Thursday, January 28, 2010

I got my first fashion question...EVER

Here are this week's Friday questions and questionable answers.

Paul has a fashion question (boy, did he come to the wrong place):

A style question for you...
Hip, Hollywood types (guys) -screenwriters,producers,agents-prefer a standard dress style: dark sport jacket,dress shirt, and jeans.
I'm curious about the sports jacket. Do you know where screenwriters and agents shop for their sport jackets?

Agents generally shop in expensive Beverly Hills haberdasheries. They tend to be seen and must make an impression. Unless we’re pitching somewhere, or having drinks at Bandara’s and hope to get lucky, we lean more to the casual. So where do we shop? I can’t speak for all writers but my circle tends to frequent Nordstrom Rack, Ross For Less, Costco (do they sell suits?), and stuff we can get on line.

One writer I know showed up at a network pitch wearing sweat pants. Your idea has to be really ultra-spectacular/groundbreaking to sell wearing sweat pants. In his case, it didn't, and was never invited back to pitch anything else.

Please let me know when the style changes again. For now I just monitor Jason Reitman and wear what he wears.

Stephen asks:

Last season, Susan Sarandon and Ernest Borgine guest starred in the same episode of ER. Ernest was listed as "Special Guest Star", while Susan was listed under "Special Appearance by". Why do shows make this distinction, and what in fact is the distinction?

If you’re 90 you get a “Special Guest Star” credit. Ernest Borgnine and Cher both qualify for that. But seriously, these “Special whatever” credits just are a way of giving the actor a little more distinction. It does become problematic though when several “special” worthy actors are on the same episode. Just once I’d love to see as the final credit… “And not too shabby in her own right…”

Larry wonders:

I have a great idea for a movie script (doesn't everybody?). The only problem is that it's based upon an article I read on an internet website. Do I have to get the author's permission to use the idea in a spec script? If I need to ask their, or their employer's, permission to use the idea, can they just say no and then create their own script? This biz is confusing.

If you hope to sell the script you do need permission. Yes, you do run the risk that they may say “Hey, I hadn’t thought about it before but yeah, that’s a great idea. I’ll just write the screenplay myself.

But here’s the thing. It is his article, his property. He’s entitled to adapt it.

One of my rules is never use a story from a writer unless he gives you his blessing. Especially if the story comes from an incident in the writer’s own life.

THE ODD COUPLE is based on Neil Simon’s brother Danny moving in with another divorcee. But until Danny said it was okay, Neil did not write that play. Writers should get first dibs on their own lives, don’t you think?

However, if you’re writing this spec and intend only to use it as a writing sample I guess that’s okay. But it seems silly to put in the time and effort if you’re not at least going to try to sell it.

And finally, from Raji Barbir :

At what point in your career as a writer do you know not to listen to someone whose advice or critique about your screenplay you disagree with? How do you differentiate that from being too cocky?

Especially in the beginning when every writer you're surrounded by hasn't been produced and doesn't have much more experience than you do, other than perhaps developing a greater sense of snobbery.

So when do you choose to say "Thanks for your input, but it's a pile of crap"?

I suppose it depends on whether you value the person’s opinion and whether you’re strongly attached to the material. When I write something on spec I still give it to three or four people I trust.

The notes themselves are a clue. If the reader is confused by something or has a real visceral reaction you need to pay attention to that. I never mind the note “I don’t understand this” because clearly I haven’t done my job in explaining or justifying it.

When friends are passing judgment on jokes or giving you notes in Robert McKee-speak, you’re generally wise to tune them out. If your friend's idea of a romantic comedy is HOSTEL, avoid him too.

A bigger problem than deciding what criticism to take is what accolades to believe. Friends generally are very complimentary, either because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or they have no fucking idea how to read a script.

But in general, I’d say give the script to people you trust and then take their suggestions very seriously. You’re never too big, too brilliant, too rich to receive constructive criticism. Be receptive. The result may be a great script that sells for millions instead of an okay one that is doomed to your coffee table forever.

What’s your question???


Marie-Claire said...

How do you recommend someone who is just starting out to break into the business? I wrote extensively and acted in radio, stage and teevee when I was at school home in , and have since moved to LA in the hopes that someday I may be able to feed myself with a job that in no way involves old food, vomit or feces. THe problem is, basically none of my old experience counts for anything because it was not only Canadian, it was in French. Any tips you can give me would be great, because I'm down to my last dime (and package of ramen noodles) and am this close to packing it all up and becoming a dentist.

Larry said...

From one Larry to another, Ken isn't exactly correct about who has the rights to certain ideas. The law is actually pretty tricky (even if in the big leagues they usually play it safe by buying up rights). Generally speaking, you can base your script on a general idea since you can't copyright ideas. It's only specific expression that you can't take without permission. Neil Simon certainly didn't need permission from his brother to write about his situation. (Actually, his brother had the idea for a play and took a crack at it, and after he gave up he gave Neil his blessing.)

The article you see is the person's property, but not the general ideas within. If you read about something in the news that sounds interesting, even about someone's life, you can write something about it without permission. (Though these days there's also the right of publicity, and false light, which have nothing to do with copyright but may be a cause for specific people to sue if they feel you've based something on them.) However, the closer you get to the specific expression of the original tale, the more likely you'll be found liable in a court. Can people sue even if you don't violate copyright? Yes. Anyone can sue about anything, any time, anywhere. But that doesn't mean they'll prevail. No one owns ideas.

People are afraid of being sued so they don't take chances. It's up to you how risky you want to play it. If the original article is just a general jumping-off point, you're free to express yourself as you choose. (Lord knows there are certain sitcom plots that have been recycled hundreds of times--you don't see lawsuits over the latest iteration of The Old Flame, or The High School Reunion, or The Cabin In The Woods.)

I should add if you're lucky enough to sell your script, the production company will ask you to sign something indemnifying them against any copyright violation. On the other hand, by the time something is shot (if it ever gets that far), it'll probably have been rewritten so many times no one will recognize it anyway.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

THE ODD COUPLE is based on Neil Simon’s brother Danny moving in with another divorcee. But until Danny said it was okay, Neil did not write that play.

Thanks, Ken! "Rewrites" is sitting in front of me as I work, batting the corners of its pages longingly at me, and this gives me something to look forward to.

Brigadude said...

Neil Simon's pages on the writing of "The Odd Couple" in REWRITES are among the best in a theatrical memoir ever. His struggle with that play's third act is right up there with, and similar to Moss Hart's problems with "Once in a Lifetime" (about which he wrote so eloquently in his own memoir). Ever writer should read it. A great play almost never made it to Broadway. And Oliver Smith sneering at Mike Nichols is one of those little details that make it such a vivid and enjoyable read.

Tom Quigley said...

I took a comedy writing class from Danny Simon (God bless him!) when he was still alive which he held in the rec room of his condo in Sherman Oaks, and he verified what everyone is saying about THE ODD COUPLE. The benefit on Danny's side was that he invested in the play when Neil took it to Broadway and then sold the movie rights, both of which ended up making a pile of money for Danny.

Wonderful man, BTW... He not only called me right back when I phoned him and left a message inquiring about the class, but he also sent me a Christmas card that year.

Michael said...

I remember reading that Neil Simon's third wife made him sign a pre-nup saying that he could not write about their marriage, and I don't think he has ... especially now that he has a fourth wife. Her name is Elaine Joyce, the widow of Bobby Van and a game show host and player. It turns out, according to one obit, that she once dated J.D. Salinger. Now, THAT'S a play Simon should write!

Anonymous said...

I think you meant "not too shabby" (with two O's)... it's nice to see that the greats make these little mistakes to. Er, too.

JESSE said...

I have an idea for a script. Its about a TV writer / radio sportscaster who does an internet blog on comedy writing...hmmmmm

Surprised no one has come up with that idea before.

By Ken Levine said...


You'd never sell it unless George Clooney is attached to play me. So there's NO chance.

Alan Coil said...

Do you know Michael Wilbon? Do you trust his opinion?

Now that I've set you up for a possible "gotcha", ignore the second question. In fact, you can ignore both questions if you like.

Thursday was Alan Alda's 74 birthday. He was mentioned on Pardon the Interruption, and Wilbon said MASH was among the top 5 television sit/coms of all time.

I don't really have a question, do I?

Nat G said...

My favorite Special Appearance By credit was Edward Herriman's, on Gilmour Girls. It appeared on every episode... even the many in which Herriman did not appear.

wv: ansmsin - what you and your partner are committing by playing your bondage games in church

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

It's tough to know who's opinion to trust. but sometimes it can be very clear who not to listen to. We once had a feature exec. tell us that he didn't think a particular scene was funny...the producers, (to their credit) knowing we had a background in sketch comedy, asked us to read the scene to the room. We performed the scene from our seats and the exec watched as everyone laughed hysterically. He then said, "well, sure the scene is funny when you read it like that." We said, "Uh, yeah, and imagine real actors reading it"! Our experience is that some people can read comedy and hear the funny in their head...and some can't, period. You'll never know ahead of time, because everyone thinks they can! Great site, Ken! Cheers, Bob

James said...

I have a question. I've seen similar comments elsewhere (he doesn't know how to read a script). How *do* you a read a script? What is the difference between people who do it well and the people who don't?

(I'm not being argumentative or challenging. I want to improve my skills and I'm a tyro. Maybe I can learn something to improve my writing as well.)

Edward Copeland said...

Given the recent passing of Pernell Roberts, I wonder when Trapper John, M.D. and M*A*S*H were on at the same time, if there was ever talk of having a 20-odd-years-older version of a M*A*S*H character guest on Trapper John?

Ref said...

I like Copeland's question.

Mine is more general. Are actors who gain success in a certain role usually typecast by their own choice (Comedy's easy for me, so I'll stick with them) or is it done to them (David Hyde Pierce as a romantic lead? C'mon, he's a comic!)?

Chris said...

What's your take on the prevalence of narration at the end of everything now? I blame "Sex & the City" for bringing the tactic back into fashion, but it's been used on shows going back to "The Wonder Years" or even "Dragnet", if you want to go back farther.

On some shows it works (I'm looking at you, "Modern Family"), but most of the time it just seems like a lazy writer telling you what the show meant. Am I the only one bugged by this?

Ryan said...

I notice alot of consultants listed in the M*A*S*H credits. What's the difference between an Executive Script Consultant, Creative Consultant and Story Consultant?

Travis said...

During opening credits, why do sometimes only one actor also has their character's name listed?