Posted in Film

‘Ad Astra’ Looked More Compelling When It Starred Sandra Bullock

0921_2.jpg

I’ve sure been getting tired in recent years of the constant sequels and reboots.

Aren’t you? All the remakes and reimaginings that seem to come out of Hollywood every single week now, sometimes two a week! It’s rare in this day and age to get anything out of the studio system that’s remotely original, and when something does break through, like last week’s Hustlers, it’s practically a miracle.

Just this past summer we got a new John Wick, a new Aladdin, a new Godzilla, a new X-Men, a new Men in Black, a new Toy Story, a new Spider-Man, a new Lion King, a new Fast & Furious, a new Angry Birds, a new Gerald Butler movie where something falls.

And it’s not difficult to see why. Many of these movies do exceedingly well at the box office, even the middling efforts seeing big profits in international markets. Sure, there’s your occasional disaster like X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but look at Aladdin, Lion King, Toy Story (pretty much anything Disney gets a hold of) and you’ll see box office receipts in the billions. It’s hard to expect Hollywood to churn out anything but known properties when you see incredible numbers like that.

Even in September, typically a month where few major properties are released, you currently have the blockbuster It: Chapter Two in theaters, and just this weekend saw two films released that have what the box office prognosticators call pre-awareness — a new Rambo (part five, for those of you keeping track) and a Downton Abbey movie, which just became Focus Feature’s biggest opening weekend of all time.

And then there’s a third film that just came out in wide release.

The kind of big-budget studio film that comes around every once in awhile, and that’s Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z). It’s an $80 million dollar movie not based on anything. It’s not an adaptation of a book, it’s not an update of an old TV show or something. It’s something brand new, and just that detail makes it somewhat exciting.

So what is the studio selling this movie on? Solid reviews (currently 81% on Rotten Tomatoes), and Brad Pitt, of course, who just gave one of his all-time great performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He’s having something of a moment right now, and why not support him in one more acclaimed film this year?

I do want to go out and support Ad Astra this weekend… and yet there’s something holding me back, and that’s the third element the studio is selling this movie on: the incredibly thrilling space epicness of it all that you must see not on just any screen, but on an IMAX screen! I’m actually lucky to have an IMAX screen ten minutes from my house, and they’re playing Ad Astra this weekend. I guess I could shell out the fifteen bucks if I wanted to.

But what’s stopping me is that the space element of this film in all of Ad Astra’s advertising makes it look exactly like all the other space films we’ve had of late. We’re getting about one a year now, it seems, the space epic becoming its own mini-genre.

Last year was First Man. In 2017 we got Life. In 2016 there was Passengers. In 2015, The Martian. In 2014, Interstellar. Some of these films are better than others, and trust me, I saw them all. But the problem I’ve had with some of these giant space films is that they offer little in the way of surprise and awe, particularly since the most striking one of all arrived to theaters first.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which was released in 2013 and went on to win seven Academy Awards.

That was the one to see on the biggest screen you could find… because there had never been a movie like it in decades, since maybe Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in 1968. It was as visually impressive as a space film had been in a long while, and it presented a vision wholly original and emotionally rich.

One other feature Gravity had? Sandra Bullock. A giant $100 million dollar budget resting on what is mostly a movie about one person, and it earned $723 million at the worldwide box office. So many actors had been up for the role of Dr. Ryan Stone. Angelina Jolie was almost about to do it at one point, and others considered were Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman (who has her own space film coming out next month, Lucy in the Sky).

Gravity was able to marry the fantastic visuals and almost non-stop suspense with a compelling lead performance of an actress at the top of her game. We all wanted to go on that journey with Sandra Bullock into the great unknown.. but do we necessarily want to experience something similar six years later with Brad Pitt? Every ad I’ve seen is promoting Ad Astra just like Gravity, and I can’t care enough for someone like Brad Pitt stranded in outer space as I was able to care for Sandra Bullock.

I don’t know if studios have more original dramatic thrillers set in space scheduled to come out in 2020, 2021, and beyond, but unfortunately these kinds of films are starting to become just as tired as every other overdone genre, sequel, or remake. Maybe it’s time to give these space movies a rest for a while. Maybe it’s time for some blockbuster original stories to be set, once again, on planet Earth.

Posted in Film, Writing

6 Quotes by Alfred Hitchcock to Help You Write Your Novel

0402_2.jpg

Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) has for a long time been my favorite film director. I’ve taught two classes in the past about his work. I’ve studied his many films over and over again, particularly Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. I find his storytelling techniques absolutely fascinating, and I do think much of his advice translates to writing fiction.

Here are six quotes to ponder as you work on your next writing project…

1. “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

I thought about this quote all the time when I made my short films during and after college, and I certainly think about it a lot now when I write my fiction — particularly my works of suspense. Since 2015 I have written five novel-length works of horror and thriller, and keeping this quote in the back of my mind has worked wonders.

There is no terror in the bang, only shock. You have your monster jump out of the darkness, and your reader might flinch, might recoil, might even scream.

But then the suspense is gone. The level of interest for your reader might diminish.

The anticipation of the bang — that’s what you want to focus on, and control. The bang can come later. Hell, the bang doesn’t even have to happen.

Keep your readers in your grasp from beginning to end by making them anticipate the bang, and never let them go.

Yes, eventually you do need to show your cards. You can’t write a 300-page horror novel where the reader anticipates something for 290 pages… and in the end, you give them nothing. You do need something. Some kind of bang that resonates and that satisfies.

But be smart about how you utilize suspense in your fiction, whatever kind of genre you may write in.


2. “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”

A fantastic and memorable antagonist can make or break your story. I think long hard every time before I begin a new novel about my villain. About what he or she wants. About why he or she wants it. A lackluster villain in your story, or no villain at all, will bring it down considerably.

And if your villain is just evil for evil’s sake, that doesn’t work either. We all have our viewpoints. Our motivations. There should be a reason your antagonist is going after what he or she wants. And it should go totally against what your protagonist wants.

Great antagonists make for great drama.

They make your stories compelling from beginning to end, especially when we desperately want the protagonist to overcome the antagonist by any means necessary.

Write a great villain, and you’re already halfway there, trust me.


3. “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.”

Alfred Hitchcock often talked about his fear of the police. As a child he was put in a jail cell for a few minutes, and it scarred him for life. He never got a driver’s license. He never drove a car. He didn’t want a policeman to ever pull him over and haul him off to jail.

So what did Hitchcock do with these fears? He put them in his films. Look at his most famous movie Psycho, in which a police officer trails poor Marion Crane as she leaves town with 40,000 dollars. Look at the themes in many of his films — an innocent man wrongfully accused.

Hitchcock shared his fears with us, and in doing so made his movies rich and memorable.

You should do the same thing for your writing. What are you afraid of? What are you deep down totally terrified of? What are you scared to talk about to other people? Share your fears in your writing. Dig deep into them. They don’t have to be obvious — like fear of death or fear of monsters.

It can be fear of abandonment. Or fear of being unloved. Whatever it is, look deep inside yourself and come up with a story that deals with those fears. Your writing will take off like you never imagined.


4. “Drama is life with the dull bits left out.”

The one thing I love about movies, especially Alfred Hitchcock movies, is that most filmmakers do away with the boring bits and give us only the parts of great drama. We don’t see the person walk out of the house, get in the car, drive across town, get out of the car, walk into the other house. We go straight from one house to the other, and the drama happening therein.

Your writing should work like this, too. A novel can be as long as you want. You don’t have the constraints of a two-hour feature film. You can describe everything in great detail. You can write dialogue scenes that go on for fifteen pages or more.

But you know what makes great writing? Cutting out the dull bits and giving us all the drama.

Just because you can put everything into your story doesn’t mean you should.

Give us only part of the conversation. Cut away from the description and get us to the heart of the scene.

You don’t have to write your novel like a screenplay, but always, always, always think about your story as if it were a movie. Would the scene in Chapter 12 be in the film adaptation? Why or why not? If you lose the scene, does the story change at all?

These are questions worth asking. When in doubt, remember that you want your story to be captivating for the reader. Anything less should be revised or removed.


5. “In films murders are always very clean. I show how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man.”

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s weaker films, 1966’s Torn Curtain, has an extraordinary sequence. Two people attempt to murder a man, and the scene goes on, and on, and on, and on. They try everything. The villain still gets up and comes after them. It takes minutes on end for the heroes to finally put an end to him. Even though the film itself isn’t very memorable, this sequence certainly is.

And I think about it whenever I’m writing a scene in one of my novels when a character is killed. Whether it’s the protagonist, or the antagonist, or a side character — doesn’t matter.

Murder is never easy, especially if the character doing the murder has never attempted it before.

One of my recent young adult horror novels has two brothers on the run from a trio of homicidal creatures from a nightmare world, and at more than one point in the story one or both of the main characters has to take down a creature by any means necessary.

These scenes are never easy for my two protagonists. They use every weapon they can find. They struggle, and struggle some more. It takes collaboration and ingenuity for them to take down one of the villains in a gruesome and horrifying motel sequence, and even then they’re not completely certain if the evil creature is dead.

If you have a murder in your story, show the messiness of it, the difficulty of it. And show the messiness of things that aren’t murders, too. Never let something be easy for your protagonist to accomplish. The more difficult it is, the more the reader will come to be invested in your story.


6. “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”

Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed playing his audiences like a piano. Making them laugh one minute and scream the next.

You know what he also did? He made his viewers suffer. In a great way, not a bad way. In the way that compelling drama is made of, in the way that makes you want to keep watching because you have no idea where the story is headed next.

What he means by this quote is that the more your viewer, or reader, is suffering inside, from the anguish of what might happen to the main character he or she loves, from the constant suspense that never lets up, the story itself will only get better and better.

When you can’t put down a book? When it’s so captivating, and you’re so worried about what’s going to happen next?

That’s the magic of storytelling. You’re suffering for those characters you adore, but in a good way.

Don’t let you readers off the hook so easily. Don’t have long scenes where everything is fine. No drama. No conflict.

Instead, make the reader fall in love with your protagonist and then put him or her through the ringer. Make that character suffer greatly.

Hitchcock did this with Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, and Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, and James Stewart in Vertigo, and Tippi Hedren in The Birds.

The list goes on and on. When you have a connection to the main character, you want everything to go his or her way. And when it doesn’t, when the horror comes, when the unthinkable happens, the story grabs you and never lets go.

Make the audience suffer, just like Alfred Hitchcock did, and there’s no telling the kind of amazing work you’ll be able to achieve!

Posted in Film, Screenwriting, Writing

10 Things You Should Know Before Becoming a Screenwriter

Screenwriting.jpg

Although my focus for the past ten years has been writing novels, I have also attempted writing screenplays from time to time, first when I lived in Los Angeles and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University, and second when I spent the last eighteen months, sort of on a whim, writing three different feature-length screenplays that I’ve since sent out into the world.

Screenwriting is a whole different beast than novel writing, and I thought I would share with you ten things I’ve learned over the years that you should absolutely know if you want to give a screenwriting career a go…

1. Learn the basics first.

It’s in your best interest before you dive in to buy a few craft books on screenwriting and learn the basics. Learn what scene headers are. Learn how long each scene should be (usually 2–3 pages). Learn how long a screenplay should be (on average, 100 to 110 pages). Essentially learn how a screenplay should look. Buy the right software (Final Draft). Before you figure out the story you want to tell, learn the basics of screenwriting first.

2. Read lots and lots of screenplays.

The other thing you should do before writing your first screenplay is read lots and lots of scripts. As many as you can stand. Scripts that have been made into movies, the good and the bad. Scripts that have never been made. Old scripts. New scripts. Anything. There are plenty of web sites that have hundreds of free screenplays at your disposal, like Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. You’ll be a better screenwriter if you’re well read in screenplays, and you will have more confidence moving forward.

3. A career in screenwriting is almost impossible if you don’t live in Los Angeles.

This is something else worth considering. It’s sad but true: for the most part, you’ll struggle getting your career as a screenwriter going anywhere if you don’t live in L.A. There are exceptions, of course. You can write screenplays from anywhere, sure, and if your work is stellar, you will get recognized. But it is expected of you to at least make the trip to L.A. from time to time to take meetings and pitch your ideas, and the farther away you live from Los Angeles the more difficult this will be.

4. Write an outline of every scene in detail before you begin writing the actual screenplay.

I only write a limited outline when it comes to my novels, but when it comes to my screenplays, I write out every single scene before I begin. The reason this is so essential is that, unlike novels, screenplays have such a strict structure. You can’t just write 160 pages, or 76 pages. The screenplay, even the first draft, should come in somewhere between 95 and 115 pages, and if you have a clear outline to work from, this important goal will be met. Also, it’s always super helpful to sit down at the computer every day knowing the two or three scenes you’re going to be writing.

5. It’s important to write a marketable screenplay, not just any screenplay.

When it comes to novels, you can essentially attempt any kind of story you want, but in screenplays, your options aren’t as numerous. When it comes to a screenplay, you need to understand the market. What genres do well financially? What are harder sells for a newbie screenwriter? What markets might your screenplay be aimed at in the future? These are questions you should absolutely ask yourself before you begin writing. It will be a waste of time if you spend the next six months writing and revising a screenplay that has no market value.

6. Screenwriting competitions are, for the most part, a waste of time and money.

There are exceptions, of course. If you win one of the big competitions like Nicholl or Big Break or Austin Film Festival, you will make contacts and potentially be able to sell your script. However, the problem with most competitions is that they cost a lot of money (usually $50 and up), and odds of being in the top ten, let alone the winner, are so outrageously unlikely due to the fact that there are thousands of submissions being reviewed. When it comes to screenwriting competitions, you can spend $500 easy, and then receive nothing in return. If you are going to submit to competitions, do your research, and pick two or three you feel you might have the best chance in, and that offer something significant if you win.

7. Script listing sites are similarly a waste of time and money.

The big ones are Inktip and The Black List. Apparently some screenwriters have found success on one or the other, but from the experience I’ve had and the research I’ve done, they’re mostly just ways for people to prey on naive screenwriters by taking your money. Again, if you feel like you have a super marketable script and want to take a shot at one or the other, feel free, but keep in mind that six months later you might have paid $100 or more for nothing in return.

8. It’s almost impossible to sign with a literary agent as a new screenwriter. Instead, a literary manager is your best option.

When it comes to novel writing, literary agents are your best options, but when it comes to screenwriting, you want to query literary MANAGERS, not literary agents. Literary agents in the film world won’t look at your work without a manager. So if you feel your screenplay is the best it can be and you want to find representation, the best thing to do is send a short letter to literary managers that are open to unsolicited queries. You can find their e-mails on imdbpro.com (a service that costs $149 a year). You might be able to find their contact info elsewhere, but imdbpro.com has worked the best for me. You won’t hear from many of them, but, if you’re lucky, a select few might reach out and ask to read your screenplay! So make sure your script is ready before you query.

9. Your screenplay probably won’t get made into a movie.

This is the hardest one to take in, but it’s simply the truth. Thousands and thousands of scripts are written and registered with the WGA every year (by the way, you need to register your script with the WGA! It’s only $20 and lasts for five years, so do it to protect yourself.) Of those, only a few hundred are purchased, let alone made into an actual movie. The odds are not on your side. If you’re lucky, you might place well at a screenwriting competition, or sign with a literary manager, or, if you’re super, super lucky, you might even sell your screenplay! But the odds of actually getting to the point where your screenplay is turned into a movie is rare. Super rare. Which is why…

10. If you want to be a screenwriter, you need to write lots and lots of screenplays.

You can’t just write one screenplay, send it out, and wait for the money to pour in. You can’t write write one script and think your life is about to change. If you’re compelled to be a screenwriter, by all means, go for it and start writing! But realize you’re going to have to write lots and lots of scripts. Ten, or fifteen, or even twenty — that’s right — before your luck might change. Again, there are exceptions of the occasional wunderkinds who write the perfect script the first time out and find representation and make good money, but those people are few and far between. Yes, you’re probably going to need to write ten scripts or more. And if that scares you or bothers you, screenwriting might not be for you.

In the end, if you’re serious about screenwriting, you’re going to have to be in it for the long haul. Accept that. EMBRACE that. Have fun with it! And never give up.

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #48: Bird Box (2018)

MV5BMjAzMTI1MjMyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzU5MTE2NjM@._V1_.jpg

The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Since following Sandra Bullock’s long career since I saw Speed at the age of nine, there were always a few things I hoped she would get to do in her upcoming film projects. For instance, I wanted her to work with truly great directors, which she almost rarely got to do. It wasn’t until her terrific performance in Crash that she finally received some much overdue critical notices for her dramatic acting, and it wasn’t until winning an Oscar for The Blind Side that some great directing talent finally stepped up, namely Stephen Daldry and Alfonso Cuaron. For nearly twenty years I waited and waited for Sandra to participate in a brilliant, groundbreaking movie, and I finally got it in 2013 with Gravity, still one of my favorite films of late.

Her output since Gravity has been more misses than hits, although I’ve enjoyed a lot of what both Our Brand is Crisis and Ocean’s Eight have to offer. Our Brand is Crisis gave Sandra one of her best and more daring roles ever, and Ocean’s Eight is a blast from beginning to end, an entertaining flick that’s no masterpiece but is still certainly time well spent. Apart from seeing her work with great directors and making at least one superb, Oscar-winning film, there was one more thing I hoped to see Sandra do one day. She’d flirted with the genre in subpar films like Murder by Numbers and Premonition, and one of her first break-out roles was in the genre film The Vanishing, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges. But really, Sandra had never made a great thriller, and she’d never come close to my all-time favorite movie genre — the horror film. That all changed this year, of course, with her newest movie, Bird Box, which premiered December 21st not in your local movie theater, but on Netflix.

Based on the 2014 novel of the same title by Josh Malerman, Bird Box tells of a woman named Malorie who suddenly finds herself in a new terrifying world where opening your eyes outside kills you, and fast. When people everywhere look outside, they see their deepest, darkest fears manifested in something before them, and what usually follows is suicide. A few months pregnant, and scared beyond imagining, she finds shelter in a man’s home, one with windows completely covered, one that seems to be safe for anyone who dwells there. But then bad things happen, most of them outside of her control, and years later she finds herself taking two children on a treacherous journey on a rowboat down a river, hopefully to somewhere where she and the two young ones will finally have a chance to survive.

Bird Box should be a total delight to Sandra Bullock fans; it sure was to me. How cool of her at this point in her career to take on a scary, intense genre film, one that she is front and center in from the first scene to the last. This is in no way a typical Sandra performance. She’s mean, she’s tough, she wields a shotgun, and a whole load of other weapons. She screams at two little children in one scene after the next, and she always tells the adults in the room what she thinks of them when they’re making mistakes. This is one of her boldest performances, one that she commits to from the beginning to the end, and it offers, easily, some of the best acting of her career. She could have phoned it for another five years, sleepwalked through a role the way she sort of does in Ocean’s Eight, a fun movie that doesn’t really give her much to do. In Bird Box, she inhabits a flawed, complicated character, not only a woman stuck in a dystopian world where you can’t look outside, but also a woman who never wanted to be a mother and has suddenly found herself pregnant and uncertain, and more alone than ever before. The two timelines in the movie offer completely different sides to her character, and it’s a joy to watch Malorie evolve the way she does.

Now, unlike her recent Our Brand is Crisis, which has a great Sandra performance in an otherwise so-so movie, Bird Box works, and works beautifully. Oscar-winning director Suzanne Bier, who made the brilliant movie Brothers from 2005 (my favorite film I ever saw at the Sundance Film Festival), made the right choice in not aiming necessarily for huge scares and big gruesome set pieces. She keeps this story instead focused entirely on Malorie, showing us the terror of this new world through her eyes, and it makes the journey all the more compelling. Bier has put together an impressive cast and crew, starting with a group of supporting actors that make this movie truly pop off the screen. One of our finest actress Sarah Paulson, who just co-starred in Ocean’s Eight with Sandra earlier this year, plays her sister at the film’s beginning and offers a masterclass in acting in just a few short minutes. Paulson’s final scene outside of the car is probably the film’s most horrifying moment. Other great actors in the film include Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Danielle Macdonald, and John Malkovich, who all bring something special to the movie. Vivien Lyra Blair, who plays Girl, and Julien Edwards, who plays Boy, are equally strong as the two children, always believable in their many tension-filled scenes on the river.

The film also looks and sounds amazing. From that incredible opening shot of the camera descending toward the water, I was taken by Bird Box’s gorgeous cinematography by Salvatore Totino. I loved all the little details we get, like shots from inside the blindfolds when the characters are running outside, and the massive sweep of that river, especially when Malorie and the kids reach the rapids. Some might think that because this film premiered on Netflix that the production might have tried to cut corners, but such is not the case with this film; it looks spectacular. The sound work is superb as well, and I particularly loved the eerie score provided by two of my favorites, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who scored David Fincher’s last three features.

As great of a team that was assembled for this movie is, though, none of it would have mattered much without Sandra’s incredible performance. She’s been my favorite actress for going on twenty-five years now, I wrote a book about her films, I got to meet her twice (once at The Lake House premiere in Los Angeles, and once at a tribute gala in Santa Barbara). For so many years I wanted her to be in better movies, wanted her to take risks as a performer. Since she won her Academy Award, she has been impressing me more and more in movie after movie, and while Ocean’s Eight left a little to be desired, she has returned in full force in Bird Box. This is her movie, this her story, and she was the perfect actress to bring the character of Malorie to life.

Sandra really has been on one hell of a ride for the past thirty-one years — and she’s enjoyed one hell of a career. When in the early 2000s it looked like she would languish in romantic comedy hell forever, she finally broke through in films like Crash, Infamous, and The Blind Side to become an actress who is finally being taken seriously. While Speed remained her best movie for nearly two decades, that terrific action film was finally eclipsed by Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, Gravity. When many doubted she would ever be considered for a major award nomination, she was nominated and won the Oscar for The Blind Side, and then was nominated again just four years later for Gravity. And with her newest film Bird Box, now available on Netflix, she shows us once again why she’s one of the very best in the business. Sandra Bullock is a worldwide treasure, and as she continues on, starring in hopefully many more films to come, expect me to be there rooting her on every step of the way.

jwuqitdjzjvlhg8zd90j.jpg

Best Scene: The car going out of control, Malorie and her sister inside.

Best Line: “Every single decision I have made has been for them.”

Fun Facts

Sandra’s first horror film.

Sandra’s first film to premiere on Netflix.

Sandra previously co-starred with Sarah Paulson earlier this year in Ocean’s Eight.

Sandra has said in interviews that she was blindfolded on the set of this movie about fifty percent of the time.

Thirty-one years since her 1987 film debut Hangman, Sandra has now starred in more than fifty projects to date.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Use a Famous Setting in Your Fiction

122218.jpg

Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

You’ve seen the scenario before: he wants to pretend like it’s any other day and throw an action flick into the DVD player, and she wants to play a double feature of the most romantic movies ever following a candlelit dinner at Café de le Paix. What’s a way to leave both members satisfied in this scenario? This coming Valentine’s Day, the best kind of movie to watch together is one of the more rare of genres: the action romance! Here are five alternative Valentine’s Day movies worth watching…

5. Breakdown (1997)

Jonathan Mostow’s under-rated action gem is at the heart a love story, with everyman Kurt Russell on the hunt for his missing wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan. The film is pure suspense throughout.

4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

The best of Sam Raimi’s trilogy has some of the most exciting action scenes of the previous decade, but what really makes the second installment memorable is that dizzyingly romantic finale.

3. True Romance (1993)

Someone once asked Quentin Tarantino if he’d ever make a love story, and he responded by saying he’d already made one — Tony Scott’s True Romance. The title is appropriate, with the thrilling, unpredictable action working as background to the center relationship between Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette.

2. True Lies (1994)

James Cameron has said that every movie that he has made is at the heart a love story, and that’s very true of this modern comedy action classic he wrote and directed three years before Titanic. Jamie Lee Curtis is as sexy as she is hilarious in the role of Helen, wife to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spy protagonist.

1. North By Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s most accessible film, and certainly the most visually exciting of all his thrillers, North By Northwest, starring the charismatic Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, is winning from beginning to end for both action movie buffs and romantics at heart.

Watching Like a Writer

Something Alfred Hitchcock loved to do was think of an exciting scenario that could take place in a well-known setting (think the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur and beneath the Golden Gate in Vertigo) and then figure out the circumstances surrounding it. It’s absurd that North by Northwest’s climax finds the two leads running across the faces of Mount Rushmore — and yet it works! This strategy of Hitchcock’s, one of many of his that fascinate me, is something I’d love to try in one of my short stories or novels.

Exercise!

Think of a famous setting that you’d love to use in an action sequence in your fiction. What would it be?

Posted in Film, Writing

Why Stories about Family are Worth Writing

Diane.jpg

Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Diane Keaton has been a national treasure for the better part of five decades. She’s done a great mix of prestige dramas, like The Godfather and Reds, and classic Hollywood comedies, like The First Wives Club and Father of the Bride. And, oh yeah, I got to meet her last year!

She’s made a whole lot of movies, but here are the best she’s made in her long career…

5. The First Wives Club (1996)

This is the perfect ‘90s comedy for fans of Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler. There’s nothing more fun than watching a group of scorned women take revenge, and the charm of all three actresses add to the endless rewatchability of this movie. The final musical number is one of those moments that should feel indulgent but ends up being surprisingly joyful.

4. Father of the Bride I & II (1991, 1995)

It’s difficult to choose the favorite of these two movies; since they work as companion pieces, it’s necessary to include them both. Keaton’s chemistry with Steve Martin is so winning it’s hard to believe the two didn’t make any other movies together. The first installment is the better film, with a more well-rounded story and a more emotional core. But the second installment is funnier, with Martin at his hilarious best trying to stay relevant in his middle age when his daughter announces she’s pregnant. These are two of the most charming comedies of the 1990s.

3. Marvin’s Room (1996)

This underrated gem from 1996 stars four of our finest actors. Keaton and Meryl Streep co-star as sisters who have never stayed close, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Streep’s troubled son and Robert DeNiro as a bumbling doctor. Keaton gets to really flex her acting muscle in this one, playing a woman who’s devoted her whole life to her ailing father while at the same time battling a cancer of her own. There are numerous scenes of great power in this film, and the ending is truly bittersweet. If you’ve never seen Marvin’s Room, you should do yourself a favor and check this one out.

2. Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s masterpiece has as its centerpiece Diane Keaton’s warmest, most joyous performance, one that rightfully earned her a Best Actress Oscar. It’s hard to believe this film was originally conceived as a murder mystery with some romantic comedy thrown in! Although everything Allen made with Keaton is great, especially Sleeper and Interiors, Annie Hall is his finest hour, telling of the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship in memorably witty detail.

1. The Godfather I & II (1972, 1974)

Keaton has been a working actor for half a century, but her three best films all came out in the 1970s. While Part III has its moments, the first two installments are pure genius. Keaton plays the naïve wife of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, who over the course of the two movies discovers just what the kind of terrible life she’s gotten herself, not to mention her children, into. My favorite Keaton scene by far is at the end of Part II when she yells at Michael about what she felt forced to do because of his awful behavior. She is a powerhouse in these movies, the first two films easily the best of her career.

Watching Like a Writer

Watching The Godfather films recently, I started to think about tackling a large, ambitious novel that deals with a family. Showing how that family interacts with each other, the mistakes they make, the dreams they go after, the tragedies that occur, the love that never stops, is something I know I’d love to explore one day in a longer work, maybe not anytime soon, but someday. I wouldn’t want to write a mafia story, but I’d definitely love to write about a family that has at least a few of its members working in a business some might find controversial. Whatever I end up doing down the road, I’d want to capture the love and loyalty that exists among the large family in The Godfather films and show that no matter how flawed the characters are and how potentially evil they can be, the family does everything it can to stay together and find common ground with one another.

Exercise!

Pitch me an idea for a story or novel centered around a family. What kind of family would it be? What era would the story exist in?

Posted in Books, Film, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing

Why Authorship Matters When it Comes to Adaptations

121818.jpg

In the early 1970s, Stephen King was like any other aspiring novelist: writing manuscript after manuscript, working hard to improve his craft, hoping for someone in the publishing industry to take a chance on him. While teaching high school to make ends meet, he began writing a novel called Carrie, a spooky horror tale of a plain-faced high school loner who has the ability to move objects with her mind. Soon after completing the manuscript, he sold his novel to Doubleday and then quickly to the movies. The acclaimed 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, not only catapulted King to the A-list of novelists, but it also started a trend of adapting King’s work to other mediums, including a notorious Broadway flop, two additional feature films, and an audiobook recorded by none other than the Oscar-winning star of the original movie.

A novel being adapted to both film and theater isn’t unheard of — two famous examples are The Color Purple and Mary Poppins — but it is unusual, and what can’t be denied, particularly in the case of Carrie, is how different artists bring their own visions and sensibilities to their versions of the work, in each occurrence taking someone else’s property and making it his or her own. This then raises the question: who in each of these cases is the true author of Carrie? Many might argue that King is the one and only author of Carrie, that the many adaptations are simply different spins on the exact same story, that no matter the scene alterations or song additions or endless diversions from the original text that King and King alone is the only true author of these works. However, despite King’s origination of the story itself and his influence on all the adaptations that came later, it’s clear in looking at the works themselves, from their variety of styles to their successes and failures, that the author of Carrie definitively changes from one project to the next.

King’s 1974 novel is a slim and experimental work of debut fiction, certainly not something on the surface that begs for adaptation to film or musical theater. The book has an odd structure in that only half of it plays out like a straightforward narrative, the story of a sixteen-year-old named Carrie White who’s bullied by the other girls at school when she has her period for the first time in the locker room and thinks the blood running down her thighs means she’s dying, King writing, “Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position. Slow, helpless groans jerked out of her” (8). Carrie has always struggled to fit in, soft-spoken and shy, unattractive and pimply-faced, but the humiliation in the locker room sends her to the darkest of places, her religious zealot of a mother at home named Margaret not helping in the way she torments Carrie on a nightly basis. Even worse is Carrie’s fear of her increasingly disruptive telepathic abilities, not just the ability to shut books and heavy doors with only her mind but her ability to float various items through the air like she’s an all-powerful witch.

Things look up for Carrie though when a cute boy at school named Tommy asks her to be his date for the prom, and even though she believes deep down Tommy’s playing some kind of trick on her, she agrees to go and is amazed when she not only has an unexpectedly romantic time with one of the most popular guys in school but also wins prom queen next to Tommy’s prom king. The night gets better and better for Carrie, but then as soon as she reaches the podium, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie’s head, leaving her hair and her dress in red ruins, King writing in his exacting manner, “[Carrie] looked like she had been dipped in a bucket of red paint” (136). And then in classic King fashion, Carrie unleashes an all-out assault of her telepathic abilities on the crowded auditorium of unsuspecting victims. After she wipes out hundreds of people young and old, she returns home, kills her mother, and dies when her own house crumbles in on her.

This half of the book one could argue calls out for film treatment, but the other half, in which King includes fake newspaper clippings and extended courtroom depositions and interviews with the massacre survivors, disrupts the narrative pacing and doesn’t make for easy translation to other mediums. For example, toward the end King includes specific definitions to slang terms, like this one: “to rip off a Carrie: to cause either violence or destruction; mayhem, confusion; (2) to commit arson” (198). Also, King gives away many of the narrative’s surprises at the beginning of the book, like when he reveals on the second page that “what none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic” (2). A lot of these specific details and early revelations add to the world King has created, but how does something like that make it to screen?

To do the novel justice as a film would have had to blend segments of fake documentary snippets with the more cinematic narrative, but screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was smart to nix all the experimental material in the book and focus completely on the harrowing story at the heart of the project — Carrie’s tumultuous journey that ends in tragedy. And an even bigger stroke of genius at the time was the hiring of the up-and-coming director Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself on horror films like Sisters and Obsession and was known for his dazzling cinematic style. De Palma could have tried to translate King’s novel beat by beat without offering his own take on the material, but instead he brings his unique gift for storytelling to his version of Carrie, which at the time was his biggest hit to date. Many argue that De Palma’s film is better than the novel, even King himself: “He handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the movie is more stylish than my book” (Rogak 82).

But whether the film or the novel is necessarily better isn’t the argument here, although it deserves to be noted; the argument is whether or not King is the true author of the 1976 film, and I believe De Palma’s fascinating stylistic approach to the material proves he and he alone is the author of the film. Take the opening for example, the way he reveals Carrie in the locker room. Instead of the novel, which cuts straight to Carrie in the shower, the film features an extended tracking shot that follows various naked and almost-naked women in the locker room for at a minute or more until we finally find Carrie huddled in the mist of the shower, the haunting musical score playing underneath that effectively builds a sense of mystery. Or take the prom bloodbath scene, in which De Palma amps up the tension by not only drenching the film stock of the sequence in dark, eerie red, but also using the unusual and unsettling and rarely utilized split-screen format.

And then of course there is that shocking final scene, “perhaps the film’s greatest departure from the novel,” in which Sue Snell, played by Amy Irving, walks up to Carrie’s grave, only to have Carrie’s hand shoot out from the ground and grab Sue by her wrist (Magistrale 3). This is a scene I would argue made the film the hit that it was, De Palma giving the audience one of the all-time great boo scares before the end credits. Additionally, in her book Haunted Heart, Lisa Rogak writes, “Some things had to be changed in the movie. In the book, as she wandered back home in shock after the prom, Carrie blew up a few gas stations, which sent the entire town into flames. De Palma struck it from the movie because the special effects would cost too much” (82). The author of a novel doesn’t have to worry about a budget, doesn’t have to worry about how to capture an entire city burning to the ground on rolling cameras, but a filmmaker has to take into account so many elements to get from pre-production to post-production, and in this capacity De Palma made important artistic and budgetary decisions to create his legendary horror film.

These reasons for why De Palma is the author of the film and not King takes us to a deeper, more complex scenario: is the director of a film always the author, even if that director follows the novel his film is based on extremely closely and doesn’t offer anything remotely innovative in terms of style? Ultimately the decision to stay close to an author’s text and not take the material too far sideways is, in a way, a major authorial decision, and it’s the decision directors David Carson (Star Trek: Generations) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) both made in their respective versions of Carrie. Carson’s 2002 TV movie is the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, staying closely tied to the book from beginning to end, including its depictions of some of the aftermath of the massacre in ways that the 1976 movie never touched on, with a “screenplay [representing] an accurate picture of the source material’s complete storyline” (David Nusair). However, De Palma’s film is so beloved and familiar that it’s been difficult for filmmakers to pave new ground with this source material, the 2002 version suffering from “an almost excessively low-rent feel that’s perpetuated by Carson’s less-than-cinematic directorial choices” (David Nusair).

Furthermore, Pierce’s 2013 theatrical film, despite updating the story to modern times, with the bullies taunting Carrie with their cell phones in the locker room, and offering new tricks of special effects, like giving Carrie at the prom the ability to fly, ultimately skews closer to the book than De Palma’s film, particularly in the way it gives the character of Sue Snell, who begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, a bigger role throughout. Also, like in the novel, Carrie is less a tragic figure in Pierce’s film adaptation and more of a purely vengeful source of rage at the end, with Pierce “making us complicit in Carrie’s violence. The demise of the villain that was presented in such a matter-of-fact fashion in the 1976 film is instead depicted [in this version] in long, grotesque detail” (James Berardinelli). In the end, both Carson and Pierce made specific decisions, some for the good and some for the bad, to their own adaptations that make them the specific authors of these films.

The adaptation one would argue is most separate from the novel and clearly is the work of a different author than King is the 1988 Broadway flop, Carrie: The Musical. Universally considered one of the most wrongheaded theater adaptations ever made, this musical tells the novel’s horrific story through, bizarrely, singing and dancing. It’s possible for horror to work in the musical medium — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical on Broadway, and The Evil Dead: The Musical has been performed all over the United States to great success. But Carrie: The Musical had a lot of problems going for it, starting with a disastrous preview in London before, as John Kenrick says in his book, Musical Theatre: A History, “the producers ignored all warning signs and brought the show to Broadway with only minimal revisions” (354). For the New York production, the stage was painted completely black, and the show featured a song-and-dance number at inappropriate times, like in the brutal slaying of pigs that only gets a couple of pages in the novel and less than a minute of screen-time in the De Palma film. Additionally, there’s a moment where “a blood-soaked Carrie dripped her way down a long, impossibly white staircase [that] left many audience members laughing out loud,” suggesting that the make-up effects could have used a few more weeks of prep time to reach a point of believability (355).

Another problem with the show, an unfortunate authorial decision on behalf of its director Terry Hands, was its tone, as Ethan Mordden explains in his book, The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: “[There was] a complete lack of humor. By 1988 we were used to dark shows, but most of them could at least affect a little sarcasm here and there” (67). The show closed after five performances, and nearly thirty years since it’s hilariously quick Broadway run, Carrie: The Musical has “proved to be the most infamous flop musical of its time, one whose title remains a byword for theatrical disaster” (Kenrick 354). Mordden additionally says, “There’s no other flop like it; there’s no other show like it” (69). But how can this be? How can a highly successful novel that was translated into one of the most beloved horror films of the 1970s, one that broke records at the box office and secured Academy Award nominations for both its female leads, have been turned into a disaster of a theater production? The reason is that King is not the author of this project, and neither is De Palma. The reason for Carrie: The Musical’s failure is purely one of authorship, director Hands not having a firm grasp on what makes the original story so compelling, and additionally not understanding how to translate that story into an emotionally resonant stage musical. Carrie: The Musical is the most fascinating example of authorship because it shows how different artists can create not just successful adaptations but also ones that are downright embarrassing.

The one medium of adaptation that doesn’t necessarily make a case for featuring a different author than the novelist himself is the audiobook. Unlike a film which has a specifically structured way to present the story of a novel, and unlike a Broadway musical which by its nature will need to create much of the book of the show from scratch to pave way for lyrics and music, the audiobook is simply a person reading the novel out loud. In the case of the 2005 audiobook of Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in the 1976 film, lends her vocal talent as the sole reader of King’s original work. Bringing her soulful, calming voice to the project, and allowing the listener to hear King’s classic story through her words, Spacek “easily [recreates] the moods of that odd young girl” and “successfully takes on the personae of the small town’s other disparate residents” while also “[moving] smoothly from the magazine, newspaper, and official reports to dramatic scenes” (Publishers Weekly).

But could one really argue that Spacek is the author of the Carrie audiobook? I still say yes, although in the case of the audiobook I would argue that she’s the co-author with King. When a reader is alone and spending his or her time with text on the page, the author in this example is the one and only author of the text. If a teenager picks up a hardcover or paperback or ebook of Carrie, he or she will take a journey with the storyteller of the novel, who in this case is Stephen King. However, when someone speaks the words of the book to the listener, the experience between author and reader becomes a filtered one in which there is a third important body in the middle. That third body, whether he or she expects to or not, becomes co-author of the text by infusing the words with pauses and meaning, and bringing personality to all its characters. Spacek is not just robotically reading words on the page; when it comes to the “teenagers, teachers, moms, patrons, the town drunk — Spacek finds a voice for each of them” (Publishers Weekly). In the case of an audiobook, a person listening in the car or at home falls under the spell of a speaker infusing the novel’s words with a special and notable personality, not merely the words themselves, so I would argue that King and Spacek are effectively co-authors of the 2005 audiobook.

In looking at the various adaptations of Carrie, it should be clear that each new version of King’s story invites a different author to interpret the words on the manuscript page and make it his or her own, whether it’s a film, a piece of theater, or an audiobook. These various authors have the ability to build upon the original text, completely alter the text, sadly destroy the very nature of that text, but in each case, a different person is bringing his or her own talent and energy and thoughtfulness to one singular story that is inarguably part of the public consciousness and a highly significant entry in the horror canon, both in literature and in film. King will always be the original author of Carrie, but other authors like De Palma, Carson, Pierce, Hands, and Spacek have given the rich material further life in their respective adaptations. King is one of the most influential authors of the last fifty years, but it needs to be said that he’s not the author of every version made from his work; hundreds of talented artists have brought his stories to life with their own styles and visions through a vast collection of mediums that prove how incredibly unique different authors can be. Even when they’re all telling the same story, there’s always something new to discover.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. “Carrie (2013).” ReelViews. James Berardinelli, 18 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

“Carrie.” PW.com. Publishers Weekly, 28 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2008.

King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday: New York, 1974. Print.

Magistrale, Tony. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004. Print.

Nusair, David. “Four Thrillers from MGM.” Reel Film Reviews. David Nusair, 26 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 2008. Print.