The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Allies and Powers and reviews, oh my!

Here’s a good rule of thumb for you: if you currently possessed the skills necessary to accomplish a new thing, you’d already be doing it. Not always true, but it will keep you out of trouble, and point you in the direction of serious, sustained growth.

Want to write a screenplay? Want to write a novel? Great. Assume that it will take you three years to develop the skills, and you’re on the right track. After all, if you wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a real estate broker, you’d assume that you needed to educate yourself, acquire component skills, and study until your brain turned to puree of bat guano, right? So why exactly should writing be any different?

But for some odd reason, people think it is. They’ve seen movies, and read books, and assume that their ability to appreciate or criticize a finished work bears some relationship to the creation of that work. And usually, they crash and burn.

Most of the time, it is difficult for Newbies to even quantify what is missing from their projects. I have on my desk right now a script written by two guys who have been around the industry a very long time, in various capacities. They have collaborated on a script, and although they are intelligent men, the script…sucks. They have no idea what they’re doing. Their dialogue is…all right. And on an individual scene basis, there’s nothing horribly wrong. But the underlying structure just doesn’t hold, and the characters are balanced purely on the basis of author convenience: “I want X to do Y” I can hear the writers saying. WHY the characters do what they do is beyond the scope of their understanding. Why these particular characters are appropriate windows into this particular world is a mystery. Events take place, people move about, credits roll.

And they probably have no idea at all what is wrong. Here’s a hint: these writers did not find the proper allies to help them understand what “powers” they need to properly create a script. They needed professional writers, or perhaps a director, or a development executive to walk them through it. My guess? They talked to their friends, and spouses, and maybe a lawyer or two. Feh.

A shame, because there is rather obviously a lot of work and intelligence in the script. But it doesn’t matter how classy the external shell of a car looks if the engine doesn’t work. And if your only experience with storytelling is seeing the finished product, in essence this is exactly where you are: familiar with the “shell” and ignorant of the “engine.”

What a pity. You MUST find allies who will give you an accurate, no-b.s. opinion of your skills, and can direct you in converting your intelligence and energy into salable product. Otherwise, you are just spinning your wheels.

Without an engine.
“300” is a terrific fanboy movie with a mild “Sambo” warning. A totally mythologized version of the battle of Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans and their allies stood against a gigantic Persian army (how large? Hard to say, but certainly 100,000 wouldn’t have been out of the question) and held them off for critical days, allowing Sparta and other Greek states to make preparations for a more sustained war. Based on the comic book by Frank Miller, “300” was shot almost entirely on a sound stage in Canada, using blue-screen as did “Sin City” and “Sky Captain in the Adventure of Tomorrow.” Better than “Captain” but not as good as “Sin City,” 300 boasts formidable beefcake and bluster, and some of the greatest sword-battle sequences ever put on film. It also does the typical fantasy routine of all the good guys being light skinned, and the dark guys are villainous and easily killed. What fun. It’s terrific to fantasize about being a Spartan, so long as you aren’t one of the under-sized babies they killed, beautiful girls raped by old priests, or slaves hunted and slaughtered for entertainment. Fun place. But anyway, “300” is great fun, and I give it a “B+”
I did see an “A” movie this weekend: “The Host,” a Korean monster movie that has to be seen to be believed. Instantly leaping into that very exclusive club of “giant monster movies that ask, dramatically and creatively, to be taken seriously”: “Godzilla”, “Them”, “King Kong” and…well, what else? “The Host” deals with a giant pollywog thingie (yes, I’m serious) growing in a river in Seoul, Korea due to an American military error. When it grabs the daughter/niece/granddaughter of a dysfunctional Korean family, they have to band together to try to rescue her. That’s all I’ll say. The monster is GREAT, the effects totally effective. But it’s the family relationships that make this movie work, and it does. Big time. Simply, one of the great Creature Features of all time. Gonna own this one.
Frank posted stats from the Heritage Foundation suggesting that a volunteer army doesn’t place weight disproportionately on the underclass. I answered that they compared the current composition to the general population, rather than to a draft army, which I would have considered the correct comparison. It is quite possible that this comparison would have made his position even stronger, of course. But I remembered that the Heritage Foundation has…hmmm, shall I say a real political position, and it’s somewhere to the Right of Rush Limbaugh (in my opinion.) Didn’t they bankroll “The Bell Curve,” one of my personal favorite examples of the difference in Conservative and Liberal thought on the issue of race? Now, this doesn’t make their stats wrong, but I have to admit that it does make me automatically more suspicious. If anyone has contrary data, I’d love to hear about it.

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