Wednesday, July 16, 2008

STORI Telling by Tori Spelling

Tori Spelling. sTORI Telling. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.

The author, an actor and daughter of producer Aaron Spelling, tells of her awakening to Hollywood life when, at age 12, her mother she’s look pretty “when we get your nose done”. She discovered that her life was in the public domain beginning from having a role on show her father produced, “Beverly Hills 90210”.
Of the most notable rumors about her, Tori Spelling confirms it was true her father at Christmas made snow with a snow making machine (and he did so on two Christmases), corrects that she didn’t live in the large former Bing Crosby mansion until she was 17 years old, and explains the rumor she was “disinherited” was exaggerated.

Tori Spelling grew up being given many collectible untouchable dolls while wising for a doll house with which to play.

Tori Spelling tells how she wanted to act beginning when she was five years old. She denies being pushed into acting while recognizing her father did help her career, including providing her with acting lessons. She had bit roles in some of her father’s shows before “Beverly Hills 90210”.

Tori filmed the pilot for “Beverly Hills 90210” while in 10th grade and began filming the series with in the 11th grade. Tori writes of how getting a role through her father’s connections made the cast and crew dislike her from the start. She generally had just a few lines and there was some negative press about being the producer’s daughter in a role with little significance. She states she had a talent for comedy while allowed her role to include visually comedic touches that allowed her role to increase over time.

“Beverly Hills 90210” lasted ten years. There were tensions on the set, especially between Shannon Doherty, who had starred in a TV series and movies prior, versus Jennie Garth, who had worked her way in smaller roles up into a role in the series. The tensions even led to a fistfight.

Tori’s career expanded as she performed on TV movies during when the series wasn’t shooting. She notes that she was often typecast as a woman being stalked, as happened in several movies.

Tori Spelling had some bad relationships. She writes how she used a year’s salary to pay off the gambling debts of a boyfriend.

Tori spelling claims the writers didn’t seem to care about the writing quality of the scripts during the tenth season of “Beverly Hills 90210”. The actors began rewriting the scenes. Tori left the show. The Fox Network, which broadcast the series, threatened to cancel the show if she refused to return to the show. Tori thought they were bluffing and insisted she was not returning. The next day, Fox cancelled the show.

Tori got a professional break being cast in the movie “Scary Movie 2”. Her father was not affiliated with the movie and she won this comedic role on her own talent. She was allowed to improvise lines. There were some tense negotiations when Tori refused to do a nude scene or allow the nude scene to use a body double. Her father warned her that this stance could get her cut from the film. Her character’s nude scene was cut from the film. Yet, her role was edited from a starring role to a cameo.

Tori was boosted when she turned to acting in theater and received good reviews.

NBC, UPN, and WB bid on the pilot of Tori Spelling’s show “So NoTORIous”. Tori chose NBC only to have NBC not pick up the series after the pilot. She went to UPN and WB and learned that networks don’t like to be turned down and they rejected the series. Fortunately for Tori,VH1 picked up the series. When she met her costar, Dean McDermott, she writes that it was love at first sight. She admits she cheated on her marriage with Dean but observes the connection between them was so strong she didn’t regret it. Tori also notes Dean has a cute and perky nose since “he’s Canadian, and Canadian men have the best noses”.

Despite good ratings, VH1 canceled “So NoTORIous” after one season. It cost a million dollars an episode of “So NoTORIous” when an episode of a reality show could cost $200,000.

The book provides a fascinating fact about her father, Aaron Spelling. While serving in the Air Force, Aaron Spelling developed the flu before taking a flight and was grounded by the flight surgeon. The plane he missed crashed and all aboard were killed.

Tori’s next TV series was “Tori & Dean Inn Love”. It was a reality show about her and now second husband Dean McDermott running a bed and breakfast.

The book provides an honest description of key elements in Tori Spelling’s life including being raised by a nanny, having a distance mother and the strained relationship she and her mother have. Tori concludes what she has been seeking in her life is a normal life with a loving husband and child. She has found her “normal”.

Breakfast with Sharks by Michael Lent

Michael Lent. Breakfast with Sharks. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.

This book seeks to guide screenwriters through the processes required to survive the movie business. Movies are an industry where talent is important, yet so it finding the correct allies who help guide projects to fruition. There are many projects that fall apart and die along these processes, and people have to be prepared to cope with all kinds of situations.
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There are (circa 2004) 2,500 film schools with 30,000 students. The competition for movie employment is harsh. Many try to find jobs and give up. The author, Michael Lent, recommends persistence as a key to finding success.

Movies are created through an established process that works for the industry. Movies tend to be deeply personal stories with mass appeal.

Success in Hollywood requires effort (which for screenwriters should be continually writing), access (learning how to interest decision makers to read and buy the written material), and timing (seizing opportunity when it emerges). Michael Lent recommends making contacts with industry personnel at screenings and premieres. Screenwriters should keep updated on ongoing projects and what the market seeks. When awarded writing jobs, make all deadlines. When mistakes are made, analyze them and learn from them.

The screenwriter must be prepared to handle rejection, as it happens frequently, even to established writers. Rejection of a screenplay should not be taken personally. One should learn patience, rewrite, and improve scripts, take on challenges that make a writer passionate about work, turn that passion into excitement by others, and learn to use criticism to improve work.

A screenwriter needs a voice, which means the script has to have an important point or view or style.

A screenwriter needs patience. It takes three to four years for many projects to move from script to screen.

A script needs an agent. The agent’s job is to get a production company or studio story editor to accept a script. The story editor assigns the script to a script reader to read and cover, or write an evaluation of, the script. Scripts with favorable coverage are presented to a creative executive, also known in some studios as the Director of Development. Scripts that pass this stage go to the Vice President of Development. If the script is accepted at this stage, it is purchased. Guild rules guarantee the screenwriter shall be hired for one rewrite. The studio provides input into the rewrite.

A screenwriter with two hit movies can insist on directing the next script in order to get a studio to buy the script. Usually the screenwriter will be offered more money not to direct it.

Low budget straight to video operates generally by raising the $350,000 to $3 million upfront from foreign distribution rights based on the marketability of the entertained appearing in the movie. Most of these are horror, martial arts, and action films. Scripts for these movies sell in the on-union range (circa 2004) of $20,000 to $40,000.

Spec screenwriters are original screenplays not created under contract. Few of these sell. Assignment screenwriters draft scripts for studios from previously developed ideas. Contracts are important to obtain and keep. A screenwriter should have several script ideas to discuss. Screenwriters should ask what the studio personnel are working on and take note of the type projects that do sell. Screenwriters should offer to work on dialogue for those projects. This can create an opening for work. If the screenwriter doesn’t have an agent, the screenwriter should ask for a recommendation. Many are willing to provide recommendations.

When pitching a script idea, Lent recommends a screenwriter beginning with a one sentence description of the “high concept” of the film. The major parts of the film should be describable in three minutes. This pitch should be prepared to include expanded discussions for up to 20 minutes depending on the occasion. A screenwriter should wrap-up discussing the script if it is detected there is a loss of interest in what is being stated. In sum, be prepared.

A screenwriter should consider what studio executives seek. They wish for screenwriters who are open to story suggestions, who are upbeat, passionate about writing, are optimistic, are willing to work hard and make deadlines, and who have a limited ego.

Screenwriters should have an attorney who specializes in entertainment law who may be hired to review any contract offered.

Screenwriters should mentally prepare themselves for studio notes on their scripts. Many screenwriters perceive their scripts as functional scripts. It may take an adjustment to accept another’s views on how the script should be.

A screenwriter should recognize the code word if a script is described as “intelligent”. This is code for a script that appeals to a small market.

Michael Lent recommends a method to obtain professional coverage of a script. Pretend to be a producer (under an assumed name) and ask a literary agent to recommend a freelance reader. Nearly all professional readers at agencies desire extra freelance work and money. Submit the script. The professional reader will return the script with professional comments meant for a producer. If the coverage is excellent, the screenwriter should send the script to the literary agency that has already received the script.

Screenwriters who deal with directors must realize directors also have to deal with producers, studio executives, actors, and lots of people with egos.

If one wishes to observe agents, Lent recommends eating lunch at the pricy Kate Mantilini’s on Wilshire Boulevard. Many agents eat lunch there (circa 2004). He also informs that if an agent or producer invites a screenwriter to lunch, the screenwriter is expected to pay. Before accepting a meeting with an agent, check who the agent represents on whoRepresents.com. (Note there is an approximate $13 a month fee for this site circa 2008). Don’t wear a tie or jacket to the meeting.

A screenwriter should work with an agent. A screenwriter should inform an agent of producers, executives, directors, and actors the screenwriter believes might be interested in a script. A screenwriter should write productively and frequently. A screenwriter should send thank you notes after meetings with executive. A screenwriter should not criticize others.

Lent’s observation is that 5% of scripts in screenplay competitions are actually completed. Most submitted scripts have errors in plot and basic story elements.

A screenwriter should be prepared to describe a script in a two sentence logline.

If a screenwriter doesn’t have an agent and a producer is interested in a script, the screenwriter should declare being in between agents and inquire if the writer’s attorney would be fine. This should work most of the time..

Agents generally take three to eight weeks to read material. Agents should be called a after a week to verify receipt of the script. A screenwriter should not request to speak with an agent for at least two and a half weeks.

A manager is hired to keep a screenwriter productive.

Script consultants cost about $400 (and range from $100 to $1,000). (circa 2004)

76 minutes is the minimum length for a movie to be considered a feature film.

Michael Lent recommends screenwriters speak briefly during pitch meetings. Too many such meetings last too long and only the listeners.

Lent advises that only brilliant screenwriters can break the screenwriting rules.

The average Writers Guild member earns approximately $80,000 annually (circa 2004).

While developing a screenwriting career, many writers take jobs as script readers, working as a writer’s assistant, working a film editor’s assistant, etc.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Have Belly Will Travel by Tanya Lemani

Tanya Lemani. Have Belly Will Travel. Baltimore: Publish America, 2007.

This is the autobiography of Tanya Soleimani, a Russian born in Iran who came to America and knew from a young age she wanted to be an entertainer. She learned as a little girl she could gain attention by being entertaining. Her first love was ballet. When she sought employment dancing ballet, she instead first found work as a belly dancer at a Las Vegas hotel. While she took dancing and acting seriously, she realized that belly dancing would become that which distinguished her.

Tanya danced in Pinky Lee’s show, even dancing laughs when she once accidentally ruined his hair piece. She danced at the Iranian Embassy in Washington and was proposition by the Ambassador, earning an early lesson in life that some men make presumptions about belly dancers. Tanya also learned early on that “the show must go on”, as she once continued a play after tearing off a toe nail and fainting from the blood.

Tanya tells of several traumas in her life. She had to cope with her father’s suicide, being the victim of date rape, and unplanned pregnancy and abortion.

Moving to Hollywood, Tanya found work modeling furs and wigs. Her first interview at the Hal Roach Studios was conducted with the interviewer requesting she sit on his lap. She was hired to be a stand-up for Barbara Luna. The studio shortened her name to Tanya Lemani. Tanya discussed the sexual harassment she faced from a director who exposed himself and propositioned her. She lost that job yet was moved to another film.

Tanya found an agent and from that more work appeared. Her dancing skills helped her find employment at MGM Studios. She hired a publicist, Dick Bernstein, which was a great career move for Tanya. Her name appeared in Reporter, Variety, and other papers. She got to work with Gregory Peck in the American Cancer Society campaign and appeared in such TV shows as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Burke’s Law”, “The Wackiest Ship in the Army”, “McHale’s Navy”, “My Mother the Car”, and “Gambit”.

Tanya continued belly dancing at various clubs and appearing in plays. She again learned “the show must go on” while appearing with Mickey Rooney and observing Rooney continuing appearing in the show after his wife was murdered in a murder-suicide with her lover.

Tanya worked in a movie with Rod Taylor. She credits Rod Taylor for grabbling the collar and telling off a man who had propositioned her on the set.

Tanya appeared in “Star Trek”. The show’s cult following has included Tanya as a cult star.

When Tanya’s agent announced he was tired of the movie industry and was quitting, Tanya feared her career would suffer. At the same time, she also thought, incorrectly, that she had an unplanned pregnancy. She admits the combined stress caused her to have a nervous breakdown. She credits Dick Bernstein for helping pull her through and for getting her work on “The Johnny Carson Show”. She unfortunately found a schizophrenic agent from which she was once again rescued by Dick Bernstein. She states she finally learned to relax, overcome past traumas, and enjoy life and love, with assistance from William Shatner.

Tanya found work in The Monkees’ “Head”, Elvis Presley’s 1968 television special, in “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”, and “The Flying Nun”. “The Flying Nun” incorporated several pregnant nun jokes as the actress portraying the series’ lead nun, Sally Fields, was pregnant in real life.

Tanya mentions a director while casting who exposed himself and propositioned her. She turned him down. She mentions she still won the role and the two of them worked together without ever mentioning the incident.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Herman

Lewis Herman. A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting. Cleveland: The World Publishing, 1963.

This book, originally published in 1952, is considered perhaps the earliest of screenwriting “text books”. The author Lewis Herman was upset over screenplays of that day with their violent jump cuts with characters suddenly leaving and returning in a confusing manner. He also saw television emerging as a new medium and writers familiar with movie length scripts were having trouble writing shorter scripts. Lewis Herman decided a book providing for advice on “screen playwriting” was needed.

Screenwriting is presented in this book as mostly a collaborative effort. A finished writer’s script then was often changed by a director, actor, or just about anyone in the room during shooting. Ironically, screenwriters were almost never present during shootings to join in final word dialogue discussions.

A screenplay is for an audience to view and not to be read, Herman advises. Many great writers have written great readable screenplays, yet the intriguing dialogue often fails when presented on the screen. This is why many great novelists failed as screenwriters.

Back then, there were 1,500 Screen Writer’s Guild members. Only about a quarter wrote screenplays. Many wrote only ideas and situations or only polished scripts with new scenes and additional dialogue. Some writers only came up with jokes to insert into films. This reflected the strong studio system of that time when many movie personnel worked full time directly with a particular studio.

The author recommends a screenwriter use creativity in developing a good story. The writer should imagine how the characters relate to the story and how the story should progress to a good conclusion.

A writer should observe people and events and consider how these observations may improve a screenplay. A writer should bring inner emotions into the open in stories yet do so in a believable manner.

A story must progress at its correct speed. This must be accomplished with continuous dialogue.

In the early years of movies, one person usually wrote, directed, filmed, and edited the entire movie. Formal screenplays were hardly ever written as shooting a story was done extemporaneously.

As movies became more complex, writers were hired. Vaudeville actors and comedians were often hired to write funny scenes. Separate writers often wrote the words on the title cards in the silent films.

As movies became even more complex, writers with various specialties constructed movie scripts. Idea writers created plots. Situation writers wrote title cards. A general writer coordinated all the writings into a finished script.

Many playwrights failed as movie writers. Plays often take advantage of lengthy dialogues and speeches that can work on the stage. Movie audiences tend to desire faster paced action on the screen.

Screenwriting was a process that often involved first selling an idea or an original work that often was designed as a vehicle that could best feature a particular star. Then a script would be written. As the costs of purchasing rights to ideas increased, more studios turned directly to screenwriters for ideas. Movie scripts involved story conferences with producers and writers and sometimes directors. The screenwriter would create a script that met the production requirements of costs, talent, etc. A treatment be approved by a supervising producer and then by the studio hierarchy. Treatments would be revised and resent through this process. Different writers were called in to replace previous writers. Back then some studio executives thought that scripts improved each time an additional writer became involved.

The author makes a strong point that a screenplay must have motion. It must have a story that moves.

The author also mentions the “radical departure” of the “Amos and Andy” television show using recorded applause. He “shudders” to think others may also use this technique.

Lewis Herman advises screenwriters to make observations in notebooks, select the best ideas, and develop them into stories. He advises considering twists on stories. Some idea may require further research.

Herman recommends the screenwriter to write a basic situational first act, use the second act to gradually develop the action to a climax, clarify and resolve the story situation, and then conclude the story in the third act.

The screenwriter needs to create characters that are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil. Characters should have complexities that create conflicts. Herman argues while all stories are contrived, a screenwriter needs to create the least contrived story possible.

Characters should have opposing situations or be involved in problems that create conflicts. The problems should be credible while also posing a universality with which the audience identifies. The audience should feel empathy towards the character and the character’s problems.

Herman believes then that American films emphasized action and plot whereas European films emphasized character. Herman states the plot is the main component of a film over character.

Herman states there are nine general plot patterns. They are love, success, “Cinderella”, love triangle, return, vengeance, conversion, sacrifice, and family. Paying attention to plot pattern, character, and action can produce a good script.

Minor characters are also important. They have to be human with natural motivations.

Subplots are important. They should be integrated into the main plot.

Minor characters can be used as foils to the main plot or for comic relief or in a number of ways. A screenwriter should pay close attention to the use of minor characters.

Emotions shown in films have to be related to and motivated by action. They should have a shock value that creates a reaction from the audiences. There should be dramatic values caught in a dilemma. At all times, these factors need to occur in a coherent fashion. Herman warns against telegraphing upcoming events such that their dramatic values are diminished.

Herman explains that scripts creating suspense must show uncertainties that make an audience curious and anxious, yet empathetic, to learn the outcome. To achieve this, the audience needs a hero with whom they sympathize. Herman warns against withholding too many clues or else the audience will feel uninvolved and cheated. Herman recommends some tricks to cause suspense, such as having an unexpected character enter, a messenger in danger by a casual delay, ignoring an important item that otherwise would help, a vehicle’s tire blowing out, etc. Suspense can be created when a hero has to achieve a goal within a time frame and when the hero is being chased.

Herman states that plot gimmicks that change plots can be used in surprising an audience. He warns they are overused and can ruin a film if it doesn’t fit into the storyline.

Information useful later to a plot can be planted into early scenes. This information should not draw undue attention, must appear a normal part of the story without telegraphing its more significant means, should not be so obscure the audience will not later recognize its importance, and needs to reach its payoff without gimmickry.

Running gags can be used. Comic relief aids some scripts. Comic relief should be done by minor characters and be part of the natural flow of the script.

For humor, the wisecracking character often works best. Humor should seem a real part of any story.

Flashbacks can be effective but pose serious problems. They disrupt the natural flow that an audience is following and disrupt the audience’s desire to learn what will happen next by going in the wrong direction.

Avant-garde expressionist films can make good use of flashbacks if use properly and infrequently.

Herman recommends properly repeating character traits and important facts to keep an audience’s attention. He advises against quick conversation. Dialogue must be realistic.

Herman warns that many American semi-documentary movies contact too many facts and don’t pay proper attention to the story.

Screenwriters should watch out for holes in their stories.

Herman warns that a problem facing most films is they end happily and the audience expects such an ending. They are not surprised by the happy ending nor are they deluded by attempts to convince them that the hero might not achieve an objective. The star system of that day often foretold to audiences that the good guy star would achieve his reward.

Herman discussed shot directions. These are not standardized. One director would consider a medium shot from the hips up while another would consider a medium shot from the knees up.

A full shot, also called an “establishing shot” indicates a frame of reference, such as a location, where action will occur.

Film axiom is to use a full shot, a series of medium shots, close shots, close up shots, and then a full shot.

A medium close shot tightly shows the heads of two people.

Extreme close-ups can be effective but need to be used infrequently.

A moving shot should be used only when necessary. A panoramic, or pan, shot should follow the action. Pan shots should not be overused. A reverse pan shot that goes back and forth destroy continuity and should be used sparingly.

A dolly shot moves in or out onto the scene.

Camera angles or image sizes should be altered between shots.

Reverse angle shots can show emotions.

Close-up shots show the main action. Cut away shots show the related secondary action.

Continuity must be preserved when using time lapses and transitions.

American montages are a one sequence of multiple flash shots, usually to quickly demonstrate the passage of time.

A screenwriter should consider the tempo and rhythm of the script. The overuse of verbal clich├ęs should be avoided. A screenwriter needs to remember to write verbal dialogue and consider if characters have dialects. Monologues should be used rarly and only in reply to a character still onscreen.

Herman warns that cigarettes are overused as props by actors who don’t know what to otherwise do with their hands.

Background composition is an important part of movies. It helps creates moods. Music and background sounds are important components in setting moods.