Thursday, June 28, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere

Since elevation is on my side, my home won't be swept away any time soon but the water is inches from my back door due to ground saturation and substandard engineering in my unincorporated area. I may lose my carpet at this rate. Funny. We're still under drought restrictions due to three years of record low rainfalls and bone dry reservoirs last year that are now several feet above normal.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Do You Feel What I Feel?

"What sells scripts in Hollywood these days is emotions."

This is a comment from a set of notes that Patrick received from a competition he advanced in. While I thought it sounded like the reviewer wanted Rocky instead of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the writer took the comment well and didn't find it nearly as amusing or patronizing as I did.

Of course films are emotional and these days aren't any different than any other days, are they? Well, are they?

Films are about the human experience and since we who walk upright are emotional creatures, films are also about an emotional experience. Regardless of what the emotion is and whether it's associated with the birth of a new nation or the death of a salesman, viewers need characters they can relate to and they do that at an emotional level.

Screenplays must meet the reader at an emotional level because films must meet the viewer at that same spot. How do you do that? In this post about character empathy, I steal Karl Iglesias' theory that the key is to create emotions that all readers (and viewers) recognize by exploiting three basic truths about human nature and empathy:

(1) We care about individuals we feel sorry for
(2) We care about individuals who display humanistic traits
(3) We care about individuals who have traits we all admire

Using this formula, films yank our emotional chains in the most intimate and personal ways and compel us to feel what our characters feel so we can identify with the story. What parent can't identify with a man willing to endure any hardship and go to any extremes to find his missing son? Finding Nemo isn't about animated sea creatures. It's about a parent's worst nightmare -- an Amber alert -- only it happens on a twelve foot screen to a Clownfish aided by a Regal Blue Tang with short term memory loss. That's why it works for adults. The father overcomes his fear for the love of his son and finds joy in a new bond and new relationships.

Love, joy, fear . . . powerful emotions and certainly not our only ones. If we only witness emotions as casual observers, then the film has not done its job. But when a film drags us on board and we either laugh at or agonize through those feelings with the characters as they suffer, celebrate, and tremble, then a film, as Iglesias' points out, has successfully exploited our emotions.


To those who saw it in the theater, Jaws may very well define FEAR in film. They remember the first time they saw that pair of willowy legs swimming in ignorant peril and simply hearing John Williams' chromatic rumblings of a double bass as the shark approaches its first victim epitomizes the ultimate film terror experience. For me, ultimate film fear is an early childhood memory of King Kong , the Jurassic Park T-Rex crushing those children in the jeep, and David Hasselhoff using his pectoral muscles for rocket propulsion in the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Sheer terror.

Victory moments where the protagonist comes out on top and we get to cheer, pound our chests, and throw our popcorn are what I like to think of as Mighty Ducks moments because I still have a movie theater memory of a half dozen screaming eight year olds jumping for JOY and punching the air at a tie breaking penalty shot in overtime. For some, I guess JOY is a Chariots of Fire moment or a Father of the Bride moment. Not me. JOY in film for me is defined by quacking hockey players.

Titanic is the quintessential LOVE story to many while to others it's Ghost or An Affair to Remember. Me? I get choked up watching Meatballs. Can't help it. My kids are runners and the story is about a little runner and a counselor who changes that kid's life by nurturing in him a sense of self worth and teaching him the value of a (sort of) moral victory because "it just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!" They LOVE him, man! LOVE him! And, for the first time in that kid's life, he understands what it means to feel like HE matters.

That's real LOVE, people.

Kids matter.

Gets me every time.

. . .

. . .

Too much.

I'm gonna need a minute.

Something in my eye.

. . .

. . .


Okay, moving on.

While love, joy and fear are likely the most frequently exploited emotions in screenwriting, a veritable buffet of human emotion combinations in varying degrees and limitless shades is at the mercy of our pens.

Write a story with characters in love and that's sweet. Some viewers will relate. Some won't. It might depend on how hot the girl is or what kind of car the guy drives.

Write a story with characters in love and throw in a dash of anger, a touch of grief, a hint of shame, a bunch of jealousy, a little insecurity, and a whole lot of curiosity and you've got yourself characters with dimension. They've got more than one emotion going on so there's a good chance most people out there can relate to them. Everyone will be sucked into SOMETHING these people are feeling that they, too, have felt at one time or another.

Are there films that epitomize certain emotions for you the way King Kong defines fear for me, Mighty Ducks defines joy for me, and Meatballs defines the perfect love story for me? It IS perfect, you know. It's a beautiful thing to teach a kid to love himself. Beautiful. Just beautiful. The way he calls that kid Rudy the rabbit. . . it gets me. Right here. It gets me.

Excuse me. Something in my eye again.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sorry, Wrong Number

For those of you who Googled "Nicholl Fellowship results" or some derivative thereof and wound up here, to answer your question, you must wait 43 days (or slightly fewer) to get your coveted Greg Beal letter. Letters should appear in mailboxes around August 1.

For all your future Nicholl needs, THIS is the link to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences official page for information on the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

I am not a Nicholl aficionado. I just play one on the internet. Greg Beal is the grand imperial Nicholl poobah and he has been known to pop in on Zoetrope and Wordplay so best to try to get your questions answered from him.

Do come back in August and find out if I advanced to the quarterfinals. Er, I mean, celebrate with me WHEN I ADVANCE. Yeah, that's it. Then, we'll talk.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pimping Our Unknown Neighbor

While many of us may have thought The Unknown Screenwriter's transformational character arc series would never end, we've finally been told to stick a fork in it - a charming invitation as only Unk could extend one - but instead of finding closure, he's thrown open the floodgates of opportunity with an ingenious suggestion for mapping your protagonist's transformation -- the Kubler Ross Model as it address the five stages of grief or the "grief cycle".

We typically think of the grief cycle as it relates to coping with death, but people grieve in just about any situation where they feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them. Whether your protagonist is fired from his job, betrayed by a friend, filing bankruptcy, or just learned he was adopted from the planet Remulak, he probably experiences these stages --
  • Shock, Denial, Confusion

  • Anger, Embarrassment, Shame

  • Depression, Blahs, Detachment

  • Bargaining, Dialogue, Attempt to Find Meaning

  • Acceptance, Exploring Options, A New Plan in Place

Toodle next door to Unk's blog and read the entire post, Transformational Character Arc, Part 14 and any other parts if you've fallen behind. He's working on making the series available as a handy dandy download but the whole thing smacks of a pocket reference book to me.

Friday, June 15, 2007

You Are What You Eat

What we know about screenwriting is a cumulative digestion of experience and knowledge but since we aspiring screenwriters are usually lean on experience, our diet consists mostly of books, seminars, DVD's, film school classes, and the miscellaneous other means by which we follow the teachings of gurus such as tracking them in the trades and stalking their screenwriting advice on the internet like starving dogs rooting through garbage cans.

They are the gurus. We hunger for what they know to the point of trying to eat their very brains! Poor things. No wonder they avoid us at parties.

But are there theories that should be excluded from a newbie diet or do the tidbits of every guru brain merit being gobbled up by wannabe screenwriters?

Maybe that depends on whether or not the person feeding you is actually a guru and whether or not you really know exactly what it is you're being fed.

Philippe Falardeau, a Quebecois screenwriter and director, is quoted on another site as saying to "never have contempt for your characters". That's all. No lead up. No context. Nothing to tell us whether this quote was from an article, conference, or seminar. No explanation of what he meant. Somebody just regurgitated that quote and said "discuss" as if the quote held such self explanatory genius that every reader with any degree of recognition for such ecclesiarchal aptitude would seize the opportunity to "discuss".

Consider it seized. Let's "discuss".

Contempt for your characters. Let's see . . . does this EVER happen? When would a writer have contempt for their own characters? Writers cannot write compelling dialogue for characters they don't value and find critical to their story.

Maybe he meant contemptible characters.

No. Can't be.

We must write contemptible characters. They are the fuel that ignites conflict and their demise brings about restoration and reconciliation.

Perhaps he meant that we shouldn't feel contempt for our shallow and one dimensional characters.

That can't be it. We SHOULD have contempt for those characters. Kill them! Kill them, now! Sorry. I get carried away. Just rewrite them.

Here's the point. As with any diet, there is no magic pill that will absolve you of doing the work and not all authors on any subject are experts. That doesn't mean a person has to be an expert to have something valuable to say. But I do think people occasionally throw out accidental placebos.

Was the Falardeau remark a placebo? Beats me. We only got a regurgitated portion of it. He may have said something weighty and penetrating that will echo through eternity and forever change the way screenwriters craft their characters. But we only got scraps of what he fed his audience. Was it sirloin or was it Puppy Chow?

Unqualified screenwriting advice is food poisoning of epidemic proportions and people like me are blogging, posting, commenting and questioning based on our limited knowledge. Writers better be prepared to evaluate and discern based on their own knowledge, experience, writing styles, and needs because in many writing situations, there is no one size fits all. Don't trust me. Verify and research anything I say. I may not know what I'm talking about.

Furthermore, mentors and gurus will even contradict each other now and then although they usually DO know precisely what they're talking about. Why do they contradict? Go back to my lead in. What we know is a cumulative digestion and each person's own experiences and knowledge are the foundation for their creative fingerprints.

Don't depend on somebody else to bottle feed comprehension to you. Life doesn't work that way. Neither can you simply regurgitate something you hear and expect your mentors to grind it into mashed bananas and spoon it to you. Writers don't work that way.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Terry Rossio Confirmed for AFF

So now you simply must attend the Austin Film Festival. You can buy your badge online or by calling the AFF office at 1-800-310-FEST. Missed AFF last year because of new job and other commitments. Moving mountains this year if I have to.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Plenty of Reason to Fear

Took my niece to the movies last night and got a look at the trailer for the new Underdog live action film. You heard me. Underdog. Live. Action.

There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!


I'm a HUGE Underdog fan. Huge. He's Dudley Do-right with fleas. Hip, but nerdy. His dialogue is so corny and lyrically lame that it's brilliant. But this caped canine doesn't have the widespread instant recognition of Garfield. He's unknown to young audiences so why does he have to be a live action character?

Maybe that's why.

Voiced by Jason Lee, Underdog is really a beagle named Shoeshine Boy who owes his crime fighting superpowers to a lab accident. How original. A lab accident. Just don't make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

While Amy Adams can easily pull off Sweet Polly Purebred, the dog she's voicing is woefully miscast. Please. Polly Purebred is a classy dog. Not just any spaniel will do. Did nobody have a breed list for the Westminster Kennel Club?

The opposite may be true with Peter Dinklage as Simon Bar Sinister. Thin his hair, paint him green and he's spot on as the mad scientist but does he have the voice? Let's practice, Peter. Can you say "Simon says that the literal translation of my name is 'Simon, the Evil Bastard' but nobody researched it even though this is a family friendly film?"

Guess fourth graders won't catch that.

Whatever happens with this film, one thing is ironically clear to me. Once again, Underdog has the odds against him.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Life Lessons and Surface Water Systems

While I'm frequently convinced that God is trying to get my attention in peculiar and unconventional ways (He's God, He doesn't post on my blog), my source of inspiration today comes from Chris Soth who actually quotes a Simpsons episode and says “Maybe there isn’t any lesson. Maybe this is just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

Chris gives us the benefit of his three years of therapy and reminds us that sometimes things just happen. It doesn't define you. In his case, a television left on too loud and one time too many. In mine, one too many careless remarks that I don't even recall making but cost me and made me look like a gossipy, mean-spirited person.

The thing is, Chris says, not to let these things send you into a downward spiral of rumination, moping and dark thoughts and shame. He's facing eviction and says "I'll move or work it out." Acting like you deserve it is a recipe for depression and who deserves to feel shame because they forgot to turn a television off?

That's good advice. Move or work it out.

In my job, I'm bombarded with complaints, problems and ethical dilemmas. There is nobody I can vent to and no direction in which I can blow off steam without looking like a bad person. Yet, there's only so much stress and anxiety the human mind can contain before spillage occurs just as there's only so much water the ground can absorb in a thunderstorm before runoff occurs.

Storm drains prevent floods.

I don't have a storm drain. Everyone needs storm drains. But, with my proclivity for talking, more than most people, I desperately need a storm drain.

Pop over and give Dave and Chris a word of encouragement.

They're experiencing some runoff.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Another Blog Bites the Dust

Ran across another farewell message on a screenwriting blog yesterday. Shame. Sort of. It didn't really have much to offer in the way of screenwriting, but it fed my air of superiority in a "crap-plus-one" kind of way.

I'm such a snot.

Blogging isn't for everyone as it consumes so much precious screenwriting time and takes away from little league games and jobs that pay the light bills and, let's face it, some people simply run out of stuff to talk about it. I'm apparently not one of those people. This is my 375th post.

Several defunct links on my blogroll are about to get the ax but I'll keep a few DOA's around for their archived gems. Christopher Lockhart tired of blogging after a year but he's got great stuff worth repeat reads. Don't miss his Wet T-Shirt Contest post. It will change your life.

Julie was absent for a few months and while I somewhat grieve that her reappearance is an indication of a pothole on her yellow brick road, Julie has one of those few blogs that you read and immediately know that the author's fingers are destined for something greater. The English language is her servant. It submits to her like little Stepford words that just obediently carry her thoughts from noodle to keyboard.

I want to write like that.

Sometimes, I read a screenwriting blog and wonder if the author is really a writer at all. Arrogant, I know. A blog is not a literary barometer. But, I get so vexed at the abundance of botched verb conjugations and mis-placed modifiers that I wish I had a "delete" key for the blogs that make the rest of us amateur screenwriters look like schmucks.

But, wait.

What if mine is one of those that makes the rest of YOU look like schmucks?

Speaking of ...

A line from Music and Lyrics made me shiver when I heard it. Or, maybe that was just chills from the ice that mysteriously kept falling down my cleavage even though I didn't have a drink in my hand. I'd have gotten angry at those punks behind me who were chunking ice, but any time guys who still have their teeth pay attention to me, it's a good thing, even if they're wearing a dog collar and black eyeliner.

Anyway, the line says something like "She's a brilliant mimic and can ape Dorothy Parker or Emily Dickenson, but stripped of somebody else's literary clothing, she's an empty, vacant, imitation of a writer."

Not only did I wish I had written that line, but I wanted to run out of the movie theater screaming, "That's not me! That's not me! I swear to Don and Gee Nicholl! It's not me!"

Then there was Unk's post about theme. I mentioned that theme is what separates the pointed writers with something to say from the pointless ones who just want to say something. Somehow we got from that to Clive's remark about "the endless struggle of many people to validate themselves as human beings by achieving success in what they perceive to be a glamorous industry".

Validation. Interesting.

Blogs die for various reasons - lack of time or interest, newfound success or industry work- but I wonder if some of them don't die for lack of validation. Maybe some bloggers figure out how few people are actually coming to their blog party or the replies they get aren't very reassuring. I know a little something about wanting validation. Most days at work, I feel like Superman forced to pretend I'm Shoeshine Boy. No, I don't mean Clark Kent. That would be a step up.

When in this world the headlines read
Of those whose hearts are filled with greed
Who rob and steal from those who need
To right this wrong with blinding speed
Goes Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

I digress.

The point is that I'm disappointed when blogs disappear . But, not that much. I'm still blogging and so are countless other writers -- a dozen or so that I've come to depend on for inspiration and wisdom. It's like a screenwriting community that feeds each other's ...


Hmm. I could have sworn somebody was out there.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Access Characters

First of all, who decided “abstruse” is even a word? Did somebody merge “abstract” with “obtuse” and then slip the editors at Websters a few hundred bucks to stick it in the dictionary?

I can make up words, too, ya’ know.


How’s that?

Let’s go with it, shall we?

Some of my favorite characters in film are deceptively stupidiotic.

I’m talking about certain "access characters". For some reason, my favorite access characters are buffoons who save the day. Accidental heroes. But whether nincompoops or brainiacs, access characters exist to ask questions that we would ask if the film could talk back to us. These characters open doors, pry, call attention, snoop, interfere, assist, get in the way, and often launch the entire story. To the untrained eye, access characters often look superfluous when, in fact, they are essential to the story.

Access characters serve a function. They aren't a particular character role or personality type. They have a job to do and the writer decides where, when, and how well or poorly that job is performed. Access characters are facilitators of a sort. Conduits.

The R2D2 and C3PO droids in Star Wars are frequently compared to Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Star Wars doesn't work unless the droids are there to provide everyone access to the information about the princess in the first place and, ultimately, the death star plans. These characters are critical to the story and to the other characters. But they're critical to the viewer, too, because they also ask our questions.

C-3PO: Master Luke, sir. Pardon me for asking, but what should R2 and I do if we're discovered here?
Luke: Lock the door.
Han Solo: And hope they don't have blasters.
C-3PO: That isn't very reassuring.

They want to know what we want to know. What are they supposed to do being left behind like that?

Similarly, the Murtogg and Mullroy characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, while clown-like and bumbling, give us access to story information (history of the Black Pearl) and they ask the very questions, we're asking.

Murtogg: What we doin' 'ere?
Mullroy: The pirates come out, unprepared and unawares. We catch 'em in a crossfire... send 'em down to see Old Hob.
Murtogg: I know *why* we're here. I mean, why aren't we doin' what - what Mr. Sparrow said? With the cannons and all?
Norrington: Because it was Mr. Sparrow who said it.

But access characters don't necessarily come in pairs and they aren't always fools who accidentally save the day. Those just happen to be my favorite ones to watch.

I have a list of access characters that I had planned to discuss in this post - some more clever than others and some better executed than others - but to "get them" requires the reader to have seen the film and still retain substantial memory of the character.

Or, I would need to write a very long post.

Not gonna happen.

Instead, I challenge you to look for characters serving as conduits in the next few films you watch. What access are they providing between you and the story? Who would you compare them to? They can't all be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so who are they? What investigating are they doing on your behalf and would the story work without them?

One last example and then you're on your own. This one is from National Treasure:

Powell: How do a bunch of people with hand tools build all this?
Ben Gates: The same way they built the pyramids and the Great Wall of China.
Riley Poole: Yeah. The aliens helped them.

Okay, maybe that one was too abstruse.