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?