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.



July 31, 2011

Of the handful of people I’ve sent Postville to, so far I’ve gotten two responses, and both have indicated that the pacing in the second act is too slow. Which explains the lack of response I’ve gotten from everyone else, since in this business silence is the new “no.” So it’s time to take another crack at it and take it to the next level.

Hal Croasmun, of ScreenwritingU, has a series of philosophy tips on becoming a screenwriter. One of these is Kaizen: he says that 1% improvement per day leads to 365% improvement after a year. He’s actually incorrect about that. 1% improvement per day leads to 3678% improvement per year. We’ll call it “compound improvement”: After day 2, your script has improved by 2.01%. After day 3, by 3.03%. After day 4, by 4.06%, and so on. Just like the interest in your bank account, the improvement adds up after a while.

So I’ve been going back through Postville with my eye on improving it at least 1% per day. A few days ago I improved the children’s dialogue. The day before that I cut several lines in the first 10 or 15 pages that could be construed as obvious exposition. Yesterday I cut a thematic scene that I quite liked, but ultimately took 3/8ths of a page of description and just slowed the script down. I’m cutting a few words here and there to make that 5 lines of dialogue into 4. A whole page and a half has come off the script, and I’m only about halfway through.

Next I think I’m going to give the script to someone whose only job is to look for cliches. And in 3 months, hopefully I’ll have a script that’s 145% better.

‘Cause that’s kaizen.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

July 28, 2011

Got to see a sneak preview of this movie the other night. First, for those of you who are just here for the “should I or shouldn’t I?” of it, the answer is yes. Hilarious, emotional, and completely awesome.

Now, for the writers, there’s a few things I noticed in the “why” it was such a great movie:

First, the movie was like a roller coaster. Blake Snyder, when discussing the beat board in Save the Cat, tells you to use positives and negatives to figure out the direction of the scene. In other words, if it starts out on a high and ends on a low, it would get a +/-. If the opposite, it would be a -/+. Personally, I’ve also added -/– and +/++ to the repertoire, since I think a complete 180 is unnecessary as long as it moves the story somewhere.

Snyder mentions that other writers insist that scenes should be lined up +/- -/+ +/- etc., but that he (Snyder) feels that’s going a bit far. I agree with Snyder on this one. But one thing I noticed as I was watching Crazy, Stupid, Love was just how much it went up and down. Every time something was going great, something else would happen to slash the characters off at the knees. And then they would reach in from underneath and make things good again, only to screw it all up once again. It’s like the entire second half of the movie was a series of dark nights of the soul.

Honestly, there may have been one too many iterations of this. It was definitely on the emotionally taxing side. (You can ask my wife, who spend most of the movie either crying or cringing.) But the climax was definitely worth it, if for no other reason than the fact that the 13 year old totally steals it from Steve Carrell in a way that any male who was ever 13 would be in complete awe of.

Second, memorable lines. Someone once said that he can tell whether a movie will be successful based on one factor: whether people come out it quoting lines from the movie. Consider the following:

On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t the same, because I couldn’t share it with you.  . . . I love you.  I love you. And I just –

Shut up, just shut up.  I love you too.

Now compare it to what would produce two of the most famous lines in film history:

On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. . . . I love you.  You . . . you complete me. And I just –

Shut up, just shut up.  You had me at hello.

See the difference?  Jerry Maguire was filled with highly memorable lines: “Show me the money,” “You shoplifted the pooty,” “D’you know the human head weighs eight pounds,” “Help me help you,” and the list just goes on.

But I’m not here to talk about Jerry Maguire. The point is, Crazy, Stupid, Love is filled – FILLED – with memorable lines. My personal favorite is when Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt to an awed female who responds, “God, it’s like you’re Photoshopped!” I think that one might be in the trailer. Another one of my favorites: “Remember last week, when I said I had to work late? I went to go see the new Twilight movie by myself, and I feel awful about it because it was just so bad, so, so bad …”

That’s what a comedy is all about, right?

Third, moments we don’t see coming. I won’t spoil it for you. But very well done. Here I’m reminded of Robert McKee: save your exposition for the second half of the script, when it will explode off the screen and form a huge turning point, rather than be … well, exposition.

Fourth, character. What I found most interesting was that the supporting characters were more clear on what they wanted than the main protagonist. The teenagers, for example, both wanted something very specific that they couldn’t have. Most everyone else thought they wanted one thing, but really wanted something else. But EVERYONE was making very strong decisions to propel their own plotlines. I guess the takeaway from this, to use the words of Will Akers, is to make sure your supporting characters are the heroes of their own stories.

One thing I do wonder about is concept. Because premise-wise, this film isn’t particularly compelling. “A father’s life unravels while he deals with a marital crisis and tries to manage his relationship with his children.” Even for a family comedy, there’s nothing unique about this logline. But the characters and dialogue were written so well, A-list actors couldn’t help but jump on board, and I guess that’s the name of the game.

I’m sure there’s plenty more where this came from, but I think I’m done for now. Go see the movie, and have fun drooling over Ryan Gosling.

Childish Dialogue

July 26, 2011

One of the things that scripts consistently get wrong is dialogue involving children. It seems adults are inexorably bad at coming up with things that children say. Behold a sample from my own script, as it is currently being circulated in screenwriting contests:

Postville screenplay - before


Are you done yawning yet? I have four nephews and nieces, and I don’t think any of them would respond to that question that way. And even if they would, we shouldn’t write it that way, because it’s just plain boring.

So as I thought about this, I wondered aloud what I have heard my nieces and nephews say when I walk into the room and they’re excited to see me. Behold the updated version of this scene:

Postville Script pages - after


Is it the best moment in the script? No. But all of a sudden, this line of dialogue is no longer a mound of coal that the reader has to dig through in order to get to the diamond in the scene. It’s something that actually entertains. Suddenly this little girl is funny and adorable, so we immediately care about her and (more importantly), by proxy, her father, a protagonist who needs all the help he can get in being portrayed as sympathetic.

The fact that this interaction takes place in the first five pages of the script makes it all the more important that it’s an interesting read and drives us powerfully toward the main action in the scene.

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.

Super Dialogue

June 13, 2011

Watched Super 8 last night. And again, I’m thinking about dialogue.

The adults in this movie are pretty easy to tell apart. They have very few group scenes, and they all have very clear goals that they’re working toward.

More interesting to me is the kids. You’ve got four boys who make up a pretty big chunk of the movie, and they’re always together. So what do they do? Each of them has a particular characteristic that gets exploited again and again in dialogue. Every line Cary has is about blowing stuff up. Every line Martin has is about being a wimp. Every line Charles has is about his movie, or bossing someone around. It makes it real easy for us to know who’s talking when, and it gets tons of laughs.

The other thing I kept thinking about: I remember reading an article once where the author talked about how patient James Cameron was in Alien; that it was an hour into the film before we saw a full-fledged battle with the monster, and up until that point it’s mostly people peering around dark corners with the knowledge that the threat is there. This kept on showing up for me in Super 8, because it’s literally about two-thirds of the way through the movie before we see a nonblurry shot of the actual threat. I actually feel like Abrams could have been more subtle throughout this process, foregoing the track-in-and-horrified-scream and just leave us wondering at people’s disappearance, but even so, it was a really strong choice to build up suspense in this way.

Overall, great job mixing suspense with humor. IMDb was afraid that Super 8, like some of the other things Abrams has done, wouldn’t deliver. I think it did. Well worth the watch.

Truly Gritty Dialogue

June 9, 2011

Last week I finished ScreenwritingU‘s 10-day dialogue class, and then last night watched True Grit. So naturally, as I was watching this 10-time Oscar-nominated movie (including Best Adapted Screenplay), I was paying pretty close attention to the dialogue. Something Hal Croasmun, creator of ScreenwritingU, has said is that good voice in dialogue is not about ums and ahs or anything like that. It’s about having distinctive personality traits and/or interests for each character, and then making sure that every line they speak has some element of that character.

A few days ago I was reading a screenplay where a partner in a law firm was a cyclist. Though he was a minor character, he was extremely memorable. The first time we see him, he’s wearing no-modesty shorts, with his package staring at our protagonist as they ride the elevator. After that, every line he says is about Lance Armstrong or the Tour de France, which he uses as a metaphor for everything that’s going on at work. It’s all hilarious, and as the old advice goes, I could have covered up the character names and identified, beyond a shadow of a doubt, every line that belonged to him.

In watching True Grit, the best example that came to mind was Matt Damon’s character, LaBoeuf. First, notice the name. He’s called “the beef,” because he’s got a beef with everyone about everything. From there, almost all of his lines show his bordering-on-hubris pride. Probably half of them reflect the fact that he’s a Texas Ranger, and most of the rest are meant to impress/dominate our tweenage protagonist, Mattie Ross.

Speaking Mattie Ross (side note: Supporting Actress? Are you kidding? Come on, Academy!), she’s precocious and bullheaded, so most every line that comes out of her reflects that. For example: ‘And “futile”, Marshal Cogburn, “pursuit would be futile”? It’s not spelled “f-u-d-e-l.”‘ The whole negotiation scene where she threatens to sue the man who held her father’s horse showed these characteristics every step of the way. And with every line, she speaks in perfect elocution.

Which is in contrast, of course, to Rooster Cogburn. Again, notice the name. He’s not just arrogant – he’s cocky, hence the name, “Rooster.” And what does “Cogburn” imply? He’s fiery, yet thoughtful, perhaps? Speaking with a heavy southern slang, some of his lines: “Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer,” or “You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”

Although it’s tough at this point to distinguish the dialogue as written from the character as played by Jeff Bridges, it’s clear that the Coen Brothers know what they’re doing when it comes to creating characters — and dialogue — that speaks to the viewer and to the actor.

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