Archive for August 2008

Quitting Time

August 28, 2008

Ever just want to give up?

Of course you do.  Everybody does at one time or another — you get one rejection, one frustration, one setback too many and suddenly that row of screenwriting books on your shelf looks like an excellent candidate for the next library donation.  Or maybe it’s time to fire up the grill out back and use McKee’s STORY instead of your usual bag of briquets; maybe you’ll throw the laptop on the barbie while you’re at it.

That feeling almost always passes in a minute or an hour or even a couple of days, depending on the extent of the bruising… but what if it doesn’t?  There’s giving up, and there’s GIVING UP.  Have you ever felt the irresistible pull of the latter?

It’s happened to me once.  Obviously I overcame it, otherwise this blog would be a blank screen titled “Ex-WriterDad,” but at the time, I had decided that enough was enough and it was time to pack it in and give up on this screenwriting shit once and for all. 

This episode occurred in late 2003 or early 2004, in the dark days right before I met the Missus.  It lasted about a month or two, the result of spending about a year and a half on a script that refused to come together, a story that started out as a dark mystery/thriller in the vein of Robert Towne and Paul Schrader and somehow morphed into a goofy comedy that owed more to KINGPIN than CHINATOWN or HARDCORE.  Go figure.  In retrospect it’s hard to tell which version sucked more, but either way, I finally realized that I had wasted 18 months on a project that wasn’t worth a minute of my time.  And to make matters worse, I realized that I was making myself miserable trying in vain to get this thing to work — God knows writing doesn’t have to be FUN per se, but if you’re not getting any kind of satisfaction from the process and nobody’s paying you to beat your head against the monitor like that, then what’s the point?

So I bailed.  I was done.  I didn’t do anything as dramatic as torch my notebooks and erase my hard drive, but I boxed everything up and cleared off the PC’s desktop.  Life was too short; I’d find something else to do with myself.  And I felt relieved by my decision. 

… And, of course, five or six weeks later, I was working on something new.  I never consciously said, “I’m back!”  It just happened — an idea came to me, then a few more ideas, then I started writing them down, and before I knew it, I was in the trenches again.  I felt like Al Pacino in CARLITO’S WAY: one minute I’m out of jail and dreaming of renting cars to tourists in the Bahamas, and the next I’m in the middle of an exquisitely orchestrated shootout in Grand Central Station.  Or something like that.

Point is, although I was dead serious about quitting, it turns out that I just needed a break, a little distance.  I realized then that, for better or worse, I’m a writer.  I’ve been making up stories in one way or another all my life, and if my assault on Hollywood ultimately ends up in failure, I’ll still be writing — I may be composing crazed hate mail to former development executives who somehow slighted me twenty years before and who have no recollection of who the hell I am, but I’ll still be writing.

Maybe that’s how you know the writing life is the right one (the write one, ha-ha) for you: you consciously give it up, then discover that despite your best efforts, you just can’t.  And if you can, well… then at least you gave it a shot.  And that’s okay, too.

*

A Superfluous Addendum:

In case you’re wondering, I’m not actually contemplating quitting at the moment.  The rewrite of the Wedding Comedy is actually chugging along so far (knock wood) and if anything, the birth of the Peanut has only strengthened my resolve to break through as a screenwriter.  Sure, her presence complicates my writing habits…

 

… but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Okay, maybe I WOULD, insofar as it would be nice to use all ten digits all the time again, but hell, if nothing else, I’m learning to become an excellent one-handed typist.  I’m with Malcolm X on this one: by any means necessary, indeed.

Advertisements

Plugging In, Zoning Out with Xbox 360

August 24, 2008

So the Missus bought me an Xbox 360 this past Christmas.  Her justification for such an extravagant gift was that it was our last holiday before we would spend most of our money on the baby until the day we died.  This made perfect sense to me and I happily accepted the most expensive time-waster I’ve ever owned.

Previous to this, the last gaming console I possessed was the Atari 2600.  (I had a Commodore 64, too, but since I had the PaperClip word processing software — anybody remember that one? — it wasn’t technically JUST for gaming.  Only 99% or so.)  My brother had a Nintendo 64 that I played a bit, but that was really the extent of my video game experience until I met the Missus.

My wife — then the New Girlfriend — had  an original Xbox that her sister had won in a raffle and given to her; she never played the thing but kept it around in the hopes that it would help ensnare any man she lured into her apartment.  Apparently her scheme worked, because after we got together I spent most of my free time at her place (okay, it wasn’t just because of the Xbox), and eventually I got around to playing the system.  Much to my surprise, gaming had come a long way since, oh, SUPER MARIO BROS 2.

To make a long story short, I started to get hooked on video games again, an interest that led to the purchase of said Xbox 360.  Not that I’ve actually bought many games since then — LEGO STAR WARS… um, LEGO INDIANA JONES.  And I’ve borrowed a few.  But for a variety of reasons too lame to mention, I had never plugged in and tried out Xbox Live… until now.

Today we went out, I bought an ethernet cable, we came home and put the Peanut down for a nap.  The Missus and I plopped down on the couch, I plugged in the cable and we proceeded to enter the 21st century.  Sort of.

First game downloaded?  FROGGER.

Then DIG DUG.

Then DISCS OF TRON.

It was like 1985 all over again, minus the acid-washed jeans and Benetton T-shirts.  And it was great fun.

Finally the Missus downloaded a new game… BOOGIE BUNNIES.  Not exactly HALO, but these bunnies are pretty damn cute.  And she kicked ass (or bunny, as it were) at the game, too.

Toward the end of the afternoon I downloaded the demo of STAR WARS: THE FORCE UNLEASHED and promptly had my mind blown: “Ah, so THIS is why hardcore gamers have no lives.”  I’ve played some amazing games recently (particularly BIOSHOCK), but this was particularly awesome and I couldn’t put down the controller.  The Peanut began to fuss and the Missus was working on dinner, so I strapped the kid into the Baby Bjorn and played standing up.  After a while, I noticed that the baby was dead to the world against my chest.

In fact, she looked… dead, actually.

I panicked and rushed into the kitchen, where my wife and I proceeded to poke and prod the Peanut into consciousness again — Coma Baby blinked, looked around like, “What the hell is going on, here?”, then sacked out again. 

Okay, maybe we — okay, maybe *I* — overreacted, but I was still relieved.  Every new parent is allowed to have a freak-out like that every once in a while, and I would have hated to have my daughter asphyxiate against my chest while I’m trying to cut an Imperial chicken walker in half with a lightsaber.

If nothing else, we confirmed that the Peanut has definitely taken to the Bjorn; now that I know I can play video games with her hanging off me like that, the next experiment will be writing.  Maybe I can put my PC on a dresser and type standing up.  After all, Hemingway wrote that way — only something makes me think his manly image would have been shattered if he wrote A FAREWELL TO ARMS and FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS with a baby strapped to his chest.  Then again, he was drunk — what would he have cared, anyway?

I Love L.A.

August 22, 2008

… and unlike Randy Newman, I don’t mean that ironically.  When I finally made the move out west in my early 20s, the only reason I had any desire to live out here was to break into the movie business.  As I think I might have mentioned elsewhere, I was determined to give it a year.  I’m still here over a decade later.  And you know what?  If I suddenly gave up the Hollywood dream today, I still would stay.  Much to my shock, La-La Land has become, well… home.

Sure, there’s plenty to hate about the place — the traffic, the ridiculous cost of living, the traffic, the smog, the traffic, the jaw-dropping obnoxiousness of many of the moneyed folk who have turned the westside into a giant yuppie playground, the traffic, the seemingly willful shallowness of, well, almost everybody else… have I mentioned the traffic?  Yeah, plenty to hate, indeed.

But so what?  Last time I checked, Manhattan and Chicago weren’t exactly asshole-free zones.  You’re going to run into fakes and flakes in every city of the Union — L.A. may seem to have the corner of the market, but it’s just because the knuckleheads are better lit out here. 

In a way, living in Los Angeles is like going to a large but undistinguished state university: you get what you put into it.  I’ve heard the argument that it’s nothing but a suburban wasteland without any culture, but you just have to dig a little deeper than maybe you would in, say, SoHo.  Okay, the Pantages Theater doesn’t exactly give Broadway a run for its money, but Hollywood is littered with great little theaters if drama is your thing.  LACMA is no Museum of Natural History, but hey, we’ve got the La Brea tar pits next door —  the dinosaur display is submerged in millions of gallons of black muck instead of sitting there for you to see.  So you have to use your imagination!

Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch.  But I can say that as far as cinema goes, L.A. has the rest of the world beat, hands down.  From the New Beverly Cinema to the Fox in Westwood to the Egyptian and Aero Theatres to the screenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a movie lover can find something different to see virtually every night, if he or she feels so inclined.  Music aficionados would have a field day; as a die-hard rock geek, the only thing I love more than catching a movie is catching a show or hitting Amoeba Records.  Book lovers are sort of in trouble, but there are still some killer used book stores on Melrose.  Foodies will bust a gut.  You get the idea.

I know  — NYC and the Windy City and Seattle and any other major metropolitan area can offer many of the same things… but not the way L.A. delivers.  And then there’s the whole Hollywood dilemma: do you have to live out here to make it in the film business?  That’s a complicated question, and the only way I can answer it is, Yes, you do have to live out here to make it… if that’s the path you choose.  Some writers can’t write a word once they’re out here — call it the Barton Fink Syndrome.  Others flourish.  The odd gravitational pull of Tinseltown affects everyone in slightly different ways; for whatever reason, the city sucked me in so deep, I can’t imagine returning to the east coast. 

In a weird way, I found myself in this sprawling, exasperating urban mess; I followed my dreams out to the edge of the Pacific, made some friends, fell in love with the woman who became my wife and now we’re setting down roots and raising a family.  It ain’t perfect by a long shot, but sometimes, when it’s after midnight and I’m coming out of the Troubadour or the El Rey after a concert and I’m cruising along Olympic Boulevard, listening to KCRW over the ringing in my ears and the empty, starkly lit street looks beautifully eerie, like something out of a Michael Mann movie only better because it’s real life, and the Missus and now our little girl are waiting for me at home, I think to myself, Jeez, it really doesn’t get much better than this. 

For me, that’s certainly the case…. and, astoundingly, it doesn’t even involve landing a six-figure script sale.

Unmanageable

August 19, 2008

Recently in my humble blog, reader Matt provided some insightful commentary regarding spec scripts and managers.  This got me thinking about my own opinions on the matter.

In short, managers suck.

There, I said it.  And of course, if I’d had better luck with reps, I’d be singing a very different tune.  Sour grapes?  Maybe a few.  But be careful or you may accidentally bite down on the same ones I did.

Here’s the thing — the management field is one gigantic conflict of interest.  On one hand, you’ve got the producers who will buy your material.  On the other hand, you’ve got the agents who will sell your material — agents who are legally barred from attaching themselves to a client’s project.  So far, so good.  (Or good enough.)  But then, in the middle, you’ve got the managers, who frequently function as both agents AND producers. 

Managers often develop a screenplay with you like a producer will, they’ll shop it around town like an agent, then they’ll frequently attach themselves AS producers if the script sells, in which case they collect not only their 10-15% commission from your script sale, but whatever producer’s fees they negotiate with the prodco or studio. 

When I landed my first manager, I had no problem with this… at least until I realized that he was much more interested in my writing his ideas, rather than my writing my own.  One failed spec (based on his idea) later, we parted ways.  I realized that I had just spent the better part of a year writing a piece of shit that he convinced me — or maybe I convinced myself — would sell.  From now on, I was marching to my own drummer, no matter how erratic the beat became.

Of course, did I really learn from my mistake?  Nooooooooooo.

A few years later I signed with Manager #2 on the strength of the Wedding Comedy, then in its first incarnation.  After pitching him scores of new ideas, he threw one of his at me — and I dug it.  A lot.  So I developed it with him and the Producer he actually worked for.  The production company had recently — at that time — shepherded an Academy Award-nominated indie to the big screen, so I figured I was in good hands.  They gave me notes, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and eventually we were done.  Manager #2 went out with the script, it almost sold, I got a lot of meetings off of it…

… and then the beginning of the end commenced.  Manager #2 hated all of my follow-up ideas.  He would pitch me ideas that he and the Producer concocted; increasingly demoralized by their rejection of the loglines that excited me, I would take a half-hearted stab at their stories and give up.  My heart was in my own ideas, but he didn’t want anything to do with them.  But he was my manager.  Who was working for whom, here?

I found out the answer when I went to a meeting with Manager #2’s Producer, who actually said to the exec we were meeting with, “Yeah, we paid writers to develop for a while.  Then we figured we might as well create a management arm and develop scripts for free.” 

He said this with me literally sitting there in between them.  Like I wasn’t even there.   And at that moment, I realized that I was possibly the world’s biggest sucker.  Everything suddenly became clear: I was trapped in development hell, AND I WASN’T EVEN GETTING PAID FOR IT. 

I really liked Manager #2 as a person — he was a super nice guy, and I’d like to think that he believed in me as writer.  Trouble is, he was working for the Producer, who I realized was really wearing the pants in that relationship.  At the end of the day, that organization did not have my best interests in mind; they wanted me to write scripts that they could produce, and if my obsessions and interests didn’t jibe with theirs, then tough.  So I got out.

To make matters worse, I realized after I’d escaped that the screenplay I developed with them was suddenly radioactive; even though it was legally mine according to the terms of our contract, the fact that they’d had so much inflluence  on it (to say nothing of that fact that it was based on their original idea) fatally tainted it for me.  It’s possibly the best script I’ve written so far, and I can’t get myself to send it out anymore.

Of course, I have no one to blame but myself in this situation.  I could have just told them to go screw themselves and written the scripts that I wanted to write… but I was their client, and if I was writing a script they didn’t want to represent, then what would happen?  I wanted to be a good sport, and in the end I wasted a ridiculous amount of time playing along.

In light of all this, I resolved to never have a manager again.   No more of this conflict-of-interest B.S.  But who knows — maybe a management powerhouse like Benderspink or Circle of Confusion would be easier to work with than a lower profile manager with something to prove.  And there’s also that inevitable truism: it’s almost always easier to land a manager than an agent. 

This is where you need to pay attention, because one day, you may meet a manager who loves your work.  He’ll take you to lunch and say, “I’ve got this terrific idea and I think you’d be perfect to write it.  Because you are an awesome writer.”

Hopefully he’s half-right — hopefully you ARE an awesome writer.  But you are most definitely not perfect to write this idea, because you should have plenty of your own that need writing before you consider developing somebody else’s for free. 

Remember that.  Seriously.

Two Decisions…

August 16, 2008

… One, I think I’m skipping THE CLONE WARS in the theater. The reviews are horrible, the dialogue in the commercials alone makes me cringe, and considering that it’s basically the first three TV episodes strung together, I’ll wait to see it on the tube, which it was intended for in the first place. I do have to say that, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m finally burning out a little on this whole franchise expansion. It’s very much like one of the reasons why I gave up on Star Trek after a few seasons of NEXT GENERATION: the more Uncle George fills in the blanks in his little universe and the further codified it is, the less interesting it becomes. There’s no room for your imagination. When I was a kid, I’d try to picture what the hell the Clone Wars were like, and it was fun to speculate. Now we all know exactly what they were like, and my vision was better. Well, not really, objectively speaking… and yet it was for me. You know what I mean?

And, of course, now I’m going to contradict myself and mention how much I’m looking forward to the FORCE UNLEASHED game coming out next month. Man, THAT I can’t wait for, maybe if only because that flank of the dead horse (tauntaun?) hasn’t yet been completely beaten into oblivion. Yes, at the end of the day, Lucasfilm will still draw the money from my wallet like Luke pulls his lightsaber out of the snow in the wampa cave on Hoth.

ANYWAY, my other decision today is that, after going around and around with the producers regarding the outline of my Wedding Comedy revision, I’m just gonna go for it and start writing pages. For the past week I’ve been throwing ideas at them, and they’ve shot them down, and it finally occurred to me: “Dope, you’re the friggin’ writer, here. WRITE.” We’ve been discussing the story in the abstract, and it’s all too easy for them to tell me what they think the story should be, rather than reacting to what it is on the page. And on my end, it’s all too easy to become lost in the maze of possibilities that we’ve created rather than finally making choices and locking it down. I have their notes; I know what they want from the next draft. It’s my job to figure out how I can implement those ideas and then sell them on how I do it.

So we’ll see how it goes. May the Force be with me.

All Hail the Binky

August 15, 2008

A few hours ago I had a long phone conference with the producers regarding the latest outline of the Wedding Comedy, so I have to ponder (read: cry over) the notes they gave me tonight… but I just wanted to report that the Peanut accepted a pacifier for the first time today.  The change that has come over WriterDad Manor is almost mind-blowingly profound; for starters, I COULD have a long phone conference with the producers.  Who knows how long this will last, but I have to say — this is friggin’ awesome.  I feel like a caveman who just witnessed the discovery of fire.

Next post: Why you should avoid managers, and why you’re still going to end up with one anyway.  And maybe I’ll discuss/vent about THE CLONE WARS, which I hope to slip out of the homestead to see this weekend.  Part of me will never grow up.

Tagged Again

August 14, 2008

… This time it’s courtesy of my old friend WhatACard, who has ordered me to list quirks, not fatal flaws.  In that spirit, I guess I’ll rein in the self-loathing — but only for the duration of this post.  After that, it’s open season on my faults once again.

The subject is….
“6 UN-spectacular things about me”

As with everything in life there are rules:
1. Link the person who tagged you.
2. Mention the rules on your blog.
3. Tell about 6 unspectacular quirks of yours.
4. Tag 6 following bloggers by linking them.
5. Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger’s blogs letting them know they’ve been tagged.

So, without further ado…

1. For the past four years I have ordered the exact same thing every time I visit Subway: foot-long Veggie Delight on white bread, with sour cream and onion chips, Dr. Pepper and three peanut butter cookies.

2. I can’t leave my house or car without rechecking the lock at least two times.  (This resulted in me literally breaking off my driver-side car door handle last year.  They don’t make ’em like they used to.)

3. I love Indian food, but I have no idea what it is that I’m eating; I let my wife handle the ordering.

4. I am in my thirties and a member of the official Iron Maiden Fan Club.  (I joined to get pre-sale concert tickets earlier this year, but it was about two decades overdue anyway.)

5. Since 1996, I’ve carried an autographed Bob Mould concert ticket in my wallet.

6. In the past few years I’ve developed a strange love of the Pillsbury Doughboy… but c’mon, look at the little fella.  How could I not? 

Oh, and let me add a bonus quirk…

7. I hate inconveniencing people, which is why I’m not going to tag anybody in turn. 🙂