Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Is God making a difference in Tinsel Town?

Article by Phil Cooke, an informed Christian and active film producer who lives and works in the heart of Hollywood.



People love the entertainment industry. Today, more than ever, celebrities have become the "secular saints" of our culture, entertainment has become America's #1 global export, and each year, tens of thousands of young people travel to Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune on the movie screen or on television.

However, for many Christians, "Hollywood" invokes images of illicit sex, unchecked violence and moral depravity. In fact, in the past, the only involvement some Christians ever had with the secular entertainment industry was to boycott, picket, or denounce the products Hollywood was producing. I understand this more than most because I'm a preacher's kid with a Ph.D. in theology who has grown up in the church. However, I'm also a working producer and director in Hollywood, so I have a ringside seat from both perspectives.

The movie industry is a remarkable business and has had a profound impact on the world since its birth at the turn of the century. In 1934, in the movie "It Happened One Night," popular star Clark Gable performed without an undershirt to better display his physique and, thereafter, undershirt sales dropped dramatically. In 1942, when "Bambi" premiered, deer hunting in America dropped from a $5.7 million business to barely $1 million.

In recent years, the influence of entertainment has been even greater. This past summer, 20th Century Fox Studios made an unprecedented deal with Dr. Pepper to advertise the blockbuster movie "X2" on one billion soft drink cans.

That influence doesn't stop in the United States. International news services reported that after Afghanistan was invaded by Coalition forces in the search for Osama Bin Laden, the first public buildings in that country to re-open weren't hospitals, schools or government agencies, but movie theaters, showing American movies.

The power of movies is significant and pervasive in this society but, as a Christian community, we have done remarkably little to impact Hollywood with the Gospel. As a result, the church has spent far more time criticizing the movie industry than developing a positive relationship.

Boycotts and public condemnation have been the typical Christian responses, but those approaches have had little impact. In fact, during the last national major Christian boycott of the Walt Disney Studios, Disney's sales actually increased.

That negative approach has led the church to the creation of an entire subculture of Christian movies, most of which feature poor production values, bad acting, and sacrifice compelling storytelling for an explicit gospel presentation. While many Christians have supported films like "The Omega Code," and "Left Behind," most would agree that these films fell far short of their potential and will never be considered examples of excellent filmmaking.

"We don't boycott or humiliate a tribe in Africa because they don't understand Christian values, so why do we do it to Hollywood?"

But if boycotts, shame, or even creating a Christian movie industry don't make better movies, what will?

For a number of years, there have been hundreds of Christians working quietly (and not so quietly) in the mainstream entertainment industry, trying to make a difference in the quality, moral values, and direction of movies and television. Sometimes their work is obvious, such as Martha Williamson, executive producer of the Touched by an Angel television series.

In spite of her bold and unashamed faith in God, some ministry leaders and broadcasters have criticized Martha for not being more explicit in her episodes - especially not mentioning the name of Jesus. However, week after week, Martha walked a tightrope to balance the network's demands with her Christian faith in order to reach the widest possible audience. And after all, a prime time television program that tells millions of people every week that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives is not such a terrible thing.

One of the most influential and respected Christians in the movie business today is Ralph Winter. He has produced such films such as "The X-Men," Tim Burton's recent re-make of "The Planet of the Apes," "X2," and some of the most successful Star Trek movies. He has an exclusive deal to produce major blockbuster "event" movies for 20th Century Fox Studios, and most of his films are budgeted in the staggering $100 million range.

At the same time, Ralph has been active in fostering, encouraging, and helping Christians create smaller films that reflect Biblical values. Ralph has even been a featured speaker at the National Religious Broadcaster's annual convention TV and Film Boot Camp. The difference between Ralph and many other Christians who have attempted movies is that Ralph absolutely will not compromise production values or storytelling.

"People come to a movie to be entertained first," he said in a recent interview. "We have to master the art of filmmaking and create a powerful story before we think about how we're going to put some kind of Christian message in the film. Most Christians fail in the film business today because even though their intentions are admirable, they haven't learned the art and skill of making a great movie. We have to earn the respect of the viewer if we're going to succeed."

Ralph's extraordinary credentials in the industry have earned him the right to be heard. His box office results have garnered billions of dollars, and many Christians in Hollywood consider him a mentor and friend.

Scott Derrickson is a writer and director who is rapidly becoming one of the most sought-after screenwriters in the industry. He just finished a screenplay for Jerry Bruckheimer, who is generally considered the single most powerful producer in Hollywood. Like many other Christians in the entertainment industry, Scott wants to be known both as a writer and a Christian, but not as a "Christian writer".

Scott explains, "Jesus didn't tell explicitly 'Christian' stories. Many of his parables were about everyday life, and they impacted people in a powerful way. I want the movies I work on to do the same thing. When you tell a great story, people drop their defenses and give you the opportunity to share profound truth. But if they feel like you're preaching to them, they'll quickly resist and the opportunity is lost."

Besides these examples, there are many other Christians making a difference every day in Hollywood:

Amick Byram, a noted vocalist and musical theater producer, who was the singing voice of Moses in Disney's animated feature film "The Prince of Egypt;" Todd Komarnicki, producer of the Christmas film "Elf starring Will Ferrell [ see interview ]; "Extreme Days" screenwriter Craig Detweiler; Janet and Lee Batchler, writers of "Batman Forever;" highly regarded screenwriting teacher Barbara Nicolosi; and Jonathan Bock, whose public relations company Grace Hill Media is helping major movie studios realize the vast box office potential of the Christian audience.

Even in TV commercials, Christians are making an impact. Over a 25-year career, Mark Thomas has won virtually every major award in advertising and has just recently opened a new production company called Thomas/Winter/Cooke. In just a short time, TWC has produced national commercials for companies such as Home Depot and Verizon. Commercials exert a powerful influence on our culture and trigger major trends in fashion, style, and behavior. As an example of their impact, last year's Super Bowl spots cost $2.2 million per 30-second spot, just for the airtime.

However, the question remains: "Are these and other Christians making a difference in Hollywood, and if so, how can fellow Christians support their efforts?"

While the major stories of boycotts, controversy, and condemnation sometimes make the headlines, few stories of hope ever do. Yet everyday in Hollywood, Christians experience situations that are a great encouragement to the Body of Christ.

A director on a network series said,

"I don't make a big deal to my fellow workers about being a Christian, but it's amazing how people who are experiencing a divorce, or are having family or drug problems, always seem to seek me out."

One film crew member took the bold step of asking if she could pray with everyone before a big day at the studio. To her surprise, the series star stepped up and said, "I've always hoped someone would say that," and the entire crew held hands and prayed.

Because of his Christian values, a writer refused a producer's request to include a violent rape scene in a script. He resigned from the show thinking his career was over, but when he got back to his office, his desk was covered in phone messages from other producers "wanting to hire someone who had the guts to stand up for what they believed in." If God chose to speak through a donkey, and if stones are capable of crying out in praise, then God certainly can work through the movie and television industry - but we need your help.

Here is what Christians can do to make a difference in Hollywood.

Stumped by how to share your faith in Christ with others?, a ministry of ChristianAnswers.Net, seeks to train Christians in how to most effectively reach out to others. Learn about the worldview of your audience, ways to share the gospel, read stories submitted by site users, and more. GO
Also visit the The Way of the Master School of Biblical Evangelism.

Consider Hollywood a mission field. We don't boycott or humiliate a tribe in Africa because they don't understand Christian values, so why do we do it to Hollywood? Let's begin approaching Hollywood as a mission field - people who are made in the image of God, but who need to know about His loving plan for their lives. Instead of criticizing the industry, individuals like Larry Poland, Jonathan Bock and organizations like The Dove Foundation are pioneering this effort, by providing hard research to show Hollywood that family oriented films with moral and spiritual themes simply make more money at the box office than R-rated films.

Support films with Christian values. It is absolutely critical that Hollywood studios realize there is an audience for films with a Christian worldview. Promote positive movies to your friends, and urge them to see these movies on their opening weekend, since that's when studios make the decision about how long films stay in local theaters. [see special article]

Pray for Christians in the industry. Every day, Christians are working in an often hostile environment in a heroic effort to write, act, direct, and produce stories that celebrate faith in God. However, we can't do it alone. We need the help of every Christian to provide the kind of prayer support that will open doors, soften hearts, and sometimes make a way where there is no way. Encourage your friends to hold up the industry in prayer. Dr. Larry Poland, founder of Mastermedia International, has created a prayer calendar which features names and information about the leaders of the secular entertainment industry, so we can focus our prayers on particular individuals. [see Christian Spotlight's home page]

Teach the Church how to understand and use the media. Encourage Christian young people to pursue careers in the media, and businessmen and women to fund positive media projects, and churches to use the media in their outreaches. Educate friends on how to evaluate movies, music and television, and celebrate good entertainment as much as we condemn bad entertainment. After all, movies, television, and now the Internet are the communication tools of this culture, and if the church doesn't take them seriously, we'll lose a generation.

It doesn't take much looking to see that, more and more, secular entertainment professionals are exploring themes of spirituality, redemption, and faith. The question is, are we as Christians ready to point the way to the answers?


Brian M Logan

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How to Break into Movies in Only 12 Years

Time article by Christopher Buckley.



Some time ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tom Clancy had gone as ballistic as a Red October submarine-launched missile because the director who was turning one of Clancy's novels into a movie placed a reef in the middle of the (reefless) Chesapeake Bay for plot reasons. Thinking back on the account of this Sturm und Drang in a teacup, I thought, Dude, count your blessings. The movie version of one of my novels had just run aground again, not in the Chesapeake but somewhere in the middle of that reef and wreck-strewn seascape known as Hollywood.

It was a book called Thank You for Smoking, a satire about a Washington tobacco lobbyist and his somehow weirdly valiant efforts to convince the world that smoking isn't conclusively unhealthy. Mel Gibson, or more accurately, "Mel's people" (as we movie folks say), optioned the rights to it in 1994, even before it was published. Mel's people couldn't have been nicer. They announced with conviction, "This will be Mel's next movie." That was extremely pleasing to hear. And, indeed, I would hear it many, many times over the ensuing decade.

I watched, from very distant sidelines, as Mel and his people dithered with inconsequential projects. Two of these, a movie called Braveheart andwhat was the name of the other one?The Passion of the Christ, bombed miserably at the box office. While I felt sorry for him, I thought, Well, Old Shoe, you really have only yourself to blame. You could have been a star. You could have been a player.

Those--to use a Gibsonian film metaphor--Stations of the Cross will be familiar to anyone who has ever sold a literary property to Hollywood. The stories are legion, and they've happened to writers way more eminent than me. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the late western novelist Louis L'Amour wrote more than 100 books and that nearly 50 of them--50!--were sold to the movies. One novel that got the treatment was published under the title The Broken Gun. By the time it came out as a movie, it was called Cancel My Reservation and starred Bob Hope and Eva Marie Saint.

Ernest Hemingway was so embittered by his experiences in Hollywood that he formulated what might be called Hemingway's Rule for Dealing with the Celluloid Bastards: Drive your car up to the California state line. Take your manuscript out of the car. Make them throw the money across first. Toss them the manuscript, get back in the car and drive back east as fast as you can.

My little saga might have gone the way of most of those little sagas. But then one day, as Smoking continued to languish in the ninth circle of Hollywood-development hell as Mel and his people occupied themselves with an obscure fracas set in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, I received a call from a 24-year-old named Jason Reitman.

He beguiled me with his opening sentence: "I'm the guy they hired to f___ up your book." He had read the book, written a screenplay on spec (i.e., without financial guarantees) and sent it to Mel over the transom. Mel read the script and called Jason from his private jet--presumably flying from one bankruptcy court to another--to say it was brilliant and exactly the script he had hoped for and he would absolutely make it. And that was the last Jason Reitman ever heard from Mel.

Sometime after that, an old friend of mine called. He said, "There's this guy I know from Stanford. He was chief operating officer of something called PayPal, which was sold to eBay for $1.4 billion. Now he wants to get into moviemaking and wants to make Thank You for Smoking." I told him my absolute rule is to accept phone calls from people worth $1.4 billion who want to make my novels into movies.

David Sacks called the next day. I told him he must call Mel's people. David spent the next year and a half negotiating back the rights. I congratulated him and went back to assuming that the usual--that is, nothing--would happen.

Then one day a few months later, I got an e-mail from a Washington friend who had moved to Park City, Utah, to become a masseuse. She wrote, "Hey, great news about Aaron Eckhart!" I wrote back, "What news about Aaron Eckhart?" She said, "He's been cast in the lead in your movie." I said, "He has?"

Two days later, I got an e-mail from David: "Pigs are flying, snowballs are forming in hell. Thank You for Smoking is finally in production!"

Great news for David and Jason, but it certainly put the kibosh on my plans for a novel called Thank You for Nothing.


Brian M Logan

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Amazon Squeezes Long Tail

Good Author's Guild article on Amazon being very sneaky indeed...



Last week (April, 2008) Amazon announced that it would be requiring that all books that it sells that are produced through on-demand means be printed by BookSurge, their in-house on-demand printer/publisher. Amazon pitched this as a customer service matter, a means for more speedily delivering print-on-demand books and allowing for the bundling of shipments with other items purchased at the same time from Amazon. It also put a bit of environmental spin on the move, claiming less transportation fuel is used (this is unlikely, but that's another story) when all items are shipped directly from Amazon.

We, and many others, think something else is afoot. Ingram Industries' Lightning Source is currently the dominant printer for on-demand titles, and appears to be quite efficient at its task. They ship on-demand titles shortly after they are ordered through Amazon directly to the customer. It's a nice business for Ingram, since they get a percentage of the sales and a printing fee for every on-demand book they ship. Amazon would be foolish not to covet that business.

What's the rub? Once Amazon owns the supply chain, it has effective control of much of the "long tail" of publishing -- the enormous number of titles that sell in low volumes but which, in aggregate, make a lot of money for the aggregator. Since Amazon has a firm grip on the retailing of these books (it's uneconomic for physical book stores to stock many of these titles), owning the supply chain would allow it to easily increase its profit margins on these books: it need only insist on buying at a deeper discount -- or it can choose to charge more for its printing of the books -- to increase its profits. Most publishers could do little but grumble and comply.

We suspect this maneuver by Amazon is far more about profit margin than it is about customer service or fossil fuels. The potential big losers (other than Ingram) if Amazon does impose greater discounts on the industry, are authors -- since many are paid for on-demand sales based on the publisher's gross revenues -- and publishers.

We're reviewing the antitrust and other legal implications of Amazon's bold move. If you have any information on this matter that you think could be helpful to us, please call us at (212) 563-5904 and ask for the legal services department, or send an e-mail to


Brian M Logan

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Interview: Brian Lumley

Good Paula Guran interview with prolific horror writer, Brian Lumley.



Brian Lumley: His Vampires Do a Lot More Than Just Suck

Brian Lumley doesn't just write novels (and short stories and poetry) he writes series of novels, and series of series of novels. He's a seemingly unstoppable force of nature -- or perhaps, considering his subject matter, a supernatural force. The prolific British author (over forty books and still counting) is best known for his "Necroscope" series, a rich tapestry of vivid characters and complexity that begins by combining the unforgettable Harry Keogh, a man who can speak to the dead, with Cold War espionage and a race of vampires from another world.

Invaders (published by Hodder and Stoughton in the U. K. as E-Branch: Invaders), just out this spring from Tor, is the first of the "E-Branch" trilogy that will end the Necroscope-related titles at 13 books altogether. The first ten Necroscope books have sold 1,500,000 copies in the U. S. alone and they have been or are in the process of being published in nine other countries. (Lumley's total sales for Tor overall have now passed the 2,000,000 mark.) Comic books and a role-playing game have been based on Necroscope themes as well.

Lumley waited for two decades to write about vampires. "When I read Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (God, how many years ago?) it put me off writing my own vampire novel for the first 20 years of my writing career. It was THAT good," says the author." But what's in will out, so eventually I did write it...and as we've seen, the thing got to be like Topsy. But I was conscious that quite a few vampire tales were being written, and I wanted vampires that did a lot more than just suck. They had to have histories, they had to have an origin, there had to be a damn good reason why they hadn't long since taken over the world, and so on. It became very involved, and the more story I told, the more there was to tell." The complexity of the mythos he has created will, he admits, probably will be the death of it. "The big problem now is that while I used to do lots of historical, geographical, and political (if you will) research, now I have to research my own books! There are so very many threads running through them that if I'm not careful I might easily trip myself up. That's why the series will probably end with this trilogy. It's simply getting too complicated to continue."

A fan of horror and fantasy fiction since his teens, Lumley was almost thirty when he began writing in 1967. He was serving as a Royal Military Policeman in Berlin. "I was on Night Duty on the desk and had nothing much to do in the wee small hours. I read August Derleth-edited Arkham House collections." (Derleth and his small press, Arkham House, were noted for the posthumous popularization of H. P. Lovecraft.) "They saw me through many a night and shaped the style and contents of my first stories. I actually wrote some of those stories on duty, on that desk in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. And I typed them up from my scrawly longhand and sent them to Derleth who bought them."

By then he was no longer a part of the fan scene, "I hadn't been since I was a kid, 13 or 14 years earlier. I didn't know a damn thing about professional publishers or publishing. And I definitely didn't know that Derleth was the dean of macabre publishers, the man who had first published Van Vogt, Bradbury, Bloch, Leiber, Lovecraft (of course), and so many others that they're literally a Who's Who of our favorite genres. So these stories of mine were single-spaced things on oddly-sized sheets, unnumbered pages, stapled in one corner, rolled up and stuffed into cardboard tubes, and posted surface mail to Wisconsin ... from Berlin! It's just amazing that they ever got there -- let alone that he read them! Can't you just see him trying to unroll them, and having to nail them to his desk top in order to read them? But it appears I was lucky then, and I've stayed lucky ever since."

Lumley returned to civilian life in 1981 and became a full-time writer. He produced --among many other titles -- the science fictional "Psychomech" trilogy -- Psychomech (1984), Psychosphere (1984), and Psychamok! (1985) -- in which a hero with enhanced psychic abilities fights bad guys with similar powers; Demogorgon (UK 1987, US 1992) features the spawn of Satan himself using his supernatural powers to fight his dark side and against his unholy father; four books in the heroic fantasy "Dreamlands" series, and, of course, the Necroscope books which began in 1986.

Lumley's early reputation was linked to his liberal use of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos in both short stories and his earliest novels -- the "Titus Crow" series of the mid-to-late-1970s. Crow, an occult detective, tangles with Lovecraft's monsters in a fantastic extradimensional void in the series. "Without Lovecraft there would never have been a Titus Crow. All Mythos stories are dependent upon HPL, of course. But another big influence was the much-maligned August Derleth, the boss of Arkham House. He viewed the Mythos from a different angle, and if he could do it so could I. Burroughs was probably an influence, likewise Abraham Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, that whole bunch. But you know, I've read and talked Lovecraft until I really can't do it any more. Why can't we just say of him that he was an original, one of the greats, and that he influenced so many of us that he probably is the most important cornerstone of the weird fiction tradition today...and leave it at that?"

The Titus Crow and Necroscope books are also a Cold War metaphor. "The Necroscope books were guided by what was going on in the world while they were being written. The new trilogy is set in the future a couple of years, so it's pretty much guess-work. And it's mainly ecological as opposed to political. I've been lucky in my predictions so far; the Channel Tunnel I mentioned in the second Crow book (Transistion, 1975) is now a reality. But I really can't say if it's protected by star-stones from Mnar or not. I suspect not..."

Future worlds? Fantastic other dimensions? Star-stones? Politics? Was Lumley intentionally crossing genre boundaries to synthesize, horror, science fiction, and fantasy? "No, my crossing genres wasn't planned. It was just me trying to learn the business of writing, experimenting and finding out what I could do best and where it would take me. The first paperback book I did, The Burrowers Beneath, was a horror story "after Lovecraft". Its sequel, Transition, was a fantasy. The next two sequels were science-fantasy, and the last book in the series, Elysia, was pure fantasy. I was trying 'em all, that's all. But Necroscope? It has bits of lots of genres, but chiefly horror. Let's face it, the best of the "horror" movies do much the same thing. Is Bodysnatchers (original and remakes) horror or science fiction? Is The Thing, or Alien or Predator? See what I mean? On the other hand short stories I've done -- such as Fruiting Bodies and The Sun, The Sea and The Silent Scream -- are pure horror. So if you ask me what I am ... I'm a horror writer." Fruiting Bodies won Lumley a British Fantasy Award in 1989 and he was given a Grand Master Award at the 1998 World Horror Convention.

A couple of decades in the military, is not exactly common training ground for most horror writers. Although the author will agree that his first career has enhanced his writing career, he also feels writing offered him an escape from from his military career. "The army took me places, showed me a lot of things, let me meet a great many diverse people -- all grist for a writer's mill. But in places as dreary as Berlin was in 1967, writing did provide something of an escape."

The military also gave Lumley a taste for travel. He's visited or lived in the United States, Cyprus, Berlin, Malta, and more than a dozen Greek islands. He and his American-born wife, Barbara Ann, now live in Devon, but they still enjoy travel and Lumley particularly enjoys visits to the Mediterranean where he can indulge a bit in moussaka, and imbibe a little retsina, ouzo, and metaxa.

What would he do if he weren't writing? "There are lots of other things that I haven't done, places I haven't seen. So eventually I'll have to find time for those things while there still is time. We've got one life and the older we get the more we come to realize how short it is. I just like telling stories. Writers are in the entertainment business, and it gives me lots of pleasure to entertain my readers. But I'm no longer driven to write. Now I have to drive myself." Lumley's books have inspired music as well as reading. "There's a British heavy metal group called Necroscope; I've never met them. And in the States there are a handful of groups that have dedicated work to me. No mistaking the source of inspiration on tracks with titles like 'What Will Be Has Been,' or 'From Northern Aeries to the Infinite Cycle of the Unborn Lord.' Those are from a CD by a group called Epoch of Unlight. HEAVY!" One of his close friends in the U. K, is Keith Grant-Evans of The Downliners Sect. "Sect's been around all of twenty-five years and more; recently did a new CD called Dangerous Ground with yours truly doing voice-overs on 'Escape From Hong Kong' and 'Bookworm'."

But music's been an influence on Lumley as well. "Way back when I was 15 and 16, I had three main hobbies: Rock 'n Roll, the jive (the dance), and SF. I'm talking 1953, '54 here. I was a founder-member of NEZFEZ, the North-East Science Fiction group. We used to meet in a little town close to Newcastle at a pub called The Red Lion and talk books and like that -- you know the scene. I was doing artwork and "poetry" for fanzines (UK and USA) with titles like CAMBER, PEON, SATELLITE, etc. That was the, er, "intellectual" side of me. But I was also buying that vinyl and teaching the jive at a local dance hall. No, really -- at 16, yes! Hey, it was a great way to meet the girls!"

"So music has always been in me," he continues. "I suppose since I was ten and my big brother brought back all those 12 inch records from Germany with him in '48, after he'd finished his National Service. And was I ever into the big bands! Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, etc! Today, I have this really excellent Ray Charles collection that I started to put together in 1960 in Germany, and been at it ever since. I'm usually listening to Ray while I write."

And where will the future find Lumley? "The future is a devious thing. We're all time-travellers, albeit pretty damn slow time-travellers. We only go forward at a speed of one day per day, one step for every step. And maybe that's the right way to take the future: I'll just let it sneak up on me. I mean, it's been doing it for 61 years, so why try to change things now? More to the point: when the E-Branch trilogy is finished, I think I may return to short stories awhile, just to keep my hand in -- or even to get my hand BACK in! I mean, it's quite a long time since I did any short stories. And I think I'm looking forward to it..."


Brian M Logan

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How to Write a Movie

Guardian article on writing movies by Frank Cottrell Boyce.



A while back, I was on Radio 4's Film Programme the same day as Simon Pegg. We were asked what we thought of screenwriting manuals. I dismissed them as get-rich-quick compendiums of cliche. Pegg said he thought they were really useful. Our films opened that weekend. His vacuumed up money. Mine tanked. It may well be, I thought, that I've been missing something.

I decided to watch all my favourite movies again, notebook in hand, to figure out what made them work. Here are some of my observations. This is not a description of how I write. It's more how I wish I'd written. A map of the rocks on which I perished.

1. Write a play instead

Are you sure you need to write a screenplay? Almost any movie takes years. I've just done a TV film for the BBC that has taken 20 years to go from idea to execution. If you've got a great story, it might be worth writing it as a play first, or a book. To get a movie into the world, someone needs to love it enough to spend millions of pounds on it - and years of their life. A play costs a few thousand and takes a couple of months. Plus it makes you a playwright, which is way upmarket from a screenwriter. And if it's successful, people will want to make the movie.

2. Do the title first

Seems obvious, but you'd be amazed. A great title can make a big difference. The musical Oklahoma, as it was initially called, famously flopped in the provinces, but became a massive hit after they added the exclamation mark. Orson Welles said Paper Moon was such a great title they wouldn't need to make the movie, just release the title. If you want a good title, you need it before you start, when you're pumped up with hope. If you look for it afterwards, you end up thinking like a headline-writer. If Victor Hugo had waited until he'd finished Notre-Dame de Paris, he would have ended up calling it I've Got a Hunch.

3. Read it to people

It's easy to fool yourself on the page. Tell people your story and watch them. Is there a bit where they check their watch? Are there bits you unexpectedly feel you want to skip? Do they guess the ending? Get it worked up into a good anecdote. This also means that if you bump into The Money at a film festival, you can pitch the story right there. The same applies after you've written the script. Danny Boyle, director of 28 Days Later, makes you read your script out loud to him. It's horrible. It leaves you nowhere to hide. But it saves weeks of second-guessing.

4. Forget the three-act structure

All the manuals insist on a three-act structure. I think this is a useless model. It's static. All it really means is that your screenplay should have a beginning, middle and end. When you're shaping things, it's more useful to think about suspense. Suspense is the hidden energy that holds a story together. It connects two points and sends a charge between them. But it doesn't have to be all action. Emotions create their own suspense. In American Splendor, the film about comic-book creator Harvey Pekar, you hope till it hurts that his relationship will work out. Secrets are good at generating tension, too. In A Knight's Tale, you fret all the way through that someone will discover that William is not really Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein.

A delicate art. If a setup is too obvious, it can announce a payoff. I remember watching Se7en in a multiplex. When Morgan Freeman said he was going to retire in a few days, someone shouted: "Gonna die!" (For once, it wasn't true.) On the other hand, if the setup doesn't signal something, it doesn't generate any suspense. The trick is to create an expectation but fulfil it in a completely unexpected way. I'm going to give the Oscar for this to Geoffrey Chaucer for The Pardoner's Tale, where they go looking for Death but find a pile of money instead. And the twist is ... they scheme over it and kill each other.

6. Don't write excuse notes

Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I've had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience have to relate to your characters, but they don't need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note. If you look at Thelma and Louise, you'll see it's really just one long excuse note with 20 minutes of fun at the end. The US cop show The Wire, on the other hand, gives you characters you couldn't possibly approve of, or even like. Then, when it needs to, it gives you another glimpse of them. In one heart-scalding scene, a nasty, hard-nosed young drug-dealer from the projects finds himself in a park and says: "Is this still in Baltimore?"

7. Avoid the German funk trap

People have a tendency to set up the characters and then have the stories happen to them. I think it comes from TV, where you want the characters to survive the story unchanged, so they can have another adventure next week. It's like in detective fiction, where "characterisation" means the detective is really into 1970s German funk. And "complex characterisation" means his wife is leaving him because she doesn't understand his love of 1970s German funk. In a film, you should let the story reveal the character. What happens to Juno - getting pregnant - could happen to any teenage girl. It's how she reacts that leads you to conclude she's charming (or sickening, depending on your point of view). Do it the other way around and it's like when someone introduces you to one of their friends and says: "I know you're going to like each other." It just makes you think: "I have to go now."

8. Do a favourite bit

No one leaves the cinema saying: I loved that character arc. They come out saying: I loved the swordfight, or the bit with the bloated cow, or whatever. The manuals emphasise the flow of a narrative, but it's better to think of a film as a suite of sequences. That's where the pleasure is. I'm working on an animated feature at the moment. Traditionally, these films had no script at all. Teams built up a series of set-pieces and sequences around the story and characters. This is a great way to think. If you look at the first Godfather film, it's really an accumulation of anecdotes held together by the moral decline of Michael. Kes also works like this: the football match, the taming of the hawk, the careers officer and so on. Try breaking your script down into a series of chapters and giving them headings. If you want to see this not quite working, look at the Mission: Impossible films. Terrific action sequences marooned in quagmires of soggy exposition.

9. Cast it in your head

Characters tend to be blurry in screenplays, partly because, if you over-define things, you limit the number of actors you can cast from. But just because you can't describe their eyebrows shouldn't stop you understanding thoroughly what makes them tick. When Sam Peckinpah was rewriting scripts, he used to cross out all the characters' names and replace them with the names of people he knew, so he could get a fix on them. Sometimes an arresting stage direction works wonders. The example writers always quote is Guy de Maupassant's line: "He was an elderly gentleman with ginger whiskers who always somehow made sure he was first through the door."

10. Learn to love rewrites

In Sunset Boulevard, the screenwriter says: "Maybe you saw my last movie. It was about Okies in the dustbowl. Of course, by the time it went out, it was all set on a submarine boat." Screenwriters famously kvetch about the rewrite. I don't get this. One of the glories of being a writer is that you get so many chances to get it right. Ask Norwegian footballer John Arne Riise how he would feel if he was allowed to say: "You know that last header, where I knocked it into my own goal? That didn't really work for me. I'm going to take it out. I've decided that match would be better with a happy ending." The trick is to stay in the loop and use the process to make your script better.

11. Don't wait for inspiration

I think people see inspiration as the ignition that starts the process. In fact, real moments of inspiration often come at the last minute, when you've sweated and fretted your way through a couple of drafts. Suddenly, you start to see fresh connections, new ways of doing things. That's when you feel like you're flying. The real pleasure of any script is the detail. And a lot gets lost in the process. Put it back in at the last minute.

12. Celebrate your invisibility

Ben Hecht famously said it would be easier to get famous by riding a tricycle than by writing screenplays. This is a good thing! When you go to a film festival, you'll see directors and actors besieged by the press and having to trot out the same old stories over and over, while you get to sun yourself. Remember: invisibility is a superpower.

13. Read, read, read, read, read

Read other screenplays. Read, which is full of discussion, advice and heartbreak. But above all, read Karoo, a novel by the late, great screenwriter Steve Tesich, who did The World According to Garp. It tells you everything you wanted to know - and a lot that you didn't.


Brian M Logan

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Interview: Diablo Cody

Gread WD Interview with Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, by Chad Gervich.



After taking home the Oscar for her very first screenplay, stripper- turned- memoirist- turned- screenwriter Diablo Cody is ready for her close-up.

Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody knows she’s not the best example of how to sell a screenplay. In fact, she’s probably the worst example of how to sell a screenplay. So if you’re reading this in hopes of finding a viable path to literary stardom, don’t. Move to L.A. Shoot a short. Get a job at a studio. There are a million better paths than Cody’s, which begins in suburban Chicago and takes an odd detour through the strip clubs of Minneapolis.

Cody was born in Lisle, Ill., where she attended Catholic school before heading to The University of Iowa to write short stories. Three years after graduating, 24-year-old Cody was withering away as a copy typist at a Minnesota ad agency. Her media studies degree was doing nothing for her. Her dreams of being a writer were going nowhere. She was blogging about the mind-numbing effects of corporate America, but no one was reading.

She took a job as a stripper to have something to write about. And when readership spiked, Cody turned her acerbic observations and
no-holds-barred storytelling skills into The Pussy Ranch ( a regular blog that attracted a large following.

One of those readers was Mason Novick, a manager at Hollywood’s powerhouse management/production company Benderspink. Novick contacted Cody, who told him she’d not only written a blog, she’d written an entire memoir called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. Novick read the manuscript, loved it, and sold it to Gotham Books, who published it in 2005.

Novick then suggested Cody write a screenplay. A few weeks later, she sent him a script for the teen-pregnancy movie Juno.

Since its September 2007 debut at the Telluride Film Festival, Juno has been nominated for nearly 60 awards, including winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Today, the 30-year-old Cody is working on her next films, Universal’s Girly Style, a raunchy women’s road trip movie, and Fox Atomic’s Jennifer’s Body, a comedy-horror flick about a high-school girl who must stop a possessed friend from eating boys in her hometown. She’s also gearing up her Steven Spielberg-produced Showtime series, "The United States of Tara," starring Toni Collette as a mother with multiple personalities.

Regardless of the genre she’s writing in, Cody is a master of using her own life experiences to create narrative gold. Here, the anomalous writer talks about her writing process, its flaws and what she’s learned in her short—yet illustrious—screenwriting career.


I had gone to the bookstore, and while I hadn’t bought any books on how to write a screenplay, I’d bought a couple of scripts so I could see how the formatting works. I just needed to know how a Hollywood screenplay looked on the page, which was something I was totally unfamiliar with. I had American Beauty and Ghost World, and interestingly enough, the producers of Ghost World wound up producing Juno.

My now-ex-husband convinced me to use our last $200 to buy Final Draft, so I just sat down and started writing a movie. It’s that simple.


Initially, I didn’t have an outline. I remember about halfway through thinking, this would be a lot easier if I knew exactly where I was going in a more structured way. So then I started doing a beat sheet, and that wound up being really helpful. Now I do that for every script.


It’s harder! People are always surprised to hear that the ridiculously skimpy stripper memoir was a challenge to write. But to be frank, when you write a screenplay, it’s really a skeleton, and you’re going to have cameras and actors and a director adding color and substance, turning it into a whole new animal, whereas prose is a one-man show. It’s all gotta be on the same page. So I find writing prose more mentally taxing. At the same time, in a screenplay, you have to be more efficient, have a better grasp of narrative economy, and you have to be able to express more with fewer words. Each is challenging in its own way. Each is fun in its own way. For me, writing essays, prose and fiction is a great way to be self-indulgent. I really just love to open a blank document and spew, whereas with a screenplay I have to be more judicious.


Writing the memoir might not have helped in terms of mechanics, but it helped me in terms of discipline, because I knew I could sit down and complete something, and I had never done that prior to the book.


Oh my goodness—I made so many mistakes! I still cringe at certain lines in the movie. The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie. And I also had no idea it was going to get made! It was really just a hypothetical in every way. So I thought to myself, Well, writing for me has never felt like work, I’ve always considered writing to be play. So I thought, I’m going to enjoy myself as much as I can. I was just having fun, and you can hear I was having fun. And in a way, I was having too much fun, if that makes any sense. I needed to be pulled back a little. When I watch it now, the dialogue seems very self-indulgent and undisciplined. But that’s one of the things people like about the film, so I can’t argue.


I hadn’t really evolved significantly at that point. I wrote Jennifer’s Body in the summer of 2006 before I had done any TV writing. It was maybe the fourth script I’d ever written, and at this point I think I’ve written nine. And also, at the time I wrote Jennifer’s Body, Juno had not yet been made, and my life hadn’t changed that significantly. So I couldn’t have been aware that there would be this Juno phenomenon and certain aspects of my writing would get attention. Now that I’m in the revision and pre-production process, I’m trying to make sure Jennifer’s Body isn’t too similar to Juno, which obviously wasn’t a concern to me at the time because Juno didn’t exist, except as a script.It wasn’t a movie and people weren’t walking around in T-shirts with my dialogue on them.


And so is Jennifer’s Body. So is everything I write. It will be a miracle the day I write, like, a Vietnam movie—a movie that clearly has no relation to anything that’s happened in my life. I just have a tendency to tap into my own emotions and write personal stories.


Honestly? The horror aspects of that script are obviously not real, just as the premise in Juno wasn’t real. [Juno director] Jason Reitman likes to say, “In Juno, the movie is not about pregnancy; pregnancy is the location.” In Jennifer’s Body, the horror aspect is a way of expressing realistic emotions of jealousy and love and pain that I had as a teenager. It’s the dark side of teenage girls, whereas Juno portrays girls in a very positive, bright light.


[Laughs] You know, I love talking about writing, but I hate when people ask me over and over again, “Where did you get the idea for that?” You don’t just get the idea one day because you saw a billboard. It’s not this instantaneous thing.


No. Unfortunately, what I should do is develop some sort of ritual to ignore the Diablo instincts, because my writing does have a tendency to be too self-reflective. I wish I could branch out and relate to how other people feel and write a period piece about some emotionally guarded old man who never had a crush on a track runner. I can access my emotions too easily. What I need to do now is work on my craft.


Right now, we’re really gearing up to shoot this thing within weeks. Up until this point, it hasn’t been that different of a process. Obviously the writer has more control in television. But for me, it hasn’t been that different of an experience, because I was lucky enough to be included in the filmmaking process for Juno. So I never had that experience of being left out and not feeling like I’m claiming the spoils. Jason Reitman and I collaborated every day on that film, and now it’s just another collaborative process. What I’m curious to see is how the turnaround time in television affects my writing, because God willing, if they order more episodes, I’ll have to work at an accelerated pace. And I’m kind of looking forward to that.


Brian M Logan

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Graphic Novels are Hollywood's Newest Gold Mine

Great article on graphic novels by Rebecca Wintes Keegan.



Superman Leaped 40 years' worth of tall buildings on the printed page before he landed his first feature film, in 1978. In 2003, Wesley Gibson, the cubicle-dwelling assassin in Mark Millar's nihilist graphic novel Wanted, had producers circling before his first issue even went to print. Millar's work is unlikely source material for a big-budget movie; one of his obscenely named villains is made of fecal matter from 666 evildoers, including Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer. Nevertheless, Wanted is now a glossy summer action movie starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, directed by new-to-big-studio-movies Russian Timur Bekmambetov.

Graphic novels--long comic books for grownups--have always had mostly cult appeal. Last year's most successful, the 13th volume in a Japanese manga adventure series--Naruto, by Masashi Kishimoto--sold 80,000 copies, far short of 2007's hottest novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, which sold more than 1.5 million copies. The point of the comics was largely their transgressiveness. "They're the last pirate medium," says Millar, a Scottish writer who consults for Marvel Comics on more mainstream fare, like Iron Man. "They're the last medium for a mass audience where you can do anything you want."
But the creations of oddball loners like Millar scribbling at drafting tables have also become the movie industry's most reliable development tool. Thanks to the box-office success of A-list superheroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men, Hollywood's appetite for comics-fueled material is insatiable. Titles from the darker corners of the genre, including gritty graphic novels like Wanted and Alan Moore's watershed deconstructivist superhero tome Watchmen are getting the big-screen makeover. Stories and characters first written for an audience of a few hundred thousand geeks at most are reaching, at the box office and on DVD and cable, popcorn-chomping crowds that number in the tens of millions. "The dalliance between Hollywood and comics is becoming a marriage," says Frank Miller, creator of the graphic novels Sin City and 300. "The downside is in the heads of people who make comic books. Everybody wants money and fame."

Times weren't always so flush in Toontown. In 1997, "George Clooney killed comic-book movies," says Millar. Joel Schumacher's joyless Batman & Robin, in which Clooney legendarily donned a bat suit complete with rubber nipples, left fans feeling abused. Studios turned their attention to fantasy literature like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But when Spider-Man bested two wizard movies and a Star Wars prequel in 2002 and X-2: X-Men United broke $200 million at the box office in 2003, hand-drawn heroes swung back into favor. The joke in Hollywood now is that in a risk-averse era, comic-book adaptations have a distinct advantage: the drawings mean studio execs can see beforehand what the movie will look like.

At first, it was the family-friendly superheroes who made the leap to multiplexes, with the help of directors like Bryan Singer and Chris Nolan. Slowly, lesser-known comic books got a shot. Some, like Sin City and Hellboy, became modest box-office successes by adhering to the distinctive spirit of their creators. Others, like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence, attracted audiences with sophisticated stories that few people knew were derived from graphic novels.

Then came the spear that pierced the industries of comics, movies and ab videos: 300. "I was pretty sure we were making a boutique movie," says director Zack Snyder of his R-rated, blood-spattered retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. With no stars and a lot of leather bikini bottoms, 300 grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. alone. "The movie struck a chord because it was unapologetic," says Snyder, who is directing Watchmen for release next March. "It's difficult to find a movie that feels true to itself. You feel the hand of Hollywood, the moviemaking by committee, on everything."

In the case of 300, the hand audiences felt was really Miller's, since whenever Snyder made a creative decision, he asked himself, What would Frank do? Comic-book-movie directors like Snyder, who see themselves as stewards of another person's vision rather than architects of their own, have made comic-book creators Hollywood's latest big-budget auteurs. Because they work with such low overhead compared with moviemakers, comic writers and artists can take many more creative chances than directors. "You don't have endless development meetings that turn your brain into milk," says Miller. "You get to at least see what an individual has to offer." After co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez in 2005, Miller is completing his comics-to-movies arc by directing The Spirit, an adaptation of a 1940s crime-fighting strip, for a December release.

The other axiom 300 proved to Hollywood is one the comics industry has known for decades: "The audience for comic-book movies is overweight guys in their mid-30s," says director, comic-book-store owner and overweight guy in his late 30s Kevin Smith. Actually, the average age of a comic-book buyer is 23, but Smith's point--that there are fans aplenty to support R-rated comics franchises--has been digested. Even PG-13 comic-book movies are maturing. Batman keeps getting darker scripts, like Nolan's The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger (in his haunting last performance, as the Joker). Marvel Studios' first two movies, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, star Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton, Oscar-nominated actors with indie credibility. And Hellboy, who is back this summer for a sequel, is hardly your standard man in tights. He smokes cigars, drinks Red Bull and collects kittens. "Kids aren't kids anymore," says Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. "They're so exposed to everything. They wouldn't accept really simplistic superheroes." It's likely that a superhero movie like Watchmen or The Dark Knight couldn't be appreciated by audiences without the simpler fare that came before it. You can't deconstruct the superhero until someone has constructed him, rubber nipples and all. "Watchmen is thick and complicated and violent and political and critical of America," Snyder says. "It's huge."

Watchmen, easily next year's most anticipated comic-book movie, is based on a graphic novel that's more than 20 years old. What Hollywood would really like is the next big thing. If studio execs can't find one they like by thumbing through publishers' catalogs, they'll create it themselves. In May, Disney announced that Ahmet Zappa, son of Frank, will head up its new Kingdom Comics, a publisher with the express purpose of developing graphic-novel film projects for the studio. This month TokyoPop, a Los Angeles-based manga publisher, announced the creation of a comics-to-films unit. Though it may be good news for any comic-book writer with a mortgage to pay, all those carnivorous studios make some comic-book fans nervous. "As soon as you start reverse-engineering the process, it's broken," says Snyder. Miller, who now needs bodyguards at comic-book conventions, cautions his industry against embracing fast nickels at the expense of good products. "You can't make a sword with more than one blade," he says. "Comic book, movie and game. It's bound to be bad at all three."

Millar, meanwhile, is giddily anticipating the opening of Wanted on June 27, even though the poopy bad guy didn't make the final cut. (Imagine the missed merchandising opportunities!) Millar views the graphic-novel-to-movies trend as being likely to stoke creativity, not stifle it. "Hollywood eats up ideas quickly, but comics come up with 300 new ideas a month," he says.
His next comic is about a 100-year U.S. war in the Middle East, with superpowered soldiers and flying Islamic fundamentalists. It's the kind of idea that would get squashed at a studio meeting, where the poor performance of all the Iraq-war movies would be trotted out. But then, Millar doesn't need anyone's green light. He just needs an artist and a pen.

Four Famous Comics Junkies on graphic novels they'd like to see on film [This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]

WHO Frank Miller, creator of Sin City and 300 Mark Millar, creator of Wanted Kevin Smith, director and comic-book-store owner Mike Richardson, founder of Dark Horse Comics WHAT Bone By Jeff Smith The Walking Dead By Robert Kirkman The Dark Knight Returns By Frank Miller Concrete By Paul Chadwick WHY The "fully realized adventure fantasy" is "Disney meets Moby Dick." "A chronicle of life after zombies have taken over. It should be an HBO series." "An intense, quasifuturistic, retired Batman with real-world issues." "A speechwriter is encased in concrete. Kafka meets Beauty and the Beast."


Brian M Logan

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