Thursday, November 26, 2009

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reason to Write #137

"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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Everybody in California has been to a test screening once. Very few have been twice.

It's exciting to the unsuspecting: you're invited to a free screening of an unreleased Hollywood movie. Then a plasticized marketing executive gets up in front and asks very sincerely for your opinion. You get a questionnaire and one of those little golf pencil, and you dutifully report if you liked Tobey Maguire, whether the climax was bloody enough, whether the trace remainders of a character's liberal political views were off-putting or enlivening. And so on.

Based on your responses, the studio may well re-edit the ending, add back in the scene where Tobey pets the dog, or lose the fat chick. In short, studios use the marketing data to make the movie as palatable to the broadest audience range possible. Characters become more like characters we've seen before. Plot twists that excite 70% but confuse 20% are cut out. Bad guys explode more frequently. And the movie joins the rest of the pack, bobbing in the murky water around the lowest common denominator.

Like I said, few people make it to a second test screening. Even if you don't know what's going on you leave feeling a little dirty.

You'll be pleased to know that marketing is losing its golf pencils. Instead, it's putting the audience into an MRI! The new thing is neurocinema.

The idea is that you can scan the brain of the audience member and watch what parts light up as the scene progresses. The reactions are most testable in horror. You watch for the amygdala, the "fight or flight" center of the brain, to light up like a Christmas tree.

I imagine watching almost any movie -- say, Air Bud -- while trapped in a giant humming magnetic brain probe might light up my amygdala, but enough about me.

The idea that you can make a movie better by stimulating one area of the brain is disturbing to me. The amygdala isn't the horror-genre center of the brain. Yes, it controls fear. It also controls rage and disgust. Your amygdala lights up when you see a car accident. Your amygdala lights up when a drunk hits on your girlfriend. But the film industry is investing serious money in this technology just so it can tickle this part of the brain.

But what bothers me most about this technology is that it just might work. Maybe movies can boil down to a lower common denominator. I suspect that many moviegoers already equate a good movie with a vigorous amygdala rub. And maybe, like with video games, the effect is addictive.

Check out this interview in Wired for more.

You can see the test clip from the horror movie they tested. And they'll need a little more than an MRI to fix that one. Sorry, couldn't help myself.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


What does (BEAT) mean?

Some people will tell you it's a way to get an actor to pause for something important. It tells the actor when to take the breath. It's a dramatic equivalent to OMG!!!!;) Or something.

Others will tell you it simply indicates a pause.

Most writers go through a (BEAT) phase. (BEAT) starts littering the script wherever the writer wants to indicate something significant, or worse -- weighty. And the writer convinces himself that he makes his script weigh more by doing so.

Then there's the added benefit of telling the actors how to act. If you put that (BEAT) in there, well, they need to stop and savor your brilliance.

Not surprisingly, actors bristle at scripts full of (BEAT), just as they do at scripts full of "smiles knowingly", "claps his back reassuringly", or (subtly, with rising anger). Actors are not puppets, and you are not a puppeteer.

And actors usually know what a beat is.

A beat is simply a unit of drama. It's a moment that moves the story forward. It's not a moment that represents something, or elaborates, or even 'weighs' anything. It is movement. It is forward motion.

In virtually every drama virtually all of the time, the beat happens through the actor. How?

They change their intention. They react to a new circumstance. They try to effect a change in another character.

These are all things that happen first in a character's. So what does (BEAT) mean to an actor? It tells her she needs to consider how her intention changes. It tells him that a shift has occurred in his character's psychology.

Sometimes this even happens without a pause for emphasis.

(BEAT) used correctly engages the actor's training. They look for interesting possibilities in the character. They uncover connections that need to be brought out. They consider your lines in a different way. You're telling them to make a choice, a gamble, a deeper read.

And when they read more deeply and just come up with (ponderous pause)? You've bored them or worse -- you've lost their faith in the script.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Set Ups

Have you ever watched a movie without audio -- say, in a bar or on an airplane? If you're paying any attention at all, you usually know exactly what's going on. Screenwriting is, after all, visual storytelling. Our job is to pull together combinations of images and characters as expressively as possible. Usually this is a matter of setting two elements against each other, in a power relationship, or to express a contrast, or simply to create dramatic potential. What does this mean?

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert (James Mason) checks into a hotel with the 16-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon) unaware that it's almost completely booked with a convention of state troopers. Now, the contrasts and power relationships are painfully clear. But the screenwriter, Vladimir Nabokov, doesn't stop there. To preface the set up we see the inimitable Claire Quilty, a dissolute TV writer who apparently made note of the precocious Lolita while bedding her mother in the backstory, wanders in just in time to watch the whole thing.

Note something important here: the entire import of the scene is in the set up. James Mason could discuss fuzzy bunnies with the front desk clerk. It wouldn't matter. We'd know why the scene was there, and the scene need only prolong itself until old Humbert's committed himself to a night in a hotel full of cops with his 16-year-old paramour, daughter of his recently deceased wife. You come up with a set up like that and you're done. You did your job.

All well and good, you say, but I'm not Vladimir Nabokov. How do I come up with a set up like that? They don't just pop into my head.

No, they don't. As a matter of fact, I'm writing in my blog precisely because I'm stuck trying to think up a strong set up for a scene right now.

Actually, everybody encounters the immovable and intractably dull set up issue on a pretty regular basis. Good writers are just better about working through them.

Let me make a hypothetical here in pursuit of a point. How did Nabokov come up with this set up? Out of necessity.

The second act is largely built on the tension of Lolita not knowing that her mother has committed suicide upon realizing that Humbert's after not her but her daughter. At this stage in the movie Humbert has nowhere to go. He has to stop somewhere, and this hotel is the proper place for the urbane literature professor that he is.

How often do you run into that 'necessary' scene that just lays there? It would be easy enough to write through a little booking-the-room scene then off for some sexual tension that evening in the bedroom. It's necessary, but you don't learn much.

That's not how screenwriting works. Each scene has to build the drama and not just move through the have-to-be-there moments. So, you look at the scene and start to add in the elements you need. To wit: fear of law enforcement? Check. Obsessed and unshakable drunk with an infatuation with the young girl and a fishy story? Check. Desk clerk a little to hep to the jive to not pick up on the sexual energy between Lolita and her supposed father? Check.

Then you subtract all the stuff you thought you needed but has nothing to do with the set up. The exposition. The boilerplate dialogue between desk clerk and guest. That weird thematic stuff that never reads anyway. The clever line that will never sound half as good outside your head (and you know it).

You come up with a strong set up and you're done. Stay out of your own way. Don't overcrowd the scene with dialogue. And whatever you do, don't drive the scene with dialogue. How on earth are people in bars and airplanes supposed to watch the movie if you do?

On a separate note...

Go watch Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Right now. I'll come to your house if you don't. It's about as good as a movie can be with Charleton Heston and Marlene Dietrich playing Mexicans. And the set ups ain't too shabby either.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quote of the Day

"You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club."

– Jack London

Friday, August 7, 2009

Who Wants Blood?

...and who wants self-actualization?

I recently read David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business. It's a remarkable book. I usually choose not to read books about screenwriting or, for that matter, the movie business. A little Robert McKee or Syd Field goes a long way for me. Then I'm somehow bloated. Never trust a guru. They're smart, sure. But you have to shut a little something off to stay with them.

Bambi vs. Godzilla is different. Mamet is, of course, a first-rate dramatist. And this has driven him to revulsion at the way things work in Hollywood. There's a gem every other page or so. Some of the gems are depressing as hell. But you leave the book a better writer, I think.

Mamet turned me onto a remarkable American noir film from 1967: Point Blank. It stars Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. The tagline is one for the ages:

"There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can't tell them apart." Uh huh.

Mamet points to the film as an example of what's wrong with many mainstream Hollywood thinking about main characters: that they must be likable. After all, the audience essentially engages the main character as his lackey to pull us through the plot, right? So, the audience is happiest when they like the guy up on screen most of the time. Audiences like main characters with pluck (and boobs) and a desire to become better people. Everybody likes that, right?

But drama isn't always so easy on the viewer. This self-actualization that Hollywood wants us to vicariously enjoy while sitting upon our ample asses descends from a much sterner mother: catharsis. Catharsis isn't a pleasant thing to go through. It's ripping away the traits that define you and letting yourself slide to the floor in a jelly, hoping that something new and better will prop you back up.

And that's not the worst of it.

What drives any good drama is the main character's need for something. Think to what you lack. Think to what you can't bear to have the world know you lack. Love. Respect. Family. Something darker, perhaps. That's what drives a drama. It's what you can't mention. Hollywood realized a while back that this isn't quite as safe a model as self-actualization. Nobody's afraid to want that for themselves, at least vicariously through Spiderman.

This, predictably, makes the drama (and the very potential for drama) less.

At the beginning of Point Blank, Lee Marvin loses big. While robbing some gangsters, Marvin's partner steals his wife, his share, then lodges two bullets in him -- all on an abandoned Alcatraz. As his life seeps away, he wants one thing: revenge. And this alone drives him to survive (and swim to San Francisco, apparently).

Now, self-actualization is an easy, calm, soothing kind of master. It has twelve steps. You can take a break. You do your best. There are books to help you. Self-actualization has websites. Revenge? Not so much. It's irrational, unquenchable, and merciless.

Lee Marvin tracks down his wife. As he sits there wordlessly she pours out her confession and he realizes that she wished for the death she thought he had. Unsure whether to kill her or take her back, he loses both options when she does kill herself. He marches on. He tracks down his former partner, who's now bought his way into the mafia. He gets his sister-in-law, Angie Dickinson, to sleep with her dead sister's husband so he can sneak up and kill him. He does kill the partner -- but in about the most unsatisfying way possible: the poor guy falls off the roof trying to get away from Marvin.

At this point you'd think the movie is about done. Everything that was set up has been resolved. But not for Marvin. Where do you put revenge? He was ripped off for $93,000 in the initial heist. He chases and murders his way up through the criminal syndicate to get the money. They're mostly baffled by him. What is he gaining by going after this incredibly powerful organization? Why, for that matter, does he even think they owe him a penny? It's not terribly rational -- but revenge just isn't.

And then at the end Marvin finally gets his money. Or he could. It's offered to him in a pay off back on Alcatraz. But he won't come out of the shadows to take it. He won't take the boat back to San Francisco. Instead, he just recedes into the darkness. End of movie.


NEVER do you 'like' Marvin's character. Sure, he maybe fulfills the old screenwriting bromide: "the audience has to want the main character to succeed'. But that's begging the question. And if you gave him a dog and a sweet, supportive wife, we'd puke.

What makes him work as a character? Put simply: a great dramatic question at every step. What happens next? He's a mystery, a Manichean hodgepodge of good and evil with a not insignificant pinch of crazy thrown in. But he is consistent and coherent, and he never once panders to the audience.

This has the effect of making him human. The final tragedy hits like a ton of bricks.

And while the movie business might have difficulty making money laying that kind of trip on you, it's certainly something the audience can appreciate. And I'd say the writer of drama simply must understand this.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Wild Blue Yonder

Tonight I stumbled upon one of the most original films I've ever seen: Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder. It's a hybrid of science fiction and documentary, if you will. A sci fi fantasy made by a writer/director who, by his own admission, is not terribly well acquainted with sci fi.

Herzog is, above all, a good eye. He knows how to dig through footage and know when he's found something. It's a unique skill. If you saw Grizzly Man you know what I'm talking about: finding images taken by others and bringing out the story that's really there beyond what the supposed teller intended.

Wild Blue Yonder is a weird amalgam -- material in equal parts found and created. The whole conceit lies on the fascinating dichotomy of disparate parts coming together and creating something unexpected.

Brad Dourif plays the only true character in the movie: an alien from the Andromeda Galaxy now living on a lonely earth. His people intended to come here and establish a colony, but it didn't really take. These aliens don't vaporize L.A. They just, in his own words, "suck". They sit by and watch as humans now locate his planet and consider what it might be useful for (as humans do).

The film is a composite of several formats. The earthlings traveling in search of a colonizable planet are actually astronauts on the space shuttle. The aliens are found footage of early 20th century aviators. Underwater shots from Antarctica sub in for an alien planet with a frozen sky.

The piece has a distinctly cobbled together feel. The audience is continuously forced to suspend disbelief -- or at least play with disbelief -- to pretend they aren't watching astronauts spinning around and eating pudding on the space shuttle.

But what arises out of this cobbling and weird play with disbelief is something truly beautiful. You watch found footage of a functionary at the Pentagon from the early 20th century and somehow the suggestion that he's an alien colonizer makes a great deal of sense. The audience fills in the gaps -- they see something that rings true. And this alien is a great deal more real than Spock or Obi Wan Kenobi. There's a life story there. There's a resonance.

When the film drifts into a kind of visual poetry -- beautiful original music played alongside undersea footage you can hardly believe was shot on earth, the audience undergoes a strange transformation. There's something rare and strange here, and it's been found again simply by making us the alien on our own planet.

Sometimes in our rush to make something seamless we create something hermetically sealed. But I'm more of the Leonard Cohen school on this one:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There's a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

"Anthem", Leonard Cohen

The Wild Blue Yonder is by no means a perfect film, but it did wake me up to myself in a way sci fi is, or at least once was, supposed to.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

I hate it when bloggers apologize for their absence. It seems like a cop out -- a somewhat presumptuous cop out. But I am sorry for not spending more time on the blog. I've been working on a stage play and a LOT of teaching. My screenwriting efforts have been mostly limited to clients, and it's best not to share material related to those projects (even obliquely).

I did re-open a script for redrafting today and had one of those beautiful, transcendent moments when you slip into your work like a hot bath. You find the key to something and before you know it the insurmountable job of a few weeks suddenly makes sense in a morning. I stood back and let whatever or whoever is in charge of inspiration take over.

It made me think of this lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. I offer it up to all the writers out there with the dedication and fearlessness to choose a career (and a life) founded on a capricious little daemon that speaks only when propitiated in the most maddening ways.

And I promise I'll be back with more posts soon.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shameless Plugs: Frameline Edition

Friends and colleagues of mine wrote, directed and/or produced four great movies that are showing in the 2009 Frameline Film Festival this month. If you're a fan of indie film -- especially LGBT film -- these films are well worth your time.

Prodigal Sons finally makes it to SF after an incredible run on the festival circuit. This documentary tells the true story of a truly unique family -- complete with transgendered football star, grandchild of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and... more. we'll leave it at that. See it in a big theater.

David Lewis' latest effort The Redwoods is making its festival debut. David's been working late and sleeping little since I saw a rough cut a few months back. As he put it to me, it's a gay "The Bridges of Madison County". This film breaks out of the gay romance genre in a big way.

Back to Life is long-time actor Desi del Valle's directing debut. She also plays the lead, which should set girls' hearts a-patter all over the Bay Area.

City of Borders has made a splash all over the world. It's a documentary about a gay bar in the heart of Jerusalem -- where gay and lesbian Israelis and Palestinians commingle and find a way to share ground and build community. Like a lot of films in the festival, it's not about what makes gay people different, but about what makes our stories universal. If you've never considered going to an LGBT film festival, maybe this is the year to start.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Anvil: Story and Life

I went to see Anvil: The Story of Anvil yesterday. This documentary's being called the greatest rock movie of the year -- or ever -- depending on who you're reading. I'm not quite sure that's the case, but it is good. And it did get me thinking.

There was a time way back when most documentaries were structured more like an essay than a story. What does this mean? An essay format approaches facets and aspects of the story, takes into account the different arguments, and makes a case for seeing an issue in a certain way. An essay format documentary on, say, Einstein, might look at his early life, then his first successes and troubles, political problems and exile, rivalries with other physicists, and how he came upon relativity, then follow up with what this all means.

Story-format documentaries work more like feature films. The audience engages a story because they want to see how it turns out. The main character must embody a strong question and engage the audience. Put simply, there must be both a 'why' and a 'how' for the audience to care about the protagonist. We stay tuned because we want to see how things turn out for the main character. A story-format doc (usually) engages on a more emotional level than an essay-format doc.

Anvil has this all in spades. Back in the early 1980's, at the height of heavy metal, Anvil seemed destined to ride the wave to the top. They headlined with The Scorpions, Bon Jovi, and White Snake. They knew everybody, and everybody knew them. Now the lead singer works for a school lunch delivery service. But he still dreams of making it and the band is still together. They'd make a great subject for a feature script.

The documentary is structured very carefully to fit a standard three-act structure. You meet the band at the height of their fame. Talking heads like Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Slash of Guns N Roses wonder why they never made it. Twisted Sister remembers back when Anvil blew them off stage. Then you find the lead singer talking about when the schools on his delivery route get meatballs and when they get shepherd's pie. Depressing, huh? Yes and no -- they still play regularly, and a chance for a European tour falls in their laps.

The hero's journey rolls on before us. They commit to the journey, find no way back, and encounter innumerable and unbearable sufferings along the way. But they manage to capture an amulet or two, and when they return home you sense it's just in time for the third act to begin. I won't spoil it for you because I think you should see the movie.

I recently consulted on a documentary about a musician. It's difficult. Unlike Lips, the protagonist in Anvil, this musician seemed bent on undermining any possible story. He was reticent, difficult, and at times adversarial with the filmmaker. After all, you can't have a hero's journey without going through innumerable humiliations and defeats. No one actually wants that -- especially with a documentary filmmaker following you around. It wasn't feasible or desirable to move to an essay format, so we wrestled with how to make the story compelling without changing it.

As I watched Anvil, the screen was littered with tiny moments that show the restructuring. Band members wearing T-shirts from the as-yet-unrevealed low point. The return home finds everybody in surprisingly similar garb and mood to the first scene in the house.

Now, it's effective to bring a main character back to a familiar setting from early on in the movie. It allows the audience to gauge dramatic distance -- how far the main character has traveled since we met him. In a feature film (that is fiction), the writer has the ability to manipulate elements however he or she wants. It's part of being a good writer. Documentary filmmakers aren't so lucky. You don't know where you'll end up when you start. You don't know when someone will do something memorable. And you certainly don't know when that memorable thing will actually fit the narrative you've constructed. So you move material around. You stay true to the spirit. Or at least you try.

It's a weird compromise. You want to please the audience but you also want to stay true. I'm not sure if those two can ever sit together peaceably.

I wonder if there's not a better structure for documentaries. Something freer. Something that uses surprise to capture an audience rather than adherence to a mythic structure. Imagine what reality TV could actually do without all the cliches and structural points that the producers seem to think we need. It feels like there's a wealth of story hiding there, buried just under our expectations.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Food For Thought

The American Heritage Dictionary's definition of the word 'plot', found in Peter Brooks' magnificent Reading for the Plot:

1. (a) A small piece of ground, generally used for a specific purpose. (b) A measured area of land; lot.

2. A ground plan, as for a building; chart; diagram.

3. The series of events consisting of an outline of the action of a narrative or drama.

4. A secret plan to accomplish a hostile or illegal purpose; scheme.

As Brooks points out, "there may be a subterranean logic connecting these heterogeneous meanings."

Brooks blew me away when I first read Reading for the Plot 20+ years ago, in college. I've just picked the book up again, and it doesn't seem to have aged a bit. Well worth a read if you're through with the screenwriting gurus of the world and ready for something a little meatier.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thought for the Day

Writing well is as simple as creating characters that speak more clearly than you do.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Dexter is one of those apparently incredibly awesome and groundbreaking Showtime series I'm always hearing about. I'm generally filled with guilt at the mention of Showtime. It's next to impossible to go to a cocktail party in this town without someone rattling on about Weeds or The L Word or The Tudors or some other apparently groundbreaking thing that Showtime is daring to do. Sooner or later I give in to my guilt and rent the damn thing. Usually the stories are fairly amusing. But groundbreaking? Meh.

This happened recently with Season 2 of Dexter, which is now out on DVD. It stars Michael C. Hall, from Showtime's Six Feet Under, as a serial killer who works in the forensics division of Miami's police force department. He solves crimes. He uses his powers for good. You can just see the pitch meeting in your head.

I popped it into the DVD player and prepared to have some ground broken. First thing you notice? Dexter won't quite shut up. He's not terribly chatty in real life, but give the man a chance to narrate and you're done for. Each plot point is carefully voiced over with a thick, starchy glaze of backstory, character intent, and cliff notes for the character development-impaired. It's enough to drive a script consultant batty. I mean, jeez, Dexter: you're this way because of that awful thing that happened to you in your childhood? Really? It's come up three times in this episode alone. Enough already.

Then I thought about it a bit. Why are the writers doing this? They seem smart otherwise. Then it hit me. Character sympathy. Good old Dexter has a problem, and the whole show is more or less structured around keeping the audience engaged with him. What do I mean by this?

You've got Dexter, who's a serial killer. And he's facing off against another killer. And the audience can pretty easily just decide they don't have a dog in this fight, and watch Operation Repo instead.

In my screenwriting class, we work a lot on character sympathy. We talk about how you need to concentrate on one central strategy for why the audience should engage the character. This is a more difficult problem than you might think (at least until you've tried keeping an audience in a seat for two hours). It's a daunting task even if your main character doesn't go around killing people he barely knows every episode.

If you're having character sympathy issues, consider watching Dexter just to witness the multiple strategies that show employs. For example:

Underdog. The man is a serial killer constantly surrounded by cops.

'Fighting for us'. Dexter knows he has a compulsion to kill. He saves himself for those who truly deserve it -- like gangland thugs who knock off young mothers.

Strong opponent. Dexter is constantly facing off against someone who should be able to track him down no problem. In Season One it was a truly bad serial killer dude (who was apparently also his brother. Please, make it stop.) This season he has a sergeant trailing him during his off hours, waiting for him to slip up. This sergeant gets thrown off the trail just as a hotshot FBI agent comes on to track him down after they find his victims stashed in the bay.

Entertainment value. Why do audiences engage Hannibal Lecter? Because he'll always get himself out of a situation in the most intelligent and highly unpredictable way. And he'll make a mess doing it. Dexter at least works the set up, although the unpredictable has a way of drifting into the implausible.

Sympathy. Yep. Plain old sympathy. Every five minutes or so you flash back to his childhood. He's a child, stooping in a pool of blood. Most of us would curl up and die. Dexter trundles on. He's even got a stepdad who knows there's something very wrong with him, but who loves him nonetheless. That stepdad models sympathy for us. Dexter's a victim... so go get 'em, Dexter. Go get the bad guy. Exorcise that compulsion. Then maybe you can have a healthy relationship with that single mom. Or something.

It goes without saying that none of these strategies would work in real life. But they do work here precisely because they give the entire story structure and pacing. There's a reason to keep watching, and it's reinforced minute to minute.

Minute to minute. Something to think about.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Story and Memory, Chapter 762

I've been thinking about 1985 a lot recently. I was 18 years old. I came out of the closet that year. I remember one conversation in particular. I walked around Morningside Heights with a friend from school. We walked all day -- just perusing the city and talking about what coming out was.

I was full of joy. I was free. I couldn't believe I'd come out and the world hadn't collapsed around me. I couldn't believe my friend was still my friend. This was 24 years ago, when coming out was a different thing, of course. But that's not the point of this story.

"This isn't about love or freedom or getting laid," she told. "This is about everything." She explained how if you make your own sexuality your own enemy, you basically spend your life fighting yourself. Make peace, and it's gonna change the whole way you see the world. Be honest with yourself and you can be honest with friends, sure. But beyond that, you can see friends better. You can feel things better. And she was right. In the following months, noodles tasted better, friends were somehow really real. Rain felt different on my skin. I cried during movies -- all movies. I walked differently. I looked people in the eye. I bloomed. I found spontaneity. The scales fell away from my eyes, and the world was no longer twilit. There was sunshine and darkness, and I could barely contain myself for joy. My friend woke this up in me with a few sentences. She woke me up to my own life.

I remember the day very clearly: perfect, crisp, sunny late fall in December New York. I remember we stopped and had diner food, and later we had noodles. I remember sitting on the steps near her dorm before she went in to get ready for a date.

There's only one problem: I remember her as Patricia Clarkson. Now, I know for a fact it wasn't Patricia Clarkson. There's no possible way it was. It seems much more likely that it was Angelica, who was one of my best friends that year. She was smart like that. But I remember Patricia Clarkson.

Why does the brain do that? How does the brain do that? How did it choose Patricia Clarkson, and have her play the role of Angelica? I know I had a professor who looked a lot like Patricia Clarkson. I remember her loudly complaining about gay men telling her how to run her life in the department reading room around that time. I don't know -- maybe it's as random as that.

I suspect that there's something more. I suspect I had to condense it down in my head. We probably grabbed coffee and went to the park, then meandered for a while. We no doubt talked about all kinds of things. Angelica was 18 at the time. She probably didn't dispense words of wisdom with the pith and clarity of a Patricia Clarkson character. While I'm sure she said many helpful things, I probably just observed her, figured something out, and shifted radically in a single afternoon.

In other words, something magical happened that day. She did still give me my own private Fall of Communism moment. But there's no one moment. There's no neat three-act structure. We probably talked about her boyfriend. We probably talked about the Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth and the Bad Brains. These are the things we had in common. It sounds about right, and I can just barely see her with a cup of coffee in her hand on a still chilly morning walking out onto Broadway.

I'd been disturbed by how this pretty central memory had been so easily corrupted. But I'm not so much anymore. I think this is what stories are for. This is why story structure is important. It's how we remember. It's how we make sense of things. We're hardwired for it.

It's probably something you have to own rather than fight against. Not an easy task. I wonder if Angelica's on Facebook.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

CS Podcasts

Ever feel like you're awash in resources? Me too. So many screenwriters writing and talking on and on about screenwriting. And so often it seems like they're saying the same thing, with new names swapped in for variety.

It's easy to miss the pearls of wisdom out there. Creative Screenwriting's editor Jeff Goldsmith regularly interviews some of the top names in screenwriting, and he does it in a nice, open, hour-long format. There's an actual chance for depth. You can subscribe here via iTunes.

I checked out the interview with John Patrick Shandley, writer of "Doubt". There are plenty of others worth your time. (But you might want to skip ahead of Jeff Goldsmith's ebullient introductions if you haven't had your coffee yet.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009


This was my favorite English-language poem for years and years. Then it somehow drifted away from me. I was struggling to remember the second stanza the other day, and this morning I woke up with it all in my head. Nothing to do with screenwriting, I'm afraid. Enjoy nevertheless.


Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and passions burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's sensual ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find your mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Someone has to Design the Toilet

NPR has an interesting piece on how Production Designers work. It's worth a listen.

Screenwriters usually evolve along a certain path. They learn something about structure and story overall. This teaches them something about how a producer looks at a script. Then they figure out character -- and maybe a bit about how an actor reads a script. At some point they hit on the all-encompassing idea of conflict, and they get an insight into how a director might look at a script. This path is in no way fixed of course. And many of us either decide they've figured everything out when they get to, say, character. Or they perhaps blaze their own little trail deep into the forest, never to be seen again. Being a script consultant lets me read lots of different scripts. It's a bit like being an archaeologist -- digging up the clues to how a mind works, and what altar a writer worships at.

It usually takes a page or two at most to tell is a writer has ever actually worked on a set or not. Why? Because they are either answering that very particular set of questions or they aren't.

What kinds of questions are these? A gaffer lights a scene to make it feel deep, tragic, full of import. The DP refuses to shoot it, saying it looks like a horror movie. The two get in a tiff about just how much optimism there is in a scene. What does it really mean? They've both read the script -- and they've read it from their particular perspectives. Sooner or later the director comes in and imposes order. Sometimes this fight will recur scene after scene.

Another example: the production designer comes to you minutes before a scene is shot, vaguely pissed off that you put a coffee cup with baby dinosaurs on it in the scene. Where was he supposed to find that? Don't you realize you wasted his afternoon? He found a coffee mug with puppies on it -- and that's just the way it'll have to be.

A writer who's worked on a set understands that conceit is no abstract concept. Conceit is a strategy for unity. It's what makes a film unique. It's what keeps gaffers, actors, DP's, and even directors on the same page. It's a way of avoiding the baby dinosaur question. It's a way of avoiding endless conflict between team members. It's a way for things to go smoothly. It looks a lot like kismet.

Writers, myself included, will often not really sweat the details of a room -- especially a bathroom. After all, it's just a bathroom, right? There are enough expectations. But it's someone's job to decide what the character's bathroom looks like. And, if you think about it, you can tell just about everything about a person by the state of their bathroom.

The good news here is that you don't have to tell the production designer whether the character leaves the top off the toothpaste. But you do have to write clearly enough that they can make that decision easily and clearly.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Professor Schimpf, I presume

A funny thing's happened this semester. I've gone from "Rich" to my students to 'Professor Schimpf', 'Mr. Schimpf', or even, on two occasions, 'sir'. It's fairly emphatic. I teach at a laid back, very California college. Even the dean is 'Michael'. I'll ask the students to call me Rich. Then the next email comes back with Professor Schimpf. It's true I've gained a few pounds. It's been a tough year, and I'm sure I wear the effects of that to some degree. Or perhaps, they simply note on a semi-conscious level that I've crested the hill and have begun my descent into old age. It's unnerving. There's a bout of soul-searching with each mention. And the mentions seem to come with roughly the pacing of a repeated joke in a Woody Allen movie.

When I first started teaching, the rare mention of 'Professor Schimpf' meant something else. There was a bit of pride, of course. This was mixed with a different kind of soul-searching. I'd made a firm decision to leave academia years before, and found myself teaching only through a fairly circuitous twist of fate. I'd tell the student to call me Rich, but what I meant was, "No, I'm a writer. This is just a gig."

The whole thing has me thinking about dialogue, and just how flimsy and fickle words on a page can be. So much dialogue is written without a firm handle on the assumptions. You call a professor Professor because that's what he is. But the meat of the drama in any life is all about the meaning beyond that. It's all in the set up. Professor Schimpf, like any other phrase, means most of what it means by virtue of the narrative it's in. It marks a line crossed over. It brings up my backstory. It engenders conflict and reveals development. We often write as if the words on the page mean what the dictionary says. But we never hear them that way in daily life.

You find yourself standing in line at the grocery store. The couple in front of you is arguing about whether to buy a jumbo pack of crackers. You'll forget the crackers. You'll know instinctively who holds the power, what strategies they use, what they likely do for a living, what their families are like. We can do that. We can divine almost endless information just eavesdropping on a conversation about a box of crackers.

Good dialogue is when the writer achieves an approximation of that endless information. Good dialogue pours more meaning into one word than bad dialogue does in pages. How does that happen?

Set up. Conflict. Audience question. There's a three-act structure in most scenes. You begin with a strong, visual set up. You've got compelling characters, and you've found an interesting opposition for them. That drives a conflict. That conflict opens up more for the audience to engage and explore. It opens up something new for the audience to bet on.

That work is exacting. That work is the architecture. Dialogue is the choice of paint color, or what kind of curtains you're going to hang. It matters, of course. But it matters in a very different way. And it matters not at all if you've not constructed the set up well.

This will come as no surprise to most of you out there, but dialogue follows action for a reason. It's nothing without the stronger, more visual, more immediate elements of the script. It can't replace them. It can't live without them. And when you've got those right, your characters can talk about crackers and the audience will understand.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Character is Always Right

It's always difficult to finish my own projects at the beginning of a semester. So much of screenwriting is essentially modeling potential answers. So much modeling is basically throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. I've spent much of the last few weeks convincing sophomores of the value of repeatedly synopsizing a script, or of trying out different conflicting elements within a character. This is largely a process of convincing them of the value of making mistakes and trying again. They are suspicious. They want to know how I intend to grade them on it.

Like most writers, I have a perfectionist screaming inside me most of the time. He's my editor. He's offended by mistakes. He's offended by what doesn't ring true. I'm still learning to stick him in a box while I try out different options. I've learned that my mistakes are usually more productive than that perfectionist A student still looking for a gold star still pacing back and forth in my head.

I just finished the second draft of a script. It's been a nightmare getting the damn thing down in on paper in a respectable fashion. My work, both with students and clients, has been all about making a effectively modeled character move through a well thought out plot. It's been all about those few equations that define different aspects of the story. There's a grand unified theory in there somewhere. You know all your story answer are there. You just know it.

And then you sit down to write.

I'd realized that building the perfectly structured screenplay had become more an impediment than an aid. I let go. I let myself be wrong one more time. I let my main character drag me, scene by scene, wherever he wanted to go. He tracked mud all over the carpet, and missed a couple appointments on the way. But he got to the climax, and he covered a lot more distance doing it. The midpoint got deeper, the high points higher, the low points more desolate and flecked with...comedy. It all felt more real. I had that model imprinted on my brain. I'd tried out dozens of ideas for each plot point. They varied wildly, but all had a certain aspect that made them structural. When I let the main character loose, he seemed to understand it all a bit better, more intuitively than I did. That was humbling.

I've been thinking a lot about this experience. It's not the first time I've had it, but it feels new each time. I'd all but decided I must have imprinted the story part of my brain with a kind of ingrained path that the main character just naturally followed.

But I'm of a different opinion now. This structure that we try so hard to impart is... already there. We see the world in stories. We understand each step we take as set up-conflict-resolution. We see the world that way. My character is no exception. We don't have to think about three-act structure. We think in three-act structure. We model, make mistakes, and learn something on the other end. It's not that the theory's wrong. It's thinking we control the process just by knowing a little bit about it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One Rat Short

A nice little video that shows the versatility and strength of a well-thought out three-act structure.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Tough Stretch

It's been a weird week full of movies. It's been a weird week of bad movies, actually. Went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves last Sunday. That should have been a sign. Did I listen? No.

While the movie isn't as bad as everyone wants it to be, it's got this hollow, scraped-out feeling to it. You want to blame Keanu, but you know he's just the vessel. You're watching a character without a character for two hours. It might have hurt more to have an Anthony Hopkins in there. Keanu has the virtue of not raising our expectations unduly.

Like a lot of blockbusters, the plot structure had a sour milk feel to it, like it was sitting out in a producer's office too long. It's actually quite different from the 1951 version. You sensed that the filmmakers had taken out what didn't work anymore, added the blockbuster yeast, and fed it through the plot machine they have buried in a secure location half a mile below Century City. The recipe should have worked, but there were too many cooks, and no agreement to add a pinch of salt, or to keep out the partially hydrogenized monosodium something or other. You walk out of the theater feeling like you had one too many twinkies, and it's time to join a gym or maybe a Buddhist monastery.

Maybe my week was all about trying to get the taste of that movie out of my mouth. Maybe I was looking for perspective on my own script, or what writing is supposed to mean for me in the new year. Either way, I subjected myself to American Gothic, a terrifyingly bad 1987 horror flick that managed to completely engross me with the sheer camp impossibility of it topping itself -- until it did. The tagline is "The family
that slays together, stays together". 'Nuff said. You watch, and that same horror plot unfolds before you in a strangely devotional kind of orthodoxy. Here's the group of sassy, innocent white kids. That's the bitch, over there you have the hottie, and right on cue, the responsible guy with the good girl with a problem. And so on. What's scary is that this stuff does work on some level. Even when you're farming on poor land, you've got to farm correctly. is one of Javier Bardem's first starring roles. He plays a macho guy with a chip on his shoulder and a deep insecurity, assiduously hidden throughout his life. In a way it's a beautiful movie. It's hard for an American audience in 2008 to watch a dream sequence full of castration symbols, but you can appreciate it for what it meant at the time. And it follows that same plot structure -- the same basic beats that drive The Day the Earth Stood Still and American Gothic. Aristotle knew what he was talking about.

Simon Pegg knows what that structure is, and knows how to follow it. Shaun of the Dead is a pretty brilliant script. He knows who he's writing for and he knows how to communicate. He pretty much replicated the same process for a cop movie spoof in Hot Fuzz. No harm in that. Run, Fat Boy Run is another story. The movie's busy serving two Caesars here -- it's a comedy and a terribly, terribly predictable romance. No amount of careful screenwriting is going to fix a problem like that. And when said Fat Boy, played by Simon Pegg, literally hits the wall while running the marathon (with a hangover. With the love of his life and his son watching. With his landlord and best friend and gamblers with bets against him all in tow.)... you almost have to get up and do the dishes.

I don't mean to sound nasty about this. I'm going to stop now. I'm going to devote myself to looking a little harder at my screenwriting and why I'm doing it this year. I'm going to get past what I know and find more of what I don't understand yet. Let's see where I am in a year.