House of Cards

February 11, 2013

The next generation of television program is officially upon us. Hulu’s hyper-compelling low-budget drama The Booth at the End made serious waves last year, but with House of Cards, which boasts star-studded talent (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and director David Fincher), an impressive $4 million-per-episode budget, and a distribution schedule that consists of releasing 13 episodes at once, Netflix is breaking new ground on Internet programming.

It doesn’t hurt that that the show is awesome.

I only just watched the first episode, and it was confusing at times, but it’s also thrilling. I’m particularly enamored with the hero’s dialogue. A couple of my favorite lines: “I love that woman more than sharks love blood,” and “We’re in the same boat now, Zoe. Be careful not to tip it over, I can only save one of us.”


Most Profitable Movies Across Story Types

March 15, 2012

Back in January, I looked at the most profitable films of 2011. Last week, Scott Meyers looked at 2011’s most profitable movies across 22 different story types. Not really sure what that latter graphic proves, except perhaps that tragedies don’t make any money. As Meyers points out, many of these “genres” are fairly similar (is a “journey and return” really that different than a “quest”?).

Meyers also (correctly) points out, as I did, that very few of the most profitable films had huge budgets. This is to be expected, though – the films that recover $100 million at the box office will be the ones with the biggest buzz. Most of these will be the ones with the most marketing dollars spent, which will be the biggest budget movies. But a handful of films will win the proverbial lottery, hitting those same box office numbers but on a much lower budget. These will, by definition, be more profitable.

How to Write Great Action Sequences

February 13, 2012

One of the mistakes people make with fight scenes, chase scenes, musical numbers, etc., is that they just have them stuck in there as an afterthought. Something to kill time. It’s an action movie, gotta have a chase scene, right? Someone’s gotta fight someone else, right? Here, they fight, so-and-so wins because that’s what’s necessary for the plot. Time to move on.

Pros know that action sequences are just like any other scene. They have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The character has to start the scene in one emotional state and end in another. And most importantly, it needs to show character and subtext at every turn. The best action sequences, like the best scenes, combine different elements to make something unique and interesting, that the audience has never seen before.

Let’s take a look at some famous ones:

  • Ballad of a Fencing Bout Between De Bergerac and a Foppish Lout. Possibly my favorite fight scene ever. Cyrano de Bergerac, having just unleashed a vitriolic monologue at Valvert on a couple dozen ways he could have insulted his nose, is challenged by another, equally obtuse individual (de Guiche), to a duel. This could very easily have been written as “They fight, and Cyrano overwhelms him.” But no, Rostand brilliantly uses this scene to show that Cyrano is so witty, and such an extraordinary fighter, that he can compose a poem extemporaneously while fighting this fop. Both the poem, and the fight, show Cyrano’s mastery at both, and most importantly insanely entertaining.
  • Summer Lovin’. Had me a blast. One of the most famous musical songs ever. What does it accomplish? 1. We hear two different people tell wildly different accounts of the same series of events, providing a ton of subtext. 2. We show their nostalgia, establishing the exposition in an interesting way and setting up the “ordinary world” out of which the inciting incident will come. 3. We set up a future conflict, since we know that Danny’s account of Sandy doesn’t match her actual personality. Isn’t it so much more fun to have the dialogue expressed in this way, and to have the song tell us so much?
  • Mini Cooper outchases a zillion cops in the streets of Paris. From The Bourne Identity, this is my favorite car chase scene. Why? First off, the chase starts with a major decision on the part of one of our major supporting characters. Just a few minutes ago (in screen time), Marie and Jason found out that Jason is an assassin, and she tried to run but he made her stay with him, for her protection. Now, he’s giving her a chance to leave. As the cops start to approach, he sees them, and tells her, “Last chance.” What does she say? Nothing! She buckles her seatbelt. It’s a physical action, the subtext of which is “We’re in this together, for the long haul.” Then he takes off through the streets of Paris in a Mini Cooper, driving that car with remarkable agility (demonstrates character: this is the first time we’ve seen him drive a car like this), using its advantages against the people he’s trying to outrun (ducking between cars, going through small alleyways other vehicles can’t fit through, driving on curbs, etc.), giving us quippy in-character dialogue (“We got a bump coming” right before heading down a set of stairs), before finally ducking out of the way. At the end, the characters reaffirm that they’re now in this together: they’re going to ditch this car and never come back to it, and Marie agrees.

Each of these scenes moves the story forward, as action scenes usually do, but they also demonstrate character and subtext within the scene, and that’s what’s most important.

Got any other favorites? Share them.

10.12 – The Shack

September 4, 2010

One of the things I love about being a freelance writer and editor is that I get to read all sorts of things I otherwise wouldn’t. I’m currently working on a project for which the client recommended I read The Shack by William Paul Young. When I asked for it at the bookstore, the guy led me to the “Inspirational Fiction” section, which, suffice it to say, is not a part of the bookstore I’m especially familiar with.

The premise of the book: A guy goes into a shack in the woods and has a conversation with God. Again, based on that logline, this is a book I immediately return to the shelf. I might quietly mumble incredulity at the “7 million copies sold”, but ultimately it’s not antipathy, just lack of interest, that would have me moving on to find something else.

My client is really interested in emulating the style of The Shack, so I’ll be reading it multiple times, as well. And thinking back over the years, I can’t think of any books (excluding plays) that I’ve read more than once.

Everything you’ve read up until this point was written when I was about 3 or 4 chapters in. Because at the time, the book was wowing my socks off. On an icy morning, the narrator goes to pick up his mail and finds a note, signed “Papa” (the name their family affectionately calls God), inviting him to come to the shack. We then flash back to a fall vacation he took with his children, where his daughter was abducted. Tense, suspenseful. They track her down to this shack in the woods, where they find her torn and bloodied dress.

So then, back to present day, the note has tremendous weight, and he tries to decide what to do. He ultimately decides to go to the shack — armed, in case the note was written by his daughter’s abductor — and drives into the middle of nowhere in the snow.

So far so good, right? But then it turns weird. The snow melts, the birds start chirping, and all of a sudden the shack is transformed into a spring chalet, inhabited by a black woman who calls herself papa, a Middle Eastern man named Yeshua, and an Asian spirit.

So close, and yet so damn far. Forgive the pun.

The funny thing is, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if this, the second act of the story, hadn’t been so . . . well, bad. In some ways it reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie, in that the narrator is being told the philosophies of some mentor. Except this was so very contrived, much of the time it fell flat. Unlike in Tuesdays with Morrie, which followed a very clear progression, there was no real story, just a bunch of, “Time to talk to Jesus. Time to talk to Papa. Let’s go talk to Jesus again!” while the hero asks the same questions over and over and over again.

It picked up a bit toward the end, but by that point I had enough of a sour taste in my mouth that I just wasn’t willing to like the book.

Fortunately, when I talked to the client about it, the things that appealed to him had nothing to do with the story. So at least there’s that. But multiple reads, probably not.

Marketing, PR, Advertising, and Branding

June 9, 2010

Marketing, Public Relations, Advertising, and Branding

I’ve been getting e-mails from Penman PR for a while … not sure why … I don’t remember signing up to be on their mailing list … and I was getting ready to unsubscribe, when I saw this.

Okay, you got me. I will stay on your mailing list.

Thoughts on Gandhi

May 4, 2010

I saw Gandhi for the first time the other day. Obviously a classic, and I just loved the efficiency of the dialogue. Countless times in the film, somebody asks our hero a question that he never answers – nor does he have to. We just cut to the next scene, which answers the question for him. The film is crawling with subtext and subtlety, and the understated simplicity of the title character is a great contrast with the magnitude of what he’s accomplishing.

The other thing that struck me was the thematic emphasis: how quick we are to respond with violence. How immediate it is that we will go to that to solve a problem. No matter how many times Gandhi preached nonviolence, it was still the automatic reaction anytime something went wrong.

I did feel like it started too quick. When he’s in South Africa, it takes just a few scenes for him to get from being an unknown, idealistic lawyer, to one who people are coming from England to meet. How did he get to that point? We see a couple of snippets of it, but don’t get a sense of the kind of work it must take to grow a movement and alter the course of a country. I would like to have seen that progression a little more, or not at all.

15 Movies

September 2, 2009

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen movies you’ve seen that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag fifteen friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what movies my friends choose.

To do this, go to your Notes tab on your (Facebook) profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note — upper right hand side. I hope you participate, even if you didn’t get tagged!

  1. Th Shawshank Redemption
  2. The Usual Suspects
  3. The Dark Knight
  4. High Fidelity
  5. Natural Born Killers
  6. Grosse Point Blank
  7. Moulin Rouge!
  8. Juno
  9. The Princess Bride
  10. Seven Pounds
  11. Chasing Amy
  12. The Crow
  13. Dave
  14. Don Juan de Marco
  15. What the Bleep do We Know?

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