Friday, December 30, 2011

Bye, 2011. Long live 2012

It's cursory year-end post time.

You know how it doesn't matter how great a movie was, if the ending sucks all you remember is the sucky ending? Or the opposite. A good ending can sort of wipe away the bad memories.

I spent six months of the year in constant pain. I managed to write a script during that time - How My Wedding Dress Got This Dirty, a script that turned out pretty damn good. I have high hopes for the script in the new year.

But I don't even remember the pain now. My surgery was a major success; I even painted the living room this week. Writing is easy, and good exercise for my recovering wrist.

So in 2012, I'm going to take advantage of my new capability and write like crazy. I also want to get back into martial arts. I'll probably start with Thai Chi and yoga and move on from there to Muy Thai again, hoping eventually to get into Jujitsu.

But first, I will write this new action comedy I started last week. I've written the first draft of the outline, because I've gradually become a fan of detailed outlines after seeing how well it worked on the last script. I hope that having a great outline will allow me to write the first draft of the script super fast again. Before it was a necessity to write fast because of how little time I was able to write through the pain, but in the process I realized how much easier that made the work, pain or no pain. So I just spent two weeks on an outline on the hopes that it will reduce the amount of time I spend on the script. If I solve the story problems in outline stage, I don't have to stop and ponder solutions after I've already written pages of script.

I got engaged, finally. It was an inevitability, but it's glad to finally be able to throw my carefully laid plans into action. I'm going dress shopping next week. How funny that I just wrote a wedding script.

So I think 2012 will be a good year. I've got some cool stuff coming up besides the wedding, which I'll talk about a bit next week. I'll be doing a podcast again toward the end of the month where I can talk about it at detail, a fun way to start a good year.

2011 taught me a lot about writing and time management and controlling my ego. It has prepared me well for the year to come.

How was 2011 for you? What's up your sleeve for 2012?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


For someone who loves multitasking and planning as much as I do, 2012 is going to be the best year ever. I've got screenplays going on, I've got a job to do, and now I've got a wedding to plan.

Although I confess the wedding was already planned once I decided this was my groom. I love watching wedding shows, and I was engaged once before so I already planned on wedding, and I enjoy planning things and making lists ever so much. It was really a given that I'd have a file on my computer with my wedding plans.

I've already called the caterer and the dress salon. I'm making up a guest list today, but I'm leaving room for all the celebrities I'm going to meet this year.

I'm also working on an outline for a new project, and it was flowing along nicely until I got to the final sequence. I can't figure out the magical clue that gets my protag to find where the bad guy is. I hope that as I use up those Christmas gift cards over the next two days, brainless shopping will unlock the answer, so I can go into the new year with a well-laid plan for an awesome script I can bang out.

And somewhere in there, I have to grade papers. I hate grading papers, but it must be done. Fortunately I don't have to do much lesson planning because one class is going to read Romeo and Juliet, and the other The Great Gatsby. One of the good things about teaching literature is that a lot of your class time is spent just reading. So that will help me spend more time planning weddings and screenplays and shit.

Okay, 2012. Let's do this.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Thoughts on the film: Battle Los Angeles; How this film could have been great

I've spoken many times to anyone who will listen about how much I love Pitch Black. The reason I love Pitch Black so much is that you think you're going to watch a silly B horror movie about some people fighting off monsters on another planet, but what you get is a philosophical treatise on what it means to be human and the nature of sacrifice. I love when a film surprises me by being way better than it needs to be.

Most horror movies are about the scare, and Pitch Black had some scary moments, but the story was a delivery system for an intelligent conversation, not just scares.

So flash forward a number of years and here I am, on Christmas Eve Day, watching Battle Los Angeles. This looks like it will be a pretty generic action movie, mostly about effects. The majority of action movies released these days seem to be delivery systems for explosions.

And this one was no different. It paid some lip service to character development. (The black guy is not a stereotype because he wears glasses! And his nickname is Specs!) It tried to get me to care, but it didn't take advantage of opportunities to elevate the material into something to make me think.

Minor Spoilers Ahead.

There's a scene on a roof top where that hot redneck from True Blood tells another soldier how he wonders if these aliens get scared. What if they're just like us? Then Aaron Eckhart observed that the aliens have their weapons welded onto their bodies or something, as if they are 24/7 soldiers. Okay, we're getting somewhere. We can run with that. We're fighting these creatures, but we're just like them. Could we become them? Were they like us once? Is there a way we can get to them and talk this out?

No, they didn't really go that way.

There's your now cliche scene where the humans find an alien and drag him into the base to examine him so we can learn how to fight the enemy. They decide to stab it in lots of places to find out what kills it.

Now, here's what I was thinking. Hey, aren't they basically torturing that thing? And nobody there has a problem with it?

There's a veterinarian in the room. She offers to help by staring at them enthusiastically as they stab the creature with various pointy tools. It would have been neat if she had spoken up. Maybe, instead of torturing it, we can find a way to communicate with it? I'm not saying she'd be right, but she'd be on theme. There would have been some interpersonal conflict. There would have been a moment for our characters to argue about strategy, about what defines us, separates us from the enemy. They're the bad guys, but we're torturing a prisoner. Is that okay?

I'd love to have had that conversation with this film, but that's not what happened. They stabbed the thing until they finally found its weakness, then went on blowing shit up, restricting the interpersonal conflict to cliched gripes about who's in command. Michelle Rodriguez is tough. The black guy wears his glasses. The guy with the pregnant wife.... well just that, there's a guy with a pregnant wife. Have you ever seen a movie about a bunch of soldiers at war and one of them DIDN'T have a pregnant wife?

I guess this was supposed to be about Eckhart's journey as a leader, but then the rest of the movie should have been about the nature of leadership or something. Let's see the aliens have chain of command issues. Let's see the civilians question the leadership decisions. Maybe Eckhart's character questions the decisions of the higher ups.

The film really did give us some character arcs, but the main reason Eckhart's didn't work for me is because I didn't buy it. This guy's men think he's a douchebag, that he left some guys behind and is a horrible leader. From the second he steps onscreen, I know that isn't true. So I don't feel any real conflict, just a misunderstanding that will get cleared up eventually.

But I digress.

The point is, the script needed to pick a thesis and stick to it.

I tell the kids all the time: Once you pick your thesis, the entire essay revolves around it. So if you say a hero is someone who  likes to wear purple underwear, then every paragraph needs to go back to that purple underwear. It doesn't need to veer off and talk about spikey hair, it needs to be about purple fucking underwear. Your theme is your thesis. If your thesis is the nature of humanity, then by god, every choice you make in your story should reflect that theme.

That's how you go from just okay to great. Don't let your script be nothing more than a delivery system for explosions/scares/sex/laughs. Let those elements help your story be a delivery system for a question we can think about when we leave at the end.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Say hello, but not anonymously

I finally had to turn off anonymous commenting. I've had a run on what I suspect is the same person spamming me with strange comments that made me uncomfortable, and after asking the person to stop, they kept at it. So now you have to log in to post comments. You can log in as any of the standard methods, I think, although I'm not sure. Let me know if you have a problem with the process.

I know I get a fair amount of readers, but I rarely get more than a couple of comments. So I invite you, this holiday season, tell me about yourself. Log in and tell me who you are. How many screenplays have you written? What kind of stuff do you write? What kind of things do you want to know about screenwriting? Whatever. Say hi. I'd love to get some questions I can try to find answers to in the new year.

And while we're at it, Merry Christmas everybody. I hope this weekend is as good for you as it is turning out to be for me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advice for new writers in despair

There's a guy on Done Deal asking for advice on what to do with his second script. He's frustrated because he's not getting anywhere with it, and he's spending way too much time obsessing over it. His script is not an easy sell, and he says he doesn't care because he's only writing what he's passionate about, not what will necessarily sell.

I wrote a post in response to his dilemma, and I thought it was worth repeating here. So here's my advice to any writer who despairs when their first, second, third script goes nowhere:

If you don't care about whether or not your stuff is marketable, that's actually great for you at this stage. It means you can just write what you want, toying with ideas until you get it right. It also means you should stop obsessing over trying to get your script made.

Know what my second script was? Nobody but me does, because it was a piece of crap and I want it to stay buried forever. Same with #3, #4, #5.....

Right around #8 or #9, I started to produce things I'm not embarrassed to show people. That number is different for everybody, but there is absolutely no shame in writing just to learn the ropes. Every script gets better. If you stop focusing on how to sell this one, you'll be able to spend all your time on the next one.

Once you've written a great script, try to put it out there. Give it some time. While you wait, write the next one. And if the third one goes nowhere, move on. Rinse, repeat, until one day someone will read #4,#5,#6.... #32, and they will say "WOW this is really good! Let's talk."

It would be so nice if we could all just write a script early on in our careers and he could sell it for a billion dollars, but for most of us, that just will not happen. It's obvious at this point that it will not happen for you. Not now.

But if you shrug this script off, move on to the next one, and keep improving, it will happen for you some day. And who knows? Maybe then you can come back to this one and put it back out there.

Once you've tried to get your script out there and it doesn't work, move on. Try again with the next one, but make sure you've learned something from this one first.

Otherwise, you're wasting your time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Think twice

At the beginning stages of developing a spec, your job is THINKING.

One of the things I've learned throughout the years, and occasionally need reminding about, is that you have to reject your first one, two, three, maybe four ideas. Keep working the story until you get the most creative possible series of events.

Need a maguffin? A character's on the run from the bad guys. What object do they want from him? Quick, think of something.

Was your first thought:

-A microchip/flash drive with sensitive government secrets?
-Photos of a politician in bed with a prostitute?
-A briefcase full of cash/drugs?

Too cliche, all of them. Think again.

Your first instinct is usually going to be everybody else's first instinct. Over time I have learned to get that out of the way until I get to something that will surprise the audience.

I was working on picking a maguffin yesterday, and the wise Bill Martell reminded me to use the story's theme to find it. What's this story about? Now what kind of object could lead us back there?

So I thought of something, then rejected it and thought of something else. Then I slept on it, woke up this morning, and had my answer.

It took me almost an entire day of thinking up ideas and rejecting them to get to one I think is pretty great. If you leap on your first idea and run with it, you'll end up writing a mediocre script when you could have written a great one.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Vacation

At this very moment, Los Angeles is shutting down. People are locking up doors, packing for flights, making last minute phone calls.

I love LA at Christmas. Nobody is here.

I am about to have three weeks to start something. I think I need to write something commercial, something easy to sell to back up against what I already have. I want to come back to this script, but for now I'm going to start working on something new, something that proves I know what I'm doing.

What is that something? No idea.  I'm going through my idea file, looking for things to work on, but so far nothing has popped out. So the first thing I'm going to do this weekend is flesh out some ideas and look for new ones. Then I've got three weeks to work on a treatment and maybe crank out as many pages as I can before the town winds back up and I have to go back to my day job.

I also have 87 papers to grade.

"Vacation." What a lie that word is.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scriptshadow reviews my pages

Scriptshadow reviews my first ten pages today.

He's completely right. I've gotten a lot of read requests from querying this script, and they've all either been passes or I've been told "I love your style, but I don't think the script is there."

Carson points out a scene in the first few pages that doesn't need to be there, and he's right. The thing is, when I was writing that scene it seemed important somehow. I'd gotten so many notes on this project that I was trying to address all of them, and this particular scene fixed a problem somebody had, but now for the life of me I can't remember what it was. I don't remember why this was so damn important, because the scene now feels completely unecessary.

So that was a good review. Now, to read the comments, where no doubt my intelligence and general worth as a person will be called into question.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Black List 2011

As you all have probably heard, The Black List is out today. I've only read a few of these, but I'll gladly use these scripts as a distraction from the expository essays I'm supposed to be grading over winter break.

It's weird how stuff trends. Not only have we had a surge in fairy tales, but we had a wave of Snow White, a wave of Peter Pan, and now, apparently, Pinocchio.

Zombies are still in the fight, but they've gotten more complicated. Gone are the days when you can write a script about a group of people fighting off a zombie horde. Now your zombie spec needs a gimmick. John Scott III found something new with his drama script Maggie, which I really enjoyed, and there is also a script about a group of people who make a deal with a vampire to protect them from zombies. I don't know how anyone can improve on The Kitchen Sink, but I'm willing to give it a read.

Lots of assassins. There are always lots of assassins. I wonder if real assassins read about these movies and shake their heads.

I think they're now legally required to put Tarantino on the list.

If I'd realized what Father Daughter Time: A Tale of Armed Robbery and Eskimo Kisses was about I'd have read it sooner, but I never saw the second half of the title so I thought this movie was about a dad taking his daughter to a baseball game or something. Now I plan to read it.

Other scripts I'm most looking forward to reading: Chewie, Blood Mountain, Desperate Hours, The Slackfi Project, Sex Tape, Flashback, The Hitman's Bodyguard, and 77.

What are your thoughts on the list?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

First ten pages at Scriptshadow

Over at Scriptshadow, Carson  has posted links to the first ten pages of each of the top five winners of his recent contest. My pages are from entry number four, Nice Girls Don't Kill. Feel free to download and see what you think. They were all interesting reads, and one script in particular kicked my ass, but I won't elaborate until after Carson posts his own reviews.

I learned quite a bit from reading these pages, particularly how easy it is to do nothing for ten pages when you think your reader is a little slow, and how much better it is when you get to the point as quickly as possible.

Have a read. See what you think.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

I placed in something!

Carson over at Scriptshadow just held a contest. He was looking to review the first ten pages of a script on his site, and wanted people to submit their title and logline. People voted on which title and logline they wanted to see reviewed and the top five vote-getters were picked.

This is a good contest for me because I know my first ten pages are usually pretty strong. No matter what you think of the rest of the script or the direction I take the story, I do a pretty whiz-bang opening. Chances are, somebody's gonna die and there will be an explosion or gunfire of some sort. So I entered.

I picked Nice Girls Don't Kill to enter because first of all, I know the title kicks ass. It's my favorite title and it gets a lot of love from everybody, and I've gotten a lot of takers on my query, plus my first ten pages are pretty fun. The wedding script is more commercial, but although I like the title, it's not as jazzy as Nice Girls, and I don't feel like I've perfected my logline yet. Plus I absolutely love the opening scene to Nice Girls. Wedding Dress has tighter plotting, but Nice Girls was oodles of fun for me to write and I want to show it off.

So I picked Nice Girls. And it came in 4th! Huzzah!

I voted for It's a Long Way to Tipperary, myself.

To see the other winning loglines/titles and to follow the discussion, go here:

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

An incest joke

The other day I was teaching Irony, which I always do by first explaining why Alanis was wrong, although now kids don't even know that song anymore. Then I tell them the story of Oedipus. Then we read something ironic, in this case Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour."

Irony is a tough concept to grasp for a lot of people, so you've got to triple the explanation. I'll probably have to explain it a few more times to really get it to sink in. But so far they seem to be following along okay. When I asked them why the ending of "Story of an Hour" is ironic, most of the kids got it.

I love teaching that story because it is two pages long, but it teaches about so very many literary concepts. Plus feminism. After the lesson we had a discussion about the purpose of marriage, and I thought the boys and girls were going to start a gender riot. They were seriously pissed off. Kids these days are jaded.

But that's not what this post is about.

While I was telling the story of Oedipus, I got to the part where he goes in and finds Jocasta hanging from the ceiling. I said "And then Oedipus found her dead. And he was distraught. He slapped himself and yelled MY MOTHER! (slap) MY WIFE!  (slap) MY MOTHER! (slap) MY WIFE!"

Although they enjoyed watching me slap myself, they did not get my Chinatown joke. And I thought, if one of you guys was there, you'd have laughed.

So often my brilliant comedy is lost on 16-year-olds.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Smoke gets in your ass

This is a post for people who haven't experienced the joy of living in Hollywood. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I got here.

In Los Angeles, you often meet somebody, and they tell you they have a deal with a studio and you think WOW He's amazing! And then you start thinking about how you better hang out with this guy because he is going places.

The thing is, most of those people are full of shit. They say, for example, that Brad Pitt is reading their script, but what really happened is that an assistant at Plan B read their query and asked to read the script.

Most of the time these people aren't completely lying; they've just taken a tiny truth and blown it out of proportion. Because if you've been here long enough and had enough people ask you how your writing career is going, you start really wanting to have more to report than "Well, I'm still hoping somebody wants to read my script." You want people to think you're on your way. You want to be more important than you are.

So you make shit up.

When I first got out here I met a guy who had placed in the QFs of the Nicholl, or so he said. Thinking back, I'm not sure that was true. Then he said he knew a bunch of managers and would gladly introduce me to them. So naturally I jumped on it. But then he said I probably shouldn't have a manager; I should have an agent. He'd wait and introduce me to some agents some day.

Then he told me he was a studio deal to make his pilot and that he was probably going to start running a TV show on a major network soon. Maybe I could write on the show! Except at this point I knew enough about how TV worked to know that was ridiculous.

People in LA do that kind of thing ALL THE TIME. Not that everybody who claims success is lying, but it is always a good idea for you to be suspicious of anyone who has no IMDB credits or story in the trades and claims a huge success on the way.

People will blow massive amounts of smoke up your ass. Be skeptical.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Why do my bosses hate me?

They've started blocking  all Google sites at work including Google itself. So I guess we're being discouraged from assigning research papers.

Unforrunately that means that until they get enough complaints, I can only use blogger on my phone during the day.

This is why I haven't posted much in the last week.

It's also absurdly cold in my classroom. I might freeze to death in front of the kids. Thanks, LAUSD!