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Tales From the Script -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- Author/filmmaker Peter Hanson's "Tales From the Script," with its focus on writers who've furnished the studios with mainstream product and know the rules, inadvertently suggests the great divide that separates the mainstream movie factories from the indie world.

But with its impressive roster of participating Hollywood screenwriters who are the non-stop talking heads at the heart of the project -- spiced with a number of well-chosen clips from Hollywood films that depict fictional toilers of the trade -- "Tales From the Script" is an enjoyable if not particularly enlightening ride into a mean, tough, well-paying biz that grows ever more challenging. To convey the lesson here (while paraphrasing Dante), don't give up all hope, you who dare to enter.

Tales shares insights by addressing multiple subjects such as how Hollywood works, how you sell and survive, how abuse is rampant, how the business has changed, etc. There are the familiar plaints about abuse. Vet writer William Goldman ("All the President's Men") shares that "you'll get pissed on and rejected." And much patience is required, as Frank Darabont attests, since it took him years to break through. And how about those 45 versions of "Amadeus" written before the film could be shot?

There's precious little information about writing well as opposed to writing to please -- Why bother, as everyone else will jump in and make their changes? -- but some tidbits are forthcoming. Goldman reminds that structure and story are what really count. Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham") succeeds by writing about issues that are really important to him.

As for selling, writer-director John Carpenter confesses to being unable to pitch. But the real obstacle to making a sale is how easy it is for studio executives to say "no." A "no" is safe because execs can go off to lunch with no worries.

Discussing the process, Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull") says that he sidelined writer's block by writing "hard and fast." Explaining his rapport with Martin Scorsese and scoring points for bonding, he notes that both were short, asthmatic, angry film buffs.

Several talking heads cite the changes in the business, how marketing rules as does the corporate thinking that has overtaken an industry once run by moguls who knew the movies. Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass," "State of Play") bemoans the fact that the great films of yore that we all love could never get made today. And Goldman points to today's enormous, "terrifying" production costs that paralyze much of the business.

Scripts today, suggests Steven de Souza ("Die Hard"), must so conform to studio needs and the "personal agendas of executives," he suggests writing scripts that have opportunities for "plug and play," so execs can drop in what they need.

Also in the interest of gaining results, action specialist de Souza and others talk about writing for stars. Even latecomer Justin Zackham ("The Bucket List") had Morgan Freeman's "voice in his head" as he wrote his breakthrough script. Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon," "The Long Kiss Goodbye") recommends learning an actor's vocabulary by studying the craft in order to better write for the performer.

Other important writers have their say here and it doesn't matter that many triumphed in years past. Today, the Hollywood movie business has been largely reduced to action and franchise tentpoles, leaving little room for the creativity good writers can deliver.

Even if the rules, quality and odds have changed, the participants in "Tales" suggest how to get through. Battlegrounds may shift, but war strategies remain stable.

"Tales from the Script" has a cross-platform assault that also includes a DVD of the doc due in late April and a paperback edited by Hanson and Herman available now (and including a few additional big-cheese writers).

Opens: March 12 (First Run)
Production companies: Grand River Films, Jade Tiger Films
Director/director of photography: Peter Hanson
Screenwriter/producer: Peter Hanson, Paul Robert Herman
Executive producers: Rick D'Avino, Pamela Murphy
Music: T.J. Raider
Editor: J.D. Funari
No rating, 105 minutes