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.


Mystery Man said...

I read somewhere, one of many script magazines, a top exec for CAA maybe or some other agency, who said that a newbie should have 3 great slam-dunk specs under his/her belt before stepping out there, and I tend to pass along this advice on TriggerStreet. I think that's true. I think you should know before you step out onto the world stage a) how to do it, b) have enough feedback from fellow craftsman on your scripts to know that they work, and c) have 3 great specs to prove you're not a one-hit wonder.

A really great post, MaryAn.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

The one hit wonder concern is, I'm sure, why the first question is always "what else have you got?"

Unk said...

Probably the very BIGGEST problem going among prospective professional screenwriters is the compulsion of getting that new script OUT THERE after they've finished it.

If nothing else... Live with that script for 1 to 3 months before getting it out there and then go back and reread it. If nothing pops out at you, have somebody else you TRUST give it a read.


Because your post is RIGHT ON THE MONEY.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Funny thing. I even sit on my posts. Sat on this post a week.

E.C. Henry said...

So have you gotten your wings yet, Marry Ann?

As far a writting and ringing bells go I'm of the oppinion that write as well as you can then don't be afraid to put it out there. Life's a learning process. People in the "biz" aren't stupid. If you've got tallent they'll note that. Writing is meant to be read by someone, so I say don't be afraid to ring some bells.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

No wings, EC. But I did see stars when I bumped my head on my sister's wind chimes. Does that count?

You are correct that life is a learning process. I've learned not to rush my work or send it out too soon. That was an embarrassing lesson, too, and it has taken me over a year to even get the courage to write about it.

When we send out specs, we're basically saying to the producer, "spend a lot of money making this, please". Readers aren't in the business of being charitable to diamonds in the rough. They're in the business of finding the needle in the haystack. How's that for mixing my metaphors?