The Craft & Trade: December 2006 Archives
a little smaller…Writing is freedom, or so say people who don’t write. We who ply the live action screen trade are all-too-familiar with the concept of restraint. Our limitation is that annoying little aspect of life known as “reality”. I used to think the choke collar of reality would tug the hardest when I was trying to dream big.
Hah. Totally wrong.
Reality’s endless jabbing annoys the most when I haven’t been dreaming at all.
Case in point: you cannot walk into an office building.
Try having a character “walk into an office building”. That’s fine for now. It’s fine ten drafts from now. But if you’ve done your job well and the stars align, you’ll find yourself sitting across a table from the 1st Assistant Director in the production offices of the film of your movie, and he’s going to ask you what the hell you mean.
“Now, are we talking skyscraper, suburban office complex, three-office law firm type thing, is it nice, run-down, art on the walls, cheeseball, full of doctors or large businesses or crappy accountants, does it have marble on the floors, receptionist, elevator or walk-up, is it imposing, diminished, old, new, light, dark, clean, dusty, crowded, empty…”
And no matter what you end up answering, the first answer in your head…the real answer is…”Umm, I don’t know.”
Gentlemen and women, the rubber has hit the road. Welcome to production.
While it’s true that all the niggling questions of production will ultimately be determined by the director, that doesn’t mean we can’t help guide the director and the production as they create the world of the film.
No, I’m not suggesting that we write all of this stuff into a script. That would be awful. What I am suggesting is that before you find yourself face to face with the 1st A.D. (the person who’s really the field marshal of the shooting set), you prepare yourself with the answers.
There are lots of ways that we screenwriters can find ourselves disappointed with the rendering of our stories. One of the most common is the “that’s not how I imagined it!” syndrome. Oh? And how did you imagine it?
If you imagined it specifically, and by “specifically” I mean that you could have supplied the 1st A.D. or the producer or the director with a document describing in detail your imagined locations, costumes, hair styles, car makes, and all the other tiny flecks of color in your neural painting…then yeah, you get to be disappointed.
If you didn’t, then one of two things is true. Either you knew everything but decided not to speak up, in which case…your fault. Or, as is more often the case, you hadn’t really thought it through.
I am obsessive about “watching” my scenes before I write them. That’s how I’m able to prattle at length when the 1st A.D. asks me for those details. Still, he catches me every now and then, and I’m forced to say something like, “Dammit.”
It’s a scary “dammit”, by the way. It’s like someone asking me where I was yesterday, and there’s a two-hour period I can’t account for. We’re supposed to know our stories inside and out.
The point is not that we must do this to prepare for production. We must do this because it’s what makes a screenplay worth producing. No one will make a movie that seems like it could be shot anywhere with anyone wearing anything. The more you know about your world, the more it affects the story you set in that world. Do yourselves a favor. Go through your scripts like they were someone else’s, and your job was to actually go and shoot it. The only information you have is what’s on the page.
Make a list of questions.
And when it’s your time to sit down across the 1st A.D., make me proud, wouldja?
That inspired me to share a similar “glossary of terms” developed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. I do a lot of work with David these days, and I can vouch for the usefulness of the list. Finding a shorthand (especially in comedy) is a very important part of the self-critical process. Sometimes it seems like we spend all day trying to explain to each other why we’re wrong. A list of established terms helps codify those reasons and legitimize the critique.
The following list (copyright David Zucker, reprinted here with permission) is intended for feature comedy writing. Any of you drama guys have something like this?
Shoe Leather: The physical traveling or action of a character in a scene. If not in direct service of a joke, it’s superfluous.
Drive-By: A joke that appears briefly and then out, as opposed to filling up an entire page or two.
Bric-A-Brac: Jokes not intrinsic to a plot or scene that only serve to detract from the point the scene is trying to make.
Gilding the Lily: Taking a joke so far that it’s no longer funny.
Hair Under the Wings: A joke that compromises the integrity of the plot. A joke proposed for AIRPLANE! involved a shot of Ted Striker’s plane taking off with hair under its wings. Funny, but not good for the audience’s investment in the reality of the story.
Ya-ta-ta-ta-ta-da: A joke so hokey it needs washboard and kazoo music.
Knocking Down the Posts: It’s not enough to set up a parody, you have to do the jokes. In AIRPLANE!, mere recognition that the girl chasing the plane was a spoof of a particular movie was not in itself funny. The laughs came only when she began Knocking Down the Posts.
Floocher Dialogue: Filler lines recited by foreground characters to enable the audience to focus on a background joke.
But, I Wanna Tell Ya: An extra beat of Floocher Dialogue added to a punchline to make it less of a swing, or to help the audience hear the next line.
Ba Dum Bump: Obvious sitcom-style punchline.
Transplant and Whack: The joke is the organ we save. Transplant it to a scene that can live and whack the rest.
Blow: A joke funny enough to end a scene.
EAT: A setup so obvious that it might as well have one of those restaurant neon signs with the blinking arrow pointing right at it.
Cumulative Effect: Too much of one thing is never a good thing. One sex joke may be funny, but too many and it’s diminishing returns.
Manic Dumb Show: Slapstick for the sake of slapstick, but without character/plot motivation or wit.
People Talking in Rooms: The concept that witty dialogue in confined spaces can often times be as effective as huge comedy action scenes.
Turn the Play Inside: Use existing characters in all possible instances instead of creating new parts and endless residuals.
Off Message: A line or scene that steers the movie off its main plotline.
W.P.A.: Scenes so extraneous to plot that they merely serve to fill up pages. Like those old FDR New Deal programs, they’re strictly “make-work”.
Eating Your Young: On second draft and beyond, cutting one’s own jokes or scenes that only seem unfunny because of repetition.
Dynamite Plunger (hand signal): At the end of the movie, you can get away with things that you couldn’t in the body of the movie. With only moments until credits roll, it’s often okay to blow the bridge, getting broader and sillier with characters previously grounded in a lot more reality.
Schmuck Bait: A twist ending that makes the audience feel cheated, such as the old “It-Was-All-A-Dream”.
Bridge Too Far: Taking a joke to its illogical conclusion.
Cheese Factor: W.C. Fields once said, “If you’re going to smash a car, make sure it’s a beat up car. If you’re going to stomp on a man’s hat, make sure it’s a tattered one.” Thus, in “Scary Movie 3,” the best aliens were the cheap ones (Ed. note: semi-robotic aliens were used for initial scenes, but time and budget constraints forced us to use crappy Dr. Who-quality aliens for reshoots. The resulting aliens were absurd, flimsy, obviously fake…and much much funnier.).
Black Hole: Some actors just aren’t well disposed to be funny. Often producers think they’ve scored with two A-list actors but are surprised when the result is “Ishtar.”
Broken Field Running: Saving a scene by improvising fixes on the set.
Outlet Pass (to avoid a #33): An alternate shot, usually in a master, with no attempt at a joke.
The Extra’s Socks: A small detail obsessed over by the director, diverting his attention from a real problem.
Apollo 13: Saving a scene without reshooting through the ingenious use of loop lines, outtakes, footage before “Action” or after “Cut,” reversing film, inserts, etc. Anything to avoid a reshoot.
Dailies Laugh: Hilarious in dailies, crickets at a preview.
Cutting Out the Cancer: Eliminating dud jokes or superfluous story. The most pressing task after a first preview with Angry Villagers.
Flywheel Theory: Keeping the audience laughing is a lot easier than starting them back up from scratch.
Swing & A Miss: An obvious attempt at a joke that doesn’t work. It is essential to get enough coverage so that every joke attempt connects. Also avoided by shooting an outlet pass.
Angry Villagers: The reaction at a first preview when a succession of jokes doesn’t work. The lost momentum inevitably results in the audience turning against the movie, conjuring up the “Frankenstein” image of a mob carrying torches and pitchforks.
The Director’s Rail: At the old Sherman Oaks Galleria - the third floor balcony rail outside the multiplex. After a first preview, most directors want to vault over it.
Sonny on the Causeway: Thinking a joke is a sure-fire winner, then getting ambushed by the silent audience reaction.
Filling up Compartments: Each bad joke, like a torpedo hit, fills a compartment. Too many in a row sinks the ship.
Hail Mary: Usually after the last preview (no time left on the clock), an ADR or an edit thrown in as a last ditch effort to make a joke work. The risk being, of course, a Swing & A Miss.
The Lion: Telegraphing a joke. In NAKED GUN 2 1/2, a lion attacking Robert Goulet didn’t get a laugh until a third preview Hail Mary, in which the set-up was eliminated.
Going Through the Guard Rail: Any outrageous comment, joke, or statement in the writing room that results in absolute silence and appalled looks.
Calling in an Air Strike (On Your Own Position): Saying or doing something self-defeating.
Dancing Around The Calf: Rejoicing over some idea or concept that seems great at the time. Dancing typically continues until a wiser voice arrives to point out how stupid the idea or concept actually is.
The Colonel…a dying breed?A week or so ago, I received an email from a manager named Rick Siegel, who is a principle at a management firm called Marathon Entertainment. He has a message he wants to get out to writers, and he thought I’d be a good place to start.
His message? Managers are in danger of extinction.
Before I begin editorializing, let’s answer the oft-repeated question: what’s the difference between an agent and a manager?
The simple answer is that agents are representatives licensed by the State to procure work for their clients. Managers are representatives who aren’t licensed by the State and can’t procure work.
So what do managers do?
Well, in the strictest sense, they’re supposed to, um, manage, your day to day affairs. Agents get you the job. Managers can deal with your ongoing needs in relation to the job. Agents get you that writing assignment on location, and managers make sure your hotel room is waiting, your schedule is accurate and up to date, etc. Other managers are less hand-holders and more partners. They may produce your work and advise on creative issues.
Of course, there are many managers who don’t operate like that at all. They act as agents. They do procure work and they do negotiate deals.
One of those managers is Rick Siegel.
It appears to be illegal.
There’s a statute on the books in California called the Talent Agency Act. It says, among other things, that only licensed talent agents can procure work for clients. They can only charge 10%. They cannot produce or otherwise “own” their clients’ material. They must be bonded and insured.
Oh, and if anyone else tries to do what an agent does without getting a license, then they have a wee bit of a problem.
Their client can file a complaint with the State Labor Commission. If the Commissioner finds that an unlicensed individual has done the job of an agent, then any contract between the unlicensed individual and their client, written or verbal, is considered null and void ab initio. That means the contract isn’t just null from the verdict forward, but it’s considered retroactively null and void, and the unlicensed individual can be compelled to disgorge commissions they received from up to one year prior to the date of the complaint.
What’s this all mean? Well, according to Rick, we’ve got a situation where lots of managers are doing the job of “agent” for their clients, but if their clients decide they don’t feel like forking over big commissions once they get a job, they can tattle to the Labor Commission and get out of paying the bill.
Rick is right. That is pretty much the way the law is written. Rick is also fighting this. He sued Nia Vardalos over commissions, but as that was settled out of court, I can’t really tell you how it turned out. More interesting is his case against Rosa Blasi, an actress who fired Rick, then went to the Labor Commission and argued that he had been acting illegally as an agent for her. She asked the Commissioner to negate her contract ab initio, and he did.
Rick also lost a parallel lawsuit against Blasi, but he appealed…and here’s where things get interesting.
From what I’ve read about the Blasi case, it appears that the appellate judges ruled that if a manager is found to be illegally acting as an agent, he’s on the hook to fork over commissions on the deals in which he acted illegally, but not on the hook for the commissions on the deals in which he didn’t illegally do the job of “agent.”
The case has headed back to court. I don’t know where it’s going, but I do know this: the WGAw is filing an amicus brief on behalf of Blasi and against Siegel. Rick suggested that I should be against this filing.
I respectfully told him that I was not against it. I’m for it.
The entire point of the Talent Agency Act is that representation of artists needs to be paired with accountability to the law. Just as lawyers can’t argue cases without being admitted to the bar and doctors can’t prescribe medicine without a medical license, talent agents need to be regulated. The reason is simple. There is an enormous potential for abuse.
In that regard, think of managers as “builders” instead of “licensed contractors.”
Some of the abuse comes in the form of punitive commissions. It’s not uncommon for managers to get 15% of their clients’ gross earnings. That’s ridiculous.
Some of the abuse comes in the form of conflict of interest. Many managers produce their clients’ projects (I’ve been one of those clients). At that point, who are they most interested in representing: their client, or the studio paying their producing fee?
Don’t get me wrong. There are decent managers out there. Excellent managers. Honest managers. On the other hand, they are unaccountable to the law…with one exception.
The Talent Agency Act…the very act that Rick believes ought to be amended to exclude “managers” from its provisions (as if anyone and everyone couldn’t just dub themselves “manager” and thus avoid the burden of law). I think that if Rick wants to do the job of an agent, he should just drop this “manager” thing and become an agent. If he doesn’t want to be an agent, that’s fine, but then he shouldn’t expect to flout the law with impunity.
Rick also believes the Talent Agency Act is being enforced unconstitutionally, which I also disagree with, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax.
I grant that there is something disconcerting about a manager having to fork over commissions that were honestly earned because other commissions weren’t honestly earned, but I’d rather the law be tough than understanding.
So, where do I agree with Rick?
He believes that if the current trends continue, managing will no longer be a viable pursuit. The economic risk of providing a service to someone who can get out of paying for it easily and legally is simply too great.
I agree. I think a lot of managers are eventually going to go the way of the dodo. Some will always stay, but the heyday of the manager is probably drawing to a close.
Rick believes this is bad for writers. He thinks double representation is a good thing.
I’m not so sure. I had double representation for a long time. In the end, I don’t think the cost-benefit analysis worked out in my favor. I just have an agent now. That method has worked for writers for decades.
No reason it can’t work for decades more.
If you have a manager or wish to have one, don’t think that I’m discouraging you. I’m not. Do know your rights, though. The deck may be stacked against us in a lot of ways, but this is one part of the business where we really do hold the aces.