Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thoughts on the film: Thunder Soul

I was in band in high school. I played the flute because that is the cheapest instrument available at the flea market where my parents picked up my nickel Bundy beginner flute. At that time of my life they were desperately searching for a hobby I could love. I got in fights at gymnastics and I didn't give a shit about chasing after a soccer ball and the choreography in dance class served as too great a challenge for my uncoordinated little body, but the flute I liked.

Unlike a lot of girls who picked the flute up and put it right back down after a month or two, I loved it. I played it all through elementary, middle, and high school, and only quit after a year in college made me realize that I would never be a professional musician because I'm just not that good at reading music. That, and writing loved me better.

Once in high school our band played as part of a group of 100 high school bands that represented the state of North Carolina at an anniversary type deal. After hours of marching in our wool uniforms through the summer heat, carrying our instruments big and small, we were told that we couldn't get into the event because President Clinton decided to show up at the last minute and there wasn't time to get every student through the metal detector.

As we stood outside the stadium lamenting our fate, the black high school band standing near us started to play. They played something we were never allowed to play. It was funky. They danced with their instruments and they grooved, and we just sat there, stiff as our director would not allow us to use our instruments to protest this great injustice.

Outside of marching band, I was also a member of the flute ensemble, a group of 4-6 girls who played boring ass Mozart quartets and Canon in D and lots of proper drudgery. I wanted more than anything to join the jazz band, but flutes were not allowed because they just aren't as cool as horns, evidently.

So when I watched the documentary film Thunder Soul Saturday night, it resonated in a big way.

Thunder Soul is the story of the Kashmere Stage Band, an all-black high school band who won every contest there was to be had in the '70s, and even recorded and album or two. In the film the members of the band get together 30 years later to perform a concert for their dying old band director and father figure "Prof". That band I mentioned a minute ago, the black band that funked out in the parking lot of the stadium we weren't allowed into? Yeah they didn't know it, but they owed that groove to the Kashmere Stage Band.

This film was one of the better documentaries I've seen in a long time. It was surprisingly funny, for one thing. It was poignant and beautiful and fun, and immediately made me run out and buy the band's album to give to someone I know who absolutely loves funk.

The film even managed to make me get out my old flute - not the nickel piece of crap Bundy this time, but the silver Gemeinhardt I saved up for in ninth grade - and play it. And just like the members of the band, who had not picked up their instruments for 30 years, I sucked big time. But just like the members of the band, I will practice until I remember how to play as beautifully as I ever did.

In the film Prof says "So let me get this straight. They were taught so well that thirty years later they still know how to play?" Yep. That's some good teaching right there, and some good musicians.

This man changed their lives by teaching them to love music, and this documentary follows that love of both the man and the sound, and does an amazing job of showing us that love. As soon as it gets distribution, I highly recommend you pick it up.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Red Tape

So I've spent the last two days mired in red tape. It was like a scene from The Hitchiker's Guide.

Ever stand in line for an hour and then finally get called to find out that you don't have the right form in triplicate so you'll have to come back tomorrow and wait in line again? Oh and while we're at it, even though we're your employer and are in complete control of how you get your money, we can't take a check from you for that fee we've imposed for that thing we required you to have so you can keep your job. We'll pay you, but only if you give us money first. But not in check form. And then you'll need these other three forms too. And then you'll also need to come back in two weeks with the original copy because we can't keep this fax on file on account of regulations. Oh and the guy you're supposed to be meeting with is on vacation so you'll probably have to come back and talk to him because there is no way in hell I'm going to remember having this conversation, which is why there's a decent chance that despite your money order and all these appropriate forms and your waiting in line and your parking validation that you might still be fired. Have fun sitting in traffic!

Tomorrow I want to talk about Thunder Soul, a terrific documentary I saw Saturday night. Then I've got lots of other cool plans for the week because I am now officially on vacation. But first I have to wash off all this tape.

Friday, June 25, 2010


I taught a 10th grader this year who we'll call Elliot. At the beginning of the school year I gave the class a reading assessment test and Elliot scored the lowest at a third grade reading level. Third grade.

He's American. His parents speak Spanish, but he's lived here his whole life so it's not like there's a language barrier. He said he never read at home and his parents never read at home and he didn't learn to read until Kindergarten. But when I told him his reading level, he decided he did not want to be the class idiot.

He read. While the rest of the class was finding ways to avoid doing any work, Elliot was pouring over pages from All Quiet on the Western Front, calling me over to ask if he understood the pages correctly. He was always the first to volunteer to read aloud, and I swear to you I could hear his pronunciation improve with every paragraph. I promise you he's no longer a third grade reader.

The best moment, though, was the short stories. Each kid had to write a short story based on the elements we covered in class. I read the story then conferenced with each student so I could explain all my notes in detail. Then they were to turn in a revised version of the story as their final exam.

Elliot's story was short, about a kid who wanted to deal cards at a casino in Vegas. His quotes were not formatted properly and his story had almost no conflict. I told him so.

He nodded and smiled and went off to work on it. While his friends were drawing circles on paper instead of working on their final, Elliot completely revised his story.

I have never seen anyone take notes so well. He fixed his quotes, but the real kicker was what he did to the story. I think I threw a suggestion out when I was giving him the notes - something about one character preventing the protagonist from getting his goal - and he just ran with it. This went from being a boring story about a guy who wants something and then gets it, to a story about a guy who wants something but can't get it until he escapes from his kidnappers.

I am so freaking proud of this kid. I lavished praise all over him when I handed back his story, and he just grinned from ear to ear. I handed his friends their fails.

The lesson here is that it does not matter where you come from or how much education you have, if you're willing to listen and work and use your imagination, you'll be just fine.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Yay! The future is back!

It took a lot of negotiating and hard work and awesome people dealing with retarded people, but this glorious show that never should have ever been canceled ever is back. Oh frabjous day!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer vacation

My school has been year-round for the past five years and I have been B track, which is the track that spans the end and beginning of the year. In other words, school ends on a Friday and the next year starts the following Monday. I get a two-month break twice a year, but that's always in the middle of a semester, so I always have papers to grade while I'm home.

That ends today. We're moving to a traditional schedule, which means I get the normal summer vacation and I will not have any papers to grade. I just input my last set of grades on time and with two days to spare, and now for the first time in five years, I don't have any work to do.

I still have to take a stupid class and I have to do all this stuff for my wrist - apparently there will be specialists involved - but I have no papers. No essays. No quizzes. No projects. Nothing to grade. I don't even remember what that's like.

So for the next two months my primary goals are to put together my office so I have a real writing space and not a couch in front of the TV, to finish this stupid class, and to write one whole screenplay. I will finish a complete draft by the end of August or bust.

But first I have to go to graduation and read out names, which is the single best part of my job.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Thoughts on the film: Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer.

Tonight Beefcake and I got caught up watching Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer on Syfy. Now, anytime you watch a movie on Syfy you know what you're getting - awesomeness. Complete and total awesomeness. Personally I'm always looking for a film to equal the greatness that is Zombie Strippers. I'm not even being sarcastic about Zombie Strippers. I love that goddamn movie.

This is not Zombie Strippers.

Spry plumber Jack Brooks rescues his girlfriend from some monsters who've taken over her night class, then when he hears a song that was playing when similar monsters murdered his parents, he decides to put on his tool belt and go back into the school to slay them. The actual slaying is pretty much just the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Robert Englund, who's biggest claim to fame is, of course, playing Ian in Zombie Strippers, plays the professor who wigs out and turns into the tentacled alpha monster with a giant head who will either eat you or turn you into a cross between a Klingon and the Predator. All the other actors are so excited to have a role in a real movie that they manage to scream or shriek their way through the film as loudly as possible to make sure they get screen time.

This is how you make low budget films, man. Almost every scene takes place in or around the school, and they grabbed up a name actor who doesn't cost as much as other name actors because he made his name doing movies just like this. The makeup is a lot of prosthetics, the blood is corn syrupy, the dialogue is almost nonexistent. This movie was made for about $10 and some Subway sandwiches, but here it is, running on Syfy at 10 pm on a Tuesday. I wonder how much the producer got paid for this film?

Remember that in the future, because Syfy is asking fans to create material for future films so pretty soon they won't even have to pay for scripts anymore. I look forward to more Jack Brookses.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Put it in your queue: Kurosawa's Ikiru

I never went to film school, and when I started writing screenplays I never even watched anything that was made before my lifetime, so I started with a pretty weak education in film. What's beautiful about that is how I've been able to learn over the past decade things others learned in a classroom setting.

That's why, until about two years ago, I didn't even know who Kurosawa was.

I heard of Rashomon because in high school one of my classmates was in a band called Rashomon. No idea what it meant, just that they had a following. One day that film came on TCM and I decided to watch it to see what the fuss was all about.

Holy crap. Sometimes I hate to admit to liking something everybody else likes, but in this case, I was entranced. I was drawn into the story in a major way, and even though this was an old film and used techniques we now see all the time, I could see the story for what it was, and it was brilliant.

At that point I set out to see everything the man ever made. It helped that Mystery Man always went on about Kurosawa's brilliance. That dude really loved himself some Kurosawa.

Anyway, this was all to say that my favorite work of his is actually Ikiru. It's not an action film at all, but a small story about a bureaucrat who's had enough and sets out to do one great deed before he dies. The film could easily be a play; it's mostly dialogue between a few people in rooms. Very few exteriors, very little action, but powerful as hell. I defy you go watch that film and not get a little teary over one man's ability to make a difference. It's an amazing film.

I love Seven Samurai, of course, but Kurosawa's greatest strength was never in the action scenes. It was always in the characters, which is why even his action films were so strong. This film is half character sketch, which plays to the man's best talents. So if you haven't seen Ikiru, I urge you to give it a shot.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Burn Notice and information revealed

Burn Notice did something in this week's episode that I thought was subtle but clever. First of all, that show tends to do all kinds of clever things. They regularly cut between wides and close-ups in the middle of a line of dialogue and often find interesting camera angles for what would otherwise be a plain old two-shot.

Anyway, on this particular episode, a character named Jessie is supposed to be running surveillance when he sees two mob guys beating up a dock worker. His team tells him to let it go to preserve his cover, but he just can't. He saves the guy, blowing his cover but protecting an innocent man.

Now that's cool. You like the guy. He can't stand by and watch an innocent man get hurt.

But a few scenes later Jessie tells a woman that his mom was killed in a robbery while people on the street stood by and watched. That's when you realize why he can't stand by and watch someone get hurt. They didn't harp on it, didn't remind us about what he did, instead assumed we'd make the connection on our own.

I like a show that doesn't assume I'm stupid.

I think most shows would do it the other way around. He'd tell us all about his dead mom, and then when he saw someone in trouble you'd think yeah, he's got to save this guy because of his mom. Instead they did it the other way around. Much stronger. It's a good lesson in playing with the order in which information is released.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

This is the Title of my Post About Chase Movie

It's title time again. I've written about titles before, and I think about them often, and maybe that's why I have so much trouble coming up with good ones. Maybe I just overthink it.

But Not Dead Yet is an awesome title, you may say. Why yes it is. I didn't think of it. I was on a popular message board I used to frequent and asked "Hey anybody got an idea for a title for a zombie movie?" and somebody said it.

Burnside has been the subject of much contention among my note givers. The title comes from the name of a character who is not the protagonist, and more than one person has cautioned against it. But at this point, that's the title and I'm not changing it, partly because it's a cooler word than anything else I can think of. I started calling it Burnside as a temporary title and then got used to it so now I can't think of it as anything else.

So here I am again at title time. I have a chase movie that deals with garbage - the major theme is about what we consider valuable versus what we consider trash - so I started coming up with titles that use trash.

Trash Run or Garbage Run. Sounds like Men At Work, the Sequel.
Thrown Away. Sounds like a farce.
Trash. Well that's just inviting people not to like it.
Waste Not. This is at least more creative, but it sounds like a documentary about recycling.

I'm sticking with Waste Not for now, because it also carries a sense of Mom's advice (Waste not, want not), and mothers and daughter relationships is another theme for the story. But I don't think it sounds like a good title for a chase movie, and if I call it that for too long it will stick.

I'm stumped. I suck at titles. I wish I could just call it Chase Movie Title.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thoughts on the show: The Good Guys

It's funny.

To me, there is no kind of humor better than absurdity encountering reason. Basically, if one character needs to ask another character "What the fuck is wrong with you?" I laugh.

I missed the pilot, but I remembered to watch episode 2. Bradley Whitford plays a ridiculously dedicated cop who takes every single petty crime seriously and only takes days off "when the bad guys do." He is awesome.

Okay back up. He was very serious on The West Wing. This guy is new.

Side note: The West Wing's Richard Schiff was the first famous person I ever saw. I was covering a golf tournament for a local newspaper in North Carolina and he was signing autographs. I stared at him and said nothing. He stared at me, wondering why I was staring at him. I ran away. This and my fear of phone calls is why I am no longer a reporter.

Okay but anyway, Bradley Whitford was super serious on that show, to the point where I was convinced he had a permanent ulcer. He would make jokes, but they were always from the perspective of a guy who seemed desperate to find humor in situations or he would cry. So it's pretty cool to see his comedic chops on this show.

Colin Hanks does his job as the straight man, and you know what? The straight man has a difficult job. He doesn't get to have all the fun. Without Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin is kind of boring unless he's singing. Or drinking. I don't think Colin Hanks drinks or sings.

As soon as I saw the previews I thought, oh great. Another fucking cop show. And as soon as I saw that "Minutes earlier" thing I thought oh great. Another show copying Alias. But they kept it up throughout the show, which is new. I'm glad I checked it out anyway. It's got a few inconsistencies the staff needs to work out, but the potential is there as long as they let Bradley Whitford run loose. It's funny.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Interview with Joshua Patterson, horror bloggy guy

Today's interview is with Joshua Patterson, who runs But The Third One Was Great, a blog dedicated to reviewing, summarizing, and poking fun at horror series. He is also currently embroiled in attempts to turn his blog into a book. If you've never read his blog, you're missing out. It's hilarious, and as someone who doesn't really watch a lot of horror movies, I love reading his reviews so I know what I need to know without actually having to subject myself to the film itself.

Now, without further ado:

ME: Why horror movies?

JOSH: I think something in my nature likes to root for the underdog, and honestly, is there a bigger underdog than horror films? It’s not that I don’t enjoy large-budget studio films. I do. But I have a much greater appreciation for someone who can take two million dollars (or less) and show me something I’ve never seen before.

How many do you think you've seen?

I’m sure it’s somewhere in the high hundreds, though I’d hesitate to say I’ve made it to the four-digit realm. Let’s go with: More than most people, less than the guy who writes Horror Movie a Day.

What was your motivation for starting the blog?

It was a lot of little things over a lot of years.

My first experience with direct-to-video sequels happened a bunch of years ago when I had an entire weekend to myself. I decided to rent part 2 through part 666 of the Children of the Corn series, just because I really wanted to know: Did the underwhelming, mostly forgettable original really NEED five more parts? (there are six now)

The answer was, no surprise, “It did not.” But I had heard good things about part 3, and as it turns out, they were true. It’s a really solid, freaky little flick, and it even has a pretty cool, if a little obvious, twist ending.

Though the other parts range from okay to awful, they do contain the first starring roles of Naomi Watts and Eva Mendes. So they were curiously satisfying from that perspective.

That stuck with me.

Then, a couple of Halloweens ago, some stores were blowing out copies of the Child’s Play movies. For reasons not worth getting into, I had only seen the third part. So I bought the whole series for less than $20.

Around that time, I also started noticing just how many horror flicks with so-so box office had direct-to-video 2s and 3s. “Pulse.” “Feast.” And “Wrong Turn,” which most horror fans didn’t like much at all, had a VERY well-reviewed part 2.

But finding information on these movies was just about impossible. I realized that if I wanted to know what happened in The Grudge 3, I was going to have to find out for myself.

And I figured: Well, as long as I’m scaling that mountain, perhaps I should make a few notes, and return with a field journal of sorts.

Who do you see picking up your book off the shelf when it’s finally published?

I’d give the painfully obvious answer “people like myself,” but that might limit my potential reader(s) to me, and me alone.

I think the kind of people who would enjoy my book fall into a few different categories:

1. Movie fans who are just plain curious what happens in Tremors 4 and Hellraiser 8.

2. Movie fans who enjoy a good laugh. Hint: If you’ve read and enjoyed Roger Ebert’s I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie or Your Movie Sucks, you’ll enjoy my book.

3. I also suspect, somewhere in my bones, that folks who enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax, or Cinematic Titanic would probably enjoy the book as well.

I have a sneaking suspicion that once the folks listed above get the book off the shelf, it will become something they need to pick up extra copies of to share with like-minded friends.

What’s your process like while you create the summaries? Do you watch the movie several times or go stream of consciousness?

Originally, I watched the movies with a notebook in hand and scribbled down the plot. Then I’d sit down and type up the plot, adding jokes, observations, and whatever else I could come up with.

Now I pull up the movie, and start typing on my laptop. I hit pause and rewind a LOT. Writing up a movie takes somewhere between six and eight hours depending on how long the movie is, how poorly it’s directed (I’ve watched the same scene seven or eight times attempting to figure out what happened, and sometimes I still don’t know) and how inspired I’m feeling on any one day.

My job would be a lot easier if I was just doing a straight review, or if I was just trying to be cruel to the films in question. But I’m trying to be both funny and educational, and that takes a lot more work than just calling a movie stupid.

How do you feel about the current state of the horror genre?

The horror genre suffers from the same problem most of the movie-making industry is suffering from: a lack of fresh content. Most of the big horror movies today are either sequels, remakes, or in some cases, remakes of sequels.

The only really successful “original” horror movie I can think of from last year was Paranormal Activity, which had probably the most brilliant marketing campaign since The Blair Witch Project.

This may point to another issue – in the rare instance that someone produces a really interesting, well-done horror film, the marketing just isn’t there. That might explain why something like Splice, which got excellent reviews, crashed and burned at the box office.

What’s your favorite all time number one ultimate horror film?

Probably The Evil Dead, though Dawn of the Dead would come in at a close second.

Original or Remake?


I'm actually a huge Romero nut. Dude made some great non-zombie flicks. Martin is outstanding, and Season of the Witch is a great idea that moves way too slowly.

Of all the villains, who scares you the most?

Though I’m generally entertained by them, I’m rarely “scared” by horror movies. Some part of my brain is constantly informing me that what I’m watching is just a lot of makeup. I’ll jump from time to time, but I haven’t had any nightmares as far as I can recall.

I will say that zombies in general are pretty freaky, only because once they get a decent foothold on the population, they’re completely relentless.

As a singular “villain,” though, I’d say The Thing (of John Carpenter’s The Thing) is probably the scariest creature I’ve encountered on-screen.

Who is the funniest?

I can’t say I go in for the quipping bad guy. Most of Freddy’s “jokes” are just weak puns, for example. But I will say that Chop Top in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 manages to be funny in deeply uncomfortable ways.

What is the most retarded thing you have seen a character do in a horror movie?

As a general note, I’ll never understand why people are constantly trying to revive and/or capture killers. Michael Myers falls into a coma, and they keep him on life support instead of in lockdown in a maximum security prison.

Jason is really, really dead, but the person who killed him has to dig him up just to make sure. At which point, he should burn the body, or toss a bunch of lit dynamite on him. But no…

Then there’s Ricky, from Silent Night, Deadly Night. The guy is dead. Very much dead. But they put a little brain-hat on him and revive his memories. Why?

I realize the answer is, “Because if that didn’t happen, there would be no movie,” but still…

Can you watch a horror film without critiquing it anymore?

Actually, it’s hard for me to watch just about any movie without taking it apart to see what works and what doesn’t.

Aside from the blog and the book, what are your personal projects? Or is that all encompassing?

But the Third One Was Great has taken up the majority of my writing time over the last year, but it’s far from the only thing I’m working on. Also somewhere at the forefront of my writing time:

Mercy – A novel I wrote a couple of years ago that I’ve been trying to sell. It’s got a plane crash, an uncharted island, a mom who just wants to get home to her kid, and a zombie apocalypse in it. I refer to it as a zombie novel for moms.

The Kids – My take on vampires, which is just different enough from anything I’ve read that I’m wary of stating the premise here.

I’m also working on a memoir of the process my wife and I had to go through when we adopted our daughter.

If you have any questions for Josh, leave them in the comments or hop over to his blog. It's awesome.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Contest Notes

Over the last couple of weeks I was reading scripts for Script Doctor Eric's contest. Eric, if you haven't encountered him, is a script consultant in the reasonably priced category, and he just had his first contest.

I'm always skeptical of new contests, but Eric did this for the right reasons and is a stand-up dude. That much was clear when he and the three other judges got together this weekend to discuss the finalists. I was really glad he asked me to read these and would definitely do it again. There's something really interesting about reading a series of scripts by amateur writers and not having to make any notes other than honest, immediate reaction. I also really enjoyed finding some great writing.

I'm not going to say anything about the scripts in particular because the winners have not been announced, but I thought it might be interesting to post some of the notes I made as I read. I ranked the script from favorite to least favorite. Here's a portion of my notes to myself in order of rank.

1) I love this goddamn screenplay.

2) Great tone, great dialogue, great characters. Okay story, attempt at theme. The theme is pushed largely through dialogue, not through action. This is a good script, not a great one. With another rewrite this could be terrific, but right now it's just short.

3) This is genuinely funny and has great potential. There are a few behavioral inconsistencies, and it would help if the characters were more extreme. They don't feel their emotions enough - there need to be more foils. And in act 2 this thing comes to a dead stop. Fortunately it picks up again, but there are some real gaps in energy level.

4) There are GIGANTIC plot holes in this story and the dialogue is completely on the nose. Why are these people even doing all this? I'm perplexed on the entire premise. The moral dilemma is interesting but never explored to satisfaction. However, the writing is clean and easy to read and there is a clear tone, and action description is exciting. The writer has mastered writing, but not storytelling.

5) Good dialogue. I actually laughed. Yay! This is a really clever idea and the writer could have really played with the themes, but great opportunities were missed. I kept waiting for the characters to figure out what I already knew and it took entirely too long. The story fizzles because our characters keep talking without doing. I could use a ticking clock. I'm sad to say there was potential for a great story here, but it didn't happen.

6) Writing is clean and easy to read. Good action description. However, I am on page 15 and have no idea who the protagonist is. Plus I've seen this in like a million other movies. I mean every single scene is something we've seen before multiple times. And it's exposition heavy - like REALLY heavy. Some scenes aren't too bad, but I had to wade through a lot of garbage to get to them. So all in all, writing pretty good. Story terrible.

7) Too much exposition, not enough action. And isn't romantic comedy supposed to be funny? This is not funny. I feel like the third wheel between two very boring people on their first date. The story gets interesting on page 46. Why did it take 46 pages for something interesting to happen?

8) I'm not particularly opposed to voice over, but this is not used well here. There's a lot of passive voice and odd structure stuff. The protagonist is unlikeable, but not in a fun way. Based on the title I was expecting all kinds of antics, but this falls flat. There's no story.

9) Too much prose. It's written like a novel, which makes the pacing feel slooooow. Once we get going, interesting premise. But the way the story is carried out is just not cool. Not cool at all. I'm confused and unhappy.

10) You can tell the writer desperately stretched this out to make page count. It's difficult to follow. It may have a great story but I don't know because I don't understand what's going on. There's like thirty thousand characters in the first ten pages and I don't understand what any of them is doing.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ode to Sarah Connor

I was laying on a table in the doctor's office today, preparing for a nerve-wracking procedure to diagnose a problem with my wrist and I suddenly had a mini freak out. Then I thought to myself, What Would Sarah Connor Do?

So I grabbed the doctor by the shirt and got all up in his face and said, "Don't you dare fuck this up. This is my shooting hand."

I love Sarah Connor. She is my all time favorite character - mostly from Terminator 2, but there's something to be said for her turn in the first film as well.

Just the other day we all had that awesome discussion about women as big weepy weaklings, and I think Sarah Connor is a perfect example of how to do a female victim properly. She starts the story running, scared, confused, but not stupid. And by the end of the story she's gained the courage to fight with her own two hands. She realizes she has to be strong for her son.

And then she not only got strong, she got so awesomely badass that she could probably have defeated a bear at an arm wrestling contest. These days it seems like the action hero women are all spaghetti arms and in need of sandwiches, but Linda Hamilton was all muscle. When she picked up that big ass gun I believed she could carry it around.

Talk about a character arc.

She's my fictional hero. I wish we had more characters like her.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Update on my first paying gig, eventually I hope

I didn't want to post about this because it reveals my foolishness, but then some dude on some other blog was like oooooh Emily Blake always tells us about her experiences and she's really honest and shit.

Screw you, nice guy.

Know how when you first write your very first screenplay and you think it's the best thing ever and you just kind of reread it and bask in its awesome and then you're like OKAY HOLLYWOOD HERE I COME! And you run around asking everybody how you get an agent because you heard the agent was the thing you had to have to get this baby out to Danny Boyle (You may say Spielberg, I say Danny Boyle) and the rest is fame and glory weeeeeeeeee!

For years now I've been past that stage, all giving out wisdom and shit, shaking my head at the cute new writers and remembering when I was ever so naive and thought the world would clamor for my attention if only I finished this first great script. Thank goodness I'm beyond that stage, right?

So here's what I learned from my project with the producers. It starts all over again.

Also, I am retarded. I learned that too. (Sorry, Sarah Palin.)

My manager sent me to a meeting. I rocked the meeting. The producers didn't take any pitches from me, but they threw a bunch of ideas my way to see what I connected with. At first I thought I had to agree to everything, but after a few suggestions I realized I could say no to some ideas if I wanted. In fact I was offered the opportunity to pitch a rewrite on one of my very favorite shows of all time, but it is not anywhere near my comfort zone genre wise, so I turned it down. I would have betrayed a great show by attempting it, so I leave it to more appropriate heads than my own.

I'll tell you one thing I did learn at this meeting. BE YOURSELF, although Myself is awesome I didn't have to try too hard. Okay so I've only had one meeting, but I did very well at that meeting so I feel like this is totally sound advice. I'm ready for other meetings. Bring that shit on.

I have a slight advantage, though. My day to day activities involve standing in front of teenagers and keeping their attention long enough to explain dramatic irony and whatnot. Talking to people about movies in a comfy chair, not too hard after that.

Anyhow, the producers threw an idea at me that I resonated with and they were like "Okay! Let's do it!"

This is what I heard laced between those words: "We believe in you so much that we want you to go off and write a treatment for WGA minimum and then we'll hire you to write the script for more money and then we'll take it to the company we have a deal with and then you're gonna get another job and OMG you'll be awesome as hell! WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

This is what they heard implied in those words: "So go write a treatment, and we'll give you some notes and then see what happens."

I wrote my treatment. Now I'm waiting for notes. This isn't a dead end project or anything; these producers are the real deal and they do have a freaking awesome office and a deal with a studio. But what I realized is that I have to prove myself. First I had to prove myself worthy of a rep, then of a meeting, now of a project. Constant proof. Constant feelings of inadequacy.

Pro writers told me this, but I was so focused on getting the rep that I missed that part of the story. I had to learn the hard way.

I'm not worried. I'm still on the right path, I'm just not going to be rushing in guns blazing any time soon. This is the slow and steady path.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Nudity

So which one of you guys told me to watch Spartacus: Blood and Sand? You son of a bitch.

I was all, hey, we should check that out, the other night when there was nothing on. So the Beefcake and I got up our old Netflix on the Wii and clicked on the pilot. And two nights later I'm on episode 9.

There is a lot of equal opportunity nudity on this show. Did women in ancient Rome just run around with their boobs hanging out? But I'm not sure this show is for the dudes. I think the boobs are just thrown in to appease them while the women ogle the peni. Because man is there penis on this show. I especially loved the episode where the two male gladiators wrestled naked on the floor, their dicks just whapping away on each other's legs. I immediately started imagining what that must have been like first when both actors read the script, then when they had to stop on set during their naked fight so the gaffer could tilt a light another degree. Now that is behind-the-scenes footage I'd like to see.

But despite the fact that even the ugly dudes on this show are kind of hot, I did not watch a marathon of episodes just for the naked hotness.

And while we're at it, did anybody else really wish they could just run along the row of standing naked gladiators and smack their asses from one side to the other? Just me? Okay.

Okay so my point. It's really awesome. Forget the nudity, if you can, and the ridiculous violence, which is awesome, this is a story about a badass dude who has all kinds of crazy complications and desires and shit. This is basically what Rome would have been if there had been less talking and more killing and nudity, which is actually saying a lot because there was a shitload of killing and nudity.

Anyhow I really like it.

Monday, June 07, 2010

How to piss off a woman reader

Yesterday I read a screenplay by a new writer that offended me so much I was physically angry when I finished it. Nevermind why I was reading it, I was and I had to finish it. And it made me very very angry.

There was a woman in this script who was severely beaten by several men in a warehouse. She begged and pleaded constantly, and when she got the chance to escape she needed a man's help to get out. She was the only female character in the story. In the end her only escape from her predicament was to get married to her knight in shining armor.

If you enter a contest or submit your work to a studio or a rep, do not assume your reader will be male. You might end up with a woman - you might end up with someone like me. And there is no way in hell someone like me would EVER put through a script that offensive to women.

It's more than just the Bechdel test John August talked about last week, although this particular script definitely failed that test because there was only one female character. But it's also about the personality you give your female characters. I can't tell you how many times I've read a script that describes every female character by her hair color and not much else, or simply says she's hot. Or she has no sense of backstory, or her entire reason for existing is to give the big hero someone to save. This is not okay.

Personally I take just as much time developing my male characters as I do my women. I see them each as individual people who have desires and insecurities and interact with each other in ways that reflect their past experiences. It doesn't matter what sex you are, as a writer you should be able to do this.

Imagine if you read a script where it was all women characters except for the one man in the story, who they all tie to a chair and beat while he whines and prays for them to stop. Think about what kind of reaction you'd have.

Do not assume a man will be the only audience for your script. What happens if the reader is a woman? Look at your script. What does it say about women? How would it make you feel if you were a woman reading this?

I don't need every female character to be a badass with a gun, but every woman has skills, even if her skill is to use sex to get what she wants. When you have a weepy woman who does nothing but wait to be saved by a man, especially when she's the only female character in your story, you have not done your job as a writer.

In this particular screenplay I kept waiting for the woman to take matters into her own hands. I hoped that her story arc was to realize that she wasn't helpless, that she had to fight to defend herself or use whatever skills she has to escape. Instead she just kept on waiting for someone to save her while she took her vicious beatings.

If that was your script, punch yourself in the face right now and never pull that misogynistic shit again.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Bye, Mystery Man

People on the Internet don't die. WTF?

Mystery Man, you can't not be here. I mean, you had such a young energy. Always giggling. Wearing those shiny shoes. I really liked your shoes.

We're mourning a man we don't really know, but we know him. He was the first high profile blogger to say, no, I did not enjoy BALLS OUT and I do not think it's clever. He was the first to bring us a play-by-play of the difference between Indiana Jones drafts and what could have been with The Crystal Skull. He knew how to start a great discussion. And how many pro writers give notes on Triggerstreet? He's been working on a free screenwriting book so we can all have his advice out there where anyone can get it. He didn't need to do any of this - he did it because he likes to help. What more do you need to know about somebody?

It would be nice to think this is a hoax and whoever Mystery Man really was has just decided he's tired of his Internet persona, but the truth is that we all know he's not that kind of guy. He left emails unanswered and his book unpublished. He didn't say anything like a goodbye. This is the kind of guy who would have said goodbye if he could have.

I hope that when I'm a pro screenwriter I have the energy to give back the way he did. He was a cool dude with cool shoes, something we should all aspire to be.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Teenagers love bad guys

Yesterday in class I taught about villains. I gave AFI's definition of a villain and their top 20 villains of all time. At first I was just going to go over the ones they knew - the Wicked Witch from Wizard of Oz, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Jaws, maybe Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, the Alien (my personal favorite). I was going to talk about why they're such an effective villain and how they play the part.

But when I skipped over Norman Bates they all cried foul. Who is Norman Bates? They all wanted to know.

So I slowed down and went through the list one by one and they were enraptured. I've never seen this class so interested in story elements as I did when I told them about the bad guys.

I ended up doing my one minute version of 2001, making them all giggle with my impression of Hal. A student who saw Fatal Attraction gave us all his summary of the plot which included the line "The bitch messed with his car. You believe that? Bitch just won't leave that nigga alone!" I felt like it was the best plot summary I'd ever heard.

I listened to them argue about whether or not the shark from Jaws was awesome or lame. It got pretty heated.

And when I got to Annie Wilkes from Misery, I had them. As soon as I described the way she took a sledge hammer to his knees, they all asked me to point out which movie on the list that was again so they could all go out and get it.

I had only made one class set of the sheet so I could take it up and use it with my other class, but I had to go make new copies because so many of my students wanted to keep it to know what movies those were that I talked about.

So it turned out to be a pretty cool day.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Story from character

As of this morning I still didn't know what I was going to do with my third period class. I'm starting them on short stories, and yesterday I had them do character biographies. I already talked to them about plot-centric stories when I had them look to the world around them for examples of conflict, so now I wanted to show them how to develop story out of character.

But I had no idea how I was going to do that. The morning kept rolling on and I still had no plan at all.

Then, right at the end of second period, it hit me, and what hit me was cool enough that I thought I'd share it with all of you, not because it's this miraculous idea, but because I found a really simple way to explain it.

I drew this chart:

I don't know if you can see that because it came out a lot tinier than I anticipated, but it's a chart showing Shrek, Finding Nemo, Superbad, and Transformers. It lists the character, their big problem, and their story goal.

Here's what that's about. See, each of these characters operates in one of two ways. Either they have a problem they want to overcome so they develop a goal accordingly, or they have a goal and decide to overcome their problem to get at it.

For example, Shrek is perfectly okay hanging out in his swamp. He has no goal until people suddenly show up in his swamp, but when his life is turned upside down he has to go save a princess to get what he wants.

Marlin from Finding Nemo, on the other hand, has no desire to solve his problem - fear of the world outside his tiny part of the ocean. Alas, he has to find his son, and this forces him to confront his problem.

Superbad is about nerds who, like Marlin, must confront their problem if they want to achieve their goal of getting beer and sex.

These three films also do an excellent job of demonstrating how to get the most conflict. What's the worst thing that could happen to Shrek? People. A donkey that won't shut the fuck up. What's the worst thing that could happen to Marlin? He has to go into the big ocean. What's the most difficult thing that could happen to these nerdy guys in Superbad? They have to pretend to be cool.

Tranformers, on the other hand. Well.

Sam - it took the class like five full minutes to remember his name, although we never did remember anybody in Superbad except McLovin so I guess that's not necessarily an indicator - anyway, Sam's biggest weakness, the kids said, is women. So I said, does he have to confront his awkwardness with women to save the day? Well no.

However, his problem is that he encounters robots and these robots want him to get the cube. Or something. I don't know; I was only able to watch this movie for 15 minutes before I couldn't take it anymore and I only used it as an example because I figured the kids had all seen it. It was more of an example of what not to do, really, which sucks since it also made a shitload of money so it just proves that none of this story theory matters if your movie has giant robots and firm tits.

So after all that this is going to seem pretty obvious, and it's certainly not an original statement, but I'm going to say it anyway. A character needs a problem to overcome to achieve their goal. Which ever one comes first depends on the story.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What I learned from Star Trek TNG

I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately because it's pretty much always either on BBC America (WTF is with BBCA airing all that non British programming lately?) or SyFy. It used to be on Spike a lot, too. Is it still on Spike? I dunno. But it's on a lot.

ST:TNG was a damn fine show despite its cheesy effects - have you SEEN the pilot? Oi. But one thing that made it brilliant is its constant method of pushing the envelope. They take the one thing a character doesn't want and force him to face it. Usually that character is Picard.

Picard is the most powerful person on the ship, and he's a man so contained and dignified and in complete control of himself at all times. Unlike Kirk's lackadaisical attitude, Picard did not join all the away teams or flirt with hot colorful ladies or shrug his shoulders and dive into danger. Captain Picard was the model of a modern major starship captain.

That's why they were constantly fucking with him. THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS. I am Locutus of Borg. Oh no Q took over my ship! Women keep flirting with me and they won't stop trying to get in my very dignified pants!

They found all kinds of ways to strip Picard of his control and take him to the edge of reason. And just when you thought he would break, that stoic personality took over and saved him, because he is a just man. Flawed, but always with the best intentions.

I feel like the difference between a really good show and one that sucks often comes down to that ability the writers have to push characters to their limits and force them to face the one thing they most fear. The most recent show that disappointed me in this regard was Stargate Atlantis. There was so much potential for that show, but time and time again the writers let their characters take the easy way out. They'd put two characters in a dangerous situation constantly, and then not make them face their fears. Lot of deus ex machina going on there.

But what keeps us coming back week after week is the hope that our favorite character will face those personal challenges again and show us what he's made of. Take Buffy. She can defeat anything, but she can't keep her mom from dying. She must learn to face death whether she likes it or not. The most powerful mortal woman in the world is completely powerless.

I see that problem in a lot of scripts, too: characters not taken to the limits of their fears and desires. I think the best thing any writer could do is think of the one thing your character most wants and deny it to him. Or what is the thing your character is most afraid of, make him face it. Or take the one thing of which the character is certain and take it away. It can never be easy.