Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dialogue DVD reviews

The Dialogue DVD series is a very commendable enterprise of hour-long interviews with contemporary succesful screenwriters. Usually hosted by New Line exec Mike De Luca, these are a great resource for beginning screenwriters and allow the writers to make their points at length. I'll post some reviews so you can decide which ones to get.


1) SIMON KINBERG

Simon Kinberg will go down in showbiz history as the man who brought Brad and Angelina together, as he was the writer of Mr and Mrs Smith. Small wonder, then, that much of the conversation here focuses on that film – though rest assured, host Mike De Luca isn’t trawling for hot gossip, but asks all the right questions about Kinberg’s creative processes and writing experiences. In fact, it’s impossible to overstate De Luca’s contributions to these DVDs – he keeps the conversation flowing, asks stimulating and insightful questions, and occasionally teases his subject mercilessly.

Kinberg is the ultimate proof that film school pays off – during his stay at Columbia, he managed to sell two of the projects he was developing in class! Neither got made, eventually, but his career was on the right track from the word go.

Part of the reason for his success is that as a student he frequented the New York Library for the Performing Arts, which has a huge collection of original (on-set) screenplays. Reading screenplays rather than (only) screenplay how-to manuals is what made the difference, and taught him an enormous amount about structure and the kind of writing best suited to the form. The early screenplays have a more organic feel, where the structure is hidden better than is usually the case nowadays.

Kinberg gives examples from Mr and Mrs Smith and X-Men 3, where every action sequence is emotionally motivated and/or a metaphor for the underlying relationships.

Most of the interview focuses on the specifics of writing Mr and Mrs Smith, which came about when Kinberg decided to write a script about marriage therapy. Interestingly, the film originally did have a ‘plot’, with villains working behind the scenes, but apparently these scenes never worked. Finally, director Doug Lyman cut all of this out of the film and kept the focus solely on the central relationship. Definitely not the perfect solution, and Kinberg still feels the third act is flawed and that the movie now is plotless. He also admits that while rewriting Fantastic Four, he never really got the right tone.

Simon Kinberg isn’t the greatest screenwriter in the world, but his insights are valid, the conversation remains interesting throughout, and his ‘war stories’ are very entertaining. Anyone interested in writing good action movies will definitely benefit from this DVD.





2) ALEX KURTZMAN AND ROBERTO ORCI

Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are two of Hollywood’s current golden boys. They came up through the ranks of the TV-show Alias, which makes them part of the J. J. Abrams-stable and landed them the writing assignments for MI:3 and Abrams’ new Star Trek film. And as if that wasn’t success enough for anyone, they’re also Michael Bay’s current go-to screenwriting team.

Orci is a Mexican who migrated to the US, and he’s known Kurtzman since high school. Their shared love of movies led them to attempt a career as screenwriters. They are truly complementary: Orci is the guy with the grasp of structure and the big ideas, Kurtzman is more inclined to go to specific scenes and visual details. This is brought home very clearly by the ‘Object’ exercise, where Orci immediately comes up with a high-conceptish plot seed, while Kurtzman is already mentally directing the first scene.

Kurtzman and Orci have mastered the art of playing the system. While they come across as very serious about their work, they know how to take notes, how to ‘play along’ with executives, and how to take other ideas and concepts on board. Since they’ve been working with some very high-powered people, it’s obvious that their open-minded approach pays off. They take notes very well, also due to the fact that they came up through TV. The writers’ room is the perfect training environment for this.

Kurtzman and Orci advise writers not to be married to their words, but to the idea behind them. There are thousands of ways to achieve the same effect, and the trick is to be open to all of them.

The discussion focuses on the writing of Legend of Zorro, which was far more historically accurate than most people give it credit for, MI:3, with the prerequisite Tom Cruise stories, and Transformers. For Transformers, the challenge was to find a story element (apart from the giant city-smashing robots) which could emotionally grab the audience. That is how they came up with the conceit of the human main character getting his first car as the ‘hook’ of the plot. Whether it’s a completely successful idea is up for debate, of course.

This DVD offers an interesting look at a (very) successful screenwriting partnership, and the nuts and bolts of writing for the big leagues. You may not like what they do, but at the very least you'll get an insight in what it takes to achieve their (commercial) level of success.

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