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.