Hollywood vs. Online Dating

This morning, NPR Morning Edition ran a story called, “Why Hasn’t Online Dating Made it Onscreen?” Of course, as the story discusses, online dating has made it onto TV screens, and studios have made tons of tech-that-kills sci-fi and horror movies. But, the story points out, “[T]here’s one movie genre that’s still struggling to incorporate the everyday tech of contemporary life into the stories it tells: the romantic comedy. Which is notable — and very, very odd — because online dating…is, for millions of people, a simple fact of life — the New Normal.”

Turns out, I’ve got a little insight into this, since I actually wrote an online dating script almost a decade ago, and it got *this close* to finding a happy home at one of a number of production companies, before simply disappearing into the ether.

NPR spoke with film producer Christine Vachon, who said that the problem was visual, since it’s cinematically boring to watch people swipe right and swipe left, etc. That’s probably true, but it’s also not what generates the drama in a story, so hopefully nobody would be spending a ton of screen time on swiping left and right.

The NPR story also spoke to TV writer Guy Branum,  who I think is closer to the problem when he says any script you write has to get past studio execs to greenlight it. NPR reporter Glen Weldon said, “Let’s say some future screenwriter…”

And that’s when I decided to write this post. Because I was that screenwriter in…like, 2007?…and I guarantee that there have been more like me and, frankly, who are better than me, that have come up with compelling scripts, but they’ve not been made.

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Here’s what happened with mine:

In 2007, I wrote a script called Backwards Compatible about a data guy who is engaged to an artist, and has to sign up for a profile on an online dating service that is a client. It’s assigned work research, but among his matches he finds “the one that got away” — the girl he had a crush on growing up but always seemed unattainable. He gets some questionable advice and decides to try to meet this woman.

On the surface, the guy and his fiancee don’t have that much in common, but they bring out the best in each other. They’re not the couple you’d expect, but they make a good team. But this other woman represents the “what if…?” in life. His meeting with her, which he at first refuses to call a date, goes really well and they see each other more. He starts asking himself about all the other roads he never traveled, all the things he was too scared to try to do, and he winds up getting way into the weeds and kind of losing any real sense of himself. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his engagement on the rails, and all this other stuff secret…you get it.

The script got me a manager and a bunch of meetings. I’m not going to mention any names in this account, but I had the head of development at a very active company belonging to an A-list romcom kind of actress tell me that they’d been trying to crack the nut of an online dating script for over a year, and my script was the best take they’d seen. Backwards got set up at a different company, though — a big, Academy Award-nominated producer’s company, where they had one woman in charge of comedy in an otherwise all-male development office focusing mainly on action movies. I went to that exec’s birthday party, and had *another* exec from another company, also a woman, come up out of the blue and tell me that Backwards Compatible was her favorite romcom script she’d read since she’d been in development.

Then the writer’s strike happened. When the dust settled, my exec had been moved over to TV, and the management company I’d been with went kaput. Nevertheless, Backwards Compatible found a new home at a different company. I did a few more drafts, and finally it went up out of the hands of a female development exec to her boss, and he killed it. Said he, “didn’t get it.” There was also a potential actor attachment, but that guy burned some bridges and hasn’t been heard of much since then. Nevertheless, another producing team got a hold of the script, and we started developing it as a TV movie for a cable channel that wanted the location changed from Los Angeles to Nashville, so I did that. That was in 2011 or 2012. I’d been working on the script, not exclusively, but actively, for four years, and I was just done with it after the network finally passed. You can read that final version here, if you want.  There are things I’d do differently today, but that’s where it was left.*

Here are some factors to which I attribute the slow demise of perhaps my most-loved original screenplay:

  • Like Guy Branum said in the NPR piece, to get a script through the studio system and greenlit, you have to get it past guys in their fifties who have never had to deal with online dating. That’s true, but those guys also…
  • Probably don’t give a shit about romantic comedies, nor are they…
  • Often willing to take the advice of women who work with or for them.
  • The demise of the “$30 million-dollar movie” hit the romantic comedy harder than possibly any other genre
  • A bunch of shitty romantic comedies (many with one particularly unlikable actress) got made and didn’t do much at the box office, so it scared execs away

So in the end, I don’t think a studio’s going to make a great romantic comedy about online dating because there’s no incentive for them to do it. In fact, they’ve been actively dis-incentivized against making romantic comedies at all. Even if a lot of the real-world stuff you can point to might undermine that argument, I know the word in town at the time got to be that romantic comedies were unwelcome as development properties.

By now, since online dating has become such a staple of everyday life, the novelty has worn off, and there’s no reason to make an online dating romantic comedy, to tell the truth. The thing I liked about my script wasn’t the online dating aspect — that was only used as a vehicle to get to the “what if/grass is always greener” struggle. That’s something that I think is universal to the human experience, and worth making a movie about. If you try to make a movie based on any technology, that technology’s going to become obsolete, and quite possibly, your movie will be dated by the time it comes out.

I don’t think you need a new visual language for “some future screenwriter” to figure out, you just have to figure out a compelling human story to tell that the technology helps you unlock. TV’s already doing that, so this feels like a puzzle no studio is interested in solving.

*I don’t want this to come across only as “my script should’ve gotten made!” lament. I’d have liked that, sure, but there are issues with the script, and I understand that. This is about the larger point of why this topic is a particular challenge for movies, written based on personal experience, rather than academic conjecture. That’s all. 

 

Score!

The independent superhero comedy Spaghettiman made its theatrical debut in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is now available on VOD from all the places (iTunes, Amazon, etc). It’s about a self-centered, lazy, and generally repugnant slacker named Clark who gets the ability to shoot spaghetti out of his hands, then uses that ability to fleece crime victims out of some cash. It’s a legitimately good movie, and I have to tell you, the music is pretty kick-ass.

And I’m not just saying that because I made it…

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I want to give the credit to director Mark Potts (who also made the wonderful Cinema Six), because he had the vision for what the score should be, and I was happy to be able to execute it. Mark and I have a mutual friend, and after I saw Cinema Six, I reached out to Mark to let him know that if he wanted to use any Sci-Fi Romance songs in future movies, I’d be happy to make that possible. He responded that he was actually about to start shooting a new movie in a few days, and they were looking for a composer, if they could afford one. So we went to get drinks.

Mark wanted Spaghettiman to be a ridiculous send-up of superhero conventions, but played totally straight. No winking to the camera, no broad slapstick or direct parody, just everyone taking these absurd things happening around and to them seriously. The script was written by the Heckbender comedy team, Benjamin Crutcher, Winston Carter, Brand Rackley, and Mark, and I read it and loved it. I totally got it — in spirit, it had a lot in common with Return of the Forest Monster, the horror comedy I made over a decade ago.

Mark pitched the idea of a big, rock and roll score. Very sort of self-serious, like the characters in the movie. Not rock songs, but a legitimate film score, just played by a rock band. I told him I was pretty sure I could do that, and I came aboard.

I tried to apply film score “rules,” as best as I understand them. So for one, I created character themes.

Here’s the “Spaghettiman Theme,” which plays when mild-mannered slacker Clark goes into Spaghettiman mode:

Dale, Clark’s deliriously supportive roommate, also got a theme:

Both of these themes evolve over the course of the film as the characters change. There’s also a minor theme for the movie’s other main character, an ambulance-chasing freelance videographer named Anthony. His theme weaves in and out of other pieces of music to subtly indicate his presence, and his ultimate importance to the movie.

I worked very, very late at night and recorded all the instruments into my desktop. It was kind of amazing to be in the theater for the premiere and remember things like, “Oh, I remember doing that at 3 am and the cat started meowing and blew the take…” I’m happy it turned out as well as it did.

I did make a vocal version of one of the songs, and the video is below. It’s written from the perspective of the character, so this isn’t an indication that I’ve turned my back on my usual sort of cautious optimism about humanity. For about $6, you can buy the whole score on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, even though Apple seems to be hiding it for some reason…

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Out front of the Vintage Los Feliz 3 in LA for the premiere

Film Scores, Inspiration, and Whatnot

I’ve had some conversations this week about inspiration, and finding yourself in unfamiliar artistic waters, and it reminded me of something I’d written earlier this year, but never got a chance to share. Infectious Magazine wanted me to write a guest piece about film scoring, and instead I gave them a shaggy dog story about how an unconventional piece of music changed my musical path. They didn’t really go for it, so I gave them another piece they liked better.

But I liked the first draft, too, and I thought it was a nice look at how opening yourself up to things outside of your regular artistic focus can have wonderful repercussions. So here goes…

Without a doubt, the single piece of music that has had the most tangible impact on my life is Moussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and there’s a bright line between me seeing that performed for the first time and all of my film composition work. Many years ago, while in college, I was playing drums in a progressive metal band, and our cellist was in her campus orchestra. They did Pictures at an Exhibition, which I’d never heard, and my seat was right up front, in front of the double basses. I watched them for most of the performance, and, even though I’d seen orchestral music performed before, this was the first time for me that an orchestra stopped being a unified wall of music-making, and I was able to recognize the disparate parts, and begin to recognize how much or little the different sections played, and how these many pieces fit together.

I don’t know that I’d ever written a song at that point, and I’d only ever played drums — maybe I was just starting to pick up the guitar — so the idea of creating melodies was not something that I’d ever really entertained. But after that night in San Marcos, Texas, I downloaded a modular software synth and started exercising a totally new set of muscles.
 
I was also a filmmaker. A few months later, I was directing a short film with a big surrealism element, and I happened to find a harpsichord abandoned in a dark hallway (different story for a different day). I thought surrealism and harpsichords would go together just like melting clocks and barren trees, so I wrote a four-minute piece for solo harpsichord to go with the movie, and bam! I was a film composer.
 
Over the years since, I wrote quite a bit of (mostly) electronic music, trying to learn more about different voices, different textures, and just overall composition. Some of that music was specifically for film projects of my own or for friends’ projects, and some of it I just wrote and it later found its way into films. So with film composition as a sort of sideline hobby, I started paying more attention. Requiem for a Dream and Amelie came out about the same time, and both totally changed how I thought about film music. A year or so later, maybe, Turner Classic Movies hosted a Young Film Composers Competition, giving burgeoning composers the opportunity to score classic silent films. I watched everything I could about that, and learned a lot about traditional approaches to scoring — things like character leitmotifs. As I got more tuned-in to that kind of thing, I started thinking of film music as a way of communicating information, in addition to enhancing onscreen emotion. There’s a great example of the score actually telling a joke in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, when a little kid of dubious parentage walks into a room. And Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock is legendary; in the moment in Vertigo when James Stewart is at his most emotionally fraught, and the music is swelling, suddenly there’s somebody just raking their fingers across a harp. You’ve never heard anybody do that to a harp, and even if you don’t consciously realize it, your brain registers that we’re in a new, terrifying place in this person’s psyche.
 
I don’t know that I’m qualified to give anybody advice on film scoring (or, anything, really), but my own path has involved 1) knowing and meeting people making films, 2) consciously trying to evolve and try new things as someone who writes music, and 3) learning how to play more instruments…or at least learning enough to screw around on more instruments.
 
Over this past summer, I was asked to score a complete feature film for the first time, and I think we took a pretty unique approach to the idea of a film score. The director asked if he thought I could do a “rock and roll score” — not songs, but essentially a traditional film score played with loud-ass guitars, distorted bass, and booming drums. After years of playing drums in rock and metal bands, playing guitar in a couple rock bands, writing and recording some 30+ songs with my band Sci-Fi Romance, and whatever on-the-job training I got from working in the world of short films…well, I was sure as hell going to find out if I could.
 
And if you think about it, Pictures at an Exhibition is really a film score, even though it was written before there was such a thing as film. Modeste Moussorgsky attended an art gallery showing of works by a friend who had recently died. Afterward, Moussorgsky wrote a piece of music for each painting on display, and connected them all with a Promenade theme, which evolves and changes as you move through the temporal experience of the show. It’s putting music to picture. And maybe nobody’s ever done it any better.