Wednesday, February 28, 2007
It reminds me of an American Idol audition where a girl acknowledged that she had no idea how to sing, couldn't carry a tune, and was tone deaf. Then she harangued the judges bitterly for their cruelty and injustice for not sending her to Hollywood and getting her the training she needed when she had so much potential. How could they deny her the American Idol dream just because she couldn't sing?
This article yesterday discusses a rise is narcissism among young adults and asks if efforts to raise self esteem may have backfired to some degree. I don't know about all that, but it does strike me as bizarre that so many of us feel entitled to the fruits of a talent we don't have. (like that collective pronoun? yeah, I'm a young people, comparatively speaking)
According to the article, University of Georgia's W. Keith Campbell, a study co-author, suggests that "permissive parenting, increased materialism and the fascination with celebrities and reality TV shows may also heighten self-regard" but that narcissism might come in handy "auditioning on American Idol".
He must have missed the episode I saw.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Peculiar to me, though, was hearing Arndt sing the virtues of simplicity - not because I don't like simplicity - but because he says that it is easy to make something big and noisy and complicated but it is difficult to make something small, quiet and simple.
Oh, so THAT's why Bruckheimer, Lucas, and Spielberg make such big and noisy and complicated films -- it's easy!
Have I really gotten so arrogant that I've second guessed the same Oscar winning screenwriter twice in one week? Shame on me. Shame. Shame. Shame. I really do like this guy. Really. Me and my Gomer Pyle alter ego.
I guess the level of difficulty is all in the pen of the beholder.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
"Everybody do yourself a favor and pretend to be normal, okay?"
I love that line - one of many in Little Miss Sunshine, the screenplay that won Michael Arndt an Academy Award for best original screenplay. AFF and Creative Screenwriting have podcast interviews with Michael Arndt so do yourself a favor and go have a listen.
Pretending to be normal -- isn't that what screenwriters do every day? Go about life pretending to be normal? We're not normal. We spend much of our lives alone in worlds of our own creation, arguing with ourselves, and playing God with invisible friends that we put through hellish situations and comic impossibilities. If we were normal, we wouldn't have anything to write about.
I like Little Miss Sunshine. No. I love this story. It's peculiarly reflective of my own extended family. Seriously. There's no such thing as normal in my family. No wonder I'm on seizure medication. I swear these meds make me see Teletubbies. They sneak in my house and steal my yogurt and corn flakes. I also think they peek in the window when I shower.
Anyway, I'm not sure there's such a thing as normal in any family anymore. Dysfunctional is the new functional and functional is becoming an oddity. Heaven help us, the world is a mess. Maybe that's why Little Miss Sunshine gained such a following.
But I digress --
Screenwriting is an enigma. I've read the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine and I can tell you that if I handed this screenplay off to be evaluated by a friend, he'd probably give me back detailed notes cautioning me about the quality of writing and include comments like "it's too chatty" or "it uses too many weak verbs".
This screenplay will naturally be chatty because it takes place in a van. But I don't even know how many times the screenplay uses lines like "so and so look at each other" or "so and so glance at each other" and "we see this" or "we see that". Girl Scouts honor, as much as I like the story, I think it could be better written.
What the? How can I say that? It just won an Oscar!
Don't get your breeches in a twist. I'm not saying it isn't good. I'm saying it gets away with liberties that would get my specs tossed.
There's a difference in the way people read screenplays PRIOR to production and POST production. There's a difference in the way people read a spec script and a script they just paid you to write. There's a difference in the way people read a screenplay for a well received Indy film and a screenplay a reader just put on the desk of a producer with a recommendation. And there's a difference in the way people take their leisurely time to read a script and pages hurriedly rewritten on a shooting deadline.
If you want to look at Little Miss Sunshine and pretend all those weak descriptions set some kind of normal standard because the screenplay won an Oscar, go right ahead. We all know there are no rules. But when amateurs still trying to find recognition break the rules that don't exist, we give readers a ready excuse to clean off their desk.
Your screenplay may be so brilliant that it rises to the top no matter what. But I keep picturing that climax moment in the film when little Olive is doing her inappropriate strip club dance while all those pageant parents look on in bewilderment. It's fun on film but I don't want it to be a metaphor for the way readers look at my work.
Should we get hung up on petty rules? No. Should we ignore the rules? No. It's tough pretending to be normal. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go call the police on these peeping Teletubbies.
p.s. please don't egg my house or scratch my truck
Saturday, February 24, 2007
THE GREEN MILE – The camera loves to watch Tom Hanks think and his character often puzzles things out by listening to the radio, having a glass of wine or thinking in bed.
DEAD MAN’S CHEST – Jack Sparrow has a moment in a longboat where he studies his compass and has to decide whether to head for land or help his friends.
MASTER AND COMMANDER – Reflection scenes abound but the one that stands out for me is the doctor’s lonely violin as the captain contemplates whether to pursue his nemesis or dry land where the doctor has a better chance of survival.
Many reflection scenes are added during the production process and don’t even appear in the shooting script. I don’t know if this is because writers are reluctant to write reflection scenes or because the need isn’t identified until production is underway. Maybe writers do include reflection scenes but the scenes are often cut because on paper, they appear to slow the read down.
Take for example:
THE FUGITIVE - Gerard often puffs on his cigar and ponders out a window or studies a crime scene while going over the facts in his head. These scenes appear often in the film but nowhere in the script. They must have been added after the script was written (or I don't have a final version of the script).
What I have noticed about reflection scenes:
1. The best ones are brief - A long walk along a beach or in the mountains is less effective than a woman looking at her wedding band and shoving it down the garbage disposal.Aside from giving us the aforementioned time to digest and add up, reflection scenes might also give us a glimpse into character or function as a transition.
2. Self dialogue rarely works – Talking to a bloody handprint on a volleyball is better than a character talking to himself but I like NO dialogue the best.
If you have an awkward spot in your screenplay or outline, maybe it’s time for your protagonist or villain to take a breather.
Reflection scenes aren’t to be written in as an afterthought since they imply an emotional state. But if you have an emotional state already taking place and need a transition, it’s certainly worth taking a look. It might be the bridge you need for that certain gap.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Do your scenes have a resume? After a failed collaboration attempt last year, I began keeping resumes for my scenes so I could make sure they don't exist solely for my own sentimental reasons. Cutting scenes was the deal killer on what was probably the best high concept story I had ever worked on. My co-writers were all good writers but our project petered out after five months when we couldn't resolve disagreements over scenes.
We writers are a peculiar lot.
Scenes serve many different purposes but rarely (ever?) does any single scene serve only one purpose. Every scene should, at the very least, move the story forward. A resume for one of my scenes looks like this:
SCENE 29 DUMPSTER -- INTERIOR
1. Moves action from front to back of store
2. Realization/decision scene for protag
3. Character overcomes one fear as she confronts another
4. Reveals critical information to protag and investigators
5. Shows emotional reaction of character
6. First hint of protag's vision problems
Okay, so there was a whole lot going on in this scene but it's actually a very short scene (still working on this by the way) and the primary character has no dialogue. She's hiding in a dumpster and learns her mother was just killed in a store robbery.
Compare that to this scene resume:
SCENE 15 DIRTY BATHROOM -- INTERIOR
1. Reveals character
This was a very long and chatty scene in a dirty gas station restroom that basically reveals the character of a little girl and her aunt. It's an utterly hysterical and charming scene that I wanted cut in that uber cool high concept collaboration. A whole scene that does nothing but show character? Well, okay, I caved to keep the peace and the comedy but there were several of these types of scenes and eventually the whole project just fell apart.
Character should be revealed layers at a time throughout every scene and every line of dialogue. I just can't see giving character development its own scene when I have to orchestrate all my story elements into fewer than 120 pages.
Throwing out a favorite scene is heartbreaking. But not cutting it is like leaving an anchor hanging on your story.
Catalyst scenes and the big bang type scenes probably aren't going to be a problem even if their resumes are weak. But do you have establishing scenes, love scenes, flashbacks, or montages? If so, when is the last time you looked at their resumes?
Thursday, February 22, 2007
I'm not talking about WHY a writer writes. I'm talking about WHAT a writer has to say. Nor am I even even hinting that a screenplay has to change the way people see the world but a story without an underlying thought or prevailing idea is like a soda with no bubbles -- or bubbles without the soda.
If I were a respected screenwriting guru who'd never sold a screenplay or been produced but published a book on how to write screenplays and get produced, I'd call the book "Make it Say Something".
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
But, let's talk Idol for a moment.
Stop WHINING. Yes, we have to! Did you see it tonight? I have to talk about it. I'm a singer. And, you know what? My horse never wins. Never. But this may be the year. Of course, I thought that last year but swore I'd never watch Idol again when they kicked off Chris Daughtry. But sooner or later, my horse has to win!
When I grow up, I want to sing like Jennifer Hudson -- or Mandisa Hundley -- or Lakisha Jones. She was amazing. AMAZING! But, I can't sing like her. It ain't gonna happen. I'm over forty and while there's no shortage of invitations for me to sing and rave reviews when I do, the truth is that 1) I sing for a lot of people that are hard of hearing and 2) even if Idol up'd the age, I'd never get past the gate. Well, not unless I danced like Charo while juggling chickens.
Anyway, the point here is that you don't have to actually win that competition to have an amazing career if you have amazing talent. Jennifer Hudson lost American Idol to Fantasia Barrino who lost the part of Effie in Dreamgirls to Jennifer Hudson! Wonder which one Jennifer would rather have now?
I am working very hard to win a Nicholl this year -- VERY HARD -- because I want it. But how many brilliant screenwriters are there and how many of those careers were actually launched because they entered the Nicholl? It's not the only way.
Still, sooner or later, my horse has to win -- or place.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
(clarification - this dear john letter is to www.scribosphere.org)
I know I'm not the hottest blogger to hit the internet, but did I wrong you in another life? Why do you snub me so? I feel like a jilted girlfriend. My emails go unanswered and if you had a phone, you'd probably avoid me when you see me on caller ID -- not that I'd call after the way I've been treated.
While I admit that some of my posts digress from hair color to rodent infestation, I do now and then actually have something to contribute to the wannabe screenwriting population of the blogworld, although you seem to think I'm nothing but a pretty face.
You do think I'm pretty, don't you?
Fine. I won't get needy.
Plenty of blogs want to link to mine.
Well, twenty six. It used to be about seventy but I kind of let myself go. That happens after you punch out a few screenplays and spend less time on the internet.
I don't care even care if you link to my blog or not. It's not like I'm some kind of expert or something.
Besides, you're so vane. You probably think this blog is about you.
So, like, you wanna hang out or something?
So, you mad at me?
Want me to heat us up some pizza pockets? Scrubs is on.
Monday, February 19, 2007
If I'm being entirely honest with myself, I think I would have to admit that last year, all I really hoped for was to make the quarterfinals and I was bitterly disappointed when I didn't. That was the extent of my goal - the quarterfinals. That was the height of my dream - the quarterfinals.
My plan was to make the quarterfinals one year, then I'd shoot for the semi's the next and the finals the next.
Well, that's crap. Shame on me. I'm not ashamed that I finished in the top ten percent but where would I have finished if I hadn't aimed so low? I'm not aiming low this year. I want to win.
Yeah, I feel stupid saying it.
The truth is that I've worked so hard, studied so much, and reworked my screenplay for so long that it terrifies me to even verbalize such an unrealistic goal -- I want to win. It terrifies me to such an extent that I'm almost afraid to even enter.
Won't I feel like a fool later when I DON'T win after announcing to the whole world that I plan to?
Who am I to think that a nothing writer from Noplace, Texas, can compete with people who have been at this for years and years?
I don't care. I want to win.
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. Michaelangelo
Sunday, February 18, 2007
For the record, I do not oppose rules and guidelines. I live by rules and guidelines. They keep me under the speed limit, keep me from driving on the wrong side of the road, keep me from walking into men's rooms (usually), and keep me from exacting my own justice in snack bar lines and at movie theaters. I only wish the rules made pre-pube brats sit down and turn their cell phones off during the film.
Alas, not all rules are enforced. And, alas, some unnecessary ones are. People can bring their screaming baby to the movie for free but I can't give them a frozen beer-sickle to shut them up so I can watch my eight dollar movie in peace? Where is the justice in that?
Anyhoo.. writing drama doesn't have all that many guidelines. Writing actually has more concepts than guidelines and even fewer rules. Even so, how can you tell me what the rules are if you don't know what game I'm playing?
So, let's talk about the various games.
In the first chapter of Linda Seger's book, "Advanced Screenwriting, Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level", she discusses various structures. I had never even heard of a couple of these structures so if any of you (at last count, fewer than 50 a day - I gotta work on my readership) can add film examples, I'd appreciate it. Keep in mind, too, that while this is my synopsis, these are Linda Seger's categories.
This is a no-brainer. It's basically the progression of point A to point B with a beginning, middle, and an end and it's probably what all those "paint by numbers" people are telling you to do. There's nothing wrong with a linear structure and in fact, it's the way most of us probably write, especially our first drafts, but it's not the only way.
We don't see too many of these because it's hard to do. This is basically a broken record kind of structure. We date the same kind of abusive person over and over again. We work the same dead-end job over and over again. This structure is easy to botch because the writer has to keep the forward motion going beyond the repetition. Done wrong, the audience will easily grow bored or feel stuck. Sure, it worked for Groundhog Day but can you think of any others where it really worked? I mean really worked well.
This is an often used structure of dividing the story into separate journeys. It's like watching two or more trains running along separate tracks at different speeds. Sometimes they're at the same place. Sometimes they aren't. Parallel structure is not the same as subplot. These are separate journeys. Films like Crash, Traffic, Magnolia, and The Red Violin use parallel structures. Done well, it works, but this structure often puts the author in peril of creating a choppy mess. How many Rom Com's have you seen butchered in a You've Got Mail emulation attempt?
Okay, you know all the general reluctance to use flashbacks? Well, you don't have much choice here. In the spiral, somebody comes to terms with a traumatic past event. Films like Prince of Tides and Ordinary People use the spiral structure where each time we visit an issue, theme, or problem, the character grows somewhat as a person. Flashbacks are essential, prompted by something taking place in the present day story. This also happens to be the fastest way for a new writer to earn the disapproval of readers since so much of the story goes back and forth via flashback.
THE UNRAVELING MYSTERY STRUCTURE
We like to unravel mysteries and again, this is a structure that will probably require some flashbacks. The Usual Suspects used flashbacks to unravel a complex story and then turned the tables on us, so it must work. But it's not easy to pull off.
Linda Seger uses Presumed Innocent as an example of a poorly unraveled mystery. At the end of film, the villain just spills the beans. We've gone through a complex journey and arrive at the end of the story only to sit through a confession from a remorseful villain. That's not unraveling a mystery.
Unraveling a mystery is planting seeds along the way and giving the viewer a fair shot at putting the pieces together without giving them too much rope. How's that for mixing metaphors? By the end of the film when the truth comes out, the viewer should be able to go back and add it all up without feeling cheated or as if somebody just vomited everything out in third act exposition.
THE REVERSE STRUCTURE
One word - Memento. The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. Betrayal is another backwards film. These stories are told in reverse. Like all the aforementioned structures, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They just aren't told in A, B, C order. They're told in C, B, A. The story unravels from end to beginning.
THE CIRCULAR STRUCTURE
Okay, I'm not even going to pretend to understand what this means or how this can work because it plays with cinematic truth - well, if there really is such a thing. Linda uses Before the Rain, a Macedonian film, as an example. It's about an Albanian girl who runs to a monastery for refuge from somebody who is trying to kill her. She meets a photographer who helps her escape but she's killed anyway. Somehow, the story shifts back and she is alive at the monastery where the end of the film circles back to the beginning. I suspect in some time travel films this works, but other than that, I'm at a loss.
THE LOOPING STRUCTURE
Unlike the reverse structure, while the looping structure has a beginning, middle and end taken out of order, it doesn't play them in reverse. It just plays them out of order. Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Drive play around with the order of events in order to make the viewer feel different story elements from different character perspectives. It's like forcing us to wear different hats in a twisted game of ring-around-the-protagonist and it's brilliant when it works.
That's eight structures.
Okay, so maybe there aren't THAT many different structures, but wouldn't it be great to create one that nobody else has ever tried before? That's my fantasy-- to develop my own ingenious structure -- one so creative and individual that writers everywhere will try to mimic it -- only they can't -- because it will be so unique that it will only work for my story.
Do you think there's anything out there left untried? I don't know.
I hope so.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
That stung me.
Have I ever mentioned that I'm allergic to bee stings? I've never understood, however, why they sting me when they don't even have to. I can be outside just working in my flowers and trying to become a better gardener when BAM! Razor blade and Benedryl time.
Thankfully, certain bees DIE after they sting me.
Serves them right.
Anyway, no wonder agents, producers and other writers avoid us like the plague. We ARE a plague - like a swarm of bees, descending on them wherever they go so they can't even have a quiet drink in a public place without having to swat at a few of us or without having to stand perfectly still in the desperate hope that we'll just fly away and not land anywhere nearby.
So if, like Christopher Lockhart, you happen to find yourself at one of those rare occasions for up-and-coming agents to get a look at the people behind those faceless query letters, don't waste your breath talking to anyone you actually recognize.
They can't hear you. You're a collective buzz.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
"Hacks are writers you can count on to turn in a screenplay with a by-the-numbers plot; clear first, second and third acts; a love interest; and likable characters. They are writers who do not experience writers block because they have disabled their critical faculties. You will not get a brilliant screenplay out of a hack. But you will always get something you can shoot."Accordingly, I am by no stretch of the imagination a hack. Of course, this definition could be incorrect and I could be a hack because my characters have, in the past, actually been waaaay too likable and I have had to rewrite them -- but that's for another post.
Anyway, I bring this definition up because it reminds me of a formula I saw on a screenwriting blog some place... some time ago.. that made me so angry I almost blew a vein in my forehead.
FORMULA. That's your first clue that it's bad. The word -- FORMULA!
It happened during one of those awful migraine days, too. Ouch. But those days are gone. I'm on week four, migraine free and seizure free, by the way, but one of the side effects of the meds is short term memory loss.
I was leading some children in music last week and forgot what we were singing. Then I was burning CD's and forgot why I was burning them. Yesterday, I was chopping up franks for my son's beanie-weenies and not only did I forget what I was cooking, but I forgot what day it was and whether I was making breakfast or lunch.
Focus. Focus. Must Focus.
What was I talking about?
Basically, this formula that said your screenplay should have such and such beats by this page and some other beat by that page and there was some kind of automation that would check it for you or something. I argued that the formula was a terrible writing tool and a good way to screw up new writers and teach bad writing or something like that. I don't remember what I say when I blow a gasket. I just take a deep breath and blow.
Gee, I wish I could remember where that formula was...
Let me make this clear. I don't have a problem with guides and beat sheets as long they don't extinguish creativity with something as stifling as "Julie must kiss John by page nine". How can you create like that? How do you know it won't happen on page twelve or fifteen until you write it? How do you keep from spitting out formulaic crap?
I think I got pretty beat up on the board for opposing this "great new tool" so if anyone remembers where it is, could you point me to it so I can refresh my memory? That would be cool.
Or, maybe not.
Anyway, the point here is, according to Alex Epstein, this type of formulaic writing by the numbers makes you a hack. Doesn't mean he's right -- but it has my vote.
Wait. What did I just vote on?
Monday, February 12, 2007
Well, I figured it out. Oh yeah. It was simple. It was comically simple. A no brainer even. I'm ashamed that, as a SUPPOSED seasoned writer, I couldn't see it. It was as obvious as a Lakers jersey on a Stars goalie.
Hello? Not the even the same sport! Doh!
Any ONE of you would have read through it and seen it right away. You'd have chewed on it a day or two and tried to come up with a tactful way to ask me what the heck I was thinking. But the good thing here is that I got it. I saw the fly in my own ointment, the zit on my own face, the gray in my own hair, the cellulite on my own hip, the snag in my own stocking, the dandruff on my own scalp, the crease in own my -- okay, you know what, let's just stop right there.
STEP ONE - Just walk away.
Can't? Well, get the flu and sneeze away...
STEP TWO - Read it with fresh eyes after running a fever.
STEP THREE - Hit yourself in the head with a hockey stick when you figure out that while the rewrite made everything better - something else happened - a new, and more natural theme developed and your original theme doesn't necessarily correlate, parallel, or even make sense in the story anymore.
What the? How did that happen?
STEP FOUR - Now rewrite it again and get rid of that forced theme that doesn't belong there! Oh, sure, you can have more than one theme, but do you really want themes competing for attention or even contradicting each other?
I love being a writer. I really, really do!
Sunday, February 11, 2007
You know those little electronic doo-hickies that plug into your wall socket and supposedly run high pitched sounds through the electric currents in the walls and deter mice? Well, I bought dozens of the Black and Decker kind and put them all over the second floor of our office building.
Each one covers a medium size room. There are four in my office.
Every time the assistant manager walks in, he complains about his ears ringing. Plus, the lights are flickering a lot. But no mice.
Monday, February 05, 2007
This is getting old.
Mice love our printers. We have HP Officejet 7210 all-in-one printers and mice have been housing in them. This is no joke. Three separate printers have experienced mouse invasions. To steal a line from Frank Darabont in "The Green Mile", don't that just beat the mousie band?
A mouse ran up my sleeve about a week ago when I pulled a sheet from my printer and yesterday, when I opened the printer, a huge brown mouse was just sitting inside looking at me indignantly as if I had just invaded his privacy.
I can't work like this.
There's been an "urban legend" about a mouse caught in a printer cartridge (see pic - not my pic - I was too busy yelling to take a pic) floating around for some time and I'm here to tell ya', it's no legend. Mice like printers. I've had to replace one printer already, chewed up inside, and we've got two printers that frequently spit out pages spotted with urine and feces.
This is weird. Gross. And weird.
There was a time when mice were my worst nightmare and the mere sight of a mouse induced hyperventilation and vomiting.
Spotting a mouse was a flesh crawling callback to those teenage summers in my great grandmother's rodent infested trailer in Stephenville, Texas, when I had to evade rats during morning egg collections in the wrecked out cars that served as her chicken coops.
Rats often bit me while I crawled around collecting eggs but I figured out that while a ping pong paddle won't scare a rat or even hurt one, the noise the paddle makes on the car's metal frame will make a rat back off long enough to let me escape with my egg basket.
I learned commando moves that summer, not just in the chicken coops but also inside the trailer where it was common for my grandmother to whack a mouse running across the table, swat it to the floor and then continue eating breakfast as if nothing had happened. At night, I'd either sleep sitting upright on a chest of drawers weilding a broom handle or curl up in a sheet cocoon. But in the sheet cocoon, I could still feel the mice crawling on top of me and under the mattress.
The mouse stories could go on -- floors that moved at night, drowning baby mice in the bathtub, and a collective squeal during every rain induced mass exodus that was more terrifying than any event that made Clarice Starling cry out for silence of the lambs.
But that's all in the past.
Now, it's personal. This is my office. We've called exterminators, set traps, put out bait, and bought little electronic do-hickies. Still, I sit here wondering when a little brown rodent is going to run up my sleeve or across my desk. This sucks. I'm not thirteen anymore and I don't even own a ping pong paddle.
But, I'm wearing boots today.
Here mousie, mousie, mousie...
Thursday, February 01, 2007
After two months of rewriting my Nicholl entry, I went through every page beginning to end only to find that the graceful and lyrical design in my head (right) has translated into a jerky discordant composition on paper (left).
I'm heartsick. Puzzled. Curious. And, a little bewildered. The story on paper is what I wrote. It's the same story that was in my head. It's exactly what I outlined and exactly what I sent to the Nicholl last year. But when I read it from beginning to end, it's not what I anticipated. It's not bad. It's different. The story works better. The characters are better. Everything about it is better, but the sum of the parts feels -- I dunno -- different.
What is that? Buyer's remorse?
Or, do I know in my gut that something still doesn't work?
Why can't the story in my head just telekinetically appear on paper without all this annoying fuss and fret and flap and flutter over words?
Of course, there are those who find the weird sand art on the left far more interesting than the exquisite sand art on the right. The left one has a spiraling structure with parallel layers as opposed to the linear one on the right. Sure, that left one has all those boring square parts but they're positioned in such an edgy and quirky way that they have depth, character and a distinctiveness that captures the viewer's eye and holds his attention...