Monday, January 31, 2011

Consolidated characters

A couple of weeks ago my chief note was to give my protagonist a more task-oriented storyline. My first instinct was to create some extra bad guy to come in and give my girl a new job, but the better thing to do is to find a existing character who can fill that role.

I looked at the people I already had in the story and figured out a way to turn one of them into my extra bad guy. He was such a perfect fit that the huge overhaul I expected to do on my script became a simple revision. In fact, I solved a lot of problem with that one simple switch.

A lot of times script get convoluted as characters start building on top of each other when the best thing to do is to combine elements. It's cheaper to shoot and easier to follow a story where one character does the job of two. So you need a love interest and also a doctor. Love interest can be the doctor. It seems so simple, but I see scripts all the time where we spread our time between too many characters when we could combine several of them into fewer people and get to know those characters better.

So the first thing I do in a revision when I'm about to invent a new person is to figure out how I can use the people I already have. I find it always makes the story better.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Kids say the most nonsensical things

There is a student in my tenth grade class who speaks a different language. He knows how to speak English, but in the interests of keeping up his street rep he chooses to speak in some kind of bizarre slang I've never before heard.

For example, to "murk" is to kill. "Getting swole up" means to put on weight and get buff. These are new to me. So like the suburban white child of two suburban white people that I am, I have started a list of interesting things this boy says next to their definitions. Every time he says something I don't understand I ask him to define it, then add it to my list. The whole class loves this and he is proud of his unique contribution to my creative endeavors.

I figure I have a choice: pretend to understand and seem cool and probably fail, or admit to my extreme white suburbanness and treat it like a foreign language that I find fascinating.

One day I'll be in dire need of a really interesting character, and there he will be, a whole list of slang terms I can use to make him feel as real as the real kid he's based on.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Youth of America - comme ci comme ca

One of my classes just loves to talk about movies, and they have discovered that if they ask the right questions about movies I will keep talking, thus avoiding them having to do any work.

Today they wanted to explain why Last House on the Left is a great movie. Basically it boils down to a guy's head exploding in a microwave.

"What makes an action movie good or bad, miss?" one of my brighter boys asked.

I told them that in a good action movie, the story doesn't stop for the action scenes. We discussed District 9, and how as the fight scenes progress the character ALSO progresses, so that we don't see two stories - the special effects story and the plot story.

One of my kids said "Like Transformers! There's plot and then there's action scenes and they don't really go together."

I agreed emphatically, then ranted a second about how much Transformers sucks, thinking they'd all yell protests at me.

Instead, most of the kids in the room admitted they think Transformers sucks too. One kid said he only saw half of it then turned it off because he didn't care.

There is hope for these little buggers yet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fourth draft, here we go

Damn macro notes.

I've been thinking for the past week or so about how my protagonist doesn't have a clear goal. I wrote what is essentially a character-driven plot, an exploration of what it means to release the demon inside you and rope it back before it goes too far.

The problem is, this is an action script. Action scripts aren't delightful character pieces. They are strongly structured plot-driven films. I know this, but I sort of hoped the awesome bits in my script would hide all that.

And last night, surprise surprise, the writers group noticed. That's why I love these guys - they do not let you get away with shit. I wailed, I threw things, I called them all assholes.

I was partly joking. At one point last night I shoved my notebook across the table and swore I would set the script on fire.

Then I went home and started thinking of how to fix this situation, and lo and behold, I saw a way to fix it thanks to a suggestion made by one of the guys.

This means a lot of work, but I didn't start on this journey to give up. As we say in group, "The difficulty level of this script is high." This is the kind of script that takes a lot of work to put together, but if I do it will be a perfect showcase of my abilities.

That's what this spec business is, I think. Taking the bits and pieces that don't work and finding a way to twist and turn and slide around the puzzle pieces until you have something great.

And I won't settle for less than great - not on this one. This script is my calling card, and by God I will make it so incredible that anyone who reads it will be dying to pass it on.

So today starts the next round of rewrites. And at the next meeting, if I get another macro note, I'll wail and cuss and throw things. And then I'll get back to work.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Be excellent to each other

John Swetnam, an occasional commenter on Done Deal, just sold his script Evidence to Bold Films for a good bit of change. He even gets first crack at directing.

This is excellent news for all of us. Huge spec sales, especially from unknown writers, are good omens for the market.

I've read Evidence. It's a fast-paced, twisty-turney script with great surprises and scares, and it can be shot for a low budget. The characters feel real, which is one thing that sets this apart from other horror scripts of its ilk. It was a finalist in the Tracking B contest, the event that catapulted the script through town through the efforts of great reps. This all went well because a great script got into the right hands and the writer rocked in the room.

Yet if you read the comments on the Deadline Hollywood Daily post, you'd think this was the greatest tragedy ever to hit town. So much nastiness. It's pretty obvious why - jealousy. Even if the script wasn't for you, there's no need to be an ass to someone you've never met because they've seen success.

We see it all the time - people being assholes because they wish their script was getting them the same places as someone else.

Let's all try to be positive about each others' success, shall we? Spend your hatred on your characters. Ruin their lives. Make them emote. Write a script so great that some day someone will be talking all this shit about you.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Macro Notes

My writers group includes people who have way more industry connections than I do, which is pretty awesome for me. I try to give back by giving great notes. Also, I brought a lamp.

One of the members of our group constantly keeps us focused on "Macro Notes" and we have all sort of adapted that phrase on our own, and it's such a useful strategy I want to share it here.

When you first finish a script, you want notes that will tell you how to fix it. You want clear, easy to follow instructions. Fix this, then this, then this and bang! You have a brilliant new script.

Only most of the time, that doesn't fix the script.

Know what's way harder? Page one rewrites. Guess which one you probably need?

When we go into meetings with a new script, the first thing we do is look at the big picture. Macro notes. Tone, characters, plot. If we start to head into scene breakdowns one of us will whip the conversation back on track. Tone, characters, plot. If those three things don't gel then it doesn't matter how many permutations of a scene you try, they won't work. So you start with Macro notes, because any specific notes will be irrelevant until you've fixed the big stuff.

This group is made up of people who know what they're doing. Most of us have been writing for ages, but even the one member of our group who hasn't written so many screenplays has still been in the industry for a long time and knows her business. Yet every single one of us has had to do a page one rewrite on our script after the first meeting. One member of our group ended up scrapping everything but the concept. The title, the tone, the characters - all of it changed.

When I start writing something I have a clear idea of what I want the opening scene to be and it's tough to let it go. You get used to thinking of a scene a certain way. But when you get macro notes, you can't hang on to that shit. You have to take a look at the plot, tone, and characters and let the rest go to serve those three elements.

That's why often when I do notes for a new writer I don't finish the script. Right away I see Macro problems, and once you see those nothing else matters. The truth is, once you've taken care of that, notes are easy. In our group that seems to be happening around draft 3. That's when you get those specific notes - things you can actually do right away, little fixes that make your work stronger, rewrites that take hours instead of weeks.

But first, you have got to let yourself go Macro.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The winner of the cookies

I'd like to say the fact that I disappeared since Thursday was due to some huge important writing project or a big event in my personal life, or even that I was deeply embroiled in a stack of essays. In fact, I became obsessed with The Tudors thanks to BBCA's season one marathon, and I made time for little else over the weekend.

I did managed to sneak in a rewrite of my script in between episodes.

As a result, my plan to announce the winner of the Cookie Contest got delayed. I do that often: get all excited about an idea and immediately spring into action, then forget to follow up in a timely fashion because I get distracted by something else shiny. It's kind of a miracle I didn't quit my move to LA somewhere in New Mexico.

I LOVED the scenes you guys did. I especially love the way each person took the same idea and ran with their own interpretations. It's a cool way to look at your identity as a writer. And I am THRILLED that Unk showed up.

In the end, although I think all of these scenes are great, as well as the two that were sent to me via email, I had to choose one cookie recipient. And although I enjoyed Unk's brevity and Hamboogul's stylistic drama, and Vanilla Chunk's quiet indie and Atlanta's brilliant Panda transformation, I chose the scene that made me snort out loud.

So congratulations, Jeff! You tapped into my love of absurdist humor and you will be richly rewarded with cookies from the Bitter Baking Company as soon as you email me your address.

Here is Jeff's scene. Still not sure why scrippets is being a dirty whore and I apologize for its stupidity:


Arm in arm, Julie and Stan exit, exchanging snickers
and glances. It's love.

Just then, wheeling in like a comet crashing to Earth,
ARNOLD... muscular, thick-necked, all man. He collides with Julie,
sending her to the ground, her coffee airborne, Stan recoiling in shock.


Good Christ!

Julie's coffee descends finally and, predictably, uses
her as its landing pad.


(to Stan) Do

Stan stares at his right hand and awkwardly curls it
into a fist like it's the first fist he's ever curled.

Eyes scrunched tight, he lets his right fly and
delivers a pathetic punch to Arnold's cheek.


That was cute Stan.
Let me show you how it's done.

With that, Arnold hauls back and absolutely levels
Stan. He won't be getting up off the sidewalk for some time. Julie
rises, dripping with coffee, tries to get to the fallen Stan.

Arnold stops her, holding her tightly by the wrist.


Wait Julie....


Get off me you
psychotic... you know me?


I go by Arnold now.
But in the PAST, I was known as...


(total reconition)
Stan? How the.... I mean...


Please listen. You
were going to dump me right after this date right?


Well... I... how did


It's all right. I
don't blame you. That guy on the pavement deserved to be dumped. I'm a
different man now. Believe me.


How is any of this


A few months at the
gym, a little space/time thingy... these things happen all the time.
Will you give me a second chance?


You went through all
that for me?

Arnold nods.


Wanna' go get a coffee
with me, we can talk about it?

Smiling, they take each other's hand and enter the
coffee shop.

On the sidewalk, Stan begins to stir...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cookie Contest judging begins

Yay! I was so happy to see so many participants in my first contest. I got two more scenes submitted by email and Unk even showed up!

I think the neatest thing about something like this, and the reason I wanted to do it in the first place, is that you can see how everybody takes this one simple idea and twists it into whatever their style dictates.

It was all awesome work and I really enjoyed reading your scenes.

Friday I will announce who gets the cookies. It's a tough decision and I can't make it yet. I want to read them all again.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bamboo Killers Cookie Contest

I decided to have a cookie contest. Twenty Somethings recently sent me some cookies when I won her contest after she won a contest and got some cookies, and I like this whole pay-the-cookie-forward thing.

Here's the deal. I'm going to write a raw, first-draft kind of scene and you are going to rewrite it your way. Those are the only rules.

Either post your version in the comments or email it to me. The person with the coolest scene gets it reposted on the blog and a pack of cookies from The Bitter Baking Company. They are excellent cookies.

You have until Thursday at 5pm.

Here is the original scene. Please forgive the format troubles. I've been having Scrippet troubles. If anyone knows how to solve this scrippet trouble, feel free to email me your solution. This is clearly an ongoing problem.

Anyway, the scene:

Julie and Stan exit the coffee shop, drinks in hand.

ARNOLD, big muscley guy, late teens, CRASHES into Julie.

Hot coffee splashes all over her clothes.

Yo what the fuck, man!

Oh you got something to say?

Stan hands Julie his coffee.

He takes a deep breath.

He punches Arnold in the face.


Arnold grabs Stan's collar and yanks him to the ground.

They roll around, exchanging blows.

Stop it!

They ignore her, landing blows left and right.

Julie shrugs.

She throws Stan's coffee on them both.

Both men stop.

What the hell was that for?

Stan, let's go.  NOW.

Stan stands up and follows her down the street.

Arnold grabs a napkin, wipes himself down.

Have fun!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ben Affleck

Thursday night I attended a sold-out double feature of The Town and Gone Baby Gone with a Q&A from Ben Affleck between films.

I've always liked him ever since he made fun of himself on Saturday Night Live, but my respect for him grew tremendously at this event.

While looking to see if anyone has posted the Q&A I found video footage of him going in and out of the theater. He was absolutely mobbed by people shoving things in his face to sign and cameras to get a picture. It must be so fucking annoying to have thirty thousand people shouting questions and demanding photographs with them and yelling at you about how they're from Boston and they love the Celtics. Yet he patiently signed stuff, made a comment about the Celtics, and posed for several pictures before he got in his car to go.

When he entered the theater after The Town screened, people stood up. I did not stand up because I apparently am one of the few Americans who does not stand up for every fucking thing ever, but Ben motioned shyly for everybody to sit down. He look at the floor and waved his hand. He was uncomfortable.

During the Q&A the interviewer mentioned how tremendous Ben was in The Town and lavished praise on him. Ben waved him off and shook his head, looking down at the floor. He said that 90% of what he saw in the editing room he absolutely hated. He loved everyone else's performance, but he didn't like his own.

In pretty much every interview he's done since Gone Baby Gone somebody asks him what it was like to direct his brother. First question at this Q&A: yep. "Ben, what was it like directing your brother?"

Not only did he act like he had never heard this question before, but he gave a new answer - at least one I haven't heard yet, anyway. He said he learned about speaking up as an actor, because his brother wasn't afraid of him so he said what was on his mind, and Ben usually keeps his issues to himself when filming.

When asked what advice he would give to new filmmakers he said "Don't do a movie with your girlfriend."

He talked about how much he has learned about cinematography, how his mom called to tell him Gone Baby Gone is high on Netflix and does he get any money from that? He asked us to stay in our seats until he left the theater so he didn't have to see us walk out before Gone Baby Gone (I stayed) and admitted he was relieved as hell that he had a packed crowd. He was afraid the place would be empty.

For a guy who won an academy award at 25 and has been an A-lister at the center of the Paparazzi's world, I'd say he's pretty damn well adjusted. I'd work with him in a heartbeat.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

I'll miss you, vacation

I've had three weeks of holiday vacation and it's been fantastic. During vacations I always turn into a professional screenwriter as much as I can. I read scripts, write pages, watch movies with a critical eye, catch up on all my industry contacts, try to attend a function or two. I sort of pretend my day job doesn't exist.

During this vacation I managed to do almost the entire rewrite of Nice Girls and I'm much, much happier with this version than I was with the first. I finished yesterday after two days of marathon writing sessions, just in time to send it to the group for notes on Sunday. That leaves me four days to get my shit together to go back to work.

That's all great, but it makes it really really hard to actually go back to work.

I like my job. I like the kids, I like the control I have over how I spend my time, I like the fact that I get to talk all day about my favorite subject. I like having full health benefits and a livable wage. I hate the homework and getting up early and the time it takes away from writing.

It's that getting up early thing that's the real bitch. Everything that happens in this town seems to happen on a Thursday. Parties, screenings, panels. It's like everybody in town sleeps late on Friday so they consider Thursday part of the weekend. I can't do these things because I get up at 6am and have to talk on my feet all day to a bunch of volatile teenagers.

So since I have one more Thursday before I return to early rising, I'm taking advantage of it tonight. I'm going to a double feature of The Town and Gone Baby Gone at the Aero with a Q&A by the director between films.

You know who the director is, right? Right. I honestly cannot wait to see what he has to say because I love most of his work. People can say what they want about Ben Affleck, but the man knows his business.

It's stuff like this that makes me wish even more that this was my job. Every day that I sit and write and send emails and sign up for screenings makes me sigh and say "Why can't someone pay me to do this?"

You and me both, right?

I keep reminding myself that I'm at a point where all I have to do is make this script great. It's commercial, original, interesting, and in a genre that sells pretty well. I have people ready to read it who can get it where it needs to go. So if I just make this the best script I can, this may be the way to making my vacation life become my real life.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

How I overcome story problems

Just like every other writer on the planet, sometimes I come to a story impasse. Sometimes they last hours, sometimes days, sometimes even weeks. But I always end up solving them the same way: going through each character's natural reactions one at a time.

So here's the latest example. I had two major options for the final setpiece of my story.

1) Have my bad guy kidnap my protag's love interest and call her to a final showdown.

2) Have my protagonist go on a mission involving her friend, at which point the bad guy would track her down and they'd fight.

My story wouldn't allow me to do both, so if I use option 1 I lose the friend angle that I like, but if I go with option 2 I lose the love interest angle that I like. I like option 1's location better, but fell like option 2 gives me a more cohesive story.

I've also been having difficulty giving my character a true lowpoint in her story where her love interest hates her and her career is in the toilet and she doesn't know what to do.  Neither options really allows for this either.

(Disclaimer - I am not a fan of formulaic writing and don't subscribe to a particular guru, but I do like the lowpoint thing from Snyder so I use that. I take what I want from the gurus and leave the rest - kind of like the Bible.)

I went around and around on this one for a couple of days, unable to make up my mind. Then in the morning I started thinking, okay, let's start earlier.

My characters are in the bad guy's apartment, then leave to run an errand. That's when bad guy comes back. What would she do? She would find her key and unlock the door.

Well wait, if they just went to run a quick errand - didn't even leave the building - wouldn't they leave the door unlocked? And if they did, she would certainly notice and realize that someone had been in her apartment and that they were coming back. All she has to do is wait. Then she shoots at them, then they run, then she chases....

And that opened me up for option 3, the winning idea that solved all my problems.

So whenever I'm stumped, I always know the answer is in logic. Well, what would they do next? And then? And then? And what would the other guy do? And then?  And then?

And eventually you can let their natural actions figure the story out for you.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Don't stop moving for Exposition

If you've never seen them, you simply must watch Red Letter Media's analysis of the Star Wars prequels. The guy finally finished part 3. I fast forward through the weird personal dead hooker shit, but the breakdown of what works and doesn't in those films is spot on. He puts into words the feelings most of us have been struggling to identify.

One of the big points he makes in his Episode 3 analysis is one of my biggest screenwriting pet peeves: static exposition scenes.

In a great movie you don't realize you're learning exposition because the movie doesn't stop going.

Everybody's got to give out exposition, and one of the biggest challenges we face as writers is how to make it interesting. So let's look at some examples.

In The Island, an action movie, our leads sit in a living room with Steve Buscemi while he explains the situation.

In The Matrix, an action movie, Neo moves around in the computer program, looking at a hot blond lady and learning Kung Fu.

Part 3 of that Red Letter review points out all the times in the Star Wars prequels when people discuss their situation while sitting on a couch or calmly walking down a hallway. Then it juxtaposed that to a scene in Star Trek, where Kirk and Bones race down a hall shouting about what's going on as they urgently try to solve problems both personal and story related.

In fact, in the commentary for Star Trek - I think it was Alex Kurtzman who talked about doing exposition on the fly. He called it "Exposition through the context of conflict." Perfectly put.

I have a motto when it comes to exposition: Never talk about exposition in a calm, orderly setting when you can do it on the run.

Of course, if you're not a writer of action films you probably won't be doing it on the run, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring.

In Ghostbusters we learn a lot during that scene where we're rushing through a library trying to capture a ghost librarian.

I wrote a script with a partner once and one of our scenes was a woman revealing her insecurities in a therapist's office. I hate most scenes in a therapist's office because they're not only boring, but they're way too on the nose. There are exceptions, of course - Grosse Pointe Blank is first to come to mind - but normally I find therapy sessions a cheap and easy way to reveal exposition.

So we came up with the idea (okay, I came up with the idea because he was more of an actor than a writer) to have her reveal her feelings while shopping for lingerie with her best friend. That way, instead of just discussing how she felt, she could eek out personal information while we watched her confront insecurities about her body. It was a terrible script, but that scene got a billion times better when we got creative with the delivery of the exposition. That's probably the best lesson I learned from cranking out that piece of crap screenplay.

At this point, every time I write an exposition scene I think to myself, how could I have characters do something other than talk right now? Where else can I put this scene so nobody's sitting down at a table/sofa/in a car? Can someone be chasing them? Can the characters be dancing/repairing a broken pipe/doing laundry? ANYTHING other than sitting in a chair.

Monday, January 03, 2011

RIP, Pete Postlethwaite

When we were kids we used to hear the newscaster say some so-and-so had died and our parents would all be like "no way" and we'd sort of wonder why anyone cared so much about some old wrinkly dude.

Now, of course, as we age, those deaths become more meaningful. Every now and then some well known somebody will still die and I'll have no idea who they are, but not today.

Pete Postlethwaite is dead.

For a while he was "that guy" when I saw him. He was Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. He was Captain Beams in Last of the Mohicans. He was Gilbert of Glockenwhatever in Dragonheart. He's easy to recognize with that big old face full of character.

Lately, of course, he played a small but memorable turn as the dying old man in Inception and the evil crime boss in The Town. Hell, even in Aeon Flux he managed to be the most interesting thing in a terrible film. He was just great. Every time I saw him pop up I'd get a little jolt of joy.

But the role that I'll always remember him first for is as Father Lawrence in Romeo + Juliet.  I've taught Romeo and Juliet more times than I can count and Friar Lawrence always seemed kind of dull and stupid compared to everybody else in that play. He wants her to fake her death because it will make the families come together? Is he retarded? There are like a million ways this can go wrong. And let's not get started about the fact that he secretly marries two teenage kids whose parents hate each other without seriously exploring other options. He was supposed to be the adult in this situation. The Nurse just does what Juliet tells her, but Friar Lawrence should know better.

But Pete Postlethwaite's Father Lawrence seemed passionately devoted to this crazy idea that he could use these two kids to make peace.  That was always in the play, but it seemed more like a flawed theory from some dimwitted idiot than a mission from a man who wanted to save a community. Pete Postlethwhaite was like a rock star priest, a guy who realized he got in over his head too late to stop the disaster that unfolded in front of him. Granted, some of that is Baz Lurhman's great direction and bold choices, but one of the best choices for that film was the casting. You can never go wrong casting Pete Postlethwaite..

I'll miss seeing that big mug pop up on screen. He was great.