Sunday, November 26, 2006

Crappy Feet

Fair warning: Happy Feet is not so good.

Coverage, Ink has consulted on several animated feature scripts this year, and pretty much ALL of them were better than Happy Feet. Okay, while it wasn't a terrible movie by any means, neither was it very good. And its abject lameness, frankly, took me by surprise. First of all, Roeper & last week's guest critic gave it two thumbs up, and I generally find Roeper to have tastes similar to my own. Secondly, the film had a %$#^&*!%!! $42 million opening weekend, inexplicably besting the excellent Casino Royale by $2 million. Those are outrageously strong numbers, and in fact the boxoffice tally alone led me to think that this might be the film to lead feature animation--of which I am a particular fan--out of the doldrums it has been in for much of this year (due to oversaturation).

Indeed, the number of animated films that have underperformed is staggering. The Wild, The Ant Bully, Barnyard, etc., have left a bad taste in the industry's mouth. Flushed Away, which cost $150 million, was deemed such a failure it caused Dreamworks to sever their 5-picture deal with Wallace & Grommit creators Aardman after only two films, and they will likely take a massive write-down on the loss. Cars and Over the Hedge were about the only bright spots in an otherwise fairly bleak year for animation. And so I was particularly excited to see what Happy Feet brings to the table.

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be: an adorable ad campaign.

Before the movie today, I asked my 6-year-old why she wanted to see Happy Feet, yet had no interest in seeing Flushed Away, even though she had a bunch of the Flushed Away happy meal toys and knew the characters' names. She told me that Flushed Away looks yucky. It has rats and sewers and slugs. Happy Feet on the other had, has a cute little dancing penguin. Happy Feet marketing team: mission accomplished.

Here's the thing: Happy Feet just did not work, and on many levels. Firstly, story: one thing we always preach here at CI is that the protagonist needs to have a CLEAR and compelling quest. That quest forms the throughline, or spine, of the script. Look back on just about ANY great movie and you'll see that rule applies.

In Happy Feet, we have several vague storylines all competing: the protagonist Bumble is trying to A, win over an elusive, desirable girl who can sing (but he can't,) B, he wants to fit in with his group because he is different (again, he can't sing), and C, the penguins are being fished out by humans, and someone needs to figure out how to stop it. Eventually, and unsatisfyingly, C eventually becomes the dominant plot thread. This plot thread never seems like an all-important personal quest to Bumble. A and B do. The net result is the entire film has a feeling of inertia. About halfway through I turned to my wife and said, "Is it just me, or does this movie suck?" And she nodded, yep, it sucks.

Worse is that Bumble manages to somehow solve the problem in a completely illogical way. Even though it's clear he cannot communicate with the humans, the humans somehow divine that they need to stop fishing the monarch penguins' ice floe. And how does Bumble make his message clear to the humans? By coordinating the penguin flock into a massive tap dance.


Now I have to be honest. I had actually walked out by this point. I haven't walked out of a film in years; but with 10 minutes left to go in Happy Feet, I so could not give a crap that I bailed to go look at posters in the lobby (my wife and child later filled me in on the ending.) But I mean COME ON. You know, there's a reason why, in Charlotte's Web,(which they showed the trailer for right before Happy Feet!)the animals have to figure out HOW TO COMMUNICATE with the humans to stop the threat. This should have been something organic and logical that Bumble should have had to do in order to stop the overfishing threat. But... tap-dancing?

It didn't help that the movie was not even the tiniest bit funny (but for a few yuks courtesy of ever-enthusiastic Robin Williams as pseudo-Mexican penguin Ramon) and even worse, the ad campaign turns out to be disingenous and misleading. The cute penguin is in the movie for about ten minutes. Then he grows up into not-so-cute penguin Bumble (Elijah Wood.) Had the film actually made LITTLE Bumble the protagonist, the film would likely have been much more engaging. Add in some fairly rote chases and you have two hours of time where I was sitting there thinking, jeez, I cannot believe I paid for this. Boy, am I a SUCKER.

A few weeks back I saw the underrated but very successful Over the Hedge, a very well-done animated adventure that grossed $155 million domestic box office--fantastic numbers. In that film, the hero had a clear objective; the movie was hilarious; its internal logic made perfect sense, and it had genuine heart and an arc for the hero, whereas Happy Feet has none. I think I need to rent it again to get the taste out of penguin feet out of my mouth.

Producers, if you're looking for a GOOD animated spec, we know of several. Give us a shout. And, parents, if you're looking for a film to take the kids to this weekend, well, something tells me the fine team behind Wallace & Grommitt's movie is probably far more deserving of your 10 bucks... rats and slugs notwithstanding.

--Jim Cirile

Monday, November 20, 2006

Blond... James Blond

I have to admit, I'm one of the ones who had trouble with the blond hair. I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to these things. I like my iconic movie heroes to look "on model." While I thought "Batman Begins" was an excellent film, I hated the suit design. It almost ruined the whole movie for me, because it's too far off-model. Same thing with the atrocious Superman suit redesign from "Superman Returns." And now we have a new Bond, and he's... blond.

But now having seen "Casino Royale", I have to say that the hair is about the only thing they didn't get right.

Reviewers are calling CR the best Bond film since "Goldfinger," and much praise is being deservedly heaped upon Daniel Craig for his believable and gritty Bond. But I think the real praise is deserved by the screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade along with Paul Haggis.

I am what you call a literary Bond fan. I've read all the Fleming novels several times, and I believe that while a few of the films have been quite good, on the whole they pale next to the Fleming books. Fleming wrote the most delicious prose imaginable--rich and detailed and incredibly thoughtful. When you read a Fleming Bond novel, you're right there alongside him, and you understand the minutiae of the world of the story thanks to Fleming's meticulous research and painterly prose. The movies, on the other hand, turned Bond into a caricature after "Goldfinger" (1964) and left behind much of what made Bond work on the page. Fleming's Bond was a fallible, brooding, charming but often cruel man who was often his own worst enemy. While there was some minor gadgetry in the books, the character mostly depended upon his wits and sheer physicality to get him through.

And he was particularly vulnerable when he fully opened up his heart, as he did on two notable occasions in the books--"On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and "Casino Royale." Neither ended well. In fact, the film version of "OHMSS," long viewed as the forgotten Bond film (since it starred one-off Bond George Lazenby) was the most faithful of all the films to the book, even including Bond's marriage (and the heart-rending ending where Bond, having found happiness for the first time, watches his wife get assassinated before his eyes.)

Thus I entered the theater with trepidation. For years, every time a Bond film would come out, we'd hear someone say in an interview "they're trying to go back to the books" or "rediscover Fleming" or "bring a new edge to the character" and so forth. We heard this from Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, and they were full of crap, and every single one of their films stank and continued the slow and painful destruction of a film icon. By the time Brosnan's run was done, I had sworn off Bond films. I simply could not stand to watch the character be put into another series of idiotic chases, explosions and stunts while having no emotional core to drive the plots. Fleming knew that the plots had to be fantastical but also believable, something the filmmakers long forgot.

Well, folks, I am very very pleased right about now. They finally GOT IT RIGHT.

"Casino Royale" is, to my mind, a textbook example of how to handle a tricky adaptation. The original book was not very cinematic. It was simply a long chemin de fer (a French card game--not poker, as in the movie) game, with a few attempts on Bond's life; but at its core was Bond's romance with Vesper Lynd. Here Bond for the first, but not the last time, dropped his guard and lived to regret it. A few years back I consulted on a fairly literal adaption of the book which a fellow had written on spec. While that version was lovingly faithful to the novel, it also made clear just how poorly a literal adaptation would work on screen. Concessions needed to be made to accepted movie structure, but also to the expectations audiences have developed of the cinematic Bond character.

This version of "Casino Royale" handles the adaptation masterfully. While much of the story is invented out of whole cloth, several key setpieces and plot events are true to the 1952 novel that launched the whole Bond franchise. Astonishingly, the torture scene--which I had thought to be very problematic to put on film--along with much of the third act of the book, was retained with incredible fidelity to the source material. Bond is put through the wringer here, folks. This is what makes him who he is. And we finally get to see it -- the way Fleming intended.

Most importantly, the character of Bond is faithful to the book, and in fact to the way Fleming further fleshed out the character in later novels. As I watched Craig breathe life into this new, reborn cinematic Bond, I almost cried out with excitement, because here, for the very first time--even moreso than Connery's version--this cinematic Bond finally is now the same man as the literary Bond. Best of all, this Bond actually arcs, like all good cinematic heroes do. We see WHY he became Bond. All the pieces of the puzzle finally fall into place for the cinematic Bond. And that, friends, is a glorious thing.

Blond hair? Hey, you know what? Having seen the movie, I am jumping off the haters' bandwagon. Just call me Blond... James Blond.

--Jim Cirile

Friday, November 10, 2006

Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Screenwriters

I have a 6-year-old daughter. She’s the light of my life, of course; cute and fun and smart and a total daddy’s girl, as all proper 6-year-olds should be ;)

And so one of the things we have been trying to do is find an area of interest for Alexandra that she really sparks to and wants to pursue. Indeed, we’ve tried all the usual activities that one does for kids—piano, soccer, art, karate, ballet, gymnastics, baseball, etc. And yet none of that has really taken. What generally happens is that she loses interest after about six months and would rather simply stay home and play, either with daddy or just by herself.

Of course, staying home and playing has all those other things beat, because one gets to create one’s own worlds. Heck, this only child loves creating cities out of Lego which she populates with dozens of toys, each with a very distinct personality--from the very British and proper Lucy Moose to a family of hapless, scheming, hungry alligators, to a duo of nogoodnik Lego chickadees with outrageously huge hats who are consumed with stealing treasure (and sound just like Elmo.) Of course it helps immensely that daddy is a bit of an amateur voice artist, and thus I voice many of the characters in cartoon and muppet character voices, while Alexandra rises to the challenge and has come up with dialects for the characters she performs.

You can see where this is heading. This kid, sadly, is developing an imagination.

It also doesn’t help that she sees daddy constantly reading and writing and editing scripts, coordinating writing contests, etc. She sits with me sometimes and asks if she can man the red pen when I do script mark-ups, and I dutifully will point out missing punctuation and such that she can circle.

The other day she came up to me and said, “Daddy, can we write a script and make a movie?”

My heart sank.

Okay, okay. You’re thinking I’m nuts, right? Why wouldn’t I want my daughter to be interested in moviemaking? After all, I’m in it every day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share all this with her—seeing as I do anyway? Well, of course. But here’s the thing. Parents try to protect their children. And the thing that I most want to protect her from is the “life” of a screenwriter.

I’ve always viewed the screenwriter’s existence as long periods of rejection punctuated by occasional flashes of false hope. I also always say in Hollywood, any deal that is absolutely, 100% a sure thing, is at best a remote possibility. You can quote me on both ;) Seriously, I moved out to Los Angeles 15 years ago to pursue screenwriting. In that time, I have had years where I made a lot of money, but plenty of years in which I did not make a dime from writing. I’ve been involved in quite a few projects which slowly and painfully fizzled—as have many of you, I’m sure. There have been periods of intense and painful introspection, wondering if I should not have chosen a civil service job with a frickin’ pension. Of course, you forget about all that when you get a little success. But looking back on 15 years, when I think, Good lord, if I was a cop, I’d be 5 years away from being able to retire with half pension—jeez, it is withering.

Superagent Emile Gladstone once told me that the life expectancy of the average working writer in Hollywood is five years. Think about that for a minute. That means that even after breaking in, most writers are not able to sustain it into a lifelong career. For whatever reason—ego, being unable to deliver the goods, you’re no longer flavor of the week, whatever, eventually people stop hiring you. The career lull hits, and the writer then has to try to reinvent himself. This is where the desperation often sets in, as your mortgage company generally does not understand that you’re having an off-year. This can also be very, very hard on relationships. There’s a reason why marriages last an average of 1-2 weeks in Hollywood. The savvy writer will have invested well while riding high—perhaps bought some income property or a business—that will help sustain them. But… we’re writers, and most of us don’t think that way. We just assume once the gravy train leaves the station, we’re set for life. BZZZZ. Wrong. The truth of the matter is, a very, very few working screenwriters are able to turn a deal or even three into a career.

And so all this knowledge of the realities of the screenwriter’s life weighs heavily on my mind when I look at Alexandra and witness what may be her inevitable evolution into a writer. And I think, “Uh… make a movie? Hey, how about we sign you up for scuba lessons, honey?”

Of course, when she does decide to write that screenplay, well, she’s going to have a leg up. Because daddy will do his best to make sure she avoids my many, many mistakes. She already understands that EVERY scene must have conflict. Heck, things get pretty boring at the moose house if Claude Alligator and his slavering brood don’t show up to wreck Lucy Moose’s tea party. She already understands how critical it is to self-edit your screenplay. And she sees just how exciting and satisfying it can be to create your own world and populate it with characters who do whatever you want them to. How the heck can ballet compare to that?

--Jim C.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Report from the Expo & CS Open 2006

Once again, it was another whirlwind weekend of fun and excitement. 4,000 writers descended upon the LAX Marriott & Renaissance Hotels for four days of networking, lectures, pitching, and of course, trying their luck at the CS Open.

As many of you know (since a lot of you participated!) the CS Open is the world's only live writing tournament. Every year, hundreds of writers put their writing-under-the-gun skills to the test, all vying for a chance to win that big $5,000 prize.

700 people were given 90 minutes to write an original scene, by hand, based on scene parameters I read to them. Those scenes were then evaluated by the Coverage, Ink team, with the top 10% (this year, everyone who scored a 90 or above)--moving to round 2. We also had a lot of folks trying to better their odds by enrolling in several round 1 sections--and in fact, one of our finalists watched his scores rise round by round. After writing five original scenes (and probably crippling his writing hand,) he scored that 90 and made it into round 2.

The Round 2 folks then gathered Saturday night, where they had to write yet another brand-new scene, which were then evaluated on the spot by CI. The top eleven were then notified to return to the room Sunday morning to write one last scene. CI then picked the top 3 scenes and, after running to Kinkos for copies, handed them off to staged reading expert Eddy Herch & his team of actors, who then had two hours to rehearse.

Then the real fun began--the performances. Each of the three scenes written that very morning were performed live on stage by actors at the Expo closing ceremonies. And this is where we learned just how the CS Open is really a microcosm for the filmmaking process, because in less than a day, the scene was written, edited, staged, performed, and then evaluated by an audience! And so the handwritten words on the page really came to life in the case of some of the scenes. We also witnessed firsthand how the performances of the material, moreso than the material itself, affected the way the audience voted. For example, the scene that won, Lisa Pease's excellent "Roswell That Ends Well," also had the best staging and physical comedy. The actors clumped together and entangled arms to imitate an multi-appendaged alien bartender, which had the audience rolling. But the actors' timing was also off in a few places, and that timing may have affected how well the other two scenes--Todd van Der Werff's "Where There's a Will" and Fran Ervin's "Princesses--The E! True Hollywood Story"--played.

But in the end, it was Pease who triumphed, giving a rousing, motivating speech to the crowd of 1,000 fellow writers. Like Cressandra Thibideaux, last year's winner, Pease, too, had been coming back year after year, section after section, to the CS Open. Every year she'd do a little better. Well, this year, she did 5 GRAND better. Way to go, Lisa!

After an exhausting 3-day weekend, CI folded its proverbial tent and went home to crash HARD. Did I mention just how much #$&^*!@%*#! walking we had to do, back and forth from one hotel to the other? Actually, it was just as bad at the Convention Center, but at least this year there was a BK right across the street ;) But you can bet we'll be back next year for YEAR 6, and who knows--maybe next year YOU'LL win the big bucks!

For those interested in the scene prompts, you can find them posted on Here's the round three prompt for this year. The 11 finalists had to write their own interpretation of this:

Your PROTAGONIST is a washed-up shell of what he used to be. Formerly a star in his field, he’s now reduced to working a soul-sucking menial job. But then TWO UNUSUAL COWORKERS confess a startling secret and bring him to a special place. PROTAGONIST is presented with an opportunity to regain what he once had. The only problem is, he will have to part with the one thing he most truly cares about to make it happen. Write the scene in which your protagonist wrestles with his dilemma. You may use any other characters or settings of your choosing.

As always, it was a fabulous, exhilarating time. Congratulations to our winners Lisa Pease, Fran Ervin and Todd van Der Werff!