Sunday, October 30, 2005

Inconsolable Second Place

So yesterday, my son’s cross country team placed second in their district meet. They had been sure they’d beat their rival school and were certain they’d have a 2005 district champion patch on their letter jackets. Second wasn’t good enough. They were inconsolable.

Even though they had three runners in the top ten and even though they qualified for the regional competition next Saturday, they were inconsolable.

These boys ran a good race, but it wasn’t their best and they knew it. It didn’t matter to them how many schools were going home with nothing. They were inconsolable.

It was the end of the world because they weren’t first. Most of the guys didn’t even smile as they accepted their trophies. What a bunch of whiners. I wanted to smack each one of them.

Then I remembered how it felt when I dinked in the Nicholl and the Austin Film Festival. It didn’t matter how many Indy producers had drooled all over my screenplay, I had never opted, never sold, and never advanced in a competition. I wasn’t thinking about all the writers who have never even gotten this far. After each dink letter, I pouted, had a pity festival (a party wasn’t enough), and eventually shook it off and got back to writing. Then I found some people I respect to take a look at my screenplay and tell me what they think went wrong.

The cross country team was back at school running this morning before most people’s alarm clocks go off. They have a regional meet to prepare for and another opportunity to beat their rival school. If they don’t place first or second in the regional meet, they don’t go to the state competition. They have to work harder this week than ever before.

Is it really such a bad thing to hold yourself to a high standard and then beat yourself up when you fall short of your expectations? Maybe if the boys had won district, they’d have gotten complacent, not worked as hard this week and botched the regional meet. Maybe nothing would be different and they would work just as hard either way. Maybe if I had advanced in the Nicholl or the AFF, I wouldn’t be working so hard to identify and improve my own writing weaknesses.

If failure isn’t painful, can you ever really succeed? I hope I can write next week that the boys placed first or second in the regionals and are going to the state meet just like I hope some day soon, I can tell you that I have aced a respected competition or better yet, opted a screenplay. But if I don’t, you can bet that the boys will still be running and I will still be writing.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Signing Release Forms

Okay, so here's my unqualified unprofessional unreliable hypothesis on release forms. If you don't sign it, your screenplay won't get read. It's pretty much that simple.

That's not to say you should sign a release given to you by any ol' toothless dude in a mobile home with "production company" spray painted over the door or some guy sitting in the Walmart parking lot accepting submissions from the tailgate of his El Camino. But, come on. You've signed more complicated stuff. You've probably given away a kidney or two on your credit card applications and do you even know what you agreed to when you refinanced?

If a legitimate agency, production company, or manager gives you a release and you want them to take you seriously, sign it. Yeah, we all have to start some place and maybe you have to work with some small company that really is in a mobile home. Fine. Take the release to an entertainment attorney and/or research the company's history with other writers.

Friends, a release is standard operating procedure. You have to sign one so your kid can ride a bus to school, you have to sign one before a doctor will look at your hang nail, and you have to sign one before a production company will read the work of an unknown. Whether established screenwriters sign them or not is something you'll have to ask a pro.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Who's Your Daddy?

Somebody asked me yesterday what my status as a screenwriter was. That is one of the strangest things I've ever been asked. My status? As if I'm an online auction or a bank statement downloading? Geez. But, I know what he meant so here's my status.

I'm a good writer. Am I a great one? That depends on whether we are talking about screenplays or press statements. Independent producers have ooooh'd and awwwww'd and showered me in drool. But, none of them option my work. Hmm. Guess I'm one of those gals with a "great personality".

I've dinked at the Austin Film Festival and in the Nicholl. I didn't even get a second round or next 100 or top ten percent. Does that mean I can't write? No. It means, so far, I can't win. But, it could mean I can't write.

I am in the process of writing what I think is a great screenplay. Who isn't?

Once this screenplay is done, I'll be doing some serious soul searching and self evaluation. How much more time am I willing to devote to a craft that I have only a minute sliver of a chance of succeeding at?

Sometimes, it feels like I'm on the Midway at the fair, throwing away dollar bills trying to win a stuffed animal in a game I know is rigged. If that's the case, why do I keep seeing little kids walking around with giant Yogi Bears? Because their Daddy won it for them? Because they outsmarted the barker? Because they are that talented? Well, I don't have a Daddy at this fair and I don't know enough about the barkers to outsmart one so all that's left for me is the talent. I'd better have some or go play a different game.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Three Day Migraine

I don't promote products of any kind because somebody could have an allergic reaction and sue me. So, I'm not telling you to buy this product. Nope. And, don't try to sue me because I have three sons so even the pennies in my sugar bowl are missing. Nor am I telling you not to buy any particular product because I don't want any manufacturer hunting me down like a homeopathic and/or pharmaceutical product bashing dog. So there. Let's see.... is that all the caveats, admonitions, warnings and information before I continue? Oh! One more thing. I am not a doctor, nor have I ever played one on TV.

All right. Here we go. I get migraines. It's probably because I spend so much time in front of a computer screen so writers, take note. I have had a migraine for three days. Three straight head-pounding, somebody-please-close-the-blinds-and-nobody-make-a-sound days. Yes. Three can't-drive-a-car-cuz-I-can't-read-the-street-signs-because-of-the-flashing-things-in-my-eyes days. You get the picture?

I used to take prescription migraine medication. It worked like a charm. But once the medicine wore off, the headache came back determined to punish me for trying to vanquish it. You could almost hear the headache say "you dare try to thwart me with your dastardly elixar? There is no concoction, antidote, drug, panacea, placebo or remedy of any kind that can foil my awesome and terrifying power! Wah! Ha! Ha!"

.. okay, maybe you couldn't almost hear it, but it was loud and clear to me. Doctors called these voices "rebound headaches" and we all know anyone on the rebound is bad news.

Where was I? Oh, okay. So, a year or so ago I stopped taking the prescription drugs and have treated my periodic migraines with over the counter Excedrin Migraine. (reminder to read disclaimers in first paragraph. DO IT NOW!). Well, this week, the Excedrin met Mister Awesome-and-Terrifying-Power and cowered in the dark recesses of my stomach like a whipped puppy. Frankly, I was in a head pounding, light oppressive, vomiting in the dirty toilet(oh gross, do men just sit on the pot and explode?) hell. Yes, this migraine was hell.

Somebody told me about this headache stuff that you roll on your head the way you roll antiperspirant in your armpits. Uh. Huh. I was skeptical but desperate. So, I got my son to play seeing-eye-dog and lead me through the Walmart Pharmacy where he found it. I couldn't read the labels because of all the orange and yellow lightening in that store which I am sure is against some kind of building code.

Within a few minutes it dulled the head pain and the flashing things in my eyes were gone. With the flashing things gone, the nausea went too. This product worked for me.. may not work for you.

If you try this product, which I am not recommending for aforementioned reasons, there is one important warning you need to know that they neglected to put on the box. When you use this product, to the average consumer in the Walmart parking lot, you will look like a befuddled moron rubbing Chapstick on your forehead.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Is Screenwriting a Marathon?

Craig Mazin says screenwriting is not a marathon and that if it feels like one, you either have serious flaws in your script or you have no business writing screenplays. I've never heard that analogy but now hearing it challenged, I have to disagree with Craig.

My son is a runner. He delights in getting up at six in the morning, hard work, and steady improvement. What I've learned from him has a lot to do with discipline and diligence but nothing about dreading the run or praying for it to end. Running isn't torture for him, but an exciting event to train for and look forward to week after week.

Perhaps, whether or not writing screenplays is like running a marathon depends entirely on what kind of runner you are. A lazy reluctant one looking only at the finish line has no business running. Naturally all analogies break down some place, but this one has a ring of legitimacy to me. Yeah, that's my boy in the pic. Does he look bored to you?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

This Dress Make Me Look Fat?

I got to wondering the other day about the time I've spent on screenwriting boards. Was it worth it? What did I learn? How many stupid questions and arrogant posts have I written? How many times have I humiliated myself in public? So, I started researching and ran across a post on Wordplay from over a year ago. Here's an excerpt.
WARNING: Long post, short point.

A few years ago, I had written a speech for a particularly high profile press conference when I was suddenly attacked by an out-of-character-for-me case of nerves. The press room was already crammed with cameras when I begged a colleague to look over my speech. I stood by and studied his slash marks as his pen committed suicide on my pages. He ranted things at me like, "what the hell is this?" and "who gives a damn about that?" among other expletives so brutal, they pain the human ear. Halfway through the speech, he shoved the ink-bloodied pages at me and told me to polish up my resume. I thanked him as he blew out of the room. He could be heard down the hall still ranting, calling me a hack, and accusing me of exploiting my job to promote my own political agenda.

Another director, who had overheard the whole thing, asked why I didn't break the guy's jaw for berating me like that. Because, I calmly told him, he gave me exactly what I asked for: his honest opinion. If he had glanced at it and handed it back with a casual, "looks fine to me", I'd have been ticked off. Instead, he told me exactly what was broken, but not how to fix it.

I rushed to my office, made extensive rewrites and called (note to reader: insert name of any important person here cuz I'm not telling) to report that I had some edits in his speech. We went over the revisions and he concluded the briefing by telling me it was the best thing I'd ever written for him.

That colleague did me an enormous favor. I respect him for having the intestinal fortitude to tell me it wasn't good enough and for getting angry. He knew what I was capable of. That speech wasn't it! If I were honest with myself, I would probably admit that my nerves that day were nothing more than a manifestation of my own knowledge that I'd done a sorry job.

Monday, October 24, 2005

A Matter of Heart

Last year, my fourteen year old dog stopped going potty in the grass. He just stopped. Like how I use technical terms like "potty"? He went on the sidewalk, on the porch, in the middle of the patio and all over the driveway because he didn't want to put his great big wookie paws in the grass anymore. The path to the back door suddenly became a defecated mine field. It was aggravating, but hey, he was old and at least he wasn't going in the house.

One night that changed. It was New Year's Eve 2004 and I had the extraordinary luck to be IM'ng with Terry Rossio. Yup. Really. I had thought he was someone else but when I read his profile which said Terry Rossio I asked him, "are you Terry Rossio?" He said he was and I promptly demanded to know what he was doing home alone on New Years Eve. Then it happened.

My dog decided he liked my expensive wood floor better than the pavement. Fourteen years and suddenly when I have an opportunity to talk to my favorite screenwriter the dog goes on my floor? I knew this was a signal that the dog was getting senile and my time with him was limited. Oh, and with Terry Rossio too because he was gone when I got back from cleaning up dog pee.

Even though I went through this with my other Cocker Spaniel twelve years ago and even though I know it's the merciful thing to do for the ol' guy, making the decision to end my dog's life was no easier than the first time. Once in a lifetime is too much. Twice is unbearable. So, I put it off and his symptoms of dementia and deterioration went on for months.

First his hearing went. Well, a dog can still live a decent life with no hearing. Before long, his eyesight went but he could still find his way in and out the back door (to potty everywhere but the grass) and he could still find his food. Then, it got weird.

He began to growl at imaginary intruders and was particularly indignant over the Glade plugins. They really chapped him. But, he was a perfectly healthy blind, deaf, senile dog living a comfortable life. He climbed in and out of his favorite chair and still barked when he smelled a stranger in the house...well, ten or fifteen minutes after he smelled a stranger in the house.

Then this past Friday night, something happened. He abruptly yelped and began walking in a circle. He walked and walked in a circle until he dizzied himself and his hind legs caved beneath him. We loaded him in the car and took him to an all night vet. By the time we got there, he was fine. Whew! Close call. But the next night, he did it again.

This time, he couldn't stop. All night and all the next day, this little dog walked in circles and yelped in pain. He didn't stop to potty, eat or drink. I kept thinking that any minute, he'd be fine again just like he had been before but he just kept walking and barking until he fell down with exhaustion. I had no choice. I felt like a monster for waiting so long. Today, I held him in my arms and kissed him goodbye on his fuzzy face as the doctor put a needle in his leg.

I marvel that my heart can endure such pain and continue to beat. It has every time I've lost friends and family to disease, war, accidents, and the malice of others. Millions of hearts continue to beat every day while suffering unimaginable grief. Why would mine be any different? The human heart is an enigma.

Every day people agonize over whether to end life support, assist a suicide, or accept painful treatment. And yet, these hearts manage to survive those decisions. How many couples do I know who have divorced this past year and how many of them were caused by infidelity? What heartache they must have experienced! Love, pain, grief, joy, disappointment, anger, bitterness, resentment... the heart endures it all.

The remedy to these heart conditions is to have no heart at all. We've all met people we think are heartless and yet, biology tells us they must have a physical heart even if they don't demonstrate the human conditions that we attribute to the heart. A heartless person could matter-of-factly endure the death of a pet or even a family member because that heart hadn't felt the emotional attachment that, when severed by death, results in a sort of heart attack.

There are only two choices available to us. Be a person of heart with all the accompanying ranges of human emotion or live life as a tautological exercise. I'm reminded of a statement by the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz. The line is in L. Frank Baum's book, although I am not sure about the film. The wizard warns him that a heart causes great unhappiness. The Tin Woodsman replies, "I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur if you will only give me a heart."

Though I, too, prefer to have a heart and willingly bear the unhappiness, I have a blog to murmer on.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Treguna Mekoides...

Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee
Utterly charming but one of the less celebrated Disney films is Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson. Begun before it's closest resembling Disney picture, it was completed and released seven years after Mary Poppins.

Also directed by Robert Stevenson, Bedknobs and Broomsticks began as a benchwarmer for Mary Poppins. Some time in 1963, negotiations to acquire Mary Poppins was apparently going sour with author P.L. Travers. Anticipating that the deal might fall through on Mary Poppins, Walt Disney retained rights to "The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks" by Mary Morton as a contingency project.

Work on Bedknobs actually began before Mary Poppins but was nudged aside when rights were acquired for Mary Poppins. Sharing much of the same production team, there is no shortage of resemblance between the two films, including music.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks
was given the same pomp and promotion when it debuted in in England October of 1971 that Mary Poppins got in 1964. Much of the 139 minute film was cut in order to meet running time requirements of Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks won an Oscar in 1972 for best special effects but was also nominated for best art direction, best costume design, best score and best original song. The Sherman brothers, who wrote the music for both Mary Poppins and Bedknobs, are responsible for penning some of Disney's most familiar and memorable songs. Bet you know every word to "It's a Small World" and while you may not remember all the lyrics, you can hum "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Winnie the Pooh", can't cha?

Why then, is Bedknobs and Broomsticks not as beloved as Mary Poppins? While the story, performances, and production values equal or exceed Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks falls short with the music. Music is obviously a foundation of any animated musical. Miss the mark on the music and the film suffers. There's nothing wrong the songs and score of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. They were, after all, nominated for Academy Awards. It's just that the audiences had already heard it all before.

"Bottom of the Beautiful Briney Sea" was actually a song that never made it into Mary Poppins, so the Sherman brothers resurrected it for Bedknobs when, after they'd already left Disney, they got the call to come back and finish work on Bedknobs and Broomsticks. "The Age of Not Believing" was the Sherman brothers song nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but other Bedknobs songs bear striking resemblance to songs that the Shermans wrote for Mary Poppins.

"Substitutiary Locomotion" sounds suspiciously like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Portabello Road" feels like a pepped up version of "Feed the Birds". "A Step in the Right Direction" (which was one of the songs cut to shorten the film) is very much like "A Spoon Full of Sugar". Good stuff. But, kids didn't walk around singing "Substitutiary Locomotion" the way they did "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "The Bare Necessities", and "Hakuna Matata". It just wasn't unique enough.

Since composition of the Bedknobs and Broomsticks music began before Mary Poppins, only the Sherman brothers know how many of the ideas for Bedknobs made it into Mary Poppins and how many of the songs for Bedknobs and Broomsticks are spinoffs. Maybe the Shermans were having an off year. But, it doesn't matter. The music didn't really hit it off with audiences. Shame, too, because the picture is charming and despite the unimaginative music, it is one of my favorites.

So what is Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee? It's a spell recited in the film to make objects take on a life of their own. The irony here is that while Bednobs and Broomsticks recites that spell over and over in the film, it failed to do what all great films do... take on a life of its own.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Troy - Soundtrack of the Gods

A few months ago, a guy on a writer's forum ripped me to pieces for expressing approval of the soundtrack on this film. He was not a Horner fan. He said his friend wrote the original score and when it tested poorly, Horner was brought in a month or so before the film was released to rewrite the whole thing. Yup. Sour grapes.

Since I didn't own the CD at the time and had only heard the music in the theater, I conceded that my Horner adoration could have influenced my opinion as much as his own devotion to his friend probably skewed his. I have since bought the soundtrack and memorized it beat by beat. I was wrong. The score is perfect.

First of all, I admit that composers write soundtracks that resemble each other and this one is no exception, but that's a diatribe for another blog. This one is an encomium.

About 45 minutes into the Troy CD, Track 8 begins. This track accompanies the Trojans as they attack the Greeks who are without their ringer, Achilles. It opens obscurely, some cellos that grow gradually in intensity as the Trojans creep up on the Greeks at dawn.

Naturally, a battle scene must have pomp so the fanfare begins with the brass arriving in layers representing the Greek troops spilling over a hillside. But close your eyes and it sounds more as if the clouds are being pulled back one layer at a time, throwing open the floodgates as the gods take their places behind their chosen side.

A minute into the track the melody begins. It's a march with the purity of a lullaby. Ten measures later a flurry of strings and woodwinds provide the adrenaline until the arrangement erupts into the full blown battle of overlapping brass.

But for me, the most powerful part of the piece is something Horner masters, his ability to take a single instrument and create a brief solo that creates the emotion the scene demands. In this case, it's a lone trumpet that cries out, piercing through the confusion like a battle cry and hovering high above the battle until it descends like a dying voice.

Suddenly, the timpani take over like a thunderbolt of Zeus. But is it thunder or is it the feet of the gods stomping in the stadium as they watch the missing Achilles suddenly join the battle? No, that pounding echos my own heart beat.

Was this what Edgar Allen Poe felt when he wrote the Tell Tale Heart? The heartbeats raise a terrifying tension as the two greatest warriors in all the Aegean Hector and Achilles, face off. Both armies pause to witness the confrontation of the ages.

The strings warn us that something terrible is about to happen but the heartbeats continue. We want them to stop. The bloodshed has to end. We don't want them to stop. One of our heros will die.

Seventeen heartbeats later, shocked silence. The heartbeats stop. No music. No nothing. Hector has felled the mighty Achilles.

Achilles men are dumbstruck with grief. The music creeps in slowly, mournfully. Hector removes the helmet of the dying hero and then utter incredulity! It is not Achilles as Hector and Achilles' own men believed. This is a young boy, drowning in his own blood and quivering in fear. The dying boy's agony trembles through the music with Hector's own anguish over what he's done. Then a decision. Hector runs his sword through the boy's chest. The boy suffers no more.

There's no dialogue during this battle. Watch the scene without sound and it's interesting. Watch it with the music and it's unbearable.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Bowfinger-Go-Round

If, as an aspiring screenwriter, you've not yet been on the Bowfinger-go-round, then you are both in luck and out of it. Succumbing to the bluff, sale, or pitch of the wannabe indy must be a right of passage for newbie screenwriters. If you have not seen Bowfinger, stop reading this blog right now, get in your car and drive to the nearest Blockbuster or Walmart and get your hands on the DVD. I'll wait while you rent or buy and then watch this version of "This is Your Life, You Gullible Undiscovered Writer".

...waiting... waiting...cue theme to Jeapardy. Be right back. Gonna go cook some Jiffy Pop. Yeah, they still sell it.

Okay, finished watching the movie? It's more accurate than you may think. Somebody reads your work. He likes it. No, he loves it and is convinced that this is the project he needs to launch himself as an independent producer. He has no financing and no ability to distribute or green light a film. What he has, like us wannabe screenwriters, is high hopes. He believes that with the right material and a lot of elbow grease, he can generate the interest of somebody who knows somebody who has money. Or, he knows somebody who knows somebody who knows a star that may want to attach himself to your film. Ahem. Sure..

Just like Bowfinger, the wannabe indy producer you encounter probably has honorable motives. He believes in your script or his own ability to get it made. But the reality is it won't get made and nothing will come of this ride. The good news is, you only get sick and throw up the first few times you're on this ride. So, here is my top ten list of indicators that your producer is probably Bowfinger:

(1) He calls you collect.

(2) He knows a billionaire who is peeing in his pants to support a project just like yours but he can't tell you the billionaire's name for security reasons.

(3) He starts his discussion of your project by insulting writers who care more about an option fee and making a sale than getting the project made.

(4) He makes a conference call appointment with you but when you call him, you get an answering machine with multiple corporation names.

(5) He suddenly has to go to the bathroom when you offer him your agent's phone number.

(6) His copier is broken so he asks you to mail him additional copies of your screenplay.

(7) He gives you a stack of his own return address labels and a list of people to send your screenplay to.

(8) He mispronounces and/or misspells the names of his move star and director friends.

(9) His attorney keeps forgetting to send you the option agreement.

(10) His secretary's voice sounds just like his and his attorney's voice sounds just like his secretary.

The irony about the Bowfinger-Go-Round is that you have the ability at any point to say, "Stop this ride, I want to get off." But you won't. And, if you've haven't been on the ride yet, go ahead and prepare by stocking up on Dramamine. Remember that like any ride, some of the time you'll say "That was the worst ride of my life" and other times you'll say "That was awesome! Let's do it again!"

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I'm Not William Hung

I've been growing increasingly impatient with that ridiculing voice of self doubt that prowls around my computer. It says, "hey failure, what makes you think you are unlike those hundreds of thousands of wannabes clogging up electronic mail systems with their mediocrity and keeping Hollywood chiropractor offices full of postal carriers suffering from luggage fatigue?

That voice says I should be writing on a Big Chief tablet and it thinks my time would be more productive in a tomato garden than in front of a keyboard. That voice points at my duds in the Nicholl and the Austin Film Festival as proof of my ineptness as a screenwriter. That voice says that like William Hung, my talent amounts to little more than wishful thinking and tenacity. That voice is a liar, a very intimidating one.

Do I rebut that voice with "Shut up! I am a writer, you abstract outgrowth of my own insecurity!".. ? Huh? Do I? No. I usually say "begging your pardon, Mr. Sycophantic-evidence-of-my-mental-illness, you're right, I'm a poser and will never be a real screenwriter". Then I cower behind a subservient part time job until the voice wanders away from my computer long enough for me to pound out another story or, at the very least, a notably imaginative grocery list.

A successful screenwriter once told me that the voice of doubt is actually a good thing because it thwarts over-confidence and prevents complacency. I think he must be referring to a voice of reason, not a voice of doubt, but who am I to question a pro who readily admits that he hears voices? So based on this declaration, I decided to stop avoiding that voice, stop ducking behind doors and stop slinking to my keyboard only when the voice has his back turned.

I've got a plan. It's an idiotic one that would merit extra medication in my warm milk and an invitation to wear a lovely white sleeved jacket. But it is a plan, none the less and even a bad plan is better than no plan at all. So, how have I decided to cope with this outspoken nuisance in my head? I've decided to embrace him as a member of my writing team. Oh, and also to name him Sal.

Sal, for all his mocking and taunting, is a pretty intelligent bully. He's not a half bad writer either and his insults are not entirely without merit. So, playing on his sense of superiority, I am recruiting him as a writing partner. Sal wants full creative control but I am convinced that he is needed more as a story editor. That label seems to suit his notion of self-importance so we are striking a deal. Sal is to leave me in peace to write what I want for as long as it takes me to write it. In return, he is entitled to edit each scene as mercilessly and with as much malice as he deems necessary. These are good terms for us both. But there is one more condition that Sal insists on.

"You must no longer refer to me as a voice of self doubt" demands Sal."It is insulting and counterproductive."

Certainly, I must humor him anything if we're to get on with it so I agree to whatever it is, except for the tomato garden.

"In the future, "says Sal. "Should you discuss me with your colleagues, you must refer to me by my proper title, a voice of reason."

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Fat Bottomed Peer Reviews

Just because Queen sings that Fat Bottomed Girls Make the Rockin' World Go ‘Round doesn't make it so. If it was true, all those perilously anorexic women with bulging pelvic bones wouldn't grace our magazine covers. Likewise, observations made by amateur screenwriters in online review groups aren't necessarily fact either.

Personally, I object to the "feedback" and "reviews" on Zoetrope, Triggerstreet and even in The Writer's Building where I am an active member. Most of these writers are not only unproduced screenwriters, but they aren't even experienced readers. I'm not suggesting that there is no value at all in seeking input. In fact, just like the fat-bottomed-girl scenario, there are always exceptions. Yeah, you know who I'm talking about. What I am saying is that (1) we wannabes need to know WHO we are getting input from before we get it and (2) we need to be familiar with Terry Rossio's "You're the Expert" column before we read story notes from amateurs. (See Wordplay link on the right)

Some of the most common observations by readers in online groups are not even reasonable but because they've learned the screenwriting lingo and know how to sell their opinions (they are writers, after all), they are convincing and persuasive. Many fellow aspiring screenwriters write something that may be good or even great the way it is but make changes based on notes from somebody who has never sold any of their own work. These "peers" are trying to be helpful and genuinely believe they are giving sound advice. But, let's face it, some of what they are saying is more about making themselves sound knowledgeable or earning a review credit than about improving a screenplay.

I have multitudes of concerns about inexperienced readers sharing their perspectives but what I'll mention here are my top complaints as "reviewers" evaluate character development. These are the three statements I see in "reviews" that bug me the most:

Who would do that? - Okay, this is a common statement in a peer review. Who would do that? Have they never heard of sexual harassment in that office? Why did they take a ship and not a plane? Why didn't he email his wife before he left? Because something doesn't work in his own world, an inexperienced reader may think it can''t work in the reality that the writer has created either. This is utter nonsense. Maybe the writer didn't set up his reality well enough to make it work and needs to improve it. But maybe the reader is basing his opinion on what works in his own environment. Ahem, it's a story! Not too many men could keep fighting with an arrow sticking out of one testicle. But if I write a man who is strung out on PCP or make him a Hun equivalent to Superman then he can endure anything I say he can. It's reality as I've written it, not reality as the reader knows it.. As long as my reality doesn't contradict itself, anything goes.

Characters are not complex enough - Well, if your primary characters aren't well drawn than, yeah, this a valid complaint. But I don't need to write the backstory on every single character in a script. If a character is only in one scene and it doesn't matter to the outcome or progression of the story, then I don't care why he became a killer. All I need to know is that he is one. I read a screenplay once where the elevator operator tells the protagonist a lot personal information. It wasn't for humor, it didn't aide the protag on his quest, and it felt like pure exposition. I kept reading wondering where the payoff for the exposition was. It never came. The writer said later that in one of his "reviews" somebody had said that the elevator operator needed more depth. Why? He was only there because it was a swanky hotel in the 1940's that required an elevator operator!

That goes against his character - Okay, maybe it does, but what did the reader base that on? Who drew the character? If I want a cop who faints at the sight of blood, then that's the way I'm going to write him. It only goes against his character if it contradicts the character and/or reality as I've already established it. Personally, I think it would be funny to have a guy who just performed an autopsy get squeamish at lunch because his steak is too rare. But "peer" reviewers may peg that kind of thing as "going against character".

The important thing is that the writer understands why he wrote a character a certain way. If I wrote it, can explain it, and can defend it, chances are it needs to be the way it is written. If the reader can't understand it, then either I didn't do my job well enough or the reader is singing about fat bottomed girls.

I've gotten a lot of grief for not posting my work on boards for reviews. I'm no insecure wallflower but I don't want to post my months of hard work out there for just anyone to read, dissect, or even mimic. We amateur screenwriters are all building ships. Why would I seek help with the rigging on my ship from somebody who has never sailed their own?

I have let a few people read my work when I am confident that I have something to gain by doing so. I've even submitted my favorite screenplay to Scott the Reader and eagerly anticipate his notes which will, in all certainty, tear my baby apart. So to all of you who think I never let people read my work, I bite my thumb at you! Ha! I just want to make sure the input I receive has merit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

If Jack Sparrow Was a Dog!

It’s not that I really WANTED a new dog but my 14 year old cocker spaniel is wearing my wallet as thin as my patience with him. He’s a wonderful pet but he’s reached the age when cockers usually die. So, he’s dying…one body part at a time! First his ears went. Then, his eyes. Now his sanity. Can’t bring myself to put him down as long as he’s not in any pain, even if he does bark incessantly at my Glade plug-ins. Still, we needed another dog, one that didn't bump into walls.

I’m one of those women that likes cute little dogs that will sit on your lap and snuggle on the sofa with you but I've never had one. I have Little John (the walking dead) and Scully, who is a great guard dog but can't be brought into the house unless we convert one room into a stable. So I told my boys I wanted a Westie or a Yorkie, you know, something small that could ride around in the car with me, a sweet little puppy that people would point at and say “aw, what a cute puppy”.

We keep a dog for his life. I have a sister who has had eight dogs in seven years. Their dogs run away, get poisoned by neighbors, or commit suicide. One died sitting upright under a tree. Freaky. Like "Weekend at Bernie's" doghouse. Our dogs last forever or until they are so decrepit that the doctor says it’s no longer humane to let them live. So, this was a huge decision.

Son #2 has always wanted a Corgi. Nope. Too big. Son #3 begged for a Chichuahua. No. I hate those neurotic bug eyed bald headed demons. They all need psychological therapy for bizarre phobias and doggy panic disorders. Son #1 said we needed a Great Dane or a black Labrador. Apparently, the small dog concept was lost on him.

So we got the most adorably ugly dog I’ve ever seen. Tobey is half Yorkshire Terrier (yay!) and half Chichuahua (yikes). Fortunately, we got the Chihuahua half WITHOUT the bug eyes or neurosis. I’d have named him Frodo or Yoda based on his huge Chichuahua ears that stick straight up like those of a Yorkie basically making him look more like a short haired jackrabbit than a dog. But he already answered to Tobey when we got him at the ripe old age of four months. Well, okay, he didn't answer. He kept doing whatever it was he was doing all the while muttering under his breath, "don't make eye contact, don't make eye contact." But what makes Tobey so hysterically pee-in-your-pants funny is not those giant ears but his beard… yeah, he has a beard. If it ever gets long enough, I'll put beaded braids in it.

Then there’s his attitude. Tobey is the canine equivalent to Jack Sparrow. He’s a complex mixture of carefree mischief, whimsical courage, and charming aggravation. He’s clever, quick, and impossible to predict. He can jump to seemingly impossible heights and loves to ride in the car. No, he lives to ride in the car and looks like you’ve just beaten him with a stick if you carry your car keys out the door and leave him behind. Even though he slinks into the ground when he’s scolded, you can almost see in his tiny doe-like eyes that he’s faking contrition and plotting against you for foiling his latest adventure.

Utterly confident that he'll escape his leash, Tobey seems to mutter, "go ahead, clap me in irons" when I tie him in the yard. Then, when one of my boys frees him, Tobey gives me a look of validated satisfaction as if he himself has just executed a daring escape.

Cheeky and defiant daredevil that he is, Tobey is also content to snuggle with me on the sofa or sit in my lap (which is a bit of a problem when my notebook computer is there first). I’m growing accustomed to hearing “where’s Tobey?” and “why didn’t you bring Tobey?” at football games and cross country meets. While nobody ever points at him and says “aw, what a cute puppy”, there is no shortage of people who point at him and say “look at that awesome dog!”

Monday, October 17, 2005

Resurrections of Rocky & Rambo

I want to write these screenplays! According to Variety, while Sylvester Stallone is trying to breathe new life into “Rambo”, Columbia, Revolution Studios and MGM are definitely teaming to co-produce and co-finance “Rocky Balboa”, the sixth film in the Rocky series.

ROCKY - Not having seen an entire Rocky movie start to finish, I really don’t have an opinion about the degree to which the world needs another installment in the fighter’s saga but I sure would love to take a crack at writing the screenplay. My Rocky Balboa would be succumbing to the demons of online black market hyrododone and pushing for international recognition of wheelchair boxing, a sport that he spins into the media spotlight when his failed consecutive hip and knee replacements force him to find another venue for beating the snot out of people.

RAMBO – Geriatric special ops team? No way. Too cliche. But can’t you picture Rambo suffering from Alheimer’s Disease? He has periodic episodes of dementia and commando crawls through the local Piggly Wiggly, thinking his Swiffer is an AK-47, biting the caps off bottles of YooHoo and chucking them at the bag boys. No, it’s not politically correct, but I’d pay $8.50 to see it, especially if Rambo has a medical sidekick that makes him stop exploding jars of olives long enough to check his cholesterol.

Yeah, I gotta write these! Somebody get me the number for Stallone's assisted living center!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

National Treasure & Aroma Therapy

My sister is in her thirty eighth hour of occasional labor. Yeah. Really. This is her fourth child so it ain’t her first rodeo and should have been easier than birthin’ a greased pig. But it ain’t. At forty one years old, she got saddle sore on this trail ride a little sooner than expected and doctors ordered her critter to arrive early. But the stubborn little buckaroo seems content where he is and is raising a fuss by making it somewhat risky for them to take him by force. So they’re having a regular Mexican standoff, my new nephew and the doctors. Poor mite. There’s no way he can win this rebellion.

As his aunt and matriarch in our family corral, I already wish I could give him advice. I’d tell the little fella to get a good running start and practice the head first belly dive that he will eventually need to master anyway if he’s ever to follow his brothers and cousins down that giant water slide which coincidentally enough, is named the Black Hole. And, there’s also that Slip ‘n Slide in the back yard to prepare for.

What this standoff means to me is that for the past two days, my house has not had the usual four to one ratio of testosterone to estrogen. Instead, until my newest nephew sleeps on the uber-adorable cowboy baby blanket I made for him, my home has a ratio of twelve rancid feet, six sonic belchers, and sixty toxicly pullable fingers to one hyper-discriminating nose cowering behind a plastic sheeted door sealed with duct tape. Yeah, I got teenage nephews staying with me until their baby brother is born and in addition to my own three sons, well.. my house smells like gym socks.

The thirteenth grandchild will be born on the thirteenth of hope. Can’t wait to meet the li’l bugger. We’ve howdied but we ain’t shook yet. His name is Riley and he will break the tie of six boys to six girls among my and my siblings’ kids. My eleven year old son is tickled purple by the name choice. Riley is a character in his latest over-watched and over-mimicked DVD, "National Treasure".

Anyway, here we are, two and half days after an ambulance took my sister to the hospital for frightfully low blood pressure and anemia that required four pints of blood, the baby still isn’t here.

"Well" remarked my eleven year old this morning, "it’s taking longer for Riley to get born than it did for them to find the treasure."

"How do you figure that?" I asked, "It took generations for them to locate that treasure. Even if you add in the thirty eight weeks of carrying the baby, it doesn't work. Locating the treasure took hundreds of years."

"Yeah" he said, "but the movie only took an hour and a half!"

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Smurfageddon - Oh the Blue Humanity!

This is one of those rare occasions in life when I scratch my head and say "uh, just how do I feel about this insanity?"

UNICEF (United Nations Children Fund) has made a short film in an effort to educate the public on the effects of war on children. The film which is being aired in Belgium, shows a Smurf holocaust. Yeah, seriously. Whistling bombs pummel the Smurf village into a mushroom-house inferno while Smurfs scamper for their little blue lives. While some of the frolicking Smurfs are instantly incinerated, others lay dead and dying around a wailing and somewhat marshmallow toasted Baby Smurf. The clip I saw looks like the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch's Haywain Triptych.

Sounds rather un-smurfy to me.

The advertising agency, Publicis, says they wanted to show a Smurfy arm being ripped off and a Smurfy decapitation but their client nixed that. Good thing, methinks, because although the clip is not to be shown until after 9:00 p.m., apparently some Belgium children who stay up late or catch the six o'clock news were reported shrieking in terror when they accidentally saw the blue carnage.

The ad got the Smurf seal of approval from the family of the Smurfs' creator and from the official Smurf fan club so while I kind of shudder at the whole Smurf-kind annihilation angle, somebody seems to think it will raise money for the rehabilitation of former child soldiers in Burandi. Hmm. Good luck with that. I hope it goes the way they plan.

I am left wondering though if those kids who were traumatized by the accidental viewing of the clip stuck around long enough to read the final message on the 25 second short... it says "Don't Let War Affect the Lives of Children".

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My Cell Phone Odyssey

When hundreds of Katrina evacuees poured into my small town, I naturally stepped up to the plate. After all, I’ve worked in local government most of my adult life. I have disaster recovery experience and can leap tall politicians in a single bound. I can run an election with one hand tied behind my back and no hanging chads! Last time a candidate wanted to contest one of my elections, his attorney perused my files for a few hours and left mumbling something about how I even documented the numbers on the ballot seals. Hello? You’re an attorney, pal, and you didn’t know that’s the law? Anyway, he never came back. Katrina recovery efforts are replete with legal roadblocks, technicalities, and government fine print so I’m just the right person to weed through bureaucracy and help these folks….or so I thought until the day the cell phones arrived.

The chaos actually began before the phones arrived. “What can I do to help?” asked a kindly benefactor. Well, we had 370 people using two telephones. These people really needed cell phones so they’d have a call back number for FEMA, housing opportunities, and potential employers. We had no idea this dear man would have to swear to Cingular on penalty of prison that he was not a post disaster parasite buying cheap cell phones to auction off from a rowboat on the lake formerly known as the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard areas of New Orleans. Getting to that point is another story in itself.

But eventually the phones were on their way. I had made arrangements with the county commissioner to use his courtroom to charge 100 cell phones. I’d collected surge protectors, multi-outlet converters and sharpies along with an army of people to charge phones and help me distribute them. We were ready. Then Cingular called.

Warning: Take two Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve and drink a minimum of sixteen ounces of legal addictive stimulants before reading from this point forward.

Cingular told me that they hadn’t sent me 100 phones activated and ready to hand out. They sent me 100 empty phones. I would have to insert batteries, insert SIM cards in each phone, charge the phones and then activate them one at a time by calling an 800 number and that was only after I had recorded each phone’s fifteen digit IMEI number, twenty digit SIM card number and thirteen digit pin numbers for the initial $10 on the phone and also the subsequent $25 that the benefactor also bought. Then I’d record the ten digit telephone number and the assigned nine digit account number as I activated the phones and only after I had done all this would the phone be ready to put in somebody’s hand.

Okay, let’s spell this out. An extremely busy man, a Hollywood screenwriter with a heavy shooting schedule, out of the goodness of his heart pays Cingular $3000 for 100 refurbished “go-phones” and another $2500 for 100 prepaid cards and all Cingular has to do is mail me the butt naked phones? No. Hell, no.

It took some whining and a few threats from my friend Guido, but I got Cingular to agree to activate the phones for me in groups of twenty and I made a spread sheet that we emailed back and forth with account names, phone numbers and account numbers as they were assigned. Then little blue elves handed out the phones and all was right with the universe. Nope. It took more than a week to work out the details and my army of volunteers moved on to other things. It was now just me and my sons.

First we had to number 100 boxes and 100 SIM cards so there’d be no mixing them up. Seventeen of the 100 phones had dead batteries and there were 100 missing SIM cards. Fed Ex deliveries of the SIMs never arrived and a Cingular representative had to drive to Fort Worth to pick up the SIM cards and hand deliver them to me in our small community east of Dallas. But what to do about the batteries? Nobody knew.

So, we took the dead batteries out and put them in phones #84-100 so we could go about activating the first 83 phones. We sent the spread sheet to Cingular and whoops, some of those SIM cards were already active in other phones. Argh. We had to wait on Fed Ex replacements for those SIM cards. Geez, who’d have thought giving away 100 cell phones was so complex?
But hey, I had at least 50 ready to go phones, so we started going to shelters, laptop in hand, and distributing the phones that were active. I identified the evacuee, verified that I hadn’t already given one to someone in their family, typed their information into my laptop, and assigned a phone while one of my sons wrote their name and phone number on the corresponding box. We were met with cheers, relief, tears, and then “hey, do you have one of these instruction books in English?”. Huh? We opened another box. Spanish book. Then another box. Spanish. We checked all the boxes. Almost every one had an instruction book written only in Spanish. Oh geez.

Most of the people who needed the phones were low income folk with not enough technical savvy to understand the books anyway. So we read up on how to operate the phones and showed people how to use them as we handed them out. Meanwhile, I get a call from Cingular. You know those 17 dead batteries? Well, they couldn’t sent me 17 new batteries. They told me to send the entire phone, SIM cards, etc back and they’d send me 17 new phones where I'd have the privilege of starting this whole number writing process over.

This went on and on: new batteries, more dead batteries, dead phones, replaced SIM cards and a lot of mailing back and forth. Suffice it to say that eventually we got 99 of the 100 phones distributed and had one irreconcilable DOA. What about that 100th phone? Well, I called the Cingular rep and told her to credit it to my benefactor’s card. I’d had it. Even though it was well worth all the grief, I was relieved this cell phone odyssey was over.
“I was about to call you,” said my Cingular rep, “Somebody just bought 4000 cell phones and he needs a volunteer to coordinate the donation for him.” Um, volunteer? Me?…I’ll have to get back to her on that.

Monday, October 10, 2005

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Mourning a dead brother is nothing unusual, but I mourn a living one. I carry in my wallet the picture of a five year old boy who has grown into a man of thirty, married, had a son of his own, and even divorced. He's my brother, Quentin.

My knowledge of my little brother is minimal. I remember him when he was four, pointing at the sky and saying "airplane!" at every bird, helicopter, and kite that flew by. I was sixteen then. Not a week goes by that I don't wonder what my brother looks like, what his voice sounds like, how tall he is, and what kind of man he is. Years ago, my stepsister (Quentin's sister) lost her pilot husband in an F16 accident. I couldn't attend the funeral. They wouldn't have known me. I read once online about a marathon that my brother ran. I read it the day after my own sixteen year old son won a cross country district championship and it made me cry to think that they are both runners.

Quentin has a son, my nephew, whom I have never seen. Sometimes I wonder if he likes baseball or books. Frankie is the same age as my youngest son and every Christmas I buy Frankie a gift and put it under the tree with the gifts for my other nine nieces and nephews. Every Christmas, I take Frankie's unopened gift to a foster child somewhere. You may be wondering why I've not seen my brother for 25 years. I suppose the simplest answer is that he probably does not consider himself my brother. He grew up not knowing the kids of his father's first marriage. It would seem unnatural to refer to someone he didn't grow up with as a brother or sister.

Yes, I've written letters. Most disappeared into a great void, but a few came back unopened. I have found his various email addresses over the years and those letters also go unanswered. I even know what town he lives in and now and then, I use my connections to find a current address. I once drove 300 miles to his house but didn't have the courage to knock on the door. I felt like a stalker. If he doesn't want to know me, what right have I to force him to?

Broken families are a part of life. I couldn't prevent this odd estrangement and I still hold out hope that one day I can change it. I think those two kids in the picture resemble. That's my five year old picture next to Quentin's. Yup, we're kin. But then again, maybe it's just my chili bowl haircut..