Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reasons for Writing Atrociously

The new year is upon us, and scriptwrangler's been busy. Lots of new challenges and opportunities are opening up in front of me -- like an endless blank page stretching to the horizon. Ah yes. Potential. That's good, right? Open spaces. Empty pages. I'll start writing now. Yes. Maybe another cup of coffee will help. Oh look, there's a line written. And it's atrocious. Let's try some scotch -- see if that warms up the prose a bit. Nope. Not yet. Still writing atrociously. Well, other people write well. Let's go see No Country for Old Men again. Let's read some Faulkner. Let's try to get some inspiration. It's bound to happen.

Except it doesn't always. In fact, this is how a lot of writers become readers. It's very easy to put down your work and not pick it up again.

Writing is difficult. It requires much more concentration than our media-addled brains possess. It requires discipline. It requires focus. If you're tired, or upset, or exhausted by the holidays, that's exactly what you don't have. Tackling the heart of a story requires strength. And you just don't have it.

That's where writing atrociously comes in. Ever written something, then immediately ripped it out of your notebook, lest you die suddenly and your mother see it and be unable to hide her shame? Worse yet, ever get a stream of pages that the next morning are enough to throw you into a day-long funk? I have.

But there's a reason for atrocious writing. It's like the scum on the hot chocolate as it gets cool enough to drink. It's the crust of the earth, holding the molten core in place. It's what you have to get through if you're going to write well.

Reasons for writing atrociously vary. In my case, I think it's usually my subconscious diverting a direct attack. It means that somewhere, under all that horrendous prose, there's probably a good instinct to pursue. And if I write atrociously long enough, my subconscious will inevitably run out of terrible word combinations and pitiful genre commonplaces to throw in my way. Sooner or later something simple, elegant and unexpected will appear on the page.

Sooner or later you'll be rewarded for writing atrociously. I'm convinced of this. Writing is thinking. It can't help but pay off. You just need the stomach to get there.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Quote of the Day: Depressing Edition

From CS Weekly..

"I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork."
– Peter De Vries

"Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager."
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Friday, December 21, 2007

Blade Runner

Last night I was Ridley Scott's re-cut Blade Runner, which is back in theaters in limited release. Needless to say, the film kicks ass over just about any sci-fi flick in theaters now. People have been trying to remake Blade Runner for twenty-five years now -- and I don't just mean Ridley Scott. It's a magnificent film with exquisite production design. If you've never seen it on a big screen, do yourself a favor and find this movie at a theater near you. Ridley Scott uses every inch of screen to tell you the story. And he canned Harrison Ford's cheesy voice over!

There's some damn good writing in Blade Runner, of course. Most of it is in the very structure of the film -- a super clean opening that gets you deeply immersed in the plot world right off the bat. I was marveling at how the final fight sequence works. I won't spoil if for you if you haven't seen it yet. It's a famous scene... and would be a pinnacle of film history if it weren't for that damn bird.

The sequence works so well because of some pretty fancy footwork with character sympathy. It wouldn't work at all if Rutger Hauer's character stayed in the realm of homicidal Nazi-looking replicant killer machine. I mean, he's trying to kill Harrison Ford, for god's sakes. He can't be a good guy. But here's the rub: if you just want the bad guy to die, then the movie will fall flat for you.

So Scott (and Philip K. Dick and Hampton Fancher and David Peoples) do something that most filmmakers would shy away from in the big battle scene. They all but flip the character sympathy around. The bad guy's all alone. Harrison Ford just killed his girlfriend. The whole world is against him. And Harrison Ford isn't exactly fighting fair. What's Rutger Hauer do? He pulls Ford's arm through the wall and breaks a couple fingers as he lists exactly why he's angry. And then he gives Ford back his gun.. and gives him a running start.

Suddenly the Harrison Ford's running like a coward. He's fighting for a principle he doesn't really believe in. Plus, he just killed Darryl Hannah.

And Rutger Hauer's fighting for his dead friends and his kind. He's fighting his own genetic code. And he's alone in this world -- and not in a mopey, one-scotch-too-many way like Harrison Ford.

You don't see this much because most writers don't understand just how valuable and exploitable character sympathy really is. But the makers of Blade Runner did know -- and they want you listening to the message that Rutger Hauer is carrying.

There are plenty of films out there inspired by Blade Runner, and a lot of them end with the bad guy choking out some cheesy catharsis and his own blood, a long "Noooooo!!", then call it a day. There are a million films like that out there now... and I can't quite remember their names right now. But I can guarantee most of them won't go back into theatrical release in twenty-five years.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

300 year old Tequila

Had dinner with a friend in the liquor business. He's a true epicurean around wine and liquor. Good wine matters to him. He can sip a scotch and know where it was made. He's been in the business for years -- and the history of the Californian wine industry opens up for him like a brilliant novel. There aren't a lot of people like him anywhere.. real professionals who take true joy in their profession. And no -- this is not a sly way of saying he's a drunk. He's just a smart guy.

Ten years ago most liquor was produced by individual companies -- often family-owned -- that produced something that they really cared about. But the business has been 'consolidating'. Large conglomerates are buying it up, finding economies of scale, rebranding for the yuppie market.. and so on. They're buying the right to slap a name on a bottle, basically, and marketing to a much broader audience than the old company could have dreamed of.

A few years ago it was scotch. Now it's tequila. And suddenly a bottle of the stuff is going for an ungodly sum of money -- $300 or more. How do they do that?

Well, they started selling aged tequila. As my friend is quick to point out, the older tequila gets, the more it's likely to lose exactly what makes tequila good. If you know about tequila, you don't want to drink a ten-year-old tequila. If you're in the liquor business, you know very well that aging tequila is a good way to sell at a huge margin, but makes for a lousy margarita.

So why do they do it? This is something every screenwriter should understand. Very few produced scripts fail to consciously incorporate a winning strategy from a previous script. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's not a sell out. In fact, it's important to build an audience strategy on what you know about your audience. The strategy doesn't always fail. And just because old tequila makes a crappy, expensive margarita doesn't mean you should disregard what the audience is looking for.

But the strategy often does fail -- and that's why buying an overpriced drink feels a lot like watching Hollywood dreck. Some fancy director is hired to direct Blade II because, well, he's a fancy director. But it's still going to be Blade II. Or Jaws 3. Or whatever else they're convinced will sell.

It happens in screenwriting when characters in your script start looking more and more like characters in successful movies. Or when you start making your structure look a little too slavishly like Die Hard's. It's happening when your script starts to have so many bells and whistles that the story can barely hold itself up.

It happens when you read one too many screenwriting books about 'can't miss' tips to take your script to the top, but you haven't actually read your script through recently.

When does this approach NOT fail? If you know your conceit, you can build it up with almost any tool -- and knowledge of your audience is a great tool. This isn't a really deep thought, but it is a common problem. If you're making a great scotch -- make a great scotch. If you're trying to make tequila, make tequila. You won't make tequila better by trying to turn it into scotch. And if you'd like to sell tequila as scotch, well, then you probably don't really care about how it's written.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Support the Strikers

Wanna support the strikers? Want some new swag? Wanna look unbearably cool and hip at your next holiday party? Then buy a T-shirt! is for you! All profits go to the WGA Union Solidarity fund. A worthy cause -- and a big help to some writers struggling through a difficult time!

David Letterman

I promise to get back to regularly scheduled programming soon. But for now, news that David Letterman is reaching an interim agreement with the WGA that will allow his show (and Craig Ferguson's) back on the air immediately. Letterman is a member of the Guild himself, and wants an interim deal that meets the WGA's demands. Letterman has been going out of his way to support the strike -- including paying his non-writing staff out of pocket. Jon Stewart is also apparently pushing for an interim deal.

On Monday the Guild intends to enforce a provision of the bargaining agreement that will force the AMPTP member companies to negotiate individually with the WGA. I'm hazy on how this works... but it seems aimed at making progress with the companies who are actually closer to the writers' side of the argument than the AMPTP: companies like Letterman's Worldwide Pants. We'll have to see how this all works out. The AMPTP has been going for the jugular here -- trying to break the union. It would be sweet irony if they were the ones who got broken.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thought for the Day

"As a person who's truly passionate about words, writing a screenplay never appealed to me because it is so skeletal, it's just dialogue on a page. It's only after having written a movie that I realized how much power there is in a screenplay, because if you're lucky enough to have it produced, the collaborative aspect of filmmaking is so colorful and so interesting and you can really create something lasting. "

Juno's Diablo Cody

Senator John Edwards pickets with striking writers

The election intersects with the strike..

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The AMPTP Responds

Say what you will about the writers' strike. But at least it's funnier than, say, a garbage strike or a nurses' strike.


Saw a very magical movie with a client last night: Once. The movie is a huge inspiration to anyone trying to make movies. It's probably the most beauty, honesty, joy and truth, you'll see in a movie this year. It cost $10,000.

The script is magnificent -- built on the kind of conflict that happens between actual human beings. Scene after scene of simple, honest, strong writing. It's the kind of film that people say you can't make. And those people are mostly right. Most of us can't make them. We dress up the conflicts and build big sets and worry about all the crap that screenwriting gurus and film schools insist is all that truly matters. Then somebody goes and finds more drama in going to buy batteries than you saw in a billion dollars worth of blockbusters last summer. And you know you're in the right profession. And you know why.

Last night was a tremendous evening. Good movie. And we had a nice bottle of sipping tequila to wash down a true meeting of the minds around the movie. We finally left the building late -- 9 PM or so, hours after we'd planned. And walking in was none other than the man himself: Francis Ford Coppola. There was a grunted hello and clear drive to get through the door we stood in the way of. I was drunk enough to kiss the man. But I didn't. It was just a nice, tipsy kind of touchstone to think that this man made great big movies like The Godfather and Apocalypse now when I was still a kid. And now he's getting back to small movies that fit in a van -- nothing more than a beautiful story, nothing more than the only thing that really matters to any of us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Strike Update

The WGA has responded to the AMPTP with a new proposal that follows the basic framework of the AMPTP's proposal, but with different numbers. The latest statements from both sides are a marked toning down of the rhetoric. Who knows what's going to happen.

For now, check out how the producers are thinking about the negotiations. It explains a lot.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Thinking About Audience

I was reading a client script this morning when a character lifted up a piece of glass and realized it was a diamond. The writer was thinking about the clues being laid down for the plot, but there's another, equally important thing going on here. You're telling the audience what the main character can do. She's got a special skill for observation -- and it tells them how to watch her. My second thought was that I wasn't sure how you'd really nail the audience knowing the truth about the glass issue. And if it was important enough, then that needs to be really nailed down. Seems like a small issue -- but if 30% of the audience misses that point, then 30% aren't sure what to watch for. And you're sunk.

Script consulting is often like being a professional audience. It's a lot of fun, of course. But it makes you think about how people watch stories, and how clever audiences have become. It's not hard to get a little depressed that Disney can market a spoof of a fairytale to children.

Once upon a time I was a graduate student of Russian Literature in the fairytale kingdom of Stanford University. I spent my days deconstructing large books and wonderful plays. If Disney made a movie about it, I'd be the horrible ogre strapping these helpless tales of beauty to the rack. And in the end, the beauty and grace of the stories would cause a magical transformation in me, and I'd be free to love and not analyze.

I remember writing a paper on the very beginnings of drama in Russia. The Russian Orthodox church had banned drama (and in fact most art forms) outside of its own use until the end of the 1600's. So when the new audiences saw these new plays, they were absolutely, utterly caught up in them.

The plays were all very safe topics -- mostly strict allegories and morality tales. But the new audiences didn't know there was supposed to be a third wall there. They didn't understand that the audience stays on one side, and the players on the other. They would surge in outrage onto the stage when Greed would attempt to seduce Modesty. One of the first to really examine a human character was about Judith, a heroine from the Bible. Guards were needed to protect the villains from the audience. Early performances often devolved into riots. Drama was real.

Think about that at the multiplex tonight.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who's Got A Good Knock-Knock Joke?

There is reason for cautious optimism about the strike. It looks as if the writers have done a fairly remarkable job of laying out the very complex issues of the strike, and have captured the lion's share of public support. Writers have made their case on the web -- with an estimated 750-1000 video posts, and countless other posts designed to make their point. Maybe the media conglomerates aren't lying -- they *truly* don't understand the power of the web as a distribution tool. Either way, they lost the public fight weeks ago. Nothing like a group of writers with time on their hands...

Some people, many of whom happen to be employees of the struck companies, are pointing to the return of NBC late night host Carson Daly as a sign that support for the strike is flagging and the producers are slowly but surely getting around the strike. This is the new meme, at least -- supported almost entirely by a highly dubious article in Variety about talks to bring back all the late night hosts without the writers.

One must ask where Carson will be getting his material. NBC no doubt has caboodles of cash for any writer willing to scab and get the strike over with. And so it's downright heartening to see that Carson's actually reduced to asking his dad to ask his golfing buddies to send jokes to help him through this terrible time.

Sounds like the strike is working to me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exapting Exaptions

What's an exaption? Google the term, and you'll likely soon find yourself in the middle of a debate over evolution. If you look it up on Wikipedia, you'll see that it's a trait that evolves for one purpose, but develops another use. Bird feathers are an exaption, since they would have first developed for warmth, but later underwent natural selection to the extent that they helped the bird to fly. Some philosophers think our ability to speak is an exaption: first we developed a brain for learning patterns. When paired with an ability to identify and produce a wide range of sounds, it became an exaption -- a trait that evolved in concert with the vocal ability. The better those two traits worked together, the better the animal's chances of survival. And so on.

Basically, it's a way of talking about the evolution of complex systems. And I am hereby exapting the term 'exaption' for screenwriters. Anyone who writes knows that 'writing is rewriting' is no mere cliche. Evolution is the name of the game. And evolution isn't all about aiming for a single goal and honing and honing until the piece fits the first and only conception of it. Evolution is messy and chaotic and brilliant. As a writer, you owe yourself to listen to that. As a human being, you owe yourself the chance to revel in the alchemical process rather than wallow in your misery around it. Plus, you'll actually get something done that way.

Who among us has not scratched their head at this problem: you write a beautiful love scene. It works great -- just like you want it. Then you write a big fight scene -- and you're Shakespeare. Next you knock out this great little visual joke that should bring the audience right into the characters. And then you look at them back to back, and there's just something terribly wrong. There's something poignant and charming about the characters in the fight. Or the love scene is hilarious, given the context, and the one-off joke scene now falls flat. You fiddle. You play. Or, if you're like many writers, you ignore it. You refuse to see how one scene casts a very particular light on the next.

Another example: your action hero is way too talky, and you're digging through, looking for ways to bring it into line. You're looking for shorthands, or vocal mannerisms, or visual cues to knock it down. You rewrite the dialogues with all the right rules in mind. And then you realize that your action hero has suddenly become a barrel of monkeys with a knack for calling 'em as he sees them at the first possible moment. Not what you had in mind.

But it's quite possible that it's BETTER than what you had in mind. You might really need that humor in the dialogue to balance the endless stream of death every time your action hero enters the room. Your script might be full of funny love scenes and poignant, charming fights. Every script has a feel -- and if it's a good script, it's a unique feel.

Finding the trait that's evolved without you realizing it and then tailoring it to your needs is a way of exploiting the evolution of the complex system that is your script.

Listening to your script -- how it REALLY reads -- is both difficult and necessary when hunting for exaptions. Not seeing the unintended humor won't get you anywhere. Not embracing the subtle interplay of two scenes won't help you. Looking at what tools your script offers you will always, always make writing a more enjoyable, organic process.

Don't think that you'll use everything that you find, or that every unexpected trait is a great exaption. There's no selection process as ruthless as rewriting. But next time you find yourself banging your head against a wall trying to fit round pegs into square holes, try stepping back and looking for exaptions instead.

And yeah, there's chaos here. You have to be a bit brave to accept the exaption. You have to have command of your script to clearly see what really matters. 'Seeing what matters' not infrequently means tossing your whole idea of a project. In Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola talks about his latest movie 'Youth Without Youth', a 'small' film, and how it arose after a torturous period of years trying to create a sci-fi epic.

Being willing to realize you've missed the important part takes guts. Realizing you've missed the part is a really shitty feeling. But writing what truly matters is worth the struggle.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

"Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all."

– William Faulkner


Thanksgiving at the parents' house -- and I know nobody needs to read one more posting about gratitude and how much we're all grateful (mostly for either not having to cook or not having to travel). But you'll just have to indulge me for a few minutes.

I practice Qi Gong, which is one of those annoying martial arts where you don't really get to punch anybody. It's all about health and wellness -- and more or less unblocking the flow of energy in your body. It's a staple in Chinese medicine. It's also hard to practice in Northern California without the wind chimes and patchouli filling the air. I'm resistant to that insta-centered philosophy of life. But I've kept up with Qi Gong because it works for me. It works for me the same way prayer or a good poem or bar fights or random sex works for others. Everybody's got something that gets them unblocked. Everybody's got something that reconnects them to the bigger world.

There's a lot of visualization in Qi Gong -- you're seeing energy flowing into and out of your body as you practice careful motion. You're washing out the blocked qi energy. You're bringing in the good qi energy. You can get a pretty good buzz going if you do this long enough. Still, the teacher always lost me when he'd start in again about feeling gratitude to the earth and the sky. Someone rings a Tibetan health bowl, and I start to giggle.

And then one day I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It just washed over me somehow. And I realized that gratitude IS accepting what's good, and giving back. There's nothing fruity about it. It's just accepting that everything you are is a part of something greater. And you can give back to it. Gratitude is that energy moving back and forth -- with your family, with nature, with your writing, with an airplane full of kids. Gratitude is health. Gratitude is being where you are.

I went for a walk behind my folks' house yesterday. They live in New Jersey. When we first moved here in 1981 it was a very different neighborhood. The first walk I ever took from the new house was silent: there were no birds. The stream behind the house smelled like rubber balls. The pond back in the woods smelled like a garden shed: compost and pesticides. But it was the best place to go for a walk when I was in high school. I went for a lot of walks in high school -- I was that kind of kid.

Now it's a different place entirely. They stopped dumping god knows what in it. There are birds all over the place -- and all kinds of birds. The stream is overgrown with lovely old trees and deer and, apparently, bears have moved in. The path by the stream is now posted NO HUNTING.

That's not the only thing that's changed. Real estate has boomed here -- and there are McMansions shoe-horned into every available half-acre plot. It's a different place. It's a busier, more crowded place. But for some reason, it's a better place. Life keeps moving. Life finds a way. I'm grateful for that.

I'm grateful to all my clients and all my readers -- thank you so much for letting me share in your writing and help us both get things done. Thanks for teaching me that writing is gratitude. Thank you to my students and colleagues for learning from me and for teaching me. Thanks for teaching me that teaching is gratitude. We've all learned a lot this year. And I'm grateful there's always more to learn.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

United Hollywood

A great blog for up to the minute updates, rumors, and dirt from the picket lines at United Hollywood.

A great resource if you've heard something that sounds true about the head of the AMTMP but you need to find out for sure. For example:

RUMOR: Nick Counter can mentally summon and command coyotes. He can turn himself into a cold mist to elude pursuers. He eats the dreams of sleeping children as he flies above their homes on the back of a giant talking raven named Stormhammer.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Writer's Strike continued

For those of you not enchanted by my screed-writing, here's a simple explanation in video form of what's at stake:

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Writer's Strike

So, the writers' strike is upon us. Strikes aren't good for anyone, but I'm afraid this one is absolutely necessary. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) have been gearing up for this one for a while. The last writers' strike lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500M. The resulting contract was a disaster for writers.

The primary issue here this time around is residuals. In the 1988 agreement, the writers were famously snookered on DVD residuals. The WGA wants to double the $.07 per typical DVD residual to a still paltry $.14. That's 14 cents.

The BIGGER issue is around new media residuals. It's starting to look like a reasonable bet that this whole innernet thing is going to take off. But the AMPTP refuses to offer writers a dime of residuals on any new media. That means if you download the movie, the producers get all the profits. That means when DVD goes the way of VHS, writers won't get anything at all.

The industry loves to trot out the stereotype of the spoiled L.A. screenwriter with several seven-figure deals under their belt. These people do exist, of course. But the reality is far more down to earth. For every one of those, there are dozens of writers who make well under $50K. Residuals are a life blood for these people.

Writing is a highly cyclical business. It's a highly fickle business. At present, the WGA estimates that 48% of its membership is unemployed. That's the nature of the business. You get a gig, you make the most of it. And then your job becomes finding the next gig.

Residuals are what allows many writers to write and raise a family. Residuals are a retirement plan. Residuals are a writer's 401(k). The AMPTP, with combined revenue in the billions, is unwilling to pay the same residuals to writers it pays to directors, actors, and editors.

I'm reposting a posting by Micah Wright, a writer-director for many Spongebob Squarepants episodes (and much more). The posting was on a WGA board, but Wright has given permission to disseminate it as widely as possible. As you read, realize that Spongebob Squarepants is worth $12B. The writer was paid $1400 a week. With no further ado:

Some of us writers have been screwed for a while now, and not in the
pleasant sense. Below is an email post from Micah Wright, posted on
the WriterAction (WGA-only board). I requested and have his written
permission to spread it like the plague.

(FYI, to set the scene, the tone of Micah's intro is in response to
another WA poster unhappy with our current WGA leadership).

Well, this is ONE angry Hoard that's confused about your stance. The
AMPTP clearly never intends to pay us one single cent for internet
delivery. The music business model clearly indicates that internet
delivery for most, if not all content is the future. What then were
we supposed to do when faced with rollbacks and refusals to bargain
in good faith? Pray? Or just swallow the bullshit they were trying
to shove down our throats, and forget about not only what we're
making, but also what every person who ever follows us into this
union will ever make?

People like you keep bitching about the DVD negotiating point, and
yeah, you're right: DVD was lost 20 years ago, but there's no magic
rule which says we can't reopen that topic. More importantly,
though, DVD didn't take off for almost a decade after the '88
strike… the Internet is here NOW, and it's here FOREVER, and if we
give in and allow them to pay us ZERO on Internet delivery, we can
just kiss the idea of ever getting paid residuals goodbye forever.

It's not self-righteousness which is driving this negotiation… it's
quite simply the greed of the AMPTP, which clearly sees this as the
year in which they intend to break the WGA on the rack once and for
all. But you don't see that… you seem unable to get it through your
head that the AMPTP doesn't want to ever pay us anything. If you
think these people are so reasonable and that they deal in good
faith, then try talking to writers who work in Animation and
Reality… THAT is the future that the AMPTP has in store for EVERY
WRITER IN THE WGA. Because if they don't have to pay residuals to
the woman who wrote The Lion King, then why should they ever have to
pay one to YOU? Or anyone else?

Oh, and before you give me some sob story about the disastrous
strike of 1988, let me bring you up to date with a more RECENT
story: mine.

I came to this guild having had a "successful" career writing
Animation for $1400/week for five years. During that time, I wrote
on several of Nickelodeon's highest-rated shows. My writing partner
wrote and directed 1/4 of the episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants"
and I was responsible for 1/5 of the episodes of "The Angry
Beavers." The current value that those shows have generated for
Viacom? $12 Billion dollars. My writing partner topped out at $2100/
week. In the year 2001, tired of not receiving residuals for my
endlessly- repeating work (even though the actors and composers for
my episodes do), I joined with 28 other writers and we signed our
WGA cards.

So, Nickelodeon quickly filed suit against our petition for an
election, and set about trying to ferret out who the "ringleaders"
were. In the meantime, they canceled the show that I had created 4
episodes into an order of 26. Then they fired the 3 writers who'd
been working on my show. Then they fired 20 more of my fellow
writers and shut down three more shows, kicking almost their entire
primetime lineup for 2002 to the curb, and laying off 250 artists.

Then, once the WGA's petition for election was tied up in court over
our illegal firings, Nickelodeon called in the IATSE Local 839
"Cartoonists Guild" — a racket union which exists only the screw the
WGA and its own members — and they signed a deal which forever locks
the WGA out of Nickelodeon, even though we were there first. Neato!

Then Nickelodeon's brass decided —out of thin air— that myself and
two other writers had been "the ringleaders" of this organizing
effort, so they called around to Warner Bros. Animation, the Cartoon
Network, Disney Animation, and Fox Kids, effectively blacklisting
the three of us out of animation permanently.

And why did Nickelodeon do this? Why were they so eager to decimate
their own 2002 schedule, fire 24 writers, break multiple federal
labor laws, sign a union deal, and to even bring back the blacklist?
They did all of that to prevent us from getting the same whopping $5
residual that the actors & composers of our shows get.

For five lousy bucks, they destroyed three people's careers and put
250 artists out of work and fucked up their own channel for a year.

Ahh, but my episodes run about 400 times a year worldwide, though,
so obviously Sumner Redstone (Salary in 2001: $65 million dollars)
and Tom Freston (2001 salary: $55 million) were right to do what
they did… myself and those other 23 writers might have broken the
bank, what with each of us going to cost them another TWO THOUSAND


So don't come crying to those of us who have EXPERIENCED what the
AMPTP plans for all of the rest of you, that people who are deciding
to stand up to bully-boy tactics like that are the crazy bunch of
‘hoards’ lustily marching through the streets searching for blood.
The AMPTP are the barbarians sacking Rome in this scenario.

The AMPTP and their glittering-eyed weasel lawyers are a bunch of
lying, blacklisting, law-breaking scumbags, and the fact that they
haven't budged off of ANY of their proposals in the last three
months proves that what they have in store for EVERY SINGLE ONE OF
YOU is exactly what they did to us at Nickelodeon, and what they can
do any day of the week in daytime animation. Or reality.

Strike or no strike. That's their plan: to winnow down your
membership, to snip away at your MBA, to chew away at your health &
pension plans until there's just nothing left of the WGA. Why?
Because they've had a good strong drink of how much money they make
off of animation when they don't have to cut the creators in for any
of the cash, and now they want to extend that free ride to all of
live action as well. THAT is why they have pushed for this strike at
every step, with their insulting press releases, with their refusals
to negotiate, etc. — because they're HOPING we go on strike, and
that enough cowards and Quislings come crawling out of the woodwork
after six weeks that they can force us to accept the same deal that
Reality TV show writers have.

If you doubt me, go read their contract proposals again… there's not
ONE of them which isn't an insult and a deal-breaking non-starter.

So can we PLEASE stop hearing about how it's the current WGA
management which is the problem here? Because, frankly, that canard
is getting a little stale.

Or perhaps you prefer presidents like the President of the Guild
back in 2001 who just threw up her hands when we were fired and
blacklisted out of our careers and said, and I quote, "oh well, it
was a good try"?

To our writer friends, this is why we need to stay strong and
fight. To our non-writer friends, please support us.

Please forward to everybody you know. Everybody.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Original Jimmy

I had dinner with some old friends last night. The dinner was what it usually is at Amy and Laura's: lots of good stories and rolling conversation and red wine. A good night. They've got very different storytelling styles, and watching them bounce off each other somehow makes the stories all that more interesting. If you were writing a scene about the dinner, you'd say that the conflict is built right into the set up.

One of the key ways the two keep each other focused is with the phrase "What's your Jimi?" Roughly translated, it means, 'What's your point?' or 'How does this tie in to the conversation?'

The phrase goes back to a stoner conversation Amy had two decades ago when she was an undergrad at Oberlin. The conversation was about Jimi Hendrix. Or at least it started that way. But, as pot-filled conversations at small liberal arts colleges frequently will, the topic had soon branched off in thirteen different directions, and rollicked through countless cul de sacs and numerous giggling fits. 'What's your Jimi' was a clarion call to remember where you started.

Now, two decades later, the phrase lives on. It lives on because it serves a real function. It returns the conversation to its controlling idea.

This is useful in pot-filled conversations. It's useful in project management meetings. And it's useful in scripts.

Returning to the original Jimi is funny, of course. How did we start talking about Jimi Hendrix, and end up discussing heirloom popcorn? There's dramatic distance there, and returning to the Jimi is as funny and illuminating in direct proportion to how much distance was covered.

Not infrequently, you'll run into a "What's Your Jimi" moment in your own script. Listen to this moment.

A controlling idea is absolutely essential to a script. Not sure what to do with a plot development? Not sure why it's there, even though it kinda feels like it needs to be (or it 'needs' to be but doesn't feel right?) Try finding your original Jimi. How do you bring your controlling idea in strongly and clearly? More often than not there's drama and humor and entertainment waiting for you right there.

Making sure that the reader/viewer has a strong handle on the original Jimi at the *beginning* of the script is very important, of course.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sleep and Creativity

The New York Times devoted its Science section to sleep last week. Sleep is one of those magical topics that everyone knows about, but no one really understands. Scientists don't really know why people and other, less conflicted animals require sleep. It just seems the case that the vast majority of sentient creatures require some non-sentient time. I suspect when we know more about sleep, we'll know more about consciousness as well.

Needless to say, writing requires sleep. Writing is often the natural enemy of sleep, of course. If you read this blog, there's a good chance you spend a night or more a month staring at a dark ceiling, working out a plot development, or worrying for your character, or getting consumed by a new story idea.

Get up and write it down. (But that's not the subject of this post).

Creativity requires concentration. It also requires desire. You have to really WANT to say something new. There's no worse feeling than trying to write when you don't really want to. Needless to say, sleeping beforehand is a big help in this regard.

As it turns out, sleeping helps in more ways than we knew. Sleeping allows the brain to do a second, higher ordering of data accumulated during the day. In one study described in this article, subjects were given a set of simple relations -- kid stuff. Then some were allowed to sleep, and others were not. Those who had slept were able to build and remember logical relationships between ALL the objects. Those who hadn't slept could only really remember what they were shown directly.

It brings an analytical awareness to memory, basically. This is probably the first step in the creative process. We all know the feeling of looking at a synopsis or a scene and not finding the critical point. Somehow we've written down everything except what matters. The older I get (and the more I need naps), the more I suspect that this failure to grasp is directly related to a lack of sleep.

For me, the mark of a truly dedicated writer is writing through that exhaustion, and building those connections. I think the writer's high is probably best described as that moment when all the elements spontaneously align, and you can write no wrong. You feel like you're channeling a story that's already there. I think that's probably exactly what is happening. We dream at night. We can dream during the day.

The tortured writer is a cliche. I tortured myself for years trying to live up. But there is most definitely an ounce of truth here too. It's as if this poor scribe cannot live outside his nightmares. I think that might be too terribly true. There's a reason we write, and it's not so different from why we dream, or even why we sleep.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Eating What's in the Fridge

I ended up on a somewhat depressing note about what lies at the base of a good conceit: 'obvious' works best. And obvious to the point of rank stupidity *still* works. Alas. An obvious conceit's not the only thing that works. We don't all have to write Bratz or Home Alone III. An obvious conceit will get viewers into a theater. But conceit alone won't make them happy.

What gets you to watch a movie again and again?

A&E showed The Godfather twice in a row last night. I am a huge fan of the movie, and one of the reasons I love it so much is that it never fails to offer something new that I missed before. Last night when Michael (Al Pacino) shoots Sollozo and the crooked cop, I saw something I never saw before. A look in Michael's eyes that said, "Oh, that's what shooting someone in the head looks like." You see him become a killer. You see him learning what his father and his associates have always known.

It's brilliant acting, of course. So why bring it up in a screenwriting blog? Because good screenwriting and good acting come from the same place.

The technical term here is 'character intention'. The meaning behind it is being in the moment. When a person walks into a room, they aren't thinking about the drama. When a character walks into a room, they aren't thinking about the drama. They're thinking about their stomach, or impressing a girl, or the gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe. It's what makes the drama real.

I've read many a script that was carefully put together, with a neat symmetry, flawless action descriptions, and absolutely no dramatic energy. Thirty pages in, you're bored stiff. It's a very good script, but there's no oomph. Somehow the characters just aren't there. They doesn't feel individual, concrete, real. I know what's going to happen, because I know the rules the writer is following.

Ths cure for this is more particularity in character intention. It's your free variable. You concentrate on it. You try to bring it into the scene. But you humbly submit when it tells you something you didn't know. It's letting your characters fail when you planned on them succeeding. It's letting them get distracted while the real plot import happens around them. It's letting them REALLY struggle with all the obstacles that populate a good plot.

It's eating what's in the fridge. After a long day, it's almost inevitably easier to eat out. I live in a neighborhood full of amazing, cheap, delightfully varied restaurants. And, inevitably, it feels like there's nothing in the fridge.

But usually there's something in the fridge. And, while it feels easier to head out for food, it also feels better to create something. You find some leeks. you find some bacon. Ah, potatoes. Some tortellini. Before you know it, you've made a tremendous soup, a beautiful and simple salad, and finally cracked open the cheese that goes perfectly with the bread that somehow perfectly fits with the wine you forgot you had on the shelf. All while watching The Godfather. You don't know where it came from, but suddenly you have energy again. Where did it come from?

It came from being where you really are, rather than where you think you want to be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

30 Days of Night

Scriptwrangler got the night off last night and decided to go see the latest vampire flick. If vampires are immortal, it's because we never quite get tired of them. There's something in the myth that goes very deep, and few cultures don't have vampires somewhere in their mythology. The vampire has been a mainstay of our culture since Bram Stoker used the Dracula tale to channel his incredibly screwed up subconscious world. We've been tailoring vampire flicks to fit our tastes, worries and concerns since the very beginnings of film straight through to a series of very banal TV series about vampires populating the CW and Fox today.

But that's all over now. Vampires can survive bullets and chainsaws and crowds of angry villagers. But they can't survive a truly atrocious script in the hands of Josh Hartnett.

If you're unfamiliar with the movie, it's about the town of Barrow, Alaska being attacked by a Chris Cunningham video. You know you're in trouble about five minutes into the film, when two sheriffs come upon a pile of burned cellphones in the snow.

DEPUTY: What could it mean, chief? I mean, heck, it could be a bunch of kids. But they'd use the phones to call their friends. Heck, with that many phones, you could talk all you want, and never worry about roaming charges or going over the limit. Why burn the phones?

JOSH (pondering thoughtfully): This weren't no kids,no. They would've left a note, telling the world how angry they are. A cry against the impending darkness and their internal conflicts and so on.

DEPUTY: Well, heck. Who woulda done this then! I'm sure bothered by this pile of burned phones in the middle of nowhere. Funny, you'd think I couldn't even see 'em from the road. But now I have a dilemma to think about. Shoot!

Well, okay. I exaggerate. But Josh and the deputy discuss the burned cellphones for something like five minutes. And we learn nothing that we wouldn't have learned by simply SEEING the pile of burned cellphones. It's an interesting image. It presents a question. Standing in the middle of a snowy field discussing it kills it.

The script never quite gets a hold of some basic premise problems. You're never quite sure why the human protagonists are deciding to leave their safehouse, or whether all vampire food becomes vampires, or just some. You're frequently asking why you're seeing what you're seeing.

The writer was somehow cognizant of these issues, but took a pretty cheap out: dialogue. He simply wrote through the problems. Instead of solving his problems, he used his characters to tell us why it wasn't really a problem. But dialogue is no match against the visuals and the action. And what looks like a hazy, overlookable problem in the script suddenly shows up in sharp relief on screen.

Dialogue can actually deepen the problem. There's the main vampire attack (somewhat oddly placed) about 30-40 minutes into the film. For some reason Josh Hartnett can simply open the door and run into the diner where everyone's hiding, even if the vampires don't seem to have a handle on this doorknob technology. What caps this off: "We need to find out what they want."

If you've seen the last five minutes, you're pretty sure what the vampires want. There's inadvertent humor here. What's worse? You tell the audience that there's a DEEPER question of what the vampires want here -- world domination, perhaps, or a safe place to raise vampire babies and listen to Marilyn Manson -- when in fact there isn't really an answer to that question.

It's frustrating to me. It's got a great premise. It should have been a great movie. It could have been a great movie if the writers had done a better job with the screenwriting basics. But it ain't.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Conceit and Fake Plastic Grapes

One of the hardest elements of drama to communicate to new writers is the idea of conceit. No, it doesn't mean conceited. It does have to do with the word 'concept'. If I had to put a definition on it, it would be something like 'a writer's distinct strategy for unity.' It's what makes a piece of work identifiable as itself. It's what holds a piece of work together. High concept movies, like Jaws, Star Wars, or Snakes on a Plane, have clear appeal which is immediately communicated. This means that the writer came up with a strong, focused controlling idea that both holds the script together and distinguishes it from other scripts. And then they exploited that idea in every conceivable fashion.

I used to teach conceit by talking about how the term is used in poetry. I'd go on about how it might be an extended metaphor, or sometimes a pose used by the poet. But now I rely on Italian restaurants to get the point across.

Say you walk into an Italian restaurant. It's modern... low track lighting, ambient music, and designer accents left and right. Everything about it says 'cutting edge'. You order the persimmon-infused organic tomato tapado and free-range lamb casse-tete over barley-flecked tagliatelle. The waitron suggests a delicate yet assuming Sangiovese with overtones of minerals and citrus from the Abruzzo region as the perfect complement.

Your food arrives, and it's spaghetti and meatballs a carafe of house red wine. You're upset. Why?

On another day, all you want is a good family-style Italian meal like they make back in Jersey. Your friend tells you there's a great place out of town a ways where the matriarch who cooks everything herself won't let you eat until you wash your hands. You get there, and she welcomes you in with a kiss, tells you to wash your hands and have a seat. The music is Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. There are fake grapes and red-checked table cloths. Italian kitsch, family photos from the 50's. But before your family-style dinner for two arrives, mama brings you an amuse-bouche made with an organic fig, goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. The spaghetti and meatballs are a labor of love. But you just aren't sure if mama needed to braise the free-range lamb with cumin and coriander before smoking it over mesquite before adding it to a miso broth specked with heirloom baby tomatillos.

You're dissatisfied. Why?

Mama might be a whizz at incorporating divergent elements into a deconstructible edible, but she failed to follow through on her conceit.

Conceit, for screenwriters and restaurateurs both, is telling your audience HOW TO ENJOY the experience. It's inviting them into the story. It's getting them where you want them to be. It's not an easy thing to do, and new writers inevitably spend too little time with it.

If you open a restaurant, you don't have the leisure of skipping lightly over the issue. Have you ever stopped to wonder why so many Italian restaurants have fake plastic grape vines and pictures of Frank Sinatra and Connie Francis and Joe DiMaggio? They're there for a reason. They frame the experience. They tell the diner what to expect.

Ever wonder why crap movies like Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? or Pool Boy IV or Alien vs. Predator or Talladega Nights not only get made, but make money? Ever wonder why they get regurgitated and make even more money? And so on and so on, until our entire culture is steeped in their aroma of rot?

They tell the audience how to enjoy them. They're dead clear about how to enjoy them.

Depressing, huh?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Writing Blogs

I've been stumbling across some good blogs for writers and thought I'd share. I mean, hey, I don't know why a reader of my blog would need to visit another blog on the side. I'm not jealous or anything. And just to prove it, I'm letting you know that these blogs are great.

Time to Write gives some helpful advice on avoiding procrastination and actually completing your day's to do list. Smart guy.

Edie Meidav is a tremendous novelist. She wrote a blog to accompany her latest novel Crawl Space. I'm not sure how active the blog still is. But if you read one thing, let it be "Cutting Cucumbers and Xenos". How you make a salad says a lot about you. Screenwriters are usually looking for good ways of encapsulating big conflicts in small, personal actions. Read Edie and you'll see how a strong writer embraces the challenge.

More soon..

Friday, October 12, 2007

“The Desert has Lost Its Favorite Rose”

If you recognize that phrase you are probably an avid watcher of the popular Animal Planet show Meerkat Manor. I’m not a loyal fan, but I’ve seen it a few times. The program essentially takes a reality show approach to a wildlife program. Cameras are placed throughout the meerkats’ territory and down in their burrows. A narrator tells us what’s going on with whom.

The Meerkat Manor world was recently rocked by the death by cobra of the matriarch of the meerkat clan, Flower. The audience reaction was profound. There are comment boards on Animal Planet’s website full of grief-stricken comments. Viewers have posted numerous videos of Flower on Youtube. Flower is truly the Princess Di of the animal kingdom. There’s even a vaguely conspiratorial undercurrent to the comment boards. Why didn’t they administer anti-venom when Flower was bitten? Why didn’t they stop the cobra?

If you’re not a fan of the show, you're probably puzzled about all the fuss. Meerkats are more or less prairie dogs with the moral compass of Britney Spears. They breed like rabbits. They leave kids laying around unattended. They dig holes in the ground. They eat whatever crap they dig out of the ground. Scorpions are a big favorite. In other words, they’re more or less vermin. But millions of people were deeply stricken by the death of their favorite character. Why?

Good writing. If you watch the show, you have to wonder how much of the storyline is simply constructed out of pure fiction. Everything we know about the characters: backstory, play-by-play, and context, is told to us by cuddly Hobbit narrator Sean Astin. The writing of the show of course also dictates how the stories are constructed and presented on screen.

What was the writers’ strategy here? While the narration is guided by a kind of wildlife ethic, there’s also a level of Entertainment Tonight. Imagine David Attenborough narrating an evening with Paris Hilton or an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

But deeper than that, the writers have worked to build all kinds of assumptions into the story. There’s a strong episodic nature to each of the storylines. We ARE watching a soap opera. And we’re rewarded for buying into that structure.

The writers have also thought good and hard about their characters. Any screenwriter knows that you must worry about character sympathy. Character sympathy is more than simple sympathy; it’s the reason the audience has for engaging your characters on an emotional level. It could be the promise of entertainment. It could be a strong conflict. It could be opposition to a stronger force (the underdog). In all circumstances, your characters need one trait above all: consistency in their flaws. And meerkats are most definitely consistent in their flaws.

The show’s creators know this, and exploit it to the maximum benefit of their story. I’m not saying for a minute that Flower wasn’t a heroic matriarch who died so her cubs could live (so no hate mail, please). But I am saying that Flower’s backstory, character flaw, and arc were created using the same guidelines you’d learn in most screenwriting classes. They don’t make the story ‘unreal’. They just bring out the power that’s already there. And so, yeah, I'm down about Flower dying. But my hat is off to the show's creators. They did exactly what every writer hopes to do.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

HBO Voyeur

There's an amazing site up on the web: HBO Voyeur. Check it out. People jabber on and on about how games and movies are going to merge. This is an example of a team that not only did it, but found a huge creative zone all their own. It's a magnificent piece of writing with a clear sense of its own goals and genuine artistry. I find it addictive.

Check it out.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fresh Eyes and Sea Monkeys®

I've been off the blog for a week or so because I've been off email, phone, laptop and anything other tool of technology that might be useful for my career while I trekked about the Eastern Sierra Nevada. I made the plan for the trip. Got the boyfriend to take time off from work. Got clients in a happy place. And just as everything was set in stone, wham! Work piles in just the way it's going to right before a vacation. Suddenly it's the worst possible time for a vacation. Which is, of course, exactly when you NEED a vacation.

Most of us are wedded to our jobs. If we aren't wedded to our jobs, we're wedded to schedules, or routines, or some narrative about what must happen or not happen before life continues on. We like to build narratives around our week because that's what humans do. We're apes that tell stories. And mostly we tell them to ourselves. It got us through millions of years of evolution, but lately it seems to be a mixed blessing. We get trapped in our own narrative.

You know the feeling of the end of a vacation. You sheepishly open the laptop and the emails start to download. You turn on the phone and the voicemails appear. I had this moment driving back into the Bay Area watching driver after driver deeply focused on a phone conversation. I'd been away long enough for that to seem weird again. Thank god for that. And when I turned on the laptop and the phone I got the real message: neither the world nor my work life had collapsed despite the fact that I had enjoyed a lazy, timeless, and magnificent trek through one of the most beautiful places on earth with my favorite human being.

I've felt a creative block for the last month or so. I've been in production, which is hectic and time-consuming and all-around rough on a writer. I've been teaching a college class. And's been busy. None of these things are good for a creative life. I couldn't get out of my own narrative.

Vacations are all about resetting the frame -- getting away from your Monday deadline mentality and back to what makes a writer write. I saw a 150 year old town that died away sixty years ago. I saw a 600-year-old volcano on the shore of a million year old lake. I saw three-billion year-old creatures that have had their entire existence replaced with a truly humiliating alternative narrative. I wandered lakes at 10,000 feet above sea level. I saw a sea at 6,500 feet above sea level, where life thrives like it might on a distant planet. I met people who looked like stories to me, and who saw me as a story. I saw how astonishing and bizarre and beautiful and overwhelming California truly is. And it's all real. And it's all beautiful. And I'm thanking god and her life-partner I'm alive in it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

3:10 to Yuma II: Creating Empty Space

3:10 to Yuma is the story of a peaceful rancher who takes a job escorting a notorious killer to justice in order to pay his debts, save his ranch, and earn the respect of his 14-year-old son. It's a marvelous drama that hinges on just how awful and awesome the bad guy is. Like a lot of good movies, the bad guy, Ben Wade, is TRULY bad not because he's a one-trick pony sadist or fighter type. He's truly bad because he's a deeply ambivalent and intelligent character who acts from his own interests, whether that be to slit your throat or save your life.

He's complex. A lot of writers stumble trying to create a character like this. Building that kind of complexity and driving it forward with decent pacing (and without a lot of expositional dialogue) is a tricky thing. But most writers get tripped up before they leave the gate. They don't create the empty space their complex character will develop in. Showing what your character ISN'T is the frame that tells the audience what he has the potential to be.

In 3:10 to Yuma, Ben Wade's empty space is created by another character named Charlie Prince. Charlie's everything Ben Wade is not. He IS a sadistic animal. He's a monster.

The first time we meet Ben Wade, he's drawing a sketch of a hawk. The set up is clear here. Ben Wade is a thinker. Ben Wade sees beauty. Ben Wade sees a creature like himself. We cut to the horrible, skull-like stare of Charlie Prince riding up to him. His blue eyes burn a hole in the screen. There's something truly creepy here. As he rides up to Wade, the hawk flies away. And Charlie announces that the stagecoach they're planning to rob is arriving soon. Clear enough.

The stagecoach arrives. Interestingly enough, Ben Wade doesn't actually take part at first. He sends Charlie and his men down on the stagecoach (not unlike trained falcons), while he watches from above. Again -- he's the observer. Charlie kills with joy and precision. Ben hangs back, then drives a herd of cattle into the path of the stagecoach. He's a thinker first, and a killer second.

The writer uses Charlie to build empty around Ben throughout the movie. One particularly interesting moment occurs in the saloon after the raid on the stagecoach. Charlie's a strangely effeminate character... and he makes a play to be closer to Ben Wade, like old times. Ben responds with weariness... enough to raise the question of something homosexual in their past, or perhaps a some deeper longing to Charlie's loyalty.

Now, the writer's goal here is not to add a gay subtext to the story. I see no gay subtext here at all. But by RAISING THE QUESTION of Ben Wade's sexuality -- by opening up that empty space -- he gets his audience watching closely for clues as he seduces an old flame in the bar. And by assuring they're watching every move, he drives home his plot points. The writer uses Charlie to pose a question that Wade's action will answer. Suddenly a scene that could have any number of meanings means exactly what the writer intended. The interaction with Charlie frames the seduction for the audience.

One thing we learn from the subsequent languorous love scene is that Ben Wade has a thing for green eyes. It's an important piece of information that ties together some major pieces of the plot. They represent what he can't have. Which is a form of empty space. And the writer's posed another question for us to follow. Who has green eyes?

Deeper in the plot, Charlie's been chasing after the coach he thinks Ben's being held captive in. When he catches up to it, he realizes he's been fooled by a decoy -- more empty space. He sadistically sets the coach ablaze and what do we see?

Green eyes. Charlie's green eyes.

Now, I'd appreciate it if someone could check this out and let me know if I'm right about this. But I'm pretty sure Charlie's eyes are blue the first time we see them. And as he burns a stagecoach in a rage at not finding Ben, they're green. In fact, they're very emphatically green when he's burning the coach.

Is there plot significance here? No. Is there a resonance here between green eyes and absence and depth of emotion? Absolutely. Does a filmmaker use that tool? Absolutely. And a good screenwriter puts a tool like that in a filmmaker's hands.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Westerns are coming back! They've been out of favor for a long time. It's almost as if we have to forget about them and rediscover them again. I'm very excited about this. Despite the stereotype shoot 'em up, Westerns are an incredibly fertile genre for exploring our culture. There's room for true ambivalence and emotional engagement while talking about American history... and entertaining the heck out of the audience. Thousands of grainy black and white films of art school students smoking cigarettes in messy kitchens notwithstanding, Westerns represent the true American existentialism on screen.

Plus, I have a western script I really love, and there's suddenly a snowball's chance in hell I might sell it.

3:10 to Yuma is a perfect manifestation of the resurgent Western. It's a remake of the 1957 version, in which Glenn Ford played the bad guy (who is played almost too convincingly by Russell Crowe in the 2007 remake).

Anyone with questions about what the three-act structure really needs to watch this movie. It's textbook. Set the protagonist: problem; misbehavior; clear, concrete, goal; link external and internal conflicts, get the dynamic character in place. Set the antagonist. Show them in contrast. And your inciting event. Kaboom. Want to know what a midpoint looks like? Watch the action undermine all the protagonists reference points in a brilliant genre move.... I don't want to spoil the movie here, so I won't go into too many specifics. But you get the idea.

Why DOES the movie follow the three-act structure so religiously? I think a lot of it has to do with the climax. Keeping the audience clear on the character intention for both Russell Crowe and Christian Bale is an incredible balancing act in the final scene -- and absolutely essential. If we can't watch the subtle interplay, there's no depth... and suddenly we ARE just watching a shoot 'em up. If the character intention wasn't carefully laid out at EVERY STAGE up to that point, we'd be lost in the climax. If the writers hadn't thought it through carefully, and worked it into the set ups and action at every stage, it just wouldn't have been satisfying.

And it wouldn't have said nearly as much as it does. Writers often tire of discussions of structure and character intention and so on. Dialogue is so much easier, and it's right there, on the page in front of you. But getting your story clear on the screen is a whole other ball of wax. And hopefully Westerns will be teaching a new generation of writers just how much you can say with a little structure.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

So That's Why They Call It Layback

We're in the very last stage of post-production on Mr. Gary today. It's called layback, because it's when your audio mix is laid back into your finished picture. We've been driving like crazy to get this done in time for the Sundance deadline for short films. 'Layback' is also what I'll be doing shortly after it's in the mail. Along with 'breathe again' and 'sleep enough'.

Our layback is happening at Video Arts, one of the top online edit facilities in the country. It's been truly inspiring working with this team. You know edit-head? When you're deep in a script, and you've opened it all up and you're trying to make it all work together. You get obsessive. You start breaking down the story into smaller and smaller elements until there's almost infinite complexity in front of you? That's what happens in the online edit. And a good color correctionist or compositer is deeply engaged in that obsessive attention to detail every day of their working lives. Yeesh.

What's exciting for me as a writer is to realize just how important story is to these professionally obsessive people. A compositer's job is to pull together diverse elements and make them all work together and look natural on screen. If you see a TV show on a TV show, the compositer is the one who puts it there. To make it look natural, you have to understand how reflections that the average eye won't pick up affect your perception. You have to understand how to mimic the light in a room. And you have to understand why an old TV screen looks the way it does -- how it skews toward one part of the spectrum or another. There's no "looks natural" to a computer.

To a compositer or color correctionist, each of these tweaks is a chance to tell the story. Your story. Do you sit down and explain everything to them? Well, to an extent. But if they're going to do a really exceptional job, they need to be inspired by the story. They need to know what they're building on. That's when a professional decision becomes an aesthetic decision.

As Mr. Gary builds toward its climax, the beginning of the movie starts showing on the character's TV set. The compositer decided to skew the spectrum on her old TV toward purple. How did he decide that? He saw how the 'red' in the script and on the screen was otherwise darkening, and going toward purple. Now, the untrained eye just sees "old TV". And most people don't even give the compositing a thought. But it's clever, script-based choices that make the composition seem coherent and engaging.

Hiring these professionals usually costs thousands and thousands of dollars. We got to use them for our weird little masterpiece because of an HD Residency Grant from the Bay Area Video Coalition. The grant also got us top-of-the-line audio recording and engineering in-house. So a big shout out and thanks to them!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Structure is Everywhere

I've been a little light on posting recently. Mr. Gary is done tomorrow, at which point I can clear out the mental real estate I need to blog properly.

For now, watch this trippy video. It's magnificent. What's it got to do with screenwriting? Well, it's beautiful. And when a writer or artist sees a beautiful thing, they should watch it and see what it can teach them.

What does it teach me? That three-act structure is hard-wired into our perception. That symmetry between the set up and the resolution is innately satisfying. That when a setting is a creative reimagining of a world we've seen before, it excites and moves us. It reminds me that great narrative usually arises from a simple conceit, not ornate structure. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Neanderthal Car insurance Salesmen

I thought I'd talk about character in commercials one more time here. Commercials are, after all, short films. And short forms force you to think quick -- to come up with solutions that immediately engage your audience. Screenwriters struggle to establish characters in ten pages. No such luxury here. It's got to work immediately. And it has to work up against multiple other narratives.

I talked in my last post about how a typical character is structured around an internal conflict. They have a flaw (also known as a misbehavior) that keeps them from easily resolving the plot problem. They've got a desire that pushes them through the plot problem. On this basic level, this much is true of a Tide commercial and the Godfather both. I did my best to cram the Nasonex Bee into that structure. Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that this internal/external conflict is more of a thought process for a writer than a finished product. You can't really just paint by numbers here. You have to dig down and think.

And so: what's up with the Geico Cavemen? This commercial is interesting to me because the company it's for is actually the opponent in the ad. On the face of it, this seems like a crappy idea. Why associate yourself with the image of a callous, unthinking corporation oppressing a sympathetic underdog? There's got to be an easier and less risky way to sell car insurance.

Think back to the first commercial. Two cavemen advocates sit in a fancy L.A. restaurant, and some cheesy guy in a bad suit says, "Seriously, we're sorry. We didn't even realize you guys still exist." Then there's this great line, where the caveman looks up and orders the roast duck with the mango salsa. And the second caveman is too disgusted to eat.

Something very interesting is going on here. First, yes -- the company is projecting itself as this cheesy, somewhat shifty, and completely outgunned average business shmo. The audience is smart enough to know this is an ad for Geico. The writer knows this. He knows he wants to get the audience on Geico's side. What's he say? "Hey, you can laugh at us. And we know that this stuff is real." Most adult Americans can relate to feeling disrespected by an auto insurance company. The idea of an insurance company, on the other hand, is, uh, unfamiliar.

Now look at the whole insensitive comment issue. About twice a month America works itself into a froth over some nappy-headed comment made by a semi-lucid celebrity. While some Americans are truly outraged, others are amused. Some think it's a waste of time and hot air. Others hate that anyone should be fired for expressing a belief. We're all over the page on this one. Why would a writer go near that in a car insurance commercial?

Well, because it's conflict. And it's one we can identify. And conflict lets the audience engage the story.

The writer won't go in there willy-nilly. He thinks of a strategy for his character. He obviously can't make the character resemble any minority group. This would be death. So he knows that the character has to be safely distanced. Hence: cavemen. Of course the cavemen need a conflict too. What conflict would really drive the insensitivity issue? They're articulate cavemen.

What's the end result? We can identify the situation: a blow up over insensitivity. And we can take either side.

The writers and producers thought through all this stuff. They didn't opt for a female caveman. They didn't choose a Latino actor, or an African-American. The guy's voice is clearly that of some nerdy white guy. Now take a look at his make up. What's that got to do with writing? The writer comes up with the original character conceit.

The writer is looking for the safest way to frame his character. The safest place is not only as far away from anything that could be read as race. It's also a well-defined, very particular place. And so the cavemen look straight out of 'Land of the Lost'. They are a type. I'd imagine this decision was based on the target market, which probably has positive associations around those cavepeople from their childhood.

The character was successful enough to spawn a whole series of commercials. And before you know it, there's a whole world view that's been worked out very carefully. There's the caveman seeing his shrink. She's a very similar type to the Geico representative in the restaurant. Simplistic thinking. lack of understanding. No real way of dealing with a caveman. We're still in L.A. (look out the window). And again the caveman wins, and we're happy (and reminded of Geico). There's the caveman who sees the offending poster in an airport. It repeats the character conceit, which allows the writers (and Geico) to build a memorable commercial. And that ain't easy.

I wonder if the next step might be to bring their ad campaigns into conflict. Maybe the Geico gecko struggles to placate an angry caveman? Or they swamp him at a protest, and we end somehow with "I just saved hundreds on my car insurance."

Maybe not. There's a problem here. The caveman has to score a small but meaningful victory here. But the gecko does too. Two strong character conceits would probably make the whole commercial feel like Geico had finally jumped the shark. There's only one thing that's certain: brainstorming through these problems would almost inevitably produce a stronger ad than not considering them.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Very Animated Spokesbees

There's clearly something deeply weird going on in our culture right now. I'm not going to delve into simplistic statements about attention span or media saturation. But clearly we're riding a real cleft in the culture between people who grew up in a world of linear, carefully structured narratives and the young ones, who fall into a pit of worry if they aren't blasted by three or more narratives and/or image streams at the same time. There's something entirely new going on in human history right now. It's just beginning to play out.

But there are some things that are basically constant in how narrative is constructed. I don't care how non-linear or avant-garde your movie is, chances are it really sucks if you didn't sit down and work out the chronological structure of events. Non-linear narrative doesn't free you from the requirements of drama. It does the opposite: you MUST plan that stuff out well if the audience is going to stay with you through your ever-so-elegant leaps and breaks.

Characters also are constructed in the same basic way they always were. It doesn't matter what terminology you use -- character arc and flaw, misbehavior and desire, mode and need -- you are pretty much talking about building a clear, strong conflict that makes a character both "feel" real, and propels them into and through the plot. It doesn't matter if it's Shakespeare or a detergent commercial. The character is carefully constructed to garner sympathy (read: our attention) and drive the plot to the resolution the writer's aiming for.

That's why the protagonists in soap ads mirror a very specific image of a suburban housewife. That's why the protagonists (germs, grass stains, her smelly family) swarm down. And each resolution is her overcoming her character flaw -- she didn't know there was this wonderful substance named Boraxo.

So what to make of the Nasonex Bee? Have you seen this bee? Who hasn't? It's a computer animated bee that speaks with a somewhat gay Mexican accent. And you gotta ask: how on earth did they decide that this particular character would sell allergy medication?

I puzzled over this for a while. The bee isn't a protagonist per se. He's more of a narrator. So his main job is to get us to listen. But what's his inner conflict? How does the writer construct the character sympathy? Why should we care?

My guess is this. Bees have an association with pollen and summer. When an allergy sufferer sees a bee, they make a link to their stuffed up nose. Perhaps there's something a little deeper. Bees eat the pollen -- and make something useful out of it.

Now the bee is obviously animated. If you're going to employ a spokesbeee, you probably want one generated in a computer. For me, it's still creepy when the bee helps pop the cap off for the suffering human. Who's going to grab a bottle with a bee on it? There's a particular connection between bees and allergies: reactions to bee stings. I'd think you'd want no bees in your allergy commercial. But someone decided this was a good thing.

Next step: choosing the voice. Anyone who works in animation will tell you that this is a critical choice. Audiences want to know where to put your character. If the voice is too loopy... you look for a bit of humor, but put little investment in the bee. You've got a cartoon. If the voice contrasts sharply with the visual, you can build humor, but you also risk a certain dissonance. If you want to get your audience engaged in the character, it helps if the voice is distinctive or even well-known. That's why Robin Williams still has a job.

So picture the ad exec bigwig types sitting around a table in their Madison Avenue skyscraper, deciding on the voice. Someone says, "Let's mirror the voice to our target audience: white females, 30-49". (This is an example. I have no idea who buys Nasonex.) Great. They test it out. The audience just thinks it's strange.. or feel put down somehow.

Hmmm. What'll make the bee work? "Let's get Robin Williams in the studio!" They try it, but the audience is now looking for a joke, and start laughing when he tells us Nasonex causes swelling of the brain lining and hallucinations involving talking insects (Nasonex does not cause this. I'm sure it's a delightful, completely safe allergy medication.). So no go. Thousands and thousands have been spent on this ad.

"I know. We need a voice that sounds helpful and polite, yet knowledgeable around the subject." Someone thinks of the concierge at their day spa. And you've got yourself the first gay Latino spokesbee in history.

I'm obviously speculating here. But someone really does make choices like this. Someone thinks through this stuff. And they're paid well for it.

Yer kiddin' me. Nope. And they probably earn every penny. They know about these memes and types and characters floating around in Americans' heads, and they know how to play them. Rush Limbaugh probably wants to run a check on the bee's work papers. The Nasonex bee would probably get fired if we found out he shares a well-appointed duplex hive in West Hollywood with another male bee model.

But with the right touch, that bee does exactly what it's constructed to do.

Friday, September 7, 2007

New Indie Filmmaker Podcast

If you're interested in knowing who's up and coming in the world of indie film, it's worth checking out the Renart Films Podcast. Definitely a mixed bag, but worth a trip.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Strange Culture in Theaters This Month!

Strange Culture is getting theatrical distribution. The film tells the tale of Steve Kurtz, a real-life artist suffering outrageous harassment from the Justice Department. Following the sudden death of Kurtz' wife in 2005, Steve found himself the subject of an investigation leading to bio-terror charges. Though the health department ruled that there was no foul play in his wife's death, and a grand jury refused to hand down any bio-terror charges, the Justice Department continues to pursue JAIL TIME for misdemeanor charges dealing with improper paperwork used to requisition harmless bacteria used in high school labs all over the country.

It's a scary, Kafka-esque tale, and anyone concerned about civil liberties in this country needs to see this film. Indiewire called it, “…probably the best and certainly the most urgent film in the (Sundance) Frontier section…”

Lynn Hershman directed it. Hiro Narita shot it. I consulted on the script.

The film opens in the Bay Area on September 21.

ROXIE FILM CENTER in San Francisco
Nightly at 6:00, 8:00 & 9:30. Plus Sat, Sun & Wed at (2:00) & 4:00.

For showtimes: or call 415-454-1222

It opens in New York at the MOMA(!) on October 1, and at Cinema Village on October 5.

I'll keep you updated if this film gets broader distribution. Let's hope it does!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Chasing Chickens Around the Yard

Brainstorming is one of the most rewarding processes for a screenwriter. There's something really exhilarating about free-associating, finding connections, and building drama out of a rough idea. You remember that your brilliant idea is connected to a whole world -- and that world brings life to your story.

Brainstorming is also a chaotic process. It can be very threatening to a writer. You follow a character's traits and the main action to its logical conclusion... and it doesn't work. Or the message changes. Or you start drifting into delicate territory. Or it starts sounding like that movie you really, really hate. Or the big one: suddenly you realize that all your work so far is for naught.

It's one thing to comfort yourself with the knowledge that you've merely written yourself up to the next stage of understanding around a story idea. You find your happy Zen place, and destroy the Mandala you've been working on for weeks.

Or, like the rest of us, you get that horrible feeling that you're spinning your wheels in mud. There's no traction in any of your plot points. You're stuck. And it's all crap.

It's way too easy to find yourself in that dark place where nothing really makes sense, or matters, or will even remotely appeal to Spielberg. That's when I like to throw my hands up and chase chickens in the yard.

Have you ever done this? You catch very few chickens. But there are two or three things you can do that will turn the task from an ordeal into an enjoyable experience.

1. Have a plan. If you run around randomly, you can be sure the chickens will too. You ARE spinning your wheels if you don't do some basic work to structure your process. I like to work with a rough set of guidelines around the three-act stucture. But what's more important is that you have a structure that gives you discipline.

2. Have a friend. It's much easier to catch chickens if you're not the only one in the yard. And if you're both working with the same strategy, you're gonna catch lots of chickens.

Having the basic beats of the three-act structure as a common language is very helpful indeed. Even when you reject a solution that the three-act structure points to, you're learning a lot about the script, and developing a better shared sense of the script with your collaborator.

3. Have fun. Be a kid. Follow your bliss. Play. An adult will wear themselves out chasing after chickens. A kid will have a blast, and be energized by the task. Brainstorming is the same way. You get more strong, organic solutions if you're losing yourself in the task. You get more entertaining plot points when you're entertaining yourself.

There's a reason we tell stories. The more connected you are to that, the more grounded you feel in your material.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The older I get, the less I know.

When I was younger, I was filled with a grad student's certainty about how drama worked. I thought I knew all about this stuff, and was happy to debate it for hours. Now I find myself in a very different place. It's a lot harder to stand on my soap box. But it's a much happier, in-the-moment place to be (and to write from). I'm seeing screenwriting from so many perspectives these days that I can't help but stay in the moment.

I had a three-hour meeting this morning to guide the final stages of the edit on Mr. Gary. We're still finding new meaning and new questions in the script. We're forced to use what we have, even if a shot doesn't work the way we thought it might. The funny thing is that the solutions we're finding are usually better than the original script. Somehow you don't come up with the really genius answers until you're the protagonist, and the script issue is the invincible antagonist and you've gone through your midpoint, low point, and battle scene. It's like every moment of the script has a three-act structure leading up to its creation.

I'm teaching a class of college kids about screenwriting. They're mostly new to storytelling. Some of them aren't even interested in film. They're video game designers. I've spent the last two weeks figuring out how to condense and communicate the crazy, wonderful mystery of writing and the fairly practical ways to getting there. Screenwriting feels more like an instinct to me than a set of rules. But they want the rules, of course.

I showed them the first five minutes of Harold and Maude yesterday. It might not be the natural choice, but I wanted to push them a little out of their comfort zone. (And who knows -- maybe there's a video game in there somewhere..) One reason I chose it: the first scene has a pretty neat three-act structure itself. I could talk about every topic I'd be touching on for the whole semester.

I've got some pretty standard topics to cover this semester: loglines and synopses and treatments and beat sheets and all the story elements. And somehow it hit me all of a sudden. The three-acts are just the nature of events. It's how we perceive them. You've got a three-act structure in a logline. You break down each element of the logline into a three-act structure, and you've got a synopsis. Break down each of those beats and you've got a treatment. And so on. This stuff doesn't translate well to words. So many screenwriting gurus have tried to slap their bumper sticker on the three-act structure and call it their own. But the moment you call it one thing, you lose hold of what it truly is. There's something really beautiful here. There's something full of joy here. And I hope I find better words for it before I recklessly start blogging again.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why Do They Do That?

I went to a poetry reading last night at the 3300 Club. It's one of those bars that are hard to find outside of San Francisco. It's a working class poets' bar in the middle of the Mission district. Everyone's welcome there -- from Mexican jornaleros to dot-commers to lesbian nature poets to retired teamsters. It just works. It's been working for fifty years.

Last night's reading featured "The Marin Traveling Poets". A haughty bunch. They all teach seminars on Rilke and lead weekend poetry retreats and so on. The men all dressed like they herded sheep in a scotch ad. The women had clearly been forced to dress themselves from Maya Angelou's hand-me-downs. The first poet intoned away with a dense web of someone else's imagery in someone else's voice. Everything about him said, "I am bringing the Word to you." And we'd heard it all before.

The host, who had noticed that the less sophisticated audience members such as myself had turned their attentions to the Giants game, offered us a summary of the imagery and what it meant. Then the next poet got up. In that very same practiced, serious, poetic tone, she read a series of affirming quotes about writing that made me want to take a steal brush to the bumper stickers that must surely grace her Subaru. Then she read some poetry. Then she told us what it meant. And then the host told us what it meant. There was nothing new all night.

Why do they do that?

I went down to meet the dean and administration from Cogswell for the first time last week. I haven't had a real boss in years. I left academia in a hurry twelve years ago. I literally remembered an hour beforehand that I can't just wear my regular T-shirt and jeans. I spent the day projecting calm professionalism to hide the screaming kid inside me. And I listened as all the correct phrases seemed to exit my mouth without my control. I knew how to hit the right notes. I just had to stay out of my own way.

How did I do that?

I am a big people watcher. And sometimes it's the most 'boring' people who are the most engaging people to watch. Why? Learned behaviors. Why does a poet wear tweed and read like Dylan Thomas? Because he's been rewarded for it for years. How do I suddenly remember behavior I forgot I knew? That behavior kept me safe and employed for years. Your head doesn't just lose survival techniques.

When you see two young urban professionals on a date, there's a script there. When a teenager talks to his mom, there's a script there. When a boss talks to his new faculty, there's a script there.

Those scripts are only boring if you don't bother to interpret them. There's a reason people become poets, and it's usually full of drama. It's rarely the same reason. Some relish the power relationship of reader and audience. Some are dressing themselves up to distinguish themselves. Some have been rewarded for this. And yes, many have discovered the power of words.

Two yuppie kids on a date talk about Cancun and wine country and their jobs. What are they talking about? It depends entirely on other circumstances. But one thing is certain -- if there's risk involved, if there are stakes -- the safe way to play the situation is to stick to the script. Stick to the learned behavior. We all do it.

What does this tell a screenwriter? Most of our dialogue in the course of the day is learned behavior. And our audience knows exactly how to interpret it. They won't suddenly lose this capacity as they walk into a theater. Use it. When you're writing dialogue, or just struggling with a scene, think of the learned behavior that would structure that scene in real life. The audience will know exactly what you're doing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mexican Idol!

I stopped off at my local taqueria on the way home the other day. The TV was blaring the Mexican version of American Idol. Quite a sight. There were twenty contestants of so -- ten teens of each gender, all wearing these quasi-prep school uniforms reminiscent of the Mexipop trainwreck known as RBD. You rarely see so many effusive, happy, blond Mexican 16-year-olds in one place, and the effect is somewhat disturbing, like a dream I had once after falling asleep watching a Kelly Clarkson special and eating a bag full of cheesy fried jalapeƱos.

As I sat down to my tacos, they were winding up the big group song -- all tweaked and tweezered -- singing like little angels, with all kinds of emotion 'n' stuff. Choreographed dance moves. Choreographed smiles. Choreographed good clean living happy teens. And then the winners were announced.

The winning teen boy burst into this almost breakdance-style victory dance. You knew this kid had Justin Timberlake's picture on the wall. When the announced the winning girl, she broke down into near hysterics, and was unable to sing. But they pulled her together, and the two sang a big duet finale.

This is where it got interesting. While American TV would have shunted the losers off to the side, or they would have forced themselves to wear smiles and look like good losers, here you had two singers, and a camera milling about the 18 losers, all with red eyes and tearful hugs. And jealous stares. And comforting hugs kinda going in another direction.

The entire taqueria was mesmerized. The servers stopped serving. The customers stopped ordering. The eaters stopped eating. We watched as these 18 visions of the ideal Mexican pop star of tomorrow all suddenly broke down and became real people. They became individuals, outside their set frame. They became full-blown characters.

Suddenly there was something interesting going on. The camera was clearing focusing in the losers. The winning boy kept jumping into frame and singing his little heart out. The winning girl was back up to speed, and they did their little safely choreographed mock-flirting as they grabbed for screen space. You could feel the taqueria turn against them. All anybody wanted to see was how these other kids they'd known all season really were. Did she just put her hand on his ass? Is he really crying? Score one for reality.

What does this tell us about screenwriting? Good writing resonates with the viewer by making sense, but surprising him. Good drama is not about imitating or representing. It's about doing. It's about real action. We put our characters through a lot, but too often we lose the audience by letting the consequences fit what makes it easier for us. Don't do it. Push yourself. Follow your characters. Don't make them follow you. They will always surprise you.