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Matt Joseph Misetich

The Top 10 Films You’ll Never See on a Top 10 List

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You know, there comes a time when we have to search far beyond the limits of our conscious mind and determine who we are. Our identity as writers and filmmakers, in the hopes of discovering our creative selves. Where we fit in the cinematic landscape.

And I’m sorry, but you have to stop saying The Shawshank Redemption is your favorite movie. All of you.Shawshank

According to studies, 35% of “frequent to highly frequent” movie-goers side with The Shawshank Redemption as their default motion picture darling. Over 20% pick The Godfather or a Woody Allen movie, while the remainder select films in AFI’s best movie list or smaller but highly popular cult favorites.

Sure. These are all excellent movies.

Without a doubt, there are actual Shawshank fans out there.

And yes, the aforementioned statistics may be nothing more than my educated guess based on IMDB’s rankings and have no scientific basis whatsoever (like I have time to do research on “what’s your favorite movie” responses, although I did come across this Vanity Fair article, which explains a lot).

The point is, many of you are boldfaced liars when asked this question. It’s okay. We all are. Because we want to sound professional and qualified and worldly and other synonyms for those three things.

I tell people my favorite film is American Beauty, since the underlying commentary on society juxtaposed against late 20th century suburbia creates a blah blah blah Kevin Spacey is brilliant and you gotta see House of Cards. . . is how the conversation usually ends.

It’s a sad state of affairs. But while I would rank American Beauty high, is it my go-to movie on a Thursday night? I come across that and City Slickers II on TV, guess which one I’m sacrificing outdoor time for. I don’t care what the competition is, Jon Lovitz wins always. At the end of the day, great movies live only in the eye of the viewer.

The biggest rule to follow if you’re a screenwriter or filmmaker: be honest with yourself. Be honest with your style, your tastes, your voice. Everything. Honesty often-times starts with admitting your artistic preferences, no matter how ludicrous they come across. Professionalism be damned.

I therefore encourage you to publicly announce your personal top films and shamelessly declare them as outstanding. It’d be like your own personal Shawshank Redemption. Or something. I don’t really get the story. I mean, wasn’t Andy Dufresne going to kill his wife anyway?

So here are my top 10, based on the quality of writing, acting, and universal movieness. It’s a personal list, therefore these selections are extremely sort of subjective. . . .

*I fully realize there are a lot of films from the 1980s here. But it was a great decade for movies. Especially 1989. Seriously, look it up.

BeneathThePlanetOfTheApesBeneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Fans of post-apocalyptic landscapes, rejoice. It doesn’t get more unearthly than this (insert “but it was Earth!” joke).

Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison, followed by James Franciscus on a mission to recover the original astronaut team, traverse the underground ruins of New York City until coming across the last surviving humans on the planet, these bald, disease-ridden people. The victims of atomic fallout.

And they have a bomb, and–spoiler alert–blow it up in the end when the apes find their location. One of the most depressing endings to a sequel in history. But this makes the list for four reasons: a unique imagination of the future, the directing, the boldness of the writing (arguably better than the first installment), and every scene with Linda Harrison.

ReturnOzReturn to Oz (1985)

I’m consistently shocked by how many people age 25-40 have never seen this sequel to The Wizard of Oz. But then I write “sequel to The Wizard of Oz,” and it’s pretty clear. A little hesitant to dive into Sequels that Shouldn’t Exist territory? More sympathetic I cannot be.

But this is different. It should exist, and it does exist.

In the vein of The Dark Crystal, or The Neverending Story, Return to Oz has a certain hyper-real fantasy charm only the 80s could supply. There are no Judy Garland solos, cartoonish painted backdrops, or delightfully macabre flying monkeys. You’ll notice about 15 or 20 minutes in, when Dorothy is taken to a turn-of-the-century doctor for experimental electroshock therapy before escaping with another girl, only to awaken in a much-changed, remarkably surreal Oz destroyed by the Nome King.

And there are “wheelers.” And an evil queen who collects heads. And a flying moose sofa. And a desert that turns living things to sand. And a talking rooster!

And it’s all very cool. Go Netflix it. Or you can borrow my VHS copy.

CocoonCocoon (1985)

A bunch of old actors–and Steve Guttenberg–in a studio sci-fi/fantasy drama set in a Florida retirement community.

Best of luck pitching that in 2015.

Ironically, it’s a fantastic commercial premise. Or it was at the time. At its core, a modern day fountain of youth story. Simple and universal. We might never see another film like it: who’s writing a hazy genre taking shape as an alien movie with relevant cross-generational commentaries on death, aging, and, stating the obvious, the meaning of life itself? Not exactly in line with current audience expectations.

Yet I still tell writers, “Write the next Cocoon, and you’ll do fine.” To which they reply, “What’s Cocoon?” But what I’m really saying is “Write something thematically relevant with wonderful characters wrapped in a unique concept that challenges the mainstream.”

Then get Ron Howard to direct it. Aside from one of the best scripts you’ll ever read, Cocoon marks Howard’s prodigious artistry as a director on display for the first time. Unless you count Splash. I’m not counting Splash. My condolences to fans of Splash.

EyesWideShutEyes Wide Shut (1999)

I first saw this largely forgotten Kubrick-helmed drama on cable a year or so after its release, figuring I’d watch the first five minutes and switch to something else, as it received such mediocre reviews.

Like Tommy Lee Jones at the end of No Country for Old Men: “And then I woke up. . . .”

While it’s understandable why critics panned the movie–the plot doesn’t gel, and this was around the time it become “cool” to hate on Tom Cruise–it’s such an immersive, vivid experience, like every other Kubrick film, we can gloss over the imperfections.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the directing is an underrated, unacknowledged masterpiece. While perhaps not Kubrick’s magnum opus, Eyes Wide Shut serves as a suitable bookend to a remarkable career. And Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise had chemistry. So that’s something.

TheWizardThe Wizard (1989)

My God, this movie.

The casting, the plot, the soundtrack. The works. Possibly the best video game-related film of all time, and possibly the first video game film of all time, but who’s keeping track?

The Wizard was huge deal when it came out in theaters. Now you won’t find it airing anywhere, cable or network. A valid assumption: the content is far too dated to draw an audience. No one knows what a power glove is, so it gets the ax. Fair enough.

A trio comprised of Luke Edwards, Fred Savage and hitchhiking ginger Jenny Lewis travel to California on the advice of Savage to put the gamerly-gifted Edwards in a Nintendo competition–where they get to play the new Super Mario Bros. 3!–but all the kid wants to do is resolve some feelings about his dead sister. In a nutshell.

The acting and writing come together, minus a few corny scenes, but it’s excusable in the family drama territory. After renting it from The Warehouse so many times, I would get stuck in the pre-teen fantasy of kissing Jenny Lewis on top of a trailer in the desert like Savage’s character. . . . Off-topic, but still worth mentioning.

FollowBirdSesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird (1985)

Also referred to as “Street FTB,” if you’re in the know.

The concept of Follow that Bird is utterly ridiculous. And terrifying. A mean old finch, appropriately named Ms. Finch, says Big Bird should be living with a bird family, so she relocates him, without any resistance, to live with The Dodos. However, Big Bird deems them insane and runs away, it makes huge news, he’s declared missing, and the good people of Sesame Street try to track him down before Ms. Finch.

Look past the absurdity, and Street FTB is awash in classic one-liners and banter most kids aren’t going to get. True to Muppet tradition (they’re all technically from the Muppet genus), it’s an adult comedy packaged as a kid’s movie.

RomancingRomancing the Stone (1984)

Once in a while I’ll meet someone named Joan, and I’ll say “Joan Wile-dare? The Joan Wile-dare?” in a Colombian accent. Their confused, quasi-annoyed look makes me nostalgic for a simpler time when studios made adventure/rom-coms.

Joan Wilder, played by the inimitable Kathleen Turner, has a meet-cute-plus-gunplay encounter with Jack T. Colton. What’s the “T” stand for? We never find out. Because the Doobie Brothers broke up. Long story. So he helps her get to Cartagena, finds out about the treasure map, they get that phat emerald, dodge the bad guys, and the boat never comes back for Danny DeVito.

Romancing the Stone is the epitome of a flawless blend of genres. A romantic comedy that’s entirely believable and an adventure with serious high stakes and conflict. Credit fantastic character development on the part of screenwriter Diane Thomas, who died in a car accident shortly after the movie’s release with no one to carry the torch for films like this.

Yeah, yeah. “There have been plenty other A-level rom-com hybrids.” Not really. Not with a protagonist like Joan Wilder, the novelist, who has a fan base in Colombia pre-social media. That’s boss.

LittleChildrenLittle Children (2006)

The poster, which is also spectacular, hangs neatly framed above the desk in my office. So we have kind of a daily intimate connection, me and this movie.

As many terribly fascinating, poignantly written dramatic films occupied the early 2000s–we can make a long list of those alone–Little Children stands out as an all-star. While the unprecedented casting and the impressive direction by Todd Field make the film what it is, due credit must be given to the screenplay, adapted from the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name. Adaptations can be tricky, even for basic dramas. Nay, especially for basic dramas. If you read the book, you’ll notice much was retained in the final version, including the superbly delineated characters, but the film offers a plot structure (again, credit ought to go to Field) that draws us in to a haunting story of suburbia gone bad. Or gone good, depending on your perspective.

After a handful of Golden Globe and Oscar noms, everyone seemed to move on to bigger and better and darker dramedies. As expected. But history will look kindly upon this gem of an indie.

PointBreakPoint Break (1991)

I hate to understate things, but it’s one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema and theatre, too. At least post-Renaissance.

Having seen Point Break approximately 763 times in the 90s alone, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the paradigm for all action movies of its kind. Proof that you don’t need a huge budget, a bunch of CGI, explosions, or blatant nudity (except for one flash of the kick-ass shower girl) to sustain a crime movie. A couple on-the-nose pieces of dialogue, but whatever. It shows us a world where: Keanu Reeves plays, um, Keanu Reeves, I believe; a normal Gary Busey; a leading lady challenging the female stereotypes from the era; and Patrick Swayze with long hair. Which was a big deal back then.

I’m only ranking Point Break runner-up because there can be no ties when it comes to underrated movies. And the top slot is a no-brainer–

WeekendBerniesWeekend at Bernie’s (1989)

I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the perfect comedy. Plot, structure, character, dialogue. . . . Flawless.

Naturally, I can’t argue the fact it’s 10x more asinine than anything else on this list, but think about it for a second–it’s not that illogical. Their boss sets them up to get killed, he gets murdered in the process, and they pretend he’s dead to get off the the island alive. I challenge any of you to come up with a better plan in that situation, in an era where wackiness was a proven method of getting out of jams. Isn’t that how the Cold War ended?

Plus, it’s not like we’re without a voice of reason. Jonathan Silverman makes one hell of a protest to Andrew McCarthy. But then Catherine Stewart shows up to Bernie’s beach house during the party, and she’s totally 80s rad, so he changes his mind briefly, then comes to his wits the next day, and frankly, I’d hate to spoil it if you haven’t seen it.

Best consumed with a strawberry daiquiri while wearing short shorts or one of those neon, high-waisted one-piece bikinis that makes your lower body look awkward.

tumblr_inline_muzhwvm2Pa1r56z3wFor 12 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the HuntsmanDivergent) and Tripper Clancy (The AmbassadorsStranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards. 

 

When Is Your Screenplay Finished?

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Rather than spur a micro-analyzed philosophical debate impossible to win, allow me to first clarify: the process of writing a screenplay does end.

Because it has to.

A protege of Mario Puzo isn’t locked up in some Bronx basement still writing The Godfather in an eternal, Sisyphean loop of infinite futility. It was written, it was produced, and it was released. Script done. The End. Or “fin,” if you’re into that sorta thing.

This whole “you’re never done writing a screenplay!” nonsense is nothing more than buzzy seminar filler and pseudo-screenwriting advice to arouse, I guess, comradery amongst writers. But it’s easy for some to take this claim literally and sit stoic on the fallacy that no matter what they do, they haven’t “finished” their script. It’s one of the easiest ways to spoil a sense of accomplishment.

So they edit, rewrite, tweak, polish. . . usually without professional guidance, erroneously making an educated guess at what needs work, and sometimes executing so many revisions they end up with nary a semblance of what was probably a pretty decent script to begin with. And the rewrites continue.  They become Sisyphus–with a Final Draft file instead of a boulder.Sisyphus

Eventually, the absurdity ends. They give up. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I’ve seen it happen so much, I’m convinced some writer in Ohio is sitting on the next Back to the Future but won’t send it to anyone because he heard once that “scripts are never finished.”

The reality is. . . part of this statement is true. It is, like many screenwriting topics, kind of a grey area.

Writing for film and TV (and theater, sure) is unique in that you’re drawing up a blueprint of what will, or can maybe-possibly, become a finished product: a motion picture or television series. When you finish a novel, you finish a novel. It doesn’t have to be published to be considered “complete.” A painting is finished when the artist decides it’s finished, independent of it hung on a wall or displayed in a gallery.

With screenwriting, we don’t have that luxury. The goal of screenwriting is to get your script produced, and along the way, it’ll be optioned, sold, and almost certainly go through several rounds of development. Scripts have been rewritten on the fly, during production, in post-production, even. The writers on Friends, for example, and several other sitcoms I’m sure, would rewrite a line of dialogue or a scene if it didn’t spark a big enough laugh. By that definition, no, scripts are not “finished.” You just run out of time. You’ve heard that phrase before, and it’s true when it comes to filmmaking as a whole.

As is the case with all up-and-coming writers, few of you have reached your ceiling of talent, which can take years. Or decades. You know when you go back and re-read something you wrote years ago and think, “Wow, I allowed human beings read this?” It’s humiliating, and we all do it (I’ll probably revisit this article weeks later and be like, “eh”). Your writing itself is a process. You improve with every script, with every scene you write, and learn from every mediocre line of dialogue and cliche plot twist. So that old script you finished in college isn’t actually finished because you didn’t really know what the hell you were doing back then. And trust me, you’ll think the same thing five years from where you are now because creative people always see room for growth.

There’s good news / bad news here. And they’re both the same: it’s out of your control.

Say you finish your script, and it gets picked up by a producer. They may very well hire another writer, or writers, to fix certain areas they believe need fixing. Pieces of the screenplay outside of your comfort zone, or level of expertise. This happens more often than not, and unless your agreement gives you control, you have to roll with it. Or find another producer. If you’re a writer/director/producer with a rainy day fund, congratulations. Get some script notes, tighten things up, finance it yourself, and film your way to festivals (how’s that for a buzzy seminar one-liner?).

A good consultant or manager should advise a writer to work on a script until they’re simply unable to upgrade the draft–that magical point where you’ve fully realized their personal creative potential on that story–and then circulate your project. See how it fares to best gauge your skills, while working on new and better stuff. In this scenario, a script is finished when you have taken it as far as you can.

Dr. Bob Rotella, one of the preeminent sports psychologists and someone I’d recommend highly to writer/athletes, advocates the very zen philosophy of “giving up control to gain control.” Writers would benefit tremendously from this theory.

At some point, you have to let go of a script, accept that it best personifies your current abilities, and send it out–to a professional reader or consultant who can help you take it to the next level, a potential manager or agent, a competition, or a production company searching for new material. You’re not giving up, of course. You’re merely pushing your script to the top of the hill.

*See that? How I tied everything up with the rock analogy, as anticipated? The last paragraph took five drafts, but I finally had to stop because it wasn’t getting any better. Practice what you preach.

tumblr_inline_muzhwvm2Pa1r56z3wFor 12 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the HuntsmanDivergent) and Tripper Clancy (The AmbassadorsStranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards. 

The Myth of “Realistic” Writing

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“Just write it more realistic,” they said.

Makes sense. Realism. That’s like everyday stuff, right? Easy.

And then, maybe an hour later, you break down–this hollow, brink-of-tears, absurd frustration stemming neither from the sadness of failure nor the euphoria of success. Those would be concrete emotions. This is utter confusion—a special breed of creative annoyance impossible to solve. A riddle without an answer.

“Write something realistic,” you repeated aloud. “What does that mean? Am I living in reality right now?”

Yes. You are. Truth is, all writers have been there, and hitting this dead end is no fault of your own. Because “write realistically” doesn’t really mean anything, at least not without context.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.Over the last decade, I’ve given (and received) the old-timey “just make it realistic” note probably over 100 times. Basically, what the reader is saying is that the experience should come off as “realistic” within the world you’ve created. Specifically. What they may also be saying is that the characters themselves ought to be realistic, no matter their environment. Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings or Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, there are certain threads, common themes, we all share, and with it comes a logical process of growth. Behold: realism in storytelling.

But who needs logic? Isn’t that the goal of storytelling? To suspend our system of logic?

That is the goal, of course. Kinda sorta. Still, that doesn’t mean we can allow our characters, our plot, to take unrealistic directions. It all depends on what we’ve established in the world of our story. Would you realistically travel across Middle Earth to destroy a ring in a giant pit of fire? Maybe not (unless you have something to prove and like working outdoors). However, is it plausible for someone to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? Sure. Thus, in Lord of the Rings, we have a universal theme and a universal motivation. Thus. . . a “realistic” scenario. Tolkien created a completely fantastic series of events devoid of reality, yet we can connect on a very human level.

Similarly, writing realistic depends on the unique perspective of the story’s creator.

To pull a current example: Lena Dunham’s Girls. (*Lena Dunham haters may want to skip ahead, or troll their angst on Twitter. . . .)

If you haven’t seen the show, you should. At least a couple episodes (it’s also fascinating how many people criticize Dunham and have never seen Tiny Furniture OR Girls, but yeah, separate topic). We won’t discuss why and how the writer/actress has become one of the most polarizing figures in the entertainment industry. That’s a Tolkien-esque epic conversation in itself, and trust me, there are no winners. Let’s instead touch upon Girls the TV show in particular, which has been labeled as everything from “down-to-earth” to a downright blatant misconception of the modern, city-dwelling, middle-income female. Because, you know, 20-something girls don’t share baths.Girls

Regardless of your personal opinion, Dunham’s goal, presumably, was to create the anti-Sex and the City. A show that prides itself on “realism,” even if she doesn’t admit such outright. Or maybe she has. I dunno. I’ll let you wade through the vast internetsphere of hip articles and not-so-hip memes to crosscheck.

The thing is, Girls is, in fact, wholly realistic. But you know what? So was Sex and the City. And The Godfather. And Weekend at Bernie’s. They established a foundation for their story and never deviated from the tone, theme, and expectations of their own little narrative universe (narraverse? I’m coining it), no matter how disparate it seemed on the surface compared to our experience.

Because that’s the point. A film or TV series or novel or whatever is often-times a representation of how the author perceives the world. It’s through their lens. As long as they’re consistent, and the characters are acting realistically according to the “rules” their creator has set, then mission accomplished.

Believability issues are common in most scripts, but that doesn’t require you to alter a character’s action, or skew your plot, to fit some sort of preconceived, non-existent model of Genre-Encompassing Realism. Don’t let some cookie-cutter development person tell you different. You have to do what’s right for your story when it comes to promoting a sense of authenticity. Your story will thank you.

“But 20-something girls would never take a bath together.”

Perhaps not. Except in Hannah Horvath’s world, they might. And for a variety of reasons, the events leading up to that moment in Girls, and other seemingly implausible moments, make it totally realistic.

tumblr_inline_muzhwvm2Pa1r56z3wFor 12 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the HuntsmanDivergent) and Tripper Clancy (The AmbassadorsStranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing independent feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards.