just done another animated movie that was a disastrous experience, and…Oh! Our conversation actually took place just a few days before Gigli came out, so you could imagine what was…(laughs)…what was going on behind all those closed doors. Even my old boss there never bothered getting back to me about it. But that’s okay, I’m not resentful. Even if they did go on to greenlight classics like White Chicks.
TUC: Big question: Would you want Thaddeus Thackeray in CGI or hand drawn animation?
McDaniel: Oh God—hand drawn, hand drawn, hand drawn! At least that would be my dream. I enjoy a lot of CGI films, but again, there’s something about traditional animation that holds a very, very strong place in my heart. But it all comes down to story. I’ve always believed that you can have a great cartoon film even if the animation is sub par, provided that the script is great. But you can’t make a great film out of a sub par script, no matter how impressive or expensive the animation is.
TUC: What are some of your favorite animated films?
McDaniel: A lot of classic Disney. As a kid my favorite was always The Jungle Book, and now I have a lot of fondness for Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Fantasia. Some of the more recent Disney films are really great, like The Lion King and The Emperor’s New Groove—that one I think was really underrated. Pixar’s stuff is amazing, not just in terms of their animation but the quality of their storytelling. But I think my favorite animated films made during my lifetime are The Iron Giant and especially Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH. In fact, I think Thaddeus Thackeray was inspired more by The Iron Giant than even Raiders of the Lost Ark.
TUC: Yeah, I can see that. They’re set in similar time periods, and kind of share the same tone.
McDaniel: Yes! That’s what I keep telling people. The Indiana Jones stuff is just the framework for the story. I love Raiders, it’s my absolute favorite film of all time, but the real core was not the Indy spoof. It’s the relationships of the characters, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (That film) isn’t so much a Western as it is a character piece. In Thaddeus, we find out that Judson’s older brother was killed in World War II, and Judson’s still grieving at the beginning of the movie, so there’s more to (the script) than action and jokes.
TUC: Were any of the characters inspired by real people?
McDaniel: No, but there were definitely things inspired by events in my life. There’s a scene halfway through the script, when Judson’s crying because he realizes that he had forgotten his brother’s birthday the day before. That happened to me the first year after my sister died, and I felt godawful. So in that way, Judson’s like a younger version of me, only I wasn’t so short and scrawny.
Now Thaddeus Thackeray has a little bit of history to him, even though he’s not based on anyone in particular. I named him after a professor I had at Vassar, Thaddeus Gesek, who taught set design for theater. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. He was a friend and mentor—a very funny, witty, mildly eccentric and extremely brilliant mind. He could literally carve things out of milk cartons and make them into high art. Anyway, I wrote the script in May and June of 2003. It took four weeks…
TUC: That’s it?
McDaniel: Yeah, and that includes the time I spent on the opening ten pages, which I lost after my computer crashed and I had to rewrite them all over again from scratch. So when I was done, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I saved it on my computer, closed it, and then went online to check out my email. And the very first email I get is from a fellow Vassar alum, telling me that Gesek had died less than two days before.
TUC: Oh my God.
McDaniel: Yeah, I was absolutely devastated. He had cancer, and was fighting it for years, but he was one of those guys who just had so much energy and fun about him, it’s hard to think of him gone. But here’s another thing—and I didn’t realize it until reading Gesek’s obituary a few weeks later. Doing the math, I realized that he and Thaddeus Thackeray were born approximately the same year, making Thaddeus Gesek the same age as Thaddeus Thackeray during the events of the film.
McDaniel: Purely coincidence, but I got a real kick out of it. I didn’t base Thackeray on Gesek per se, but I like to think they shared an adventurous spirit. Maybe they still do.
TUC: How’d you develop the script?
McDaniel: I wrote it in four weeks, after brainstorming the story for a month or two. But it was unlike anything else I’d written, in that I wrote it—like that great line in Raiders, “I dunno, I’m making it up as I go”? That’s precisely what happened on Thaddeus; I made the story up as I went, with only a vague idea as to what the actual adventure would be. But all the scenes with Thaddeus and Kenny back home—in Easton, Pennsylvania, a real place—I’d thought out in a lot of detail.
I originally intended to focus most of the script on Judson’s “movie world” adventures with Dublin, and all the stuff with Thaddeus and Kenny was supposed to be just secondary, taking place between each of the movie serial episodes. But when I finally started writing it, I realized halfway into the first page that—and I swear I’m not kidding—that Thaddeus was my favorite character, and he deserved a lot more screen time. So instead of breaking up the two storylines like 80/20, I made it roughly 50/50.
TUC: Did you do any rewrites?
McDaniel: Oh yeah, but it’s funny because the first draft was pretty much ninety to ninety-five percent of what it is now. The biggest changes came after getting notes from the agency.
TUC: What’d they say?
McDaniel: They wanted more scenes with Thaddeus! I couldn’t believe it. Here was a script that I thought was already too long for an animated movie, that I thought was going to need some serious cutting, and now I was getting asked to put more scenes in! I was only too happy to oblige, and gave Thaddeus two new big scenes. From there, I went back and tweaked the whole script—cutting some dialog, condensing scenes, and trying to make it all move faster. If only all my writing could be that easy. I usually write, rewrite, and rewrite several times over to the point where I burn myself out. But the process on Thaddeus really just sort of came to me, and working with the guy at the agency was a really positive experience. The only objections I had concerned keeping the story in the 1940’s—
TUC: They wanted to make it contemporary?
McDaniel: Yeah, a present day story, which I didn’t like. I didn’t think it would work, with all the things going on in the world. They didn’t hound me on it, though--only sort of mildly, politely suggested the idea. And then we dropped it.
The other reservation I had concerned their wanting to delete of one of my favorite lines of dialogue.
TUC: Which one?
McDaniel: When Judson excitedly calls Dublin an “action hero,” Dublin gets nervous and says—and of course this is a movie in-joke—“I prefer ‘adventurer,’ kid. ‘Action hero’ has a certain stigma to it.”
TUC: (laughs) That was funny! Why’d they want to get rid of it?
McDaniel: They didn’t like my drawing a parallel to a movie that flopped, as if it would doom the script’s chances! (laughs) Good thing I decided to change the name of Judson’s girlfriend to Jessica. She was originally named Gigli.
To check out the second part of my interview with Adam McDaniel, click here.
TUC: Let’s start with a little about your writing experience and background.
Woods: As I am unpublished and unproduced, I do not consider myself a professional writer. Although I learned a lot from an exceptional novelist/instructor in my younger days, it was more in the group, rather than classroom, setting. My literary endeavors have been primarily an on again, off again hobby, sometimes rewarding, more often exasperating, which places me in the same category as 98% of the world’s writers!
TUC: You mentioned a little in your emails about how the leads in THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN were inspired by real people!
Woods: In the mid 90’s, I became close friends with two teenage girls, (we’ll call them) “L & M,” imprisoned for their roles in a macabre group slaying on a desolate night somewhere in the heart of darkest America. Although this case spawned a mini-cottage industry unto itself, I was never interested in writing about or exploiting the tragedy. What did interest me was the poetry they shared with me; their memories, dreams, troubled past. I wanted to see the world through their eyes to understand how they veered so far off course, but obviously, this was not entirely possible as our lives were separated by time, distance and steel bars. Through a kind of unintended osmosis, they evolved into the leads in my own private theater.
L & M would be transformed into Luna and Terra, appropriate names considering the revolving, symbiotic nature of their relationship. Psychologically speaking, I stripped them to their barest selves with absolutely no focus whatsoever upon their horrific crime. From a purely cinematic standpoint, I wanted to avoid contemporary referencing, although, admittedly, the success of Blair Witch Project was the original impetus. I returned to my earliest childhood cultural experiences, sitting before our B&W TV, mesmerized by Margaret Hamilton and The Wizard of Oz. “I want to do that when I grow up,” but it never happened. Memories of my mother, who was entering her last days as I was writing this script, reading Hansel and Gretel and other grim tales. The Witch and the Garden was composed in a 3-4 month period in late 2001. Since the structure was to be a conflation of the two classics noted, and the garden imagery would recall The Book of Genesis, I spent little time with pre-write, outlines, etc. There was no revision, as I prefer to edit as I write, but I did add two brief scenes the following year, including the picture book prologue.
TUC: You also mentioned how you felt this would be viewed as an “art house project,” which goes against the grain of nearly every undiscovered screenwriter anxious to cry out, “It’ll be commercial!”
Woods: I believe there is a potential cult audience, both European & American, for this project, although I obviously realize it’s not studio material. I also realize it would be no small feat to tailor specific talent to a vision this idiosyncratic and personal. Hopefully, there are some up-and-coming Tim Burtons or Terry Gilliams checking out this web site, searching for unusual material. If nothing else, it would turn heads. Ultimately, it’s all about good luck and exposure and I appreciate that you’ve given me a bit of both. The fact that a surrealist horror/fantasy and an animation script were among your top (2006 selections) indicates you have pretty eclectic taste!
TUC: Any other writing, past or present, you’ve been a part of?
Woods: My first script, Leave It To Kitten: The Forgotten Episodes is a savage, ironic parody of the American sitcom, the final detonation of the nuclear family. Crux of story: the sitcom princess, Kitten befriends a troubled loner and soon finds herself in prison for a murder beyond her wildest dreams. End of story; end of life. As for new projects, I’ve been searching for a collaborator to rework a psychological suspense thriller, Waiting for Mr. Wright. Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it is constructed around a dramatic opening sequence and a terrifying, innovative conclusion. Unlike Vertigo, the middle is all over the place. Hopefully, a disciplined, coherent storyteller can help me navigate the memories, dreams and mayhem in this baffling script. I don’t know about other writers, but I find it difficult to go on to new projects until I have completed and perfected the old. Perhaps that is one reason I have a pitifully small number of works to my name, even though I’ve just turned 50!
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
TUC: How did you come to write the script?
Shailer: I was watching a documentary called The Search for Nazi Diamonds which mentioned the 'Diamenten Juden' (Diamond Jews). They were spared deportation to the work/death camps by the Nazi High Command because they wanted the diamond business in Amsterdam to continue, from records of the Adolf Eichman trial. These Jews lived in a relatively low security environment probably still in their homes. But I thought a 'work camp' would give me a nice closed space -- and lower budget! I also knew that ordinary folk were unaware what was going on in the death camps until near the end of the war. As I continued watching, an idea popped into my head about a grumpy Jew who thinks he can get his wife back in return for work and the rest is history.
TUC: What's been happening with it?
Shailer: In actual fact, the version that you read is complete rewrite number four. In between major rewrites, I keep tinkering with it, improving little bits. Based on your comments, I now see another major rewrite coming on. I like that. I often write a piece and walk away for six months. I garner a few comments from here and there and come back to it for the inevitable rewrite. I figure I'll be rewriting it until it ends up on film. Earlier versions have received favorable comments on TriggerStreet, and one version became a quarter-finalist on American Zoetrope's 2006 Screenplay competition.
TUC: What research did you do for THE JEWELER'S WIFE, and how long did you spend on the script?
Shailer: Research and first draft took about three months. But in terms of research I already had a lot of material on WW2 -- a whole bookcase. I've also watched just about every documentary that's been shown on TV. I did do some internet research on the Dutch Jewish jewelers by reading the Adolf Eichman trial transcripts. I also looked at the Dutch resistance and got it clear in my head how the war progressed from a Dutch point of view. I like to get to the point in research/writing that I imagine I am actually there.
TUC: Are any of the character's based on real life?
Shailer: No, although I did have a pretty grumpy teacher once. As the Bible says, 'There's nothing new under the sun', so I guess the characters are based on a composite of people/characters from other situations etc. But there is no single historical figure other than Goering that I based the story on.
TUC: What other projects are you involved with?
Shailer: I have a woman-in-jeopardy thriller called VICTIM COMPLEX, optioned with Just Singer Entertainment. Also, I'm writing new material all the time as well as rewriting existing scripts. Currently, I have eleven other screenplays that I continue to improve/market. Most have been favorably commented on but 'not quite what we're looking for at the moment'. It seems people like my writing but have very specific projects in mind so it's a case of keep sending stuff out hoping to hit that "in the right place, at the right time, with the right quality" moment.
TUC: Do you write for a living?
Shailer: Yes and no. Yes, I write pretty much full-time at the moment. No, I don't make a living at it! Not yet anyways. So, I regularly fall back on my past occupation in I.T. to draw in some money. That and I have a very understanding wife who runs her own business. I call her the Sponsor of the Ass…oops, sorry, ARTS.
TUC: How long have you been writing?
Shailer: For as long as I could write. When I was younger I won awards for poetry. I've had comedy-sketch scripts published, performed at national arts festivals and on national radio. I also have a book on I.T. available at most leading online bookstores -- search on my name and you can't miss. As for screenplays, I've been writing them for about five years.
TUC: What are your hopes for the future?
Shailer: To sell a script and have it produced, of course. That's my main aim in writing -- to be a 'professional'.
TUC: Thanks so much for the chat, David. Good luck on your writing!
My first interview is with Angela Schultz, whose script PROGGER was not only featured on this blog, but will go into production this summer!
TUC: Hello Angela.
Schultz: Thanks so much for the kudos!!! I appreciate all that you are doing to help promote writers and their scripts. I hope to hear more success stories in the future!
TUC: Thanks a lot. Let’s start off at the beginning. Tell us a little about your writing background.
Schultz: I have been writing screenplays ever since a college buddy "tricked" me into taking a script writing course in college. I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York City and my major was 3-D illustration and graphic design. I needed some humanities courses to fill up my credits and I was taking a creative writing class where a friend suggested that I take a script writing class which was a whopping three credits! But little did I know I had to finish a 100 page script by the end of the semester! So between going to college full-time, doing my portfolio, working part time and having a life, I had to crank out a feature-length screenplay! But that was when my love affair with script writing was born and I have been doing it for over 18 years now.
TUC: That’s incredible. Hollywood is so full of hotshot would-be screenwriters expecting to make that great big sale before they’re even out of college. But I think becoming a real writer takes time—you need to find your voice, and that process can take years.
Schultz: I have won several awards, had a reading of a script sponsored by Disney, came close to making a sale several times, met many hardships, bad agents, shysters, disappointments, joined script writing networks, read a lot books, took film courses, made some films and am now working toward the goal of being a filmmaker.
TUC: Let’s talk about PROGGER. How did you come up with the script?
Schultz: It's funny because I had just written a blog for my newly formed MySpace.com page (http://www.myspace.com/proggerproductions) which answers that very question!
Back in 1998, a magical thing happened. I was introduced to the music of the Flower Kings. One song, off of Roine Stolt's Flower King album, inspired a vision of two people falling in love while listening to the band's music. Then 9/11 happened... I was so depressed with the images and the constant reminders of the tragic and horrific events. I desperately needed something to make me laugh -- take me away from the brutal realities and transport me to world of hope and dreams... then the image of two people falling in love while listening to the Flower Kings returned... and so I closed the door and started to write.
Flash forward: Progger. I wrote a feature-length romantic comedy screenplay about the thirty-something Progressive Rock music lover who has yet to meet the girl of his dreams. Through many drafts, readings by professional actors and critiques by script readers, the script was tweaked and polished into a viable "blueprint" for a film.
Flash forward to the present. Our favorite Hollywood script reader (Editor’s note: no, she wasn't paid to say this) published a blog stating that he would read unproduced scripts and I submitted Progger to him thinking, "What the heck... " Three days after I submitted the script he gave it a positive review!
Before then, I had made friends, just chatting and being sociable, with a producer who has done feature films and documentaries. He had a script at the time that he was ready to produce. He allowed me to read it, but I wasn't too thrilled with it simply because it reminded me too much of other films I had seen. But I wished him luck with his film, nonetheless. When I received the positive critique from The Unsung Critic, I just had to share it with him, as a friend, and after reading the blog, he requested the script -- and low and behold -- Progger is now in production!
TUC: That’s great! I had no idea that my blog played such a large part in helping the project see the light of day. It tickles me to learn that. How are things going so far with the film?
Schultz: Currently, I have been breaking down the script for production, preparing the budget, casting the film, scouting out locations, seeking financing and distribution, etc... Making a movie is a heck of a lot of work!
TUC: Any other projects you’ve been involved with?
Schultz: I shot a two hour concert film with two good friends of mine of the group of Swedish band, the Flower Kings, the band that inspired the Progger script. You can see a few of my videos on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/proggerprod. I hope to add more soon!
TUC: Finally, is there any advice you’d like to give to our fellow writers out there?
Schultz: My advice to budding scriptwriters: Don't give up! Make your own break! Don't ever get discouraged. And most importantly, keep on writing!
TUC: That’s great Angela! And congrats on the film. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to seeing it, so keep us updated, OK?
Monday, January 08, 2007
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY
by Adam McDaniel
601 Glenwood Rd., Apt. C
Glendale, CA 91202
This is an animated adventure film, and judging from the emailed query the basic premise was something I figured I’d seen a few times before…a sort of LAST ACTION HERO meets FREAKY FRIDAY meets INDIANA JONES spoof. The opening sequence is itself a comic take completely ripped from the beginning of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and I probably would’ve dismissed the whole thing altogether if I hadn’t laughed at it so much. It’s pretty damn funny, it’s very, very cute, and it’s extremely well written.
By page twelve, though, I realized that this was going to be a much different movie from the one I had mistaken it for. By the last page, not only had I laughed and laughed hard, but I even choked up once or twice. (The Unsung Critic ain’t no wimp, either.)
It’s rare when a spec script gains momentum in Hollywood, yet it’s damn near unheard of, if not impossible, for an animated spec script. Animated movies are extremely costly nowadays, and without the backing of a major studio like Disney or DreamWorks behind them, writers of such projects don’t stand a chance.
That’s a hell of a shame, because IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY would make one hell of a movie.
It’s set in 1943, and follows a 14-year-old boy named Judson who, with his friend Kenny, sneak into a local movie theater to catch an animated adventure serial. The movie opens with one of the serials—“episode nine”—where we are introduced to our hero, Dublin McGinn, and his trusty teenage sidekick, Thaddeus Thackeray.
Dublin’s a clownish version of Indiana Jones—no less rugged or heroic, but loveably goofy and obviously lacking in the brains department. And like the famous Dr. Jones before him, Dublin has a little creature phobia that makes him go bonkers.
But the central character in all this is Thaddeus Thackeray, a pint-sized, nerdish bookworm from England with a genius IQ and a somewhat bratty attitude. On the surface, he’s the brains to Dublin’s brawn…but let’s just say that looks are deceiving, for Thaddeus has a few surprises up his oversized sleeves.
The adventure begins when, for whatever reason, Judson and Thaddeus switch bodies. Judson is now trapped as the comic sidekick in Dublin’s movie world, while Thaddeus is thrown into the real world of Judson’s Pennsylvanian hometown…and because they still appear to be who they once were (Judson looks like Thaddeus/Thaddeus looks like Judson), everyone around them suspects that the boys are either completely joking or going insane.
For Judson this becomes a literal fight for survival, as facing episode after episode of outrageous animated dangers is a lot harder than it looks without Thaddeus' expertise. For Thaddeus, it’s a somber wake-up call to an all-too-real world--a world at war, where heroes, as well as dreams, can actually die.
I know what you’re thinking…that this all seems just a little too familiar, with whiffs of LAST ACTION HERO, FREAKY FRIDAY, and THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO all thrown in. McDaniel even admits this in his query, but his script manages to have a life and a spirit that is completely, wholeheartedly its own.
Once Judson manages to convince Dublin of the “body swap”—with Dublin’s lack of intelligence, it’s both hard for him to understand yet easy for him to accept—they team up to complete Thaddeus’ mission of finding the mystical crown of Therajian before the nefarious Henri Debaucherie (what a name!) can claim it for his own evil use. Meanwhile, Thaddeus finds himself like a fish out of water in Judson's neighborhood, having to brave the hell known as high school, face the local bully, and convince a team of scientists at Princeton that he's uncovered the secret of fusion power in exchange for the opportunity to get back home. And the only one who can possibly help Thaddeus is Judson’s best friend, Kenny…who isn’t quick to believe Thaddeus’ rather fantastic story. (The scene where Kenny is finally convinced holds one of the script’s biggest laughs.)
The script splits Judson’s and Thaddeus’ stories roughly in half, jumping back and forth from one world to the other. The timing, structure, and layout of all this is done with a great deal of panache and style. While the Judson/Dublin story is easily the more exciting of the two, with plot points liberally borrowed from—and greatly spoofing—the Indiana Jones series, it’s the more original Judson/Kenny storyline that gives the film its heart.
So…what’s makes this script so special?
It’s funny, yes.
It’s well written and well structured, yes.
It has a likeable story and characters, yes yes yes.
Sometimes you read something that just has a kind of indescribable thing to it—an energy, a spirit, that you can’t really put your finger on. For lack of a better word, I’ll call it...magic. And IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY has magic to spare.
The friendships and camaraderie are everything here, and if the Indiana Jones inspired adventure storyline seems rushed, tacked on, even irrelevant, the charm and wit of the characters more than make up for it.
Dublin is the movie’s scene-stealer, and one of the best things about the script is how different his chemistry is with each of the boys. Thaddeus taunts and belittles Dublin so much that when Judson appears, he’s completely shocked to be on the receiving end of a child’s hero worship. He tries his best to live up to Judson’s high expectations, and actually becomes the hero he always wanted to be. Dublin may not have brains, but the big guy sure has heart. Thaddeus, too, goes through a significant change: finding himself in the real world, vulnerable for the first time, he realizes just how valuable Dublin’s friendship was.
What surprised me most about IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY was how much it touched me. Beneath all the action and humor lies a bittersweet, even mournful nostalgia that’s virtually unheard of in today’s animated fare. These may be simple cartoon characters, but they’re all so wonderful, so rounded and charming, I somehow wish they actually existed.
That's saying something.
At 115 pages, the script is quite long for an animated film, but that’s not to say it’s overlong. Scenes move fast, and I can imagine a lot of the dialog being done rapid-fire, though there are some moments where it needs to be trimmed down in order for scenes to really flow naturally.
The script’s epilogue, which jumps ten years into the future, is OK and doesn’t feel tacked on, but it also seems a bit…strange. I guess it depends on your taste. Like the climax of PETER PAN, McDaniel shows some of his former child characters now all grown up, and the result might seem a bit more melancholy than the crowd pleasing, rousing effect McDaniel obviously was going for.
But this is all just twaddle. IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THADDEUS THACKERAY is not only a script that I loved reading, but a movie I’d love to see. And see more than once.
I’m even hoping for a sequel.
Saturday, January 06, 2007
To all of you who submitted something to me, even if I ultimately chose not to review it, thank you for sharing your creativity. I enjoyed so much of your work, and encourage you to keep on working. Whether you write for writing's sake, personal fulfillment, or as part of a bigger dream to see your name in lights, hat's off to you!
This site has been up for just a little over four months, and so far I've posted four reviews from the scores of queries and scripts I've received. (I think the total submissions were around 100.) More reviews should be on the way for 2007 submissions, so keep 'em coming. I look forward to what's in store.
As there weren't enough selections for a "TOP TEN" list (this site's been up for only a quarter of a year, so give me a break), I'll have to cut a few corners and instead give you...A TOP FOUR!
#4: My first script selection, THE LIST--a gritty, stylish revenge thriller that featured some sly dialogue and well-thought out action.
#3: THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN, a highly original supernatural fantasy twisting themes from THE WIZARD OF OZ and Grimm's fairy tales with a frightening, adult perspective.
#2: Ladies and gentlemen, for 2nd place we have a tie! In alphabetical order, they are:
THE JEWELER'S WIFE, an absolutely gripping romantic drama/thriller set in a Jewish workcamp during WWII. Though many, many films have been set within that time and place, this script was full of some genuine surprises and kept me on my toes.
PROGGER, a wonderfully funny and charming story of a young misfit slacker who not-so-skillfully juggles his romantic relationships with ambitions for a music career. Filled with quirks and good humor, this one had be smiling from beginning to end.
And at #1...? That will be announced on Monday.
Friday, January 05, 2007
This quote by the superstylish filmmaker kept buzzing inside my head while I read my next script selection. I wouldn’t define it as a complete success…actually, I’m not sure if I even liked it or not…but I’ll give it this much: the script haunted me, and is unlike anything I’ve read in quite some time.
THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN
By Christopher Woods
111 Crescent Court
Louisville KY 40206
Tel: (502) 895 8240
Now…how the hell do I begin to describe this screenplay?
Think of a gothic fairy tale for adults—dark, sinister, with sly references to fantasy stories and folklore of the past. What Neil Jordan’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES did for Little Red Riding Hood, THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN does for stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Hansel and Gretel, retelling them in a mature, frightening context. It ain’t kids’ stuff.
The story follows two teenage sisters, Luna and Terra, either abandoned by, or fleeing from, their tyrannical mother and ineffectual father. (The story sways from one possibility to the other.) Lost amidst a mysterious forest called Everwood, they encounter a wolflike creature set on eating them and—yup, you guessed it—a scarecrow in a cornfield (though this one breaks into a variation of the song from the 1939 film, lamenting his lack of something other than a brain). There is even a character called “The Lord of the Junk,” and like Baum’s original Tin Man, this creature is definitely in need of a heart…if for entirely different reasons.
The main story involves—surprise!—a witch, but this cackling hag is a diabolical cannibal who not only terrorizes the two children, but would probably terrorize much of the adult audience as well.
What struck me most about the script was its visual imagery. Woods obviously has a strong eye for the fantastic, and THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN presents us with a world not unlike the ones featured in LEGEND, or the more recent PAN’S LABRYNTH.
Yet perhaps my comparing it to THE COMPANY OF WOLVES is most fitting. Both are reworkings of classic tales, told with great intelligence and care through a dark, mature voice…and peppered with some erotic, even sexual overtones. Alas, both works share many of the same problems: a lack of a cohesive central story and emotional heart, and the unsatisfying feeling that they are more polished exercises in style rather than storytelling.
Luna and Terra are little more than symbolic figures here, and while they show courage in the face of danger and obviously care for one another, they never develop into three-dimensional characters. This is a significant shortcoming that distanced me emotionally from the material. They, as with the characters around them, strangely seem like mere pawns, moving by-the-numbers through the fantastical creatures and supernatural trappings around them.
But oh, what trappings! This is a world that you can smell and feel, with bitterness as well as humor. I can’t say that I liked THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN, but a the same time, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It has dynamite potential…but then so did THE BROTHERS GRIMM—and that film had a stronger story and grade-A talent behind it. (Terry Gilliam is a genius, but his film felt more like a shallow enterprise in manic energy and dark atmosphere than a soulful, spiritual adventure.)
I’d really like to see Woods give the script a complete overhaul, making Luna and Terra into more rounded, developed characters who change from, rather than merely react to, the wondrous, crazy happenings around them. Easier said than done, I’m sure.
As it is, THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN evokes more admiration than enthusiasm. But there’s something to be said for admiration...and I certainly wouldn't be writing about this script here if I didn't feel strongly about it. This is a keenly rendered vision--born of obvious imagination and intelligence--and a genuine feast for the eyes. I only wish it could have stirred my heart.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Let me start off by staying how sorry I am for the delay in getting the next batch of reviews up, but I’ve had a lot of material to read through. As I’ve said, the overall quality of the submissions are much better now, and as a result, I’ve found myself reading more scripts from start to finish. This takes up quite a bit of my time.
I’ve noticed that most of the better submissions usually fall into one of two categories, with opposite strengths and weaknesses.
First are the scripts that, while well written, lack a strong story and/or characters. There may be a strong understanding of a screenplay’s structure—pacing, descriptions, dialog and action—but the core story that is supposed to bind it all together just isn’t there.
The other category is the exact opposite—one where the writer has a very, very strong concept or premise to work with, but fails in the execution. Screenwriting is a very challenging, limiting art, where even the most gifted and successful novelists can often trip up. (Take, for example, the awful screenplays written by one of the world’s most successful horror writers...not to name names, of course.)
Some people are great at writing novels. Some at screenplays. Few at both.
For those of you who struggle with one category or the other, the best advice is to seek out a writing partner—someone gifted in the areas that you are not, and who can also play to your strengths. For most of us this idea would seem unthinkable, but you’d be amazed how much you can profit from a creative collaboration. Who knows? Maybe you can even teach a thing or two to the other guy.
My other advice is this:
- If you’re unaccustomed to the screenwriting format, try to get your hands on copies of screenplays to the films you love. Many scripts are available either online or can be bought at specialty stores. (Hollywood’s full of ‘em.) This way, you can see for yourself how scenes and actions are broken down, line by line.
- If you’re already well versed in movies and screenwriting structure, do yourself a favor: go to your local library and open up a book or two. Choose a novel or a memoir written by someone you’ve never heard of...it might prove to be a really great experience. (And no, you’re not allowed to select that STAR WARS novelization by James Kahn.)
The next, final batch of 2006 script reviews begins tomorrow! Aren't ya excited!
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Why, you ask? Because a good query letter can at least get a producer interested in a script...even if the script stinks. Whereas bad query letter can... well, you could have written the next GONE WITH THE WIND for all we know, but I doubt people would be lining up to read it.
So...let us dissect the elusive art of "The Query Letter." Here is one example from a recent email I received; its author and title I shall keep anonymous.
A group of teenagers try to quit smoking. Told in the style of St. Elmo's Fire.
Sounds gripping, doesn't it? Already I can feel my fingers tingling in excitement, eager to curiously flip through each and every one of the script's pages.
Hey, I don't want to sound mean about all this, but honestly...this is not a query that exactly whets one's appetite. (Though I am mildly curious to see how that St. Elmo's Fire comparison ties into such material.)
Compare that to Dwight Star's submitted query for THE LIST, which ended up being my first screenplay selection for this blog:
Most people have one, the list of things they want to do...or people they want to get before they die. Harvey is the man who can make it happen for you, for the right price. When an old man tries to make amends for the wrongs he's committed, and get out of a business that tore his family apart, he calls on Harvey to get the job done. Harvey may not be the most professional person, but he has one guarantee: the list will be completed.
Harvey doesn't want to be known as the man who takes care of hit lists at whatever cost. That was the old man's business -- when you're cleaning money for terrorists and mobsters alike, you make a few enemies along the way.
But when the old man is on his death bed, Harvey reluctantly agrees tosettle one last score for him. The target's name is Lansky, and he has awide array of foot soldiers and assassins. Trained in weaponry and martial arts, Harvey does what it takes to get the job done -- whether dropping thugs out of windows, crushing them and their motorcycles against walls, or beating them down with a staff. He thinks fast on his feet, and his methods are not always professional.
Tired of being sucked into his father's world, Harvey confronts him, and an argument ensues. Harvey decides that the list is not worth it; unfortunately he has underestimated Lansky and the repercussions are devastating. His brother is attacked and almost killed. By the time Harvey gets back to his father's house to try to make amends, he finds the mansion burnt to the ground and he narrowly survives several attempts on his own life. Harvey and his brother decide to avenge their father and finish the list.
Now THIS query is interesting, not because it's long but because it's well written. Intriguing. I can get a sense of the writer's style, and I like it. It's catchy, and I want to find out more.
With a query letter, you're not just trying to tell the gist of your story, but the style of your storytelling. Therefore, if your script is a thriller, make the query thrilling... If it's a comedy, make the query comic... You get the idea.
Good luck, and keep 'em coming.
And by the way, HAPPY NEW YEAR!