March 29, 2012

New Series: "Scrapt Writing"

I enjoy reading screenplays for movies I’ve already seen. First off, I mostly read scripts for stories I particularly enjoy, expecting to learn from the writer. So when I’m laboring over my own script, it helps to see a scene with complex staging on the page, to see what is or isn’t described. Or how great lines read on the page. How action reads on the page. But the most interesting parts of produced screenplays are the differences.

Few films exactly follow their screenplays. Woody Allen, for both
Hannah and Her Sisters and Match Point, is the closest I’ve seen. He notoriously demands line-to-line precision from his actors, but even Annie Hall departs from his script. And not just in the lines. The script had an assortment of comedic scenes that, I believe, were scrapped to fashion and emphasize a love story. In 9 of 10 scripts, scenes are cut or rearranged. Endings change. Dialogue always changes. Characters do completely different things on screen.


Perhaps scenes are cut for pacing or because they feel redundant. Or maybe the writer and director weren’t on the same page. Maybe an actor thinks up a better action to enhance a character’s arc. Or maybe he fears being perceived in a negative light and demands a change. The “why’s” are often explained on DVD commentaries or in Hollywood gossip books. But as an aspiring screenwriter, it’s both interesting and educational to speculate on why the filmmakers decided on these changes.

I’m not sure if this will be a weekly or bi-weekly thing, but “Scrapt Writing” will analyze scripts with pronounced changes on film. Each script will come from a known movie. Scripts for films like Apocalypse Now or The Thin Red Line will not be analyzed. I love these films, but the exercise is pointless for scripts that really only serve as a blueprint, scripts with little in the final product.

First up...Inglourious Basterds

March 9, 2012

Adapting The Hunger Games

On the surface, Hunger Games shouldn’t be difficult to adapt. It’s a well-plotted story that easily falls into three acts. The protagonist, Katniss, has a clear objective with consequences, facing hurdles and moral dilemmas to keep her from her goal. What’s more, dystopian stories are filmic, as would-be obligatory shots provide detail and texture to foreign lands. Plus, it’s a blood sport.

The story really hits its stride during the Games. The opening charge to the Cornucopia, the fireballs, the wasp nest, and others will make great action scenes. But you can get action anywhere. It’s most engaging in tracing her logic through each hurdle, watching her make firm choices, knowing what a misstep could yield. Like when she hesitates to saw through a branch, waiting for the anthem to dull the noise. Or when she figures out a way to communicate with Haymitch. Yeah, she’s great with a bow and arrow, but she’s a great character for her calculations.

And that’s the biggest challenge in this adaptation: how do you film a thought process?

Answer 1.) You can’t, don’t try.
Right, she can be badass with a bow and a crush. This isn’t Shakespeare. Just make it an action movie. Why overcomplicate things?

You shouldn’t, unless you have a great character. Katniss is a great character. It's worth a try.

2.) A friend.
She can be less solitary and has someone to talk to, someone to present a good idea, only to be rebuffed by her intelligence. Perhaps Rue enters closer to the start of the Games?

The thing is, much of Katniss’ internal monologue is devoted to outsmarting the audience for sponsorship. Even in rare instances she has the chance to speak her dialogue is subverting; we know because her thoughts provide the context. The story’s convention prohibits her cunning from being verbalized. That won’t work.

3.) Voice Over.
Narration isn’t necessarily sloppy, nor will it weaken a character if it’s well-written (Sin City). The key to voice over is consistency, be it every ten minutes in Shawshank, the beginning and end of Annie Hall, or throughout Goodfellas. Here, it’s only needed in the middle. Story elements would need to be changed to prevent it from being clunky. Still, it’s an option.

4.) Haymitch.
He’s strong in the novel, but omnipresent during the games. Katniss knows he watches over her with good intentions and uses that to her advantage. In the movie, Haymitch could be more in the frame. It could play like this:

Katniss falls to the ground, pleading for water, and then we cut to Haymitch shaking his head; we cut back to her, confused, then back to him saying, “C’mon…”; then, we see a realization on her face; she springs up, moves forward and finds a lake; then we cut back to him, a proud mentor.

In that sense, he’s the narrator. Like Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer
, translating for us what an eight-year-old chess prodigy is really doing with his moves. Haymitch could be a post we lean on without taking any credit away from Katniss.

Haymitch doesn’t need to be restricted to that role. He can even have his own subplot, something to cut away to during lulls in action. After all, he, not unlike Katniss, is underappreciated with something to prove.

I vote 4. (I'm mainly lobbying for more Woody Harrelson...not really)

Even if the filmmakers go another direction, I expect Haymitch to be more present in the film. I actually expect all major characters NOT in the Games to have a stronger presence.

Because the next issue is that the action and tension decrease in the second half of the Games. It works fine on paper but won’t translate on screen, no matter how much chemistry the leads have. The obvious solution is to write more action scenes, which will happen.

But losing the novel’s first-person perspective allows the possibility of subplots. The most important non-tribute characters are Katniss’ father, mother, and sister, Gale, and Haymitch. Each serves an important function while existing (for the most part) in her head. We can get flashbacks of Katniss learning to hunt with her father (which are sort of in the novel anyway). Perhaps after Katniss is taken away, her mother breaks down again, only to regain her strength when she becomes a contender (thus increasing the stakes). Katniss wonders when she kisses Peeta what Gale is thinking. Now we can see his reaction.

I write that having not read the second or third installments. Perhaps the integrity of the trilogy demands certain things remain off screen. Fair enough.

Still, the filmmakers had options. Gary Ross is a talented filmmaker who has penned some great scripts (Big
, Dave, and Pleasantville being my favorites). He recruited the author (and fellow NYU Dramatic Writing alum) Suzanne Collins for the screenplay. It’s an asset, provided she was willing to kill her babies (given the subject matter, that shouldn’t be a problem).

A few other thoughts on the adaptation:

- The novel did a poor job establishing the populations of the districts. The film should clear this up rather easily.

- The irony of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship is a credit to the author. Katniss starts out questioning his
motives which prove genuine, but her actions end up being more calculated and therefore less genuine... and she doesn’t even realize it. Bravo! I hope it’s as well done in the film.

- The more she gets in touch with her feelings, the more human she becomes, the more it weakens her. They could throw more threats at her to strengthen the theme especially since, again, the second half needs action.

- The antagonism will need more of a face. Cato seems the likely candidate. Part of me wonders if they’ll change his sidekick? Foxface was one of the more interesting tributes though barely explored.

- Lenny Kravitz?

SPOILERS... (more than before, anyway)

- There’s really only one big problem I had with the novel: Katniss is let off the hook too easily. I felt that her biggest moral dilemma would be to kill one of her friends. Two are killed by other tributes. Fine. But when the voice of the Games announced that two tributes from the same district could win - that Katniss and Peeta are in effect on the same team – I rolled my eyes.

Yeah, OK, the logic holds up: the star-crossed lover story entertained the Capitol, and District 2 also had both tributes remaining. But the machinery is too apparent. Collins doesn’t start the Games with that stipulation because at that point we’re still questioning Peeta’s motives; we wouldn’t have to with he and Katniss on the same team. After he saves her and the tension is alleviated, she knows the amendment won’t spoil the tension.

Perhaps the filmmakers won’t find Peeta’s ambiguity that important. They really should, given the twist previously mentioned. No, Katniss shouldn’t slaughter Rue. I don’t know the right choice. I’m also not being paid millions to figure it out.

- Oh, one other problem: the character names. They don’t read well, God knows how they’ll sound coming from a tween. A quick IMDB search shows that the names will remain.

Damn it.

Maybe post-introduction, the leads will be referred to as Lover Boy and Girl on Fire? (I almost typed ‘Flaming Girl’ but it’s probably not the effect the filmmakers are looking for.)

March 6, 2012

FINISHED: My Occupation on Wall Street

This should have happened a year ago. Probably even sooner. How many other screenwriting grads work on Wall Street? Maybe more than I think. I mean, when student loan debt meets weak job prospects, something’s gotta give. At least that’s what I told myself when I took the job. But even after paying off my loans, I stayed on. “To survive a weak economy”; “to build up capital”; “to fund a move to Las Angeles”... It was a tired script.

The truth is, I worked on Wall Street for the same reason anyone works on Wall Street: it’s safe.

The life of an average financier is not difficult to plot. It usually starts at a decent state school and a summer internship in Manhattan. They move to the city after graduation, Upper East Side or Murray Hill. They rake in 60-90K (before bonus) through their mid-twenties, extending the party-school lifestyle to midtown. That is, until meeting someone “cool”... not someone they love, just someone moderately attractive and ready to settle down. They marry and relocate to the suburbs, commuting daily for a low/mid-six paycheck. Portfolio managers make headlines, but this is Wall Street.

Michael Lewis observed in Liar’s Poker, "Never before have so many unskilled 24-year-olds made so much money in so little time." That was 1989, before the MIT geeks at Long-Term Capital Management gave skilled mathematicians a permanent seat at the table (never mind that the firm failed in 1998). In 1960, a top MIT grad would have worked for NASA. Today, it’s Goldman Sachs. If back-office minions start at high five-figure salaries, a top mind from MIT will pull in anywhere from a quarter- to half-a-mil. NASA can’t compete with that. That cash isn’t in cancer research. Being an entrepreneur? You only live once. Where’s the sure income? The incentive?

An industry designed to profit on the ingenuity and creativity of others can rarely foster its own. And it steers the best and brightest away from industries with greater societal benefits.

I discussed this with a former coworker. I try to simplify it: the guy who runs and operates the best pizza joint in New York (DiFara’s) makes 300K tops; my boss, a very average MD, makes close to a mil. How is that fair? My former coworker argues you can’t just look at dollars and cents. The owner of DiFara’s could expand his store and/or franchise. Income clearly isn’t his biggest priority.

And then there’s bossman. Let me start by saying that he’s one of the more intelligent people I know. He sees through the bullshit and has a good worldview. But the guy drinks. He works four-day weeks, Fridays spent in bars. Even though he admits he’s overpaid, his sole day-to-day motivation is maintaining his lifestyle. He claims he lost his passion.

I wonder if the owner of DiFara’s would still lead a richer life if he quantified it like a financier. I wonder if I resent my boss for wasting his talents with booze. Or is that what I’ve been doing the past four years.

That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate what the job offered. Aside from clearing student loan debt, it enabled me to produce a film. Not just in contributing and raising equity, but in creating and managing an LLC. I learned some invaluable tax skills, which sound boring but are insanely practical. I mastered Excel – which is boring and impractical, but, y’know, it gave me a sense of satisfaction. I ran the NYC Marathon for a partner’s charity, and it helped fulfill my 2012 New Year's resolution.

I understand the role of finance in society. More than hedge funders benefit from it: small businesses, bars, entrepreneurs... I couldn’t have gone to NYU without loans from a bank. Finance can cultivate good ideas, support talent, and stimulate growth. But it’s failing at that task right now, and sucking up resources.
Everyone’s pissed about it... but no one knows what to do. Not my former coworker, my boss, or the Occupy movement.

I wonder if financiers need to be braver on a personal level. In addition to my prior Wall Street stereotypes, almost all financiers at one point had non-finance aspirations. Doctors, vets, journalists. I trained for the marathon with a portfolio manager who lived in Jersey with his wife and kid; he also rented an apartment in midtown where he’d play squash. A pretty envious lifestyle. But he wished he’d done something that was meaningful. He said after saving a few paychecks, he wouldn’t mind teaching high school and coaching cross country.

But after getting accustomed to a high finance lifestyle, having such a realization at 37 is less realistic than a pipe dream at 20. Luckily, I learned finance wasn’t for me relatively early.

In September 2008, coworkers and I huddled around the Bloomberg watching the market collapse in real time. About a month earlier, I was approached by an exec about the firm possibly paying for me to get my MBA. It was an interesting proposition. But as we stood there watching the world collapse, my mind wasn’t on business school.

I got a text from my father. My brother scored a touchdown in freshman football, his first ever. I decided to fly back to Ohio for a rare Saturday game. He only had a carry for ten yards, but he played a great game. 500 miles east, a bunch of things you can’t eat, chew, or even hold in your hands were losing value. But that sunny afternoon, the world wasn’t collapsing. I knew finance wasn’t for me.

Nothing is guaranteed. Not an MBA salary, or the idea that such a salary would make me happy. A pretty wife and a Manhattan townhouse sound nice, but not rationalizing my life on a daily basis. I’ve had to do that for four years. The time wasn’t all bad. I made good friends, we had some good times. It was my first post-collegiate job.

But it’s time to do what I love. For the first time in my life, I have money. I’m grateful for the current flexibility. But I know that my journey - and those who dream to open a restaurant or to be the next Steve Jobs - would be less difficult if the wealth of a nation were funneled to more than one street.