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.