Monday, April 30, 2007

On To Other Things

Writers are often credited with being a peculiar lot and sometimes people are actually disappointed if a writer doesn't act like a screwball.

Then, there's this --

I was in line at the Post Office to mail my Nicholl entry and thought "oh, no, what if the mail treats my screenplay like some of my Netflix envelopes?" Some of them look like they've been gnawed by angry postal workers.

So, I snatched my envelope right out of the hands of the Postmaster and ran back to the counter to stuff my screenplay into a very important looking Priority Mail envelope. That way, I could also get a return receipt and know exactly when my screenplay arrived. Plus, it would get there quicker than most of the other last minute mailers and mine wouldn't get sent out in the very last pile to readers.

I waited in line and handed it back to the Postmaster only to think, "Wait. This doesn't solve a thing." So, I snatched it back.


It's okay. He knows me.

This time, I stuffed my screenplay into an Express Mail envelope.

"You're sure this time?" He asked.

"Of course," I explained, "Now, in case the vehicle carrying my envelope falls prey to flood, earthquake, Apocalypse, or alien abduction, I still have time to print and mail another copy postmarked by May 1st."

As I left, I heard the lady behind me ask, "Was she serious?"

"It's okay," he replied, "she works for the City."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

How to Win a Nicholl Fellowship

If you Google "how to win a Nicholl Fellowship", my blog is the sixth website on the list. Of course, with this post title, it will probably move up. I saw on my Sitemeter list that somebody had arrived here by Googling "how to win a Nicholl Fellowship" so I checked it out. I guess that's what happens when you chronicle your efforts to win a Nicholl as much as I have.

So, if you arrived here by Googling "how to win a Nicholl Fellowship", you should know two things:
  1. I have not won a Nicholl Fellowship -- YET.
  2. The way to win is to write a great screenplay.
By this time next year, maybe when people Google "How to Win a Nicholl Fellowship", they'll arrive here to find an article about how I actually won a Nicholl Fellowship. It could happen.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Writing What You Learn

We're sick of hearing "write what you know". Maybe we should say "write what you learn". Otherwise, there's a finite number of things that can be written by any one person. People will also tell you to write what you like. I'm not okay with that -- unless it's something you also know or you happen to be very good at or are willing to learn.

Yeah, I made a mess of that. Let's go back.

When I was a wee lass, I wrote a fancy tale on my Big Chief tablet about a magic serpent that churned around in the sea looking for love and finding only rejection. Very cliche. Romance has never been my strongest suit.

My serpent sang with a British accent and wore a kilt in honor of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy dreams of Fred and Ethel as a two headed dragon except my serpent only had one head and his name was Davy Jones because what else does a first grade girl in love with the Monkees name her singing serpent? Okay, I had also considered naming him Jimmy (Puff, the Magic Dragon) but come on, who calls a serpent Jimmy?

And yes, I know serpents don't need clothes but my story had illustrations. Stop right now and picture a first grade rendering of a serpent in a Davy Jones haircut. Got it? Yeah. My grandmother said the drawings were obscene and threatened to trash my work.

Did I mention the serpent only had one eye?

The story was tragic -- tragically without plot. My slithering hero simply used his magic powers to make all the beautiful mermaids in the sea love him and then he married the most beautiful-ist one of them all and the rest cried. Serves them right. They were meanies.

The end.

Don't say anything.

I was a kid writing what I liked. It worked because I was a first grader. Or, it didn't work if you were my grandmother. But merely liking something is no longer enough to sustain my stories.

Man, I miss being a kid.

Or, do I?

My seventh grader is trying to enroll in a videography class next year. I didn't even know they HAD videography classes in middle school. The classes are small and the process for getting in is very selective. Basically, you gotta know somebody. Fortunately, my kid knows somebody. Still, he has to write a paper on why he wants to make films and get three teachers to sign off on it. Then he has to write a short script, make a mini film, and submit all this stuff BEFORE he can even be considered.

He's TWELVE! Okay, he'll be thirteen in a month.

He first thought of adapting one of his short stories into a screenplay but ultimately decided that he's a much better writer now than when he wrote any of his old stuff. That sounds familiar. Anyway, adaptation was out. He'd write something new. But what?

That brought up a long discussion about writing what you're good at versus writing what you like.

Here's the thing. Even though I'm all growed up and writing with sharp objects now, I still don't have a knack for writing fantasies. I've tried, but my stories aren't whimsical. They're silly. And my mermaids still cry. The meanies.

I know my niche and I know my shortcomings. Sure, I'm branching out from drama because I also know that the cheese doesn't stand alone and I'd better learn a little something about all genres. In screenwriting, genres inbreed. But I don't write without research and I know where my strengths are.

But, back to my kid.

Know your strengths, I told him. Don't write what you like unless it's also something you already know, are willing to learn, are very good at, or are willing to work hard to get good at.

His answer -- what the?

I used American Idol as an example. Every year, it's the same thing. Most of the contestants don't know how to pick the right music. The only good answer to "why did you pick that song?" is "because I kick butt when I sing it" (and maybe "I want to make David Hasselhoff cry"). Reasons like "it was playing when I proposed to my wife" or "it touches my heart" or "it reminds me of my daughter" don't ease the pain of a weak performance.

Same thing with writers. You can't just write what you like. You can't. It's not enough. You gotta back it up with something substantial. Can't back it up? Then learn it, research it, study it. Every time we hand in a spec, we're asking somebody to spend a whole lot of money making our film. We are asserting that we are the experts in our own story realm. And, we should be.

Example: How many pirate screenplays have you read where the writer doesn't know his way around a ship, map, or history book? He's just tossing out stuff he's heard in the movies or stolen out of other scripts. Yeah, I know, everyone loves pirate tales right now. Everyone. EVERYONE! But, if you have never read a David Cordingly book ... what? You don't know who David Cordingly is? Then, don't write a pirate story! Don't.

Research. Research. Research.

Some people even lack the capacity to learn about certain subjects. I'm not insulting anyone. This is true. Trust me on this one. If I was good at math, I might have the capacity to understand more about the accomplishments of Fields Medalists. I'm fascinated by the Fields Medal and would love to research Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman who declined the honor in 2006. But you don't want me writing a screenplay about Perelman. You know why? Because of Riemannian geometry and geometric topology. Perelman proved Thurston's geometrization conjecture and solved Poincaré conjecture, which is about the characterization of the three-dimensional sphere amongst three-dimensional manifolds.

And that's when my head exploded.

I lack the capacity. Seriously. Can't do it.

But, I can write about complex legislature, zoning regulations, ordinances, election codes, municipal laws, and stuff that would make some other heads explode. But not math. Never math.

Oh, and I like baseball.

So, what's the boy gonna do? Well, I figured by the way our conversation ended that he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Then this morning, when my middle son was whining about how much he disliked studying for his SAT, the little guy retorted, "Yeah but when you're actually taking the test, it's not really gonna matter what you like, is it? All that matters is what you know."

Okay, not exactly the context I was going for, but the kid is smart.

He'll be just fine.

The seventeen year old, on the other hand, called him a "douche".

The meanie.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Her Name is Lauren McCain

I didn't know her. Her name is Lauren McCain and that beautiful smile belongs to the cousin of a friend of mine. A monster (who shall remain nameless on this blog) bought his celebrity with her life and 31 others. His picture will be shown on the news long after hers. His name will be remembered by the world long after hers. He should be punished with anonymity. She should not. Her name is Lauren McCain. Her family is from Oklahoma.

ADDENDUM (4/23/07): I didn't know a thing about Lauren McCain when I posted this picture. Now I do. I've never met Lauren or her family (other than her distant cousin who attends church with me) but reading about Lauren is like seeing the sunlight break through a whirlwind. When her family's pain becomes less unspeakable, someone will write a book about Lauren. I wish them luck trying to explain what beauty is. She was extraordinary. EXTRAORDINARY. I have no doubt Lauren would have changed the world had she lived. She may change it anyway. She has left a lasting impression on it.

Sitemeter shows that dozens of people have come here in the past few days looking for information about Lauren McCain. I don't know much. But, I've wept for this girl. She would probably say, however, to weep for her killer instead. Lauren was buried yesterday (April 22, 2007) in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Guestbook in Memory of Lauren McCain
Exception to the Rule

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Legislative Nod for Film Industry in Texas

House Bill 1634, which provides incentives for film, television, and multimedia production industries, passed unanimously today on third reading. According to the Texas Film Commission, Texas has lost 29 films, $313 million in direct spending and approximately 4500 jobs to states that offer incentives. This bill has had a long journey through the legislative process already but when it finally made it through the House, it was without a single vote a dissension.

Personally, I think portions of this bill are too lean and I have a concern with one particular provision. However, in all fairness, I haven't compared the incentives to other states so my local government perspective probably means squat. And, even if I'm right, I think at this stage, you have to pick your battles. Better to get this bill on the books and seek an amendment in the next legislative session than to stall any longer.

On to the Senate.


Will someone please explain to me how the Legislative Budget Board can report to the Recreation & Tourism Committee that "No significant fiscal implication to the State is anticipated" in this memo? (which has bad information, by the way - I think the bill was amended after it was written)

Here's the thing. Isn't it BECAUSE we anticipate MONUMENTAL fiscal implications to the State that we even want this? Yeah. Yeah. I know you're talking about budget amendments and funding required to pass the bill but that's not what it looks like to non-government average Joes and filmmakers tracking the bill online. To them, it looks like the bill won't be funded. Besides, form memos feel more like they're reporting about congratulatory resolutions on 100th birthdays than critical legislation.

So, please --

(1) Word internal memos more carefully and consider the public relations implications of taking a cookie cutter approach to reporting on bills (yes, I do know how many you report on)

(2) Take this one off the web. Yeah, it's public record but if anyone wants to see it they can get it in Austin. Take it off. Please. It's not accurate anymore anyway and we look like schmucks.

Oh, and thank you. Thank you very much for the vote today.

HB1634 Legislative History Online
Texas Film Commission

Playing Blogosphere Tag

Tagged by Unk who was tagged by Caroline who was tagged by Ridley who was tagged by this person who, for some reason, is a dead end but I'm supposed to tell you five things about me that you don't know. Alrighty then. Of course, in the 360 plus posts on this blog, I can't possibly remember everything I've let slip but most likely I've never mentioned that --
  • I ate Special K with green tea for breakfast this morning. Shut up. I don't like milk. Hey, that should count for two, right?
  • I don't like milk.
  • I have six flutes and one piccolo but don't call me a flautist. I don't own a flaut.
  • I have two uvulas. I thought everyone had two uvulas and always wondered why cartoons were drawn incorrectly until I had a son born with birth defects including a cleft palate and I went in for genetic tests. Then I learned that -- oh, wait, this is the fifth one --
  • I was born with a cleft palate but it was incomplete and resembled the holes between your fingers if you loosely clasp your hands. It eventually healed itself but couldn't repair the split in the uvula -- leaving two uvulas.

And now, lucky me, I get to tag people who are probably too busy writing to play but I suffer and we all suffer so cheers Scott, potdoll, Lianne, Todd, and Olaf.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don't Step on the Ducks

Sometimes, ugly is a matter of perspective.

As I go through the final proofs on my Nicholl entry and try to still the volcanic nerves in my stomach while I pretend this has nothing to do with validation, I remind myself that readers are subjective human beings and perspective is like stepping on ducks --

Three women die together and go to heaven. Saint Peter greets them with, “We only have one rule: don’t step on the ducks!” They do their best but since there are ducks everywhere, the first woman steps on a duck anyway and Saint Peter chains her to the ugliest man she's even seen saying, “Your punishment for stepping on a duck is to spend eternity chained to this ugly man!” Eventually the second woman also steps on a duck and along comes St. Peter with another set of chains and another extremely ugly man.

The third woman is very, VERY careful where she steps. She manages to go months without stepping on any ducks, but one day Saint Peter chains her to the most handsome man she has ever seen. The ecstatic woman says, “I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all of eternity?” The guy says, “I don’t know about you, but I stepped on a duck!”
Lucky gal. Poor guy.


But, how does Saint Peter choose an ugly person?

I taught at a women's conference in Wisconsin once and I gotta tell you, those dear women were hospitable, gracious, and friendly but they weren't what America considers attractive. During meals, they would shower me with compliments and ask me questions about caring for my figure and complexion. I had to avoid the few men around because they kept sniffing me, taking my picture, and trying to touch my hair. True story. Now fast forward to the land of movie stars. In California, I'm a man! Men don't even look at me. Well, okay, a few men DO look at me because they THINK I'm a man.


We writers find great comfort in fingering the subjectivity of readers as the orange cones blocking the threshold of our careers. But a lot of us actually do suck. And, my guess is that most of us aren't half the writers we think we are. Yes, there's a mirror hanging nearby and ouch, the pain from even typing those words shoots straight into my soul. But, subjectivity doesn't negate or invalidate a conclusion. It only means the conclusion had to be based on something and that something was subjectivity.

One of the most interesting lists of contest advice for writers I've seen has been posted various places but it originated on twoadverbs. com and is updated in this Christopher Lockhart post about how one reader actually culls his slushpile. The reader, identified only as Johnny Rude, gives nine non-apologetic rules for preparing your work for a contest. He doesn't read most of the screenplays he's given to judge. Seriously. Does NOT READ THEM. Why? Because he's not evaluating each screenplay's merits or giving feedback. He is comparing the 100 screenplays he's been given.

So, it's kind of like judging a beauty contest where all the contestants are screenplays. Before he even starts the talent portion of the competition, he flips through the pages and eliminates contestants with flaws that jump out at him. Dense narratives. Flowery dialogue. Formatting abuse. That sounds reasonably objective to me -- even though "how dense is too dense" and "how flowery is too flowery" are still subjective -- in an equal opportunity "you just wasted my time and your entry fee" sort of way.

Lockhart mentions a contest where he thought only half of the top ten screenplays belonged there but he didn't know if it was because the other entries were that bad or the process of selection was that flawed. I'm guessing both.

My own opinion is that all contest selection processes must be fundamentally flawed. They must be. I don't see how it's possible to create an equitable process out one that is inherently based on so many inequitable variables. Multitudes of screenplays are dealt out in different piles and sent out different doors on different days to different towns to different readers with different backgrounds and who are experiencing different hormone levels during different emotional states of their vastly different lives. No amount of screening or standardizing of scores can change somebody's predisposition for drama over comedy or their disdain for horror.

The process doesn't work.

And yet, it works.

It works because, as subjective as people are, sometimes ugly is just ugly. Maybe contests don't always get the "best" screenplay and sometimes a "better" one rises above a "best", but has the "worst" ever won? Be fair. Don't say "yes" unless you've read some of the juvenile crap that gets entered in contests alongside the well-written stuff. The worst doesn't win because the worst is the worst.

So, back to the the Nicholl.

I'm proofing, editing, reading and re-reading every single page over and over again because I'm not just entering the Nicholl this year. I want to win. But here's the thing. In my small circle of friends here in no-place, Texas, I'm a brilliant writer. Genius, even. But compared to screenwriters who advance in the Nicholl every year, I may be the writer you get chained to if you step on a duck.

That depends, of course, on whether you write in Wisconsin or California.


Friday, April 06, 2007

You Can Ring My Bell

Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings -- or a football player gets a concussion -- or somebody does something stupid they can't take back. Bells open the stock market, herald weddings, end boxing rounds, and send my dogs to the front door in a barking frenzy but once a bell has rung, you can't un-ring it.

Stay with me. I have a screenwriting point.

Last Friday night, I met the other ladies in my ensemble two hours before our benefit performance because we like to get sound checks out of the way and then listen to the other entertainers warm up. That way, if anything goes wrong -- our music malfunctions, we have wardrobe problems, or somebody’s car breaks down on the way -- we’ve got time to repair or recover. Plus, few people actually hear us until performance time.

It puzzles me to hear people warming up on stage five minutes before a performance. They spoil it for the audience. Plus, whatever nerves they display, frustrations they exhibit, or mistakes they make, those are embedded into the audience’s mind ahead of time. Those things become the audience's first impression and you can’t un-ring that bell.

Sometimes, it's by stupid choice. Sometimes, it's by stupid chance. But sooner or later, we all blow an opportunity to make a smokin' hot first impression. Sure, we learn from it and move on. Still, I'm trying to learn not to blow it in the first place.

In the same way that some of us seem to have more talent for writing about screenwriting than actually screenwriting, there are also screenwriters who have a knack for getting reads long before our screenplays are ready to be sent out.

Don't do it.

Connections are good. Make them. Keep them. Nurture them.

But, here’s the problem.

An amateur writer often has the good fortune to meet somebody who might be able to eventually help his career so he rushes to give that writer, producer, or director an early draft of something and expects that new contact to mentally fill in the gaps and imagine how great the final product will be when it’s actually complete or polished.

Not gonna happen.

That writer just established himself as a mediocre or even poor writer by handing over a half baked product. His new connection will now be reluctant to read anything else from him. That writer now looks like the thousands of writers out there who think they have more skill and talent than they actually have even if he's not one of the clack-in-a-box screenwriters straight out of a software program.

Trust me. I've rung that bell.

Sometimes agents and managers know that a writer is working on a certain project, pressure him to see progress and often push that in-progress material (or so I'm told - I haven't actually rung this bell because my agent has been awol so long that I'm not sure I even have an agent anymore which may actually be a good thing but subject for another post). That's their job - to get the writer's material out there. Yeah, I know, give the agents and managers some credit. They know skeletal in-progress work when they see it. All I'm saying is we need to know what our agents and managers are doing with what we're giving them.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the "don't go out half dressed" rule especially in established working relationships. But even professionals confront non-writers who don't always understand in-progress writing. "Rough draft", to many non-writers, means "ready to shoot" except for a few typos. Producers often see a "placeholder" scene and think you've just written a crappy one.

Case in point -- The Dead Man's Chest DVD extras show a problem with a Tia Dalma scene. This was an interesting situation because so much of the big production preparation stuff was taking place already while the screenplay was still being written. In this situation, Gore Verbinski called in Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio because a scene was so bad that they couldn't even use it for casting. The writers explained that the scene was nothing more than a placeholder to demonstrate that they needed a four minute scene in that location and was never meant to be read by actors. DOH! Ted said something to the degree that in the future maybe they'd be better off just writing placeholders as "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" for four pages.

That bell caused some hard feelings, but it apparently had to be rung due to production schedules.

Okay, back to me. Last Friday night was just weird. Storms knocked the electricity out so yeah, we were there two hours early but we warmed up acapella with a men’s group while we waited for the power company to show up. We actually had a great time harmonizing off the cuff by candlelight and the weather was so freaky that even though we got the power back, few people even showed by curtain time. When we did do our sound check, it was in front of the entire audience of 27 people. Fun times.

Some things you just can't plan.

I guess the point here is that since we can't un-ring a bell, we should never plan to ring one until it's ready but always be ready in case it rings anyway.

And, yeah, you'll have that Anita Ward 70's disco song in your head all day now. If I have to suffer, we all have to suffer.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Morgan Freeman at AFI

This will conclude my AFI Dallas posts because (1) AFI is over (2) I'm no good at covering film festivals and (3) after Morgan Freeman, there's nothing left for me to say because I am just too in love with this guy as an artist and probably missed my one and only opportunity to see and hear him. (I gotta get better connections)

Interview Photos With Morgan Freeman - I wasn't witness to this interview, but Hudson Photographic has captured what I can only call pure enchantment. Hey, is that the Numa Numa guy on the left?

10 Items or Less With Morgan Freeman AFI Photos - The visually astute will notice that the first few photos are not Morgan Freeman. It's actually Joe Pantoliano. See that long dark haired girl pleading for an autograph in the last photo? No, that's not me but we could be twins if she grew a foot and I grew a smile. She stood in the 10 Items or Less line with me and we commiserated together when neither of us got in. I ran down Pantoliano for her because she was too shy to ask for his autograph. She appears to have overcome her nerves. Good for her.

Photos of Morgan Freeman Receiving Award from Senator Royce West - Have you ever been at the grocery store and seen an old bully from school and even though he'd forgotten you, YOU still remember him so you ducked behind the display of pork and beans and used the mirror in your compact to watch for him to leave the store? Although I'm heartsick that I missed this screening, maybe it's a good thing because although I haven't worked in this senator's district in ten years, I'm pretty sure I'd still be looking for the pork and beans.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Canvas, the Film at AFI Dallas

Canvas was up against nine other films in the narrative competition at AFI Dallas but lost to Shut up and Shoot Me, a dark comedy written and directed by Steen Agro.

Maybe it's because I like underdogs or have a special interest in films that take on the stigma of mental illness. Maybe it's because writer/director Joseph Greco and producer/star Joe Pantoliano seem to have so much heart and enthusiasm. Or, maybe I was just so relieved that this film lacked the ickyness and whimsy of Running With Scissors. Whatever my motive, Canvas gets my one and only "film I'm willing to stick my amateur reviewer neck out for" vote.

In Canvas, a father and son cope with the schizophrenia of Mary, mother to Chris and wife to John, as they resist accepting that she'll never get better. The character driven story plays real and the heavy situations work while still allowing you to breathe. Primary actors portray their roles to perfection and some of the simplest dialogue is carried out with wit and charm. Father and son become estranged and separately find unique ways to bury their own fears, yielding good things for them and comic moments for us.

Portions of the film are lethargic and if I had to guess, I'd say the problem is editing because the film feels longer than it really is. It's just not tight enough and we never get a good sense of time within the film either. Supporting roles are hit and miss and I never enjoyed the score until the last very last scene.

Pantoliano said that Canvas didn't start out as an "issue" film. I don't believe him. Greco based the story on his own life with his schizophrenic mother. But issue films aren't a bad thing unless they cram something down our throats and Canvas doesn't do that. Instead, it invites us to witness events without jerking our hearts around too much. Plus, it ends on an upbeat, although confusing, note of acceptance.

As I was watching a scene in Canvas where the boy is being teased in school about his mother's illness, I was remembering my niece and her friend, Sarah. Sarah's mother was put in a mental hospital not too long ago after holding police at bay in her front yard with her hair dryer while threatening to "blow them away". True story. Sarah went to live with her grandmother and every day Sarah attends school where kids know about her "crazy" mother.

While Canvas is making the film festival rounds, has won a few awards and has even appeared at a mental health symposium, the main reason I'd like to see success for Canvas is not so much because of the film's creative merits or even because Eddie and the Cruisers were singing "Tender Years" in my head while Pantoliano posed for a photo with me. It's because even if this film is only used by schools, hospitals, and mental health support services, I think there's a place for it.

Mental illness is a matter that affects the entire family and Canvas filmmakers crafted a movie that most of the family can actually watch. Pair that with Pantoliano's announcement that, as of Saturday, the film had secured distributorship and Canvas could just be a small step for all of the Sarahs out there.

Canvas, The Film
Composer, Joel Goodman