Friday, December 07, 2012

Eye of the Beholder's Camera

My Canon is low end beginner equipment so my pics are not hyperbole worthy. But, for me, chasing wildlife with a camera and taking fun pics around the house relieves some of life's stresses better than bicycling, smelling flowers, yoga, meditation or any kind of chi balancing exercise. Photography is also a nice break from writing when you've been at it several hours. So, if you need a break and don't have a camera, herewith I share with you some of my favorite photos. They are not photo-shopped or color-altered or edited in any way. Most of them aren't even cropped. These are raw images the way your eyes would see them if you were a digital camera.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Why So Many Faith-Based Movies Don't Work

This is a post I've long needed to write and long delayed writing because there's just no way to do it without offending somebody or even alienating people. But there are issues related to writing Biblical, family-oriented and spiritually uplifting films that need to be said. So, here we go.

First, let me make it clear that I am a NOT attacking Christianity or Christians. Christianity is not the topic here. Christian films, faith-friendly films, family-oriented films and spiritually uplifting films are the topic. And, just so we're clear on this, I will remind anyone who doesn't remember that I am, myself, a Christian - a fallible and imperfect person doing my best to live out what I believe.

Okay, so why oh why oh why are so many faith-related films so stinking bad?

  • Nobody else gets it - Let's start with this. Most faith films are made for other church-going people. Biggest mistake. Christians make them. Christians watch them. Christians like them. They use situations, themes, and even church-y jargon that are unfamiliar to an audience that doesn't attend church. That makes the non-church-going audience outsiders looking in. If people cannot relate to a film or empathize with its characters, the film disaffects them. 
  • Too much message and not enough art. Films are artistic expressions. But a lot of faith films are all message and very little art. Victor Hugo's book which has been adapted a gazillion times for stage and film, Les Miserables, is a story of redemption and atonement and a lot of other positive messages. Lots of good stuff going on in there. But, it's also artistic. It's visual. It's poetic. And no, it's not overtly a faith film but can anyone doubt the Christian charity that changed John Valjean from a bitter, resentful and selfish man into an unselfish lover of humanity? This story is a fine example of a message revealed through artistic expression, not in an on-the-nose sermon or in-your-face kind of way.
  • Funding low expectations. Everyone is looking for money and let's face it, faith films are not usually strong contenders. One reason is that they have an automatic handicap as they must overcome a history of and expectation of low quality. Even funding platforms like Kickstarter can do more harm than good if the pitch does not demonstrate a skill and knowledge that will make investors want to participate. Done poorly, it could perpetuate the expectation that great aunt-so-in-so will get a lead role since she once played Lady Macbeth 40 years ago. .
  • People want to be entertained, not preached to. We've seen some great message films in recent years that attracted large audiences. Facing the Giants met the expectations of its target audience and crossed over into mainstream audiences. The opposite is true with the The Blind Side which was made as a mainstream film that attracted Christian audiences. Both were football stories. Both were successful. But, the real common denominator here is that the films were entertaining and got their point across without being sanctimonious. 
  • Weak writing. Faith films are guilty of some of the worst writing I've ever seen. Not all, but many of them are littered with cliches, poor dialogue, lack of structure, and characters with no dimension. Regardless of the genre of the film, that's disaster. Okay, maybe porn is the exception. But you get the point. Being a preacher does not make you a screenwriter unless you're a preacher who actually IS a screenwriter. The very romantic film, The Vow, was based on the experiences and memoirs of a Christian couple who, in their book, very clearly demonstrate their Christian faith and values but the screenplay was written by people who knew how to take something designed to be read and transform it into something designed to be viewed. Again, it goes back to the art thing. Storytelling is an art. Screenwriting is a craft.
  • Theme - Many faith films try to say everything there possibly is to say about something in the ninety minutes they hold the audience captive. They've got multiple themes competing for the alpha dog role. No workie. Like any other film, faith films need a theme, a direction, a focus. Is there any doubt whatsoever what the theme of Crash was? It was a very strong message film and that message won it an Oscar for Best Picture in 2005.
  • Unrealistic View of the World - Sometimes, I think faith filmmakers believe they are sacrificing beliefs or selling out or watering down their message if the film includes anything less than G rated material with some Bible verses and a few prayers thrown in. By the end of the movie, everybody repents and lives happily ever after. In the real world, there is ugliness. There is violence. There is conflict. There is sin. The Bible doesn't pretend it's not there. Why should we? I was not a fan of the film Joyful Noise. I believe it nailed the entertainment value but compromised its message so much that it subsequently lost its identity in order to get butts in seats. What was it trying to say exactly? The theme was butchered by the comedy. Doesn't have to be that way. But I give this film credit for entertaining the audience. And, I also give them credit for showing some real life. I, too, on more than one occasion, have wanted to throw hot dinner rolls at my choir director but I was not thrilled with how bitter and petty and selfish the real life ultimately made people of faith look.
All filmmakers must find ways to entertain, earn back the cost of making the film, and still express themselves thematically and artistically. Regardless of the film genre, the goals are the same. What I'm saying here is that a faith film is still a film. It still needs all the elements of strong filmmaking to make it a strong film.  The spiritually uplifting value of the film doesn't change the fact that it's still a film and that's what people want to see.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

If you don't get that title, don't worry about it. You're young and you won't get my other references in this post either. You probably ought to just move along or get a pencil and be prepared to write down the stuff you'll need to Google.

So here's the break-up. Sort of. It's with Dexter Morgan. Oh yeah. I'm genuinely concerned divorce is on the horizon.

My affair with the Showtime series, Dexter, began when friends kept telling me it was some of the strongest writing on television. I was eventually forced to succumb to peer pressure and experience this phenomenon for myself just so I could participate in the myriad of conversations about theme and character complexities and sub-plots and sub-sub plots and sub-sub-sub plots.

For six seasons, I have been hooked -- hanging on every episode and watching each one several times to make sure I don't miss anything. Yup. A hopeless Dexter-holic. That show was the television writing love of my life. I thought it was flawless. Even when I found a flaw and had one of my lovers' spats with the show, that flaw was explained in a later episode and I was forced to kiss and make up out of sheer awe.

Our relationship was perfect.

But it was too good to last. With the show's final two seasons ahead of us, the romance is over. I'm now stuck in a loveless marriage with this show -- with Dexter. I watch now because I must, not because I want to. I am bound to this show because of unanswered questions and possibilities that I cannot risk missing. But the thrill is gone


I want to be in love again!

Maybe my fellow viewers aren't there with me but it feels kind of like when Mulder and Scully became a couple on The X-Files and that sexual tension was over. I was over, too. Same think happened on Mork and Mindy, Moonlighting, Boy Meets World, and an abundance of other shows where the chemistry just petered out for me.

Welp. Back to Dexter. What happened here was not sexual tension released when the principals became a couple, but tension that was released when the principals were no longer facing each other from opposite sides of a cavernous gap of a secret. I won't explain the secret (no spoilers here) but if you watch the show you know which wall was torn down. That conflict, once resolved, left me without an ever-present conflict on the back burner, simmering, waiting to erupt and keeping me fearful, excited, and expectant at all times.

Or, there's another possibility. Maybe the show has run its course as all shows eventually do. Maybe I'm burned out the same way you get burned out on a favorite song you've heard one too many times. It's sad when your heart no longer flutters at the sound of the opening instrumentals. 

Journey - Don't Stop Believin'. 

I rest my case.

So, what's the solution here? The writing on Dexter is still solid but instead of the giant claw gripping my chest week after week, year after year, I'm being swatted at by a bunch of little claws. They're thrashing aimlessly at me hoping they'll land one good slap. 

Yeah, "breaking up is hard to do" so not much choice here but to fall back on that favorite song that says "don't stop believin', hold on to that feelin'" and then hope against hope that Dexter and I kiss and make up on Episode 8.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Re-post - That Would Never Happen

A teacher recently emailed me a request to re-post this article so it would be easier for her students to find. Enjoy. But know this. I'm not qualified to teach writing. I'm just a know-it-all full-of-herself busy-body wannabe with a lot to say. Good luck, class.
JULY 11, 2007

We've all done this. We're watching a film or reading a screenplay, rockin' happily along in our la-la land, when "No way! That would never happen!" We're brutally yanked out of story land because our brain refuses to accept some fractured piece of logic the film tried to feed us.

Welcome to the land of broken magic.

Often, in the course of reviewing screenplays and critiquing films, reviewers comment about how a situation was too much of a suspension of reality to work for them or that it simply could never happen at all. Suspending reality is a good thing. That's what we do in screenwriting. Suspending it beyond recognition is something else. The trick is to to create an orderly and logical suspension of reality that can be followed and understood. That's, I suppose, what separates the masters from the apprentice writers.

In storytelling, reality is a product of the author's pen, not the reader's existence. One of my complaints about online peer review forums is that while writers certainly have a burden to create a reality that works in the imagination of the reader, too many of these reviewers, I think, are subjecting stories to litmus tests based on their own environments. That's not to say that there's no merit in arguing that something would never happen. But the argument has to be based in the story world, not in the reader's world.

That would never happen moments, for me, fall into three categories: legitimate screwups, spoofs, and misinterpretations.

LEGITIMATE SCREWUPS - These are genuinely messed up moments where somebody blew it and the magic was lost. In Swimfan, a male arresting police officer gets in the back seat of a squad car with a handcuffed female prisoner about to be transported. That would never happen. Sorry. It just doesn't. Officers don't ride in the back seat with dangerous criminals and they certainly don't ride with females. They call in their beginning and ending mileages when they transport women. Departure and arrival times are then recorded so if they're accused of something inappropriate, a time line can be established. Oh, and as for prisoners being cuffed in the front? Yeah, that happens when cuffing is a formality or the officer is really stupid.

SPOOFS AND COMEDIC BEATS - These moments aren't supposed to really happen. They're just there to make us laugh but some people have no sense of humor and take them entirely too literally. The result is a that would never happen moment. Of course, that would never happen! That's what makes it funny! Or, not if it the timing is off or it's poorly written.

MISINTERPRETATIONS - These moments are the ones that actually would happen in another time or place or culture or religion but maybe the filmmaker didn't do his job well enough to convey this to the audience. Or, maybe the reader or viewer has such a narrow outlook on the world that he wouldn't find the magic no matter how well the filmmaker did his job. But if the majority doesn't get it, the problem is probably not with the recipient.

SCREW-UPS, SPOOFS, MISINTERPRETATIONS, So, how do we keep our readers and viewers from doing that annoying Homer Simpson "DOH!" thingie when they look at our work? For you sophisticated non-Simpsons viewers (Mom), that "DOH!" is like the "Wow, I could have had a V-8" forehead thump but from a beer bellied bald guy who would only have a V-8 if he confused it with a teeny tiny Duff beer can. But to answer the question -- there is one back there some place -- I have a few self imposed rules.

The Roller Coaster Rule - Reality is organized chaos. Roller coasters look like a looping, twisting, mess but every turn, climb, and drop has been carefully designed and engineered. Whatever reality we create in our story worlds has to be planned, purposeful, and organized even if it looks like chaos and feels like chaos to passengers along for the ride.

The Pluto Rule - Reality isn't for Indian givers. Don't establish a reality and then yank it away (unless that's the story itself). There are still a few questions left unanswered and a place or two left to explore in this universe. But the boundaries of the unknown are shrinking with every book published and every film released. Whatever I create, readers and viewers will probably still accept regardless of how fantastic it may be but they have little patience for situations where it's obvious the writer didn't establish a cause and effect that's logical within itself. Once a story contradicts itself, even commonplace facts lose credibility among the suspect ones.

Huh? What did she just say?

Okay, try this. I've never been in outer space. I've been accused of it, but alas, no. However, for as long as I can remember, nine planets have orbited the sun. Nine. I accepted this because there was scientific proof. My teachers said so. My text books said so. Plus, I made a mobile out of Styrofoam balls and tempera paint so it had to be true. If you had told me two years ago that one day in my lifetime, there would only be eight planets orbiting the sun, I'd have said that would never happen because Pluto isn't just going to disappear or get blown to bits by a meteor. But it happened. There are only eight planets now. Pluto has been voted off the island. Reality as I once knew it has been yanked away from me and now all astronomy is suspect in my mind. They're Indian givers. They can't take that away from me. I will ALWAYS think of Pluto as a planet. Always. Pluto has to be a planet. Come on. We named a beloved Disney character after it. It's a planet -- the people's planet.

I digress.

The point is - don't do that to your viewer mid-movie. Don't establish a reality in your story and then contradict it or erase it. Or, if you MUST for artistic reasons, then make sure you're a genius and can craft the story so that your reader/viewer doesn't cling to the original reality the way I cling to Pluto.

I've mentioned before that one of the most annoying suspensions of reality in film for me is the "disturbance of nature" theme in Failure to Launch. The film sets up a certain romantic comedy kind of reality. We get comfortable in it and settle in for a light hearted Nora Ephon-esque romantic story. Suddenly, we're jerked into various Chevy Chase-ish skits where animals attack the main character. In this case, it's because he's is a freak of nature still living at home and it just doesn't work with the reality already set forth in the film. If this was Caddyshack, it would work. If this was Mr. Deeds, it would work. But the reality established by Failure to Launch doesn't support angry chipmunks.

The Equator Rule - Reality is because I said so. My pen is the final answer. How much inaccurate information did we all learn about dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? I'm sure more than one paleontologist said "that would never happen" during that film but does that make it a flawed film? Or, does that make it a film that established a reality that viewers could feel engaged in even if it took liberties with prehistoric animal behavior? The important thing about Jurassic Park is that most viewers didn't sit there thinking "that would never happen". They were too busy marveling, screaming, laughing, and enjoying the ride in an open jeep while experiencing the terror of being pursued by a T-Rex.

If my story establishes that the temperature is twenty degrees below zero at the equator and the abominable snowman lives there, then that's the reality of the story. It's as much the reality of that story as a talking droid in Star Wars or a hobbit living in middle earth in Lord of the Rings.

Somebody mentioned on this blog that the wedding scene during Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End was too much of a suspension of reality to accept. I found that odd considering the myriad of outlandish characters and inconceivable events taking place in the film. We've got dead people in boats, ghosts floating under water, barnacley and shell-headed fish people, a titanic squid, an undead monkey, a live heart beating in a chest, a tentacle-faced guy walking around with a gaping hole in his chest, a sea goddess who turns into a hundred thousand crabs, and a pirate licking the brain he just removed from his own skull but it's a wedding amid a swordfight that bugs ya?

Still, most men I've asked said they didn't like the wedding part in this film. The reality established in this film wasn't stretched or suspended for a swordfight wedding on a ship in a spinning vortex. I think the problem with these guys is the REALITY of marriage. Period. A wedding is still a wedding and men in the audience don't want the cold, hard reality of marriage to momentarily wreck the adventure. They aren't annoyed because that would never happen. They're annoyed because they know darned good and well it could.

The Aunt Lizzie Rule - Reality isn't stagnant. It changes with time and culture and continents. My Aunt Lizzie cleaned house in a dress and apron every day. She got out of bed an hour before my uncle to put her make-up on so he wouldn't see her without it. Even when she was in the hospital dying of Cancer, she begged my cousin to help her with her face and hair before my uncle arrived to visit. If I was writing a devoted immigrant housewife from Austria, my Aunt Lizzie would be it. A modern 2007 woman wouldn't do any of those things but Aunt Lizzie's characteristics would work in a spoof, a period piece, or a 2007 story if my character is old and set in her ways, daft, senile, caught in a time warp or suffering from Alzheimer's.

Events that happened twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago may not happen today but they work in stories if set in the proper time and context. Too many writers put today's behavior, statutes, standards, and environments in their period pieces and vice-versa and then wonder why people say that would never happen. They might even point to my equator rule and say if they write it that way, it must be so. True. But that doesn't mean it's logical or that it will work. Remember the roller coaster rule.

My high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Hooper, who went by Hoop because it was more newsroomy than "Mrs. Hooper" and less masculine than "Boss" or "Chief", took me aside one day for what I assumed would be her customary "go get 'em, Tiger" speech before a writing competition. She pointed out a young honor student from Highland Park High School who had transferred from Austin and said he was a brilliant mind by all accounts, the son of a former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson himself. A press secretary's son! Oh, my gosh! She was surely about to warn me that he was my toughest competition. Nope. She told me not to talk to him or make him angry in any way. He was a killer.

No way. That would never happen! I was in competition with a killer? It was all very hush hush. The teachers weren't allowed to talk about it. He was a minor. But they were terrified of him so the teachers secretly talked about it anyway.

Hardly two and a half years had passed since John Christian had walked into a Murchison Junior High School English classroom and shot his teacher three times with his father's .22-caliber rifle in front of 30 students. He had been only thirteen at the time. Now here he was, barely sixteen, and his slate was technically clean even though he had supposedly been found schizophrenic and suicidal and even though a judge (Hume Coker) had ordered him to a Dallas psychiatric hospital until he was 18 years old.

Whether it was privilege or family ties or his age or his father's connections, I don't know. Nor do I have all the facts. But John Christian appears to have spent a short time at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital and then lived under the foster care of a Dallas physician while he finished public high school and went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas.

Can you even BEGIN to imagine a child today strolling into school and killing his teacher and then going on to graduate from a public school as if nothing had happened? That would never happen today but I was there. I sat in a desk three feet away from him as if he was just any other student because he WAS just any other student even after killing Wilbur (Rod) Grayson, Jr., a 29 year old first year teacher, in front of his entire class.

If I wrote a character in a 1981 story who had been a teacher killer and for whatever reason managed to get back in public schools and graduate, who is going to read my screenplay and NOT say that would never happen? The cruel reality of our daily existence with recurring violence in schools will certainly affect the way anyone receives a story like that one.

So, if people are going to draw conclusions based on their own lives anyway, is there really anything we can do?

Reality is organized chaos
Reality isn't for Indian givers
Reality is because I said so
Reality isn't stagnant

Okay, okay already, so I'm not McKee. But the reality of story reality is that even with our best effort, there's a limit to what we can do to prevent the that would never happen moments. No amount of engineering prevents roller coasters from breaking down, Pluto really isn't a planet anymore and charming aunts who once vacuumed in checkered dresses will eventually lose their battles with Cancer.

Unless somebody finds a cure.

That may never happen.

But it doesn't stop us from making the effort.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

You Cliche, I Cliche, We all Cliche

It's no secret among my family and friends that "bingo" said in a film will draw forth all manner of grunts and teeth grinding sounds from my side of the sofa. I often respond the same way to any version of "I just don't know you anymore", "we've got company" or "you just don't get it, do you?". Think I'm over-analyzing? Being difficult? Fine. Watch this.

And this....

And let's do this one just because.

I'm not saying that there is no place for a cliche or two in writing. Humans speak in cliches. We relate to cliches. In some way, cliches may even evoke an empathetic response. But a cautionary note: just like our favorite song becomes dull after 500 listens, sometimes (let's end this on a cliche, shall we?) enough is enough.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

May I Steal That?

Plagiarism is always the biggest thing in Hollywood. Clint Eastwood 
Sometimes, I am able to overlook certain minor thefts as newly coined phrases or colloquialisms or common cliches that have made their way into American jargon. But when plagiarism is so blatant that it jumps off the screen at me, I am left wondering how do they get away with it?
I could tell you which writer's rhythms I am imitating. It's not exactly plagiarism. It's falling in love with good language and trying to imitate it. Charles Kurwalt
Huh? Okay but what if it's nearly word for word?
If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism. If you steal from many, it's research. Wilson Mizner
Oh, okay, so if you steal a line from, let's say, a film with multiple screenwriters credited, then it's research?  I don't think so. I really, really don't think so. Shame on you, "Once Upon a Time". Shame on you.

Friday, June 08, 2012

A "Pen"ny for His Thoughts

Worst blog title EVER so I just broke rule number eleven on the list that I am begging you to read. Go right now and read "Pen's 10 Secrets to Writing Success" by Pen Densham, screenwriter and producer of all kinds of ridiculously awesome awesomeness. Seriously. Go read it now. While I wait, I'll listen to this:

This is the overture that made me fall in love Michael Kamen (because until Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, all I knew of his music was Die Hard and Lethal Weapon) and introduced me to Pen Densham. Say what you will about Kevin Costner's performance, everything else in this film was and still is, to me, utter perfection. I doubt many film intellectuals agree with me but they don't really count, do they? The wallet of the viewer speaks louder than the voice of the critic and twenty-one years later, the son who made me take him to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves six times in the theater, frequently asks if "something vexes thee?" If a kid quotes your film for twenty-one years, you've probably made an impact.

So read Pen Densham's list (because I know you didn't go do it when I told you to) and consider buying his new book, Riding the Alligator; Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing. The man knows a thing or two about story crafting. There is a link at that allows you to download a free chapter. I bought the book on my eReader.

Now, even though Pen Densham's writing and producing credits amount to a lot more than this one film, merely discussing him makes me want to go right this minute and watch Alan Rickman cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans and call of Christmas.

Monday, May 28, 2012

And They Will Know What We Can Do!

Battle speeches. They have fascinated me for years. Breaking down all my favorites and exploring what each battle speech accomplishes for film would fill a book. I love them so.

Much greatness missing from this mash-up because, really, who can get them all? One absent speech that speaks the universal language of the underdog is Meatballs. "It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!" Regardless, this clip makes you FEEL what battle speeches are about. For me, the primary point of the battle speech is to make sure the viewer is in on the plight, is climbing that mountain with you, and is invested in the outcome. Sure, it reveals character and advances the story into high gear but it also puts your viewer in the front seat and makes them want their own hands on that steering wheel.

This is your time!

Seize the day!

Never surrender!

Victory or death!

That's the Chicago way!

Who's with me!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Are The Odds?

The Nicholl has tallied the entries and we now know that a whopping 467 more entries were submitted this year than last.  Now, my math is not very good but is that not a 6.93 percent increase? That's huge.

Let's do more math.

There are 7197 entries. What are the odds of advancing to the quarterfinals? Assuming the exact number of screenplays advance to the quarterfinals as last year (351) , that would give you a 4.8 percent chance of advancing out of the 7197 screenplays entered.

But wait. That 4.8 percent is not really accurate -- it can't be -- because with regard to odds, the playing field is not level. Great storytelling has better odds of floating to the top than good or average storytelling. Duh. Good writing has less of a chance than great writing and screenplays that are poorly crafted all around won't float at all. Unfortunately, neither will a lot of other screenplays. Last year 4554 screenplays sank to the bottom.

So what are the odds, really?

Well, regardless what I do with the numbers, my entry is still ONE out of 7197.

My, Nicholl, how you've grown!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Screenwriting Bucket List

The floodgates are closed. The Nicholl application deadline is now a thing of the past and I am curious how many entries there are. Since I"m sure it is a ridiculously high number in the 7000-ish range, I have long since given up any hope of winning the thing. I would, however, like to advance before I die. It's at the top of my screenwriting bucket list, a list that is rather short and contains goals that are unlikely in my real world. But in my sometimes delusional and often contrived reality, I would like to ---
  • Advance in the Nicholl at least once.
  • Attend a big Hollywood premier and sit in the audience.
  • Watch an epic beast of a film get shot.
  • Hear one of my favorite screenwriters say about my work, "what a great story".
If I reach those goals, I have a secondary list.
  • See my own film get made.
If I reach THAT goal, I do have yet another list.
  • Witness a great actor begging on his hands and knees to portray my character.
  • Author a screenplay that gets caught up in a bidding war.
  • Receive a phone call from Hans Zimmer or James Horner saying he just finished my score.
Once I'm dead, there is still one more list.
  • Be remembered by my children as somebody who left a positive footprint on this earth. 
You know what? I think my last goal may actually be the only one that really matters. After all, we only have one life, one earth, and two feet. But yeah, I'm one of those 7000-ish. I don't really believe in luck but best of luck anyway to all my fellow screenwriting buddies who entered!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Nerdist Writers Panel

Have you discovered this, yet? Nerdist Writers Panel is hosted by Chris Hartwick and offers up podcasts with professional writers. Translation = they know more than us.

The most recent addition to the page is Podcast #36 recorded on March 25, 2012 with Bill Lawrence (creator, Scrubs and Cougar Town), Ken Levine (Mash, Cheers, Wings, Fraser, The Simpsons), and Richard Hatem (Grimm, Secret Circle).

You can also get tickets to attend live podcasts. July 20th is in Houston and July 21st in Dallas. Either one looks good to me!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Your Characters Want

You're safe. No Spice Girls references ahead.

Instead of feeling like I had found a golden ticket when I ran across this gem at Script about creating characters that actors will want to play, a writing fog lifted and I realized that this was something I already knew, something I had heard before, and something that shines a harsh light on the wrinkles in my writing complexion.

I hate wrinkles.

The Script article challenges writers to know their characters beyond the adjectives we use to describe them and suggests that characteristics do not define character because characters are, themselves, an action verb. While the analogy doesn't work for me (adjectives describe nouns, not verbs), the point being made does. Characters are not a handful of descriptions.  Those are characteristics. Who characters are is demonstrated by what they want more than anything --- at that particular moment.

In this Wordplay column, Situation-Based Writing, Terry Rossio explains it this way, "Circumstances come from the world and impose onto characters from the outside, so to speak. Character wants come from inside the characters and push out at the world." He also says that once you know a character's "want", the situation exists. Be sure you read the entire column because he first discusses creating situations and how situation relates to character by being (1) immediate - somebody wants something or will be forced to want something right now and (2) imperative - somebody wants something badly.

Unknown Screenwriter once advised me to know the basic wants of each character before I ever put my fingers on the keyboard so their behavior in their circumstances will be consistent and logical, regardless of the situation. See what he did there? He, too, tied situation to character.

Our screenplays should reveal character by the characters' pursuits of what they want. In this way, there is no need to ever create a scene for the sole purpose of establishing character. Furthermore, in every single scene, somebody should want something.

So I ask you --  do you know in every scene what every character wants?

Reading through my Nicholl submission (just a few more days before the deadline), I am not only looking for typographical errors but I am also checking each scene to see if I've made it clear to the audience what my characters want. I know what my characters want but will a reader?

I hate wrinkles.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Destiny's Merry Pranks

Weirdest spring ever.

In "All About Eve", Margo Channing refers to running out of gas as one of destiny's merry pranks. She has no idea that the reason she's missing a curtain call is because her friend drained the gas tank to teach her a lesson in humility. My little town has suffered a bizarre series of misfortunes and every time I receive another blow of bad news, that line is the one I hear and Margo Channing's image, swaddled in her fur and puffing on a cigarette, is the one I see.

Yup, my little town has been the butt of many of destiny's merry little pranks.

What's that you say? Mrs. Cunningham crashed her Buick into the Piggly Wiggly and landed in the deli? One of destiny's merry pranks.

I only wish the blows had been that funny. Oh, and that we had a Piggly Wiggly since neither my Brookshires or Walmart carries fresh spinach. Plus, it's fun to say Piggly Wiggly.

Say it with me.

Piggly Wiggly.

Piggly Wiggly.

Piggly Wiggly.

Now, wasn't that fun? No? Well, you didn't say out loud, did you?

Okay, actually the first gigantic prank played on my town WAS kind of funny. A pipe broke in the ceiling at the high school and flooded the building for hours and hours and hours before it was noticed. The school sat in three feet of water and the district incurred millions of dollars in building and equipment damage. That part wasn't funny but the videos of the high school seniors on their second spring break are genius -- music videos, message videos, art projects, photo journals -- loads of fun. These kids made great use of their free time while other grades had to attend classes in the gymnasium and makeshift classrooms because it was the week of STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) tests. 

Next prank, a tornado. Not just ONE tornado but TWO. An FE3 tornado that wiped out multitudes of homes, hit the OTHER high school and took out an elementary school (I think the school district has a target on its back), and its baby brother tornado that simultaneously hit our downtown area. Seriously. Two tornadoes at the same time. One small town. Ouch.

The next pranks? Too painful to even call pranks. They were tragedies. Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. A motorcycle accident. A four wheeler accident. A teenage suicide. People we know. People we loved. People who mattered to the community. Loss of life in the most horrible ways.

I know. Loss of life happens. Accidents happen. Crime happens. Tornadoes happen. (but in Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen) This is the world we live in. But I don't like it.

Perhaps one of the things that makes writing so attractive to writers is that we have absolute control over destiny's merry pranks. We are the creators and the manipulators of our own universes and destiny plays no merry pranks lest we author them. Fate has no power over us. Karma is our slave.

It's therapeutic, don't you think?

As for destiny's merry pranks played on my little town, I blame myself. I should never have started watching "Murder, She Wrote" on Netflex streaming video.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Around the World in Screenplays

Check out this map of Nicholl applicants that shows how many entries have been submitted from which parts of the world so far. Fascinating. Of course, it is no big surprise that California has the most screenplays sent in from any area but at the time of this post, there are six from Thailand and eleven from Ireland. How cool is that? They've come from India, Iran, France, Brazil and Argentina. Get crackin', Wyoming and Arkansas! Right now you have big fat zeros and you look like slackers!

Friday, April 06, 2012

A Thousand Words

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Tuesday outbreak of tornadoes in North Texas has generated more words than stars in the heavens. These beasts (14 at last count by the National Weather Service) have been photographed and filmed more than any other tornadoes recorded thanks to accessible technology. That's good news for the geeks that study these things and for the rest us due to the resulting science that forecasts weather events (must resist "Twister" reference here). While I understand storm chasers and filmmakers taking calculated risks to get a shot of the monster, I shudder watching video of people hanging off their fences as an FE3 with 160 mph winds is coming at them and tossing tractor trailers around like tinker toys.

Two tornadoes hit my little town. A small one (if you can call a tornado small) hit our historic downtown area but the behemoth that tore across Forney, Texas landed on the north side and took out 95 homes, hit the high school, damaged an elementary school, and brushed the Walmart right next to the Chili's restaurant where everyone was standing outside taking pictures.

I'd like to spend about three paragraphs on my faith in the enduring human spirit and the compassion and decency demonstrated across the metroplex and in my little town as it rallied the moment the winds moved on to destroy the next town. but you will think you've heard it all before and just skim over it. So, I won't. Instead, I will just say that I am so thankful -- so very very thankful -- that I live where I do, tornadoes and all.

But this post is about photos and words.

It's common practice now to manipulate a photo and add a caption or post a cartoon and circulate it on a social network to show how just or unjust a cause is or criticize somebody's beliefs. One line. One caption. Not that many words. But, the image behind that punchline is designed to provoke a response - humor, anger, indignation, etc. A photo with a single word or caption is a powerful thing - funny, derogatory, thoughtful, whatever. Isn't that the same premise we use in screenwriting? We create a visual image (minus the photo or cartoon) in our screenwriting and use as few words as possible to make our funny, derogatory, or thoughtful point?

Somebody once told me to think in pictures while I'm screenwriting and then take a series of snapshots to try to tell my story without using words. As I look through the hundreds of photos of the tornado damage, I don't even need to go to YouTube and watch the videos. I have, of course, because there are images of the funnel forming, some of the debris turning the base of the tornado black, the funnel changing from a point to a cylinder, and other fascinating moving pictures that science will benefit from. Each video is gold.

But---- the still photos, like the one above, those are the images that shout at me.

As a writer, I wonder where I need to draw the line between getting a good shot and running for my life. Maybe it depends on how much you have to say and whether you think you can say it without the image. I really really don't know. I was standing in my back yard with my video camera as the beast went by.

Monday, April 02, 2012

And We Have a Winner

Not quite. But at least I do know which screenplay I shall devote the next 29 days, 8 hours, 31 minutes and 42 seconds to. You know what I mean. Yes you do. Rewriting and polishing for the Nicholl. Well, now it's 25 seconds. 23. 22. 21. You get the idea. I have one major character arrival issue and several minor cleanup things that I'm undecided about but my biggest problem is proofreading. My screenplay is littered with typos and I have blinders on. When I quit sweating the small stuff and concentrated on story, I didn't intend to forget the small stuff altogether.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sticks and Stones

People can be nasty. I wish I could say I have not learned this first hand in dealing with friends, co-workers, other writers, neighbors, strangers, even people at my own church. It's in our natures. If you think differently from somebody else and have the backbone to express it in verbal or written form, you're opening yourself up to criticism. That's the way of the world and why writers are some of the most courageous people I know.

I am, however, Pollyanna enough to believe that professional courtesy is still king among writers and will reign at times when it matters the most but bottom line, if you're a writer, sooner or later some other writer will read you with scorn, jealousy, disdain, resentment or disgust. I just hope when it happens to me, it's not one of my idols.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tips for Know-It-All Screenwriters

Over at, the question comes up "What are some common mistakes that first-time screenwriters make?" I'm not sure what a "first-time" screenwriter is or who even answered the question. I don't even know what Quora is! But the reply is concise and it fits beginners, many unproduced writers and some of us wannabes that are just plain arrogant. I'm guilty of all six of these mistakes at one time or another, the last one recently:
  • The writer doesn't rewrite. Most first timers think their first draft is "good enough."
  • The writer doesn't listen to notes. Most first time writers aren't willing to listen to honest criticism. They just want to be told that their script is great. This is why most professional screenwriters refuse to read first time scribes.
  • The writer hopes his/her first screenplay will be a winner. It takes thousands of hours and years of hard work to learn the craft of screenwriting. Everyone's first screenplay...well, sucks. Have you heard a story of someone's first screenplay, one they dashed off in "21 days," selling for millions? Sure you have. Hollywood is full of stories
  • The CHARACTERS are weak. More than any other specific flaw, first time screenplays have weak, underdeveloped, ill-motivated characters. Protagonists are passive. Antagonists are cliches. Supporting characters have no complexity. It is difficult to see what any of the characters' objectives are or why we should care about them.
  • The stories lack TENSION. The first rule of screenwriting/filmmaking is "keep them in their seats." This means keeping the audience's attention, through the emotions of hope and fear, focused on what will happen in the future. Most first time screenplays get muddled and lose tension; and then the reader tosses the script aside, not caring how it will turn out in the end.
  • Too much focus on "idea" and not "execution." Most first time writers think they have a "brilliant idea for a movie" and take a half-assed shot at writing the screenplay. If there is one consistent lesson to be learned on Quora, whether about startups or screenwriting, it is that "your idea means nothing." This isn't exactly true, but it's mostly true.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nicholl Fellowship Early Deadline

When the clock strikes midnight, pages of woe and wonder will transform into billions of little numbers, "ones" and "zeros", and then convert into electric signals through LANS and modems and WiFi's and then become light -- infinite light -- which will then fly across the earth where it will morph back into electricity, back again into "ones" and "zeros", and arrive in final form as the words of woe and wonder on some reader's desk who holds YOUR dreams in his or her computer.
"Everything is theoretically impossible until it is done." Robert A. Heinlein
We can do this, people.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Decisions Decisions

Still cannot decide which screenplay to work on for the Nicholl. Must choose one. None are polished enough to submit as they are. Meanwhile, a puzzle. As old as this blog is and as long as it's been since I have written anything on it that is meaningful or useful or deeper than a puddle, Sitemeter continues to send me weekly reports of real live human beings landing here. I'm clicking on the posts and a portion of the time I think "not bad" but the rest of the time, I wondering, as I read, who that arrogant writer thinks she is. A little humility would suit me me better. Maybe after I win a Nicholl.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Rewrite Stage Fright

And it's that time of the year again again again again again. So soon? You betcha. Time to finish writing and rewriting and figure out whether we have anything worth submitting to the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition. Now, a few short years ago, this is what I lived for but I am becoming what horse folk call "long in the tooth" and my word slinger aptitude may be eroding faster than my vision. But, how would I know? There is no annual exam for creativity and screenwriting skills.

Come to think of it, even if there WAS an exam, I would have passed it in my youth and nobody would make me take it again, would they? WOULD they? I mean, they don't make senior adults retake driver tests.


Not even if they're 95 years old and can't read the street signs.

Or reach the steering wheel.

While sitting on 1979 phone books.

I think we have our answer.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Stupid Way to Fix Your Plot

Ever tire of watching the damsel in distress trip over her own feet while she's running from a guy with a machete? Well that's the first thing that came to mind when I saw Bill Martell's screenwriting tip today and it's the scene in my head every time I read a screenplay that relies on the stupidity of the good guy to set up a story or the stupidity of the bad guy to bring down the story. And happy coincidence? Rarely leaves me warm and fuzzy. Read "Dumbest Guy in the Room" today on Bill's Script Secrets site. If not, then at least read this quote:
If you have to make your protagonist or antagonist do something stupid to make your plot work, you're better off fixing your plot. Bill Martell

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Theme, You Theme, We All Theme

Watching the Golden Globes last night I realized that even though I saw a lot of films in 2011, I have plenty more to see before Oscar nominations are announced January 24th. Oh sure, I can catch up before February 26th when those naked golden men are handed out but it looks like I have missed out on another kind of golden award --- an opportunity that I didn't think about until I realized just how many films I saw in 2011.

I was looking over my own screenplay yesterday and feeling rather smug about my theme and I got to thinking about what the themes have been of films I've seen this year. Some were memorable because they were either that well done or were my favorite films. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for example, had a clear theme of redemption and atonement and even though critics didn't rave about this movie, it was my favorite of all the POTC films for one reason: the theme.

I really wish I had taken the time to think about and write down my personal take on the theme of each film I saw in 2011 while it was fresh in my viewing memory. Why? To ask my self, "what was the writer trying to say? Did he get to say it? Did it get lost in production?"

I'm not suggesting that theme should be in your face or that as screenwriters, we should consider every film a homework exercise but since theme is something I've been focusing on as a writer, it sure does seem like a no-brainer that I would have been paying more attention to it as a viewer. Sometimes, I just don't want to be a writer when I'm sitting with popcorn in my lap.

So, here's my proposal. I'm going through my list and trying to figure out the themes of the following films and your thoughts are welcome, solicited, and appreciated. (I did not include any 2011 films that I've seen in 2012 and yes Joyful Noise was seen in 2011, not 2012, because I was in the test audience.)

Oh, and before you start, I should warn you. When my brother was looking for a job, he moved in with me for the better part of 2011 and we had "bad movie days" where we purposely went and saw movies that we knew were terrible. Why? Same reason you slow down when you pass a car accident. (that explains "Drive Angry") And sometimes I take my nieces and nephews to kids' movies... and sometimes I go without them.

Okay, so you're giving me your input on theme. Ready? Go!
Battle: Los Angeles
Captain America
Cars 2
Cowboys and Aliens
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Drive Angry
Gnomeo & Juliet
Green Lantern
I Am Number Four
J. Edgar
Joyful Noise
Just Go With It
Midnight In Paris
No Strings Attached
The Big Year
The Green Hornet
The Help
The King’s Speech
The Rum Diary
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Mister Popper’s Penguins
Our Idiot Brother
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Season of the Witch
Super 8
There Be Dragons
Xmen: First Class

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Challenge Accepted

Nope. I don't blog much anymore. I've fallen prey to the ease of social networks, my small in-home business, and writing schedule. Alas, nothing lasts forever. Or, it does but evolves?


Brett threw down a brass fastener or whatever it is screenwriters throw down to challenge one another (it's certainly not a gauntlet or a glove) and dared us to post the first ten verbs from our current projects. This is designed to give us a spark, kindle, or whatever kind of slap upside the keyboard we need to prevent apathy in our verb writing so here goes:


Ouch. Work to be done. Next!