Sunday, 18 September 2016

Watch What You Write

Because one of the projects I've been working on this year, and indeed, for the past few weeks, is a superhero screenplay, I've been watching a lot of those, either on Netflix or rented from Amazon (er, when I'm not renting the Fast & Furious saga, that is).

This is, as I mentioned in a previous post, why I rented The Amazing Spiderman, the version with Andrew Garfield - I was following the suggestions of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, or Syd Field's Screenplay, to watch movies similar to what you're writing.

It's pretty childishly obvious, as far as advice goes. For instance, my interest in fantasy novels stems from my early attempts to write a fantasy novel of my own. I'd read Tolkien before then, but apart from the more YA-oriented fare, like CS Lewis or Lloyd Alexander, I was unfamiliar with how the genre worked.

Now, you would think that having grown up on comics, I'd know how the superhero genre works, but it happens not to be so. Comics are one way of telling stories - a language, if you like - and movies turn out to be a similar but not entirely equivalent language, and this is one of the things I've been discovering as I watched more of them.

The main takeaway, in fact, has been that Act One of a superhero film needs to be almost exclusively about the hero. Those first 30 or 40 pages are meant to establish where the hero starts, what they need to learn, and how they get their powers - the first act ends when they've put on the mask and gone looking for bad guys to beat up.

Interestingly, though, the thing that established this iron law for me was one step nerdier than just watching the films - I discovered it through reading the shooting scripts (or what purported to be shooting scripts) of Batman Begins and the 2002 version of Spiderman, the one with Tobey Maguire.

This is a suggestion from Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon's Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, incidentally - they note that shooting scripts are as close to what's on-screen as it gets, which means you aren't reading an initial draft that was used to gin up interest in a film. Although those can be pretty interesting to read too - look for the script for Die Hard, the opening of which is subtly different from how the movie was shot.

In any case, I remember the "eureka" moment pretty clearly - I'd just gone through Act One of Spiderman, and made the connection, so I'd then gone looking for Batman Begins, to see if it held true. It felt like I was on to something, so I checked the notes I'd made for Amazing Spiderman (yes, I took copious notes while I was watching Amazing Spiderman - two and a half pages on a yellow legal pad, in fact). And eureka indeed - my first page of notes corresponded roughly to the first act, and to the point in the 2002 Spiderman movie where Tobey Maguire dons his own mask.

So the suggestion, then, is to both watch movies in your genre (taking notes), and then look for the shooting scripts online. Reading the script is helpful because you get less distracted by the fun on-screen, which is also important. And the best is if you can watch or read films/scripts from different movies that tell effectively the same story - remakes or reboots or reimaginings seem to be close to justifying their existence purely for budding filmmakers.

Now, that said, Act One and the transition to Act Two is about as far as I got in my research so far. I haven't entirely figured out how Acts Two and Three work yet, but when I do I'll be sure to post what I've found. But in the meantime, I'll be working my through the Fast and the Furious again - with notes...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Wanting to Write, vs Wanting to Be a Writer

I always have a hard time when people ask me what I want to do with my life.

That's not because I don't know, of course. The difficulty comes in expressing it - long ago I decided to stop saying I wanted to be a writer, because it implied wanting the lifestyle of being a writer without the work of actually writing books. So instead I started saying I wanted to write, which is accurate, but also implies that I'm not doing it. I had, in fact, a conversation once that went pretty much along those exact lines. When I said I wanted to write books, the person I was talking to said, "So write."

How to explain that at the time I had already written two novels, and was working on a third? Or that I'd written a bunch of short stories, and sent them out to publishers and magazines, dating back to high school? It was a long, convoluted conversation, in which I eventually got my point across, I hope, but it showed me the futility of answering the question the way I do. Although I'm sure she'd have said the same thing if I'd answered that I wanted to be a writer.

That said, I do think it's a useful distinction to make, even though most people don't understand writing (or other forms of creativity) to begin with. To me, saying you want to "be a writer", like wanting to "be" anything else, implies that you're interested mainly in the optics of it. Being a writer sounds fun - you get to go to book parties, see your films optioned (and sometimes turned into good movies), and all that. Paradoxically, it doesn't seem to include the actual sitting at your desk night after night, trying to finish a thing.

On the other hand, saying you want to write suggests that you do understand the actual mechanics of what makes one a writer, though it also implies that you aren't doing any writing at the moment. And, as illustrated above, leaves you open to well-meaning but not-always-helpful suggestions like that from my friend.

"So write" sticks with me after all this time, as well, because it's one of those pieces of advice that are logically correct (if you want to write, do so), but don't take in the full import of writing as a hobby or vocation or whatever. It implies some lack of seriousness, at least to my ears, as the advice isn't to "just write, research markets or agents, and submit to them".

But saying that I want to be a writer also isn't very satisfying because it implies I'm not there yet. I'm not saying that having taken second place in's January 2013 contest, and earning £50 as a result, makes me a writer, on par with George RR Martin, but if I have put in the work for as long as I have, even without more than that to show for it, doesn't that mean I can say I'm a writer?

I appreciate this is all a bunch of weird, semantic tail-chasing. Weird semantic tail-chasing is one of the things I live on. And it might be coming because at some level I wonder if the effort is worth it - it's not like I'm so good that publishers or whoever can't ignore me. On the other hand, as I tell myself every time I consider quitting, it's not like I have another vocation lined up. Sitting at home and watching TV every night until I die doesn't sound very appealing.

While I'm generally a positive person, I also understand that hard work is only one part of being successful. The most important part, certainly, but there are a lot of people who work hard at whatever they love without ever striking it big. There's also luck, which is predicated in part on how hard or how smart you work. I can't escape the (almost romantic) image of being the unrecognized genius, which is slightly satisfying on a sub-conscious level, but not as much as the idea of seeing a bookshelf filled with my own novels, or of seeing my name in the credits of a movie.

To bring it all back around, whether I tell people I want to be a writer or that I want to write, most won't get it. But what's important is probably that I understand what I'm setting myself up for - and that I understand what I mean when I tell people what I want to do with my life.

So do I realize the full import of wanting to write, and to be a writer? Sure - I just spent Saturday night finishing up an outline for a horror movie, after all, rather than going to a bar to meet girls. But while I hope for the payoff, I should probably remember to give myself a break about not having hit it yet. And think about new ways to do it.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Batman Vs Superman: Just as Bad as I'd Feared

Not beating around the bush here with that title. I was bored last night, and looking for a movie to rent on Amazon, so I went looking for superhero movies I'd missed when they were in theaters. My first two choices, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, weren't out yet, and Deadpool felt a little expensive for something I'd seen on the plane, so I swallowed hard and went for Batman Vs Superman.

I'm not even going to bother putting up the spoiler guy for this. It's a bad movie. It's badly acted, badly scripted, badly directed and has lackluster CGI. Someone comes back from the future, completely out of the blue, to warn Batman not to let Lois Lane die, and then it turns out to be a dream. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as if the character's a merger between Mark Zuckerberg and the Joker.

Compared to this, Suicide Squad was a work of art.

What's frustrating is that, in theory at least, I like David Goyer (who script doctored BvS). He wrote Batman Begins, which while not my favorite Batman story, at least got the character back on an even keel after Batman & Robin. He also has some good insights into the character - my favorite is how Goyer once pointed out that there are three facets to Batman/Bruce Wayne's personality: there's the public face of Bruce Wayne, the public (sorta) face of Batman, and the private Bruce Wayne, who's actually a badass.

In fairness to Goyer, the fact he rewrote the script means we were probably saved from something really brain-damaging... or it could have been to shoehorn more prep for the upcoming Justice League movie. Whatever.

The problem is that it could have been really good, if they'd just stuck with what's so good about the characters (including Wonder Woman), or even just added some horsepower to the action scenes. It seems odd to say about a movie that cost something like $200 million and features the destruction of two cities, but the action scenes are so boring - I know I can't seem to shut about the Fast & Furious movies, but at least they're exciting. The one car chase here looks like it was filmed underwater.

Funnily enough, though everybody was freaking out about him in the role, Ben Affleck as Batman wasn't the worst thing about the movie. In fact, I'll go so far as to say he was fine - he didn't have the unctuous playboy act down as well as Christian Bale in his prime, but I found him believable as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. And they solved the Bat-voice problem which had plagued the Nolan films.

Of course, it's still one of the top 50 highest-grossing movies of all time, despite losing 81% of revenues in its second weekend and a further 50% in the third. There's always been the impression that nerds are so starved for movies that cater to them that they'll lap up any old crap, and it's hard not to get the impression that this is why BvS has done so well (it didn't hit its projected $1 billion but it certainly recouped its budget). I also remember seeing some friends on Facebook taking issue with the blog posts (including ones I shared) saying that they didn't actually have to go see it - it's almost as bad as the fans of Suicide Squad who (Donald Trump-style) tried to ignore Rotten Tomatoes for giving their beloved movie a low score.

I read once that blockbusters are badly written because there's no compelling reason (whether in terms of cost or profit) for them to be written well. But I can still hope that someday someone decides to put out a superhero movie that doesn't suck quite this blatantly.

Or, screw it, just let me re-watch all the Fast & Furious movies while I wait for number 8 to come out. At least I'll enjoy myself.