Friday, June 20, 2008

Rose Colored Earlobes

How do you weed the practical and useful advise in story notes from the meaningless feather flapping of an egotistical reader? And, how do you know if your friends and family are blowing smoke when they praise your work?

Unk brought up a valid point on my last post when he discussed how writers must be their own story's expert, especially when it comes to talking to people in production who would pressure you to make changes that may or may not work. It's true. We must know our characters, stories, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc. so well that we don't even need to process the cause and ripple effect of any change. We'll just know. Right then. Right there. The moment the change is proposed.

But a post on Wordplay the other day brings up the opposite scenario. A writer repeatedly asks his friend for story notes but the revisions never address the flaws, issues, or questions that the reader identifies. Is that because the writer really is his own expert and knows the reader's comments aren't valid? Or, does this writer have rose colored earlobes, listening for validation instead of constructive remarks?

What I'm about to say will annoy a few writers but I believe this to be one of the greatest mistakes amateur screenwriters can make. Asking your great aunt Martha to read your script is fine, but her comments are probably useless. Non-filmmaking friends don't understand structure, rhythm, or dialogue as well as someone who has been a reader, screenwriter, director or producer for umpteen years. Aunt Martha may know her stuff, but that's the exception. More likely, she'll have a similar euphoric pride in your script that you had when you finished your very first screenplay and immediately assumed it was ready to send to every studio in the golden state.

I'm not being cynical here. I'm being pragmatic. There comes a point when a writer ought not need anyone else to tell him what's wrong with his script. That's not to say he doesn't need story notes - that's the way of the business - but he either knows exactly what is wrong or knows it works and any changes will be based on preference, budget, set pieces, location, improvisation, the director's niece wanting a role, whatever.

The trailer for the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie included a clip where the Will Turner character tells the ship's crew that he's not leaving the cannibal island without Jack Sparrow. Then Jack appears on the beach pursued by a hundred cannibals to which Will says "Never mind, let's go." Funny clip. But when I went to see the film, I sat there watching the events that led up that scene and realized that Will Turner would never say "never mind, let's go" because he'd gone to the island for one purpose - to get an item from Jack that would save the life of his true love. He wouldn't say "never mind, let's go" because that would be like saying "never mind, I'll just let my true love hang".

You know you genuinely love movies when you get a nervous twinge in your stomach waiting for a moment you're sure won't work. To my great relief, when the line arrived, it was different. I found out later that the line in the trailer was a result of a blown take. Orlando Bloom said "never mind, let's go" meaning "never mind, let's shoot this again" or "never mind, let's get on with it".

That was a teeny tiny change that may have looked inconsequential to many people but the writers would have known that the line would totally undermine the character's heroism and credibility to the viewer. Writers - people who own the stories - will catch these things, or at least they should.

So, again, how do you weed the practical and useful advise in story notes from the meaningless feather flapping of an egotistical reader? It's something inside the writer's heart, head, soul, or gut that either sounds an alarm that says "yeah, that would work better" or tells you the reader skimmed the story or just doesn't get it.

Knowing if somebody pegs a problem in your story is kind of like the way a mother knows if her own child is lying. It's your kid. You know. Sure, he can get one past you once in awhile, but you've taken care of him his entire life so when somebody tattles on him, you have a sense about whether or not the accusation could possibly be true. When somebody else's kid is lying, you might know. You might not.

Both situations depend on the circumstances but like writers, some parents are in denial. "No, Mr. Police Officer, my kid with the marijuana tattoo and bloodshot eyes who goes by the nickname 'Roach' has never smoked dope. He doesn't even eat meat because his body is a temple." Yeah, well, maybe it's just a tofu temple and you don't know him as well as you think.

You should know. It's your story.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Close, But No Cigar

Ever feel like a poser? Easy for an unproduced screenwriter. My grandmother used to say "fake it 'til you make it". Her theory was that if you pretend you know how to do something and you do it anyway long enough, you'll eventually learn how to do it. I often imagine her little voice in my head giving me advice. It's either her, my dear Abuelita, or Sal, my imaginary voice of doubt who disguises himself as a voice of reason. He's a liar. She's not. Sometimes the voice says "fake it 'til you make it". That would be my grandmother. Other times, it just says "you're a faker". That would be Sal.

And then there's this.

First, there was Steve Perry. Then Steve Augeri and next up was Jeff Scott Soto. Neither of the substitutes could fill Perry's vocal niche. But Journey's newest frontman is a 40-year-old Filipino singer named Arnel Pineda who was discovered on YouTube and is widely considered a dead ringer for Steve Perry's unique voice. Pause the James Horner music playing on the right column and then have a listen to this poser --

What do you think?

Perhaps it's hyper-emotional misplaced loyalty to Steve-o or maybe it's the experienced ear of music lover, I dunno, but I hear the difference. Of course, I also hear the neighbor's phone a half acre away and the bunnies rustling in the grass outside my window. Either way, it doesn't matter. Posing is working for this guy. He faked it 'til he made it. And, in his case, faking it IS making it.

Maybe that works in screenwriting, too. Terry Rossio said that when he was starting out, he noticed that anybody who did anything for ten years became an expert at it. I don't know about you, but that sounds a little like "fake it 'til you make it" to me.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Execution of Bad Ideas

Ever see something so obviously wrong in a screenplay that you wonder why everyone else doesn't see it? This occurs with readers all the time, especially if the reader has spotted this same issue over and over. He may feel like it's too no-brainer to even write in his notes and yet he must. Some bad ideas are just that blatant.

I know someone who reads for screenwriting competitions including the Nicholl. She sees so many screenplays that when something goes wrong, it jumps out at her. For example, if a character changes mid-story, she'll go back and re-read where's she's been so far, just to make sure she didn't miss what led up to the change, his motive, some subtext somewhere, or something, ANYTHING, that would explain or validate such an abrupt change in character. She reads so many screenplays that now and then, she does miss something but usually, the writer is just executing a bad idea.

Lucy has an interesting post about conflicting story notes. One of her blog readers quotes polar opposite comments on the same script from the same company. Clearly, if one reader says your characters have solid direction and the other says the characters are all over the place with no direction, one of them is mistaken.

Maybe. Maybe not.

How can they possibly both be correct? My theory is that sometimes readers think the story has lost direction when it takes a short sidestreet. Maybe the sidestreet is for comic relief, character development or suspense, but whatever the reason, the reader got lost. Some readers will jump right back into the story and some will be left wandering around waiting for a conclusion to the sidestreet. Sorry. But that's not just about inexperienced readers. It's a writing issue, too.

Recently, while viewing my latest Netflix rental, I puzzled over a scene that left me cold. It was well acted, had great timing and was beautifully shot but something wasn't right. I just didn't know what. At the end of the film, I went back and watched that scene over several times. Still no idea what was wrong with it. So, I started the film over.

This time, I had the big picture and knew the theme and conclusion right out of the gate. When I arrived at the scene in question, it was an easy diagnosis. The scene didn't belong there. It didn't belong anywhere. It was a brilliantly executed but really bad idea.

I've seen this problem before in my own writing and in screenplays I'm asked to critique. When I mention that something doesn't work, the retort is usually about what an awesome scene it is or how well it's written or how funny it is. All of that may be true, but there's a bad idea in there. That doesn't mean the scene is bad or the writer is bad but this particular idea? No workie. And, no matter how genius the execution is, it's still a bad idea.

Anything that takes away from the story is a bad idea, even if it's well done. Among its many crimes against the screenplay, a bad idea may slow momentum, contradict character, weaken the story or simply confuse the reader or viewer to a point of no return.

If I tell a story about my lazy secretary who keeps dropping calls because she's too busy checking her MySpace, I don't need to throw in a bargain pair of shoes I found on my lunch break. It may be a fascinating sidestreet about the shoes, especially if Wanda Sikes got in a fight with Chuck Norris over the same pair or Brad Pitt was in the store trying on lingerie, but the shoes don't move my secretary story along. However, if the secretary found my receipt and then faked an injury to take the afternoon off to go shoe shopping herself, it might demonstrate what a good for nothing she is.

Taking sidestreets is not a bad idea in the writing process. It allows the creative mind to go out and play. It may help build the story in the writer's mind, help him get to know his characters better, or allow him to explore some story options. It may even make the writer realize he needs to go in a whole 'nother direction. But writing a scene doesn't mean it has a place in the story. Some sidestreets bring something fresh to the story. Others are a wrong turn and will make the story wander, stall, or die a slow and painful death. It's the writer's job to sort out which sidestreet is which.

Why can't we spot our own bad ideas? We can. But, sometimes, especially if the scene is well done, it becomes about ownership and identifying with what we've written. That's our DNA on the page. Maybe the trick here is that once an idea is out on the table, it needs to take on its own identity so any criticism or attack is on the idea, not the person who came up with it.

None of this means that readers don't make mistakes. Some storynotes are spot on. Others are out of line. Maybe the reader is learning, having a bad day or just found out his wife had an affair with the pool boy. Who knows? We should. Don't run off and make changes solely based on something a reader said. But, be open to the possibility that a reader may identify a well executed bad idea.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Though This Be Madness

The fowl drama playing out in my backyard is better than anything I've seen on Animal Planet. Who needs Meerkats when I have a field lark playing out a a great tragedy on my playground?

The first two acts were comic, tragic, and suspenseful. Mama Lark built her nest on the ground by the slide, a strategy both clever and risky as the pea gravel camouflages her but also makes her an easy target for home invasion.

When we first spotted her nest, she had three cozy little eggs and was awaiting the arrival of the fourth. Not accepting our glad tidings, she threatened us for prying and then engaged in a curious cat and mouse game of "oh my, I'm a helpless injured bird, come get me" to draw us away from her nest. Naturally, my grown sons got their jollies provoking her and watching her enlist the aid of what we think must be the Daddy Lark as they alternated playing hurt and charging us by mimicking that weird flapping dinosaur in Jurassic Park that spit Newman to death.

Yeah, a one pound bird can be downright terrifying.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Shortly after we discovered the nest, Mama Lark gave birth to her fourth egg. Again, she wasn't accepting visitors but that didn't stop every niece, nephew and Chihuahua from dropping by her house to offer congratulations . Rude little bird. She just screamed and tried to peck them to death. Still, it was touching to see her sitting faithfully on that nest day after day.

Then, it happened.

Some time during the night, Mrs. Lark's babies became easy prey for a cat, owl, raccoon, or rat. I don't know. Probably the same villain killing my tomato plants. Whatever it was, when we checked in on Mama Lark one morning, she was one egg short. A few days later, she was another egg short. Then a couple of nights ago, I heard a commotion. Mama Lark, Daddy Lark, and several other birds were making such a racket that I thought surely, something was killing poor Mama. I rushed to her rescue in the pitch dark, but apparently, it took me too long to cross the pea gravel in my bare feet.

Mama was down to just one egg and I was standing in the backyard in my bra and pajama bottoms waving a flashlight.
When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions.
Now, we await the outcome of nature's little drama as we keep a wary eye out for a stealth serial killer and wonder what Act Three will bring while pondering that great Shakespearean question, "to be or not to be". Of course, if the egg does become a little hatchling, a whole new survival story begins.