Friday, December 21, 2007

The Whole Enchilada

Saw Sweeney Todd.

The sum of my expectations did not exceed the film's parts. The talents of Tim Burton, Stephen Sondheim, John Logan, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sasha Baron Cohen, and Alan Rickman come together in a delicate blend of the lyrical macabre, a cuisine as deliciously grotesque as Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.

My only disappointment is that Alan Rickman's character wasn't exploited more but that's just me and it might have upset the balance of things. As for Johnny Depp's voice, anything MORE than the adequate job he did singing would have been too much for a Tim Burton film.

The movie simply works. Oh so well.

If you're a real Sondheim fan, Netflix has Sweeney Todd in Concert with George Hearn as Sweeney Todd, Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett (she's brilliant, BRILLIANT, I tell you!), and Neil Patrick Harris, Davis Gaines and Lisa Vroman. Awesome stuff. And, of course, you can always ask somebody to put the Broadway musical or movie soundtrack in your Christmas stocking.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

AMPTP "No Shows" City Council Meeting

So striking writers showed up at the City Council hearing this morning in droves. The Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee met to talk about the large-scale economic impact of the strike on local and area businesses and on individuals who depend on the entertainment industry directly and indirectly to survive.

WGA was there. AMPTP was not.

Curiously, AMPTP alleges on their website that it is the WGA demonstrating a lack of concern for increasingly devastating economic and personal losses and hardships resulting from the strike.

Hmm. I would challenge the AMPTP to "put your money where your mouth is" but if AMPTP had done that, there wouldn't be a strike in the first place.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Los Angeles City Council and the Strike

The Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee of the Los Angeles City Council is holding a hearing of some sort on Wednesday morning regarding the economic impact of the Writers Guild strike on the local and regional economy. The United Hollywood website is inviting striking writers "to pack the room".

No harm in doing that, certainly, but if I might lend my local government experience to this particular situation, the hearing clearly sounds like a fact finding meeting regarding what the City Council can do about the negative impact on the economy of the CITY, not necessarily what they can do to resolve the situation between the WGA and the AMPTP. Clearly, the two issues are married, but my concern is that Patric Verrone, David Young and John Bowman may walk away with unmet expectations.

I could be wrong.

This is city government. It's a whole 'nother world from the picket line. I believe there was a resolution encouraging a speedy end to the strike put before the Council back in early November and that may have come out of Councilman Eric Garcetti's office so clearly there's been concern from the onset that this strike has universal impact and that speaks well for these government officials. They've not been in denial.

The meeting is at 7:30 am at Los Angeles City Hall Main Chambers (3rd Floor) 200 N. Spring Street Los Angeles, CA 90012.

If you can't make it to the City Council meeting on Wednesday but want to hear what's going on:

(1) you can listen to it live here. Scroll down and click on Room 350. (It's listed under the Board of Public Works - they usually meet in that room) Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee usually meets in 1010 but the agenda says 350. You'll need Real Player to listen in. They offer live video feeds of certain meetings as well but I don't know if this one will be one of them since it's not a regular City Council meeting.

(2) a dial-up system allows the public to listen to live coverage of the Los Angeles city public meetings from any phone. The numbers below may be used from any location, not just in Los Angeles.

Use the numbers below:
Downtown (213) 621-CITY
San Pedro (310) 547-CITY
West Los Angeles (310) 471-CITY
Van Nuys (818) 904-9450

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Food Drive on the Picket Lines

People without jobs collecting food for the homeless. This is community service and volunteerism at its benevolent best. I'm not suggesting that the men and women on the picket lines will be visiting shelters themselves but no doubt, many of them will be will be struggling to pay their bills before long if the strike drags out -- and it likely will.

Now, the rest of us need to mimic them.

Even if we're one car payment away from hoofing it, there's a food bank somewhere nearby experiencing a record drain on its resources. Go to Second Harvest to find the one nearest you and if carrying cans to a building surrounded by people sleeping on the curb creeps you out, you can probably donate money online.

Hey, if as many people would donate $1 to a food bank as they have for a box of pencils, there would be an extra $38,606 in food pantries so far.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Counterfeit Documentary

Several months ago, I played with the idea of documenting my son's road to becoming a professional wrestler. The amateur shows were as high octane lunacy as anything I'd seen on television, the fans were equally absurd, and I knew I had something when one show was policed by Elvis Security. No kidding. Security was dressed up as Elvis.

But, I couldn't get the material I wanted because back-stage secrets are heavily guarded and nobody wants the rest of us to know moves are staged (duh) and the outcome is pre-determined. Not even at the amateur level were wrestlers willing to spill the beans and let me film them preparing, training, etc. Those wrestlers who know that fans know that it's all fake also know that talking about it is a career ender for them if I don't do the story their fairy tale way and from their enhanced angle.

I wouldn't do that. Hence, no story. No documentary.

Fast forward to last week. After doing the amateur thing for only a few shows, my son got an invitation to "try-out" with a big show. He was ecstatic. This show was one step away from being called up to the WWE. It's like playing on a farm team for the Yankees. He was deliriously happy to be chasing his dream.

Cue shoe drop. Or, flying drop kick.

The "try-out" was staged. The whole thing was a fake. They needed amateur wrestlers to create audition scenes for the wrestlers ALREADY in the professional federation since they had no footage of their existing wrestlers' ACTUAL auditions. So, they invited guys from small amateur federations under the guise of an audition to be part of something great -- this documentary.

I don't know what all the rules of integrity are in documentary making but this stunt smacks of the same phony baloney theatrics that makes this form of wrestling such an entertainment hyperbole. If that's the case, the fake auditions are probably to be expected as the kind of dramatic play-acting typical at wrestling events.

But if this documentary is passing off the auditions as factually accurate, well as Gomer Pyle would say, "shame, shame, shame."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Story Mechanics

Alex Epstein has a great post today about story notes and the difference between getting them from readers and getting them from writers. Either it's a really good post or my history of restoring vintage Mustangs has skewed my opinion of his analogy.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Odd Woman Out

Strike supporter here. Bought a t-shirt. Signed the petition. Converted my blog pic. Added strike video. Follow the strike news every day. But I'm not doing this. Regardless of all the green friendly plans made by the masterminds, I see wasted dollars and anticipate crates of broken pencils delivered to strike captains. This doesn't feel like professional writers asking for fair treatment. It feels like teenagers toilet papering houses. Supporter/fan driven idea or not, I don't think it's a good one.

But just so there's no misunderstanding - while the pencil stunt does not have my support, the writers most certainly do.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bingo is so LAME-O!

My friends, family, and readers of this post know that two cliches in dialogue that vex me more than others - that irritate, provocate, exasperate, and peeve me to the point of pulling my hair by the fistful - are "bingo" and any derivation of "I don't know you anymore".

These word piñatas seem to show up in even good films. It's weird.

So, when I saw American Gangster last night (a good film but hard to follow initially) and heard the word "bingo" early on, I dug my nails in the chair and reminded my friend how much I loathe that cliche. But since this particular "bingo" had only been kind of casually thrown in, she said it wasn't THAT big of a deal, told me to chill, and we quickly got re-absorbed in Denzel.

And then... and then... It happened again!

This time, "bingo" was spat at us in exactly the "eureka!" way you would expect and we fell out of our chairs in uncontrollable hysterical laughter at the most inappropriate and un-funny moment possible in the entire film.

I'm really quite fortunate that movie theaters are too cheap to hire ushers these days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stung By a Thousand Bees

Ever been to one of those websites that lists bad analogies? Somebody always comes up with one about pain associated with being stung by bees. I'm not necessarily afraid of bees or even pain for that matter (mice are another story) but some time in my twenties, I figured out that I'm highly allergic to the venom of certain bees and all wasps.

Now, while the very SIGHT of a rodent may SEEM to create anaphylactic reactions in me, the biggest danger those buggers actually pose is to anyone between me and the nearest exit. Bee stings, however, are a legitimate health risk that range from a mild swelling and vomiting to a highly dangerous allergic reaction that could require emergency medical treatment.

When you get right down to it, ALL of us are allergic to bee stings to one degree or another or else the darn thing wouldn't hurt or turn red and swell after the initial puncture.

Point? None. Just felt like talking about myself before I tell you that Josh Friedman has a brilliant bee analogy on his blog today.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blog Readability Test

As a writer willing to consider an objective evaluation of your skills, could you benefit from a computerized assessment of your command of the English language? Go here to find out what an internet widget says is the level of education required to understand your blog.

I'll wait.

Cue theme from Jeopardy.

Well? What it did it say? High School? Junior High? College?

According to that widget, no cap and gown are necessary to read my hallowed words but you had better at least be in college. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. In screenwriting, we want to keep things simple but that doesn't mean to dumb down for anyone. Of course, I don't know how reliable these things actually are either. This widget says my blog is rated PG-13.

You need parental guidance if you're under the age of 13 to come to my blog? Well, maybe that's because they need somebody who has been to college to read it to them!

Stupid widgets. Oh wait. I said "stupid". Can I use the S-word without getting rated R?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Bloody Rumors

Kind of thought I was done writing about the strike since I'm a nobody writer in no-placeville and there are quite enough people on the frontlines filling everyone in. But then there was this!

Come on, Variety, this article honestly feels like a scare tactic to me. OF COURSE London is abuzz! So is Luckenback, Texas! And seriously, are writers both professional and non-professional on the other side of the pond wondering anything different than we non-Guild writers are wondering right here in Hollywood's back yard? Okay maybe not RIGHT in the back yard but I'm in armadillo throwing distance.

None of us want to be scabs but we're all wondering how we would deal with that dream phone call *gasp* if it came from a studio at this point in time. We'd be forced to act like the professionals we hope to one day become and turn down our big break or be barred from the Guild in the future. EEEK! Who wants to make that choice? Integrity hurts. But no worries. It isn't gonna happen. So don't print stuff like that unless you've got stories about Martians impregnating movie stars to go along with it and a nice big paparazzi payroll.

Come on, Variety. Do you really think studios want to look like they'd rather go to Great Britain than the bargaining table this soon? You're better than that. People rely on Variety for genuine information, not tabloid journalism. That article is a new low and insulting on both sides of the negotiating table. Really. It's inflammatory and rabble rousing. And it worked! My rabble is roused!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Those Muddy Strike Waters

"You're watching this on the internet, a thing that pays us zero dollars" - this quote is from these writers from "The Office" and helps put the WGA writers' position into perspective for me. Maybe it will clear the waters for a few other people, too.

Admittedly, it's tough for many viewers to sympathize with a cause they don't understand, especially when they sit in front of their televisions and then hear that storytellers aren't going to tuck them in with another maddeningly confusing episode of "Lost" or when they hear hyped man-on-the-street remarks about selfish writers with Malibu homes motivated by greed and the need to buy matching his and her chocolate portraits from the Neiman Marcus fantasy Christmas catalog.

Yeah. That's what it's all about. Pfft. Oh, and Steve Carell has been unable to report to work for the following reason.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Musical Theme Meme

This meme is perfect for me because it blends the two things I love most (excluding the obvious kids and family, come on, people, give me a break) - music and writing. Can't even sing with the radio right now due to strep and worried about learning music for my Christmas engagements but am I going to take steroids? NO! I'm finally (very slowly thanks to cottage cheese and treadmill) shedding these pounds that made me blow up like Augustus Gloop so I'll just pop the antibiotics and leave it at that.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the meme!

Julie had to hunt down what the meme was all about so I'll plagiarize most of her explanation. IT's SO COOL! Find a song that inspires you to write something, whether it gives you an idea for a script or just puts you into a better frame of mind, peek into the lyrics and find a stanza that sums up the theme of whatever script you're working on. THEN, if you can find one, (and you can) post a video of the song to get people into the mood. Send the assignment to 5 other writers.

My current screenplay has a theme of self acceptance (funny coming from a lady killing herself to shed pounds) and my song comes from Ingrid Michaelson. I'm posting all the lyrics because they're just beautiful in their simple honesty.

If you are falling, then I would catch you
If you need a light, I'd find a match
Cuz I love the way you say good morning
And you take me the way I am

If you are chilly, here take my sweater
Your head is aching, I'll make it better
Cuz I love the way you call me baby
And you take me the way I am

I'd buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your air
And sew on patches to all you tear
Cuz I love you more than I could ever promise
And you take me the way I am.

And now, who to tag that won't hate me and knows I don't care whether they play along or not? ( you should, though, it's a good exercise) How about Lucy, Christina, Piers, Todd, and Dante?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

What the Strike Means to You

My son asked me last night what the strike means to him as a movie-goer. He's convinced that we're in for nothing but bad remakes. In the effects column, here's what says will happen when writers strike on Monday:
  1. Release of bad/unpolished/unfinished films.

  2. Stalled productions.

  3. Established writers scabbing.

  4. Unproduced/unestablished writers screwed.

I didn't say any of that to my eighteen year old when he asked me what the strike means to him. Instead, I relied on the "gee, that depends on how you look at it" answer - a skilled parent rephrase of "do you see a crystal ball in my hand?" designed to make it sound like I probably know something but would rather him figure it out for himself instead of sponging off my wisdom because how else is he going to become a man?

Don't judge me, people!

As a non-card carrying member of #4, however, I began a month or so ago converting my favorite screenplay into a novel -- ya know -- just in case and for those of you who are familiar with the poor quality of my prose writing (which is in the same category as my skill for peeing standing up), well this is not good news.

But a good screenplay can be like a detailed outline for a novel so we'll see what happens. I'll probably get fed up with my description of a cash register and go back to a partially completed screenwriting project. Or, maybe I'll bounce back and forth to keep from getting bored.

In reality, most of our newbie unproduced screenwriting careers won't be affected one way or another by the strike. We'll still be writing stuff nobody opts and few people read but we'll keep writing anyway because writing is not what we do, it's a product of who we are.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Strike Could Begin Monday?

At least that's what the WGA negotiating committee announced. According to an article in Variety, there's still a minute chance of re-launching the negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers over the weekend. But it's doubtful , given the "vitriolic rhetoric that's dominated in recent days".

Well, okay then.

I STILL don't have a grasp on the strike issues. Yeah, I'm ashamed. I've followed the trades as best I can (andCraig Mazin's blog even), but my head is shoved in the WGA toitie and I'm getting a strike info swirlie cuz people, I'm confused. Guess it's a good think I'm not an official pot sitter yet.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Brett isn't a Nicholl fellow. Can't find a press release from Greg Beal or AMPAS stating which of these 2007 Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting finalists are:

Julian Breece, Los Angeles, California, “Ball”
Amy Garcia, Manteca, California and Cecilia Contreras, Pleasanton, California, “Amelia Earhart and the Bologna Rainbow Highway”
Lisa M. Gold, Long Beach, California, “The Poker Wars”
Michael L. Hare, Moorpark, California, “The Fly Fisher”
Sidney King, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “Kalona”
David Mango, Japan and Syracuse, New York, “Kissing a Suicide Bomber”
John Robert Marlow, Los Angeles, California, “Nano”
Brett Nicholson, Katy, Texas, “Queen of the Sky”
Andrew Pritzker, Kansas City, Missouri, “Sweet in the Saddle”
Andrew Shearer and Nicholas J. Sherman, Los Angeles, California, “Holy Irresistible”

Some are though and since all are finalists, congrats all around.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Alas, Dear Mozart

The Meerkat with whom wayward girls identify the most is now lost to us. The lifeless body of Mozart, Jezebel of the Whiskers clan and meerkat without a country, was found in the Kalahari, presumably left there by a Jackal.

Oh, the pain. Meerkat Manor is truly the stuff great tragedies are written of and the episode in question can be seen online.

Rejected by the Whiskers clan again and again, Mozart wandered in the wilderness until she finally found a man to care for her. Wilson had been out sewing his oats and when the two hit it off, he took her home to meet the fam, which happened to be the Commandos that murdered her litter in a raid last year but let's not get petty. She needed a man and Wilson needed to become one. When they got to the homestead to see if the folks would accept her, Wilson's fam and Mozart's ex-fam were in a gang war so she skeedaddled on back to the desert alone while her man took care of business. When he went looking for her the next morning, he found her dead.

Geez. It was like watching Romeo and Juliet without the dialogue and no jester tights to cover the hairy little bulges.

I held my tongue when producers stood by and watched as Flower, the matriarch of our beloved Whiskers clan, was attacked by a Cobra, but Mozart? You just watched as-- what -- she got mauled?

How cruel can you be, Animal Planet! I'll need therapy after this!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Twelve Days in Hell

Crossing my fingers that my brother may finally be released from the hospital tomorrow. I've spent a lot of time in his Austin hospital room and sleeping on a convertible chair thingie beside his bed because, quite frankly, we didn't know what was wrong with him. Neither did doctors. The best they could do was drain his lungs and keep him drugged. Medicine is not an exact science.

So, we had plenty of time to talk about unimportant things like how Paul Winchell did the best voices in some of our favorite kids' shows like Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines and The Banana Splits and how nobody we know has ever heard of the Speed Buggy cartoon that we loved so much. We also watched old movies and new releases on a portable DVD player propped up on his serving tray while I told him about the Austin Film Festival and why I left my job and he told me what life is like working as a restaurant manager and how his ex-wife is breeding Bassett Hounds.

Often, while my brother was in a drug induced sleep, I'd sit in the recliner and write and write and write or take my laptop downstairs where there was internet access.

When families get together at holidays, it's all about who can take off work on which days and what to buy our kids and who is cooking what meal and who sleeps where. If my brother hadn't gotten so sick, there's no way we'd have ever both put our lives on hold just to hang out and be a brother and sister again.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Filming in the Lone Star State

Of all the people I talked to at the Austin Film Festival and sessions I attended, I think the one on one time I had discussing the film industry and incentives in Texas with Bob Hudgins was probably the most informative for me. When people talk about what more we can do to bring feature films, television programs, video games, commercials, music videos, infomercials and documentaries to our state, the more fired up I get.

Call it Texas pride. Whatever. I wasn't born. I was hatched with armadillos.

We have a lot of work left to do in Texas if we want to compete with what other states are doing. I know this and in some respects, we're at a disadvantage in that our legislature only meets every other year. But Texas' incentive program is improving. We now offer grants equal to 5% of in-state spending and combined with our tax abatements, we're getting close to 10%. Details on Texas incentives can be found here.

But seriously, in what other state can you find coasts, deserts, piney woods, canyons, lakes, dinosaurs, and Chuck Norris? Hmm? Where?

I met with Bob prepared to discuss three issues (1) there are only nine regional film commissions in Texas (2) East Texas is virtually unrepresented and (3) local government education. He didn't give me time to discuss any of them. He had a solution in progress for each of my concerns. Every last one of them!

REGIONAL FILM COMMISSIONS - While there are only nine regional film commissions at the moment, Texas is a state with 268,581 square miles which is about seven percent of the water and land area of the United States. Nine just doesn't cut it. But according to Bob, seven more film commissions are in formation as we speak, most of which are due to launch by the end of the year and the one that concerns me the most? Keep reading.

EAST TEXAS FILM COMMISSION - As of October, 2007, the East Texas Film Commission stationed in Palestine, Texas, is a go. Couldn't have timed it better. It's almost as if I said "Bob, I want an East Texas Film Commission" and he rubbed his magic lamp. Poof! There it is. East Texas is one of the most beautiful and yet under served areas of Texas as far as film commissions go. These are areas where small historic towns might feel overwhelmed by and unable to serve the needs of a film production and yet have the most to offer. Ironic.

FILM FRIENDLY TOWNS - I have long thought we were failing our small towns by not equipping them with any knowledge of the film industry and, at the same time, setting our films up for failure by sending them into cities and expecting them to figure out permits, deal with street closures, and face local government bureaucracy alone. Ever try to blow up a building in a small town? Good luck getting a permit.

It's frustrating on both sides because on the film shooting side, cost and time are critical and on the local government side, certain processes are a necessary evil. It's like sending out a foreign correspondent without an interpreter.

What the Texas Film Commission has done to address this is develop a program where towns are designated FILM FRIENDLY if they (1) assign a point person to help work out logistical details for film projects and help get them through processes - somebody who speaks both film language and government language (2) prepare information ahead of time that will help productions get through the town's processes, answer questions ahead of time, and reduce the amount of gobbledygook both on paper and in person that film personnel must decipher.

There are countless stories of productions being shut down for hours or days or even taking their toys and going home because somebody didn't know a certain kind of permit was required or that a permit had certain publication and advertising stipulations or that so-an-so approved the street closing and parade but that the Mayor had booked a craft fair on the square that day or the police officers that were going to work traffic were called away for an emergency funeral. FILM FRIENDLY towns will have a point person who knows the local officials to help circumvent these kinds of issues.

It's brilliant, I tell you.

GRANT AMOUNTS - Funding for grants is a maximum of $2 million for feature films, $2.5 million for television programs, $200,000 for commercials, and $250,000 for vido games. Keep in mind that this is in adddition to tax abatements. And yeah, rules apply so go to the Texas Film Commission production grants page and see if you qualify.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Final Lessons from AFF

There's just too much. Pages and pages of notes, I took! I'll never get all of them transcribed and posted and based on my Sitemeter stats, not too many people are actually reading them anyway. Why? Because the screenwriters who are interested in what the pros had to say AFF were THERE!

So, with the exception of one more post on what the Texas Film Commission is doing, this is it for my AFF posts. I didn't want to end without including these additional comments and info though that made a powerful impression on me but may not merit an entire post -

Daniel Petrie, Jr - Okay aside from learning that if you're going to pour shots for the whole room, bring more than one bottle, he had some good advice are REWRITES. Rewrites is where it's at, he says, so give yourself permission to write a really sh*tty first draft. He says outlines are valuable for him because there are days when the process may become so tough that he actually "hates" writing. No kidding. He really said that. Thought you were the only one?

Scott Alexander - Even though his best projects came as a result of TREATMENTS, he despises them because it's so difficult to convey a tone in a treatment. Scott reminds writers that no one script is the be all/end all and said that getting a film made doesn't mean your phone will ring. You'd better have another script and at least two pitches ready.

Aline Brosh McKenna - Says that if the story is well defined and characters have clear goals, DIALOGUE will take care of itself. But if the writer doesn't understand what the characters want, the dialogue will be dead.

Nicholas Kazan - Says that if you start out thinking, "I'm going to write great DIALOGUE", then you're screwed. But if you write from play and have fun with your scenes, the dialogue will naturally be good.

Terry Rossio - Says that if you write characters whose inherent natures are to say interesting things -- Hannibal Lector, Jack Sparrow, etc - then DIALOGUE isn't so painful because you give your characters license to speak and yourself license to write really cool stuff for them to say.

Gregg Rounds - Says there are a million reasons why any one person may think your script is crap. Don't give up on a single person's opinion or any two or three opinions. But, if the majority say it's crap, then start evaluating what you're doing.

Robin Swicord - Says there will always be objections to the way you're doing something. Do it anyway. Have fun. If it doesn't sell, do it anyway. If people don't make movies like that, do it anyway.

John Milius - Still writes everything by hand on a yellow legal pad. No script software. The further along in the script he gets, the more minimalist his writing becomes but every bit is done by hand. I hadn't done that since high school so I wrote this post out by hand just for grins and then typed it into Blogger. Never again. Never.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Million Dollar Will

Remember a few weeks back when I mentioned that my horse finally won in respect to Will Bigham of Canyon, Texas, winning the reality television show "On the Lot"? Well, AFF afforded me an opportunity to chat with this unassuming guy. Yeah. Who'd have thought? And he sure doesn't walk around acting like he just got a million dollar development deal from Steven Spielberg. He's every bit as likable and humble in person as he projected on the program.

Even though Will wasn't in Austin as an AFF panelist (he was there for his love of film), I summoned up my inner journalist and asked him my question about screenwriting and whether "On the Lot" contestants were told upfront that the contest required writer/directors. Will had nothing negative to say about "On the Lot" but did confirm that it wasn't until contestants were well into the process that they realized the participants who had better writing skills had a clear advantage.

Will said he sent his initial application in to the competition and then was told to condense it. A month later he got a followup phone call that basically amounted to "we want you to film a three minute movie and you have one week from today -- go!" The only direction he got was that the film needed to be about something lost. At that point, he could have gotten anyone to write it so he collaborated with his wife.

Although he's quick to announce that he hasn't turned into Clay Aiken and can usually take his family out without being recognized , Will does say that shortly after he won "On the Lot" he was accused of being the last comic standing. In fact, few people at AFF actually recognized him and he was able to enjoy most of the festival in anonymity and peace.

Until he met me on the Driskill steps, that is.

Lessons From Oliver Stone

Listening to Oliver Stone at AFF was, for me, more about being enlightened than about becoming a better screenwriter. Of course, if enlightenment and understanding the reality of the politics associated with the film industry is a requirement to becoming a better writer, I suppose this session accomplished all the above.

The truth is that listening to stories about politics of filmmaking and politics in general made me shudder and wonder if I had any business in the film industry, screenwriting, or even sitting in that room. While I’ve worked in local government the majority of my adult life and am fully equipped to conduct press conferences, dissect legislation, negotiate with politicians, and deal with the politics of most situations, I thought that, as a writer, I wouldn’t have to.

According to Oliver Stone, not so.

Of course, when you consider the highly volatile subject matters he takes on and the manner in which he challenges the generally accepted status quo, resistance is to be expected. Filmmaking is about making the unexpected and the unusual. If roller coasters were predictable, they’d be merry-go-rounds.

So, what kind of advice did Oliver Stone have for screenwriters and film students? Well, among all the questions about politics and football flung at him from the audience and aside from that guy that actually stood up and tried to pimp his own work, a few people in the room did ask questions related to filmmaking.

Stone says that diary writing is good practice for staying self-aware and a natural thing for him but increasingly challenging. Fifteen years ago, he wrote daily. Now, he writes weekly but enjoys looking back at his journals to see what his thoughts were about a certain place or event. He says photographs just don’t give you what you were thinking and he planned to go back and look at what his journals said about his last visit to the Austin Film Festival.

In response to a question about improvisation, Stone said that most actors do not like to improvise and find comfort in the structure and readiness of a script. He cautioned writers, though, to be prepared to play with their scenes and be flexible. Everyone expresses themselves differently and even though, according to Stone, you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, the director must know the strengths, skills, and weaknesses of each of his actors and be prepared to fire somebody when it doesn’t work.

He responded to a question about where research stops and fiction begins by saying, "I try to stay truthful to the spirit of it" and that research stops when he just can't take it anymore and he reminded the room that screenwriters are dramatists, not historians or journalists.

Favorite lesson from Oliver Stone? The question was asked, “Why make films that polarize and resonate so strongly in American memory?” Without hesitation, Mr. Stone said, “I don’t pick films. The passion picks me.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lessons from Terry Rossio

This is a tough AFF post to write because I could ramble on and on about Terry Rossio. He was spoken of again and again during AFF as the best reservoir of screenwriting information available at the conference. One film student, who was standing behind me in the overcrowded Friday Night Lights production session and expressing frustration about certain panels, commented to her friend that so far, Terry Rossio had been the only panelist she'd heard who seemed to understand what it was writers really wanted and needed to know.

Terry knows what we need to know and doesn't hesitate to share it. He's been at this mentoring thing for years and doesn't waste his breath and your time on information that won't help . Humble and genuine during the sessions, Terry has a gift for making each person in the room feel like he came just to give them the direct, sincere and personal attention they were looking for. I'll discuss three of his topics but seriously, I could babble on and on.

DIALOGUE - Terry explained a rude awakening he faced when he was working on Aladdin and realized for the first time that his dialogue, when storyboarded, often resulted in the characters just standing around doing nothing for what seemed like interminable periods of time. Animated characters not being animated? Bad. Very bad. That was a turning point for him in his on-the-job education about making films visual and expressing dialogue through action as well as speech.

I had heard this story before on a podcast or DVD commentary somewhere so it didn't surprise me when it came up but then Terry added something else - that it would be helpful for writers, regardless of whether your screenplay is animated or not, to visualize storyboards of your scenes as a sort of litmus test to see if your characters are actually doing anything. That was a Homer Simpson "Doh!" moment for me so genius in its simplicity that I was embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it myself.

SECOND CONCEPTS - This is a new (but not new) theory Terry is planning to put into a Wordplay column and when the subject came up, all I could think was "oh geez, I can barely wrap my brain around HIGH concept, now I need to do it twice?". Well, yeah. That's pretty much the idea. Except it's not necessarily high concept twice. It's just GOOD concept or STRONG concept twice.

Terry's theory is that films with more than one equally compelling concept are twice as compelling. That's about it. Pretty simple. Why have we never discussed this before? Most films have more than one concept, don't they?

For example. Men in Black is basically about an agency that manages the affairs of aliens on earth. That's the first concept. But, it has a second concept, too. The alien crime concept is not a big War of the Worlds type invasion. It's day to day investigating like in Law and Order or CSI that exposes that the world is in danger.

Another example is Terry's own film that he wrote with Bill Marsilii, Deja Vu. The first concept is the capability to fold time for a certain period and witness events while they take place in order to solve crimes. The second concept is a detective falling in love with a girl as he investigates her death.

LINES OF FORCE - This theory is another new theory and difficult to visualize. Terry plans to write a column about it but don't hold your breath. He's a busy man. Three years ago, when I met Terry at AFF for the first time, he told me he had three new columns ready to post on Wordplay. Those columns were just posted this week. He got distracted with a couple of little pirate movies.

Basically, the theory works like this: a line of force is every combination of people, motives, and actions that move a certain event forward (or any other direction) into or away from existence. For example, in Evan Almighty, everything that works toward helping Evan build his ark by September 22nd is one line of force. Everyone whose motives line up with his, all events that move it forward - the arrival of the animals, the purchase of lots so there's room to build, etc - are on a line of force making it possible to build the ark. Everything working to prevent the building of the ark- wife objections, bulldozers, events designed to embarrass Evan, everything that plants a road block- is an opposing line of force.

If we drew these two opposing lines of force, they'd crash some place in the third act. Not all lines of force crash or intersect while some films have several lines of force that all intersect.

Terry suggests that mapping out the various lines of force in a film gives the writer a more holistic understanding of the story elements, their value, and their purpose and will better help the writer convey those ideas to producers, directors, and people holding purse strings and project reins when the need arises.

Of course, I could have taken poor notes and have every bit of this all wrong. You'll just have to wait for the Wordplay columns to find out.

FAVORITE LESSON FROM TERRY ROSSIO - There's no possible way I can list everything this writer has taught me over the years, but at AFF, we can count lessons about dialogue, second concepts, and lines of force among my school-of-Rossio education. However my favorite lesson is one he didn't verbalize but taught by example - that writing tools, methods, and theories are not finite. There's always another way to look at something.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lessons From Robin Swicord

This is the first of my posts about what I learned from panelists at AFF. Since my notes are unique to my particular needs, my pen is subjective and it ignored much information that would probably be highly valuable to somebody else. Such is the way these things go.

Robin Swicord, who was most familiar to me for Memoirs of a Geisha and Matilda, keeps story note journals with fascinating drawings of her ideas. The drawings don't need to be good or artistic sketches, she says, or even recognizable to anyone but the writer who draws them. The pictures serve to refresh the writer's memory of the visual that went along with a thought, joke, anecdote, or story idea.

Her reply to the standard "how do you deal with writers' block?" question was associated with another response about multiple drafts of screenplays. Until Robin, the only discussion about writers' block that hadn't bored me was Ted Elliott's "writers' block is for amateurs" remark to Jeff Goldsmith on a Creative Screenwriting podcast.

Robin says that in order for the child to play in the benign presence of the parent, the writer must disengage the inner critic and get to a place where he loves what he's doing. Otherwise, the result will be painful to the reader. The writer must give himself permission to play. Write that bad draft. Experiment and explore. All of this is based on other comments about having an outline so you'll know where you're going and can take those side streets all the while realizing that you may re-outline based on new discovery.

Do you have a favorite scene? Robin suggests that you should but that you might also want to write a few scenes that you have no intention of keeping. Write them for play, to get to know the characters better, or to help you recapture the freshness of the story and prep for or transition to the scene you really need to write.

Something Robin said about adaptations also struck a chord with me. Any two people can take away vastly different impressions of a book right down to the basic core of what the book is about. The basics? Really? How is that possible? Isn't a book about a duck always a book about a duck?


One person may think Little Women is about sisters growing up in poverty while another may focus on a theme of virtue and morality. For this reason, adaptations require compromise particularly if everyone is familiar with the work being adapted. She used Memoirs of a Geisha as an example. Robin had a certain theme in mind but was being asked to focus on the issue of overcoming slavery. She had to find away to do both.

Not only did that discussion bring home the point that writers like me can take different information away from panelists like her, but it reminded me how subjective all readers can be based on the reader's education, experience, and whether or not they had just caught their spouse in bed with the cable guy.

Okay, so from Robin Swicord, I got a cool idea to add sketches to my notebooks, advice about writing for play in the presence of the benign parent, and a reminder about the subjectivity of all readers. But, my favorite lesson from Robin Swicord? Don't suppose that because you don't plan to write adaptations any time soon, there's nothing to be learned from somebody who already has.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

AFF Aftermath

Despite negative forces and all the screenwriting demons of the world uniting in a "must stop MaryAn from going to AFF" sabotage campaign this year, a series of miracles got me there. Thank goodness. AFF saved my sanity but more on that in another post.

Check the pic closely and you'll see me on the left. Okay, half of me and no, I'm not drunk. I'm in a black and green fringe jacket NOT getting the shots of Jack Daniels that Dan Petrie, Jr. distributes until the bottle empties. The title of the session was "A Shot of Inspiration" and he took it literally.

Why did I almost not make it to AFF? Well, I had to hop between the AFF and the hospital a couple of times a day where my brother is still recovering from who knows what kind of as yet unidentified illness and yeah, cost was an issue since I left my job seven weeks ago and have a kid in college and did I mention the weight I'm dealing with as a result of steroids I've taken to combat shingles and Bells' Palsy, illnesses brought on by dealing with overwhelming stress induced by fulfilling my role as family problem solver and packhorse of everyone else's stress and did you know that six months of dieting and going to the gym at 5:30 in the morning will not prevent steroids from inflating you?

But hey, the good news is - no migraines!

Where was I?

AFF is awesome, amazing, and every superlative you can think of. This is the first year that I haven't attended as volunteer so I took pages and pages and pages of notes. Weird, too. I didn't see ANYONE ELSE taking notes except the guy from the Austin Chronicle. Oh, that annoying clacking on his laptop. I wanted to beat him with my shoe! But, seriously. In a room full of film students, I'm the only one taking notes? And, seriously. Chronicle guy, don't sit anywhere near me next year. Ever.

Sessions are over but films continue and there are still some I MUST fit in. I must.

I met dozens of people and finally put a few voices and faces with blogs and nom de plumes.

Helpful sessions. Not so helpful sessions. Wordplay dinner. Socials. Learned a lot about what the Texas Film Commission is doing. Exciting news. Seven more regional film commissions starting up including, FINALLY, one in East Texas. Lots more to tell about all this.

But AFF is not all about learning this and learning that. Yes, from almost every person I met and every session I attended, I gleaned at least one very valuable piece of information or one new idea. But I was also given a new way to look at or think about something or I was inspired by a comment or story and that inspiration made me want to breathe new life into one of my own ideas. Sometimes, just shaking a hand and realizing that you aren't an idiot for loving screenwriting was enough.

No single post can cover everything I absorbed at AFF and I collected a lot of good information that might be helpful to other screenwriters so I smell a series. How long? I dunno. One? Two? Ten? As long as it takes.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Who's Going to the AFF?

Congratulations, Brett, on making the Nicholl top ten. I'm so excited, I could spit in my ten gallon hat and then dance around it. But, it's not ladylike to spit. Congrats, Brett! Hot damn and pass the picante sauce! It's a proud day in Texas!!

Who else is going to the Austin Film Festival?

Friday, September 21, 2007

How Would the Writer Strike Thing Work?

Okay, so it's like watching a tunnel up ahead and knowing that, not being a truck over the maximum height and not hauling anything that anyone finds particularly valuable at the moment, the height limit doesn't apply to me so my path doesn't need to change. But where do the tall trucks go carrying the really important cargo?

Exactly what does the detour mean to Guild members? What CAN they legally pen and what can they NOT during this strike period? Or, do they simply write specs and sit on them until somebody fixes the tunnel?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Cliche' Dismay

My son once asked me what a cliche was to which I quickly responded that it was a dead horse - a shamefully abused dead horse that people refuse to bury. They just keep beating it and beating it and beating it and have parties where they block off traffic, rent bounce houses, and invite their friends and neighbors and even strangers to come beat that horse like a verbal piñata.

Shame the kid didn't tell me he needed a real definition for a school paper. His teacher did not accept "dead horse" as a definition for "cliche". Perhaps, if he'd written "verbal piñata"?

Two cliche lines in film chap me more than others: one is "bingo" when a character finds an answer, prize, trigger, puzzle piece, blue wire or whatever else it is he needs in order to move him on his way and the other "fingernails on a chalkboard" moment for me is any derivative of "I don't even know who you are anymore" usually spoken by the disenchanted friend, lover, relative or co-worker of the protagonist when he's let them down.

By the way, these two nauseating lines were used in two of the most highly anticipated and highly grossing films last year. Seriously. They were. (Hint: One used the word "Returns" and the other "Begins" in the title.)

I thought I was off the hook this year. I really did. I made it almost through the entire summer without hearing either one of those cliche'd lines in a new release but then I started catching up on my films. But then I went to the theater every weekend, sometimes twice if I went to the dollar movies. But then, I also took full advantage of missed new releases by using my Netflix!



It's too painful to talk about. . .

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Austin Film Festival

According to the lastest email from AFF --
You only have 5 more days to get the best deal on your Producers Badge or Conference badge by purchasing before September 17th. The Producers Badge gives the holder access to all of the panels and films during the Festival and all of the Festival parties. The 2007 Conference Badge gives the holder access to all panels and films during the Festival, Welcome Party, Pitch Finale and Conference Wrap Party. If you have any questions please contact or for general questions, contact Marisa Melendez, Conference Assistant at
Badges and Passes can be purchased here or by calling 512-478-4795.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Writing the Ethical Dilemma

Based on a true story that was based on a lie.” I haven’t seen Resurrecting the Champ so I don't know if it delivers the ethical dilemma it promises but that one line sums up a quagmire of conscience better than any eleven words I could pound out. It's a great line. First it's white ( based on a true story) and then it's black (based on a lie). But from what I've read, the story is supposed to be about shades of gray.

Shades of gray. We amateurs often have a hard time writing convincing moral and ethical dilemmas. The situations feel pale and the stakes unrealistic. The problem? Shades of gray. There's more than one shade of gray in our ethical crayon boxes but many of us new writers use only one shade so our dilemmas are unconvincing, stagnant or downright boring. Dilemmas need hues, tints, and contrast. They're multi-dimensional and there's always more than one perspective or version even if there's seemingly only one solution.

Issues of the conscience are inherently difficult to film because they occur in the heart and soul and mind. This flies in the face of the "films are visual so action is king" rule. You can't film thoughts (unless you get Tom Hanks in the starring role) so you need action to demonstrate a story and portray character. But action is not THE dilemma. We only use action scenes to set up, carry along, demonstrate, complicate, and perpetuate the dilemma.

A note of caution about using gray crayons. Remember how my grandmother used to say that you only show a man a little ankle? While we need to demonstrate the dilemma to the audience VERY CLEARLY, we don't need to give them every nuance and possible retribution of the dilemma. We must give the audience room to feel for themselves. Give them enough information to empathize with the character, feel his dilemma, and feel the full impact of the weight of the situation but there must be some "what if" that the audience can fill in with their personal feelings or knowledge or experience to make it more meaningful for them. I'll come back to this in a minute.

What kinds of ethical dilemmas are we talking about? Let's take lying for example. Everyone has had experience with liars. Liars are occur when three things happen:

  1. a person knows that a fact or circumstance is false, illegal, wrong, or a risk to somebody

  2. that person represents the circumstance as truth, legal, right, or safe

  3. that person allows others to believe the misrepresented information

Ta da! Introducing one of the most frequently confronted ethical issues in the corporate and personal lives of people today. A liar.

This may seem overly simplistic and not enough to build a story around (Liar, Liar anyone?) but remember that the cheese doesn't usually stand alone. When you've got an ethical dilemma going on in a film, there's more to the story. Somebody has a career in trouble, a strained relationship, a broken down business, etc. But let's put it to the test in a business situation.

The fact is that every business environment eventually develops a system of morality and ethics acceptable within itself that may or may not differ from societal standards and that three step "liar litmus test" would fail in many corporate "greater good" scenarios. Not only that, it would be okay! What the??

Basically, the ends justify the means in business. Businesses exist for the end, not the means so if the means are not hurting anyone in the short term and we're doing something beneficial for the corporation, a fudge on the rules (which we all know are bad anyway) or a lie here and there is only going to help our stockholders, readers, public, or whomever it is our corporation is held accountable to. Why not stretch the truth and bend the reality just a little for the benefit of the greater good? Guess what? You're a hero for it! Furthermore, anyone who would OPPOSE such a plan for the greater good is an enemy of the company. Hence the honest person becomes the villain and the liar becomes the savior.

How did I get all that out of a simple lie? Well, it's not just a lie. It's a moral dilemma if the character has a standard of right and wrong in his life and it's an ethical dilemma if the character has a standard of right and wrong in his business dealings.

The important thing is to make sure we identify what our characters' standards are. If we don't establish what a character's moral or ethical standards are in our stories, how can the reader understand the full impact of a dilemma on that character? In Chariots of Fire, a Christian athlete will not compromise his beliefs to achieve his goals. If that concept had not been clearly established in this film, the character could have easily been blurred into a zealous guy who just refused to run on Sunday.

Now, let's go back to what I said earlier about leaving room for the audience to feel something personal. Using Chariots of Fire as an example again, one of the brilliant things about this film is the wiggle room for people of other religions to relate to being asked to do something that contradicts a core belief or risk losing a once in a lifetime an opportunity.

But it's not just about religion. Economic, political, social, religious and cultural forces are competing in our lives and any combination of these forces may lead our characters to feel powerless to oppose them. Going along with group is troublesome. Speaking up may be even more troublesome. Yet, each person must face a mirror every day and weigh the cost to their own personal lives, professional lives, and personal values while balancing whatever their organizational obligations are. As writers, we've got to find a way to convey that feeling of powerlessness without weighing down our stories, robbing the scenes of their action, or turning our screenplays into 120 pages of preachy soliloquies.

By the way, whistleblowing is a cop-out answer. It may sound like the easy way to resolve your corporate issues but come on. If the corporate world was that elementary, somebody could have tattled on Enron from a bottom rung in the early stages, my uncle would have been spared about $4 million in retirement, and who knows how many lives would be changed. Whistleblowing is complex and comes with a set of retributions that may be worse than looking in the mirror and knowing that you're party to something dishonest. Keep that in mind before you make whistleblowing your silver bullet.

Remember, too, that more than one person may be struggling with the same dilemma or even opposite sides of the same ethical dilemma. There may not be a right and wrong. It may be a right and right or a wrong and wrong. Master and Commander uses a powerful "lesser of two evils" dilemma that affects every person on board the ship when Captain Aubrey has to let a sailor drown to keep the whole ship from going under. That's a very dark gray crayon. Time after time, the Captain makes decisions that are neither black nor white, but variations of gray as he breaks a promise to a friend to pursue a nemesis in service to the British Navy and then postpones that service by breaking off chase in order to save that same friend's life.

I'm curious to see whether the ethical dilemma in Resurrecting the Champ is "black and white", "shades of gray", or "one shade of gray". But I've heard the Creative Screenwriting podcast with co-writer Michael Bortman and director Rod Lurie so I'm looking forward to the film. But the podcast got me thinking about the vast array of crayons at our disposal to use in our ethical coloring books. Steel gray. Mousy gray. Iron gray. Pearl gray. There's no need to choose a single shade and stick with it.

Moviegoers aren't afraid to think. Let's give them a kaleidoscope.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Films Without Romance

Still waiting for suggestions of really good films (yeah, I know that's subjective) where there's no romantic plot or sub-plot. Documentaries and horror films don't count. Just as I did with dead protagonists, I'm searching for common denominators. Yes, such films do exist. Master and Commander, for example, has no romance except the love of Captain Aubrey for his ship and the sea and his service to the Navy.

So, please help by pointing me to films without primary or secondary romantic storylines. Ready, GO!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

My Horse Finally Won

Say what you will about On The Lot, production value, host's cleavage, contestant talent or lack of it, or whatever, but for the first time in reality show history, my favorite finished first.

Of course, I don't watch any reality shows except American Idol so that's not saying much.

But don't tell me Will wasn't the best. I don't care. He's a Texan. That right there ought to be enough for me. But his films had charm and heart (does that make him a director with charm and heart or a good writer?) and Will himself is such a cutie patootie with a receding hairline that I was hooked from the beginning. Oh, and my son's name is Will so there ya go.

My biggest complaint about the show? Uh, these contestants are DIRECTORS, not writers. Either judge them SOLELY on directing skills or give them writers next year to help them execute their ideas if your gonna slam them for story development.

Wait. If you give them writers, then one director will, by luck of the draw, be assigned a better writer than another so there's no real way to level the field, is there? But then, do real directors have a level playing field when it comes to working with writers?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

An Uninvited Role

Producer John Singleton was just driving along, probably listening to some tunes and thumping on his steering wheel, when bam! Life ended. Right there. On his car! Not his life, but the life of a stranger.

A jaywalker stepped in front of John Singleton's car yesterday and there was nothing he could do. She died. Singleton did everything he was supposed to do. He called an ambulance and waited for police. He wasn't under the influence of anything but geez, the poor guy has to live with that movie playing in his mind for the rest of his life and know he played an uninvited role in ending the life of a woman.

Most of us have accepted that we're probably not going to control the manner of our own deaths but being unable to prevent participating in the death of another? Seems like we should be able to do that. We fence our pools, install smoke detectors, inspect our food, fasten our seatbelts, label poisons, sign our roads, test our cars, tie up our dogs, lock up the guns, child proof our medicine bottles, put flame retardant pajamas on our kids, bolt, tag, inoculate, latch, inspect, ticket, legislate, and STILL somebody's granny wanders off in the middle of the night and freezes to death in a ditch and STILL some poor mother wakes up every morning to realize she forgot to take a stuffed animal out of the crib and her infant suffocated on it.

Despite our best efforts to avoid it, death happens. And, every time it does, somebody wishes they had done something different to prevent it. I'm in no way saying that we shouldn't legislate safety standards. We should and we do. And yeah, drunks belong in jail. But death is not always preventable. Neither, apparently, is our participation in somebody else's.

Maybe the woman who stepped out in front of John Singleton was ill or distraught or distracted. I dunno. But she is culpable. Yet I bet Singleton wishes he'd taken a different road that day.

Sooner or later, every one of us finds ourselves in a situation where we wish we had taken a different road. But the cruel truth is that often, the roles we play in life and in death are forced upon us.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Interesting Nicholl Note

Greg Beal posted this on Zoetrope August 2nd --

"As we ran out of time this year, I was not able to place all of the notes on the bottom of letters that I normally do. Only the 'next 100 scripts' received notes. We are going to follow up with e-mails to the top 10% and top 15% groups, probably next week."

Haven't heard of anyone getting such email yet.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Fraud in the Room

Sometimes, as a screenwriter, I feel like a poser, like I'm pretending my Winnie the Pooh pajamas are an expensive negligee. Other days, I pity the person who thinks a scratchy lace nightie is better than a sports bra and flannel Tigger shorts. But now that I'm on a brief hiatus from screenwriting, I'm finding my inner writer to be a bit problematic while doing my coursework.

For example --

Describe Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" and explain what is meant by the term self-actualization.

Wonder if "go to" will suffice as an answer?

Must focus. Next question.

Of the ten principles advanced by authors Osborne and Gaebler to reinvent government, name and briefly explain the three human based types of government that call for the empowerment of comm unties/neighborhoods, citizens, and government workers.

Three. Hmm. Three types of government. Three. Three. Three acts. It's begging me to write it. Hear it? It's saying, "Please, write me, crazy government lady. I'm a mind numbingly lame evolutionary municipal screenplay that nobody will produce or even read and you should have 'nerd' carved on your forehead for even thinking of me but you are compelled to outline me anyway because you're a sad little person who needs a nap -- and likes Smurfs."

Yeah. I'm a fraud.

But not in my pajamas.

Monday, July 30, 2007

I Who Have Nothing

...but raw disappointment this year will be taking a little time off writing to work on some stuff I have to do professionally. When I get back to it, we'll take a look at successful films WITHOUT a romantic secondary story line or subplot and figure out what makes them work. Meanwhile, congratulations to the 254 quarterfinalists in the Don and Gee Nicholl Screenwriting fellowship. I am not one of you.

By way of explanation: Books arrived today from the University of North Texas for a three year program I need to take due to a technicality. I wouldn't mind except I've already graduated from this program and even assisted in teaching the program. But not retaking the entire three years is causing me a credibility problem at work. It's a long story but basically, this is pretty much graduate study material and is going to put serious demands on my time.

When it rains, it comes a stinkin' torrent. Will fit as much writing in as I can, but the job pays the electricity so this other thing has to be done. Meanwhile, I need film titles where there is NO ROMANTIC subplot. I'm making a list. Ready . . . GO!

And Todd, you realize, of course, this means no autographed shoes.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Not Getting in a Hurry

My Nicholl letter arrived on July 29th in 2005 and on August 3rd in 2006. (Yes, I remember the dates) Not stalking my mail lady this year because what's done is done and whatever happens happens but hoping every last one of your fingers and toes are crossed. I don't really believe in luck. I just like the mental image of 6,000 people out there with all their fingers and toes crossed.

UPDATE 10:00 p.m.: Several screenwriters got their dink and congrats letters today so while I'm still collected and patient and whatever will be will still be and there's nothing I can do about it either way, my mail lady is now fair game.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Duck, Duck, Me

Unk tagged me with this randomness thing where you have to tell eight things about yourself and yeah, I did this not too long ago but maybe somebody will need these additional flaky (but ever so boring) facts one day for trivia about famous screenwriters. Or, you know, not-so-famous ones who tried really hard ---

  • I'm addicted to antique books. I collect readers, novels, and children's books from the early 1900's but I have a few music and history books too. It's like reading a museum artifact every time I open one. I still have a few of my own childhood books. When I'm gone, I hope whoever winds up with my books treats them like treasures a little girl loved and cherished her whole life.

  • While we're on books, some of my favorite authors are Alexandre Dumas, Raphael Sabatini, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Victor Hugo. Oh, and I got hooked on those Lemony Snicket books, too.

  • I am a musophobic - no joke. Outdoors, if a mouse is being batted around by my cat, I'm cool. Kill it, kitty. No biggie. But indoors, I see a rodent and get chest pains like a heart attack and I actually believe I'll die if the vile thing touches me. No, I'm not talking about the lady standing in a chair kind of scared. I'm talking flashbacks to rats crawling in my hair when I was a kid and biting my arms and legs while I collected eggs in the wrecked out cars my great grandmother used as chicken coops. It's an illness. I almost lost my mind a few months ago when Norway rats invaded my office and took up residence in my printer.

  • My mother's father wrote Wasted Days and Wasted Nights for Freddy Fender on a cocktail napkin in a bar. My mother still has the napkin. But Freddy Fender now has sole credit for most of the music written with or by Wayne Duncan. If you get into any music business, make sure you have an entertainment attorney and don't' marry a sixteen year old girl in Honduras when you're a seventy year old man about to die of cirrhosis of the liver.

  • My other grandfather would make trips to Canada and type all his postcards to me. I still have every card. I also have his typewriter. His name for me was Bluebell. My brother was Tadpole. My sister was Daisy. He never used our given names. That was just his way. So was telling stories. I'm embarrassed to admit how old I was before I figured out miniature monkeys do not sit inside traffic signals changing the lights. Sorry to spoil it for you if you didn't know. He also rolled his own cigarettes, blew smoke rings, did a strange alternating rhythmic thing with his pectoral muscles, and could suck a radish up his nose from across the table. Good times.

  • My mother was a teenage beauty queen in Harlingen but was disqualified for lying about her age. She wasn't old enough to enter. She got married and began having babies shortly after that so she never entered again. She had three children before she was twenty. We now look the same age.

  • Sunday is chocolate covered cherries day. Or Snickers day. And, Big Red. Big Red is God's soda, you know. At least, that's what I always believed as a little girl in San Antonio. God probably also eats chocolate covered cherries and Snickers although I doubt He only eats them on Sunday. He also doesn't have to work out at the gym the rest of the week to burn off His excess calories.

  • If you ever send me flowers, make them white daisies. I love roses but I have a yard full of my own and cut roses don't live very long. White daisies are just so darn happy! Oh, and I like bluebells but tadpoles don't make a very nice bouquet. They do, however, show up by the thousands when your backyard is flooded and they conjure up fond memories of a radish sniffing grandfather.
  • Saturday, July 21, 2007

    Silk Purses and Sows' Ears

    Fans of Animaniacs will remember the Good Idea/Bad Idea segments which featured variations of the same idea where one works and one doesn't work.

    Good Idea: Drinking fresh milk from the carton.
    Bad Idea: Drinking fresh milk from the cow.

    Regardless of how well the bad idea is executed, it's predestined for failure by its very essence (as the mental image of getting your milk straight from the cow would suggest).

    We're often guilty in screenwriting of doing such an excellent job of executing characters, scenes, and story elements that when they don't work, we fail to recognize them for what they really are -- bad ideas -- albeit well developed and well executed bad ideas, they're basically sows' ears or deadwood or some other negative analogy for an albatross around our screenwriting necks.

    Excellent execution does not negate a poor idea.

    We writers are a possessive bunch of wordsmiths. Once we thread a few words together, we hate to yank out our own stitches even if we're left with a superfluous character or a misplaced scene. Sometimes we think if we just keep our beloved string of words long enough, everything else will come join them. Maybe. But one of two things needs to happen: (1) the rest of the story must change to accommodate the bad idea or (2) the bad idea must be disguised to go with the rest of the story. Rewriting a whole screenplay is, of course, at the writer's discretion but disguising a bad idea to make it work doesn't change the bad idea.

    Okay, let's go someplace else for a minute. For those of us whose middle age weight gain keeps Lean Cuisine in business and who fork out cash for gym memberships only to sweat next to pencil sized hot girls in push up bras wearing size 3 exercise outfits, this big fat lie exposed is a victory for ordinary women who have thought, "I could look like that if they airbrushed my stretch marks and photo-shopped my back fat".

    Come on, Redbook. You let me down. And, you got caught doing it.

    I expect fashion magazines, swimsuit calendars, and those literary masterpieces in my brother's bathroom cabinet (guess what? he doesn't keep the extra toilet paper in there) to slenderize, buff, bleach, and erase female flaws but Redbook? Those women are supposed to look more like me.

    Kind of.

    You see, I don't JUST have crow's feet. I have crow's ankles and thighs and they have freckles. There are even freckles on that big Witchy Poo mole next to the Kirk Douglas cleft on my masculine square chin. Oh, and gravity is not my friend either. Duct tape and super glue are important wardrobe staples. So are staples.

    Wait. Where was I?

    Oh yeah. Story development. That Redbook cover is a well executed work of art. Somebody painstakingly removed Faith Hill's back fat, slenderized her arms, erased her skin flaws, and corrected her posture. But the original photo is still out there and so is the person who posed for it. No amount of photo-shopping will change that. The reality of who she is hasn't changed. Only the execution of perception has changed.

    Yeah, yeah, I know plenty of bad ideas have been made into movies. But imagine spray painting a dry dead lawn. It's still dead. It may be green but would you put a sign in the yard announcing yourself as the landscaper? Now, picture Michaelangelo painting the nine scenes from the book of Genesis right there on that lawn as if it was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The quality of the mural is not the question. The lawn will still go up in flames if somebody drops a cigarette butt. The execution is genius but it's still a very bad idea.

    My grandmother used to say that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You can, however, carrying around handbags made of sows' ears. If you have a legitimate place in your story for a sow's ear, then by all means, write a sow's ear. But how many sows' ears are in your screenplay masquerading as silk purses?

    A professional writer once told me that the most important key to becoming a better writer is knowing that you don't know it all and being GENUINELY willing to learn. He stressed GENUINELY but didn't elaborate. I think his subtext was that I would, over the years, witness people faking a willingness to learn but that fooling everyone else wouldn't help me one little bit.

    If I have learned anything about screenwriting, it's that you must learn as much on your own by discovery and by trial and error as you do by allowing somebody to spoon feed you what THEY learned by discovery and trial and error. How else will you ever be able to discern good advice from hogwash? Wisdom from rubbish?

    And, if you can't discern treasures from trash while you have the luxury of being univested, how can you possibly make the separation in your own work when you are personally involved?

    Objectivity becomes paradoxical.

    One of my favorite Good Idea/Bad Idea segments sums up our struggle with figuring out when ideas don't work:

    Good Idea: Playing the accordion at a polka festival.
    Bad Idea: Playing the accordion anywhere else.

    The assumption here is that an accordion player's love of the instrument blinds him to what we all know: the accordion isn't the kind of instrument that works in mainstream entertainment regardless of how well the guy plays. How many of us share that kind of devotion to our craft?

    We all struggle with certain characters and write scenes that just don't feel like they're working. That doesn't mean they're automatically bad ideas. They could be brilliant ideas that simply need a whole lot of silk before they can become a purse. The burden is on the writer to figure it out before the screenplay crosses a reader's desk.

    Readers are adept at differentiating silk purses from sows' ears. Writers need those same skills, especially when they visit screenwriting blogs that post about the best execution of bad ideas. How else will they know if the post itself isn't a very bad idea?

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    That Would Never Happen

    We've all done this. We're watching a film or reading a screenplay, rockin' happily along in our la-la land, when "No way! That would never happen!" We're brutally yanked out of story land because our brain refuses to accept some fractured piece of logic the film tried to feed us.

    Welcome to the land of broken magic.

    Often, in the course of reviewing screenplays and critiquing films, reviewers comment about how a situation was too much of a suspension of reality to work for them or that it simply could never happen at all. Suspending reality is a good thing. That's what we do in screenwriting. Suspending it beyond recognition is something else. The trick is to to create an orderly and logical suspension of reality that can be followed and understood. That's, I suppose, what separates the masters from the apprentice writers.

    In storytelling, reality is a product of the author's pen, not the reader's existence. One of my complaints about online peer review forums is that while writers certainly have a burden to create a reality that works in the imagination of the reader, too many of these reviewers, I think, are subjecting stories to litmus tests based on their own environments. That's not to say that there's no merit in arguing that something would never happen. But the argument has to be based in the story world, not in the reader's world.

    That would never happen moments, for me, fall into three categories: legitimate screwups, spoofs, and misinterpretations.

    LEGITIMATE SCREWUPS - These are genuinely messed up moments where somebody blew it and the magic was lost. In Swimfan, a male arresting police officer gets in the back seat of a squad car with a handcuffed female prisoner about to be transported. That would never happen. Sorry. It just doesn't. Officers don't ride in the back seat with dangerous criminals and they certainly don't ride with females. They call in their beginning and ending mileages when they transport women. Departure and arrival times are then recorded so if they're accused of something inappropriate, a time line can be established. Oh, and as for prisoners being cuffed in the front? Yeah, that happens when cuffing is a formality or the officer is really stupid.

    SPOOFS AND COMEDIC BEATS - These moments aren't supposed to really happen. They're just there to make us laugh but some people have no sense of humor and take them entirely too literally. The result is a that would never happen moment. Of course, that would never happen! That's what makes it funny! Or, not if it the timing is off or it's poorly written.

    MISINTERPRETATIONS - These moments are the ones that actually would happen in another time or place or culture or religion but maybe the filmmaker didn't do his job well enough to convey this to the audience. Or, maybe the reader or viewer has such a narrow outlook on the world that he wouldn't find the magic no matter how well the filmmaker did his job. But if the majority doesn't get it, the problem is probably not with the recipient.

    SCREW-UPS, SPOOFS, MISINTERPRETATIONS, So, how do we keep our readers and viewers from doing that annoying Homer Simpson "DOH!" thingie when they look at our work? For you sophisticated non-Simpsons viewers (Mom), that "DOH!" is like the "Wow, I could have had a V-8" forehead thump but from a beer bellied bald guy who would only have a V-8 if he confused it with a teeny tiny Duff beer can. But to answer the question -- there is one back there some place -- I have a few self imposed rules.

    The Roller Coaster Rule - Reality is organized chaos. Roller coasters look like a looping, twisting, mess but every turn, climb, and drop has been carefully designed and engineered. Whatever reality we create in our story worlds has to be planned, purposeful, and organized even if it looks like chaos and feels like chaos to passengers along for the ride.

    The Pluto Rule - Reality isn't for Indian givers. Don't establish a reality and then yank it away (unless that's the story itself). There are still a few questions left unanswered and a place or two left to explore in this universe. But the boundaries of the unknown are shrinking with every book published and every film released. Whatever I create, readers and viewers will probably still accept regardless of how fantastic it may be but they have little patience for situations where it's obvious the writer didn't establish a cause and effect that's logical within itself. Once a story contradicts itself, even commonplace facts lose credibility among the suspect ones.

    Huh? What did she just say?

    Okay, try this. I've never been in outer space. I've been accused of it, but alas, no. However, for as long as I can remember, nine planets have orbited the sun. Nine. I accepted this because there was scientific proof. My teachers said so. My text books said so. Plus, I made a mobile out of Styrofoam balls and tempera paint so it had to be true. If you had told me two years ago that one day in my lifetime, there would only be eight planets orbiting the sun, I'd have said that would never happen because Pluto isn't just going to disappear or get blown to bits by a meteor. But it happened. There are only eight planets now. Pluto has been voted off the island. Reality as I once knew it has been yanked away from me and now all astronomy is suspect in my mind. They're Indian givers. They can't take that away from me. I will ALWAYS think of Pluto as a planet. Always. Pluto has to be a planet. Come on. We named a beloved Disney character after it. It's a planet -- the people's planet.

    I digress.

    The point is - don't do that to your viewer mid-movie. Don't establish a reality in your story and then contradict it or erase it. Or, if you MUST for artistic reasons, then make sure you're a genius and can craft the story so that your reader/viewer doesn't cling to the original reality the way I cling to Pluto.

    I've mentioned before that one of the most annoying suspensions of reality in film for me is the "disturbance of nature" theme in Failure to Launch. The film sets up a certain romantic comedy kind of reality. We get comfortable in it and settle in for a light hearted Nora Ephon-esque romantic story. Suddenly, we're jerked into various Chevy Chase-ish skits where animals attack the main character. In this case, it's because he's is a freak of nature still living at home and it just doesn't work with the reality already set forth in the film. If this was Caddyshack, it would work. If this was Mr. Deeds, it would work. But the reality established by Failure to Launch doesn't support angry chipmunks.

    The Equator Rule - Reality is because I said so. My pen is the final answer. How much inaccurate information did we all learn about dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? I'm sure more than one paleontologist said "that would never happen" during that film but does that make it a flawed film? Or, does that make it a film that established a reality that viewers could feel engaged in even if it took liberties with prehistoric animal behavior? The important thing about Jurassic Park is that most viewers didn't sit there thinking "that would never happen". They were too busy marveling, screaming, laughing, and enjoying the ride in an open jeep while experiencing the terror of being pursued by a T-Rex.

    If my story establishes that the temperature is twenty degrees below zero at the equator and the abominable snowman lives there, then that's the reality of the story. It's as much the reality of that story as a talking droid in Star Wars or a hobbit living in middle earth in Lord of the Rings.

    Somebody mentioned on this blog that the wedding scene during Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End was too much of a suspension of reality to accept. I found that odd considering the myriad of outlandish characters and inconceivable events taking place in the film. We've got dead people in boats, ghosts floating under water, barnacley and shell-headed fish people, a titanic squid, an undead monkey, a live heart beating in a chest, a tentacle-faced guy walking around with a gaping hole in his chest, a sea goddess who turns into a hundred thousand crabs, and a pirate licking the brain he just removed from his own skull but it's a wedding amid a swordfight that bugs ya?

    Still, most men I've asked said they didn't like the wedding part in this film. The reality established in this film wasn't stretched or suspended for a swordfight wedding on a ship in a spinning vortex. I think the problem with these guys is the REALITY of marriage. Period. A wedding is still a wedding and men in the audience don't want the cold, hard reality of marriage to momentarily wreck the adventure. They aren't annoyed because that would never happen. They're annoyed because they know darned good and well it could.

    The Aunt Lizzie Rule - Reality isn't stagnant. It changes with time and culture and continents. My Aunt Lizzie cleaned house in a dress and apron every day. She got out of bed an hour before my uncle to put her make-up on so he wouldn't see her without it. Even when she was in the hospital dying of Cancer, she begged my cousin to help her with her face and hair before my uncle arrived to visit. If I was writing a devoted immigrant housewife from Austria, my Aunt Lizzie would be it. A modern 2007 woman wouldn't do any of those things but Aunt Lizzie's characteristics would work in a spoof, a period piece, or a 2007 story if my character is old and set in her ways, daft, senile, caught in a time warp or suffering from Alzheimer's.

    Events that happened twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago may not happen today but they work in stories if set in the proper time and context. Too many writers put today's behavior, statutes, standards, and environments in their period pieces and vice-versa and then wonder why people say that would never happen. They might even point to my equator rule and say if they write it that way, it must be so. True. But that doesn't mean it's logical or that it will work. Remember the roller coaster rule.

    My high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Hooper, who went by Hoop because it was more newsroomy than "Mrs. Hooper" and less masculine than "Boss" or "Chief", took me aside one day for what I assumed would be her customary "go get 'em, Tiger" speech before a writing competition. She pointed out a young honor student from Highland Park High School who had transferred from Austin and said he was a brilliant mind by all accounts, the son of a former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson himself. A press secretary's son! Oh, my gosh! She was surely about to warn me that he was my toughest competition. Nope. She told me not to talk to him or make him angry in any way. He was a killer.

    No way. That would never happen! I was in competition with a killer? It was all very hush hush. The teachers weren't allowed to talk about it. He was a minor. But they were terrified of him so the teachers secretly talked about it anyway.

    Hardly two and a half years had passed since John Christian had walked into a Murchison Junior High School English classroom and shot his teacher three times with his father's .22-caliber rifle in front of 30 students. He had been only thirteen at the time. Now here he was, barely sixteen, and his slate was technically clean even though he had supposedly been found schizophrenic and suicidal and even though a judge (Hume Coker) had ordered him to a Dallas psychiatric hospital until he was 18 years old.

    Whether it was privilege or family ties or his age or his father's connections, I don't know. Nor do I have all the facts. But John Christian appears to have spent a short time at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital and then lived under the foster care of a Dallas physician while he finished public high school and went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas.

    Can you even BEGIN to imagine a child today strolling into school and killing his teacher and then going on to graduate from a public school as if nothing had happened? That would never happen today but I was there. I sat in a desk three feet away from him as if he was just any other student because he WAS just any other student even after killing Wilbur (Rod) Grayson, Jr., a 29 year old first year teacher, in front of his entire class.

    If I wrote a character in a 1981 story who had been a teacher killer and for whatever reason managed to get back in public schools and graduate, who is going to read my screenplay and NOT say that would never happen? The cruel reality of our daily existence with recurring violence in schools will certainly affect the way anyone receives a story like that one.

    So, if people are going to draw conclusions based on their own lives anyway, is there really anything we can do?

    Reality is organized chaos
    Reality isn't for Indian givers
    Reality is because I said so
    Reality isn't stagnant

    Okay, okay already, so I'm not McKee. But the reality of story reality is that even with our best effort, there's a limit to what we can do to prevent the that would never happen moments. No amount of engineering prevents roller coasters from breaking down, Pluto really isn't a planet anymore and charming aunts who once vacuumed in checkered dresses will eventually lose their battles with Cancer.

    Unless somebody finds a cure.

    That may never happen.

    But it doesn't stop us from making the effort.