Saturday, August 30, 2008

Changing "The Narrative"

I do my best to avoid topics that will likely turn off readers. I want everyone to feel welcome here, whether we agree or disagree. It's nothing more than a screenwriting blog, yo. My politics aren't the issue.

I have been thinking about starting a blog about how the fundamentals of drama are moving out into the broader world. Now that we're all connected by intertubes, it seems only natural that this tendency will grow. You can control how people see events and characters by framing their context. There are some extremely effective strategies for doing this, and they've been around for thousands of years. Who wouldn't access this knowledge?

This is why Republicans and Democrats are constantly screwing with each other's back stories. This is why they're always muddying each other's inciting events. On and on. And this is the only conceivable reason I can think for McCain choosing Sarah Palin.

Unless you're staunchly anti-abortion, you were probably scratching your head on this one. Google got a bit of a headache from everyone trying to figure out who she was. Apparently McCain met her once before this week, so he wasn't exactly sure who she was either. For that matter, she wasn't too clear on what the VP job entailed.

So even if you think she's a great pick, you have to ask yourself how she got picked.

From a screenwriting standpoint it does make sense.

Old screenwriters love to sit around and talk about 'setting traps'. How do you do this? McCain's rewriting the narrative to make it more difficult for Obama. He's setting traps. It's not how well known she is, or what she stands for. Her main asset as a trap has more to do with how powerless and out of her element she is, in a way.

To wit: Obama attacks her for being inexperienced. McCain keeps the 'inexperienced' meme in the narrative. Obama's slogging through sand here. It's not so much that he's defeating his own argument as making it harder for Obama to make his.

The Obama camp attacks her for getting her ex-brother-in-law fired -- i.e. allegations of corruption. McCain keeps the Tony Rezko issue in the debate.

Whenever Obama's surrogates reference the excitement at a first black president, they're now cutting against the excitement about a woman in the White House.

In other words, all the obvious attacks backfire. In other words, this is not a stupid or reckless choice. It's not a choice made from a position of power. But it is a crafty choice. When does a screenwriter make a choice like this?

A screenwriter builds a trap by giving the trap a number of analogous traits to the hero. And they give the trap to the opponent. The hero can't really attack the opponent without damaging someone like themselves. They have to find a way to get to their goal without endangering this person like them.

The trap is a hostage. And I think this may well lay at the base of McCain's thinking. This is Princess Leia captured by Darth Vader, in a way. It's Saddamn Hussein's 'human shields'.

Yes, I know. She's a gun-toting Christian hockey mom who appeals to the Republican base. I know. Could he really not come up with someone better to make his point? I don't think he's interested in having someone he views as an equal on the ticket. Yeah, she'll pull a couple Clinton voters. But I can't see them really crossing over in droves. No one can.

In my view, McCain's probably made a mistake here. He's basically reacting to the hero's plot. He's thinking like a villain. He's casting himself as the villain in Obama's narrative. And villains have a knack for not winning in the end.

Or maybe that's just in the movies.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Film Arts Finally Goes Under

Film Arts Foundation, after a long history of supporting the creation of independent film in San Francisco, has officially gone under. This is a surprise to no one. It's been hobbling along for years now. It was always one of those organizations that you felt should be and do more than it is. But, as a friend of mine put it, there's no 'there' there. You tried to be good and faithful member. You'd try to see how you could access them for help making a film. But they weren't as relevant as they could have been.

The news is that the SF Film Society is taking over their filmmaker services. This seems a bit of a stretch. SFFS puts on the San Francisco International Film Festival. They have fancy screenings and the like. But their mandate has been about bringing independent film to viewers, rather than working with the film community here. That's a real shift in culture for any organization, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

Why? There are a huge number of filmmakers in this town, with a great deal of energy. Most of them had run up against the limitations of FAF shortly after signing up for fiscal sponsorship. They ALL want a more vibrant center for filmmaking. I think most of them will give SFFS a shot.

Here's hoping, in any case. If you're interested in reading more, check out this article. It's well worth your time even if you aren't in San Francisco. There are a lot of changes going on in indie film. Some are great, some are not. The pattern is the same all over the country.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Immanuel Kant and Why You're Procrastinating

... or why we're both procrastinating, actually.

This is a posting about two of the most central elements to any rewarding writing life: intention and concentration. Just want to lay that out there before I crawl out onto a limb and hang myself.

Back in the 1700's The Enlightenment was in full swing. More happened to shape who we are in this century than most people realize. The arts, philosophy, science all snapped the tether that had leashed them to the church for over a millenium. Reason took hold and life in many ways became what we know today. This was the time of "I think therefore I am". It was the time of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the scientific method. It let Mozart write Don Giovanni one day and a mass the next. Isaac Newton and the apple. It was an astonishing time. Humanity saw itself in an entirely new light. Not all of it was good, of course. The French Revolution comes to mind.

There was an explosion of philosophers. Most of them can be seen as engaging in the untethering of thought from the church. It's like they're figuring out how to untie the boat from the dock. Some are cautious. Others not so much. 'I think therefore I am' replaces 'God made me, and therefore I am'. The Enlightenment allowed us to measure and manipulate knowledge without falling back on some mystical unknowable relying on faith.

Immanuel Kant was at the head of the pack. He came up with a couple swell ideas. We can't truly know the reality of other individuals -- only our perception of them. And we can't act on objects across a distance.

This adds up to a couple problems. First, well, you can't really know anyone else. There's a loneliness there. We're all separated out. It's depressing. This has been sinking in for a few centuries now.

Second, it makes no difference what we intend. By intention, I mean things like prayer. We can pray, but we're not affecting anything. Some supreme being may observe it, but we're not really doing anything but bouncing thoughts off our own craniums.

Like I said, it's depressing. (And by the way, I don't think he really even believed it. He just had to say it in order to win an argument.)

Frankly, I think Kant was dead wrong on this one. If he was right, we wouldn't be praying anymore. We'd probably distantly remember religion at best. We'd have truly outgrown it. If Kant was right, then quantum physics wouldn't exist. But it does.

If you have a positive mental attitude, you know the power of intention. If you meditate, you know the power of intention. If you worship in a church, you know the power of intention. If you psych yourself up before the big game, you're using intention. We all use intention in some way.

And of course, if you write, you know the power of intention. You can bring a world into being. You can create characters that breathe and act and doubt in the existence of their creator. Writing exercises that same capacity -- that muscle of thought. We all settle into cliches of 'being creative' and forget that we are truly creating something. And we're creating it out of pure intention. Readers recreate that world out of their own intention. So screw Kant.

Of course, intention requires concentration. And why is it so damn hard to concentrate? Why are you surfing the internets right now instead of writing that story? To my eyes, we're busy 'pinging'. We're putting out beacons, seeing if the real world is out there. We're fighting that loneliness. And most of the time we're losing. We're confirming everthing Kant

Writing is requires more concentration than the average individual has anymore. It works a capacity that our culture has largely forgotten we have. It takes work and practice to learn it again. So pray, intend, meditate, wish well, whatever it takes. Do it every day. And get writing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

I'm a little late out of the blocks on this one, so I'll keep it short. This is one of the films that managed to catch me up as a screenwriter and scare the pants off me. And it does it while largely centering on some fairly heady thematics about the nature of a hero in a society governed by random acts and raw power, an effective response to nihilism, America's deepening fear that it's about to eat itself, and, well... I'll stop now. The film searches for meaning in a way that few indie films dare without diminishing the blockbuster impact in the slightest. If you've got a budget of $185M, you can do both! It seems there are more and more big movies willing to mean something these days. It's a very good thing.

I'm overcoming my kneejerk reaction to John Truby here and linking to his post on The Dark Knight. I'd post a spoiler alert, but I think everybody's seen the movie anyway..

Check out Truby's article in Storylink.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Saturday Morning Inspiration

I was thinking I'd make this somehow screenwriting-relevant with some comment about planning being a boon to creativity or the like, but I'll pass. Living in a head full of visions is always better than a head full of nuthin. Next time you grimace at revision, think of this video and how much beauty there is in erasing it all and starting again.

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

For more on the artist, check out the website.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Finding Perspective and Clarity

One of the best screenwriting tips I ever heard was this: write your synopsis for a distracted teenager. And, if you're lucky enough to have a distracted teenager at your disposal, test it out on them.

Why is this valuable advice? Studio readers aren't distracted teenagers (we hope). Big producers, directors, and agents don't watch TV while simultaneously playing Nintendo, texting friends, and updating their myspace page.

But they are busy, distracted people. They live in the 21st century, and therefore have short attention spans and an unquenchable need for constant information input. This makes them anxious and lazy at the same time.

Writing for your probable reader, rather than your optimal reader, forces you to be incredibly clear about your story. It requires you to think it through so it

1. makes sense and

2. is something other people care about.

(I forgot about #2 for the first decade of my writing career. But enough about me.)

This is very difficult, of course. Many (mostly new) writers punt on the whole synopsis issue, and wait to write it only after they've written the script. I'm not sure why they do this. Why wouldn't you want to sort out story problems on one page instead of spending months writing and rewriting a hundred or more just to get it to make sense?

But if writing for a difficult teen just isn't your bag, then consider some other options.

I'm working on a script that's aimed at an adult audience. It's about family and loneliness and all that good stuff. I tried writing it for a child. I made it a fairy tale.

What happens? The same thing that happens when you talk to a child: you break things down into simpler and simpler chunks. Often there's no way around the honesty that arises out of that process. You have to explain things carefully, and lay them out gently. My boyfriend's 6-year-old niece once froze me with the question, "Why do you and he sleep in the same bed?" Then I got on the kid level and answered, "Because he's my favorite person in the whole world." And she smiles and runs off to play. It's that simple. And it's true.

Do that with your synopsis and you're liable to find what you're really writing about, and why it matters. Your characters hew to type a bit. All your three-act gobbledygook transforms into some beautiful archetype.

Next I tried imagining the story from the perspective of my main character. He's a fifty-year-old functional drug addict who's shut himself off from the planet. It's a daydream as he glazes over in front of the computer. Some more issues come into focus: why he'd suddenly sacrifice his safe existence; what he truly cares about and won't let himself have; what he WOULDN'T do that I've been trying to make him do.

It's a worthwhile exercise. It's also very close to what professional writers do regularly when they tailor their synopses, treatments, and query letters to specific individuals.

But for now, realize that this is a tooling for *creating* your story, rather than selling it. These shifts in contexts remind us just how infinite stories are. One slight shift in perspective, and it's all new again.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Have you ever written a beautiful scene that mysteriously turns to nonsense overnight? Have you ever found a brilliant solution to a story problem one day, only to find it unbearably ridiculous the next?

If you have, you're in very good company. If you haven't, well -- the rest of us don't like you very much.

Insecurity it a part of writing, of course. But why does it happen so often? Why must it happen so often? My theory is that we go to bed as writers and wake up as editors. With the glow of inspiration behind you and a long slog ahead things start to look very different.

Getting past this unfortunate phenomenon is part of becoming a professional writer. Embracing this phenomenon is the mark of a happy writer.

Let me explain. When you wrote the scene or reworked the synopsis last night and all was light and brilliance, you were discovering something about your story. This morning when you were trying to re-enter writing head, you'd changed. You'd acquired the knowledge already. You assimilated it last night in a sea of beautiful, technicolor, exquisitely structured dreams. And this morning you woke a new person. You had new eyes. You had new knowledge. You had a new perspective. You woke a little bit smarter.

And it hurts. Thank god it's exactly where you want to be. You never would have had the opportunity to look down your nose at this brilliant idea otherwise.

Writing is all about gaining knowledge. It's about incremental gains and the occasional giant leap. When your inner editor puts down his coffee, gazes wearily out over his bifocals and asks, "What were you thinking," you need to answer honestly and fearlessly. There's a dialectic at work here. You need to respond. How do you respond?

When I'm developing a story, I work and rework synopses and loglines. I'll scratch out back stories and then slowly, maybe fiddle with some scene work. Somewhere along the line the synopses and so on start to build up on top of each other. One document decides to become the story encyclopedia. Things start to take on their own weight. I get away from my structure. I let things fall where they may. It starts to feel organic. I am enjoying the process.

But as I prepare to actually write the script, I see all the things that I've stepped away from. The SIMPLE structure. The conceit that conveys itself in a few words. The careful and straightforward construction of the main characters. Minor characters have stepped out of their place, and are mucking up the garden, building digressions and gossiping away about back story. It's a mess. The editor is asking unavoidable questions, and the writer is terrified.

But you pick yourself up and respond. You go back to your ideas about character -- the misbehavior and the goal -- and you start to apply it. You look at your 4.5-act mess through the eyes of your three-act model. You relax. You embrace the art. There's something speaking here, and it's not your conscious mind. The story is more important than your structure. The story had better be more than you had in your conscious mind.

I've wanted to write a posting like this for a while. I hit my readers over the head with the need for structure even when I don't remotely believe they somehow always magically hold the answers. Structure and careful back story development and good character hygiene and all that can make you productive, aware, even professional. They're a pretty good way of telling you when you're screwing up. But don't expect them to write the story for you.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Thought for the Day

"As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle."

William S. Burroughs
The Adding Machine

Half Nelson

I finally saw Half Nelson last night. A tremendous film about a white progressive teacher teaching black youth at an inner city school. As he devolves into a serious crack addiction, he clings to the only thing that won't die -- his unlikely friendship with a female student.

I'd actively avoided the film. When your main character is a white, well-meaning liberal teaching history in an inner city school, you're going to get preachy sooner or later. Add drugs and you'll have difficulty not sailing that ship into the shoals of escapism from white guilt. No matter how sensitive and well-drawn the characters, I just knew that sooner or later he'd be busting down a door and saving her from an evil drug lord.

But it wasn't like that. Not at all. It's a beautiful, well-written film. It can teach us a lot.

This movie had to deal with some heavy expectations (see above). The filmmakers clearly didn't want to make that film. So a lot of making it was AVOIDING that easy, hackneyed interpretation. I want to point to three issues here.

First, structure. The white liberal drug movie set in the inner city makes fairly straightforward use of the three-act structure. In other words, it's predictable. You'll see the well-meaning liberal teacher. You'll get a nice inciting event, act break, midpoint, blah blah blah. It'll be darkest before the dawn -- his students reecting him and running off to a life of crime and inhumanity. And he'll save the day. Yada yada.

So the writers had a task here. Subvert that. Subvert it quick. And keep subverting it. And use it too.

What do I mean?

The audience is EXPECTING these beats. You're expecting a high point, where it looks like the teacher might get off drugs and make things work. It doesn't come -- and so your pulled into the character. The events of the script are open: you can't necessarily predict where the plot is going, because it's more of a life shape. Things fall into place as they go. It's open to interpretation. When we see the teacher stepping over the line physically with the student at the dance, we learn to watch the moment, rather than check the mental box for midpoint.

The teacher will likely get fired. We know that. It isn't the point. The viewer is still cradled in the plot, but not as a passive observer. You need to watch carefully since you have no idea what's coming next.

Second, character. One of the most interesting moments for me was when the teacher DOES have the face off with the drug dealer over the fate of his friend and student. He knows he has no moral ground to stand on. But he's got to do something. And he says that: "I'm supposed to do something, right?!"

What happens? The drug dealer is also a complex character. He's not just evil. He is -- in his own way -- looking out for her when he brings her into his business. And when the teacher keeps fighting his losing battle to stop him, he realizes that they do share something. They both want what's best for her. He invites him into his house (and yeah, gets him high).

It's an incredibly dramatic shift. And while you'll find evidence of it on the written script page, it's really the hard work of some determined screenwriters to produce this set up in the script *up to* that moment.

Third, dialogue. How do a teacher and student speak about the teacher's drug habit in real life? They don't. And virtually none of the dialogue in this movie is driven by the screenwriter's desire to get the issue down on the page. It's driven by the set up. There's not a single moment of 'stop doing the drugs or you'll die'.

Many screenwriters would insist on that scene, or at least not see a way around it. What happens when you do away with it? The audience member wonders what's going on with the kid. They remember that fear of seeing your teacher in a non-school environment. They remember the first time they really saw into the world of adults. They remember when they lost a friend to something they couldn't stop. They remember feeling powerless in their own environment.

It's an astonishing thing when a movie can have us both dig that deep into our own past AND get us that involved in a character.

And isn't that why we go to see movies?