Cannibals, Aliens, and Zombies: The Scripts I Read in 2017

2017 seemed to speed by in a way that makes reflecting on it about as rewarding as reflecting on yesterday.  But that’s what the end-of-year milestone is for. We examine, ponder, and make lists. My inbox is flooded with lists compiled by people reflecting on the year in movies:  best, worst, most underrated, most overrated… and thanks to “The Post” even best journalism movies.

 Courtesy: iStock/Getty Images

Courtesy: iStock/Getty Images

But because I spent more time reading scripts than seeing the movies or pilots they may or may not have turned into (chances are they did not), my end-of-year list is common elements in the more than 2300 scripts of which I read all or part in 2017. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Soldiers or veterans, often suffering from PTSD
  • Aliens, attacking or posing as humans
  • Zombies, doing what zombies do
  • Vampires, often cavorting with zombies or aliens
  • Werewolves, doing what werewolves do
  • Serial killers, often with an unstoppable detective hot on their trail
  • Cannibals, doing what zombies do only more methodically
  • Female characters – either naked or in tattered clothing – running through a forest, often from a cannibal or serial killer
  • Female protagonists with fertility problems
  • Female characters described as “no-nonsense”
  • Children or brooding teens who convey their emotional disturbances or brilliance through drawing
  • Male characters described as looking either like Will Ferrell or Zack Galifianakis
  • Characters that are aspiring actors “trying to make it”
  • Characters that are aspiring screenwriters “trying to make it”
  • Characters suffering from writers block, often with nagging editors, managers, or agents
  • Bachelor/bachelorette parties, often ending in alcohol-fueled memory loss
  • Weddings, often involving drunken shenanigans and possible alcohol-fueled memory loss
  • Road trips, often to weddings or bachelor/bachelorette parties
  • Divorce, often prompted by affairs or aforementioned fertility problems
  • Jokes about, or references to, the Kardashian family or a specific member thereof
  • Jokes about, or references to, Donald Trump
  • Jokes about, or references to, hipsters
  • Jokes about, or references to, millennials
  • Millennial characters that make ‘80s references

I'm eager to see what 2018 brings. If it's anything like 2017, it will bring more cannibals, aliens, and zombies! Maybe aliens with writers block on a road trip to a wedding...

 

A Polarizing Protagonist in "Elle"

Photo from the film "Elle" starring Isabelle Huppert courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

French actress Isabelle Huppert is taking the awards circuit by storm, thanks to her daring portrayal of a complicated woman in the provocative film “Elle.” She took home a Spirit award at Film Independent’s party, France’s Cesar award, and a Golden Globe award last month. Though the Paul Verhoeven film is not nominated for an Academy Award, Huppert is. An upset Sunday over the American actresses, who did not star in a French-language film featuring terrifying sexual assault scenes, is probably unlikely. But the nomination has people contemplating the role the put Huppert in the company of Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and Ruth Negga.

“Elle” is less controversial than it is polarizing. Huppert portrays a woman, Michele, who runs a video game company. Think: high testosterone, violent, misogynistic, graphic. And then make it worse. She is violently attacked by a masked intruder. But how she reacts to that, and the course of action she takes to track down the identity of her intruder, have a lot of people scratching their heads. You don't have to like the film but you can’t deny that her character is anything short of complicated, complex, and unpredictable. You cannot predict what she will do or say next. Whether you agree with her reaction, and subsequent course of action, you have to appreciate how she keeps us guessing. Despite the tough subject matter and uncomfortably unflinching way it’s portrayed on the screen, it’s actually refreshing to follow a character – to actually have to follow the character – to see where she’s going rather than already knowing. That unpredictability and her complexities that fuel it are what make “Elle” and Huppert so engaging.

Some people complain that Michele’s reactions and actions are just not realistic, not believable. There’s nothing wrong with making that argument. It made me realize how easy it is to project our own thoughts, feelings, experiences and expectations onto a character. I wouldn’t do that, so therefore it’s not realistic, not believable. Or can we allow for complexities that cannot be easily explained? “Elle” teaches us that it is possible to write a strong female character – or any character for that matter – that doesn’t do what’s expected.

The Gals at Home

A few recent movies have got me thinking about the character we can call the “Gal at Home.” She’s the wife or girlfriend who stays at home while the male protagonist is off behaving badly, fighting bad guys, or saving the world from impending doom. Rebecca Keegan from the Los Angeles Times recently penned an article about a version of this character, the gal, specifically, wife, at home on the phone. Keegan notes that even the most gifted of actresses will often play small roles cheering on or worrying about the men in a crisis, from home, and usually over the phone.

Laura Linney on the phone in "Sully." Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

In “Sully” Oscar-nominated Laura Linney plays the anxious wife at home to Tom Hanks’ heroic Captain Sully Sullenberger, dealing with the onslaught of attention and scrutiny after his Miracle on the Hudson water landing. And in “Deepwater Horizon” Kate Hudson plays the nervous wife at home to Mark Wahlberg’s oil rig worker who is saving his colleagues from fiery doom. Keegan notes that when those characters “dial into the story from outside the action they’re often there to remind the audience what the hero has to lose, like comfort, family or the love of a good woman… or as evidence of a tough guy’s softer side.”

I would add that they also exist to make things relatable for us non-heroes… we mere mortals who feel helpless, confused, anxious, or nervous as tragic and harrowing events unfold that we can’t control and can’t see. Hudson’s character knows something bad is happening but doesn’t know exactly what or whether her husband is safe. Can’t imagine selflessly running through fire on a collapsing oil rig to help rescue coworkers? Me either. Can’t image landing a packed jetliner on a frigid river? Nope. Not that either. But not knowing what is happening to a loved one or whether they are safe? Absolutely.

Kate Hudson video chats in "Deepwater Horizon." Photo courtesy: Summit Entertainment

Would it be more interesting to see Laura Linney saving a jetliner full of people from a horrible crash while Tom Hanks worries at home? Or Kate Hudson carrying wounded oil rig workers to safety while Mark Wahlberg anxious waits for word at home with their daughter? Yes. I’m there on opening night! But that’s not what happened in the real events chronicled in both “Sully” and “Deepwater Horizon.”

The Gal at Home, or any supporting character outside of the action, and what purpose they serve, is an important for Writers to think about for fictional stories. Does your comedy’s male protagonist have a wife or girlfriend to show us that his stop off at the strip club is a bad idea? Does your adventure thriller have a Gal at Home to raise the stakes of your male protagonist taking extra big risks on his mountainous trek? Taking gender out of it, what purpose does your protagonist’s husband, boss, neighbor, or best friend have? Do they raise the stakes? Do they soften or humanize the protagonist? Create obstacles or conflict? Does your protagonist have a boss who sets an impossible deadline or doles out an impossible assignment? Or does the boss just do something or say something that your own boss once did that you thought was ridiculous? “What purpose do you serve?” is a basic but important question every Writer needs to pose of their supporting characters, especially to those Gals at Home.

The Deceptive Simplicity of "The Shallows"

It’s easy to dismiss movies like “The Shallows” as being simple. A girl is marooned on a rock after being attacked by a shark. Let’s admit what we’re all thinking: I could write that. But there’s deception in its simplicity. There’s more to the plot than a vengeful shark attacking and there’s more to the protagonist than a pretty girl in a tiny bikini. Dare I say it, but “The Shallows” is kind of deep, if you’re willing to look beyond the surface.

Blake Lively in "The Shallows." Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony.

In "The Shallows," written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Blake Lively plays an impossibly tanned and toned surfer and medical school dropout grieving her mother who lost a vigorous battle to cancer. We know who she is and why she’s at that particular surf spot. After an overly-long surfing montage the plot gets down to business. Without giving away any more than the reviews or the marketing, the shark attacks Lively’s surfer and then continues to prey on her and her bleeding, discolored leg. The plot develops a nice rhythm as it presents problems, then solutions, then new problems for the increasingly weakened and desperate woman. (See also “All is Lost” for a great example of a movie that capitalizes on that plot rhythm.)

The shark isn’t just a shark here. The man-versus-animal stories never are. The shark represents all of the things that trap us and leave us cowering in the corner. It’s the boogeyman in the closet. It’s our fears. It’s our weaknesses. It’s the cancer that relentlessly attacked her mother. It can’t merely be survived—it must be destroyed. That symbolism helps creates an important turning point in the story where the table gets turned (or in this case, a buoy) and where the hunted becomes the hunter. "The Shallows" isn’t perfect (I could spend three more blog posts detailing its faults), but in its imperfection it reminds us that its strong female protagonist is more than just another pretty girl in a tiny bikini and a vengeful shark is more than just a vengeful shark.

Spotlight on Spirit Awards

Image from "Carol" courtesy of The Weinstein Company

With the Spirit Award voting deadline this week, I spent the weekend (and Monday) marathoning independent films. Each year the nominations list exposes me to smaller films that managed to fly under my radar and that make me ask, “How did I not know about this film?” This year’s list was no different.

Sure, there’s “Carol,” “Spotlight,” and other higher-profile films with big stars and distributors that have devoted considerable resources to promoting them.  Even “Beasts of No Nation” got the full Netflix treatment. But then there are the others—the films with, by, and starring emerging talent—that Film Independent spotlights with its awards.

Image from "Bone Tomahawk" courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

Let’s look at the Best Screenplay category. That list includes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for “Spotlight,” Charlie Kaufman for “Anomalisa,” and Phyllis Nagy for “Carol.” It also includes Donald Margulies for “End of the Tour,” and S. Craig Zahler for the western “Bone Tomahawk.” Admittedly, had it not been for the ballot, I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to “Bone Tomahawk.” (If you’re a Richard Jenkins fan it’s worth your time just for him. He’s also nominated for Best Supporting Male.)

That’s a tough category. But luckily Film Independent offers a Best First Screenplay category, as well. I knew about Jesse Andrews’ “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” because of the well-documented bidding of seven and eight-figure offers at Sundance. I had seen “Room,” written by Emma Donoghue, in a theater (and was devastated, in a good way). I had heard about “The Dairy of a Teenage Girl,” but just like with “Bone Tomahawk,” had it not been for the Spirit Awards ballot, I might not have gotten around to seeing it.

Image from "The Mend" courtesy of Cinelicious Pics

I was completely unfamiliar with "Mediterranea," written by Jonas Carpignano and also up for Best First Feature, and with “The Mend,” written by John Magary, with Story By credits for Russell Harbaugh and Myna Joseph. “The Mend” stars Josh Lucas as a ne’er do well who crashes at his brooding brother’s apartment while he and his live-in girlfriend are on vacation. The return of the brother, alone, creates an interesting dynamic in the apartment that is now also occupied by Lucas’ character’s on-and-off-again girlfriend and her son. It’s an interesting, thoughtful character study that deftly balances drama with humor.

Image from "James White" courtesy of The Film Arcade

Another film that was new to me is “James White,” up for Best First Feature with nominations for its lead, Christopher Abbott for Best Male Lead and for Cynthia Nixon for Best Supporting Female. Abbott’s White is a struggling 20-something trying to take care of his terminally ill mother, played by Nixon, while trying to find some focus and purpose in his life and while also grappling with the recent death of his estranged father. White is simultaneously trying to salvage his life while also self-sabotaging (and self-medicating). It’s tough subject matter, for sure. I was blown away by the performances. Nixon’s cancer patient is still haunting me, as is the way Abbott portrayed James' emotional spiral.

Another film with tough emotional subject matter is “Meadowland,” which landed Reed Morano a nomination for Best Cinematography. “Meadowland” stars Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson as parents whose young son disappears during a pit stop at a gas station.

"Meadowland" poster courtesy of Cinedigm

There are a few harrowing moments as they frantically race around, yelling out his name. The plot then skips ahead to about a year after his disappearance (presumed abduction) and focuses on how each parent deals with the tragedy and its unsolved nature.

Wilde’s character walks around in a fog until she begins to fixate on a special needs student at the school where she’s a teacher, while Wilson’s character, a beat cop, fixates on the investigation. The story, the performances, and the cinematography—the specific choices made—have really stuck with me. It’s very lean writing and the character study and economical plot is something from which writers can learn.

It’s important that we have an organization like Film Independent that organizes the Spirit Awards to highlight excellence in independent cinema, and to call our attention to films and filmmakers that would otherwise fly under our radar. The Spirit Awards will be televised (with booze and looser language standards) on IFC on Saturday, February 27th at 2:00pm Pacific/5:00pm Eastern.

The Ongoing Stories of "Spotlight" and "The Big Short"

What do “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” have in common? There are some obvious things, of course. They’re both great films. They both have big stars. And they both won Writers Guild of America awards over the weekend. “Spotlight,” written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, won for Original Screenplay, while “The Big Short,” written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, won for Adapted Screenplay.

Image from "The Big Short" courtesy of Paramount Pictures

They are both stories that unfold over time and continue to reverberate through society, both on a large, systematic scale and a small, very personal one. They are both stories in which there are real-life victims. Despite decidedly different tones, they are both stories about power and corruption and about undue influence by a larger-than-life institution. In the case of “Spotlight” it’s the Catholic Church and in “The Big Short” it’s Wall Street.

Let’s focus on how the stories unfold over time. In both cases there isn’t one big singular event to which the rest of plot reacts. It is one case of abuse, and then another, and then another, and then a few decisions here or there to cover it up. It then snowballs into something much larger and insidious. It is one bank, one mortgage holder, one money manager, then more mortgage holders. The stakes get higher and soon it snowballs into something much larger and insidious.

Photo of "Spotlight" cast courtesy of Open Road Films

These are not isolated events, not stories that can be wrapped up with a pretty bow. Rather, they are ongoing, to this day. There are people still reeling from the housing crisis and ensuing recession, from having their homes foreclosed upon. (See "99 Homes" for a more personal look at the housing crisis, from the perspective of the struggling mortgage holders.) There are people still reeling from the violation and abuse by their religious institution.

So, how to wrangle all that into manageable screenplays and films? In “Spotlight” the writers focused on the Boston Globe’s investigation into allegations of priest abuse and its cover up, and “The Big Short” focused on the managers and analysts who saw the housing bubble, predicted its popping, and maneuvered to cash in on it. Both therefore tame each story’s unwieldiness and large scope and make them manageable, digestible, and in the case of “The Big Short,” funny. Both contain elements that on paper could be viewed as dull (a painstaking, pavement-pounding investigation and the complexities of the economy and finance). Both are based on real people and real stories. Both are "adapted" from real life.

The Global View from Palm Springs

Some people have heard me insist that writers should watch foreign films, not just American films, to get a more well-rounded view of storytelling. The best classroom for that this week was in Palm Springs. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, wrapping up this weekend, boasts that it screened 180 films from 60 countries this year, including 40 of the 80 foreign language entries for this year’s Academy Awards®. Judging by conversations overheard during the patience-testing amount of time waiting in line for screenings, the shuttle, the bathroom or for a beverage, festival goers really take advantage of the opportunity to see films from and about countries that they wouldn’t normally see in their local theaters. 

Image from "Mountains May Depart" courtesy of Kino Lorber

As one woman noted as we were filing out of a screening of “Mountains May Depart,” she doesn’t normally get to see many Chinese films. I had to agree. I love foreign films and yet I admit to watching very few Chinese films. “Mountains May Depart,” which premiered at the Cannes film festival last year, takes place in China and Australia over the course of several decades, starting in the past and going into the future (lots of handy gadgets, yet vinyl prevails!).

Image from "Mountains May Depart" courtesy of Kino Lorber

 

Focused on a woman named Tao, the story begins with her choosing between two strikingly different suitors: one blue collar buddy who adores her and one wealthy proprietor who wants her probably because everyone else does, like some kind of prize. The story continues with the consequences of her decision, leading up to her adult son’s estrangement from her and from their heritage and language. It’s a film that’s longer than it needs to be, but the time-jumping structure is interesting, because it forces the audience to make some assumptions about what’s transpired.

Image from "Liz in September" courtesy of Wolfe Releasing

A more traditional narrative structure plays out in the Venezuela-set “Liz in September.” The title character is a beautiful model attempting to hide her terminal cancer. Liz, played by the luminous Patricia Velasquez (remember Marta in “Arrested Development?”), is a lesbian on what seems like an endless vacation in a secluded resort with a cadre of her lesbian friends, which includes at least one jilted ex-girlfriend. When car trouble sends a fresh-faced young woman—straight and married—their way, Liz makes a bet with her gal pals that she can woo the straight woman into her bed. That the bet doesn’t come back to bite Liz is a little frustrating, but it is refreshing to see a woman in the role of the chest-pumping, challenge-taking man.

Image from "Liz in September" courtesy of Wolf Releasing

The director, Fina Torres, who adapted the script from a play, told the audience that making a film about lesbians in Venezuela was a challenge. The Venezuelan audience, she said, assumes that an actress playing a lesbian must really be a lesbian. This was going to present a casting challenge, Torres thought, but she was pleasantly surprised at the actresses’ willingness to take on the parts. She noted of all the actresses, only Velasquez is a lesbian in real life, and is only recently out. Torres said that when her film first screened in Venezuela, some audience members stormed out, aghast at the scenes depicting a woman kissing another woman. The scenes are arguably “tame” and Torres even pointed out she wasn’t setting out to make a Venezuelan version of the risque “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Lesbian love scenes aside, “Liz in September” is a beautifully shot film that could double as a promotional campaign for visiting Venezuela. It’s one of many stops on the global story-telling tour that departs from within the cinemas in Palm Springs in January.

When Is The Tedium Just Too Tedious?

I didn’t know much about the film “Chronic” before sitting down to see it here at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. I knew it starred Tim Roth, who can currently be seen staring down adversaries in “The Hateful Eight.” After walking what appeared to be a “walkable distance” from another location (it was not), I didn’t much care what it was about; I was just glad to finally be sitting down.

Image from "Chronic" courtesy of Wild Bunch

“Chronic” was written, directed, and produced by Michel Franco and made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. The film follows the days and sometimes nights of Roth’s character, a home health care nurse, as he lifts, feeds, and bathes patients dealing with a host of debilitating ailments, ranging from the frustrating immobility of a recent stroke to the haunting effects of chemotherapy treatments. And when I say it follows him lifting and feeding and bathing his patients, I don’t mean that it shows snippets of such activities in order to give us a primer on what he does. Instead, the film shows the tedium of these dignity-destroying scenes nearly in real time, or at least what feels like real time. It reminded me of watching the characters in Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” as the husband helps his struggling wife get from one side of the room to the other, and we the audience watch nearly every painstaking step. These scenes can illustrate for the audience just how long it takes, just how much patience it takes, to accomplish what would have otherwise been quick and efficient tasks.  They can invoke empathy and understanding. But at what point is it just tedious?

Image from "Chronic" courtesy of Wild Bunch

At what point do you say…okay, I get it, now get on with it? “Chronic” takes its time setting up Roth’s day-to-day. There is no point at which the plot then switches to something else. It’s not as if the first act is setting up that Roth is a home health care nurse before he robs a bank or before he gets carjacked. His job is part of his backstory, or perhaps a result of it, and it’s what will ultimately contribute to his fate. And the long, seemingly monotonous scenes lull the audience into thinking there’s not much more… until the film slaps you across the face and pummels you like a rag doll with its loud gasp-provoking final scene. It’s an ending that you will either find brilliant or infuriating, or both, but tedious it is not.   

Are You an Amateur Writer or an Undiscovered Writer?

Story Analysts, such as myself, often use the work "amateur" when writing about or discussing scripts. "This reads like an amateur script..." Or, "Such-and-such is clearly an amateur writer." So, do we mean this in the pejorative sense? Generally, yes. Is that fair? Probably not. While "amateur" can mean someone who isn't getting paid to write, or hasn't landed representation, "amateur" is often used as a shorthand to denote work that doesn't look or read like a professional script. There's something about it, maybe it's clunky exposition or incorrect formatting, that doesn't pass muster. But sometimes writers who are not getting paid to write or haven't landed representation write well enough to pass their work off as professional. I consider these writers "undiscovered." There's nothing pejorative about that. It actually sounds quite hopeful and full of possibilities. So, are you an amateur writer or are you undiscovered?