Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ray Morton: Abyssinia, Larry

We lost one of the greats when Larry Gelbart passed away on Friday, September 11, 2009. Born in 1928, Gelbart was a truly gifted writer’s writer that refused to confine himself to a single format. He began his career as a teenager penning jokes and skits for the Danny Thomas radio show. He also worked for Jack Paar and Bob Hope and then became a staff writer on the classic radio sitcom Duffy’s Tavern. In the 1950s, he made the transition to television, most notably joining the bullpen on Caesar’s Hour alongside such other future notables as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In the 1960s he began writing both for the screen (his debut feature script was 1962’s The Notorious Landlady. He also worked on the screenplays of The Thrill of It All, The Wrong Box, and Not With My Wife You Don’t, among others) and for the stage (most notably collaborating with Burt Shevelove on the book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and continued to work in television (writing and producing The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and contributing to a number of other shows as well).

The highest profile portion of Gelbart’s career began in 1972, when producer Gene Reynolds hired him to adapt the smash hit movie M*A*S*H for television. Gelbart spent four years with the show, first as executive story consultant and then as co-executive producer, writing or rewriting most of the episodes and directing a bunch as well. After leaving the Korean War behind, Gelbart wrote more screenplays (Oh, God, Movie Movie, Tootsie), continued to work in television -- both in series (Roll Out, United States, After M*A*S*H) and in MOWs (Barbarians at the Gate, … And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself) -- and in the theater (Sly Fox, City of Angels, Mastergate). He also wrote a book (his 1997 autobiography Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things), articles, message board postings, blog entries, and even a few songs.

Although Gelbart had a masterful sense of plot and characterization, he was best known for his biting wit. A passionate humanist that admired decency, correct behavior, and noble effort, Gelbart was moved to furious indignation by anything -- greed, hypocrisy, prejudice, chicanery, self-righteousness, willful ignorance, war-mongering, the bureaucratic and institutional mentality -- that sought to impinge on peoples’ rights, lives, or dignity. Gelbart took aim at such targets with gusto and would lacerate them with barbs that were as truthful and searing as they were funny (and they were damn funny).

Gelbart obviously has a lot of really impressive work on his CV (the screenplay for Tootsie -- which is one of the smartest, funniest scripts ever -- borders on the sublime), but for me his greatest achievement will always be those first four seasons of M*A*S*H, which as far as I’m concerned are a virtual encyclopedia of really great writing.

To begin with, the approach was groundbreaking. Gelbart stated many times that when he was first approached to adapt the film for television, he had no interest in turning Robert Altman’s anti-war black comedy into just another service sitcom in the Gomer Pyle/McHale’s Navy mode. At the time he was writing the pilot, America was still in the midst of the Vietnam War and Gelbart felt it would be immoral to trivialize combat and its horrors. So he made the primary focus of M*A*S*H war itself and the show dealt with it unflinchingly -- the (often) dark comedy came out of the obscene situation that the show’s doctors found themselves in (repairing soldiers’ wounds so that they could be sent back to the front to be shot up all over again) and their struggle to maintain their dignity and their sanity in the midst of it. The operating room scenes were played straight (although often with a welcome gallows humor to cut the tension) and one of the show’s signature moments was the war-related death of one of its beloved regulars (McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake in the classic episode "Abyssinia, Henry"). At the time, such a combination of comedy and drama was unheard of, but by insisting on it, Gelbart (along with Norman Lear and the writers at producers at MTM) helped make television comedy more smart, mature and sophisticated than it had ever been before (and, some might argue, has ever been since).

It was also really clever. Aside from generating an unending string of brilliant one-liners, Gelbart had enormous fun playing with the storytelling -- the show had heavily plotted episodes and virtually plot-less episodes and even an episode that was totally improvised. The show had verbal gags, sight gags, non-linear narratives, and multiple plotlines that magically intertwined at the climax. It found ways to make serious subject matter funny and found the profound poignancy in even the silliest of conceits. The invention and innovation was constant and thrilling -- you can practically feel Gelbart’s enjoyment as he pushed the envelope in every possible direction -- and is something that I still marvel at after all these years.

The characters in M*A*S*H were all sharp and funny and very real, most especially Hawkeye Pierce, who Gelbart used as something of a surrogate for himself and through whom the writer channeled his passion, his intelligence, his anger and vulnerability, his silliness, his profound respect for humanity and his hatred of anything that conspired against it. Gelbart had a virtuoso dexterity with words that grew out of his passionate love for the English language and he used Hawkeye’s dialogue to playfully twist them, tease them, and send them aloft with soaring verbal arias of wit, passion, nonsense, outrage and humor.

Gelbart left the 4077th after four years, feeling he had given it his all. The show continued without him for another seven seasons and morphed into something softer, preachier, and much more conventional. It was still entertaining and often quite good, but never again equaled the brilliance of the Gelbart era. I learned, and continue to learn, so much about screenwriting from those 96 episodes. And they still make me laugh.

So now Larry Gelbart is gone. Luckily for us, he leaves behind a tremendous body of work for us to enjoy. That’s almost a consolation for having no new Larry Gelbart work to look forward to. Almost.
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Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Meet the Reader: Today's Special

I was in line at the supermarket the other day and noticed a bunch of DVDs of recent films (and even a few classic ones including, most curiously given the very American, very suburban setting, Francois Truffaut’s wonderful L’Argent de Poche) for sale in the checkout racks alongside the gossip rags, the horoscope scrolls, and the myriad flavors of breath mints. The sight caused me to stop for a moment and marvel at how accessible movies have become. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, the only place to see a movie was in a theater. If you wanted to see it again, you had to hope that it was a big enough hit for the studio to re-release it a few years later. After that, it was gone forever.

When I was a kid, if you wanted to see a film after it had completed its theatrical run, you had to wait for it to show up on television (initially in a big network premiere, and then later on the local late show) or in a revival house. This relative lack of availability led to a bit of obsessive behavior on the part of film buffs as they scrupulously collected revival house schedules and carefully scanned their weekly TV Guides to determine what was playing and then arranged their schedules around the days and times the films they wanted to see were going to be shown.

No such obsessing is required today, when practically any movie you might want to see can be purchased from Amazon or ordered from Netflix or downloaded to your computer, your iPod, or your cell phone and watched whenever and wherever you want. When it comes to availability, for film lovers, this is in many ways the best of times.

But in some ways, it’s also the worst. In the old days, a movie’s scarcity made it something precious. All of that waiting and planning and anticipating made seeing a particular film a delightful treat -- something to be relished and savored and treasured. Movies were something special. Today, however, with so many films so readily available, the medium has lost a bit of its specialness. After all, when something is as instantly obtainable as a pack of gum, it’s hard to regard it as dear. This is apparent in the way that films are often referred to these days. They’re no longer cinema or movies or even flicks -- instead they are products, or franchises, or content. I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty hard to get worked up about something that sounds like it was massed-produced in a factory, whipped up by a graduate of Hamburger U., or listed on the side of a cereal box.

I see this attitude reflected in a lot of scripts that I’ve been reading lately -- many of which, while well-crafted, seem slight, mass-produced, and easily disposable: generic, by-the-numbers constructs that recycle clich├ęd and tired characters, plots, and ideas with lots of polish, but little heart and even less soul. While all of this may be ideal for an industry that more and more is interested only in the ancillary products -- the endless sequels, videogames, action figures, and breakfast cereals -- it can squeeze out of a movie than in whether or not the film itself is any good, none of it is particularly memorable. Sure, I can buy these movies at my local Stop ‘n Shop, but there’s nothing about them that makes me want to.

So, all you writers out there, remember: Even though your work may end up in the checkout aisle, it’s not batteries or lip balm or corn chips -- it’s a proud continuation of the greatest storytelling medium ever invented.

Movies are special. Do your best to keep them that way.

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Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Discussing September/October With Andrew Shearer

For those of you who haven’t read Jim Cirile’s article, 10 Big Mistakes … in the September/October edition of Script, definitely check it out. It’s great advice I wish I had heard before my writing partner and I landed our agent a couple years ago. I’ve given some of this very advice to friends on the verge of acquiring managers or agents, but unfortunately only because I learned it through painful experience. If I may, I’d like to add Mistake #11: Know when they ain’t feelin’ it.

Just because you write a spec doesn’t mean your reps are going to hand it out to Will Ferrell. Their name is on the line too. This is something I’ve learned recently based on an experience my writing partner and I had. We wrote a spec a year ago, which received a lackluster response from our agent and manager. They had us do a couple re-writes and ultimately decided to send it out to six companies who already liked us based on our last script they had read. Only six, since the spec market sucked at the time -- after all, even specs with big attachments weren’t selling (something your agent says to downplay your hopes when your spec really isn’t that good). All six companies passed on our spec, and our reps never sent it out much beyond that. My partner and I were very frustrated at the time and fell into Jim’s Mistake #7, constantly trying to push a script once it’s been passed on, but I eventually realized what was in our own best interests -- and our reps’. As new writers in town, why damage our name with a spec that was most likely not going to sell?

I didn’t learn the lesson fully until recently when my partner and I finished another spec which received a much more enthusiastic response from our reps. They were immediately more willing to send it around internally, and now are already starting to send it out to the industry. So with our spec from last year, it’s not that they didn’t believe in us -- they were just looking out for our career. With our current spec, they have confidence they can attach actors, so it’s full-steam ahead. Know when you’ve done your job, and be willing to move on when you missed the mark.

The only mistake that Jim suggests that I take issue with is#10 -- “Is your concept sponge … er, movie-worthy?” Basically, he says “can you see it on the marquee?” I don’t think this is always the case. I think a good follow-up article to this one would be “How to deal differently with your manager and your agent.” When my partner and I first began working creatively with our manager, we attempted to impress him by presenting a slew of new loglines, all of which were ultra-high concept and marquee ready. But luckily, he encouraged us to back off because our first sample script that had been read around town had a distinct voice and was more character-based. He knew what execs would be looking for from us, and didn’t want us to fall off track. Tome, this is the sign of a great manager. Our current spec is still very marketable (and hopefully will show up on the marquee), but based on his advice, still contains our voice and is grounded in character. We could’ve churned out some real crap had we been encouraged to simply write for the marquee. However, I still think Mistake #10 is good advice if you can find the right balance and you have the right guidance from your rep. What do you think?

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A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #5

Having taught story analysis for film in the classroom and online through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, I’ve trained a number of students who have gone on to cover screenplays for studios, production companies, and Sundance Institute. One of the tools used in the course is a top-10 list of professional screenwriting skills industry readers look for when evaluating material and writers. I call these methods “in-between details,” which are neither at the heart of premise, plot or characterization nor important issues of formatting and presentation -- they exist somewhere between the two. These in-between details often make a critical first impression, the following among the most significant, elaborated upon with examples and illustrations, which I believe can be quickly utilized. This week is my final lesson on the Scriptmag blogspot. For the full top-10, click HERE.

#5 The Big Payoff
Look for strong set ups, or what I call “planted seeds” and their payoffs. An additional tip here: the greater the irony in the payoff, the better: The warden in Shawshank Redemption, a man who perverts use of religion, discovers Andy’s Bible to contain a small pick ax, explaining how Andy escaped; in Star Wars, Luke not believing in the Force at first, but finally using it at the climax to defeat the Death Star; air tanks and their volatility are referred to several times throughout Jaws, but it’s the cop, the one man scared of the ocean, who resourcefully uses a tank to destroy the shark; in The Wizard of Oz, ruby slippers -- cinema’s greatest MacGuffin -- are touted from the outset as possessing mysterious powers which endanger Dorothy, their magic revealed at the climax as they help bring her home. When a writer offers these types of setups and ironic payoffs, even if the structure of the material isn’t perfect, he or she is more likely to improve it in development.

Determining what I call “planted seeds” can occur in one of two main ways: foresight or hindsight. For example, in Back to the Future writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale knew they wanted Marty McFly to invent the skateboard once back in the 1950s. As they didn’t want this feat to occur out of the blue, they set up Marty as an expert skateboarder early in the script, hitching onto various vans and pickup trucks to get to school.

Often, however, the situation happens in reverse. It is critical to keep an eye out for details which may become “seeds” that get paid off later. In Pirates of the Caribbean, an early sword fight showed Will’s character having trouble with a certain swashbuckling move. At the climax, the writers were sure to refer back to that in order to make his sword play with the villain that much more dramatic, particularly when he overcame the deficit. Details such as these are what distinguish memorable fight scenes from the forgettable by developing character in the course of the action.

Finally, many seeds are actually created in retrospect. A writer gets to the third act, or climax, realizes he or she wants something particular to occur, then sets it up by going back and planting specific seeds prior. If near the end you suddenly want your heroine to recognize the right man for her by a visual detail or remark, you may want to go back and plant the line earlier on. For example, a running line about Monty Python from Gwyneth Paltrow’s true love in the supernatural Sliding Doors pops up at the fade out, suggesting the beginning of their relationship as the film ends. Its repetition by him throughout the script could have easily been added had the writer initially decided to end on that comic line, then go back in a rewrite to set it up. Again, the more ironic one can make the payoff, the more satisfying it usually is to the reader.

Remember that not everyone is going to like your screenplay, no matter how well written. Star Wars and Home Alone were passed on by just about everyone in town. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was initially rejected by a dozen publishers, who have probably since started their own private recovery groups. The metaphor I like to use is that showing your work is like planting seeds -- when it hits the right soil, it will take root. Yet selling yourself as a writer goes beyond any one story, showing your professionalism by addressing details a story analyst admires, in a well-written screenplay, can only bring you that much closer to making a great first impression, as you find the right company for your project.

For tip #1 click here.
For tip #2 click here
For tip #3 click here
For tip #4 click here

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Barney Lichtenstein, former story analyst for Amblin Entertainment, New Line Cinema, and Largo Entertainment, teaches story analysis online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, and periodically assists with the training of new story analysts for the Sundance Institute and major production companies. He has served as a story editor for a multi-award-winning installment of the PBS series P.O.V., and for Voices, which won the Peabody Award, and is recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting, 2006. Mr. Lichtenstein will be conducting a one day screenwriting seminar in September at UCLA Extension, comparing narrative structures of three 2008 Academy Award-nominated screenplays. Please click here for more information.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Meet the Reader: What I Look For

I am often asked what criteria I use to evaluate screenplays in order to determine whether or not to recommend them. I don’t have a strict rubric or anything, but there are definitely things that I pay attention to and they are as follows:

First and foremost, the script has to be interesting. It has to be about a subject that I’ve never seen done before or else, if it's about a familiar topic or genre, then it can’t be by-the-numbers -- it has to introduce some new twist to the piece that is not completely predictable. And the script needs to be interesting from the get-go -- something intriguing (an attention-grabbing incident, a compelling piece of character-revealing business, etc.) needs to occur in the first scene and preferably on the first page, because if a script doesn’t grab me from the moment it begins, I’m going to quickly lose interest and tune out way before I ever get to that really cool scene on page 54.

I have to care about the protagonist. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I always have to like the protagonist, but I do need to understand him and have some degree of sympathy for his motives and goals. (This is especially important if you’re going to do a story about a bad or unsavory person that sees the light in some fashion. Such tales can be inspiring, but by definition, you have to begin the script with the character doing some sort of terrible things. If you don’t give me a reason to connect with such a person, then I’m not going to care when he has his eventual epiphany.) I don’t require the protagonists or supporting characters in every script I read to be three-dimensional (because not every type of film -- broad comedies, for example -- require their people to have great depth or multi-faceted personalities), but they do need to be lively and interesting, with compelling traits and quirks (although, with very rare exception, self-consciously “quirky” characters are usually a turn-off), habits, points-of-view, and senses of humor that bring them vibrantly to life.

The script has to be cinematic. The story has to be told through a combination of images, action, and dialogue (with the speeches serving to enhance and provide counterpoint to the bits and pictures) rather than be told though dialogue alone -- a script can’t just consist of a bunch of scenes of people sitting around talking.

The script has to be what it is -- if it is identified as being a comedy, then it needs to be funny; if it’s intended to be a horror film, then it needs to be scary; if it’s a thriller or an action film, then it needs to be exciting.

Finally, and most importantly … I feel something at the end. If I reach the end of a script and find myself experiencing an extremely powerful emotion of some sort -- if I’m smiling broadly because things have worked out well for a character that I care about; if my sides ache because I have been laughing so hard; if I am weeping because something profoundly moving or sad has occurred in the story; or if I am feeling any other feeling for any other reason -- then the chances are pretty good that I am going to recommend that script. If mere words on paper can provoke such a powerful response, then those same words brought to life on screen are bound to have an even greater impact on audiences. Not many screenplays can accomplish this and, since moving an audience is ultimately the point of all this, any script that can certainly deserves (and will get) my support.

I care about other stuff too -- the dialogue should be good, and I like it when scripts are properly formatted and use correct screenplay terminology and when the spelling, punctuation, and grammar are all mostly proper (because such things show that the writers care enough to be professional, which means that all of the other elements of the script are probably going to be equally polished). However, none of these things are deal-breakers for me because better dialogue and correct spelling and formatting and such can always be added -- heart and feeling can’t be.

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Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.