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10/12/2002 - Untimely Death

Have you ever noticed that screenwriting is guided by a very long "Don't" list? Don't go over X number of pages, don't use coincidence to the hero's advantage, don't pitch the wrong project to the wrong producer, don't, don't, don't. The endeavor often seems less like a difficult ascent up the creative slope, and more like a frantic dash through a minefield of potential mistakes. Many times, the mistakes aren't even things you can help. It reminds me of the TV show ROBOT WARS, where in the midst of a challenging fight a sawblade whirls up from the floor to mutilate anything unfortunate enough to be in the way.

Movie making is like that. Random sawblades spear up through the ground in Los Angeles, maiming you or your project without cause or warning. Of course, projects usually die long before they get off the ground. The production company develops it to death or puts it in turnaround, or you can't get main cast to commit, or the director bails to do something else. But at least you're somewhat prepared for disappointment. Until the greenlight is given, you know better than to assume success.

It's the unlucky few films that get all the way to the distribution phase when that whining blade carves through them. This last minute scuttling has happened a lot lately, when real-world horrors have forced distributors to postpone or cancel the release of suddenly offending films. The kidnap-themed film TRAPPED opened to virtually no publicity, due to the rash of devastating child-abductions this summer. This month, the movie PHONE BOOTH is in danger of losing it's long- (and I mean LONG) awaited release, just because some sharpshooter decided to give up on the whole "sanity thing".

Having a real-life villain usurp your premise just before release is awful, but as a screenwriter, you've already been paid by that point. A postponed release may not be a personal catastrophe. But what about your next project? Are you developing a script that's vulnerable to topical tragedy?

Every screenwriter knows of some cool terrorist premise, perhaps their own, that was dead and buried on September 12th. Because of this, some writers I know are hesitating to develop high-concept premises that might mimic some future atrocity. They may have a great disaster device, but who wants to risk parallel development with a real life madman? Writers rightfully take pride in the creation of original, compelling villains, but those villains seem to be jumping off the page with unsettling frequency.

The challenge now is to news-proof your doomsday device, or come up with a unique antagonist possessing original dastardly methods. Perhaps you should avoid the stereotypical villain who gleefully plans to destroy the world. Try making mass casualties an unforeseen consequence of the villain's actions. Do something to update the villain - to reclaim him or her as human, or at least three-dimensional. Antagonists with zero scruples have reduced stakes - and the audience needs to see the bad guy struggle, too.

No matter what you do to give your movie depth and good taste, there's still the chance that a real-world situation will doom it to the can. Painfully topical subject matter will always be a threat to a high-concept story. Public sensitivity may put an end to a project that you knew would make you famous, but it's just one of those pitfalls you can't avoid. You can only challenge your creativity so much; after that, all you can do is resort to old standby inhuman antagonists like asteroids, arrogant mega-computers and big, scary sharks.

Except the shark-attack thing might still be touchy right now. Better hold off.


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