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How to write character based films

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One of the (few) advantages of taking long plane trips is the chance to catch up on some films I missed when they first came out. One I saw the other day was “Please Give,” a low-key look at a collection of New York neurotics fighting their own life battles and getting confused, guilty, depressed by family loyalties and the desire to find your place in life (and once you’ve found it, the impulse to find another one). It’s amusing and I think a good model for writers interested in small scale character comedy.

The New Yorker review made a good observation: (director Nicole) Holofcener structures the movie like a finely wrought short story.”

That is often true of small-scale character-based films; frequently they observe people as they are in a point in time rather than covering their epic transformation as is typical of bigger pictures. (This is not to say the characters don’t change in these type of films, but often the changes are more subtle. Movies like this tend to charm you (“Sideways” is another good example) and leave you feeling that you wouldn’t mind spending another 90 minutes with these people seeing what happens next.

Of course these kinds of movies are not of interest to the core movie going audience of teen-agers and therefore often fail to make much money. This one was made for $3 million and grossed about $4.2 million world-wide. Factoring in DVD sales and TV sales, it might just about break even. Also typical of such movies, it was released in a relatively small number of theaters (272 at it’s widest point) but had a long run (25 weeks). On the plus side, often they are more memorable and influential with the people who do go to see them. When I talk to friend about films, it’s ones like “Sideways” that we are still referencing long after we’ve forgotten the summer action flix.

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Terry Gilliam’s true confession

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Artist and filmmaker Terry Gilliam made a confession to the Sunday Times a while back:

“I’m lucky my first attempt [at making his Don Quixote film] failed, because I can see now that the script wasn’t good enough.”

Producers rush into production with inadequate scripts for all kinds of reasons–the availability of the actor they want is limited, or the funding looks precarious, or their distributor wants the film to open on a particular date. In Gilliam’s case, I suspect it was just has passion for the subject that made him want to get on with it and blinded him, apparently, to some shortcoming of the script. By the way, if you haven’t seen it, you should look up the documentary about what went wrong with the first attempt (“Lost in La Mancha”).

It’s refreshing to hear someone of his stature and experience be humble enough to admit that kind of mistake. Equally charming is his statement that, “I still don’t have a clue about making films. I hope there’s still time to learn.”

What a great attitude from somebody with his background. I also hope there’s lots more time for Gilliam , who is 68, to share his learning experiences with us.

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“YOUTH IN REVOLT” * written by Gustin Nash * based on the novel by C. D. Payne * directed by Miguel Arteta

In a role he’s now played half a dozen times and plays very well Michael Cera is the hapless virgin in love with the hard-to-get girl. This comedy recalls Woody Allen’s early work but instead of Humphrey Bogart, Cera’s self-created alter ego is Francois, a French dandy willing to be the bad boy to win  the girl (Cera plays him, too). Some nice guest turns from Fred Willard, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta and Steve Buscemi light up the episodic storyline (based on the novel of the same name).

What works: Some great lines even if they sound like they’re coming from a 40 year old man rather than a teen-ager. The quirkiness avoid the full-out gross-out of the “American Pie” genre (which to my mind is a good thing), and the supporting characters are fun. Overall, the knockabout charming quality of the piece works.

What doesn’t: His best friend disappears halfway through, and the inclusion of different styles/methods (like stop-motion animation), although welcome, is a too random.

What we can learn from the script: It’s still possible to give a fresh slant to the boy-gets-girl story (in this case, the novelist gets the credit) and to write a teen coming of age movie without going into full gross-out mode. How strong supporting roles add richness to the story–in this instance, helped by a very strong cast.

While I’d give it a B+, It wasn’t a hit at the box office, taking in about $15 million in the US and $3 million foreign (it cost $18 million). Then again, it was up against “Avatar” and other summer blockbusters.

The trailer will give you the flavor of the film:

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