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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hopping Against Hop

By Bart Gold

Good day, Wavers. I’ve been trying to find a good spot to chime in here for a while. I never thought my debut in a screenwriting blog would be inspired by theatre.

Last night I joined my friend Julie at the Sacred Fools Theatre to see a performance by the Magnum Opus players: who perform unsolicited screenplays in horrible condition which have been sent to an unnamed mainstream Hollywood film company. Last night’s masterpiece: Abigail’s Choice.

The players stunned us both by being off book, performing about ¾ of the script’s body as a well rehearsed play, with a stately gent in a robe reading the stage directions off to one side and occasionally describing what occurred during portions which were omitted for time.

Within a few lines of the opening, the nature of the script was painfully clear. Mis-formatted, awkwardly worded and full of unnatural-sounding dialogue with tons of spelling and punctuation errors. And every gaffe was performed, as written, by the cast.

If the line was written: “I was hopping you would comeby?”, then that’s how they pronounced and punctuated it. If the writer overused capitalization in dialogue, or introduced a character incorrectly by capping the name in dialogue, then the actor would say those words extra loudly. “You remember that guy JOHN WALLACE, 37?” If the wrong character name was written above a line of dialogue in the script, the wrong character would suddenly appear in the scene. And if the intended emotion of a scene were stunted, paced slowly, repetitive or just plain strange, then that’s how it was delivered.

The show is hilarious. Julie and I have seen some version of every error from Abigail’s Choice in one screenplay or another, but never in such a high concentration as exists in that script. It's like Mystery Science Theatre for Spec Scripts. I’m sure we’ll both go back to see the other movies in the repertoire.

As Julie and I discussed it afterwards, it was clear how it struck us both what an invaluable lesson this performance would provide for newer screenwriters. Every aspiring writer should know that this show provides a very good approximation of how disorienting it is to read a screenplay with errors in it. And while you’re probably there to laugh, if you really think about the story’s meandering structure, there are also great cautionary lessons about how not to craft a compelling narrative.

We’re hopping to see more of our fellow LA-based Wavers at future shows. Or if you’re out of LA, one could always hop that Magnum Opus forms a touring company.

Bart Gold has been a member of the WgaW for six years, and has written for Universal Pictures, ABC and PBS. He has also has over a decade of experience analyzing scripts for such producers and directors as Jerry Bruckheimer, Brett Ratner, Richard Donner, Wendy Finerman, Cinergi, Dreamworks Animation, New Line, New Regency and Orion. He is available through The Script Department.

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Chairman_B. said...

Thanks for the write up and to both you and Julie for coming to see the show. If Rouge Wave readers would like to keep up on the Magnum Opus performance schedule they can keep add our MySpace page to their friends list. Or, they can search for Magnum Opus Theatre on facebook and become a fan of the show.

Have a great weekend and thanks again,
Chairman Barnes

Anonymous said...

Terrific review and recap of the show. I was there last night as well and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The cast members were simply brilliant and I think it's a wonderful gift to LA to bring something like this to the stage.

I've been a fan of Magnum Opus since their long run in Serial Killers and wasn't sure how it would hold up on it's own. I was "hopping" it would do well but concerned that the joke would run stale. In my opinion it didn't. One thing I did notice as an audience member was that I became incredibly fascinated by the errors and was a little lost in my own mind at times being amazed by just how horrendous the writing was.

Overall a terrific show and an excellent review. I believe that every actor and screenwriter would be doing themselves a great disservice to miss this show.

Girl Clumsy said...

Hi there Wave-inatrix,

I don't mean to be a downer, but the idea of performing somebody's bad script in full flight seems somewhat cruel.

It may not be genius, but it's still someone's work. I know I'd be horrified and embarrased if it was me - even if I do find the premise of it very funny.

I can see how it would be a useful tool for screenwriters, but I would hope they're giving their permission to be mercilessly savaged!

Soup said...

Hi Julie!

Supatra from Magnum here. Thank you so much for this great blog post! It's so fun to do the show, and I am hopping it was just as fun to see it. Where dose this leave us? Friends. F---ing good friends!

Soup said...

Whoops! Just realized Bart wrote this...That's how I roll. Regardless, you both rock. I am still hopping you'll both be my BFF's forever!

scotty said...

tape the live performances! =)

i'm stuck in Canada for the time being, so it'd be fun to watch it online. DOE IT!

... DOE IT!

Julie Gray said...

Girl Clumsy - I hear you. While I laughed so hard my face hurt during the performance, I must admit I did drive home feeling slightly guilty for it. I'm not sure if it's a case of sacrificing one to benefit the many or what. But I will say that if you send a script to a production company (or agent/manager or competition for that matter) you are in essence saying - THIS is a movie. This is in great shape, this is ready to go, this is worthy of your time and your money. So if it is SO not that it's off the charts (as this one was) then in a way...isn't this performance saying okay, fine, so here's your work produced onstage, how does it sound now? Freaking proofread, people!! The funniest part by far was the typos and I have literally never seen a script with that many - never in my life. So this was not a typical aspiring writer's script where there were some problems here and there - this thing was the Chernobyl of scripts, it really was. It was eye-poppingly bad in terms of language usage, grammar, typos and not to even mention plot, dialogue and character work. I hear what you are saying though, I definitely do. It pinged me a little bit too.

JPS said...

As I commented on another screenwriting forum, this exercise strikes me as being akin to a teacher reading aloud to his class the worst paper he'd received, while the author of it--a kid who might really have tried hard to achieve something--squirms in his humiliation.

As this takes place in a town where word of mouth moves somewhat faster than a New York minute, I would think that eventually someone's going to be hurt by this supposedly amusing evening out. In any event, making fun of someone's lack of intelligence or taste or proofreading skills seems a less-than-professional stance for anyone to take, actor or writer.

Sorry, but that how it strikes me.

PJ McIlvaine said...

I'm confused. How could they perform this terrible script without the writer's permission? And why on earth would the writer give such permission and be subjected to such scorn and ridicule? Is this a faux script that someone wrote just for this troupe to perform so wittily? If so, bravo! If not, then I'm still confused.

Anonymous said...

I would at least give the writer the option to participate and decide for him/herself whether or not to be the butt of the joke. I for one would probably love to drag out one of my first scripts and sit back and laugh ... only because I know I'm better now and everyone has to go through those first couple of really bad scripts to cut their teeth. I'm probably in the minority here as nobody REALLY likes being publicly humiliated, but I love laughing and I like making people laugh, one way or another. It's all relative however because I'm sure I'd be less inclined to go along if I were still very new and my skin still paper thin.

Chairman_B. said...

I'd just like to address a couple of concerns that have been expressed here.

These are issues that we considered very seriously before deciding to mount this show. We have consulted with a number of legal professionals and they have concurred that what we are doing falls under fair use on a number of counts. First, we are performing screenplays in a way that highlights and accentuates the mistakes the author has made and from that point of view it is protected as a critical and educational work. Additionally, since the original piece was written for film and we are instead performing it live there is a satirical element in the contrast between the author's attempt to "speak" in the language of film and the actual execution of the author's intent without the benefit of those cinematic conventions. And, on the point of parody, these performances are very much in the vein of The Annoyance Theatre's word-for-word presentations of entire "The Brady Bunch" episodes as "The Real-Live Brady Bunch".

Finally, with regard to the authors, we have no desire to embarass them. We have gone to great lengths to try and find the original writers. We are reasonably certain that they are not members of the Hollywood community. However, if any of the original writers of the pieces we present desires that we stop performing them we will do so at their request. The only way that the identity of the authors will ever be known to the public is if the authors themselves decide to make it known.

This whole project sprung from the layers of "filtering" involved in the Hollywood system. For every competent writer (or actor, director, cinematographer, etc.)out there who is exasperated by the process of just getting a foot in the door and cries out, "Why?", scripts like these are an example of "why." We're just trying illustrate the point in an entertaining way.

ElBerto said...

I'm a writer -- and a former member of the Annoyance Theater ensemble (though I came in long after "Brady Bunch") -- and I couldn't applaud this idea more.

At issue, it seems to me, is this: these works have been sent, unsolicited, into the marketplace as professional works. By sending them out, the writer has in effect said: this is worthy of production. The argument that this is akin to criticism in front of a class is specious -- these scripts aren't educational assignments. They were presented as salable products.

And now they are being produced. Better still, they are being produced as written, which is, in a way, a compliment to the writer.

That the audience finds the writer's work funny, even if it wasn't intended, is the risk any creative artist takes in showing his or her work to others.

Do your work to the best of your ability and release it into the world. Listen to the response of the audience -- whatever that may be -- and let the response inform your creative process. Do they laugh where you don't want them to? Fix it. Do they NOT laugh in the most hilarious section? Fix it.

Screenwriting isn't a solo activity. Movies, by nature of their scale, are a form of mass communication.

JPS said...

May I respond to elberto, please? He writes, " By sending them out, the writer has in effect said: this is worthy of production. The argument that this is akin to criticism in front of a class is specious -- these scripts aren't educational assignments. They were presented as salable products."

The logic is skewed. When one sounds out a work to be considered for production or publication, you enter into a private agreement that the work will be considered, judged and either accepted or rejected. Under no circumstances are you implicitly or otherwise authorizing your work to be presented publicly and mocked for its lack of intelligence or its sloppy presentation.

Anonymous said...

Is it free to get in? If not, then I'm assuming the writer doesn't get paid for their work being performed. I mean if someone's making money off of it, then at the very least the writer should get a cut. ;-)

Julie Gray said...

Just a last comment because honestly, this topic is beginning to bore me. Believe me, I should know, most aspiring writers work really hard on their spec scripts.

They read books, they take classes, they ask questions on message boards, they go to blogs like the RW and try to glean information. They work for months and even years on their scripts. They pore over them and they worry about typos and errors. You can't catch them all, that's life. And of course there is a learning curve. But they try. And writers like that I advocate for with all my heart.

But there is still a large number of scripts that arrive in Hollywood that are written with an astonishing level of hubris. And it's an affront not only to industry readers and execs but ultimately to all writers everywhere because they just don't give a damn. And by not giving a damn, they disrespect all writers - aspiring and produced.

A script? Sure, I can write a script! Gimme six weeks and a computer and I'm good to go. Who cares about formatting, proofreading or punctuation? Who cares if the story makes sense or is at all entertaining? Read my brilliance and be blown away. Writing movies is easy and fun.

Writers like that are not stupid nor are they hapless school children as JPS implies. They are adults - of every age - who just don't bother with the details and who totally disregard and disrespect the art and the craft of screenwriting, writing in general and the English language. And they make all aspiring writers look like fools because they stand out so much.

I think a lot of interesting points have been made here but some of the writers commenting are the very ones who should also take offense - I happen to know your writing, to a one, and you are nowhere in the VICINITY of this kind of writing. But writers who think their brilliance is above a proofread - even a quick one - are the ones who make executives and readers jaded and cynical and regard writers as jesters and pretenders. The Magnum Opus is an eye-opening, painful, hilarious education.

ElBerto said...

JPS seems to make a good point -- that when someone submits a script, there is no authorization for "your work to be presented publicly and mocked for its lack of intelligence or its sloppy presentation."

While I agree with the principle -- that short of a sale, there is no implicit authorization for public presentation -- I think the "Fair Use" question has been answered by Chairman_b above. For me, it's more a question of responsibility.

Here's the key: JPS says "you enter into a private agreement that the work will be considered, judged and either accepted or rejected." In the case of Magnum Opus, the work was judged and accepted.

Let's suppose the same script is produced, on film, more-or-less as-is, by the unnamed production company (farfetched, I know, but we're working hypothetically, here).

The film, based on the script, will be presented publicly, and will still be mocked for its lack of intelligence (and possibly even sloppy presentation, if an unnoticed mistake goes uncorrected).

The only differences are A) the writer might have been compensated for authorizing the presentation, and B) the responsibility for the lack of intelligence is diffused, owing to the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

But who's really responsible for the lack of intelligence? The people who produced the script? Or the writer who came up with the script in the first place?

I believe that it's the writer who must take responsibility. If I wrote it that way, the assumption is -- must be -- that I meant it that way.

There's no difference between submitting a script for consideration and presenting the script to a public audience. The writer doesn't control the reader. Scripts get passed to readers and agents and executives and producers and directors as a simple matter of daily business, far beyond the original intended recipient.

When you submit a script for consideration, you are asking an audience (size and format of audience not specified) to read your best, finished work.

Which may then be mocked. Or lauded. Or anything in between.

Ask yourself this: would you have a problem with the show if they were presenting the best unproduced screenplays?

Julie Gray said...

Scotty - here is a clip:

Christina said...

Okay - so here's a crazy question -can someone purposely submit one of their first (re: cheesy) scripts for consideration? Seriously, my first two scripts are so full of amateurish mistakes that I'd be the first person to buy a ticket to see them performed like this. I read them now and laugh. Why should I keep all the comedy to myself? Seriously, I'm gonna contact the ringleader through MySpace...

Anonymous said...

So, Julie, if this script showed up in your mailbox with a check for 400 bucks, would you accept it?

Scott said...

I'm pretty surprised by some of the comments about this.

If I am understanding the process here, these are unsolicited scripts. the person(s) who send them in are clueless and their bad scripts presented in this way serves a purpose - not only to them, but all the rest of us.

It's like when Simon Cowell tells somebody they stink. It's a bitter pill, but eye-opening for sure - if you are open to it. If you've seen the auditions for American Idol, there are people who clearly cannot carry a tune in a bucket and are shocked to hear that the judges think they are bad.

"But my mom says I sing great!"

Weeping ensues. Profanity and fingers fly. "F you Simon - I'm gonna be a singer!"


Can we as a society please grow a pair?

Julie Gray said...

No. On two occasions I have received scripts this bad and I have written a page of advice for free and returned payment.