Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Pt 1

There is a character moment in the opening sequence that I loved, probably lost now forever. Fade In. We’re flying over the Oakland Coliseum at night, the floodlights on. We drift past the Oakland A’s three premier players painted on concrete, a good visual setup. These guys are essential to the story. We turn, dip, and float toward the A’s dugout. There’s the faint sound of crowds cheering. There’s the voice over of a sports announcer talking about an exciting game: “one out, nobody on, two on two to Saenz…” We descend into the dugout and over to the tunnel and into the “netherworld bowels of the Coliseum.” The cheering and the voices of the two sports announcers get louder.

We continue to move down the cinder-block corridor “dimly lit with wire-encased lamps like in a coal mine.” The announcer’s growing voice continues: “a ground out to second, Thom, is not what the A’s were looking for from Saenz – down by two in the ninth.”

We float into a room and see the solitary figure of protagonist Billy Beane bench-pressing “with the intensity of a soul expiating sins” as a nearby TV plays a game taking place somewhere else. Announcer: “- the A’s are down to their last strike and this Yankee crowd is on its feet. Rivera squints for the sign, gets it, delivers, and –“ Billy turns off the sound. He cannot bear this moment. He goes back to his bench pressing “like he’s trying to sweat out the impurities of deed or thought.” He sits up, switches the sound back on. Announcer: “it is bedlam in New York! The Yankees have done what no other team in MLB history has been able to do: come back after losing the first two games to win a Division Series!”

Billy sits up. He walks out as the announcer continues: “This is historic not only for New York, Thom, but for Oakland. The A’s have just set a new record, too, but not the kind you want: no other team has ever lost a division series after winning the first two games…” The TV shows the Yankees constructing a human pyramid at home plate while the A’s, including the ones we saw painted on the concrete, sit glumly in the visitors’ dugout, cameras zooming into their shell-shocked faces.

“Billy pulls himself up off the bench, walks over to an equipment area, selects a bat, regards his surroundings calmly… then suddenly swings the bat mightily at an open locker door, ripping it from its hinges… He attacks another locker, spreading its vents with a violent crash. He slams the bat into another locker… wood-splinters fly…”

That, my friends, is how you open a screenplay that will be greenlit by a studio for millions and millions of dollars with a premium director and global star attached.

A few thoughts about this sequence:

* Zaillian, first of all, gives us an intriguing shot that pulls you in as we float over an empty Oakland Coliseum and into its bowels. So often we think of strong openings as plot-related, that is, something exciting happens in the plot within the first five pages that makes us want to keep reading. Many times, though, intriguing shots can tease us with visuals that make you curious and want to keep reading to see where the shot and the story will take us. This is a great reminder to let your imagination take flight and consider unique experiences and new ways of looking at subjects we’ve seen many times before in film. There’s no limit to screenwriting, and yet, too often, we confine our imaginations.

* Zaillian also solves some tricky issues about the setting with this floating shot. This story is about the Oakland A’s, although this crucial, painful loss to the Yankees, which is the inciting incident, takes place in New York. You can’t change that. So we’re shown in this sequence the empty A’s stadium, how important these premier players are to thousands of Oakland fans by the fact that they’re painted on the concrete, which is contrasted later with their shell-shocked faces on TV after a stunning loss. Following this game, those players will become free agents, another huge loss to the organization.

* I love the shift in values over the course of this one sequence. At first, the juxtaposition of these words and images in the context of the baseball genre usually implies that this is a “reliving the glory days” kind of moment. The bread and butter of baseball is a romantic sentimentalism about the game. Here, you assume you’re hearing the ghosts of a past game that took place in the stadium in which there will be the inevitable thrilling victory. But we find that this isn’t the case at all. This is a very haunting present, complemented visually with this night shot and the darkened cinder-block corridor “dimly lit with wire-encased lamps like in a coal mine.” This haunting present leads to a very painful conclusion of a very important game that will set this entire movie in motion.

* I love how we’re first presented Billy Beane. He is so gripped by his turmoil about this game that he can’t watch it. He has to work-out while the game is being played. It’s a kind of manly expression of anxiety not seen in film before, I don’t believe, and without Billy saying a word, we understand his pain, not just because he’s bench pressing like his soul depends on it but also by seeing him turn off the sound of a moment he knew was coming that he cannot bear to hear. In that moment, we feel the sting of his loss. We know his obvious frustrations and goals for the Oakland A’s. We also get a sense of his past, too. He’s working out because he must’ve been a player. Or, at least, he aspired to be a player.

* Every detail in your screenplay is important in terms of the information you’re passing along to the audience. What did Zaillian do? He hooked us with an imaginative opening shot that sets up expectations about what we’ll be seeing in the film. He makes us want to keep reading. We want to know where we’re being taken and who we’ll be seeing. We think we’re hearing a sentimental glory moment and that expectation is turned on its head. He also slyly establishes the setting, the inciting incident, the principal characters, the protagonist, the protagonist's goal, backstory, and inner turmoil about his team, and he does all of these things in under two pages.

I dare you to do better.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mystery Man: An Intro to the Moneyball Disaster

Let’s talk scandal, baby!

Moneyball was in development a few years and championed by Columbia Pictures co-chair cutie Amy Pascal. It’s an adaptation of a popular book by Michael Lewis.

Whispering lips say the studio spent roughly $10 million to get this project off the ground. Steven Zaillian wrote a script. Everybody loved it. Soderbergh came onboard. Brad Pitt came onboard. The budget ballooned to around $57 million, which is quite risky. Baseball movies can be hit and miss. They rarely play well overseas, and you’re lucky to get $35 million domestic.

Soderbergh told ESPN: "My clearly stated goal is to set a new standard for realism in that [sports] world." He proceeded to tinker with Steven Zaillian’s script.

Just days before production was to begin, Amy Pascal gasped and pulled the plug.

Soderbergh’s tinkering gave the studio a case of cold feet. The project was put into limited turnaround, which meant that other studios had the chance to pick it up. They all politely declined.

According to Michael Fleming:

“Soderbergh and Pascal had discussions about his vision when the director signed on, Soderbergh last Tuesday turned in a rewrite that sources said was substantially different from a Zaillian script that Pascal -- and Pitt -- loved. Soderbergh took the film from a classically structured drama to a hybrid that has a documentary feel, complete with footage of actual ballplayers who witnessed Beane’s metamorphosis from player to exec who fielded competitive teams by using statistics instead of paying big salaries. Pitt didn’t read the script until last Wednesday, but he continued to back Soderbergh.”

Oh, but wait. There’s also the Brad Pitt theory:

“The new spin out of the Sony camp … is that Brad Pitt disliked the new script as much as Amy Pascal and that he is the one who secretly sunk the ship, though he didn't want to be seen as doing it.”

But then Anne Thompson wrote:

“That is not what I'm hearing from Pitt's camp. They say he was ready to make Soderbergh's movie. It's hard to imagine Pitt agreeing to make the movie with another director at this point. It would have to be Soderbergh or no one. Pascal was demanding certain changes that Pitt and Soderbergh refused to make and threw her foot down, perfectly willing to walk away. Point is, she would have made the movie a year ago. She can't afford for this movie to lose money right now, bottom line.”

But, of course, Pitt’s camp would continue to publicly back Soderbergh, wouldn’t they?

Then there was that infamous e-mail that made the rounds and got removed.

David Poland had many questions, such as “How could Soderbergh be shooting interviews for the movie on the studio dime without the studio knowing what his plan was?”

But no worries, Aaron Sorkin’s on it now. And, apparently, he has a whole team of writers.

And now Soderbergh has relaxed and joked about the whole sad affair:

"There have been a couple of times in my career where I’ve been unceremoniously removed from projects. I don’t waste a lot of energy on it. It doesn’t get you anywhere. As soon as it became clear that there was no iteration of that movie that I was going to get to direct, I immediately started looking around for something else to do. I have a couple of other things in development that I had hoped to move up, but actors' schedules wouldn’t allow it. But I have something I can get to after the first of the year, and I’m supposed to do my Liberace movie next summer. So my attitude when something like that happens is, ‘What’s next?’ You can’t dwell on it.”

Brad Pitt still sounds hopeful, but as he said, “It’s a weird climate right now.”

So let’s analyze the scripts, MM-style.

Tomorrow: Zaillian's script.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Staton Rabin: Breaking In: Zen and the Art of Guerrilla Script Marketing

I don’t have to tell you that there are too many writers trying to break into the film business these days. When it comes to writers and “Hollywood," I’m reminded of what baseball great and part-time philosopher Yogi Berra oxymoronically said about his favorite restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

Frankly, up till now, I’ve been hesitant to tell you all my secrets about how to break into the film industry. It feels a little like telling you about my favorite neighborhood restaurant -- a little hideaway with great food. If everyone knows about it, the place is going to get awfully crowded. Maybe I won’t even be able to find a seat at the table for myself anymore. Well, I’ve finally decided that the movie business can’t get much more crowded than it already is. I’ve had a seat at the table long enough. It’s time to give some other writers a chance.

I’ve been a story analyst for over 25 years. During that time, I’ve also sold six books to major publishers, gotten a big film deal with a superstar attached, have been in the Hollywood trades over a dozen times, and been profiled in The New York Times. I’ve even lectured about screenwriting aboard the greatest ocean liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2, where I became the only seasick screenwriting teacher on the Seven Seas.

In this blog, I’m going to show you everything I know about how to break into the film industry as a writer. For those of you who don’t read Script, I’ve noticed that a lot of what you’ve been told elsewhere is dead wrong -- designed to capitalize on writers’ anxieties.

To quote the sage of the Yankees, Mr. Berra, again, “You can observe a lot just by watchin’.” Well, in my long career in the movie business, I’ve learned a lot just by watching. And by listening to other writers’ stories and helping them with their scripts, I’ve come to better understand why my approach to breaking into the business has worked for me and my clients -- and why, too often, other writers fail or give up too soon.

You see, until I began teaching screenwriters about eight years ago, I didn’t realize that there was anything unusual about my approach to writing and marketing my own books and scripts, which explained my success. My approach was hard work, but it came naturally to me. I figured every writer used the same approach I did. But I was wrong.

I’ve since learned that there are a boatload of myths and misconceptions out there about how to break into the business as a screenwriter. I also came to understand how my own attitude, personality, and method of doing work and business gave me certain advantages and explained my success. There were big differences, I discovered, between the way I saw the world and the way most other aspiring writers did. And it’s those differences that became the key to my understanding of why some writers succeed, and others fail.

I spent some time picking out a name for this ongoing column. It’s no accident that the title seems almost as oxymoronic as any quote from Yogi Berra. After all, how can an approach to marketing a screenplay be both “zen” (peaceful, thoughtful, enlightened, restrained) and “guerrilla” (creatively aggressive and proactive) -- a seeming contradiction in terms?

Well, it turns out that those two words aren’t contradictions at all. And learning how to use both qualities simultaneously is one of the secrets to writing and selling a screenplay. As for the rest, stay tuned. That’s what this blog is going to be all about.
Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer and story analyst for Script, has been a reader for Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. Staton’s novel Betsy and the Emporer is in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star. She is available for consultations. Contact:

Monday, October 5, 2009

Discussing September/October With Andrew Shearer, Part 2

As new writers, it’s always hard to know whose advice to listen to. In film school, when sulky students got feedback they didn’t like, they’d complain, “If the professor knows so much about making films, why is he teaching, instead of making them?” Well if we already knew so much about making films, we wouldn’t have had to go to film school in the first place. I find the best guidance comes when it’s oriented toward making your project the best based on your own vision, not someone else’s.

Upon reading Staton Rabin’s article Screenwriting Snafus, I think she offers some great tidbits of advice, particularly “A ‘Typical’ Script," “Prozac®, Anyone?,” and “Waitress #1, Thug #2.” But honestly, the rest of the advice seemed to suggest we’re writing scripts for contest readers alone, as if we’re honing them for their tastes. Don’t get me wrong, I get what she’s saying -- I’ve read for several contests, and I feel her pain. But advice requires a little more nuance.

For instance, “Let It Be.” I agree, bad idea to fill your script with popular songs. But I think new writers will read other scripts and see examples of that and wonder why other writers do it. I recently read Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and it’s filled with references to popular songs. Most of them didn’t make the final film, but it was about “the read.” He wanted to evoke a certain emotion for that scene. My advice is to follow Staton’s suggestion for the most part. However, if there’s that one scene in your script where you think there’s that perfect song for it, I say put it in there. It doesn’t really matter if it makes the final film, it’s about evoking emotion. Be specific in your choice, but not obscure.

I also take issue with a few examples in the “Omit” section. New writers will see examples of “establishing shots,” “camera/editing directions,” and “This is John Jones” in professional scripts and wonder why they can’t use those techniques themselves. You can, you might just piss of Staton. My advice -- use them in extreme moderation.

Finally -- and contest readers will KILL me for this one -- “War and Peace.” Yes, the Hollywood standard for scripts is 120 pages or less. Yes, in general, if your script is less than a 120 pages, it gives you a better chance of winning a contest, so it’s probably good advice. However, out of the 40 contest scripts I read this summer, two that brought tears to my eyes (in a good way) were 136 pages and 126 pages. Two of the most awful scripts I’ve ever suffered through in my entire life, were 88 pages and 92 pages. So my advice is make your script read well! Make it a smooth, quick read. Have friends read it, get feedback before you submit it. The 136-page script was a character-driven script, filled with wonderful dialogue, and it read quicker than the 88-page script, which left me scarred for the rest of my life. Okay, that’s my humble take for the month. If my fellow contest-reading colleagues read this, I expect them to trash me.

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.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Steve Kaire: 12 Brainstorming Techniques

Odd Couples
This is exactly what the title implies. Two people are thrown together in a situation in which they’re stuck. In the film and TV series of the same name, it was a slob and his obsessively neat roommate. In The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier was an escaped convict chained to a racist played by Tony Curtis. War movies frequently had two enemies who found themselves in the same foxhole or building and have to cooperate with each other to survive. Enemy Mine had a human and an alien facing a similar situation.

The Blank From Hell
Here, you have to fill in the blank with a noun that hasn’t been done before. The Affair From Hell is the film Fatal Attraction. The Roommate From Hell is the movie, Single White Female. The Patient From Hell is What About Bob? The Doll From Hell is Chucky. And so on.

Fish Out of Water
This technique has been used in literature for a long time. You take a person out of their normal environment and place them in a radically different one. Examples would be Beverly Hills Cop, where a Detroit cop investigates his partner’s murder in the city of Beverly Hills. Another is Crocodile Dundee, where a crocodile hunter from the Australian outback encounters the urban jungle of New York City. There’s also the film Splash, which is literally a fish out of water story.

Amateur Blank
Here again the challenge is to fill in the blank with a noun that we haven’t seen before. I’ve sold two stories that were Amateur Detectives. Illustrations of movies in this category are Critical Condition, where Richard Pryor impersonates a doctor. The Couch Trip, where Dan Aykroyd escapes from an asylum and pretends to be a psychiatrist. Also, Trial and Error, in which actor Michael Richards passes himself off as an attorney.

Fairy Tales, Myths & Stories That Are Updated
Here you take an old classic and contemporize it. It’s the same structure, similar story, but occurs in the present time. Pretty Woman is really Pygmalion. Trading Places is a modern version of The Prince and the Pauper. The obsessive hunt for the great white shark in Jaws is not much different than the search for the great white whale in Moby Dick.

Information No One Else Knows
I’ve sold three projects that I initially saw on the news that fall into this category. The information is unusual, sometimes amazing, and the general public is completely unaware of it. The movie Con Air is based on the U.S. government's real airline that transports the nation’s most dangerous criminals from state-to-state. That was the basis for the film. The information revealed doesn’t always have to be true. In Men in Black, what is fascinating is the notion that there’s a secret government agency that tracks the whereabouts of aliens that are living on earth and which also has strange alien life forms working for them.

First Time
This refers to a situation which occurs for the very first time. There was a film in development that was supposed to star Michael J. Fox called Vassar. It was about the first guy to attend Vassar, an all female college. The conflicts and romantic entanglements are obvious in a setup of this type. Another example is the comedy My Cousin Vinny. A Brooklyn attorney who’s never tried a case before in his life is summoned to a southern town by his cousin, who’s charged with murder. The attorney, played by Joe Pesci, must win this case despite his inexperience and the fact that he’s totally out of his natural element.

Stumble Into
This technique has been around for a long time. It always involves an average person who by chance, is thrust into a monumental life-threatening situation they have no control of. James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, is a man confined to a wheelchair who believes he’s witnessed the murder of one of his neighbors. Whoopi Goldberg is a telephone operator who overhears what she thinks is a spy plot in Jumping Jack Flash. In Cellular, a guy is mistakenly called on his cell phone by a total stranger who claims she’s being held hostage and pleads for him to help her.

The Ultimate Blank
Again you must fill in the blank with a noun that hasn’t been done before. If you substitute the word "Shark" in the blank, we would get the movie Jaws. Plug in the word "Dog," and we have the movie Cujo. Insert the noun "Cop," and we have the film Robocop.

Unintended Consequences
This method is almost always used in the science-fiction or adventure genre. An experiment is taking place and something goes terribly wrong. In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum is a scientist performing a genetic experiment on himself in an isolation chamber when a housefly flies into the booth and he’s transformed into a half-man, half-fly. In Jurassic Park, an amusement park has genetically engineered ancient dinosaurs for the public’s entertainment. The dinosaurs escape and wreak havoc on the guests. In the family film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a scientist who’s experimenting with miniaturization accidentally shrinks his children. His kids must then try to get from their yard back into their house and get the attention of their unsuspecting father to return them back to regular size.

Going to Extreme Measures
Here we start with a character who must take some extreme or outrageous action to reach his or her goal. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman is an impossible actor to work with. He can’t find employment until he dresses up like a woman and lands a role in a soap opera. In that same vein is the movie Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams’ ex-wife has a new boyfriend and Williams is forced to don a nanny’s uniform in order to spend more time with his children and try to win his ex-wife back.

Fatal Character Flaws
This showcases a character who has a major weakness in his or her personality which causes them major complications. In Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey is a lawyer defending a client in the most important case of his career. But because of a wish his son made that caused his father to have to tell the truth for 24 hours, Carrey is forced to do the opposite of what his profession normally entails: lying. Another example would be A Christmas Carol. Here the character of Scrooge is an old, bitter miser who is given a chance at redemption when he is haunted by ghosts on Christmas Eve.

Steve Kaire is a screenwriter-pitchman who’s sold/optioned eight projects to the major studios without representation. He’s taught writing classes at the American Film Institute and has appeared on the Tonight Show’s “Pitching to America” with Jay Leno. His groundbreaking CD entitled, High Concept: How to Create,Pitch & Sell to Hollywood is a best-seller and is available on his website: