Tuesday, February 24, 2009

TRAINING WHEELS (LESSON # 1)

And as The Wheel goes spinning along down the Hollywood fast lane (okay, slow lane) here are some Do's and Do Not’s he has picked up between the treads...

LESSON 1: When rapping with Executives, you denigrate hit movies at your own peril. Do not be an idiot. What they want is to be reassured, to know that you’re Mainstream, to know that you think and feel the way audiences think and feel. So here is rule Number One, folks:

If it made money, you loved it.

See ya next time…

Friday, February 20, 2009

OSCARS

Here is what one of my good friends in The Industry – let’s call him Alcatraz (he is in “movie jail” at the moment; persona non grata; you’ll soon know why) -- had to say in a recent group email about this year’s Academy Awards broadcast. Keep in mind that I generally never agree with this guy’s opinions but almost always enjoy the manner in which he expresses them.

Alcatraz: “So after a lot of thought and deliberation I have decided I’d rather watch twenty-five back-to-back episodes of GALACTICA 1980 followed by a chaser of DR. VEGAS than even eight fucking minutes of this year’s Oscars telecast. Know why? Because I have zero interest in this year’s nominees, that’s why.

“I can’t be too specific because some of you may have worked on these movies or voted for them but at least one of this year’s Best Picture nominees is nothing but a tritely written, wildly overpraised fairy tale.

“Another one typifies the same kind of self-congratulatory ‘message’ movie that right-thinking Hollywood types can always be depended on to fall for faster than a Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme.

“Another one is Important with a capital ‘I’, and is actually not that bad.

“Another one is Important with a capital ‘I’, and is just exactly that bad.

“And the last one is so bloated and pandering and simplistic that nobody that I’ve spoken with who’s actually seen this fucking movie had anything positive to say about it. Nobody. They were all disappointed -- 26 or 27 people -- and here it is being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture of the year. Unbe-fucking-lievable.”

Again, I almost never seem to agree with Alcatraz, and this time was no exception. I actually enjoyed four of the five movies being nominated this year, but I thought I’d pass along this critique.

OUTED!

Well, it was bound to happen eventually, kids. Thanks to Lee Goldberg over at A Writer’s Life, my cover is officially blown. The hubcap’s been yanked off The Wheel. Check it out…

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2009/02/youll-thank-me-later.html

Lee is a good writer, a good guy, and a good friend. But damn, damn, damn!

Now that I am no longer blogging into a void, now that people are actually reading this damn thing, I guess I’m starting to feel a bit self-conscious. After all, my blogging has to be…entertaining now. It has to be, y’know, good.

Look for far fewer posts in the future.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

WALTER HILL: SCREENWRITER

Another writer shamelessly omitted from my Top 25...

At his best, Hill remains not only an exhilerating filmmaker (48 HOURS, UNDISPUTED, HARD TIMES) but also a peerless writer of tough, action-oriented screenplays (HARD TIMES, THE WARRIORS, THE DRIVER, Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY).

Shane Black cites him as a huge influence. Take one look at their screenplays and you'll know exactly what Black is talking about.

It was from Hill that Black co-opted the terse "action-stacking" technique that make his screenplays so muscular and fun to breeze through.

Action stacking is lean, stripped-down writing intended primarily for speed. It is fragmentary. Verb-heavy. Designed to yank your eyeball directly down the page in short explosive bursts of stacatto prose. Example...

David types.
Half-drunk.
Fingers flying over keys.
Lips dangling a Lucky Strike.
The telephone RINGS.

You could say it owes a great debt to Western Union. It's telagrammatic. Mostly free of articles, adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions. Just noun, verb. Noun, verb.

Like the writing equivalent of working a speedbag.

Thanks to Shane Black's script for the original LETHAL WEAPON (1987), a lot of writers are employing this technique now, but sparingly, and usually only for action scenes. I first encountered it in Hill and David Giler's rewrite of ALIEN, but Hill says he didn't pioneer the style. The true innovator, according to Hill, is screenwriter Alexander Jacobs, who wrote his script for the John Boorman thriller POINT BLANK (which I would love to get hold of) in this fashion way back in 1967.

But Hill claims he took Jacobs style and refined it; made it his own.

Hill only wrote a few scripts entirely in this manner (HARD TIMES, THE WARRIORS, THE DRIVER), mostly in the mid to late-1970's, but one of my goals at some point is to write my own spec screenplay in pure, unadulterated "Hill-speak."

Or rather, take Walter Hill's technique and refine it; make it my own.

THE "FLAWLESS" HERO

Because you friggin' demanded it, a reworking of something that I posted up on Lee Goldberg's blog A Writer's Life about the wierd predominance of what I am calling the "flawless" hero in contemporary pop culture. Think of Matt Damon in the three Jason Bourne flicks. Sure he's soulful and oh-so trendily angst-ridden, but who gives a crap? He can still outpunch, outscrew, and outkill anything that moves.

How do I feel about this?

I think it's a terrible trend. At some point somebody decided that the hero must be stronger, faster and tougher than everybody else in the world and always three steps ahead of the bad guys.

Now you can say, "It was ever thus," but it wasn't, really, even with the so-called "perfect" men of action like James Bond.

For proof I refer you to GOLDFINGER. In the last twelve minutes of what remains the greatest 007 flick ever made (not just my opinion, fact), Bond ends up in Fort Knox getting the crap beaten out of him by an extraordinarily powerful Korean named Oddjob... in other words, Bond is wildly overmatched here... until the last possible moment when he manages to think his way out of danger.

Another example: Midway through THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR when Robert Redford's milqtoasty bookworm ("I'm not a field agent- I just read books!") ends up going toe-to-toe with a ruthless and scary martial-arts assassin and Redford -- unable to outfight his deadly opponent -- suddenly is forced to outwit the bad guy.

Nowadays, action heroes can outfight anybody (any ten bodies), and their movies as a result contain far less tension and suspense because they contain far less real danger.

One final example, this time from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, in which our globetrotting hero, Indiana Jones, finds himself in wayyy over his head on any number of occasions, most brutally on a German airstrip in the middle of the Sahara Desert where a burly bald-headed Nazi ends up using Jones's face as a punching bag.

It isn't pretty. At first, Indy tries to “box” the guy according to Marquis of Queensbury rules, but this isn’t working. The guy is stronger. Faster. Tougher. In other words, Indy can’t win. (Imagine Jason Bourne facing a similar predicament. Seriously, close your eyes and try to imagine it. Not so easy, is it?)

Indy, of course, has to rely on his wits -- and yes, a convenient airplane propeller – in order to gain the upper hand and emerge victorious…and his victory is much the sweeter (and somehow more “relatable”, too) because of it.

There is a reason for the endurance of David and Goliath. It is an almost perfect adventure yarn. But in today’s Hollywood – don’t ask me how -- David has suddenly become Goliath.

And for this writer, at least, that story isn't half the fun.

No, wait; strike that. It is precisely half the fun.

J, AP & CSS

Back home in Sherman Oaks, reflecting on the past five days...

Recap of last week: J loved our treatment. Concise and fleet of foot. The bad news: AP (a smart, successful producer) hated it. Well, hate's a strong word. He liked the writing and the energy, but said it was all wrong for this pitch and this studio.

"It needs to be 65% about the comedy," he said. "Make it more about the set pieces and less about the plot."

The plot, he said "they weren't gonna give two shits about anyway."

The pitch had to be all about our Star, and how this movie was going to be showcasing our Star.

Furthermore, AP said, the comedy had to be more real. "Right now," he said, "it all feels like a spoof."

AP had a lot of funny ideas. Our main guy shopping at Macy's, for example, was dead solid perfect for this story, as was his idea of the CIA flying first-class and our hero flying coach. Pretty great.

AP also expressed his desire that our hero be "flawed, but not pathetic... an underdog, but not a loser." In short, he had to be somebody the males who were sitting in the audience with their popcorn and their root beer wanted to emulate; wanted to be just like.

Finally, by the end of the movie, our main guy had to have learned something. J had a really terrific idea along those lines; an idea, he said, already woven into the fabric of our story via the runner about the hero living in the shadow of his legendary Dad: What if by the end of this story we see our hero finally learning to step out of his father's shadow?

Works like gangbusters for me, and I hope it works for AP, too.

Both J and AP had plenty of praise for me personally, calling me funny and "great in the room", which is always nice to hear, but at the end of the meeting I left the room I was just so wonderful in thinking Ross and I had a lot of friggin' work to do.

Afterward, I went out and grabbed a bite and called J from my car about 90 minutes later. He sounded distant and annoyed and I soon found out why: He had just come home and found a very disturbing message in his email. It was from his lawyer -- a forwarded message from one of the 237,000 attornies representing NBC/Universal. Apparently, the whole rights issue we thought had been sorted out two weeks ago was now, God help us, still very much up for grabs.

The lowdown: While RF technically does control the rights to CSS, the studio that developed the property -- i.e., Universal -- can still hold us up over money if they want to, and they want to, and anybody hoping to make a feature out of CSS had better be prepared to pay a tribute to the Globe.

Exactly how much of a tribute, of course, is the $64,000 question, and one we hope to have an answer to by the end of this week.

So stick around, kids. Keep that dial right where it is: Tuned in to NBC!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

BEGINNING OF THE END...

Well kids, the clock is now ticking. Today we started "breaking" (group-outlining) the most anticipated MONK episode of the entire year. Hell, of the whole series: The Grand Finale.

For months now, fans have been abuzz with speculation about what precisely is going to happen on this show. Will Monk solve his wife's murder? Will he finally get "well" again? Will he find true love?

Word to the curious: I can't even confirm the finale is going to ask those questions, let alone answer them. All of us at MONK are being told to respect a kind of unofficial gag order -- meaning nobody gets to hear about the finale, even our wives. Think of it as being exactly like the Manhattan Project during World War Two, except instead of producing the weapon that will end the war and keep the world safe for democracy we are producing a low-budget cable TV show.

So once again: The Wheel will not be discussing any details about the finale, because he can't. He can, however, discuss a tiny bit about the process that is going into writing it.

But first, a little backstory...

My brother, Andy Breckman, is a stone genius. That is not opinion. That is fact. Ask anyone who knows him. Are you a fan of MONK? You are? Then you're a fan of my brother. Andy not only wrote the original pilot but he has been MONK's showrunner since day one, and is the final voice on every script.

Which is to say that MONK is Andy's baby, and for some time, Andy has had specific notions about the way MONK should end...plot revelations, mostly...and they're terrific...but what he didn't have, frankly, was a story. So today we did what we always do whenever we're breaking a new episode: Hauled out a bulletin board and sat down and began brainstorming ideas. Dozens of ideas. A hundred ideas. Ideas for scenes. Jokes. Clues. Epiphanies. Plot twists. Character connections, etc.

Five hours later, the board was covered with index cards -- always a beautiful sight, I suppose -- but there was no cohesion to the episode, no flow. No story. We hadn't yet hit upon the "spine" of the piece, and as the great William Goldman once observed: Screenplays are structure.

Goldman's correct, as usual. Trust me, kids, half the cards on that board will be comimg down by Friday.

But that's all right. It ain't supposed to be easy, particularly at first. And while once or twice per season you may hit upon an idea so high-in-concept and inspired the damn thing ends up practically writing itself...the rest of the time, baby, you feel like you're chiseling through stone.