Cloud Atlas

December 17, 2012

Several years ago, someone who works in the publishing industry told me Cloud Atlas was the best book she’s ever read. So it’s been on my list for a while. With the movie out, I finally decided to go out and read it.


Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very well-written novel. The structure is highly engaging, the differences in voice excellent, the way the stories  intertwine very intriguing, at least at first. I just expected . . . more.

I had a similar feeling of dissatisfaction when I finished Hyperion. Yes, the stories interweave in kind of an interesting way. And yes, the differences in tone from one story to the next is cool. But there was no denouement to bring the entire series to a close. So after 500 pages of reading, I was left completely unfulfilled rather than feeling like I’d just experienced this huge, inevitable catharsis.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I find it telling that it tanked at the U.S. box office but is doing well internationally. It’s the kind of story that would definitely fare better in cultures less obsessed with plot and more interested in tone or emotion. I wish it the best of luck. Doesn’t make me any less disappointed, though.

Anyone else out there read it? What are your thoughts?


David C. Martell on Flashbacks and The Life of David Gale

August 7, 2012

[Note: When I first published this post, I thought the article in question was written by Syd Field. That was an error on my part. My bad.]

A while back I exchanged a few blog posts with Michael Hauge on the subject of flashbacks, and two and a half years later those continue to be some of my most popular articles on this site. So when I saw an article from David C. Martell on the subject, I was immediately interested.

To summarize Martell’s overlong and repetitive piece:

  1. a good flashback moves the story forward by escalating conflict, rather than just giving us exposition
  2. The Life of David Gale is a bad movie, because the first two flashbacks don’t do this.

While I agree with the premise, I completely reject the assessment of The Life of David Gale. Somewhere buried in the end of the article’s quagmire of repetition is the recognition that the David Gale‘s flashbacks are really just a framing device; that the story takes place in the past and this is a reminder that “more exciting things are to come.” This technique is used constantly in films, particularly ones that take a while to set up.

But for some reason, Sunset Boulevard‘s careful setup warrants much more respect from Mr. Martell than David Gale‘s. Most egregiously, to me, is the following comment:

“You’d think a guy with only three days to live would cut to the chase!”

Um, no David, if you think that, you completely missed the point of the movie. He wants to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, and now you’re saying that his lack of urgency is bad thing? It’s an essential character choice!

It gets even worse a few lines later:

“The situation at the end of the third flashback is EXACTLY THE SAME as the situation at the beginning of the movie… making all of the flashbacks (and the movie itself) pointless. The flashbacks don’t change the story in any way . . . A flashback needs to CHANGE the present situation. These flashbacks just wasted our time.”

Again, no. As you so aptly pointed out later on, the flashbacks were a framing device. The flashbacks are the story. By definition, they’re not going to change it.

Sorry you didn’t like the movie. But there are better examples for flashbacks that don’t change the story or escalate the conflict at all. It’s time to move on.

12.12 – We Bought a Zoo

July 9, 2012

And this continues our series of stories about buying a story and then ruining it.

As a friend of mine put it, “I didn’t know there was more to this story than what looked like a silly movie.” Well, there is. The book is an autobiographical tale about a British journalist living in Southern France who moved back to the UK and went in with the rest of his family to buy (and save) a zoo, against all odds. It’s an at-once romantic, pragmatic, and educational study of the animal kingdom, the value of persistence, and what it’s like to launch into such a high-risk yet high-reward (both financially and emotionally) business that you know nothing about. It delves into all kinds of topics, from homosexuality in the animal kingdom to losing a loved one to cancer.

And the movie could not have been more different.

What I don’t understand is why. There’s so much drama already in the story – why do you feel the need to mess it all up with a teenage romance, a phony excuse for why he’s getting into it, have him trying to go it alone (without his family), a deus ex machina in his (already dead) wife leaving him money to spend on the zoo, no one showing up on opening day BUT OH WAIT JUST KIDDING!, blah blah blah?

The drama was there already. You’ve got a wife who’s dying of cancer. You’ve got family members suing you to keep you from buying this zoo. You’ve got dozens of loan processors all but guaranteeing a loan and then backing out at the last minute. You’ve got animals escaping, animals you think have escaped (but turn out actually to be wild and indigenous to the region), and animals you have to give away, reducing the (perceived) value of the site.

They could’ve told this story – the one that was in the book – and though they obviously would’ve had to abbreviate it, and possibly combine a few characters, they easily could have made it into a great film. As it was, the movie was simply mildly entertaining slush.

Let this be a lesson to all: when the drama is there, don’t try to “add story elements” that the gurus tell you need to be there. Just tell a good story.

12.10-11 – Shit My Dad Says & I Suck at Girls

June 18, 2012

Justin Halpern came to Austin two and a half weeks ago. For the uninitiated, Halpern is the man behind the epically funny Shit My Dad Says Twitter feed. As he so eloquently puts it in his book’s introduction:

When one of my friends suggested I create a Twitter page to keep a record of all the crazy things that came out of his mouth, I started “Shit My Dad Says.” For about a week, I only had a handful of followers — a couple of friends who knew my dad and thought he was a character. Then one day I woke up to find that a thousand people were following me. The next day, ten thousand. Then fifty thousand. Then one hundred, two hundred, three hundred thousand, and suddenly a picture of my dad’s face and his quotes were popping up everywhere. Literary agents were calling, wanting to represent me; TV producers were inviting me onto their shows; and reporters were asking for interviews.

The book came out shortly after, and last year it was made into a TV series starring William Shatner.

Unfortunately, as hilarious as the Twitter feed was, the TV series was monumentally mediocre. I wrote about this earlier this year:

The misanthropic foul-mouthed antagonist that made the Twitter feed so popular was just too raunchy for William Shatner and the sitcom’s family hour timeslot to get away with. By the time it got through Shatner’s insipid acting and all the censoring the network no doubt required, the concept had been watered down from something edgy and hilarious to being just another couch comedy. The fact that it ran for 18 episodes is evidence of this – people knew about it, they wanted to give it a chance, they just lost interest because it didn’t live up to the hype.

When Halpern came to BookPeople a few weeks ago to promote his new book I Suck at Girls, he freely said that the TV show wasn’t very good. I asked him, from his perspective, why, and his assessment was pretty similar to mine. He said that all the major networks bid on it, and the people in his corner recommended CBS because they’ll really give you your shot. Unlike the other networks, which will cancel the show after a couple of episodes if it doesn’t perform, CBS will give you plenty of time to build an audience and find your niche.

But then, blaming himself as much as anyone else, he said that the format of the show was all wrong. “The show is called Shit My Dad Says, and you can’t say ‘shit’ on network television.” The three camera comedy format demands a constant stream of setups and punches, and he said if you paused the show after any given setup, anyone could have written the punchline. And then, because everything is so fast with a TV show, you start getting into survival mode, keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing. Finally it reached a point where his reaction watching the show was, “Yeah, I wouldn’t watch this.” As promised, the network gave him his shot – so the 18 episode run may have had nothing to do with the built in following at all. But in the end, it was just the wrong format and venue for what made the concept great.

I had started following SMDS around the time the book was coming out, but I had never purchased the book until now, and interestingly, reading the book (and the sequel) I can totally get how this format/venue mistake was made. Although the Twitter feed leaves you feeling the title character is nothing but, as I said before, misanthropic and foul-mouthed, in the book his love for his son really comes through. Yes he’s blunt as hell and he curses like a sailor but you really get that he adores Justin and would go to the end of the earth for him.

That the family is actually a happy one cuts the edginess of the product quite a bit. It’s no longer a South Park or an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where everyone hates each other, it’s a Two and a Half Men, or a Simpsons; a product of love with a whole lot of sarcasm, which is something you see all the time in network TV couch comedies. It’s a whole different animal. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as funny. Which is why the TV show failed.

Apparently, I Suck at Girls is going to be turned into a TV show, too. We’ll see what the creators make out of this one, having learned from their mistakes. With chapter titles like “When You’re Married, Your Wife Sees Your Penis,” hopefully, it’ll land somewhere that allows it to keep the edginess that makes it great.

Why Would You Pay $3.2 Million for a Script and then Ruin It?

June 11, 2012

Saw Snow White and the Huntsman yesterday. This after listening to the interview with the original writer, Evan Daugherty. In the interview, the guy sounds real down-to-earth, and I was really hoping the movie would be good, because it’s always great to see nice guys succeed.

Unfortunately, no dice. Of course, no movie is better for having Kristen Stewart in it, but surprisingly she wasn’t the worst thing about this one. The script was just awful, to the point where I had to stifle my laughter more and more as the film went on at the ludicrous attempts to evoke some kind of empathy. I cared about none of the characters (maybe half of one of them). And to top it all off, the art direction was just plain disappointing. Although they had this great effect of watching the queen get older and younger constantly, the scenes when she sucks the life out of people and leaves them old and haggard were simply anticlimactic. Charlize Theron, bless her heart, did her best with what she was given, but she was given a stereotype with no subtext, so it wasn’t much to go on.

Which all brings me back to the title of this post: The concept wasn’t decent, but not $3.2 million decent, so the original script must have been better that the bile they eventually put on screen. So why would you pay $3.2 million for a script if you’re just going to tweak it to death?

You hear horror stories about this all the time: studio buys script, and then director wants to change it and A-list actor wants to change it and producer wants to change it and before you know it it’s a shell of what it once was. And this was no different. They spent several months working with the author and then replaced him with two other writers with “industry cred” so that if the movie tanked they couldn’t blame it on overpaying for a script from an unproduced writer.

Well guess what? If you have to rewrite it, it’s not worth $3.2 million. At that point you’re buying a concept, or maybe a concept and an outline, but not a script. And if it is worth $3.2 million, you might consider leaving it the f*** alone.

Thoughts on The Avengers

May 9, 2012

I didn’t grow up as a comic book geek. I grew up as a fan of comic book movies, worshiping at the feet of Richard Donner and Tim Burton, but I never really read the comic books themselves. I was, and still am, barely conscious of the Justice League of America comics, and was even less cognizant of the Avengers.

And yet, at the end of the first Iron Man movie, when Samuel L. Jackson appeared with those immortal words, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” I was every bit as giddy as all the fanboys who’ve been reading the comics for years. Why? Because I knew, as did everyone else, that it was the start of something huge.

Many years ago at Comic-Con I had heard screenwriter Zak Penn hint at creating a horizontal world in the comic book universe. At the time, I had no clue what was coming. But he sure did. According to this ScreenwritingU interview with him, he was hired years ago as the one to manage creating a single narrative thread through all the comics; to make sure that each movie adequately set up what would culminate in The Avengers.

It was a job very, very well done. One of the biggest challenges, I think, of a movie like this is figuring out how to stuff ten characters, each a leading man in his own right, into a single story. As Joss Whedon put it, “Too much is going to throw people, and at the same time, you don’t want to leave anybody in the cold.” So you start with the villain, bring in the heroes one by one, create a bunch of interpersonal conflict among the heroes themselves, and have the ultimate battle turn into a war. Throw in a whole lot of humor thanks to a rewrite by Joss himself and the presence of king of the one-liners Robert Downey, Jr., and you’ve got the makings of a hit.


As a writer, I think my favorite part of the whole movie was the decision to kill off Agent Coulson. I was commenting to someone the other day that I stopped watching Fringe the third time Olivia went into the hallucinogenic tank of doom, because they kept trying to convince us that it was so dangerous, but she ended up being fine each time, and we knew she was going to die anyway because she was the lead character and you don’t kill off your lead character in the first season. Meanwhile, I watch Grey’s Anatomy religiously, because they create characters that I care about, and then (sometimes) kill them off. When an artist actually proves that he’s willing to kill someone you care about it, the stakes become that much more real. Agent Coulson, having assembled the Avengers over four years’ worth of movies, was not someone we expected to die. So when he did, we totally bought into the emotional stakes — i.e., that he was important enough to all the other characters to have them avenge his death.


I’m positively ecstatic that this gamble on the part of Marvel and Disney has paid off. A few years ago I heard a screenwriter for some comic book movie (don’t remember which one) say that when he was writing the screenplay, he begged the studio, “Let me put a blind lawyer named Murdoch just in this one scene.” In the comics they do that stuff all the time, but in the movie world they were seen, for the longest time, as completely different properties and didn’t want to cross them over. The studio refused. And now creating this horizontal world as they have, we’re seeing how powerful it can be.

Given the tag during the credits, and this summer’s auspiciously-timed reboot of Spiderman (only five years after the last Spiderman movie, the same time difference as between 2003’s Hulk and its 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk), I’ve heard some people speculate that Spiderman will be joining the Avengers for the sequel. That sequel has been confirmed, so now our job is to look for other clues — like, for example, a reboot of The Fantastic Four.

How to Treat People When You’re Famous (Sideways & Vertical – 12.06-07)

April 16, 2012

Several weeks ago I attended a book signing event with Rex Pickett, author of the novel Sideways, the screen adaptation of which which went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005. Though I’d never read the book, and didn’t even want to go when the reminder came up on my calendar, it was one of those events that I knew I’d be glad I attended once I got there, so I sucked it up and went.

It turned out, I was right – I would be glad I went. The attendance was small (a few dozen at most), and as one of few (if any) writers in the audience I had no problem distinguishing myself as someone worthy of the author’s attention. Afterward I came up with an excuse to ask him for his e-mail address, to send him a poem I’d written a decade earlier, which I figured he’d like. He gave it to me, I sent him the poem, and he wrote back:

Not a bad poem, not that I’m any judge of poetry.  And a well-written e-mail.  I can often tell just from an e-mail if someone has the ability to even pursue writing.  Now, the question’ll be:  can you do it in narrative form, create believable characters and transformative, trailblazing stories.  I think you can.  Get to work.

I’m sure it’s a fairly standard response of his to give polite, encouraging words to the (no doubt) myriad aspiring writers he interacts with, but it’s a great practice. I printed off the e-mail and posted it onto my vision board, and soon tucked into the novel that made him famous.

I found it slow at first, a lot of seemingly unnecessary conflicts without my really connecting to the characters or the plot. It was the literary equivalent of cinematic masturbation – because conflict is supposed to be there, it was stuck in, even though each individual scene didn’t really need to be. But then, right around the midpoint, I noticed myself engaged in a dramatic question for the first time: would Jack have sex with Terra, the week before his wedding? Once that was resolved, the protagonist’s goal, for the first time, became really clear and I became emotionally involved in the new dramatic question: would Miles succeed in getting Jack to his wedding? From then on, the pace moved quickly. Every obstacle seemed to matter. Even though the characters were douchebags, I cared about them and wanted to see them through to the end. And when the whole thing was resolved, I was satisfied.

Moving on to the newly released sequel, Vertical, my assessment was nearly identical. I plowed through the first few chapters updating us on the whereabouts of our characters, only to reach a literary masturbation-thon of conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict. It was pretty clear that a dramatic question was brewing, but we weren’t really there yet, the seeds of it just being sprinkled into a whole lot of unnecessary debauchery. But once the penny did drop (once again, at the midpoint), the entire story turned on its head and became a gut-wrenching tale of personal growth. Even though the second half lacked the sex appeal of the first, I finally felt like it actually mattered: I was engaged and wanted to see where our characters would end up, and how they would resolve a problem with no clear solution.

At the book signing, I had mentioned to Rex that there’s only one author whose books I’ve read more than three of. Later, I joked that he’s got to write two more books before I stop reading his work. Although it was said in jest, it’s amazing how quickly a writer’s tendencies become apparent, even for two novels written seven years apart. Although I feel like the juice was worth the squeeze, if I were to read another book of his, it wouldn’t be because of the writing, it would be because of the interaction we had when we met. I think there’s a lot to learn from that.

There’s also a lot to learn from the heartache that Rex endured through this process. I’ll spare you the details – you can read all about it at the end of Vertical – but it’s got something in common with a lot of other writers: he was at one point broke and suicidal, but he never gave up, and even once he at first succeeded, he still had to wade through a sea of crap and try, try, try again.

Looks like I’m on my way.

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