Category Archives: my scripts

I start writing screenplays (Part I)

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I first started developing screenplay scripts for my “Do Ask, Do Tell” material in 2002 while still in Minneapolis, shortly after my “career change” had started with “The Layoff”.  I often attended a screenwriting seminar in a local college building on Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis, where we did table readings for some of our materials.  Some scripts got selected for formal table readings, as at the Jungle Theater near Lyndale and Lake St., or sometimes in one of the theater auditoriums in Block E on Marquette.

I did get one “film” shown at the Flaming Film Festival in May, 2002, shot on a Sony Camcorder.  It was called “Air Raid” or, alternatively, “Bill’s Clips”, and runs about six minutes.  The simplest way to present the films is to give the first link, here   all the way through “airraid4.mpg” and also “plane2.mpg”.  The idea is that someone is walking on the streets near the University of Minnesota campus when an apparent enemy attack starts.  Post 9/11, it was pretty effective.  The festival was sponsored by Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis (on Lyndale)

Once I came back to Arlington VA, I took at least two adult education classes in screenwriting offered by the public school system (small tuition), taught by Carolyn Perry.  I started renting films from Netflix, and the very first film I watched this way was “In Praise of Love” (“Eloge de l’amour”, 2001), a New Wave film in two parts by Jean-Luc Godard. It’s interesting because of its birfurcated, two-part structure, black-and-white and then color, the second part occurring before the first (as opposed to “beginning, middle and end” in conventional screenplays). The film is meta-styled and layered, about an author’s making a film about several couples, including a particular person with connections to the past connections to the resistance in Vichy France.  It seems scattered rather than tightly focused, and that’s an idea that comes back in my own work.

I’ll add that on a cold Saturday in early 2002, I tried out for a part in the short film “The Retreat“, by Darin Heinis, in which some allied soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge encounter ghosts of Germans, and other supernatural artifacts.  I almost got a part of one of the Nazi ghosts.  I’m not sure what to make of that.  I would eventually see the film at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis at an IFPMSP monthly screening party.

This train of thought, regarding my scripts, will continued soon.

Published: Sunday, March 2, 2014 PM 4:50 PM

 

“Project Greenlight” (Miramax and LivePlanet) sponsored three screenwriting contests a few years ago; my 2004 entry was “Baltimore Is Missing”

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In 2002, while still living in Minneapolis but after my “career-ending” layoff, I took part in a screenwriting contest called “Project Greenlight”.

The contest was sponsored by Miramax Pictures (before the breakoff from The Weinstein Company) and Live Planet, with the help of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore.

There were actually two contests, a writing contest and a director’s contest.  The writer’s contest consisted of a standard-formatted screenplay, which had to be written in either Screenwriter or Final Draft and submitted as a PDF, with a limit of 120 pages (about two hours).  The directors’ assignment was to make an 8-10 minute video that used a particular prop and specific script line.

I entered only to judge the screenplays.  Typically, the system would assign a screenplay randomly (or you could choose from a few titles). To rate the play (and give comments) you had to pass a T-f quiz of seven questions (not missing more than 2), submitted by the author.

The “Greenlighters” became quite a community online, with forum discussion boards on all kinds of topics.  The contest effectively became a social networking site in the days before Myspace and Facebook. There were plans for a Greenlighter’s party to be held in the Hollywood Hills (I considered a weekend flight), and people were going to hitch rides and bring sleeping bags.

The winning script was “The Battle of Shaker Heights”, by Erica Benney, which I do remember seeing on cable.  The film is about high school student in Ohio who takes on a bully by his artistic skills reenacting war scenes.  Shia LaBeouf was in the film.   The first contest had been won by Pete Jones for his script “Stolen Summer”, about a little boy who takes a priest’s advice literally and tries to help someone get into Heaven.  I recall seeing that film in Minneapolis, I think at the Landmark Lagoon.

In February 2004, on a Sunday morning, after I had moved back to northern Virginia to look after my mother, I caught sight of Ben Affleck announcing another Greenlighter contest. This time I decided to enter a script.  You also had to participate as a judge if you entered a script.  This time, it was suggested that the film be suitable for a PG-13 rating if possible. The contest winner was “Feast”, by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, directed by John Gulager, about people trapped in a rural bar when it is attacked by alien monsters.  I would see this at a special screening at the Landmark E Street in Washington.  The film would be followed by a couple of sequels, including “Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds”.  I note that the second film in the unrelated gay “Eating Out” franchise is called “Sloppy Seconds”.

The making of “Feast” became an HBO series on Project Greenlight, in 30-minute episodes, with all kinds of crises in trying to produce the film for under $1 million.

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My entry was a sci-fi script called “Baltimore Is Missing”.   (The word “Missing” refers to a missing value for a variable in programming languages!) The idea for the film had come to me in a dream sometime after 9/11.  The character “Bill” is the protagonist.  In the early scenes, he gets criticized in a DC disco for gawking at only younger men.  On nightcall at work, he gets a call for an abend that may be caused by a forgotten logic bomb in his code; be goes into work to fix it forgetting he is in his pajamas.  He gets fired, but not before wild rumors about a huge solar storm circulate on the Internet, and not before he gets a strange call inviting him to Baltimore where he will undergo some sort of cleansing tribunal.  He boards the Amtrak train, but after it goes into the Harbor Tunnel, it never emerges.  Or if it does emerge, the whole city of Baltimore is missing and there is some sort of alien, arid and cold landscape.  He boards another train and explores this world, finding himself trained to fit in to a world with a simpler lifestyle.   He meets some of the people he admires, and some of them come from flashbacks in earlier periods of his life.  The film, in these flashbacks, recreates his “William and Mary Expulsion”, and in meta-storytelling, even recreates a scene where one of his best friends auditions for  a key part in movie about the expulsion.  In the meantime, he is paired off with a young woman who is to become his wife.  He gradually develops affection, even physical attraction for her, which surprises him.  He gets a view of what life in a homestead cottage on this alien planet in some other universe will look like.  (Is he in the afterlife?)  He undergoes his tribunal, and then is confronted with the fact that he has become a toy in al old nemesis’s model railroad. At the end, he gets a glimpse of Earth under siege from the Sun (maybe black holes can transmit video to other universes through X-rays or gamma radiation).  He settles down to a simple life as a toy with a toy spouse.

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The script mentions some other oddities, like the idea that someday male doctors and male nurses may have to epilate their hands and arms as part of infection control.

The reviews, to put it mildly, were mixed.  One reviewer was confused by the flashbacks and multi-layer plot.  One thought that a scene where he rides in a boxcar (sort of like the train on John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars”) was an inappropriate use of the Holocaust, but I hadn’t even thought of that when I wrote the passage.

As I look at it now, I still think a film like this can work.  But it probably can’t be made for under $1 million.

The treatment document for my screenplay, which in turn links to the PDF script, is here.  I did register this screenplay with WGA-West.

I can remember finding an essay by Matt Damon, then about 30, in the site telling people who want to enter the movie world, “Don’t do it.”

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Update: July 27, 2016

The startup company “Adaptive Studios” seems to have picked up Project Greenlight.  The slogan is “Reimagine everything”.

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“Smallville”: Superman was once a teenager himself; recalling the 10-year television series

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The science-fiction television drama “Smallville” premiered on “TheWB” (eventually to become CWTV) on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001, about five weeks after 9/11.  The Pilot must have been filmed weeks before, that summer, in British Columbia, but the scene of meteors crashing into the town of Smallville, KS may have seemed terrifying then.

That sequence had been preceded by a brief prologue, introducing the loving couple (John Schneider and Annette O’Toole), the Kents, who would find baby Clark in a corn field and take him home and raise him as their own (a godsend, since Martha couldn’t have children).  In that prologue we saw a boy Lex Luthor made bald for the rest of his life by the meteor exposure – a play on radiation fallout (or dirty bomb) fears?


Fifteen minutes into the Pilot, we’re shown a handsome teenage Clark, played by a youthful enough Tom Welling (then 24), gently arguing with his dad about not being allowed to play football because he could hurt other people.  Tall and strong but lean and lanky, he actually looks more like a future baseball 100-mph fastball pitcher than a lineman or quarterback.  He a freshman at Smallville High, apparently in ninth grade, and his legal records show him to be 14.  He is tall and physically strong for his age, but very socially awkward.  He is morally sensitive.  He wonders if he is special or just different. No one can explain his unusual strength (although that does exist in nature, genetically, in some young men), or ability to heal, or “speed” – ability to teleport himself by altering space-time.  Later, he will develop x-ray vision, which would allow him to scope people, and then heat vision, which could allow him to set things on fire telepathically (like Zak in “Revolution”).  His father, upon questioning, finally tells Clark that he is an alien, and shows him the spaceship in the barn.  It is quite a touching scene.  Clark “speeds off”, upset, after saying “You should have told me.”  Soon, he is somehow “disabled” and hazed in a notorious scarecrow scene (which some people see as an allusion to Matthew Shepherd), with the “S” painted on his smooth chest.

So this is to be the story of how the future Superman came of age, as a teenager.  The series would run for ten years.  But after the first three seasons, it seemed to lose focus and become more episodic.  But the earlier years will filled with suspense.  Season 1 ends with a tornado.  In the middle of Season 2, Clark meets Dr. Virgil Swann, played by Christopher Reeve, now a quadriplegic from his own 1995 horsemanship accident, trying to decipher his origin from hieroglyphics.  As his father Jor El and other forces from his home planet Krypton chase him, Clark faces a crisis at the end of Season 2.  He fears his end is coming, and in one scene the “S” is burned into his chest as a scar (although it seems to be reversible).  At the very end, Clark takes a motorcycle to Metropolis (usually shown by Vancouver, but in this episode the skyline of Kansas City MO was used), having invited Lana to come with him. The seasons ends with dramatic music (I think by Tchaikowsjy) as Clark rides to the city.

Clark usually has a moral compass that would make any parent proud, except when he is exposed to red kryptonite, which unmasks all inhibition and turns his usual kindness into a curious moral nihilism.  He can be brought back by green kryptonite, which can cause him to lose all his powers.  In fact, in another episode, he learns it is better to be “different” and have powers than be like everyone else.  (Like it is better to marry than to burn?)  In season 3, he starts working for the Metropolis Mafia (that is, Kansas City MO or Vancouver BC, interchangeably) and robs some ATM’s (which in more recent years has become a real crime problem), but then gets his moral compass back and returns home.  At the end of Season 3, it seems as though he has to go back “Home” – to the Phantom Zone – for the summer.

I was living in Minneapolis when the series started, and had been laid off at the end of 2001, and was about to start my “second life”.  Somehow, I saw a rerun of the Pilot over Christmas that year, I think while “home” in Arlington visiting mother.  I became intrigued with the series.  I remember seeing the finale of Season 2 the day before a successful job interview, still in Minnesota then.  But I also remember watching it in May 2002 in a motel on a trip to talk about my own book and movie possibilities. Smallville became a fixture.

Logically, Clark should have entered college in Season 5, and that would have been a better track than the episodic plot that followed.  Starting in 2004, Smallville had moved to Wednesday nights, at 8 PM ET, and I typically looked forward to watching it regularly in the middle of the 00 decade anyway, despite a weakening plot.  Instead of college, Clark actually works for a professor Fine for a while, on his way to eventually becoming a journalist.  Lois enters the plot during these years (having found him and “imagined him naked” at the start of Season 4 when he is back from the summer “abroad”).

Other devices from the comics come into the series, such as the Fortress of Solitude.  Other kinds of kryptonite get mentioned, such as black, which gives Lex powers.  There are all kinds of episodes with bizarre experiments, such as trading bodies.  Other interesting characters are offered, such as Oliver Queen (Justin Hartley, after a body shave relative to the soap “Passions”), reporter Jimmy Olson (Aaron Ashmore), whose cognitive abilities as a mere human can match Clark’s, and another teenager who can fly played by Richard Harmon (who would later star in “Judas Kiss”).

TheWB and later CWTV had impressive websites, with video and discussion boards, for the show, which in the early years added to suspenseful speculation as to where the plot would go.

There were some “revelation” scenes toward the end of the series that were a bit homoerotic, but homosexuality as an issue was rarely mentioned.  However, in one episode, when Clark did get to play football (and perhaps catch his own forward pass) he came to the defense of a gay classmate.  The issue probably would have been covered more had the series aired only two or three years later in span. Nevertheless, the parallel between Clark’s being “open” about his extraterrestrial origin (despite appealing human appearance) and openness about sexual orientation would be obvious, and the series ended while the final steps in the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy were being certified.  I think the show made a difference even in that debate.

Technically, the series was always broadcast in HD, and tended to use garish colors, lots of comic-book bright oranges and reds, which must have been achieved by manipulation of film stock.

Some individual episodes have some silly premises, such as when Clark and Lex exchange bodies.  A few show flashbacks, such as when Jor-El visits Smallville in 1961, and a marque for “Splendor in the Grass”, one of my favorite classic films, shows.

Created by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, the series was produced by Tollin, Robins Productions, which went on to produce the less successful “One Tree Hill“.

I have a detailed writeup on my “doaskdotell site” here.   The Blogger chain can be accessed from this link.

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I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, getting my M.A. in Mathematics in early 1968, and I always equated Smallville to Lawrence, which really does look like Smallville in the show.

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I ask, does a real teen Clark Kent, who can teleport himself instantly, exist on Earth?  Maybe.  If so, I hope he goes to college.

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“Prometheus” (2012): When do angels, men, and other creatures get to play god?

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I’ve reviewed Ridley Scott’s film “Prometheus” before on my “Movies blog on June 8, 2012, here. Today, I watched the BluRay DVD on a new LG external drive, which I bought as an older Samsung started having trouble with BluRay.

The sci-fi film was notable for some of its ideas, which I did not give justice to in earlier reviews.  The BluRay DVD from 20th Century Fox came with a tier of extras, which I had trouble getting to work on the drive yet, hooked in to a large Toshiba laptop with Windows 8.  The Cyberlink install process for the DVD player is pretty complicated, sometimes wanting to repeat the same steps when you play a DVD.

The add-ons basically offer an “Archive” library of special effects, and a “Sync” capability to augment the movie with other video on your iPad or iPhone.  It seems a bit overdone.  But in sci-fi or fanatsy, a sync-up could be useful if the movie involves  journey through the “geography” of another world.   It could, for example, show you a train ride (as in a Harry Potter movie, or in the third dominion of Clive Barker’s 1991 fantasy “Imajica”, if that ever gets made).  It could present different kingdoms, as in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and help you keep track of where you are. A page for the iTunes app and customer reviews is here.


The “Prometheus” film is widely understood as a prequel to the “Alien” series, but it creates a certain urgency.  After finding clues in caves around the world , a company and patriarch named Weyland sends a mission to a “nearby” solar system to the appropriate earth-like planet, and find it has been colonized with pyramids, spaceships and relics that resemble those of the Alien films.  Gradually, the movie builds on the idea that civilizations play god, and create other beings on other planets. There seems to be a race of super-humanoid “engineers” and an array of other snake or squid-like creatures that they can gestate.  And the crew (most of all the biologist Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the outspoken daughter of old man Weyland played by Charlize Theron (who else?) get a leg up on the plan that the “engineers” will soon return to Earth and destroy us and start over to build creatures that are somehow more perfect.

The film ends with a woman astronaut going alone to the original home of the aliens (rather prescient of “Ender’s Game”).

And the film also starts with a fascinating prequel, shot in Iceland, as an “engineer” takes a potion and dissolves, his body shifting into falls and ready to seed the Earth with DNA.  Creation can require sacrifice, as can legitimate procreation.

And the creation theme is illustrated by the droid David (Michael Fassbender) who is said to be a sentient AI being with no soul.  Can you really have free will without a soul? A similar being is invented in the “Alien” movies.

The idea that men become “relative” gods (like angels) capable of creating and manipulating other intelligent life is certainly morally provocative.

My own scripts and screenplays follow some of these themes.  This isn’t the time for a lot of detail, but I’ll mention a couple of teasers.  My “Do Ask, Do Tell: Manifesto” script has an aging protagonist (me) awakening in limbo, wondering if he has passed away, been kidnapped, been selected for bizarre employment. He is on another planet of sorts, a small model world partitioned into sections according to historical time.  He’ll be “trained” to live in different environments, and soon learn he is to judge, in a particular ritual, which of his beneficial “captors” really get to become immortal angels.

I have another sequence of scripts, called “Titanium” and “Prescience”, about a UFO “invasion” and abductions. In “Prescience”, the treatment of which I presented to a table reading group in Minneapolis in July 2003, right before retuning back to Arlington, puts the protagonist in a high-rise apartment in an enclosed area of an extraterrestrial city. He then finds, when he is cut loose, that he the alien world is itself a colony, settled in a ring around the transition zone of a tidally-locked earth-like planet, itself highly regulated without money, with people regulated in a super-Maoist-like world, which again has been segmented geographically according to time periods matching different personal temperaments.