In response to last week's post about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Kevin Lenihan asked:
A question I have is whether you would have liked the script if it had appeared on your desk as a spec by an unknown. I ask this sincerely and with the fullest of respect.
I check in with the blog once and a while. Plenty of interesting thoughts here.
But what I wonder is if there might be a problem with people that have read too many scripts or seen too many movies. Everything becomes so "familiar" to them that it becomes virtually impossible for a script or film to please them. Even worse, because of the human tendency to fit things into previously experienced molds, there may be the possibility of misunderstanding a story as the mind fills in the blanks with its own expectations.
Recently I watched Seven Psychopaths, and it struck me that the writer was expressing a frustration with this phenomena where critics and readers are so determined to find something that does not resemble anything they've seen before that the only things left for the writer are to create absurd plots and characters.
I once saw a script reader complain about gangsters "having guns", how that was so cliche. What should they be armed with then? Hedge clippers?
Please don't take this as criticism. On the contrary, I empathize with your situation, with your having read so many scripts, many no doubt awful. I just wonder if the result is that as soon as you encounter something which resembles something familiar, the assumption is that the story is following the same path. You might at times fill in the picture before the story has been given a chance to.
It's a fair question but it overlooks a simple fact - we still recognize GOOD scripts that use those elements. I don't think it's a case of film or scripts becoming impossible to please an audience, more that the standard is higher. Consider Roger Ebert - the man often watched three movies a DAY and was still capable of being impressed by strong tentpole crowdpleasers and smaller indie films alike.
The familiar alone isn't what often inspires wrath; it's the uninspired usage of the familiar. In the wake of Garden State, I can't tell you how many naval-gazing scripts I read about one's own quarterlife crisis, often featuring a spirtely girl who's sole purpose for existing was to pull our hero out of the doldrums. In those cases, the author wasn't bringing anything of their own to it - there were merely repeating what had been done. Often, they were including story beats without justifying them.
Just last month I read a thriller that committed the same sort of offenses. It centered on a crooked cop and the gang war that was brewing as a new tough guy moved into town. The problem was that there was no depth to any of these beats. We were merely show the new gang wiping out the old gang, with no explanation ever given as to what each gang's agenda was. The crooked cop had been owned by the old gang, and then switched sides to join the new one, but again, there was no internal motivation for that switch-up.
It was as if the writer had watched a lot of crime thrillers, identified certain beats that occurred in each one, and then duplicated them. But without any motivated relationship between those beats, there was no story. It was a collection of events, none of which seemed necessary to the others.
That script was an extreme case of getting so much wrong at once. More often you'll end up with a script with a tepid plot and a few familiar elements that make little effort to cast familiar elements in a new light. While there is a fair number of terrible scripts out there, the vast majority of scripts are mediocre. Hell, there's probably an argument to be made that the vast majority of released films are mediocre.
But you know the side effect of so much mediocrity? The really good stuff stands out, and that's what The Perks of Being a Wallflower is - really good. You pose the question of if I would have liked the script if it crossed my desk as the work of an unknown. The simple truth is that Stephen Chbosky might as well be an unknown to me. I've never read his work before and I'm not familiar with him at all.
Beyond that, one isn't a script reader for long before they likely will be in the position of writing PASS on a script written by an established writer. Is it possible that now and then Cameron Crowe might get a stronger benefit of the doubt than a new writer might? Probably. But then, Crowe has a track record of turning out strong films, so there's more faith in his ability to execute something that isn't coming through on the page. But Crowe has EARNED that benefit of the doubt.
Chbosky turned in an excellent film without the benefit of a long screenwriting and directing track record. I could see some people giving this a pass for business reasons (Emma Watson apparently was taking meetings with every studio in town, telling them to make this movie, only to be met with disinterst), but I find it unlikely that anyone would read this and question the quality of the writing.
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