Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A couple of awesome observations about Deadwood

I had to take some time away to deal with something for the last week, but I've dealt with it and now I've got my brain on straight enough to post something. I'd like to thank Buffy and Deadwood for helping distract me from the bad shit on my mind.

Although I loved the hell out of it, I haven't watched Deadwood for some time, but I recently listened to a Nerdist podcast with Timothy Olyphant that was absolutely enlightening. He spend about half an hour just talking about Deadwood and working with Milch.

I think most of us can agree that Deadwood was brilliant, and an unfinished work of art. There are so many great story telling lessons to be learned from that show. I want to talk about two of them.

SOILERS to follow for season one.

One is the development of Ian McShane's Swearengen. If you watch the pilot, Swearengen is a complete fucking asshole. He puts his boot on Trixie's neck for shooting a guy who beat her. He has a man killed because his presence is simply an inconvenience. The next couple of episodes, although you see some humanity in him, it's not much.

And then something happened. We saw him start to care about Trixie. We saw him give a shit about the camp. He came around to the idea that Bullock was an OK guy. And then he mercy killed the preacher.

All of these things softened him to the point that despite his consistency as an asshole, he became more likable. At first you might say, but why should he be likable? Cy Tolliver isn't likable and he's a great character. Let a villain be a villain!

That's what you might have said, but you'd be missing one big advantage of making Swearengen more likable, and that is the humor. As the show goes along, and we find ourselves more comfortable with the man, we find it easier to laugh at him. Ian McShane can play his eye rolls and reluctant sympathy for comedy. It works. Notice how even though they are cut from the same cloth, you never laugh at Tolliver. He's an evil piece of shit. You're never comfortable with him enough to laugh at him even if he makes some of the same jokes Swearengen might have made. But Swearengen - that motherfucker is hilarious. Watch the show. He isn't nearly as funny at the beginning of season one as he is by the end.

So the lesson there is, if you want to play your villain for laughs, he can't be pure evil. You can't laugh at a purely evil man. You have to like him at least a little.

The second thing I wanted to point to was the season one finale - which was a fantastic episode all around - and Alma Garret's relationship with her father. There is a lot of subtlety to be had on Deadwood, but probably never so much as in this one scene.

Alma and her father are along in her hotel room discussing whether or not she's going to give him any money. Alma's father touches her on the shoulder, on the temple, brushes her hair back - never anything else. But her reaction tells us she's extremely uncomfortable with his touch. When she suggests she'll only give him money if he goes away and leaves her alone, he simply smiles at Alma's adopted daughter, Sofia, and says he will do no such thing.

Even before Alma grabs Sofia and runs out of the room, we know exactly what he must have done to her. Nobody ever says Alma's father raped her. They don't have to. We know what he did. We see it all from her reaction and from his unstated threats.

You don't always have to spell shit out for your audience. Most people have seen enough stories that they can read the clues you give them, and they enjoy it a lot more when you lead them to the edge of the truth and let them get the rest of the way themselves.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why I don't do notes for strangers

Every so often, someone I may have chatted with on Twitter or DDP or via email or whatever will ask if I would read something and give them notes.

At first, I was glad to do it. I was a teacher, after all, and doing notes is something I enjoyed. So I happily read and gave notes on anyone who seemed eager.

 But then a few people neglected to thank me, or thanked me with a rant about how wrong I was in my criticisms. So I started telling people, "Look, I'm pretty harsh. I'm going to tell you exactly what I think is wrong with your script and I may not be super nice about it, because being nice takes effort, and I'm already expending all my effort on reading your script and figuring out ways to improve it."

To a man, every person I said this to agreed that they were cool with it - nay, that they demanded harsh notes! They are looking for nothing but honesty! They crave it!

And then a lot of those people were super pissed when they saw what I had to say about their precious script, if they responded at all. I'd say about two thirds of the times I've given notes - which usually takes me about two hours - I've gotten no reply at all from the person whose script I read. Not even a "Thanks," although I've gotten that lovely one-word reply frequently as well.

Now I'm no Josh Olson, but I think a lot of us can relate to his rant, even those of us without his impressive pedigree. There's an art to accepting criticism, and often the very people with the weakest screenplays are also the weakest at knowing how to respond to notes. It's a bad combination. eventually those people wear the note givers down.

I know, I know, you're not that asshole. Except that asshole always says he's not that asshole until he gets his notes back and turns into that asshole.

That's why I decided not to do notes for people unless I know them. I know a lot of people who have the same rule. I mean, why should anybody do notes for someone they don't know if they risk getting kicked in the proverbial nuts for it?

Some people are cool. Unfortunately the cool people aren't numerous enough to make up for the assholes.

So I guess, what I'm saying is, if you ask someone to give you notes, say thank you, and not sarcastically. Acknowledge that they gave you a lot to think about. Ask follow up questions if you like. But don't write back an angry rant or an explanation of why you're right. If you disagree with the notes, you can just go off and ignore them. You don't have to explain to the person who took two or three hours of their time why they wasted it because you think they are stupid. You asked for their help and they did you a favor. Don't be a dick about it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Writer's Block, or the nonexistence thereof

On Twitter yesterday I was lamenting that I had no ideas for this blog, when @aljohnson310 suggested I talk about writer's block.

The thing is, I don't believe in the stuff. Never have. I know some people swear it's real, and I believe it's real for them, but I've never experienced it. I've been stuck for a while, days even, but never blocked.

This last script I wrote was a big challenge, full of sticky places. I stopped working on it during the summer and wrote a whole other script before going back to it, determined to finish. I finished, but Manager has called for a major rewrite, so I was stuck again for a few days while I whined, and then another few days while I tried to figure out what to do now.

But stuck is not blocked.

A lot of this, to me, is about faith. When someone gives me a note that sounds impossible I start to get really upset - panicky, even. And then after I let the fear in for ten whole seconds (Thanks, Dr. Jack!) I remember that I can do anything. I have rarely met a script problem I couldn't figure out how to fix, and I will fix this too. Then I get to work figuring out how to fix it.

So the cure to writer's block is to have an ego the size of Montana.

It starts with knowing I can fix it. I don't know how, but I know I can.  And once I know I can, I just think a lot until I do.

I think in bed as I fall asleep. I think in the shower - Beefcake laughs at me because he can hear me talking in the shower sometimes as I practice lines of dialogue out loud - I think on the elliptical, which mercifully makes time pass faster. I think while I'm walking dogs. I think while I'm cooking dinner. I think while I'm thinking.

The hardest part for me is trying to turn my brain around. At some point, I created a vision of what a scene's supposed to look like, and once it's there, it's tough to shake. But I start thinking of all the ways the theme can be played out more. How can I make the characters experience more conflict? What if the protagonist is a different person? What if the villain is a different person? What if their relationships are different? What if I change locations? What if someone starts shooting? What if, what if....

It becomes obvious which ideas are bad ones, but then suddenly you'll think of something and the light bulb will go off and wham! You're off to the races.

But the key, I think, is not to force it. Have fun with it. Remember when you were a kid and you used to run around the house with a finger gun, pretending to be an FBI agent and shooting your sister who was listening to criminal amounts of depressing music? It's like that. You didn't worry about whether your FBI backstory made any sense, or that overindulgence of The Cure isn't actually a crime - you just made shit up. When you get stuck, you have to be able to make shit up again with wild abandon, and then reign it in later after you've thrown out every idea you can think of until something sticks.

Or at least, that's how it works for me. My cure for writer's block: I know I can solve the problem, I think and think and think, and I open my mind to new possibilities.

I got 99 problems, but writer's block ain't one.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Previously, on Lost Girl...

Tomorrow, the Canadian series Lost Girl returns to television for its third season. It will air in the States on Syfy starting Monday the 14th.

A lot of people are just now discovering the show, which follows the adventures of a young Fae woman, a Succubus named Bo. This show is very Buffyesque, so if you loved Buffy, you will probably love this. I am totally hooked on this show in a bad way, as I have posted about before.

The first two seasons are available on Netflix streaming, but in case you don't have time for all that, I made a video summarizing all the important stuff that happened over the last two years.

So please to enjoy Previously, On Lost Girl......

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


A few weeks ago somebody asked about my outlining process, and since I love taking requests, here goes.

Just like everybody else, I read Syd Field. I started off with index cards. I wrote my scenes out on paper, then transferred them to cards, then put the cards up on the bulletin board. Then I wrote, but never really consulted the cards after I put them up to look all pretty. Once I color coded them to represent the A story and the B story. I'm not sure that helped anything.

I think the cards are really useful for people who like to move their scenes around - they can toy with the linear equation of it all by shifting the placement of the cards. I don't write that way. I'm a big fan of cause and effect, so not much in my scripts is interchangeable. Even the B story usually lines up pretty closely with the A story. After a while I began to realize that I was only doing the cards because Syd Field said to do cards, so I ditched them.

I tried a really specifically formatted outline for a while. A few other writers suggested a format that lists the theme and the character motivations and act breaks and whatnot, so I did that. But it didn't work for me.

I used to play the flute. Got good at it - never great - but I was much better when I didn't have to pay attention to the notes. Put me in a jazz ensemble and I'm a genius. Put me in front of a sheet of music and I sound like an idiot. And that's how I am about specifically formatted stuff. I'm not very good at understanding something with that many rules. When I was in the classroom, every now and then the boss would send us these really specific forms to fill out with objectives and learning goals and shit, and I'd just tear mine up and write a couple of paragraphs about what I was doing in my class.

My point is, following a specific format doesn't work for me. So I ditched the template.

I do believe in outlining. I don't see how people who refuse to outline ever get anything finished. And my lack of patience with specific formats and index cards does not mean I don't enjoy being organized. I love being organized, but I like to get straight to the point.

So after a while I just started telling the story. I think it out in my head over a matter of days (or weeks, or years, depending on the project) and then one day I sit down and type the story into Word. If I'm the only one reading it, I write it in an almost shorthand, sometimes with jokes to myself that I will laugh over when I read them later, because if you can't make yourself laugh, how are you going to make audiences laugh? If I know Manager or Producer will read it, I still make jokes, but I try to be more detailed and specific, and leave less to the imagination.

They're officially treatments, but really they're just abbreviated short stories.

Once that's done I think about it for another day or two, rewrite certain parts, add stuff in, remove characters who aren't working, etc. Then I print it out and go to work. I rarely make huge changes. The treatment is usually the script. I do all the creative fucking-around-with-the-story stuff before I sit down to write the script.

Since I started doing it that way I write faster and easier. The stories that have given me the most trouble are the projects where I just crapped out a vague outline and figured I'd fix shit later. But then later came and I really didn't feel like fixing shit. I just wanted it already fixed.

So now, when I start to write, I always solve my problems in the paragraph stage, knowing it will make the eventual script writing stage pleasant and easy.

Everybody does their planning a different way. There are people who never outline a thing. God bless 'em. There are people who love the index cards, or people who have these incredibly organized outlines, or people who do word clouds on a white board. They're all valid methods. I don't have enough patience for that. I just write the story from beginning to end, and then I go write the story from beginning to end again.