Sunday, October 22, 2006

Movies: All Your Script Are Belong To Us

Sparse posting of late for several reasons. Rewrite work has me jumping. I’m still recovering from the Mets’ playoff ouster. And I’m making my way through the magazines I missed while on vacation.

So I’m late in calling attention to this Malcolm Gladwell article in the October 16 issue of The New Yorker on a computer program designed to predict hit movies. It’s actually an artificial neural network that analyzes screenplays using weighted values for various story elements; so many million bucks in projected box office for the right action beats or key bonding moments in the third act.

As a screenwriter I am entitled to hate such software, but I can’t completely, at least not as Gladwell depicts it. The software allegedly shows that audiences are primarily concerned with story, and don’t care who the stars of a movie are. You’re preaching to choir here, Univac.

Gladwell’s trademark digressions into history and theory bog the article down somewhat, but it’s still worth reading for its insights into how movies are written. The software designers demonstrate their handiwork for Gladwell using the 2005 Sean Penn/Nicole Kidman thriller The Interpreter. The computer analyzes the original draft of the screenplay by Charles Randolph, plus the shooting script revised by several writers including Scott Frank, one of the best there is. (Frank is brutally honest in his comments, saying he reached a point where he didn’t believe what he was writing. “I don’t know that I made (the movie) better. I may have just made it different.”) The computer then serves up a rewrite of its own.

I’ll say this for Epagogix (the name comes from Aristotle); it nails the flaws in the finished film. The Interpreter has some solid set pieces, but it doesn’t fully exploit its U.N. location and the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense. The computer apparently had nothing to say about my main problem with the movie: too many scenes saddling Penn’s character with an unnecessary tragic backstory. Rosemarie and I now call them “abutment scenes” in honor of this film, because Penn is constantly rambling about his not-quite-yet-ex-wife’s death when her car ran into a bridge abutment. (Note to screenwriters: if you’re going to make an actor, even one of Penn’s caliber, repeat a word endlessly, make it more lyrical than “abutment.”)

As for the computer’s version of the movie, it’s the worst kind of hackwork. And I have no doubt that it would indeed have grossed the $111 million that the program projects. I know I would have gone to see it.

Miscellaneous: Link

We’re rolling into prestige movie season, and I have to admit I’m not feeling a whole lot of enthusiasm. Then I saw the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.