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The Top 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century So Far

Many have tried to compile a list of the best science fiction movies of the 21st century… all have failed. Until now… maybe.

In a brave attempt to distil from a ton of good movies the best 10 of the new millennium, here are my Top 10. Take it or leave it, but I’ve tried to avoid the more bogus entries. So you won’t find Oscar-bait here like District 9 (2009) – a movie that has virtually no sci-fi in it – or even the wonderful Korean hit movie The Host (2006) – as this is actually a horror movie. Nor will you find movies that are “technically” sci-fi in name only, such as the great Brit flic “28 Days Late” (2002) as this is actually a zombie movie.

Nor will you find much of the bloated, brainless CGI action-fests that fill so many of our multiplexes nowadays.  The movies below have earned the right to be here. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Battle Royale (2000)

This movie explodes onto your screen with such daring and style it’s impossible to resist. In a near future Japan the government has found a rather unique way of tackling juvenile delinquency. You and your classmates are chosen at random, stuck on an island with a variety of lethal weaponry, and must kill each other before your explosive neck collars take your head off. Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation of the banned Japanese cult novel by Koshun Takami is a rollicking good roller coaster of a movie, as sweet schoolgirls and naïve schoolboys turn on another to escape their no-win situation. Filmed with sadistic glee, the movie has a serious message about individualism in a society that favours conformity.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

What’s that? Groans? But hear me out… when Keanu returned in triumph in The Matrix (1999) it heralded a new era of science fiction… one where everyone wore long overcoats and performed gravity-defying somersaults while shooting hand weapons (Equilibrium, anyone?) . But stylish as that was, The Matrix Reloaded did what all good sequels should do. It went one step further. Now the bad guys are even more stylish, the coats even longer, the gun battles go on for hours, and the superhuman avatars chase each other in one of the best freeway stunt sequences ever filmed. Does he CGI hold up today? Not as well as it should, but when this was shown in cinemas audiences were breathless with the possibility of what could be done with computers. Maybe we’re all still living in the Matrix now. Just don’t mention the third film…

Primer (2004)

Shot on a miniscule budget, this is THE head-scratching time travel movie you’ve been waiting for. With a plot so complicated it’s impossible to follow, this would set the blueprint for many of the “mind-bending” Hollywood movies in the years ahead. The concept is simple, some friends invent time travel. But the combination of mind-blurring science and labyrinthine plot twists make this one of the most interesting and original movies of the 21st century.

Timecrimes (2007)

This Spanish low budget sci-fi movie is one of those films that’s excruciating to watch, because you can kind of guess what’s coming next… only you can’t. It’s also been quite influential… and that’s putting it nicely. Check out Triangle (2009) if you don’t believe me. Timecrimes is a rarity nowadays… a sci-fi comedy thriller that shows what happens when time travel intrudes upon the life of an ordinary slob. Cue a hilarious and toe-curling mixture of coincidences, bad luck and stupid errors that put its unlikely hero in more and more peril. Can he make everything right again at the end? Where even is the end? An extremely entertaining and clever movie with a wicked streak of black comedy.

Tron Legacy (2010)

I honestly don’t know why there’s not more love for Joseph Kosinski’s sequel to the 1982 Disney movie Tron. With technology and VR having moved on, it seemed timely if somewhat bizarre to do a sequel 28 years later. But this time Disney got it right: a killer soundtrack, the most beautiful people imaginable, and an updated look that is not so much ’80s video games as a sleek iPhone, all make this a superslick movie that is beautifully shot and a wonder to behold. Unlike the original movie, there’s also an emotional subplot involving our hero, who finds himself zapped into a video game world, and his father, who created said video game world and got trapped in it 25 years earlier. Again, this is a sequel that extends the original universe. So where we had light cycles, we now have light planes. Add in a standout cameo by Michael Sheen as a David Bowie impersonating bartender, and you have a hit. What’s not to like?

Under the Skin (2013)

Do you like watching Scarlet Johansen seduce Scottish men and eat them? Then you’ll love this arthouse sci-fi horror movie. Apparently the film’s ultra-realistic pickup scenes were shot by having Johansen go undercover in Glasgow in a bad wig chatting to various random strangers. What puzzles me is how anyone could not recognize Scarlet Johansen. But the result is a movie that resembles that great 70s cult film The Man Who Fell To Earth, depicting a grounded take on what fist contact between humans and a stranded alien might look like. There are some bold visual set pieces here also as Johansen lures the men… well, inside her. A very dark and unusual film.

Passengers (2016)

Well, here it is. The dumb Hollywood blockbuster. It ticks all the boxes. Hot female star? Check. Hot male star? Check. Big space explosions? Check. Ludicrously expensive production budget? Check. A black comedy about uncaring corporations and the essential hopelessness of the human situation? Check… wait, what? This apparently boring tail of a person named Jim stranded alone on an interstellar cruise ship after being woken up too early from hypersleep is enlivened by terrific performances from Chris Pratt (fresh from his success in Guardians of the Galaxy ) and Jennifer Lawrence. Once again, Michael Sheen pops up as an AI bartender (is he making a career of this?) dispensing wonderful platitudes that fail to help the hero out of his situation. Jim decides he’s had enough of being alone and decides to wake up a fellow passenger, doming them both to total isolation for the rest of their life as the ship takes 90 years to reach its destination. There are the usual space shenanigans, explosions, and some  wonderful gravity-defying SFX, but the movie has an emotional core and humanity that makes it a cut above most blockbusters. In short, it’s what a Hollywood movie should be.

 

Ex Machina (2014)

Alex Garland is responsible for such genre greats as 28 Days Later and the less spectacular Sunshine. But here he steps firmly into sci-fi territory with a movie that pretends to be a lot cleverer than it is. Oscar Isaacs is terrific as the unpredictable and slightly bullying head of a large IT corporation who invites a random employee to test out whether his latest invention, a fembot, is truly sentient. The results, predictably, do not end well. Superb acting and a lot of head-scratching enliven a film that perhaps contains too many shots of hills covered in clouds. And it features one particularly memorable dance sequence.

Inception (2010)

Ah, Inception. There are so many things wrong with this film, but then again, there are so many things right with it. On the one hand, Christopher Nolan’s cgi-fest looks so great. Its visuals have been highly influential – sumptuous Marvel snorefest Doctor Strange (2016) seems to have borrowed heavily from it.  But when corporate saboteur Leonardo Di Caprio invades his target’s dreams he finds… nothing out of the ordinary really. Can it be that top-level businesspeople only dream about board meetings and big houses? Anyhoo… a clever twist involves the resurgence of DiCaprios dead, mad wife into his dreams, essentially putting a spanner in the works whenever he tries to go on a mission. Is it a manifestation of his subconsciousness? But the bravura sequence is the finale, in which there is a dream within a dream within a dream, until by the end of the movie we haven’t a clue whether we are awake or still dreaming. You have to admire a Hollywood movie that doesn’t tell you what’s going on. And so do audiences, apparently, as this was a monster hit as well as being critically acclaimed.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

This will be known as “The movie that bucked the trend”.  In a time when superhero movies were getting increasingly “dark” (read dour and pompous) James Gunn’s rollicking ride back to the ’70s tells you it is going to do something rather different in the opening scene, where Starlord (Chris Pratt in a career-defining role), an intergalactic freebooter and modern-day Han Solo, picks up an alien lizard and uses it as a microphone to sing a few bars of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” while dancing to his Sony Walkman. A joyous film that puts the fun back into superhero movies, Guardians is the Star Wars of its generation. It’s shouty, loud, colourful and warm. With awesome visual effects and a lot of fun references to the early marvel universe and Jack Kirby’s myriad creations, by the end of it we are truly immersed in this brilliantly realized comic book sci-fi universe. Dance-off, anyone?

 

 

 

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The Dreaded Coverage (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Feedback)

Today’s topic is about one of the most dreaded things a write can encounter: professional feedback, otherwise known as coverage. How to use and deal with feedback is one of the most important skills for a writer. As a screenwriter, that goes double.

WHAT IS COVERAGE?

Coverage is obtained when a writer submits his or her screenplay to an industry professional for written feedback. The professional does not undertake to produce the script, but instead provides a written report listing its strengths and weaknesses.

The difference between professional coverage and feedback from other people, such as the writers in your writers’ group (you do have a writer’s group, right?) is that you pay for the former. But the principles about how to deal with feedback are the same whether you pay or not.

HOW TO GET COVERAGE

There are many ways to get coverage. Websites and screenwriting gurus abound offering consultancy services ranging from around $50 upwards. The sky is the limit. I have seen consultants ask for thousands of dollars. The pros and cons of these services may depend on where you are as a writer, and I won’t go into whether they are worth the fee here.

You can also approach your peers – other writers. I would not suggest using friends and family unless they are also writers.  Your mother will always say your latest torture horror opus is “lovely, dear”. Likewise, friends may not wish to offend you. Those who are not writers may simply lack the skills needed to analyse a script or to tell you whether it is marketable or not. So always go with someone with experience of writing, editing or script reading.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into what coverage means to a writer:

 

Signs of when it's time to move on. (via Bluecat)

Signs that it’s time to move on.

STANDARD COVERAGE FORMAT FOR SCREENPLAYS

In the film industry, coverage consists of 2-3 pages of synopsis, followed by (usually) 2-3 pages of actual analysis, sometimes followed by a score card. The “meat” of coverage is the 2-3 page analysis. The score card illustrates at a glance the strengths and weaknesses of your work according to that script reader.

What is the purpose of the synopsis, you ask? I submitted my script to get an analysis, not to have my own story told back to me! I’ve been swindled!

Well, it’s tempting to consider the fist 2-3 pages as filler and ignore it. But another way to look at it is to consider that your story may not have translated itself into someone else’s head the way you imagined it in your own.

Writing is the art and craft of transferring thoughts from your own head into someone else’s. It is a kind of telepathy. Whether the other person “gets” your scene or not, or has a different impression of what just happened in your story, can be a sign that you were not successful in getting them to imagine everything as you did.

 

HOW TO DEAL WITH COVERAGE

Whenever a writer receives feedback, whether verbal or written, the initial reaction may well be to clench your teeth, dig your nails into the arms of your chair, then launch into a tirade about “idiots not getting it” or accusing the reader of skipping important parts that explained everything.

But remember, as a writer your job is to communicate. Just as the customer is king in the restaurant industry, in the writing world the reader is king. If the reader doesn’t get  what you want them to get, you have only yourself to blame.

Another reaction is panic. Panic at the amount of work that needs doing. Despair at the insurmountable cliff one faces. Did you spend enough time on your script to begin with? Most writers write around ten drafts of a script and at least two drafts of a novel before even showing it to anyone.  Now another rewrite looms. How will you ever get the work done?

Trust me, it’s something everyone dreads.

The way I deal with this is as follows:

Read the feedback all the way through, from start to finish.

Do nothing.

Let it percolate. Don’t be temped to dash off a hasty e-mail cursing the reader for his or her stupidity. If you’re in a writer’s group or face-to-face situation, take the comments with good grace and make a note of them. You will be glad you did. Giving feedback is an art in itself (that’s for another time). Some people are better at it than others. The other person may only wish to help as much as possible. They may think that by being ultra-critical they are only strengthening the material.

Let the dust settle.

After about a week of nursing your feelings by overindulging on cappuccino or another beverage of your choice go back to the feedback. Read it again.

Now that your feelings are out of the way, doesn’t it make more sense? You may even be inspired as you read and gain ideas about how to improve the script. How did you miss that plot point? And of course that character wouldn’t do that!

Maybe the reader knows something after all.

Read it again.

This time, break it down into the things that don’t work. Also make a note of the things the reader liked. Don’t change these. These are your story’s strengths.

I always copy the feedback into another document, then edit it down so that I just have the reader’s criticisms  bullet-pointed in a list.

Still looks like an awful lot of wok, doesn’t it?

Here’s a secret tip.

Do the easy stuff first!

Did you use the wrong word somewhere? Commit a typo? Attribute dialogue to the wrong character. Go and change that sucker now. Each time you do, remove that point from your document.

Feels good, right?

You’re making progress!

NOW FOR THE REAL WORK

At this point, go back over your shortened document. Now separate the points out into things like “STORY”, “CHARACTER”,  and “DIALOGUE”.

I now go through the script one time for each of these things. Take another pass for story problems, then another for character and dialogue etc. I recommend Paul Chitlik’s excellent book “Rewrite” for a structured approach. If you already did this, now’s the time to do it again.

By taking a structured, methodical approach to addressing feedback, you can make the process of rewriting much less painful.

If you find yourself unwilling to throw out a cherished scene or piece of dialogue, simply save another version of your novel or screenplay file. You can always go back to it. And you may find that without the psychological crutch of having it there you’ll find a much better way to write that scene or show that character’s journey.

Feedback is painful. It’s painful because we writers like to believe that what’s on the page is a little bit of our soul. And rejection hurts. But that’s not how it is. Rare is the script that cannot be improved, even Oscar-winning screenplays. Henry James, the great American novelist, used to return to his stories and tinker with them ad infinitum.

By taking time to let your wounded pride recover, you can approach feedback with a clear head. By breaking it down into small tasks, you can make rewriting seem less daunting. If you do these things, receiving feedback may become less like a chore.

As always, if you think I’ve missed anything, or disagree with me, let me know. I welcome the feedback!

Happy (re)writing!

 

POSTSCRIPT:

There will come a time when you cannot rewrite any more. Recognising this is just as important as knowing the script needs improvement. When you reach this stage, don’t delay. Get it out there! Form a marketing plan and execute it. Don’t let someone else beat you to the punch. This has happened to me several times. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone sell your idea to a studio when your script is sitting on a shelf waiting to be marketed!

 

 

The Best Horror Movies of the past 50 years Part 4! The Eighties!

Part 4 of our series on the most influential horror films of the last 50 years!

The end of the Seventies created the slasher movie. The mixture of low-budget filmmaking with its teenage cinema-going audience proved a winning combination. Special effects were also coming into their own, courtesy of groundbreaking science-fiction movies like “Star Wars”, and SFX and Special Make-up pioneers like Rick Baker and Savini. The Eighties would see an explosion (sometimes literally) in gore and transformation special effects. This in turn would spark off a  reactionary backlash… the “Video Nasty”.

Just keep telling yourself, "It's not Halloween! It's not Halloween!"

Just keep telling yourself, “It’s not Halloween! It’s not Halloween!”

Friday the 13th 1980

Starring a young Kevin Bacon, this textbook slasher is actually quite effective. Hot on the heels of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, Jason is Michael Myers on steroids. The film is pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier movie, except for more gore, a scary summer camp setting, and did we say more gore? A huge success, the film spawned a vast quantity of sequels. These are unusual in that the main bogeyman, Jason, becomes not only superhuman, but a parody of himself, until at last we finally get “Jason in Space”. Even today, Jason refuses to die, getting a recent unnecessary “reboot” in 2009. Director Sean S Cunningham had  worked on Wes Craven’s notorious nasty shocker “Last House on the Left”, and like Wes Craven’s monsters, Jason would soon become a  postmodern joke. But the first instalment tries, for the most part, to pay it straight.

The Shining 1980

Stanley Kubrick’s re-imagining of Stephen King’s masterful haunted house story is a rare thing – a horror movie and a work of art. Jack Nicholson descends into madness with a little help from the ghosts of the deserted Overlook Hotel, turning on his wife Shelley Duvall ( I challenge you to find a better screamer)  and his psychic young son. The hotel becomes part of the horror, its patterned carpets and maze-like structure twisting  the mind out of true. Nicholson’s performance is Oscar-worthy.  Kubrick’s direction flawless. Even the opening scene with its alien viewpoint becomes unsettling. Copied countless times, this is a true classic.

American Werewolf in London 1981

John Landis, better known perhaps for  comedies such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Coming to America” left an indelible impression on the horror genre with this tale of an American boy who gets bitten by a werewolf on the Yorkshire Moors. From then on, things get truly hairy. Landis plays with horror and comedy. The result is a very unsettling picture. But the star of this film is the magnificent werewolf transformation scene designed by Rick Baker. Excruciating in its agony and detail, we really believe we are seeing a man transform into a creature of the night. The uneven tone caught many critics by surprise, but this one stands the test of time, and has been copied by virtually every werewolf movie since.

The Howling 1981

It would be remiss not to mention “The Howling” as well. There is some controversy over which movie was in the works first. Landis maintains he had the idea for “American Werewolf” before production started on “The Howling. Both are werewolf movies, both feature excellent transformation scenes. Both have comedic elements. But “The Howling” for the most part is a serious story, as evidenced by the opening scene in which reporter Dee Wallace (the mom in “E.T.”) finds her interviewee in a seedy sex video store, only to be driven half insane when she sees him transform before her eyes. The scene is one of the most intense I’ve ever watched. Great acting fro the likes of Patrick McNee and John Carradine flesh out the cast, but again the real star is the special effects. Baker again had a hand in these, before leaving the production to work on “American Werewolf”.

The Thing 1982

Baker’s successor on “The Howling” was Rob Bottin. Bottin came into his own as designer of the many gut-wrenching and terrifying effects used in this John Carpenter masterpiece. The story is a simple one – scientists in a remote Antarctic base discover an  unfriendly alien life form that assimilates and takes over all other life forms, including man. The great cast makes the whole thing believable, while Carpenter is on top form, dishing out the scares.  But by now the “Video Nasty” craze was in full swing, especially in the UK, where various consumer groups battled to get such films banned.  That, and negative comparison to the “feel good” alien blockbuster “E.T.” released that year, prevented “The Thing” from being a box office success. Thirty years later, it has cult status.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984

Another Wes Craven creation, scarred undead child-murderer Freddy Kruger would go on to become one of the most recognizable monsters in horror. “Nightmare” is a genuinely frightening picture, with some very effective scares. It spawned an army of sequels and reboots of varying quality. But it too would suffer from the postmodern disease of become a self-parody,until finally we get “Jason vs Freddy”, a film that doesn’t even try to suspend disbelief.

Be afraid.. of the fly!

Be afraid.. of the fly!

The Fly 1986

David Cronenberg had made several pictures after “Shivers”, notable the excellent “Scanners”. But he hit the big time with this remake of a Vincent Price shocker about a scientists who experiments with teleportation only to swap heads with a fly. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success — a horribly disfigured Jeff Goldblum gradually transforming into a homicidal half-man/half-fly. But stalwart acting from Goldblum and Gena Davis, combined with a highly intelligent script, turned audiences on everywhere and the Fly became a bona fide hit. The tagline “Be Afraid. Be very afraid” has become a part of popular culture. One of the high points of horror in the 80s.

Evil Dead II 1987

Sam Raimi had burst onto movie screens with the 1981 classic “The Evil Dead”. Raimi’s penchant for weird camera angles and cartoony special effects was an underground hit, attracting the attention of the anti-Video Nasty brigade due to one very unpleasant scene. In “Evil Dead II” he took this one step further, creating his own unique blend of comedy and slapstick, and making a star out of straight man Bruce Campbell. As horror lightened in tone after the mid-Eighties, Raimi’s style fitted the mood of the times perfectly. The film is a basic remake of the first movie, but ends on a hysterically crazed note. The violence is cartoon, the plot insane. Fanbooys loved it, and have been lapping it up ever since.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

The Lost Boys 1987

All this seems to be part of a pattern. The serious, horrifying movies of the Seventies were transforming, as studios targeted their prime audience, and began churning out products that college kids out on a date could enjoy. Cynical marketing? Probably. This was the Eighties, after all. Whatever the reason, two movies came out in 1987 that reinvented the vampire genre. One was “Near Dark”, the other was “The Lost Boys”. This is where vampire chic has its roots. Kiefer Sutherland heads a posse of Eighties vampires, compete with rock star looks and clad in the latest fashions. They are everything vampires are (attractive, immortal, evil etc.) but updated. The movie is a very slick production, with some favourite child actors, some great comedy scenes, and a top-notch Eighties soft-rock soundtrack. “Lost Boys” was an instant hit. Since then, almost every “cool” vampire movie or TV show owes a debt to this movie, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Twilight”.

Near Dark 1987

The other movie that redefined the vampire genre was the little-seen “Near Dark”. But whereas “The Lost Boys” drew in audiences, this film took 25 years to become a cult classic. A tour-de-force of filmmaking by Oscar–wining director Kathryn Bigelow, it includes  a dream cast, many of whom had appeared together in Bigelow’s then-husband James Cameron’s “Aliens”. “Near Dark” features grubby, streetwise vampires prowling the American MidWest. This is no Gothic romance, nor is it high fashion. Lane Henriksen’s performance is chilling and compelling, Bill Paxton is at his rebellious finest, and sadly underused actress Jenny Wright at her most beguiling. These vampires are down and dirty. In many ways this movie is the opposite of “The Lost Boys”.

Hellraiser 1987

At the end of the Eighties, a Liverpudlian horror author with a dodgy transatlantic accent came to prominence. He was also a film director. Clive Barker brought a new vision to horror. His was horror filled with spectacle, almost operatic. The plot revolves around a puzzle box that, when opened, summons a trio of leather-clad sado-masochistic demons. Like Cronenberg, Barker likes to explore the forbidden or taboo. In “Hellraiser” he gave the world the iconic and somewhat literally-named monster Pinhead. And lo, a franchise was born! The movie is  unsettling and takes itself very seriously. Barker would follow this up with a variety of cult classics, such as “Nightbreed” and “Lord of Illusions” – all of which were overlooked by mainstream audiences despite their originality and quality.

In conclusion…

The Eighties created some wonderful horror movies, and saw the rise of the horror-comedy as a way to reinvigorate the genre. The wild and wacky craze of the Video Nasties gave way to more mainstream hits. Horror became homogenized. Maverick directors like Cronenberg became accepted by the movie-going public, and by the end of the Eighties, horror movies were no longer a Video Nasty to be burned or kept on the top shelf of your local video store but instead became big business, and somewhat tamer as a result.  Sequels multiplied faster than zombies. It was the coming of a time of exploitation, not of stereotypes this time, but of wallets.

Next time…

Horror in the 1990s. In which the genre reaches a dead end (say it ain’t so!), we all see dead people, vampires get all mushy and camera angles become shakier! See you there!

 

 

How to Write Loglines – an actually useful guide

Want to know how to write effective loglines for movies and books? Read on!

INTRODUCTION

There has been so much written on the subject of writing loglines that I thought it was about time I added my tupppence (or two cents, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on) to the debate.

Let’s start with the basics:

1. WHAT IS A “LOGLINE”?

A logline can apply to both novels and screenplays for movies. They are generally short, punchy descriptions of the plot (i.e. the thing your story is about). Editors, agents, producers and assorted other people often ask for a logline when they are deciding whether to buy or represent your work.

Interestingly, neither Robert McKee in his lauded book “Story” nor William Goldman in his seminal essay “Adventures in the Screen Trade” mention what a logline is. Yet I would argue that is one of the most essential tools the screenwriter or novelist has at his or her disposal. In fact, it is an essential skill to master.

One thing a logline is not is that thing you see on movie posters. This is in fact a “tagline”. Tagllines are very short (usually one sentence, or sometimes less!) statements used to entice someone into watching a movie.

An example of a tagline:

“In space, no-one can hear you scream” (Alien)

While this is a great tagline, note that it tells us nothing about what is going on (other than it’s in space, and you’re likely to scream).

A logline is more sophisticated and tells us more about the story.

For example:

“A psychopath escapes from an asylum and slashes his way through a quiet suburban neighbourhood until he is defeated by a bookish young woman” (Halloween).

Okay, so it’s not poetry. But you get the picture.

 

 

2. WHY THE HELL DO I NEED A LOGLINE ANYWAY?

But Eric, you say, why should I distil my 100,000 word novel or my 120 pages screenplay, work of genius that it is, into a single sentence?

The answer: a logline is a selling tool.

Loglines allow you to “pitch” (i.e. tell) someone about your story in a very short space of time. And when you’re dealing with producers, agents and executives who can only spare you less than a minute, this becomes important.

Of course, if you’re happy just writing and never selling anything, loglines probably won’t apply to you. Good luck on your chosen career path. Some of us have to eat.

A good logline can make someone sit up in their seat and pay attention. It can entertain, move and arouse curiosity in the listener. And it can delay that moment when they start yawning or hang up.

 

3.  OKAY, SMARTYPANTS. WHAT IS A GOOD LOGLINE MADE UP OF?

Opinions abound on this.

In his excellent guide “Raindance Writers Lab: Write and Sell the Hot Script”, Elliott Grove suggests that you first come up with a “basic premise”. This, to me, is a logline: a 25 words or less summary of the plot.

A rule of thumb is, the shorter the logline, the higher the concept.

High concept is what sells in Hollywood (although other types of film also sell). What is a high concept? Basically, something that’s real easy to sell.

In “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (a book no screenwriter should be without)  the author says that a killer logline should include the following:

– Irony

– A compelling mental picture

– An idea of audience and cost

– A killer title

Let’s investigate:

Irony

What is Irony? In the film “Borat” , Sascha Baron Cohen in his alter ego of the Khazakstanian ambassador to the USA, interviews a real-life professor of comedy. When the Professor tries to explain a joke to him, Borat deliberately gets the wrong end of the stick repeatedly. This goes on for some time until it becomes very funny. Everyone but the Professor of comedy, who is paid to understand humour, gets the joke. That is irony.

An example of irony in a logline would be: “A lawyer is forced to tell the truth for 24 hours after his son makes a birthday wish ” (Liar Liar).

The other elements are all important. A title is essential to help your movie stand out from the crowd. A sense of scale and budget will help others to decide whether to invest (is it “The Blair Witch Project” or “Avatar”?) .

However, there are basic elements I think this definition leaves out.

The easiest way to analyse what makes a good logline is to look at one.

Here are two examples:

“A police chief with a phobia of the sea must kill a giant shark but faces opposition from the local mayor who demands that the beaches stay open” (Jaws).

“A naive farmboy on a distant planet learns that he is actually the son of a legendary warrior and sets out to rescue a princess from an evil galactic empire”. (Star Wars).

Here we can see irony at work. The police chief is afraid of the water but must fight a shark. The farmboy is naive but must somehow defeat a whole army.

But there is more than just irony in a logline. Looking at our examples, here are some common elements:

A PROTAGONIST in an IRONIC SITUATION must overcome an OBSTACLE to achieve a GOAL in an ARENA.

Tackling “Jaws” first:

“A police chief [PROTAGONIST] with a phobia of the sea [IRONY] must kill a giant shark [GOAL ] but faces opposition from the local mayor [OBSTACLE ] who demands that the beaches stay open [ARENA]”.

The ARENA is the environment the story takes place in. This could be a location (a distant planet), a particular organisation (for example, the mafia), or even within the family unit (see “Ordinary People” for an example).

Sometimes the ARENA will be implicit. Other times you will have to spell it out. But the logline should give a sense of this.

Note that the OBSTACLE may be the same as the ANTAGONIST, or it may not. In “Jaws”, you may think the antagonist is the shark. But in fact it is the local mayor who opposes Brody’s shark safety measures. Killing the shark is the GOAL.

In “Star Wars” the antagonist is Darth Vader (or Grand Moff Tarkin to be precise). But in fact the whole Empire is what poses the problem.

The point is, the OBSTACLE is a fluid concept, depending upon how you craft your logline. But I believe there is an optimum balance to be achieved for maximum effect.

Here is another example that shows the flexibility of the logline concept:

“A young man and woman from different ends of the social spectrum fall in love aboard an ill-fated ocean liner.” (Titanic)

Breaking it down:

“A young man and woman [PROTAGONIST] from different ends of the social spectrum [OBSTACLE] fall in love [GOAL] aboard an ill-fated ocean liner [ARENA and IRONY].”

Note that it is the young woman who is the protagonist. More on that in another post. But the story is always about ONE PERSON’s journey. Unless it’s an ensemble film. Which just goes to show that William Goldman was right when he said “Nobody knows anything”!

One more for the road:

“A loyal Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge” (Gladiator)

Here’s the breakdown:

“A loyal Roman general [PROTAGONIST] is betrayed [IRONY] and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator [OBSTACLE and ARENA (literally!)] to seek revenge [GOAL]”.

Note also that sometimes it is the Protagonist’s FLAW which provides the irony (such as the farmboy being naive in “Star Wars” or the police chief with a phobia off the sea in “Jaws”). Other times it is the entire situation which is ironic, such as the loyal Roman general who is enslaved and betrayed by his own Emperor. Again, it’s a flexible concept.

The important thing is not to get hung up on the details but to check all the boxes.

One last thing. It may be worth your while to develop the logline BEFORE you write the script, as this way you can build a story that has the strongest foundations possible.

IN SUMMARY

So there you have it:

PROTAGONIST + IRONIC SITUATION + OBSTACLE + GOAL + ARENA

Not necessarily that order!

Have fun with loglines. You will probably take quite a few goes to build the best logline for your story. But the rewards are worth it. A logline is the PRIMARY selling tool. Once you practice it, you will surprised at the results.

 

Intermission – how to calculate movie budgets

Before we carry on with our discussion of action lines, here is something I learned about movie budgets.

One of the most popular questions asked of screenwriters is “What is the budget of this movie”? Yet there are no websites I can see which offer guidance on this. So, to fill a gap I thought I would share my research with you, gentle reader…

It can be frustrating for a screenwriter trying to estimate his or her potential screenplay’s budget. How much do SFX cost? How much does it cost to shoot in a particular city or range of locations? Will those exotic wild animals bump up the cost?

The only way I’ve found any answers is to look at previous movie budgets. Now, inflation can be a vexing devil, so I’ve only gone back a few years in most cases.

Here’s a list of recent movies from a range of budgets, along with what it cost to make them (All numbers are taken from http://www.boxofficemojo.com):

BIG BUDGET
Man of Steel = $225 million
Iron Man 3 = $200 million
World War Z = $190 million
Fast & Furious 6 = $160 million
Gravity = $100 million

MEDIUM BUDGET
Crazy Stupid Love= $50 million
Zero Dark Thirty = $40 million
The Social Network = $40 million
The Rite = $37 million
Saving Mr Banks = $35 million
Looper = $30 million
Anchorman = $26 million
The Conjuring = $20 million
The Apparition = $17 million
Nebraska = $12 million

LOW BUDGET
Paranormal Activity 2 = $3 million
The Purge = $3 million
Last Exorcism = $1.8 million
Insidious = $1.5 million
The Devil Inside = $1 million

MICROBUDGET

Paranormal Activity = $15,000

What does this mean? Well, let’s break it down.

BIG BUDGET

At the top end, we have big budget tentpole studio movies crammed with SFX and bankable stars. If you can make one of these for under $100 million, good luck. This is a very small market. Studios may only make a handful of these a year. Most of them are adaptations. Competition is fierce, and writing jobs are usually assignments that are  given to writers with a proven track record for generating serious cash. Here you will find your Joss Wheedons, David S Goyers and Zack Snyders.

MEDIUM BUDGET

In the middle range we have movies that are between £10-$100 million. This is a big range, and may movies are made for this amount of money. Factors that can push your script into this bracket include SFX, a few bankable stars, or lots of animals and stunt scenes. So if you’re filming Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, or Steve Carrell, or your script calls for a family of tigers, or a scene where someone jumps onto a moving semi-trailer (that’s a lorry for those of you who are English), or a wise-cracking CGI alien, this is likely to be your budget range. Again, there is tough competition here. Writers like Aaron Sorkin have made this budget range their own. But it may be possible to break into this market if you have a seriously strong concept and story that attracts star caliber talent or high-level investment. Note that many of these are dramas or dramedies. That’s because it’s tough to get a drama made unless you have a star, or an ex-star that wants to come back. Both of whom can push your low-budget piece up into this category.

LOW BUDGET

Next, we have the low budget world. This is the easiest spot to aim at. Most of these movies have either no SFX, a limited cast, are contained (i.e. they have limited locations, ideally less than 4), or are found footage. This is the world of the TV or family movie, However, it is also notably dominated by the horror genre. Horror has been the proving ground for many directors who went on to be A-listers (Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson) and tends to feature actors who can carry a movie without having the ego or bank account of so-called “stars”. A good horror movie can break box-office records, and studios know this. For instance, Insidious (2011) cost only £1.3 million to make, yet grossed over $55 million. Compare that to infamous flop “John Carter” (2012), which cost $250 million yet has recouped only $75 so far.

MAICRO-BOUDGET!!!!

Finally, we have the weird and wonderful world of the microbudget movie. This can be the kind of thing that premieres on the horror channel (if anywhere), or the kind of megahit that makes an entire career. Again, horror tends to dominate. Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and Halloween all became the most profitable independent films ever at one time. However other genres proliferate, such as 1980s sci-fi cult hits like Charles Band’s Trancers. However, it’s pretty safe to say these are flukes.

In reality, the low budget movie seems like a more sensible place to start. However, a word of warning: limiting your ideas to deliver a tiny budget movie may be a mistake. My own movie “Clone Hunter” was written as a big-budget space opera, yet managed to translate into a much lower budget movie. However, I’ve written microbudget movies by shoe-horning my ideas into confined locations without any SFX, and these failed to ignite any interest.

In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to put your eggs in different baskets. You can always try for a big-budget payoff while honing that indie coming-of-age drama and rattling off that limited location found footage horor movie.

Like everything with writing, it seems there’s no single surefire quick access route to success. Sometimes it’s just a matter of writing what excites you and finding someone who is as passionate about your material as you are. If nobody else shares your vision, move on.

 

 

 

Characters in your screenplay – good in a room?

Boy, I wish I could write great characters. Then I would feel qualified to write an article on them. But in all honesty, I can’t lay caim to that (what? you cry. Humble? Moi?). So instead this is just about a few techniques I use to write characters that might work for you.

William Goldman said famously that screenplays are structure.

But if you’re like me, you’ll want to know how to populate your story with great characters. They can make the difference between selling a screenplay and it ending up in the slush pile.

More importantly, they can also make your story into something that will hopefully last longer than the popcorn you bought going into the theatre.

How many times have you seen a (usually big budget action) movie, and been carried along by the stunts, explosions, etc. only to never watch that movie again?

In contrast, how many times have you watched certain movies over and over again?

Why do you do it?

What do The Terminator, Casablanca, The Producers, and Frankenstein all have in common?

Great characters.

What would The Terminator be without shrinking violet waitress-turned-badass Sarah Connor? (Answer: Terminator 3)

What would Casablanca be without the outwardly cynical but morally sound Rick?

What would Annie Hall be without the neurotic Alvy Singer?

How about Dirty Harry without Harry Callaghan? Or Rocky without Rocky Balboa? It’s no coincidence that many successful movies have character names as their titles, or even the occupations of the characters (Ghostbusters or The Goonies).

Okay. We get it. Characters are important. They keep us interested in the movie long after the special effects aren’t so special anymore. And SFX go out of date really quickly.  Have you seen The Matrix Reloaded recently?

But I digress…

So here are a few tips I use when designing characetrs.

1) Real Life

Yes, sad but true. Real life actually inspires a lot of art. You remember real life? The stuff that goes on when you’re away from your computer? Sometimes it can be smelly and unpleasant?

Take a walk down any street or through any mall (if you’re an American) and make a mental note of the different people you see. Try to imagine their backstory. How did they become that person? The weirder (or rather “more interesting”) the people, the more extreme the characters.

2) Contrasts

If your protagonist is a quiet guy or gal, a little shy maybe, then try having a nemesis who is exactly the opposite: brash, loud, confident.

If your protag is a straight-forward, no-nonsense, action type, try having a nemesis who is sneaky and never gets his or her hands dirty.

For a good example of this, see Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard.

3) Admiration

One of the ways to make a protagonist interesting is to make them the best at what they do. James Bond, for instance, is the best spy. Wolverine out of the X-men is an unstoppable fighting machine. The ultimate example of this is Superman –  he flies, is invulnerable, always saves the day, and he never lies. He is perfect in every way. yet that’s his curse. Which brings us to…

4) Flawed

Heroes have to have a flaw to be likeable. We all root for underdogs. Arnie in End of Days is faced with insurmountable odds. It makes him human (-ish). Rick in Casablanca is bitter and cynical due to the loss of his love. But we understand why; Ingrid Bergman is quite a catch. Wolverine in X-Men is prickly (literally) because he was mistreated by the military.

Heroes must have a flaw or they become boring. Like Tomb Raider.

5) Consistency

Would Bruce Willis in Die Hard talk to himself in a neurotic way about his situation the way Woody Allen does in Annie Hall?

Would Rocky Balboa set up a complicated sting operation the way Luke Skywalker does in Return of the Jedi in Jabba the Hut’s palace?

That’s consistency. Characters must act according to their personalities throughout the entire screenplay. This is a tough one.

For an example of where this rule is broken, see also Die Hard. John McClane (hero) bumps into an unarmed Hans Gruber (baddie). Gruber pretends to be an American hostage. He does it so well that McClane hands him a gun. Gruber uses the gun on McClane. But guess what? McClane knew Gruber was Gruber the whole time, and the gun is unloaded! But then Gruber’s allies burst onto the scene, removing McClane’s advantage anyway.

Now this may be a good example of misleads and reversals (have to make that the subject of a later post), but it’s bad characterization. Why? Because McClane is a blue-collar cop while Gruber is a criminal mastermind. How could McClane possibly KNOW that Gruber is a terrorist? What gives him this blistering insight? Throughout the script we se that McClane is an underdog, a likeable Joe who just happens to be a cop in extraordinary circumstances. McClane exhibits almost superhuman perceptiveness in figuring Gruber’s identity.

So why did Die Hard make a ton of money? Well, it’s full of surprises, which audiences like. And don’t forget the superhero factor. We want McClane to beat the incredible odds. So we forgive and forget this unsupported character reaction. But it’s still there. It’s a minor “jumping-the-shark moment”, which is one of my favourite movie sayings. But more of that another time…

So I hope this has been remotely useful. Great characters have been filling up our screens ever since Ebeneezer Scrooge (and a good deal before that). So have fun with them.

Chances are, if you come up with characters based on real life, you won’t fall into the trap of writing yet more cookie-cutter one-dimensional video-game characters.

I, for one, am tired of seeing girls with swords kicking-ass, girls with guns kicking-ass, or girls in PVC catsuits kicking-ass (never thought I’d say that).

Now I’m off to try to put this into practice with my own script…