Thursday, May 11, 2006

Scripted Spontaneity

Yesterday was a difficult day in north Texas as three communities and rural farmers came to grips with the loss of life and property left in the wake of an F3 monster tornado with 200 mph winds that cut a ten mile path of destruction through Collin County. As search and rescue teams scoured the debris and daylight exposed the full extent of the devastation, reporters stood in front of cameras and tried to bring the news to the public. Though the storm was past, the tornado was still blowing in the minds and emotions of many reporters who could barely contain their adrenaline long enough to form a cognitive sentence.

I've walked in their moccasins. I understand. But still, I could have cried for one reporter who said, "as you can see behind me, the damage is typical of a tornado, typically pulling up trees and typical roof damage, pretty much what you typically expect to see." Poor thing. She didn't script notes because she figured she was seasoned enough to report live off the cuff. And she probably was. But, she'd never covered a tornado before.

The human brain under pressure has a tendency to self narcotize in defense of the panic and anxiety that mercilessly circle the quick and discerning thoughts. It's like recall is sitting on the brain's runway waiting for the panic vultures to get out of the way so short term memory can be cleared for take off. But the vultures won't move and the clear thoughts are stuck on the tarmac. It has nothing to do with intellect or confidence. Mental acuity is still there -- but its flight is delayed. It can happen to anyone.

What's the solution?

Terry Rossio admits to blanking out in pitch meetings and being forced to come up with ways to keep the runway clear. He talks about using a giant cork board for presentations so he doesn't get "muddled in the minutiae". Bill Martell says that just about the time the mind of the writer gets consumed in a dreamworld, an important film executive will telephone. Now, not only does the brain have to shoo away the panic and anxiety but it first has to escape from that other dimension. Bill suggests keeping a phone script.

I like the idea of scripting anything that takes place in an environment where memory flights could get delayed. Scripted phone notes could mention contests you've won, other scripts in progress and successes you've had. Something as no-brainer as your agent's name is only no-brainer when you're brain is on auto-pilot. Why risk it when a few ready notes would be so easy to prepare?

I'm part of a ladies group that performs frequently at special events. We don't get stage fright, but we script everything: dialogue, introductions, humor, and the order of music. Then we keep crib notes for emergencies -- like a couple of weeks ago when it was time for me to say something to transition into the next song and I not only forgot the transition but had no idea which song we were about to sing because I was so distracted by the sound guy that looked like the animated Larry King on Southpark.

It happens.

Scripted notes are not scripts. They are notes. They aren't to be recited. They serve as reminders of key issues, points, accomplishments or tasks for those moments when the brain narcotizes under pressure. If we have to read our words and music, my little singing group isn't ready to perform that song in public. But there's no harm in a note that says which song is next.

As a writer, if I have to read my screenplay as I talk to a producer about it, I don't know my story well enough to be talking to him. But if I need a little reminder about what makes this screenplay ideal for this particular production company, a little cheat sheet may keep my logical thoughts and my anxious, panicky ones from having a nasty mid air collision.

Speaking of which, still reeling from the AI Chris eviction, I was not on the top of my game when ---

HIM: You're still wrong about the tomatoes.
ME: Oh, good grief. Now, you're just wanting on my blog.
HIM: Why can't you just admit it? I know tomatoes.
ME: We're done here.
HIM: You don't know tomatoes from turnips.
ME: You're a towel.

Um -- yeah, I need notes -- well, and to stop watching Southpark.


Anonymous said...

I lived the first 36 years of my life in Canada, the last four here in Tornado Alley. It is a whole other concept putting on running shoes and heading for the local shelter up the street in quarter sized hail and sideways rain... you have big storms down here

Chris Soth said...

My pitch mantra:


only...the minutiae ARE the enemy. Fun to trot out in the aftermath.


Cynthia said...

Last week I participated in the Nielson ratings -- filling in one of those TV Diary's. Logging who watched what and when. One night my husband said, "You're not going to tell them we watch SOUTH PARK, are you?"

Ha! That ought to skew the demographics a bit.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Technically, I don't watch Southpark. I think it's mostly contemptably bigoted word vomit. But I HEAR it when my older sons have it on in the den which is only when my youngest isn't home. If the little guy is home, the grown sons have to watch Southpark in their rooms.

BUT, now and then, Southpark is just brilliant and I am envious of the minds that wrote it -- like with the Towlie stuff and one I saw recently called the Dog Whisperer which made laugh so hard, I thought I'd cracked a rib!

Dave said...

I suspect part of the panic with writers getting those studio/producer, etc. phone calls is that it's "the big opportunity". Perhaps it just takes having FU money that Joe Esterhaus spoke of years ago to calm the nerves.

Perhaps wannabe screenwriters don't think of themselves as professionals as much as they do lottery players. If you put in the time to study and write, it's a job like anything. Part of being a professional is being prepared and staying calm.

The notes are a great idea to keep you on target and centered.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I had a panic attack early last year when I thought an opportunity was slipping past me. Then, I got some good advice from a highly respected and much beloved professional screenwritr who said, "What you're doing here is a bit of a mistake -- you're thinking in a 'subtractive' sense rather than an 'additive' sense. In other words, you're focused on what you think you're losing."

Which is? Nothing! If you don't have it to begin with, you can't lose it.

Of course, there was more to it than that but the point is that like you say, Dave, it's not a lottery.