The advice and rantings of a Hollywood script reader tired of seeing screenwriters make the same mistakes, saving the world from bad writing one screenplay at a time. Learn what it takes to get your script past one of these mythical Gatekeepers.
There are a few resources I consider indispensable for aspiring writers. One of them is Jeffrey Lieber's Showrunner Rules, which offers a window into just how massive the job of running a TV show is. Another is the podcast Children of Tendu, created by Javier Grillo-Marxauch and Jose Molina, who put together possibly the most detailed, piece-by-piece breakdown of what it means to be on a writing staff, what the day-to-day work is like, how to be the kind of staff writer your showrunner wants, what to do and what not to do.
Well, Javi has a new book out today, called Shoot That One. (It's a sequel to his earlier collection of essays, Shoot This One.) The essays included in this volume all relate in one way or another to the creative process. Javi's voice will be familiar to any regular listener of Children of Tendu. It's impossible to read this book and not hear him in your head as you move through an examination of the creative process on Lost, ruminations on how his opinion the first STAR TREK film went from being that of a bore to a more profound experience, processing complete apathy to THE LAST JEDI, and "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning."
There's a lot of compelling advice and observations worth unpacking in this tome and so rather than write a review, I decided to have a conversation with Javi about some of the themes across his book and some of the questions that his essay's provoke.
I feel like one theme of the book - either intentional or unintentional - is how you demystify the creative process. "The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxuach" is ultimately an explanation of how "Did you guys have everything planned or were you making it up as you were going along?" is a question where both answers can be a little bit true, even at the same time. I'm curious about your own awakening to that paradox as a writer. Was this something you picked up on after being staffed on your first shows? Was there a light bulb moment for you or was it a gradual awakening?
One of the great things about being a huge George Lucas fan of my vintage is that you got to see his perception of the Star Wars universe evolve almost from interview to interview. The story of how he came up with the story, how many trilogies he really had planned, and his overall intentions really changed a LOT from year to year and interview to interview. The creation myths along many of the franchises we grew up with were a lot less hermetically sealed in the early days of tentpole/blockbuster filmmaking - not to mention less legendary - and I remember from an early age suspecting that the machinery behind the shiny stuff on screen may not have been as smooth as advertised.
You also had things like David Gerrold writing a book like “The World of Star Trek,” which was a really no holds barred account of that show warts and all... all of which is a long way of saying, I always suspected the Wizard of Oz was a guy straining at machines behind a curtain... but it didn’t really land on me until I started working in TV professionally and really got to see how the sausage is made. A lot of the fun of making TV is coming into it, hearing the showrunner’s ideas for the long term and then filling them out: more than anything else, the job is to make it look like those ideas were monolithic in the first place. I often hear - when something clicks on the board in the writers room - someone say “it’s like we planned it!” my answer is always: “yes! we’re planning it right now!” It is in that contradiction that you find the real magic.
In sort of a glancing blow, your essay indicates several short-lived shows may have met that fate because they were winging it from day one, so I understand that extreme is possible. I'm sort of curious about what you would think about working on a staff where the showrunner did claim to have plotted out several seasons of story in advance, had a complete master plan and didn't deviate from it. Can such a beast truly exist?
I once took a meeting on a show that promised a huge, longitudinal alien mythology... I went into the meeting and asked “where are you going with this?” And they replied “you worked on Lost, you tell us.” I politely demurred, but what my inside voice was screaming was “FUCK YOU PAY ME!”
Look, there’s always going to be people who claim they had it all figured out in the first place: it’s part of the hagiographical retconning of the “genius/visionary showrunner” narrative. When an artist produces a hit in a mass medium, a huge machinery moves in to make sure that the artist is perceived as a genius whose ideas all sprang unbidden like Athena from Zeus’s brow.
The reality is ALWAYS, if not much different, at least a lot messier. A lot of J. Michael Straczinsky’s fans defend his contention that he had all of Babylon 5 plotted out in advance - but when you watch the show, you can see the seams and on-the-go fixes on screen in the form of cast changes and story detours and other such patches. I think it’s absolutely possible to have it all figured out, but too rigid an adherence to a plan often impoverishes the final product: no human has ideas so bulletproof that they can’t be improved upon, especially in the case of a longitudinal narrative. Put succinctly, I defer to a maxim commonly used in the boxing world: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
If I'm the showrunner and I come in on the first day of the writers room with a 150-page document (either literally or metaphorically, in my head) and communicate to my staff - "Consider this your WAZE route to syndication," am I doing my duty as a showrunner, or have I committed a different kind of sin?
I dunno, I’m not the UN Security Council of showrunning! Every show has different needs, but what a showrunner should strive to do, in my accounting is to be honest and communicative - and to always explain what the show is in concrete ways that can result in action and execution from the staff. I dunno if giving your staff a 150 page document about the show is the RIGHT way to do it, but I would at least commend you for trying to explain yourself and your show!
Again and again, the essays seem to return to the notion of the relationship between the art and the audience, and how it's an evolving thing over time. In various essays you use your reactions to THE LAST JEDI, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE versus the new STAR TREKS to chart this. Do you think some of the strong negative reactions to some of these is the result of those people not being able to evolve? Or is It that your work has given you a better appreciation for the creative process in general? Do you see a road back from binary reactions of "This was the greatest thing ever!" and "This sucks and if you like it, YOU suck!"
I am sure that working in the mines day in and day out has had a lot to do with my belief that eventually, becoming “jaded” to at least the idea that each now thing, or reinvention of a thing, has to be either THE BEST THING EVER or THE WORST THING EVER is a good step in your personal growth. Mostly though, I think that it is unfair to ask a piece of popular culture, even one as multivariant and endemic as Star Wars of Star Trek to continue to furnish you with emotions you had in childhood when your exposure to narrative storytelling was much less evolved and your capacity to experience things as being truly new was much greater. No work of art can survive that expectation. If you love Star Wars, you can now curate your preferred version from thousands of different interpretations of that world by different artists - but to keep demeaning that it make you feel the way you did when you were seven, that’s just silly.
The reason Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek and all those things have survived and become so meaningful is that they have within them iconic and totemic ideas, characters, and objects - as fans, we need to be able to commune with these totemic ideas while making peace with the truth that we all age out of things, even the things we love. It doesn’t mean they don’t love us back, it means that we - as humans - have a lot more bandwidth for change in our trip through the universe than does tightly controlled, corporate-owned material that depends primarily on a demographic target for its existence.
5. I think your essay, "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning" is a piece that's very much in conversation with Jeff Lieber's "Showrunner's Rules." I feel like a lot of Jeff's focus boils down to demonstrating that showrunning is like having 300 or so small jobs, while ALSO bringing in a lot of writing tips. And your essay seems to take that and run in the direction of "This is how you can mismanage ALL those responsibilities and cripple the writing at the same time." I think the difference is, Jeff seems to be speaking to people yet to attain that rank, while your tone is that of trying to correct a bad apple. I'm nodding along with your piece, but at the same time, I wondered, has your more adversarial tone led you to butt heads with anyone who feels they fit the profile?
The version of the piece in the book was my first draft. I wrote it during a time in my career when - after more than twenty years - the universe kept saying “hold my beer” whenever I thought I had seen it all in terms of toxic upper management. I was warned by a number of friends and agents to not publish it - it’s a mean and strident rant that most likely preaches to the converted. The most publicly available version of the essay - the “nice” version - was a cut I made to whittle it all down to the management lessons and actionable advice for writers. That version will always be available for free on my website - this version is more for those who are curious about just how pissed off I really was when I wrote this.
I’m putting something incendiary out there - it was written with the intent to be rude, confrontational, and offensive because the “nice” way doesn’t always get through to people... the irony of it is that most of the people who could use the lesson in the present day are going to read it (even in the “nice” version) and think “what a schmuck, he doesn’t understand how hard I have it.” So, really, it’s for the up and comers.
I expect to make no converts out of the already powerful and well-placed. I believe that once you have been canonized, you pretty much calcify - this may not be true for all; many retain their ability to evolve, but a lot of writers, once validated, really see no way to change what works for them. This is especially true in a field where the pressure and stakes are so high that the default becomes “whatever it takes for me to be the genius I have been told I am.” The essay is and was always intended for people who are not at the showrunning ranks, people like you who nod while they read it: it is intended to say “you know that shit your boss is putting you through? You’re right to think it’s not cool - and when you are the boss, don’t do it, or this is the tone that everyone will want to take with you, but won’t for being afraid of losing their livelihood.”
The question the essay truly poses is “when you get to the top, do you want people to talk this way behind your back or not?”
I have had no run-ins with anyone who “matches the profile,” though I have had second-hand accounts of some people with whom I have worked responding to it very negatively. My answer to anyone who gets butthurt because they “match the profile” is “tough shit, Sparky.” If someone I worked with responds negatively, maybe they need to know just how negatively their management style affects the lives of others. No matter where i go, I give a hundred and ten percent and fight for the right to break my back for my showrunner... but the one thing I didn’t do is sign some invisible contract that says I have to enable a showrunner’s bullshit self-image years or decades after I stopped working for them (or was fired by them) because their ego can’t handle being seen as fallible.
Besides, I don’t name names, I just call out the behavior. The sad truth is that most of these “creative visionaries” not only think they are unique in their genius, they also think they are unique in their failings. “No one understands my pain” is the rallying cry of narcissists across the land. I think it hurts a lot of people to find out I am not talking about them individually, but rather that they have the exact same shortcomings that a lot of other people have had in their position - that they are not very special snowflakes even in their bad side.
I read Lieber’s showrunner rules on twitter and respect what he is doing. I think we are after similar game with different methodologies - he’s going for the micro, I’m going for the macro. I think our work is complimentary. I also know that I have put enough material out there that is detailed, positive, encouraging, and educational that allowing fury to have the hour for one piece of writing is not going to change that.
6. There's a lot in "The Eleven Laws of Showrunning" that calls out toxic workplaces, and despite being written years ago, much of it resonates with what we now know about the situations on BULL, NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, ONE TREE HILL and many others. It's a pretty clear demonstration these issues didn't spring up overnight, but were more pervasive than most wanted to admit. Did you feel a reckoning coming when writing that piece or were you cynical about that cycle of abuse being broken?
I don’t believe in “reckonings” as much as I believe in slow, painful, and unsatisfactory evolution fraught with compromise. But I believe steadfastly in that evolution and I have a lot of faith that our arc as an industry will bend toward something better. The one thing that will happen both to those of us who are actively trying to be better and those who are comfortable in their assholery is that we will all eventually retire, die, or fade in whatever ability made us hireable. The challenge is, can those of us on the good side make more people share our beliefs than the others can create more like themselves by perpetuating the cycles of abuse?
The #metoo movement has been amazing, and a collateral benefit of the effort to call out sexism and misogyny in TV workplaces has been to shine a light overall on a culture that very frequently tolerates many different kinds abuse in deference to the bottom line. This climate has also made it less dangerous for people like me to maybe have more pointed and public opinions about certain things with a little less fear of retribution... but who knows? Check with me again in a few months... if I’m still working, then it all worked out.
7. Your stated mission with Children of Tendu, and the implied mission of many of your essays, is to raise the caliber of the up-and-coming writer class. You've been doing Tendu for about four years now - have you seen any impact of that sort?
I hope so. Tendu has been incredibly fulfilling, as have been me and Jose’s efforts to continue its mission by teaching our “Living in the Middle” seminars at the Writers Guild, and by trying to be better in our own creative lives. A lot of up and coming writers have contacted us to say that the podcast has helped them, so hopefully, this is our little contribution to a change coming from a lot of different directions. A lot of the work I expect to do in the next few years will be to help first time showrunners as a co-showrunner or as a “strong number two,” if some of those come out of the ranks of Tenduvians, and they practice what we preached, then I will be a very happy and fulfilled camper indeed.
Thanks to Javi for his time and don't forget to pick up SHOOT THAT ONE today!
If you told me when I started this that I'd still be making (irregular) updates to this blog ten years later, I'd have thought you were nuts.
I'm trying to think how much I'd have believed if you told me this blog would eventually lead to some of the best friendships of my life, several jobs, my first manager, my first pitch, and professional connections beyond anything I would have achieved on my own. It all probably would have sounded pretty good then.
It's funny to look at the last ten years with that perspective. I've come a long way, but with so many goals still unfulfilled, it's easy to miss and appreciate so many other professional milestones. I've come tantalizingly close to some of the others - my first script assignment, chief among them - and sometimes it's easy to get lost in the misses rather than appreciating the hits.
That's good general advice for all of you. You don't have to have a blog in order to take stock of how far you've come on your journey.
Ten years ago I thought I was ready to break in. Now I look at some of what I wrote then and cringe at how much better it could be if I wrote it today. Then I reflect on how I'd probably never write something like that today because I've grown beyond the subject matter itself. Five years from now, I'll probably look back at my latest scripts today and go, "Ugh."
That is EXACTLY the way it should be.
Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined the ways that this blog and especially Twitter would open a line of communication between me and once-untouchable professionals, as well as give me insight into other struggling amateurs. I already knew you could learn a lot from bad scripts - I just didn't realize how much you could learn from bad script WRITERS.
The Hack sees no room for improvement. They value quantity over quality. If you offered to read something of theirs, they'd present you with ten scripts - unable to choose a sample from that pile because they're ALL good. The Hack is terrible at accepting notes. They seek affirmation of their brilliance, not mentorship. Introspection is not something they're capable of.
The Hack cultivates access but not relationships. To them, the people they know in the business are resources to be exploited, not emotional touchstones to be maintained. When they meet you, their first thought is, "What can you do for me and why are you not already doing it?" They will never see past themselves and their own goals. Every achievement someone else gets is something that they feel entitled to.
I've seen the Hack so many times in the last decade. They're the person who won't take no for an answer when you decline to read their script, the Jekyll and Hyde who go from praising your blog or Twitter as genius, to saying "What the fuck do you know anyway?" the moment you offer a critical thought.
There's a Hack inside each of us and your eventual success will depend on how good you are at resisting its impulses. This isn't limited to just the poor social skills of a Hack, but also their ability to separate criticism of the work from personal criticism. One thing putting yourself out there on a blog does is that it makes you vulnerable to criticism. Every day you're putting something out into the world and there's a chance it'll make you look stupid.
That's the Fear. To be a good writer, you have to overcome the Fear. You cannot self-censor out of fear of someone not liking something. There's a moment in ED WOOD where the eponymous is told that his film is the worst that someone has ever seen. Without missing a beat, he cheerfully responds, "Well, my next one will be better."
To be a good writer, you need that attitude while also NOT being dismissive of criticism. "My next one will be better." And it will be better only if you MAKE it better. Seek out reaction. Learn from it. Adapt. Every reaction is a valid reaction. No one's making you respond to every critique. I've ignore entire write-ups that my friends have given me on scripts because I've felt they came at the writing from the wrong angle. Despite that, my blood pressure didn't race as I heard any of these "It's not for me" speeches.
If someone's telling you something doesn't work, your impulse is going to be to stop the flow of criticism. Resist that impulse. Keep asking questions: "Why didn't it work? What specifically provoked this reaction? Do you know what specifically provoked you?" Dig into the reactions. It's as close as you'll get to an unbiased read.
This isn't the only lesson of the last ten years, but it's an important one - you've gotta grow beyond your pond. Take chances. Write something that scares you. Ignore the voice in your head that says you'll make a fool of yourself writing a particular script and just write it. You can't know the confines of your comfort zone until you've actively pushed against it.
Sure, know the craft. Read everything you can about the three act structure. Be aware of the tropes inherent to the genre you're writing in and see which you can ignore, which you can use and which you want to subvert. The last month's sampler platter of writing is entirely made up of insight that can help you. Filling your head with the nonsense and insight of others is only part of it, though.
And know yourself. You have to understand the machine you're operating to get those words on the page. I leveled up numerous times in the last ten years, but the one that really left an impression was my 16 Great TV Shows series. With age and insight, I was better able to see why specific shows fed my imagination the way they did. Without the pressure to pump out new content, I might never have done something like that.
I can't really say what the next ten years hold. Looking back demonstrated to me I'd lost the zest for quick, basic tips. I enjoy doing the deeper dives, talking about what a film or a TV show means to me. If nothing else, it often makes for more interesting conversation than debating if sluglines should be bolded and how to use "we see." Engaging the substance of the work is so much more rewarding. Taking an unusual point of view, as I did with MICHAEL F-ING BAY, and exploring it fully was a similarly high-risk, high-return experiment.
I've always said I didn't want this blog to become so consuming that it was impeding my work as a writer. I'm not here to be a blogger, I'm here to be a TV and film writer. For a long time, my mistake was thinking that there was a clear line of demarcation between the two. "Bitter" gave this writer access to people he'd never have met otherwise. It allowed me to befriend several professional writers and other non-pros at about my level and led to numerous instances of them evaluating my work. It raised the bar for me, being out in a much larger pond. "Bitter" taught me as much about my own work and he hopefully taught you about yours.
So thank all of you. Thank you for coming back here for ten years. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you to those who took a chance on me, as a writer, a client, an employee. I had two hopes when I started this blog: that I'd be able to help other developing writers and that I might build my own calling card. On my better days, I'd like to think I've achieved both. Thank you, Bitter. And thank you all.
While I was working on a new TV pilot, I did something that really should be required for anyone doing the same - I reviewed the pilots of some of my favorite shows, as well as some shows with similar genres as the one I was writing.
You shouldn't just passively watch these introductory episodes. You study them - observe how they establish characters and plotlines. Take note of how efficiently a character is established in their first scene. Scrutinize how scenes are written to showcase multiple dynamics at once, all while advancing the story and establishing a complete world.
Pilots are some of the hardest things to write. They're full of exposition, but shouldn't FEEL expository. There's limited space to establish seven or eight characters to a strong enough degree that the audience feels a connection with them AND they have to tell a compelling story while providing a model that shows this world can sustain dozens more stories in the same location with the same people.
There are a thousand ways a well-intentioned pilot can go bad. Just look at the pilots that made it on-air and marvel that there were probably six times as many that didn't get to that stage.
But a great pilot? It's like watching a goddamn symphony.
So for several weeks, I did live-tweet breakdowns of classic pilot eps, covering several different genres and styles. While I watched each ep, I broke down scene-by-scene what was going on, how it served a function in the pilot and highlighted writing techniques that it's useful to know. After the fact, I archived these live-tweets on the blog, converting them into an easier to read paragraph form.
I did my best to make sure these made sense even if you didn't have the show on a TV in front of you. Take a look at these six livetweets.
I continued my introspective streak with a series doing something I've wanted to do ever since I started the blog - take the reader through my process of developing, breaking and writing a script. The challenge I faced was that I didn't want to do that with anything I was actually going to put out there under my name and it seemed to draining to invest all that time into a script written specifically to be thrown away.
A few years ago I briefly considered writing about how to break a spec episode. That at least would slightly mitigate the intellectual property issue, as stealing a spec script would be useless unless the thief intended to pass it off as their own. Then, last year I hit on a way that seemed likely to bear results.
I made an idle joke about how Season 3 of 13 REASONS WHY should take its cues from the short-lived AWAKE, where a detective found himself shifting between two worlds, one where his son survived a car accident that killed his wife, and another with the victim and survivor reversed. On a lark, I tweeted this pitch.
When I was writing that piece on @dylanminnette, I was reminded he was on the excellent AWAKE which would have been PERFECT for the streaming era. Maybe next season of #13ReasonsWhy can follow 2 timelines: one where Hannah lived and one where she died.
Yet this idea stuck with me more than many of my other one-off jokes. Maybe it was the fact I had just come off writing a legitimate spec episode of the show and was already geared up to be inside the heads of these characters and the rhythm of the show. Or maybe I was just bored and had enough time for my mind to ponder, "Hey, what if I really DID go through with this.
I just was stuck on this image of Clay waking up and Hannah lying beside him. He thinks he's losing his mind until he reaches out to touch her. That's when he confirms she's not only solid, but she still bears the scars on her wrists from her suicide attempt.
That image stuck with me - the visual tell of "She slashed her wrists, everything you know about her happened... but she survived it in this timeline." It stuck with me long enough to ponder the Butterfly Effect of Hannah surviving. That thought exercise more or less led me to the conclusion that there was an interesting story to tell here.
And since this was useless as an original spec for obvious reasons, or as a spec episode for any kind of contest (since this kind of crossover, impossibly out-of-continuity spec is forbidden by most), I'd finally found an idea that I was excited about exploring and was useless enough to become a featured blog series.
Of course, me being me, I went a little overboard. I reasoned that for this episode to truly feel like the first episode of a season, I should have some idea what the overall shape of that season would look like. That way, the first chapter would feel authentic. I started with just a few broadstrokes and bulletpoints, just enough to give a sense of what the running storylines in both timelines would be.
But why not go further? As an intellectual exercise, I started sorting those into 13 chapters, refining the story into an overall three-act structure that somewhat recalled how 13 REASONS WHY broke its story in the first season.
And if I'd come that far, why not flesh it out just a little bit for a few of those episodes? And so bullet points became paragraphs.
Yeah, uh, I kinda broke the whole season. But that's MY craziness. You don't HAVE to do that. My process on this was that it helped to know the ending in order to tell Chapter One. And no, this isn't all prelude to drop an entire season of spec episodes on you. I'm crazy but I'm not insane.
I'll admit, after several friends and strangers all came back to me with reactions in the vein of: "This feels like the show. I wish this WAS what they were doing for season three!" I pondered the viability of assembling a few more like-minded writers and writing an entire spec season. That last about ten seconds, but I still pondered it.
You can download the script here. I'm very flattered by the positive reactions from people, particularly those familiar with the show who felt I nailed the characters' voices.
Spec episodes are a particular kind of writing, some might even call it a lost art. There are showrunners and reps who are only interested in reading original material. I've also talked to a number of showrunners and high-level writers who think that it's an invaluable skill for new writers to practice mimicking the voice of another writer because that's what the job requires when on staff for a TV show. That's all the convincing I need to practice this end of the craft at least once a year.
If you're interested in my process, make your way through this 10-part series.
As I ran out of topics to explore in screenwriting, I unconsciously started refocusing the blog as a look inward at myself and the kind of writer I am. I suppose that's not a particularly shocking direction for any blog to take, but the early life of the blog didn't have much introspection. There was plenty about my experiences, but little that truly looked deeper.
As an exercise, I tried to compile the most compact list of TV shows that made an impact on me as a writer. To keep it from just becoming a list of favorite shows, I applied the criteria that for a show to make it on the list, it had to have blown my mind or completely changed my way of thinking about a particular kind of show, or television itself. This meant many great shows were left aside, but it resulted in a list that more plainly demonstrated to me what my influences were and what I should be writing towards.
If you're a writer who dreams of working in TV, I highly recommend figuring out your own list like this. It reminds you of the things you responded to when you were younger, and for me it was something of a compass, showing me where I should go.
I really enjoyed reliving how and why each of these shows made such an impact on me, and it felt more rewarding to talk about something personal beyond just venting about bad things I've seen. This is the kind of project worth doing, because it's one that only YOU can do.
You might be wondering, "What would possess someone to do something like this?" Well, fortunately, I was invited to write a column for Film School rejects about why I wrote the book in the first place.
The real genesis of the book came Summer 2014, when I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about going to see the latest Transformers film despite being certain it was terrible. (That’s somewhat amusing when contrasted with the latest Ghostbusters conversation, where you can get into a fight with a Ghost-Bro who hasn’t seen the film and STILL is certain it’s terrible.) Unsurprisingly, these people walked out of the film with their assumptions confirmed and somewhat disingenuously acted shocked at how much they disliked it.
I won’t say I felt bad for Bay, but I briefly considered that perhaps his audience was seeing in his films what they wanted to see. So as an experiment, I resolved to view Transformers: Age of Extinction with not only an open mind, but one that gave him the same benefit of the doubt that Hitchcock and Scorsese are afforded when their films are dissected in film school.
Self-publishing has made it almost too easy to write a book. Even though I'd toyed with a couple book ideas before this one, you only get to make one debut and I didn't want to put something out there until I had something interesting to say. Though the book never became the huge best-seller I dreamed it might be, I don't regret a minute I spent working on it.
The only downside of the book is that it set the bar pretty high as far as coming up with a "book-worthy" idea. I don't have any interest in repeating the Michael Bay thesis on another filmmaker and if I ever do write another book as The Bitter Script Reader, I want it to be something memorable and the kind of thing no one else would write.
So yes, if you were holding out on me doing a greatest hits kind of book, featuring the best of my blog posts, I'm going to have to disappoint you. I just don't see the appeal in being just another screenwriting advice book out there. Maybe some day I'll compile all my interview transcripts into a book, or do a new book of interviews, though.
The original announcement of the book can be found here. All related MICHAEL F-ING BAY posts can be found here.
Why not check out the appearances from my "media tour?"
One of the later joys of this blog was when I got to deal with some inside baseball stuff. In 2014, I recruited Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (ARRIVAL, LIGHTS OUT, BIRD BOX) to peel back the curtain on the studio development process. Here's a taste of what he had to say:
You are brought in to pitch on a big studio project. It is most likely a remake, adaptation, or sequel. The studios have property and rights, and the way for them to hold onto those rights or to do something corporate-like and “leverage intellectual assets” is to dig into their own libraries. These are the jobs.
Your agent tells you this is a great opportunity to get in good with a major studio. This is where the money is. This is how you will pay rent without taking a day job. In other words, don’t screw this up.
The good news is: You’ve been brought in because someone already loves your writing. Maybe it’s the production company set to make the movie. Maybe it’s someone among the top brass at the studio. Whatever the case, you feel good—someone’s read and loved your script. Your voice is what they want.
You pitch your take on their project, and it’s one you really want to write. You’re passionate and invested. Later you’ll realize that passion and excitement will often count more than story logic and in-depth character work. You get hired, and sent off to write your first draft with a few notes from the studio based on your pitch and/or outline.
As an arbiter, it's your job to determine the appropriate screen credit, so does this mean you have to read every single draft ever written for that project, even drafts that were completely abandoned by their producers?
If writer A wrote 10 drafts for the project, and writer B wrote 6 drafts, the arbiter does not read 16 drafts. Each participating writer picks one draft they feel best represents their work, in terms of how much of it is reflected in the final shooting script. So, in that case, the arbiter is reading 2 drafts. But if there was a writer hired for that project, and the producer "abandoned" the draft as you say, the arbiter would still read it. All participating writers are included in the arbitration, whether the producer "used" their draft or not. It is up to the Guild to determine who gets credit, not producers, not the studio, etc.
There are some notorious examples of films with an excessive number of writers. THE FLINTSTONES, for instance, had about 60 writers. In a case like that, does it mean the arbiter had to read at least 60 drafts? How does one keep straight what came from which writer and then somehow decide which three writers deserve the credit? And what is the largest number of drafts you personally have read for an arbitration?
In that case, then the arbiter would read 60 drafts. Each writer is assigned a letter, based on the order in which they were hired for the project. Once I read 12 screenplays for an arbitration. They arrived on my doorstep in a very large box :)
When I started writing my blog, I never even considered the possibility that it might lead to writing for other outlets. I certainly hoped it would boost the profile of my writing, but I had no ambitions of making a career out of it.
It was Scott Beggs who invited me to write something for Film School Rejects, and if I'm being honest, my first inclination was to politely decline. Then, what usually happens happened - I started getting ideas. To my delight, Scott liked my idea - a weird take exploring how one might apply the nitpicking of the modern STAR TREK films to WRATH OF KHAN, which is generally acknowledged as one of the stronger TREK movies. It was fun to kind of poke the bear of fandom.
So every now and then when I had a more pop-culture-y idea that seemed like it would stir up a reaction with FSR's reader base, I'd pitch it. At the time, my blog audience was pretty decent, but FSR seemed to have a wider reach and it was fun having my stuff read by people less familiar to me.
I've gone back and linked to ALL of my Film School Rejects posts, along with some reflections on each one. The posts in bold are some of my favorite ones, and also some of the more unique ones.
If The Internet Had Existed When ‘Wrath of Khan’ Hit Theaters - My first FSR piece remains my favorite, particularly for the reaction it stirred up. Alas, the original comments section was the casualty of at least two server moves for the site, but it was GLORIOUS to see half the comments on this piece come from anti-JJ TREK fans who used this to attack the new films while the other half of the commenters kept trying to explain, "You don't get it! YOU are what this article is mocking and you're doing it right now!"
Why The World Needs ‘Superman Returns’ - I am the internet's official defender of SUPERMAN RETURNS. I loved it when it came out, I felt it deserved a sequel then and will still argue that the only post-Nolan DC film that can hold a candle to it is WONDER WOMAN. I love this movie, and this piece explains why. I also tell you why most arguments against it aren't intellectually honest.
The Biggest Challenges Facing a ‘Wonder Woman’ Movie - This is a fun one to look back on now that we actually have a WW film. I think that Patty Jenkins deftly navigated every minefield I foresaw here, which is quite the feat because I KNOW other filmmakers would have faltered.
Must There Be a Wonder Woman Movie? - Do we "need" a WONDER WOMAN movie, I asked? Is it about a love for the character or is all this chatter coming from the perspective that she's just so big as a licensing icon that it's her time. After having seen and heard of some takes that were all wrong, I started to wonder if no WW movie was better than a bad WW movie.
Why Isn’t There a Solo Black Widow Movie? I make the case that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER created the moment where it was inexplicable that we hadn't seen evidence of a Black Widow solo film, while defending that her supporting role in THE WINTER SOLDIER shouldn't be treated like a demotion.
The Known Unknowns of Star Wars - The Star Wars franchise has an entire galaxy to play with and the first announced spinoffs were all built around familiar characters. I talk a little bit about why that is disappointing
The Passengers Dilemma - if you've seen PASSENGERS, you know the end of the film has the two main characters stranded on a spaceship that will take 89 years to reach their destination, but only one working hibernation pod. They decide that each can't condemn the other to lonliness so they live together. Here, I work out the math that has them splitting time in the pod and time awake so that they could both live to reach the destination, albeit at an advanced age.
A Brutally Honest Razzie Ballot - One of my all-time favorite posts, inspired by THR's "Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots," I imagine a Razzie voter doing the same for their ballot.
Ten Years Later, THE HOAX is Even More Timely In The Trump Era - a salute to one of my favorite underrated films, THE HOAX. Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, a failing writer who fakes a biography of Howard Hughes after claiming to have been personally selected by the recluse. As one lie piles upon another, Clifford keeps building the con into an unstable house of cards. If you liked CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, this 2007 film will probably scratch a similar itch for you.
Continuing from yesterday, here's the rest of my Top 10 Films of 2018. Remember, if I left off your favorite film, it's a personal insult to you. Yes, you.
10. Vice - I think Dick Cheney gets off too easy. One of the most corrupt, power-hungry men responsible for getting us into an unnecessary war we're still paying for gets a semi-comedic biopic treatment. It doesn't quite humanize him, but I think it takes the sting out of his corruption a bit. But once I put aside the Cheney movie I want to see, I have to admit the one we got is pretty good. Christian Bale gives an amazing performance and I had to remind myself several times exactly who that was emoting beneath all that makeup. And I have to admit, the darkly funny tone DOES truly work for the end of the movie where Cheney's health is dire and he's near death. Director Adam McKay delivers his version of Dick Cheney well, even though I don't think it'll change the minds of anyone who had an opinion out Cheney before the film.
9. BlackKklansman - A black police officer in the '70s infiltrates the KKK. Tell me that's not an incredible premise for a movie. A lot has been made of Spike Lee's decision to use the final moments of the film to draw a straight line from this version of the KKK to the white supremacists of the Charolettesville rally. When I heard about it, it seemed heavy-handed but in the film it's absolutely an earned moment. I'm writing this before nominations come out, and from where I sit, John David Washington should be a contender for Best Actor, and Topher Grace is pretty damn good as David Duke too. I like the subversiveness of casting the former boy-next-door as the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
8. If Beale Street Could Talk - A powerful story of love and injustice. A black man named Fonny is wrongly accused of rape just as his romance with longtime friend Tish blossoms. We experience their romance in flashbacks alongside the present-timeline story of Tish dealing with Fonny's incarceration as she and her mother work to find the rape victim who can prove Fonny's been misidentified as the perpetrator. Heartbreaking and beautifully shot, even more that MOONLIGHT, this is the film that made me eager to see what writer/director Barry Jenkins can do with a studio budget. All of his films feel personal and emotional.
7. Eighth Grade - Speaking of personal and emotional, writer/director Bo Burnham puts us all inside the life of a 13 year-old girl in her final weeks of eighth grade. Kayla is the kind of girl who's confident on social media, but shy and anonymous among her classmates. I think EIGHTH GRADE had some of the more intense and emotionally uncomfortable film moments of the year, whether it's Kalya feeling she needs to hint she's promiscuous in order to get her crush to like her, or the utterly, painfully tense sequence of Kalya getting a ride home from an older friend who uses Truth or Dare to interrogate her sexual experience level and also establish he's got all the power in the car. Watching him slowly push the boundaries and coercing Kayla well past her comfort zone was especially potent in the year of MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh.
6. Love, Simon - It's been 25 years, and it's time to acknowledge that teen movies should be free of John Hughes's shadow. This was one of the thoughts that came to me during LOVE, SIMON, a high-school dramedy about a 17 year-old boy (Nick Robinson) with a secret. You see, Simon is gay. This isn't a movie about Simon realizing he's gay, or figuring out his sexuality, which is a not-uncommon story (for supporting players) in teen films. (Or smaller indie films, if the lead is the one discovering their sexuality.) Simon knows who he is, he just doesn't know what to do about it.
There's a bullshit line that a lot of reviewers use when discussing the experience of walking out of a film as a privileged person who has felt empathy for some kind of "other": "It's not a gay/black/Muslim/etc. story, it's a universal story." It's a line that means well, but when wrongly deployed can seem to be erasing the uniqueness of the black/gay/etc. experience. LOVE, SIMON is a gay story. There's no logic to erasing that. But it's a gay story with so much to say about identity and perception that it allows for identification beyond sexual orientation. LOVE, SIMON is about finding the strength to be seen as the person you are and realizing that what everyone else thinks about it means both nothing and everything.
5. Avengers: Infinity War - I could knock this for being a film that only works if you have even a passing familiarity with the Marvel franchises. Where the first AVENGERS did an excellent job of reintroducing the main players in a context that allowed new viewers to feel immediately up to speed, this third installment quite a bit less hand-holding. But if you look at this as the 19th film in an unfolding saga, that critique goes away fast. It nimbley balances the entire ensemble not just in terms of characters but also their disparate tones too. Thor's arrival in Wakanda is easily one of 2018's best film moments with Thanos himself being the new gold standard for mo-cap CGI characters. There's never a moment where you question Thanos is actually there. It's a popcorn movie, but it's a GOOD popcorn film.
4. Black Panther - Ryan Coogler is easily one of the best directors Marvel has every employed and even with Marvel's history of pulling impressive casts together, this has one of the strongest. There are a lot of reasons why this film surpasses most other Marvel efforts, with one of the most crucial being Michael B. Jordan's turn as the villain Killmonger. Marvel hasn't always had the best track record with their villains, but Jordan makes his one of the most charismatic and interesting antagonists. You're not quite rooting for him, but you understand him with a depth that most Marvel foes lack. We also are introduced to Wakanda, a world unlike any other in Marvel, and it feels like it has a richer, deeper culture than some of the settings in earlier entries.
3. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse - Holy crap, this was fun! And probably one of the most visually inventive movies of the year too! It was just a big fun comic book of a film that captures the best aspects of the Spider-mythos. I really feel like this opens the door to the next chapter of superhero films, showing animation as a viable way to adapt these characters in a way that reflects their more fantastic origins. It's the antithesis of the Nolan approach, which demands everything be grounded and fit into the real world.
2. A Quiet Place - Brilliant, high concept genre film-making. I fear it will be overlooked by Academy voters, especially those who only watched this on a screener at home instead of the theater where you could feel the audience holding their breath for 90 minutes. Earth has been invaded by aliens who track their prey by sound. After a ballsy opening sequences that establishes just how viscous the creatures (and filmmakers) are willing to be, the film leaps forward and shows how ready it is to milk every aspect of this hook. A family of four, headed by John Krasinski and Emily Blunt do their best to survive on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There's just one additional complication - she's pregnant. How is she supposed to give birth without making a peep, much less care for an infant?
Director and co-writer Krasinski's decision to cast hearing impaired actress Millicent Simmonds as one of the children is a gamble that pays off. This is the kind of thriller that seems made just for me - a simple hook with all the possible tension wrung out of a contained location. Aspiring writers should study this for how the film sets up its premise with a minimum of dialogue exposition and then milks every aspect of that premise.
1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout - The craft that goes into creating a solid action film is often deeply under appreciated. I was already on the MI train just after seeing it in theaters. Watching it on bluray and seeing how this film was made took that conviction to an even higher level. There are at least five incredible action sequences in this film that were largely achieved practically. We all knew that Tom Cruise really did a HALO jump for the film, but did you know he was really hanging from that helicopter in the climax? And that he learned to fly the helicopter so that he could act as his own stunt pilot and essentially the camera operator for that sequence? I don't even know how to begin to summarize how they shot the motorcycle chase through Paris. Action sequences at this level are pure artistry.
But this isn't all just action - there's actually a pretty solid character story for Ethan Hunt as the man who's given everything to his country while losing the most important things that mattered to him. Does the Syndicate plot get a little too complicated? Yeah, but thirty minutes into the film that doesn't matter so much and you can just enjoy Henry Cavill's fist pumping, Angela Bassett being a badass boss, and Ving Rhames being Ving Rhames. If every action film was this good, the genre would have no trouble getting respect.
The Oscar nominations come out tomorrow, which means these next two days are the perfect time to drop my Top 20 List. 2018 was another solid year for film, one in which I'd proudly stand behind my top 30 films even. The one thing the year doesn't have is one or two films which EVERYONE agrees are brilliant, which sometimes leads some to call it an "off-year." I found plenty of films to like this year, both in the prestige and genre categories, so from where I sit, this was a win.
20. Support the Girls - It's a "day in the life" movie (see: EMPIRE RECORDS, CLERKS), but applied to a Hooters-like restaurant with Regina Hall as the manager/den mother keeping it all together. The worst case scenario for this film would be that it plays as a collection of subplots, like a thief caught in the vents and an under-the-radar car wash being organized to support an employee trying to flee a bad relationship. But it's Hall who centers this film, turning it into a character study of a strong woman whose employees never quite understand the extent of emotional labor she takes on for them. It's an under-seen movie, but one worth it for the performances of Hall and Haley Lu Richardson, who it took me a good 20 minutes to recognize.
19. First Man - As a technical achievement, this is an incredible film. The restaging of the moon landing was appropriately powerful in IMAX and the two hours that build up to the moment remind us just how perilous that endeavor was. As part of the generation that has "always" known we could make it to the Moon, I think sometimes it's too easy to forget how amazing a goal it was to set out to land on the moon, and what an achievement we as a nation were capable of when we put our mind to an impossible task. The phrase "We can land a man on the Moon, but we can't..." exists for a reason. In an era when we're led by a petty despot only interested is representing the interests of the smallest and most avarice among us, there's power in being reminded that Presidents once set goals that encouraged the best in their people and that science was once revered.
The film's relatively low placement on this list is largely due to the fact that I didn't feel emotionally engaged with Armstrong himself. A great deal of that is purposeful - he was a distant person. Though there were some powerful moments that reminded us of the very human cost of this journey, I had almost as many restless moments in the film. I have nothing but respect for how this film was made, and for the thoughts in prompts in a post-film reflection, but as far as what it made me FEEL - it came up shorter than I hoped.
18. Incredibles 2 - I'm worried I'm starting to take Pixar for granted, or maybe the competition is just stepping up in a major way. After almost a decade and a half of waiting, we finally got a sequel to one of Pixar's best films and it didn't disappoint. This time around, it's Elastigirl's turn in the spotlight as she is the face of superhero missions designed to put a good PR face on superhero activity. Mr. Incredible gets to be the fish out of water as a stay-at-home dad and the film makes the most of both comedic set-up. Better still, the kids take the spotlight in the third act while the story resembles a really GOOD version of a Silver Age Marvel or DC romp.
17. Blindspotting - When Daveed Diggs is a major star, this will be the film people point to as a favorite in order to earn film geek cred. Diggs gives an incredible, empathetic performance as a paroled felon with three days of probation left when he witnesses a cop kill an unarmed, fleeing black man. A lot of this year's best films dealt with race head on, proving that the most powerful art feels personal. Taking on race and guns, this feels very "off the moment" until you realize that "moment" has been around for at least 30 years. Diggs walks through this film like man in a pressure cooker - tension building until he finally explodes in the finale. It was one of those moments where I genuinely wasn't sure where a film was going to go. I'm a little bummed to see it so underrated.
16. Three Identical Strangers - In 1980, a young man goes off to college and is shocked when everyone there seems to recognize him, but calls him by a different name. This quickly leads him to an encounter with a long-lost twin, who he was separated from at birth. More incredible, the media attention from this story unearths another lost triplet. That's already more than you should know about this incredible documentary that digs into the differences between the siblings and explores the multiple tragedies of their lives.
15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? - I thought of THE HOAX a lot early on in this film about a biographer who falls into forging personal letters from famous authors and selling them to support herself. But where THE HOAX was a caper, this is more of a character study, a sad portrait of Lee Israel, played as an abrasive "cat lady" by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy manages something amazing - she makes a self-sabotaging felon sympathetic. We're practically cheering on Lee as her forgeries get more and more elaborate. Even when the FBI is coming for her, some part of us wants her to get away. The award buzz she's been getting has been well-earned.
14. Sorry to Bother You - This one... goes to some weird places. I always get suspicious of films like that, because weird for weird's sake often feels like a crutch that some writers use when they don't know how to develop a conventional narrative. One reason why I like it here is the rest of the film is so well-built that you imagine it could have stayed in a more conventional setting and still had something powerful to say. Writer/director Boots Riley tells the story of Cash Green, who climbs the ladder at a call center by using a "white voice" in his phone interactions. For a while we're lured into thinking it's a goofy satire of corporate America but before long the veil drops and reveals this film has some very pointed things to say about worker exploitation.
13. Searching - Until the last ten minutes, this was EASILY in my Top 10. I'm not sure what we call these films, but this is another one told entirely from the screen of a laptop. The opening montage rivals UP for the saddest opening that takes us through several years in a life and relationship, with the novelty that the entire history is communicated through computer updates and folders. It's incredible storytelling, as is the conceit that keeps the entire narrative unfolding on the laptop. When a teenage girl disappears, her widowed father probes in her life and her online presence to find clues to what happened and finds that he might not have really known his daughter at all. I can't get into what I didn't like without spoilers, but the ending is just a little too pat. Still, a remarkable achievement.
12. Thoroughbreds - I've been a member of the Olivia Cooke fan club since BATES MOTEL, where her status as one of the only major characters not to appear in PSYCHO meant that each week was an exercise in "Will they kill Emma now?" Here she plays a teen sociopath who memorably tells us, "It doesn't make me bad, it just means I have to try harder to be good." When another teenage girl is forced to hang out with Olivia's character, the two become a corrupting influence on each other and begin to plot murder. Ana Joy Taylor is just as good as the other half of this duo and I'll be looking for writer/director Cory Finley's next film for sure.
11. Creed II - It's an idea that shouldn't really work. After the first CREED, the most obvious way to go would be to have Adonis Creed take on the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring. Further, ROCKY IV is one of the series's weaker entries, so this sequel had quite an uphill road ahead of it. To my amazement, it proves to be a powerful story about family and legacies, very much a piece of the original CREED while drawing on Rocky's history. After this, I'm eager to see Adonis blaze his own trail, but this sequel does a solid job in its own right of laying the ghost of his father to rest. If this is Stallone's exit ramp from the series, he went out on a good one too. Come back tomorrow at Noon for my Top 10!