Monday, March 31, 2008

Listening and Learning

I was recently commissioned to write a short script. A director had roughed out a story idea. Her producer found me, gave me a few ground rules, then told me to run with it.

The story idea was interesting enough, but broke a number of rules of good storytelling, and seemed to require a few too many crowd scenes and hard-to-access locations. I wrote a lot of notes on the idea and came up with a list of the tools I had to work with. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you realize that 'tools' are really just problems viewed from a better angle. Often you can take two problems and find one good solution for both. For example, say you've got a character that drops somewhere before the midpoint. The script also bogs down and loses pacing somewhere after the midpoint. I look for the dropped character to jump in and kick the pacing back up. (or remove that character, and thus maybe the storytelling swamp it creates down the way).

I was pretty proud of myself. I managed to eliminate the prohibitively expensive locations. I made the piece feel more unified -- full of expectations that could be subverted, transcended, and otherwise played with. I shoehorned a story that covered weeks of real time into 15 minutes of narrative.

The producer was thrilled with the story. The director, however, was not. I'd drifted too far from her original idea. It wasn't going to work. There was no reason to try to convince her that this script was a stronger project. If you've ever helped make a script into a movie, you know that the director has to be 100% engaged in it. There's no reason to make something you aren't deeply committed to. It's too much time, money and effort. It's too much stress.

So I sat down with the director, and we hashed out what works and what doesn't. And I learned a great deal. She had a strong sense of what she wanted. She knew how it looked in her head. She'd secured a few locations that I thought she wouldn't be able to get.

But as we spoke I realized something deeper. While I'd read and reread her story idea, I hadn't been able to read past my own assumptions about it. And as she spoke about the script idea, I realized I'd fallen in to the trap of writing for accessibility and entertainment.

The director wanted something more challenging. There wasn't to be a neat little plot escalation. She wanted the audience to make the jumps between scenes for themselves. She wanted the visuals to tell the story more than the conflict. The story was set immediately after the break up. So I'd decided it was a break up story. It's not. It's about people searching for themselves when their assumptions about themselves have been stripped away. Suddenly it all made sense.

She had an aesthetic worked out that supported the whole story idea. Once I understood it, I fell in love with the idea.

There's good news here for me. It looks like I'll get two short scripts made instead of one. I've made new contacts and moved my career forward. But beyond that -- I learned a little humility. It's easy to look to your training or your experience and think you can solve any problem by spiffing up the three-act structure or honing the character's misbehavior.

But the world is bigger than that. Storis are wilder than that. And thank god for that.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Acting is Ecstasy

I used to be a stage actor years ago. For some reason I was thinking of a particular performance today, and I thought I'd blog about it.

The play was Angels in America by Tony Kushner. It's a pretty magnificent ensemble play about AIDS and the mysteries that lie at the base of American culture. The central character is Prior Walter, a gay man whose descent into sickness leads him to ecstatic, terrible visions and an unwelcome kind of prophethood. I played his lover Louis, who runs away from him when the sickness becomes too much to deal with.

I didn't care for the actor playing Prior Walter at all. He seemed too young. He wouldn't take the role seriously. I remember him in the dressing room on the night of the last performance, yakking on about whatever would annoy the rest of the cast. At one point, as he put a fake Kaposi's Sarcoma (an AIDS-related skin cancer) on his arm with purple magic marker, I nearly told him to shut up and let me concentrate. He was just one of those guys, and it was hard to play his lover.

We went out for a scene that takes place after my grandmother's death. We're talking across each other, every comment a barb or play for dominance. And I used that energy -- that 'shut up' energy -- letting it seep into the sadness about my dead grandmother. Before I knew what was happening, I was more caught up in the role than ever before.

And that night when Prior Walter pulled up his sleeve, I didn't see purple magic marker at all. I saw a horrific cancerous lesion. I don't know how to describe it. It was real. I burst into tears, and while we screamed at each other, we also looked into each other's eyes and started to cry together. The closest thing I could compare it to is descriptions of possession in voodoo rituals. Something just came over and took control of me -- the spirit of this character. There's a lot written about this. There's a lot written drawing parallels between voodoo and Greek drama.

Why am I telling you this? Because it's been too long talking about conceit and character misbehavior and all these other manipulable terms that make screenwriting seem more accessible. What we need to remember is that there's magic here: in writing as in acting.

Conflict in a script allows the actor to channel conflict from his life into the art. He turns structure into dramatic energy. Character misbehavior and goal bring conflict inside a character. They set up a dynamic which allows an actress to enter in and explore. Conflict allows the muse to descend.

There's something easier and purer about acting than writing for me. You simply practice and practice until the character knows where to go. Then you let the character take over. I still wish I had time to devote to the craft.

It's ecstasy to find a few words that invoke a spirit in the minds and hearts of a reader. If you've ever seen a character become real, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't yet, take a moment to remember what all the screenwriting 101 terms are really about. Writing, especially screenwriting, isn't about what happens on the page. It's a magical process that brings art to life (and vice versa). It's an ecstatic process, and so you need to dare yourself to feel some ecstasy every now and again.

Mr. Gary Screening at SFWFF!

My San Francisco Bay Area readers might want to know that Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show, an experimental short I made with director Lise Swenson, will be screening as part of the SF Women's Film Festival!

It's screening in a program of experimental shorts along with a live video perfomance by Kerry Laitala at Oddball Film and Video, which is a pretty unique and wonderful space for film. It should be a tremendous evening. I'll be doing the Q&A, and I'd love to meet any scriptwrangler readers.

Here's the info:

Experimental Shorts Program
Saturday, April 12 at 7:30 PM
275 Capp St, between 17th and 18th streets

You need to email to reserve a ticket at the door. More info here.

Mr. Gary is one of the quirkiest, most visually arresting and challenging pieces I've ever worked on. Here's the basic storyline.

Flora, an elderly shut in, maintains careful control over the universe of her apartment, a glorious and phantasmagoric manifestation of her inner world. Flora shares this claustrophobic environment with her closest friends, the television and the radios, which seem to feed her most intimate thoughts and fears back to her -- sometimes affectionately, sometimes mischievously.

On this night, Flora repeats her bathing ritual and dons her best dress. Little does she know the center of her universe, the radio personality Mr. Gary of Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show, will be hosting a special call in edition which is to be broadcast live on TV. As forces from inside and outside her environment conspire to stop her from joining Mr. Gary, she finds the courage to pick up the telephone and re-establish order by creating her own transcendent feedback loop.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

One Year Anniversary

I realized the other day that I started blogging here back in March 2007. I've been blogging for a year! I want to thank my readers -- from 1247 different cities in 77 countries -- for a remarkable experience. It's been a pleasure to meet and work with so many new people. I've learned a lot, made new friends, and refined a lot of what I think about screenwriting.

It's time to do some spring cleaning around here. I was thinking about setting up a "Best Of Scriptwrangler" section. If you'd like to nominate a favorite post, please email me or add a comment to the blog. I have some idea what posts are perennial favorites, but it's funny how a certain subject will jump out at me in a conversation months later.

I'm also going to revamp It's a pretty bare bones site right now. If you've got some ideas for that, I'd be thrilled to hear them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Writing in the Moment

I often feel a twinge of jealousy toward songwriters and poets. They get to churn out as much exposition and naked thematics and context-less emotion as they want. Add a few guitars and a talented voice, and you've got yourself a hit. No worrying about plot structure and set ups and actions, and character misbehavior, and..and.. They have no idea how easy their job is!

Of course poetry and songwriting are not easy. They're just a very different kind of writing. Drama evokes meaning not through statement, but by conflict and its resolution. To generalize broadly, songwriting and non-dramatic poetry are largely about finding the perfect statement of the subject. This is about as far as you can get from screenwriting. Apples and oranges. Separate animals. The Greeks in their wisdom gave each its own muse.

So a Leonard Cohen can find depth and meaning in his songs by drawing a particular vision in his head, or rolling a metaphor through a series of frames. kd lang can talk about love, and know that it's her voice that makes some pretty quotidian stuff suddenly strike deep in your soul.

Many new and not so new writers get caught up on this. Most writers have had a class or two in English composition. You know how to write an essay. You write a short story or two. Maybe you stick with it and learn a lot. Then you turn to screenplays with no idea how little you know.

Often writers like this have a tendency to indicate emotion, rather than showing it. A character scowls. Or a character stares at the sea. Or she crosses her arms and harumphs. And, while the situation is harumphable, something just doesn't ring true about it. It falls flat.

Let's examine where this comes from. If you write prose, then you probably had your character harumph, cross her arms, and then you stepped in with a long internal monologue or similar. If you write poetry, this is maybe an act that describes a situation very precisely -- a miracle of language.

But it doesn't work in a screenplay. Why? Because we watch a visual differently from how we read a book. Scene to scene, we expect to be inside a character's head. We're making unconscious bets about what they'll do and how they'll react, and oh no, what will happen then! While this does function in some prose, it's not as central as it is in dramatic writing.

If you drop that ball -- if you lose where the character is IN THE MOMENT -- you lose your audience as well.

Relatively new writers have a tendency to write with their own goal in mind rather than character intention. The character feels the way they do because that's (consciously or not) where the writer needs them to be.

Screenwriting is just the first step, and if, god forbid, your script full of indicated conflicts and emotions makes it through the production process, it will stand out like a sore thumb. It won't be believable, because it doesn't correspond to the audience's understanding of the character and his plight. It will look like the writer needed the character to stop breathing long enough to harumph.

Let's look at it from another perspective. Why do some writers rely so heavily on indicating? Usually it's a lack of conflict. The details of the plot aren't worked out. And the writer is terrified to let his character wander away from his plot line.

In other words, character intention has nothing to do with the writer's goal. They usually are in conflict. The new writer thinks: let's just sweep that character intention under the rug. I don't care if he's hungry and needs a bath, he's going to ask his teacher on a date.

The more experienced writer sees a huge opportunity. This pesky problem with the character is exactly what a scene needs to bring conflict. The character needs a bath -- great! He's doing everything he can to shy away from his teacher. She's getting angry that he's giving her the cold shoulder. Maybe she's eating a hero sandwich, and he can barely think he's so hungry. You've just made it next to impossible to ask this woman out. And you've done yourself a huge favor. You've grown the dramatic distance he covers. You've given yourself numerous chances for him to act and express what's going on, rather than simply indicating them. When somebody harumphs, we believe it.

If you feel your scenes falling flat, look at the scenes before them, and ask yourself what you're sweeping under the rug. It's usually exactly what you need.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Power of F@!# It

Some mornings I wake up, read through my notes on a job, and then very methodically work through a carefully defined problem -- sharpening the character's misbehavior, or building stakes, or clarifying the conceit. That kind of thing. It all works just like it's supposed to. Story problems obediently present themselves just where you'd expect to find them. And they respond to your treatment just the way they should.

Then there are other times when problems pile up on each other and it's difficult to see the elegant solution underlying all the big issues. There's a big knot somewhere in the middle of the script, and you don't know which end to start picking at. This is when the f***-it copy comes in handy.

A f***-it copy is a duplicate file where you are officially allowed to f*** up. You're allowed to play. You're allowed to try things out. You can pull out a character and see if the story still balances out. You can pull out a scene, or reverse a polarity, or try the easy solution. You can try simply playing with it -- as far away from screenwriting orthodoxy as you please. And when it doesn't work -- f*** it.

F***-it copies are never the final solution, but they almost always teach you something you didn't know before. Why? Because you are utilizing one of the most under-taught skills of any kind of writing, including screenwriting:


Scripts are like any other big project. The more possibilities you look at, the better the finished work. It's within your power at this very moment to see what your script looks like without all that dialogue. You can flip scenes around and take a page out and let your characters fail and everything else. You're modeling your story. And your computer doesn't mind. It will store as many f*** it copies as you can come up with.

I often wonder why we don't teach this skill more. I suspect it's because most screenwriting gurus learned their craft either on a typewriter, or from someone who used a typewriter. Hard and fast structures (and ideologies about what goes where) were a safe bet. I remember rejecting a lot of gurus fairly angrily when I read them. Why must the Refusal of the Journey go here? There's nobody going into the Innermost Cave in my script. Anybody telling you that your script MUST be shaped around their methodology is just selling books.

But that same methodology is absolutely, utterly, invaluably useful as a modeling tool. You'd be foolish not to try it out. If it works, great. If it doesn't you'll still figure something out. And well, if it doesn't work at all, then f*** it. You spent the day writing and thinking about your story.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Conceit and Structure

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I've had a couple ideas tumbling around in my head, but nothing ready for the blog. Then there's work and teaching and... writing for myself. It's been a busy few months, and it feels amazing to have a moment or two to work out some new material and reread some old stuff.

My students have been getting a real handle on conceit recently -- realizing that it's got to be a simple thing: a unique strategy for unity in your work; a strategy that brings 'thingness' to your story. There are a million ways to define a strategy. There are a million paths to conceit. You might have to try most of them before you really find the 'thingness' in your story. But once you have that, you have better answers than you ever imagined to your story problems.

Conceit, once achieved, knocks your writing, and your thinking about writing, up to the next level. It's more than a good idea. It's a good idea that's been fully developed. A reader sees it on page one. They miss it if it's not there. An experienced reader (or producer or filmmaker..) knows that conceit is what sells a piece. You can think of studio readers as armies of prospectors sifting through rivers of scripts, looking for a speck of gold -- a well-developed, marketable conceit.

But enough about them. This industry stuff gets boring quick.

What I want to talk about today is conceit and structure. Structure is obviously important to a script. Structure is key in any storytelling -- visual or written. There are many, many individuals who claim to know the keys to structure. For the most part, I think they are reiterating the same basic structure that's worked for the first 10,000 years of human development... with a few added bells, whistles, and purely academic distinctions.

Most screenwriting teachers, myself included, will harp endlessly on drilling your conceit down into your structure. For the vast majority of cases, it can only help you to model your conceit across the the beats of the expected structure. And it's true. If you reinforce your conceit at every turn, with every major conflict, you're solving audience reception problems before they even arise.

But conceit can also function as a kind of anti-structure, and it's worthwhile at least to model and brainstorm through those possibilities as well. Why?

Because conceit is a more or less direct connection between you and your audience. It can pull you along through and past all kinds of plot issues. Take The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Does that plot make sense? No. No, it does not. Do you care? No. You're being entertained consistently with the conceit. (Or some of us are.)

Another place that conceit can really come to the fore is music videos. Narrative structure is of more limited use in a music video, because the visual story is just supporting the music. Quite frequently there's one strong, simple, central idea that drives a music video. That's the conceit. If it's good, you remember the video. If it's not thought out, or is a cliche, then you don't.

The band Sigur Ros, in my opinion, does a fairly remarkable job with this. People either adore them or despise them -- I'll leave that to you. But consider watching videos for Hoppipolla, Saeglopur, Glosoli, and Svefn-g-Englar. For some reason Hoppipola always brings tears to my eyes. Not sure why. I guess it's the old people playing in the graveyard. All these videos are available on youtube, and you deserve a treat for reading this far into my post. Just watch them full screen.

In each, you have a remarkably clear, developed conceit. The viewer can name it quickly and clearly. And it's very carefully worked into the structure. And it's very carefully used where structure doesn't apply.

Sigur Ros recently produced a concert film, and did a call for submissions for fans to submit videos. It's fascinating to see what amateur filmmakers did with the band's basic conceit. Some get it. Some don't. Some add something more. I learned a lot. Check that out this youtube search.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Film Susu Update

I talked with Doug E. Doug from yesterday about my posting about his site. I'd given him a very short interview, and was surprised to find it posted as a benefit of paid membership.

When I gave the interview, I'd been under the impression that the site was a new, free site for the film community. Doug was genuinely sorry for the miscommunication, and I am sorry for not checking it out with him before posting. Things change as you develop a website, and I'd talked to him at an early stage. When he saw my discomfort he immediately removed my name from the page, and made very sincere efforts to make sure I understood no harm was intended. I do appreciate that, and wish him well with his site.