May 29 2019

Time To Get Weird

ThorRagnarokSometimes the death of a genre can be the best thing for it.

There is always a point in any movie genre where the greed of the industry over-saturates the audience. No matter what flavor is your favorite flavor, if you get nothing but that flavor you get sick of it. We’ve seen this happen with all kinds of trends in film, from Rom Coms to Fantasy to Superhero movies. But genre exhaustion can be a good thing. Because then the only place that genre can go to survive is… someplace weird. And when the studios stop getting rewarded for playing it safe, they get desperate and try a new way. That’s great for moviegoers! Sometimes a genre has to get really cliche and really tired and be on its death bed for studios to start taking risks in that genre. Time to get weird!

Let’s look at the superhero genre. People have been predicting the death of this one for ten years. It’s true, the market seems ridiculously over-saturated. But the only thing that died was the traditional version of a superhero film. The typical square-jawed hero in the flowing cape can’t get us to the theater anymore. We’ve seen that guy. Over and over. Marvel saw the writing on the wall very early and stopped looking at superheroes as a genre. They looked at it as a means to tell many genres of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy is a space adventure. Thor: Ragnarok is a trippy gladiator movie. Black Panther is a Shakespearean Drama. The only time DC was rewarded for their superhero movie attempts was with Wonder Woman — a female, Greek-goddess war movie. Now here comes Brightburn, flipping the entire premise of Superman onto its dark side.

BatmansBatman is its own lesson in exhausting a character. How many times has he been rebuilt from the ground up? After the fourth version of Tim Burton’s Batman, when Joel Shumacher added nipples to the batsuit and the “Starlight Express”-dressed crusaders literally ice skated and air-surfed, we were done. Enter Chris Nolan with his take: a gritty, stripped-down, ultra-real crime story, something Warner Brothers never would’ve dreamed of doing years earlier. But they were desperate. They’d tried everything. And in their desperation, they let the filmmaker try something crazy. How glad we are that he did.

Now we’re feeling the strain of the Live Action Remake. Disney made some new money by turning their animated classics into living, breathing, realism. But it’s getting old. Almost everyone I talk to says so. This live action thing was cool for three or four movies but… ten? Dumbo stumbled, showing signs of wear. Nostalgia alone can’t be the reason we go. These movies have to stand on their own and, dare I say, subvert the originals they are based on.

DisneyLiveAThe death of a genre is an exciting time. It’s the birthing pains of something new and weird. I can’t wait to see what is weird enough to reinvigorate the western, or the sports movie, or the epic fantasy. Personally, I’m waiting for the Hope-and-Crosby “buddy movie” version of Batman and Robin. Lethal Weapon with capes! That, I’d like to see.

May 17 2019

“Nobody Talks Like That”

Pulp-FictionThis was an ongoing note from producers I had on a particularly difficult project. They became extreme micromanagers on almost every creative decision, which finally came down to analyzing every line of dialogue in the script. The crux of our disconnect finally came to a head one day when my producer said to me, “Your dialogue is just not realistic. Nobody talks like that.”

Nobody talks like that. Hmm.

This issue went on for many months.  It was crucial to these producers that my characters — characters in an animated movie, in a fantastical situation — always use vocabulary and phrases that EVERYONE would use. The dialogue had to be  “natural” and “common” and “relatable.” I’ll be honest — when I write, I never really think about this. I just go with my instincts and let things flow. So maybe I’m the one who doesn’t talk like everyone else.

Then so be it.

I take real issue with this note. So it’s worth talking about. My goal in writing dialogue is clearly different than these producers. If my dialogue makes my characters speak in a way that is different from everyone else, I wear that badge with honor. Because that means that not only are my characters unique and heightened and interesting, but so is my voice as a writer.

Ask Quentin Tarantino. Or John Hughes. Or Wes Anderson. Or Kevin Smith. Or Diablo Cody. Or Mindy Kaling. Or Judd Apatow. Or Tina Fey. Or Jordan Peele. Or Spike Lee. I COULD GO ON AND ON. These people are known for — and yes, accused of — making their characters talk in a unique way that “no one else does.”

And they. Are. Icons.

Liz LemonBut let’s set that aside and go even deeper to ask: Why do we go to the movies? What do we want from the people on screen? We want a heightened experience. We want profound speeches. We want fast wit. We want to be surprised by memorable, quotable words that WE NEVER HEAR FROM EACH OTHER IN REAL LIFE. Sorry I shouted that last part, but I feel strongly about it.

So yes, of course I strive to write natural dialogue. But no, I will NOT force my characters to talk like “normal people talk” by eliminating an interesting word choice, a clever punchline, or a more elegant turn of phrase. Because “normal” is boring. And that makes a writer’s voice flatline into something that has no punch at all.

I worked with these producers for months to find a middle ground, but we never really found it. It was an exhausting, frustrating process. And it resulted in what I would call very “middle of the road” scenes. Until producers allow writers and directors to truly be their strange, unique selves, they’ll never get “the good stuff” that they can’t quite put their finger on. They’ll never create the films we want to watch for years to come.

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) w/ Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong) in the background L to R. ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

May 10 2019

Notes: Just Put The Couch By The Window

332_swoon-chairI love metaphors. As a writer, they really help me explain concepts, especially to myself. One particular metaphor helps me survive notes and story changes that I don’t agree with. On any script, pressure will come from the studio or the producers to second-guess what you feel is the natural choice. In these times, it is better to view them as a CLIENT rather than a collaborator.

Here’s the metaphor: A COUCH.

The client will ask you to “decorate” the “room” that is your story. You know where the “furniture” will look best before you even move it around. You know where the couch should go right away. It seems so obvious to you. But you serve the client, and they want to put the couch by the window. You already know it won’t work. You explain all the reasons why the furniture should be arranged in the way you envision, why the whole room will work better that way. After all, that’s what they paid you for — for you to arrange the “furniture” of this “room.” You discuss, you push your point, but they just don’t see it. They just really want that couch over against that wall.

You want to please the producer. But if you are a good writer, you can’t help but think of what’s best. You think, “I know the couch won’t be good over there. I know that every day at 3 pm, the sun is going to hit them in the eyes. And it’s too wide for that wall. And it makes the whole room smaller there. I have to say something.”

But sometimes, the client just wants the couch by the window. Period. They want it there, you know it’s not best there, but that’s that. Put the couch by the window. Just do it.

Maybe a week later they will call you back and complain about the afternoon sun and tell you to move the couch again. And you can say, “What a great idea.” It’s not about winning your position. Just make them happy. At the end of the day, they may just want what they want, even if it’s not the best.

For artists who listen to their instincts and trust them, this can be tiresome. But this is part of the job. It’s really the difference between writing for yourself as a hobby and writing for clients as a career. As painful as it is to admit it, even your own original idea, once paid for by a studio or producer, is not entirely yours anymore. You are now in collaboration with another person. And you must view that person in a “client” mentality to get over these annoying, annoying moments. When you “put the couch by the window,” defying all your instincts, you can take comfort in the fact that on this point, for now, you are serving the client.

Lonely CouchNine times out of ten the best version of “where the couch goes” will be revealed to everyone. It may even be revealed to you too. Just remember the couch is never done moving until the movie is in theaters.

Metaphor over!

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