Trimming the Fat

May 6, 2013

Last week I finished up a script I’ve been working on — a screen adaptation of Laura Gallier’s paranormal thriller, The Delusion. As an editor, this is my favorite part of screenwriting: that last read through, when I get to go through the entire thing and just trim the fat; find those places where just by cutting out a couple of words, that chunk of description goes from three lines down to two:

Cutting lines

or that chunk of dialogue goes from five lines down to four:

Cutting lines 2

For this script, the cascading effect of those kinds of changes ultimately reduced the page count from 123 to 115 — and more importantly, made for a stronger, tighter read.

I think this step is a must for any script before you do anything with it. I try to avoid prescriptive rules when it comes to screenwriting (or any kind of writing), but I always notice if there are a lot of dangling words (like “him” or “running” in the first example above), and I feel like it’s a sign of an amateur writer. I wouldn’t consciously pass on a script because of that alone, but it’s one of those things that can make a script drag, and people will pass on your script if it drags.



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.

Teenage Ninja Turtles

March 22, 2012

Ever since the news broke that Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles relaunch will be changing their backstory and consequently removing the word “Mutant” from their name, fans have been freaking the f*** out. To quote Michael Bay, “Take a breath and chill.”

Remember: Michael Bay’s allegiance isn’t to fans of the TMNT corpus. They’re going to go see the movie anyway. His job is to make a CGI-fest that everyone else will go see. And if TMNT co-creator Peter Laird is on board, it’ll probably be okay.

The Process

February 9, 2012

It took my years to finish my first feature-length screenplay. I’d done a zillion kinds of writing in the meantime, including TV show development, co-authoring a sitcom spec, and co-authoring a book, but finishing my first solo feature script took an unprecedented level of integrity and determination.

Then I got caught up in the agony of rewrites. Ah, rewrites. (Sigh.)

What I discovered out of finishing that screenplay was a process that works for me. Outline. Refine the outline. When I get blocked, create a beat board. Enter the outline, in its entirety, into Final Draft. And then write at least one scene a day, paying no attention to the order, and just writing what seemed like a good scene to write at that particular moment.

I was shocked to discover that scenes that seemed so hard to write last week, were suddenly easy to write today. I gave up the perfectionism of it, and just got it on paper. Can always rewrite later. (Ah, rewrites. Sigh.) But I was even able to keep this process going on a vacation, disappearing into my room for an hour when I really wanted to be in the living room partying with all my friends, or sleeping or jacuzziing away the exhaustion from the ski slope.

I also discovered my brand. I am, at heart, an editor. An editor with a good eye for story and a wicked sense of dialogue, but an editor nonetheless, which means that as a screenwriter, what I want to focus on is adaptations. No coming up with anything on my own, just rewriting other people’s stuff. (Ah, rewrites. Sigh.) And after all, that’s one of the best ways to get paid in Hollywood. It also has the added benefit of that sense of accountability that comes from someone else waiting for my work to be done. Notice that all the things I was able to finish for those first few years involved other people. (And rewriting their stuff. Ah, rewrites. Sigh.)

As I write this, I’m at the tail end of Dances with Fat (working title), the true story of plus-sized dancer Ragen Chastain‘s quest to win her first national dance championship. Although it’s not quite the kind of source material that I first envisioned when I said I wanted to write adaptations, I do have the tremendous advantage of a vast canon of actual events to draw on. And, as it turns out, the truth is often much stranger than fiction. Since I’m doing this as part of a class, I wasn’t able to perfectly follow the process that I so brilliantly devised for Postville. But the way the class is designed, I was able to get pretty close.

So now I’ve got 5 scenes left to write. And then I get to spend the next couple of months on rewrites.

Ah. Rewrites.


January 30, 2012

I read this book several years ago, and I remember being left with something of an empty feeling. It was like I wished they’d made this into a business book (lessons from Billy Beane to apply to your business) or had a happy ending or something. I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that bugged me about it. Until …

Six months ago, I saw the movie trailer for the first time. And I thought, “Yes! That’s what the problem was!” Immediately I realized my issue: this is the rare book that would make a much better movie. So I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time.

It was different than I expected. The subplot with his daughter wasn’t a part of the book at all. There was nothing at all in the movie about the baseball draft, which is one of the parts of the book I most remember – Billy Beane going to players who expected to be drafted in the 15th round, with offers to take them in the 7th round for 11th round money. I remember the book obsessing over the importance of an out – that a stolen base isn’t worth the risk, and a sacrifice bunt isn’t worth the cost – but that’s something you might’ve missed in the movie if you blinked at the wrong time. And I didn’t remember, nor did I expect from the movie, all the backlash he got from his own team, or the losing record the team had over the first quarter of the season. And structurally the movie was very . . . eclectic, making liberal use of stock footage and flashbacks, sprinkled throughout with no rigidity whatever to when or how they’re used.

But that’s not to say that these stock videos and flashbacks were used haphazardly. They were very carefully placed, just not with the same level of visual formality that one might expect from a Hollywood movie.

As a screenwriter, and one who’s worked with adaptations and true stories, I see everything they did and why. The daughter was there to increase the stakes, as were all the threats of him losing his job (which may very well have been exaggerated). They didn’t talk about the draft, because it adds a layer of complexity to a story that was more easily told through the lens of the handful of players who could represent the entire team. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) was a fictionalized composite of Paul DePodesta and several other people – DePodesta didn’t want his name used, because of the way the character was portrayed. Not a surprise at all.

But I’m thinking a lot about character and dialogue just at the moment, and Peter Brand is one of the more interesting ones to talk about. Every line he has in the first three scenes demonstrates his awkwardness:

I wanted you to see these player evaluations that you asked me to do.

I asked you to do three.


To evaluate three players.


How many’d you do?



Actually, fifty-one. I don’t know why I lied just then.

I do. I know why he lied just then. It’s because it’s such a great way to demonstrate this guy as uncomfortable, awkward, and unsure of himself. (And again — not hard to see why DePodesta didn’t want his name on this character.)

Same thing with Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Every line is a demonstration of his frustration at having to put together a winning season with what he sees as an insufficient number of quality players and a lack of faith in his ability to manage the team.

I was not expecting, though I can’t say I was completely surprised, to see Aaron Sorkin listed as the second writer on this movie. Although the dialogue was less circular than usual, and the main characters nowhere near as talkative as anyone we’re used to seeing in a script he wrote, it had his same sense of vitality and imagination.

Overall, excellent movie, and one I’d recommend both to people who have and who haven’t read the book.

Outhouse Introduction

June 17, 2011

A follow-up from my post on True Grit. Over the last week I’ve been thinking about the introduction of main characters. You always want to introduce your main characters in memorable ways, so that people … you know, remember them. Makes sense, right? In True Grit, Rooster Cogburn is introduced as follows. After knocking on the door to the outhouse, He and Mattie speak to each other through the door:

The jakes is occupied.

I know it is occupied Mr. Cogburn. As I said, I have business with you.

I have prior business.

You have been at it for quite some time, Mr. Cogburn.

There is no clock on my business! To hell with you! To hell with you! How did you stalk me here?

The sheriff told me to look in the saloon. In the saloon they referred me here. We must talk.

Women ain’t allowed in the saloon!

I was not there as a customer. I am fourteen years old.

The jakes is occupied. And will be for some time.

What a great scene! Cogburn could just as easily have been introduced in the saloon, as have any number of similar characters in hundreds of Westerns over the last century. But the Coen brothers are consummate film scholars, and seek to parody all the normal ways of doing things, so instead, what do they do? They introduce him in a way that reinforces Mattie’s bullheadedness (it takes a special kind of person to introduce herself to someone by trying to get him to hurry up on the john), while showing him as … well, the kind of guy who takes a long time in the outhouse.

I don’t know whether this was in the original book (I haven’t read it, and a cursory Internet search hasn’t yielded any conclusive information), but either way, people talk about it, which makes it a great way to meet your hero.

Top Five Thoughts on High Fidelity (11.07)

February 26, 2011

Let me start by saying that High Fidelity is one of my top five all-time favorite films. And it has been, I think, ever since a friend and I first snuck in to see it, following a (free) red-carpet screening of American Beauty. It was a good day at the movies. And hopefully I’ve paid my dues for that one, since I own the DVD and have told hundreds of people that they need to watch it. In fact, I even wrote an essay about it in college, arguing that those two movies, along with Wonder Boys, were part of a new genre of film, the “mid-life crisis melodrama.” I don’t remember much of the details, but I’m sure my essay was brilliant. Anyway, I digress.

Last week, I found, bought, and read the book on which the movie was based. Something I knew would be a good read? Yes. An exercise in adaptation study? Yes. So here goes:

1. Movie takes place in Chicago, the book in London. I really have no preference. I liked that Rob’s parents live near Amersham (which I lived about 15 minutes away from, when I lived in the UK), but I also like the line from the movie, “John Dillinger was killed in a hail of FBI gunfire right outside that movie theater. You know who tipped ’em off? His fucking girlfriend. He just wanted to go to the movies.”

2. The DVD contains my favorite delete scene of all time. In it, Rob goes to the home of a woman in her fifties who’s selling her husband’s record collection. It’s thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, and the woman wants to sell it to Rob for $50. Apparently, her husband is on a tropical island with a 26-year-old, and asked her to sell his record collection and take a 10% commission for herself and send the rest to him. Rob refuses to buy it for so little, because he just can’t do that to another record collector, and so ultimately leaves (mostly) empty-handed.

Why is this my favorite deleted scene of all time? Because it’s a really, really good scene, that’s well-written and entertaining … which doesn’t belong in the movie at all. It doesn’t forward the plot, so they were absolutely right to cut it. It was watching that deleted scene that I first got one of my mantras: anybody can cut a bad line and replace it with a good line, but a great writer can cut a good line, because it’s not the perfect line.

Here’s the interesting thing: in the book, that scene is absolutely necessary. Why? Because it shows Rob’s character in a way that we haven’t seen yet. Rob is written to be a whiny, self-centered, self-righteous loser, so in the book, this scene serves as a “save the cat” moment — something that makes him likable, so we actually root for him moving forward. But as portrayed by John Cusack, the guy is really quite charming, which makes that moment totally unnecessary.

3. It’s interesting that the movie and the book start off almost identical to each other. The way the book starts:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nicholson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we’re too old to make each other miserable, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, so don’t take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are goon, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it’s just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.

Sound familiar? The next fifty pages or so are filled with scenes that I recognized from the movie. (One exception: we do actually get to meet Jackie Allen.) But as the story progresses, it diverges more and more. One of the most notable differences was that Rob and Marie de Salle actually become friends after their one night stand. One of my favorite passages from the book comes from when she walks into the store following their night together. After a few lines of dialogue:

This, it seems, is what you get for sleeping with an American, all this up-front goodwill. You wouldn’t catch a decent British woman marching in here after a one-night stand. We understand that these things are, on the whole, best forgotten. But I suppose Marie wants to talk about it, explore what went wrong; there’s probably some group-counseling workshop she wants us to go to, with lots of other couples who spent a misguided one-off Saturday night together. We’ll probably have to take our clothes off and reenact what happened, and I’ll get my sweater stuck round my head.

She ends up doing a gig at the record store, which proves to be a huge success, and he never starts his own record label with anyone who comes into his store. I think I like that better, although I can see, in filmmaking terms, how it’s stronger to have your protagonist take a giant leap like that, rather than a little step toward success.

Rob’s parents have a more active role, Ian/Ray is portrayed more like a regular guy, rather than the hyperbolic buffoon depicted by Tim Robbins. The visits with his exes are less … conclusive.

4. The tone is frickin’ identical. That scene in the movie when Rob pictures all the ways he could have responded to Ray’s visit to the store? Yeah, in the book that scene is a phone call, but it’s pretty much written exactly the same way. I wanna find a book like this to turn into a movie. Because it more or less writes itself.

5. Okay, there is no number five.

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