Friday, 30 September 2011

Hope for Women's movies

Bridesmaids – currently #3 in its genre, Wedding, in North America (only My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Wedding Crashers has done better since 1982) – has a world-wide box office of $284,963,981 and counting. The films continuing success has lifted the profile of Women's pictures in Hollywood, especially in light of the fact the film boasts no movie stars.

Linda Obst (producer of movies such as Flashdance, The Fisher King, Someone Like You, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and The Invention of Lying) said at an interview this week that the success of Bridesmaids proved that, "Broad comedies will sell abroad, even with broads." The full write-up can be found here.

I've had Bridesmaids on my wishlist for a while now. Earlier this week I noticed that the price had gone up, instead of the usual slow reduction that occurs over time, so business must be good in the DVD department as well. 

As with everything else, Hollywood trends are eventually noticed in the lesser filmmaking capitals of the Southern Hemisphere, so if you're working on a RomCom or other Woman's movie script, take heart. 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Answering machines

I was chatting with a friend recently about ideas for short films and one of those mentioned involved a telephone answering machine. That lead to me doing some quick research. I turned up fifteen films with scenes involving answering machines (though there are many more). 

Mike Hammer and a 1955 reel-to-reel answering machine
The most surprising dates from 1955: Kiss Me Deadly, a Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer story. In 1955 most Australian families didn't have a phone, much less an answering machine, so it was interesting to see one from that era in action.

Get Shorty (1995) and Definitely, Maybe (2008) have very similar scenes, where the post-coital happy couple receive a message summoning them to a hospital. In The Big Lebowski, an answering machine solves the mystery of the missing rug. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gets my vote for the movie with the cutest answering-machine.  
The Magrathean answering machine.
Swingers (1996) has two such scenes, both well worth seeing. The first introduces the machine as a character in its own right, commenting on the messages received (or not received) and attempting to give advice to Jon Favreau. The second consists of a series of phone calls Jon makes to a woman he's just met, where he is stymied by the machine and descends into ever-increasing frustration. A very similar scene, involving George Costanza, occurred in a Seinfeld episode five years earlier. Coincidence? Probably. 
Jon Favreau gets advice from his answering machine.
In Once (2006), the heartbroken protagonist sings a sad song, while an insert shows him ringing the ex, only to get her answering machine. In Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), John Cusack rages to his psychiatrist's answering machine about the fact his childhood home has been turned into a supermarket. 

In Bowfinger (1999), two messages arrive over the answering machine in the opening scene. The first helps establish the point that Bobby Bowfinger is struggling financially; the second leads to a sequence of phone calls which set up the subsequent scene, a meeting where the protagonist's plan is outlined to the gang. 

 Bobby Bowfinger summons his gang.
From a writer's P.O.V., what's most interesting about the various scenes is the way the machine enables someone not visible onscreen to influence a character's story. Sometimes they are purely comic relief (Seinfeld, Swingers), other times they provide new expositional information, or alter the direction of the protagonist (Get Shorty and Definitely, Maybe). Whatever role they play, answering machines have to be the cheapest actors in the business.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Act II metaphor

One of the many 'expert' books on the subject of screenwriting is Viki King's How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method. It focuses on getting you to push through and write a first draft of a script (no matter how rough), but it also teaches a formula which is based firmly on Syd Field's 3-Act theory. I suspect her method works best for highly visual people. 

The book's one original contribution to the subject of screenwriting is her reference to something she calls 'the Act II metaphor.'  "This is usually a small scene with symbolic overtones... (which) ... gives us a clue to the resolution." King is rigid about the place where this scene occurs in the script page 45 (in a 120 page script) "the start of your character's growth." 
I spent some time recently contemplating confrontation scenes in movies. One of the films I looked at was You've Got Mail, and I was interested to see that the major confrontation scene in the movie includes an Act II metaphor. 

Tom Hanks scoops up the caviar...
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are business competitors. He runs a giant discount book sellers chain; she runs a tiny specialist children's bookshop. When he opens a new store in her neighborhood, she is threatened with extinction. 

They run into one another at a P.E.N. dinner, where his actions mirror his business position -- he scoops up all the caviar garnish on a salmon mousse. This symbolises the threat he poses: he is going to scoop up all of her business. Her response is to take the caviar back, which represents what she will do by the end of the movie: she will lose her shop, but will take it all back, by capturing his heart.

... and Meg Ryan takes it all back.
Watch the movie sometime, it's a good one. 

Just for the record, the event occurs 37 minutes into a 115 minute movie. That's 32%, not the 37% suggested by Viki King's page-45-out-of-120-pages, but who's to quibble?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Script Cops 1

It's Friday. It's been a hard week. I need a laugh and probably you do too. 

Try watching an episode of Script Cops, to ease the tension and help get things back into perspective. And discover the fate of all those old spec movie scripts...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Screenwriting Tips

Yep, that's what we're looking for. Ways to do it better or easier or faster or smarter. And there are lots of books and writers' blogs around where you can find a tip or two.

One popular blog for screenwriters is: Screenwriting Tips... You Hack. Written by Xander Bennett, a former Hollywood script reader who currently works for Australia’s Shine Television Studios, his tips are pithy, quotable, memorable and, best of all, helpful. 

Three examples: 
Screenwriting Tip #405
Are you as sick of the meet-cute as I am? Try the meet-horrible, the meet-embarassing or the meet-awkward. They’re a lot more fun to write.
Screenwriting Tip #334
Set every scene. Don’t make me wonder what room of the house they’re in, or why somebody just started talking when you didn’t even tell me they were present.
Screenwriting Tip #218
When it comes to action scenes, the simpler the better. Kill your adverbs.  Ever read the screenplay for ALIEN? It’s sparser than the surface of Mars, and it’s effective as hell.
Screenwriting Tip #121
People will say they can tell in the first 10 pages whether or not they’ll like your script. They’re lying — they can tell by Page 1. So make Page 1 a thing of beauty.

Whether you’re blocked, bored or otherwise in need of amusement, you'll find something quotable in Xander Bennett's blog. Better yet, you can now buy most of the collection in this book of the same title.

P.S. I have to confess I like so many of his tips that I kept changing my three examples. But I've stopped now. Promise. And there's actually four. I know. But I like them, and I hope you do, too.


Friday, 16 September 2011

A slap between friends...

One of my surprises when considering confrontation scenes in movies recently was the number of films where she slaps/punches/kicks/knees him.

Robert Downey Jr. finds a red rose no defense against Marisa Tomei in Only You (1994)
For example: Definitely, Maybe (she slaps him twice), The Holiday (she punches him twice), No Strings Attached (she slaps him repeatedly), Only You (she slaps and kicks him), Miller's Crossing (she punches him), Jerry Maguire (she punches him), That Old Feeling (she attacks him), Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (she punches him), Groundhog Day (she slaps him repeatedly), Hollow Point (she punches him repeatedly), Romance & Cigarettes (she attacks him), The Royal Tenenbaums (she slaps him), and Scenes from a Mall (Bette Midler knees Woody Allen in the clods). 

Ryan Reynolds cops one from Isla Fisher in Definitely, Maybe (2008)
The one that surprised me most was When Harry Met Sally... I thought I knew this film fairly well, but I somehow hadn't registered the slap scene. (Or the two F-bombs Sally drops during the course of the movie.) 

When I asked various friends about it, not one of them could remember the face-slap scene either. These are all people who are fond of the movie. (I'd conducted an informal survey of What's Your Favourite Rom/Com? among friends a year earlier and WHMS came out on top, by a wide margin.) 

Watch out, Harry, here it comes...
Probably in Miller's Crossing, Groundhog Day, Romance & Cigarettes, The Holiday, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the slap/punch is deserved. The rest are debatable, to say the least. Which raises the question of what purpose these face-slaps fulfill in movies. 

Aamir Khan cops a slap from Kareena Kapoor in 3 Idiots (2009)

Are they a vicarious I-Wish-I'd-Done-That moment to satisfy a female audience still seething over some historical wrong, or do they fulfill some other function?

Bill Murray deserved it. Definitely.
I asked a number of women if they'd ever slapped a guy's face. Only one admitted to it, and she pleaded serious (and violent) provocation. The others were generally vague (read, non-committal), and some were decidedly defensive.

Edward Burns deserved it, too.
From a cinematic perspective, I think of the Cecil B. De Mille quote: "I will trade you forty gorgeously beautiful Hawaiian sunsets for one good sock on the jaw."

For the benefit of those looking at the timing—for structural reasons—I checked five of our films. The punch in The Holiday takes place at the 12% mark, the slap in Only You at the 54% mark, in Groundhog Day at the 57% mark, in Definitely, Maybe at the 75% mark, and in When Harry Met Sally at the 89% mark. 

What does it all mean? Who knows? Certainly not me. But I am now reviewing confrontation scenes in my scripts with a view to adding a decent slap somewhere.