Screenwriting Tip #766

Know the roots of your idea inside out. That includes all major films in the same vein. If you’re pitching a serial killer movie and the pitchee brings up SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, you better damn well know what they’re talking about.

Spec Script Sale: “The Samurai”

Warner Bros. acquires action-adventure spec script The Samurai from writer-director Gavin O’Connor and writer Michael J. Wilson. Via Deadline:

The action adventure is about a rogue assassin named Townes Joyce, who breaks out of a Texas jail that puts him on the run from an international manhunt.

Deal worth high six-figures.

O’Connor and Wilson are repped by CAA.

By my count, this is the 70th spec script to sell in 2011.

Only 55 spec scripts sold in 2010.

Spec script sales are up 75% year-to-date compared to 2011.

“Moneyball”: The movie that almost never was

I have been tracking the long, circuitous path from sale to theatrical release of the movie Moneyball almost since the inception of this blog, and it has been a fascinating journey to track. For my background on it, you can go to this post [July 2, 2009] and this post [June 17, 2011]. The Daily Beast has this excellent overview of a process that involved three different directors, three different writers, pulling the plug on the project a week before principal photography, reducing the budget, shifting focus, then finally making the movie.

With all that, it was easy to wonder whether the end product would be any good or not.

I’ve seen the movie and I’m happy to report it is terrific. And that seems to be the general consensus: For example on Rotten Tomatoes it is currently rated 95% [critics] / 92% [audience]. In its first 6 days of release, the movie has earned a healthy $24M and should have a good run here in the fall throughout Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series. I expect the movie will receive multiple Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, and if that happens, there’s a good chance it could hit the $100M B.O. mark.

What concerned me most was when I read several articles about the project years ago, including one in the LAT by Patrick Goldstein and each person involved in Moneyball had a different take on what the story was about:

How did this unlikely project make it to the starting gate? It all started when a woman named Rachael Horovitz decided that she needed some good books to read when she went to Tahiti in 2003 for a much-needed vacation. Having spent years working at Fine Line and Revolution, Horovitz decided to strike out on her own and become a producer. She fell in love with “Moneyball,” not so much for its inside take on baseball, but because it was such a compelling example of a workplace drama. “For me, the movie is a love story about a man and his job,” she explained the other day.

Version #1: A love story about a man and his job.

“Everyone at Sony was incredibly supportive,” Horovitz said. “Of course, they all asked the same question — how do you make a movie out of it? I kept telling everyone ‘This is a story anyone can relate to, because it’s basically a second chance story. It’s about a guy whose early failure could have doomed him to failure, but managed to turn it into a huge life lesson.’”

Version #2: It’s a second chance story.

“I personally identify with every movie I’m involved with, which I guess makes me a total narcissist,” [producer Michael DeLuca said with a laugh. “But it doesn’t take much of a stretch to see New Line as the Oakland A’s, always having to make do with less while catching a lot of crap from the establishment for the crazy, unorthodox things we did.

Version #3: A guy who does crazy, unorthodox things.

But somewhere along the line between the efforts of screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, producer and actor Brad Pitt, and direct Bennett Miller, they found a central theme of the story and stuck to it throughout. The importance of this is underscored in this interview Miller did with Anne Thompson:

Anne Thompson: Moneyball is unexpected from a studio movie. Which script did you first read?

Bennett Miller: I first read the script that was Sorkin’s first revision of Zaillian, and then I read Zaillian and then I read the book. Then I thought about if there was a movie somewhere. Then I met with Brad, and pitched him. Everybody’s gotta be making the same movie, otherwise you’re in a disaster, especially with these huge personalities. With them, Might can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you’re sharing a common goal, purpose and vision, then great, and if not, it’s the last place anybody wants to be.


AT: He [Billy Beane] didn’t go to Stanford, he wasn’t good in the batter’s box.

BM: He wanted to be a student. He was really smart. Nobody in his family had ever gone to college, and he wanted to be the first. His mother really did not want him to go [to The Mets]. She wouldn’t be in the room when he signed the contract. He was a first round draft pick! From the time he was fifteen, you’ve got adults who’ve spent their lives in baseball, they’ve seen everything, saying ,‘This is your future, this is your destiny,’ and he makes a decision based on that, and there’s a big check. Again, there’d be a big check at the end of the movie, and I thought, ‘well that’s one thing; there’s a check and a check, and a decision and a decision.’

The other thing: Michael describes Billy’s excitement when these new [sabermetric] concepts are introduced to him, as not just a way of winning, potentially, but as ideas that might explain him and his outcome, and why he might have failed. To me, he thinks he’s trying to win baseball games, but he’s really trying to remedy something in his own life.

AT: He couldn’t stand being a failure: why did all the baseball experts think he was meant to be something that despite all his gifts, he didn’t turn out to be? It didn’t work out. He didn’t trust those people.

BM: Well he wanted to prove them wrong, and that season became a kind of trial. And the outcome would be some kind of verdict that would have something to say about who he was. He’s trying to remedy something from his past and he wanted to put the game on its head, and there’s a little hostility in it.

AT: He was competitive.

BM: Extremely competitive. When I read it, I saw it as a really small story, in a way it used to be OK to make a small story, like a Cuckoo’s Nest, where it’s like, nobody knows about these people. But this is bigger in scale.

Central theme: A story about a guy trying to succeed where he once had failed. There are all sorts of sub-themes tied to that and layers of meaning, but there’s not a scene in the movie where the Protagonist’s shadow of his past doesn’t loom over his moods and his actions, an ongoing battle to defeat those inner ‘demons’

I don’t want to spoil the movie’s plot for you, so I’ll leave it at that, but I do want to note this bit of business from the Miller interview:

AT: The screenplay, how much was Zaillian, how much Sorkin?

BM: Both of these guys came on and off it. It went Sorkin, Zaillian, Sorkin, Zaillian—it was a little bit of back and forth.

AT: Well you’re working with two of the best screenwriters we know. What were the strengths of each one?

BM:A guy could do worse! Zaillian had a heavier, earthier, more internal, brooding, darker perspective. And Sorkin is masterful at comedic haiku that communicates volumes in a moment, in a beat, that he could take a scene that’s written and he could reduce it and put a line in and make it function in a different way. But ultimately what we’re talking about is a character, the public and private self, like Capote. These guys wrote appropriately to different sides of him. Zaillian wrote more to the internal, beneath the surface, and Sorkin managed to write very effectively for the more public, charismatic side of Billy.

I find this interesting as it speaks to that basic idea I have talked about here on this blog and in my teaching for years: The External World and Internal World, how there is never a moment in a script [or should not be] where things aren’t happening in both, never a moment with a character where their dialogue doesn’t have some shade of subtext or their actions don’t have some layers of unseen motivation or meaning. To have two of the most renowned screenwriters working on one project, where each is more focused on either the External or Internal Worlds… sounds like one helluva interesting process.

And you know what? That richness of character really comes through with Beane’s character, a winning combination of what the screenwriters wrote, Pitt acted, and Miller directed.

For further background, here is an interview with the author of the book “Moneyball” — Michael Lewis who himself is now doing some screenwriting.

UPDATE: Another interview (The Wrap) with Bennett Miller. Here’s an interesting take:

In other words, you didn’t see it as a baseball movie.

It’s really the classic, universal, timeless story: the search for wisdom. It’s “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s King Arthur. You’re misplaced from home, from the life you’re supposed to be living. There’s disharmony, and you can find yourself facing some impossible adventure or task with the understanding that if you do this, order will be restored and you’ll be returned.

Disunity to Unity, almost always the spine of the metamorphosis journey.

“6 Things the Film Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know About”

From Film School Rejects:

You may already be a film industry cynic. Maybe you think Hollywood is a barren wasteland, devoid of creativity and originality. Maybe you’re sick of seeing talented people get ignored and vapid hacks get splashed all over the trades. Maybe you’re tired of 3D everything and having to re-buy your movies every five to ten years.

I’m not here to dissuade you of any of that. Hell no, I’m here to make it worse. Get ready, because this is some of the rottenest shit of which the film industry is capable. These are the things so terrible that Hollywood has to cover them up, lest God see their sin and smite them accordingly (and keep various government entities and lawyers off their backs, of course). If you still had any kind thoughts toward Hollywood, I suggest you prepare yourself for crushing disappointment.

Topping the list is Tricky Hollywood Accounting:

Here’s a basic example of Hollywood Accounting: A studio makes a movie. The studio distributes the movie itself, and although the distributor is technically a separate company, they both belong to the same parent company. Also, the distribution arm sets whatever fees it wants. If they want to charge themselves eleventy quintillion dollars for distribution, they totally can. Then, even if the film earns billions of dollars in box office receipts, they’re still technically in debt (to themselves) and thus haven’t turned a profit.

Sound ridiculous? It happens all the freaking time. David Prowse, the guy who was in the Darth Vader costume in the original trilogy of Star Wars (before being ousted by that douche Hayden Christensen in the special edition) has never been paid for Return of the Jedi because it hasn’t turned a profit after nearly 30 years. That’s after dozens of home video and theatrical re-releases. (All the merchandising money goes to Lucas directly, of course.)

Similarly, someone leaked Warner Bros.’ accounting sheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix onto the internet, showing that the film that had grossed about $1 billion worldwide had lost $167 million on paper.

Winston Groom, the writer of Forrest Gump was told that the film based on his work wasn’t profitable. Of course, he got the last laugh when they came to him asking if they could turn the sequel, Gump and Co. into a film as well, and he reportedly told them, ”I cannot, in good conscience, allow money to be wasted on a failure.” In other words, “Go fuck yourself.”

And then there’s Art Buchwald, whose spec script got stolen by Paramount (remember that, it’s going to come up later), and got turned into Coming to America. When he took them to court and sued for a percentage of the profit, Paramount was totally cool with it, because according to their books, it hadn’t made any kind of profit, so they didn’t owe him one red fucking cent. The judge later ruled that it was “unconscionable” for Paramount not to pay Buchwald something in a settlement. Otherwise, he’d have to ask Paramount to open their books for the courts to review. Paramount quickly backed down and settled with Buchwald instead.

And the others:

5. Extorting Theaters

4. Fake Reviews

3. Copyright Bullshit

2. Strangling Consumer Choice

And the number 1 item on the list? You’ll have to check it out here.