Friday, August 24, 2012

My desk

This is my workspace.

Today I cleaned up my desk. It was a disaster yesterday. I was pushing things out of the way trying to find stuff. It was a paper riot.

Then the Beefcake put a letter tray on the wall for me. I highly recommend a letter tray on the wall; I now have somewhere to put my immediate needs papers. I've had file folders beside my desk for long term stuff - owner's manuals, receipts, articles on how to not kill the avocado tree - but anything that needed doing in the next few weeks got thrown on the pile. I did the same thing as a teacher, and that's why nothing ever got done until someone reminded me to do it. It's not an organizational system worth having.

So how could I expect two write in a spot like that? I always felt guilty that I didn't get more organized and worried that I'd forgotten to mail in some important piece of paper. It was difficult to feel relaxed and dedicated to writing when I was so frustrated by my growing mess of papers.

Enter the letter tray. And now I have three categories of papers that are not on my desk. If I have somewhere to put the papers, they don't end up in a pile on my desk, and therefore I can find them when I need them. It also helps to open the mail and sort it right away. These are things I'm working on. Hopefully I can keep this desk clean from now on, because it really does make writing so much easier.

Now, if you look at the picture, you may be alarmed by how many composition notebooks, index cards, glue sticks, and paper clips I have. Do not be frightened. Remember that I was a teacher. The composition notebooks are a result of meetings. Back when LAUSD had money, they would give us a notebook at every meeting so we could take notes. I'd take like one page of notes, mostly consisting of haiku detailing how bored I was, and then shove the notebook on this shelf. I pull them out when I go to story meetings and stuff.

I don't know why I have all that glue. Maybe one day I will make a collage.

Painting the wall was the first thing I did as soon as we moved into the house. I picked the most soothing, beautiful color I could find so I'd always feel comfortable staring at the wall.

My laptop is six years old and it still gets on with its bad self. Unfortunately it is out of space. I have a shitload of software and no room for more, so I have to keep all my photos and screenplays on the external HD, which is good because you never know when your shit will implode and delete everything.

I got rid of most of my screenwriting books, but there are a few still hanging out up there. Joss Whedon makes a strong presence. The book about comic writing was loaned to me and I keep forgetting to give it back. I highly recommend Elements of Style for Screenwriters if you're new to the format. It's a good alternative to the Dave Trottier book.

And that paper holder to the right, invaluable for rewrites. I always print out the notes and then just go through in order.

I always have a glass of water, a tube of chapstick, and my phone handy. I'm very big on mis en place for writing. I don't need to have an excuse to get up once I get started. I generally get up to pee, get more water, or figure out why the dogs are trying to throw themselves through the window (usually to get squirrels or the mailman).

And that's more that you ever wanted to know about my workspace.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

No stakes and no surprises, please

I seem to have the same two problems plague me in my work:
1) I don't start with high enough stakes.

Every script, I start out with a storyline based on individual people wanting individual things. And that's super great when you write romantic comedies or indie films, but if you're constructing a high-octane action extravaganza, you kind of need the fate of the world hanging in the balance, or at least some brand new super scary bioweapon about to fall into the wrong hands, or maybe the code to a nuclear rocketship on a disk someone stole from an embassy party. You just can't make it a simple rescue attempt in an action film, which is probably why everyone in Expendables 2 kept muttering about plutonium.

I always forget to do this. In my first draft of everything, it's always just a story about a person fighting for another person, like Grosse Pointe Blank, I suppose. Not the end of the world, but super important to that one person. It can work for some scripts, but not for the big budget stuff. If your budget is going to be huge, your stakes need to be super high. Plutonium. Bioweapon. Nuclear rocketship.

2) I forget to include plot twists.

I tell the story straight up and forget that you need surprises. The bad guy can't be the guy you expected, but inevitably I forget that on a first draft. I don't do cliches much, preferring to find ways to twist them on their head, but I always forget to be misleading. Figuring out the bad guy is usually the way to go, but sometimes you don't need it.

Again, using Expendables 2, Jean Cleaude Van Damme is all "BAD GUY HAHAHAHA FUCK YOU I'M BAD." And he's awesome at it. No twist needed, really. It's a movie about explosions and muscles and groan-worthy self-referential jokes. The only real twist in that movie was that everyone seemed to know where everyone else was at all times. But that's really not relevant to my point here.

What was my point here?

Oh yeah. But for most stories, there needs to be some kind of little surprise that we can figure out along with the protagonist. I always forget that and have to add it in on my second treatment draft. Only this time I didn't do that, so I stopped for like two weeks while I worked on something else and tried to figure out where I could put a twist into my story.

I'm not saying you have to have a Sixth Sense style twist in every story, but if it's all so predictable, it's boring. This time I got the stakes taken care of for once, but my script felt lacking. Something wasn't right, didn't feel original enough. Then I realized it's because we know who the bad guy is the whole way through and it just doesn't feel very surprising at any point. Because of the way I've developed the story, I have to reveal the bad guy at the beginning. I simply can't change that. So what else could I use as a surprise? I realized there was another way, another element of the story I could twist and change, and that could provide a little Aha! moment to the audience. And since my characters are constantly lying to each other, it's easy to keep everybody guessing. Because I think what I realized is that if you have everyone lying to everyone else, they need to be lying about SOMETHING, otherwise, boring. And you just can't be boring.

You'd think after all these years I'd remember stakes and surprises, but nope. I still get to a point where I'm thinking "Something's missing here." And then I remember that I suck at stakes and surprises and go back to write them in.

That's my issue. What's yours?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My love letter to The Raid

People have been telling me for months that I need to see The Raid, so last night after catching The Terminator at the Hollywood Cemetery, the Beefcake and I headed to The New Beverly to catch a midnight screening of The Raid. Two action-packed movies in one night - sounds good to me.

I like seeing movies at The New Bev. If you don't know what that is, it's a movie theater in Hollywood that screens all kinds of 35mm prints from The Birds to '70s 3-d soft core porn to Pulp Fiction like 30 times a month to movies that just came out. Tourists don't go to this theater - movie lovers do. So when you see a film at The New Bev you're already in an audience of friends. And at a midnight screening, it's an even more devoted crowd. It was the perfect way to see this film.

After about 20 minutes a guy in the front shouted out "I FUCKING LOVE THIS MOVIE!" and we all laughed because that's how we all collectively felt. There was clapping, profanity, gasping - it was great fun. I probably said "Holy shit!" about eight times.

About halfway in the audio fucked up and they had to stop the movie to fix it. In that brief time, everybody turned to whoever they came with and discussed this brilliant piece of film we were all watching. "Holy crap, did you see that?"

So as you can tell, I loved this movie. In fact, "love" seems too tame a word. I want to bend this movie over the kitchen counter and fuck it so hard.

You know how some people consider themselves artists when it comes to film? Like, there are film fans who lose their shit over Malick's cinematography or Coppola's intense visuals or whatever the fuck it is that David Lynch does. Those people often celebrate film as an artform and look down on the more commercial fare that rules my world.

Well, I love fight scenes more than anything in the movie world, so to me, The Raid was fucking art. It was a beautiful piece of filmmaking - so elegant. It was like a masterful painting where violence is the brush.

I've never seen fighting so fast and brutal and still graceful all at once. I was in awe.

The plot was razor thin and there were no twists, really, but it didn't need a fancy complex plot or big fancy twists. It had great characters and surprisingly great dialogue. I cared about these characters. I got scared for some, sad when some died, relieved when a bad guy bit the dust. Your plot doesn't have to be complex if the characters are well drawn enough to make me invested in their well being.

And shot composition was fantastic. The angles, the use of light - it was all there.

When this movie ended, I wanted to kick everyone in the face.

On the way home I saw a few posters for movies I had been excited about mere hours before. Now I looked at those posters and realized they would not be as good as what I just watched. Everything sucks now.

I want to rewrite the treatment for my current spec because it's not good enough. The last time I had that reaction to a film in the theater, it was In Bruges.

So all those people who told me I needed to see The Raid - you called it. It was bananas. BANANAS. I'm in love.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

I have awesome friends

I have been working on a project that genre-wise is right up my alley, but it's in a world I know very little about and takes place in a location I barely know. I have been abusing the hell out of my friends in my pursuit of research, and they have been nothing but awesome.

Every day for the last week, I have emailed one of my friends to ask her geography questions. "Hey, do you know of a building where I can have a fight scene that has some security but not too much security...?" Sure enough, she comes back with a place. "Do you know of a cool place where my villain can put his lair?" After a few minutes of discussion, she gave me a location and a link to more information about the place. I don't know what she was doing at the time - probably cleaning because she's obsessed with cleaning - but I took her away from it so she could look up crap on her city and get back to me.

Another friend knows the world I'm playing in, and he has been amazing. I know when I email him he's probably either at work or writing his own material, but he's never hesitated to get back to me. He even busted out all his books and started searching through them to find the answer I need. He even helped me solve a big story problem in the planning stage. In fact, I probably owe him my nonexistent firstborn at this point.

I also have a group of non-screenwriter friends who love to jump in and offer up suggestions when I'm stumped, and their insight has been the key, sometimes, to figuring out a stuck point. They are awesome.

I've been doing my own research on the old web. I've gotten to be as much an expert on this area as you can be in a few months, but nothing beats someone who's obsessed over a certain subject since they were a wee child, or someone who's actually spent years living in the place you've set your story. I am so lucky to have these guys willing and able to help me, even though they probably have things they'd rather be doing.

So thanks, friends, for all your help. You're going to make me look a whole lot smarter than I actually am.