Archive for the ‘Craft’ category

Oh, Yeah — We Write These Things To Be Produced

July 20, 2009

For the past six weeks I’ve struggled with the rewrite of the Wedding Comedy, trying to integrate the various notes of the producers, the star and the Director.  It’s the first time I’ve ever rewritten with an actual production (theoretically) looming, and I’ve suddenly been confronted by the fact that the words I put on the page actually have real life implications.

Some of the issues we’ve discussed have been nuts-and-bolts type things: this scene would be too expensive, combine this scene and that scene so we don’t need an extra location, change this from night to day, and so on.  But this line of practical thinking has continued in unusual directions…One of the issues  we’ve discussed that I find particularly interesting centered around the lead female character, the hero’s wife-to-be: in particular, the fact that she’s really a non-character. Oh, she’s got dialogue and she serves a purpose in the story, but as the Director put it, “Why would any actress want to play her?” And the answer is, I have no clue.

The question was particularly jarring for me in that I’ve lived with these characters in my head for so long, I almost have trouble with the notion that, oh, yeah, a real person is going to be paid to pretend to be each of them when the cameras start rolling.  Why the hell would any actor want to play one of these roles, aside from the paycheck?  Is the character interesting?  Is she funny?  Does he have a back story, a ghost that’s haunting him?  Does she seem like a real person?  What do they do for a living, and how does that matter in the context of the story?  It’s not enough that the character’s name is on the page; you’ve got to make sure that there’s enough there so that an actor can make that character a person.

Maybe I’m just easily impressed, but the Director’s simple question has ended up blowing my mind on a fundamental level.  So often we write in a vacuum; sometimes it takes someone else to open the door and let some fresh air in.  Lesson learned — the next time I sit down to plot out a new story and crank out a first draft, I’m going to make sure that all of my characters are there on the page from the beginning, so I don’t find myself retrofitting back story and personality traits five or ten or twenty drafts down the road.

That’s assuming I ever finish this project, of course.

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121 Pages of… Something

February 3, 2009

Finished the first draft of the Bigfoot Comedy this morning.  Took me about five weeks to grind out — two weeks longer than I expected, though I can attribute that to three factors:

1) The Peanut got sick, then I got sick, then the Peanut’s teething kicked into overdrive.  That trifecta of unpleasantness cost me a week (and more than a little sleep for both me and the Missus) right there.

2) The script ran long.  What was supposed to be 95-100 pages ballooned to 121 pages.

3) I had no idea what the hell I was doing in the second half.

Looking over my outline, I have only myself to blame — the beats of the first half are pretty straightforward and competently structured: this happens, which leads to this, which leads to this on page 25, etc.  But the second half of the story is considerably fuzzier, with the beats a little more open to interpretation: e.g., “Bob dupes Ray” instead of “Bob tricks Ray into driving a suitcase full of homegrown marijuana over the Canadian border where he’s arrested by the Mounties, while Bob makes a move on Ray’s hot girlfriend.”  Or whatever. (Not that my story has anything to do with weed smuggling, Canada or Mounties, though maybe it should.)  And the third act, which I envisioned as charmingly eccentric, came off as just weird and completely disconnected from the rest of the story when I actually wrote it.

So what happened?  As far as the vague plotting is concerned, I fooled myself into believing the biggest line of bullshit I can feed myself during the conception stage of a new project:

“YOU’LL FIGURE IT OUT WHEN YOU GET THERE.”

After ten years of semi-pro level writing, I can safely say that this well-meaning declaration, the creative equivalent of “I promise I’ll pull out,” almost never fails to trip me up.  I’m chugging along on a first draft, pleased as punch with myself and marveling at how easy the words are coming — “This sucker is writing itself!” — and then WHAM!  I hit the wall that I struggled to overcome while outlining, only now I’ve broken the momentum I’ve generated as I charged through my daily quota of pages.  Sure, I know what happens — “Bob dupes Ray,” I mean, come on, piece of cake — but now I have to stop and figure out HOW it happens.  And this can take hours… days… weeks.  On rare occasions it kills a script dead and I have to put the whole damn thing aside out of sheer frustration.

What happens more frequently is that after beating myself up for a few days I finally pull something out of my ass and decide, “Eh, good enough for now”, then curse myself in subsequent drafts when I can’t come up with something better — the place holder I desperately threw in there seems to have become permanent.  And even if I figure it out to my semi-satisfaction the first time through, then I have to build up my momentum again, something that occasionally doesn’t happen, especially if I hit another wall.  Oh, the draft gets finished, but the energy and enthusiasm of the first half is gone — I’m like a runner who starts a marathon at the front  of the pack and ends up crossing the finish line on his hands and knees, dead last.

Some writers thrive in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along scenario.  I am not one of them.  I am a planner by nature.  And even though I know that that plan will be completely smashed in the rewrite when I realize where I went wrong, a new plan will surely take its place.  I would’ve made an excellent architect, if architects were allowed such mistakes as putting the kitchen in the attic, then looking at the finished house and saying, “You know, we should put it on the first floor after all.”

What have we learned, Charlie Brown?  You gotta lock it all down beforehand — know not only what happens, but how it happens.

Will I ever learn?  Frankly, probably not.  Sometimes you’ve been plotting so long, you have to pull the trigger or the whole thing will dissipate entirely — it’s a fine line to walk.  But it’s also a bad habit to mask things with smoke and mirrors when you know you’re gonna break your nose sprinting into that brick wall.  The most I can hope for is that things aren’t busted too badly and I’ll be able to rewrite with relative ease.

As for my gimp ending — I have no excuse for that one.  I just came up with a dopey idea for the climax that didn’t really work out.  But I’m gonna nail it in the next draft.  How, I don’t know.

Maybe I’ll just figure it out when I get there.

There I go again.

Interview with a Screenwriting Jedi Master

January 29, 2009

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, writer/producer Tim Albaugh has been possibly the most significant figure in the history of my would-be professional writing career.  He is Obi-Wan to my Luke, if you will — a comparison that will no doubt make the Missus’ eyes roll so emphatically, she’ll look possessed. 

I first met Tim when I happened to be assigned to his Professional Program workshop at UCLA over ten years ago and have clung to the underside of his wing ever since.  Lately he’s been spending some time up in Emeryville, teaching those cinematic slackers at Pixar how to write screenplays.   Imagine what those guys will do when they know how to make a good movie, eh?

ANYWAY, I thought you might be interested in what Tim has to say; if you don’t have the opportunity to take one of his classes at the various schools he teaches at, there are worse things you could do with five hundred bucks than hire him to consult on your script.  No, I’m not getting a kickback for endorsing him like that.

So, without further ado, here’s the interview.

Matt’s Column – “How Do I Write a Script that Attracts an Agent?”

November 4, 2008

Here’s something that will hopefully happen fairly regularly in the future — a guest column from reader Matt. Unlike my previous guest, he didn’t even have to sleep with me to land this gig. He only had to achieve what I and many of you reading this blog dream of: breaking through and making a living in the screen trade. Take it away, Matt…

WD offered me some space to detail the last year of my life when I went from writing my fourth spec (the first three went nowhere) to getting an agent and my first work as a professional screenwriter. This column will be the stuff I wish someone had told me before I was signed and in the first few months of my career. If there’s anything specific you’d like me to address please make note of it in the Comments. Schedule permitting, we’d like to do a couple times a month. Here we go.

The question I am asked with the most frequency is HOW DO I GET AN AGENT? There is no helpful answer to this question. You either get an agent from a connection passing the script along or a manager passing the script along. You get a manager through a very witty query letter or the recommendation of a connection. If you live in Los Angeles and are reasonably extroverted, it isn’t too hard to find someone young and hungry to take a look at your script.

The real question should be HOW DO I WRITE A SCRIPT THAT ATTRACTS AN AGENT? To be honest, 95% of that answer lies within your own talent. You’re either good or you’re not, and no amount of blogs, books, or practice will change that. But many writers, myself included, are probably good enough to achieve some success, but are going about things ass-backwards. So here is my step-by-step guide (with digressions) to writing the script that will get you an agent.

Wait. There’s just one step.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the tragedy of most lives is people never do what they’re best at. And it’s the same with most writers, I’m afraid. I believe that most writers are simply writing the wrong script. Maybe it’s because they’re writing for the marketplace. Maybe they’re just scared. But unless you write from the basic, essential core of your writing DNA, a long career just isn’t going to be in the cards.

What is your writing DNA? Thankfully, you can process your own genome with one simple answer:

What is the most important movie in your life? Not your favorite movie, not even the movie you’ve seen the most — I mean what is the one movie that you saw and decided I Want To Make Movies! For Kevin Smith, it was SLACKER. For Martin Scorsese it was FACES. And with both of their first movies, they made stuff heavily influenced by that — Smith with CLERKS, Scorsese with WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (writing in your favorite genre is something Scorsese sticks to — his next movie, MEAN STREETS, was a re-telling of his favorite Italian movie, I VITELLONI).

Now that you have that movie in your mind, drop whatever you’re working on and write a movie like that. I can’t tell you how many amateur writers — myself included — don’t write a movie like their most important movie. I wrote a kid’s comedy, a romantic comedy and an action comedy until I realized that my most Important Movie was A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. “But wait,” my brain said, “There is no chance anyone would ever buy an ultra-violent satirical fantasia in this day and age.” I was right: no one bought the fucker. But there was so much passion — Kubrick had been so encoded into my writing DNA — and originality (we are most original when we are grounded in the past and ourselves) that it got me an agent and my first job.

Moral of the story: don’t write broad comedies if your Most Important Movie is STAR WARS. Don’t write thrillers if it’s JERRY MAGUIRE. Stop writing what you think will sell. Stop writing what you think people want. Write the exact movie YOU are dying to see.

If you do that, and if you have talent, you will have a career. Because the point of that first script — and by first I mean the one that gets you attention — is not to sell. It’s to attract attention and get you work. And the only way that’s going to happen is to nurture your voice. Go forth!

Replacing the Turd (or, A Story Breakthrough)

October 17, 2008

Tonight I had one of those moments that makes me so happy to be a writer.  As you might have read in yesterday’s post, I’ve been having trouble getting into the rewrite of the Domestic Comedy.  The script reads like I jammed it out in eleven days — which is only fair, since I DID jam it out in eleven days — but the haste in which it was written gives the rough draft a nice energy, a few scenes work pretty well and there are some nice moments that I came up with off the top of my head that I never even imagined during the plotting stage.  So there’s plenty to work with there in terms of raw material… or so I thought, until I actually tried to rewrite it.

After much headbanging (and not the fun kind), I zeroed in on my main problem: the third act is awful, centering around a would-be set piece that was intended to be a great trailer moment and instead just lies there like a giant, steaming turd.  But I had no idea what to replace the turd with.  For the better part of a week I’ve pondered this issue, to no avail.

Then, tonight, as I was sitting on the couch, bottle-feeding the Peanut in my lap with my left hand while attempting to scribble brainstorming notes onto a pad with my right, it hit me.  It was one of those lightning-to-the-head epiphanies, the kind that always brings to mind the image of John Belushi getting zapped by the ray of light in the church in THE BLUES BROTHERS.  I realized that my solution was this:

In coming up with the climax I wrote, I was working from the outside in.  Oh, sure, I’d set it up earlier in the story (albeit in a ham-fisted, amateurish manner, but what the hell, it’s a rough draft), but in practice it felt arbitrary.  It didn’t feel true to the characters; you can practically hear the gears of the malfunctioning plot grinding against one another while you read.  What I needed to do was work from the inside out — think about who the characters were, what they wanted, how they got in the way of each other in trying to attain their goal, and how it brought them to their respective low points at the end of Act II.  By establishing that, I could then figure out how they had to change during the climax.  And by establishing THAT, I could begin to work out a climax that felt more organic to the story and actually paid off the character arcs in an emotionally statisfying fashion.  As a bonus, I also suddenly had an idea of what the climactic set piece should actually be.  It was so perfect, yet so obvious, that I couldn’t believe I never thought of it earlier.

Moments like that feel so great; the whoosh of inspiration lasts only a few seconds but the warm and fuzzy afterglow can linger for hours.  I still have plenty of story details to work out and it all could still fall apart, but at least now I have a solid foundation, something to build on. 

(Of course, when I pitched this new climax to the Missus, she liked it but pointed out that it’s basically a thinly veiled fictionalization of her job situation in specific and our lives in general, albeit exaggerated to comic effect.  This, of course, never even occurred to me, once again proving that I’m possibly the least self-aware writer in the world, or at least my neighborhood.)

So anyway, why should you care about any of this, aside from the fact that I hope you think I seem like an okay guy and you’re rooting for me to succeed?  Well, if nothing else, it’s a good reminder of something to keep in mind with your own screenplays: when you hit a dead end, go back to your characters and rework from the inside out.  The people should drive the narrative, not the other way around, and more often than not, a story doesn’t work because the characters don’t work.

It’s a good thing I finally wrote that all down, ’cause god knows I forget it often enough.

In Praise of Procrastination

August 7, 2008

This is a guaranteed way to make my wife absolutely crazy: I announce, “I’m going upstairs to write.” The Missus says, “Okay. Happy writing.” And up I go to the man cave, fire up the PC, look over my outline to see what the quota of pages that day will entail, stare at the cork board covered in quotes and inspirational aphorisms (“If you’re not a writer, then you’re a waiter”, courtesy of Hal Ackerman , is my favorite) hanging above my monitor, slug back some coffee, crack my fingers like a concert pianist about to pound the ivories for a crowd of thousands… then surf the web for the next hour. Or two. While noodling around on my bass guitar. And occasionally check my email — only every five minutes or so. And take the periodic bathroom break/coffee refill. Listen to some music. Maybe sneak in a nap somewhere in there. And invariably the Missus will wander upstairs and catch me in the middle of doing any one — or two or three — of these things and take me to task for not writing.

Not writing? This is actually the height of productivity!

Okay, maybe it isn’t always. Sometimes I may just be screwing around — not that I’ll ever actually admit this, and what writer worth his Final Draft software would? There are just some days when it’s not clicking.  But often, after seemingly wasting hours of precious (and pretty much nonexistent now, thanks to the baby) writing time, my mind will snap into laser sharp focus as I hammer out five to ten pages of… well, crap, usually. But it’s five to ten pages of crap that didn’t exist that morning, crap that I will then theoretically be able to revise into something halfway decent several weeks down the line. And occasionally, before you’re ready to actually write, you’ve got to let your unconscious creative mind do the heavy lifting while you’re very consciously surfing through Ain’t It Cool News or attempting to master the bassline for Rush’s “Natural Science.” Not that I would ever do either of these things, of course, as far as the Missus is concerned.

Now, of course it’s much more satisfying to have one of those days — or nights, if I’m writing after work — when I plop down at the computer, start typing immediately and next thing I know, it’s two hours later and I’ve got ten pages of pure gold on my hands — or so they seem, until I eventually reread them and realize they’re actually fool’s gold.  But during those times, in the heat of the moment, writing is a rush.  It’s FUN.  The movie’s unspooling in my mental projector and I’m just trying to keep up as I jot it all down.  It’s an amazing feeling and it almost never actually happens.

Most of the time, I have to work at it.  I look at this flimsy, slapped together outline on my desk and ask myself, “What asshole wrote this?  Oh, yeah.  You did.”  I have to figure out how to craft actual scenes out of these vague ideas that I thought would add up to a story.  And I have no idea how to do this.  I sit there and I take notes.  I erase the notes.  I realize I am a fraud.  And in ten seconds, I will be a fraud who’s reading about the wacky exploits of Paris Hilton on tmz.com.

But then, as I wonder if Lindsay Lohan will ever get her shit together or if the movie of WATCHMEN will be any good whatsoever, a vague idea of how to proceed eventually comes to me out of the blue.  I open up Word or Final Draft again, and I type out the idea.  I try to expand on it, feel out its parameters.  That vague idea becomes more concrete, leading to more ideas.  And pretty soon, lo and behold, I’m actually working.  And it feels good.

Except that I had been working all along.  You — and by “you”, I mean my lovely, skeptical wife — just couldn’t see it.

I know that I’m not alone on this one.  I’ll bet every writer reading this goofs off to one degree or another every once in a while (or, more likely, every time they sit down to write). 

And you know what?  Goof away.  You’re probably already writing and you don’t even realize it yet.

Unless you really are just screwing around, in which case… get to work.

An Obligatory Post About the Craft

August 2, 2008

Let me take a brief break from yammering on about the details of my oh-so-fascinating personal life to talk a little bit about the craft of screenwriting. Not that I actually know anything about the subject — if I did, I’d be typing this on my $20,000 Ego Bentley laptop on the deck of my palatial home in Malibu, listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the paparazzi below while I wait for Xavier, my trusty manservant, to return from polishing the Learjet so he can refill my tea, deliver the latest pages from my crack team of UCLA grad students working on my latest rewrite for Spielberg, and maybe fetch a couple of nubile starlets to for me to ruthlessly “audition” and toss aside like used Kleenex.

Okay, maybe not. But really, what do I know? I’m no intellectual ball of fire — analytical thinking is not my strong suit, as the Missus and anybody who’s ever watched me try to play cards can attest. There are plenty of screenwriting books out there that will tell you most of what you need to know, and many talented writers online who can fill in the rest. What do I have to contribute?

Well, I guess I have the following — just a few things to keep in mind, stuff so obvious that sometimes it’s easy to forget it. Let’s call the list…

WRITERDAD’S WRITING REMINDERS:

  1. STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE. Learn it, live it. I am a firm believer in the Lew Hunter/UCLA model: Inciting Incident at page 10, the Dilemma at 17, No Turning Back (Act I Curtain) at 30, Reversal (Raising the Stakes) at 45, Midpoint (The Tentpole: What The Movie’s About/Protagonist Goes From Passive to Active) at 60, Another Reversal (False Ending) at 75, The Big Gloom (Act II Curtain) at 90, and into the climax and the final fade out by page 110. My only modification to this paradigm has been to sometimes shorten the length of Act I: now that I’m writing comedies, development folks have told me to keep the first act down to 20 pages so we can get into the fun part of the story quicker and have the finished draft clock in around 100-105 pages. Some would argue that 20 pages is way too short for Act I, and sometimes that’s true; I’ve found that 25 pages works better for me, in which case you’d move the other plot points up five pages (45 becomes 40, 60 becomes 55, etc.). Regardless, you gotta know your classical structure and master it. Trust me, it makes life easier on everybody.
  2. YOU THINK YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS PERFECT?  IT’S NOT. There’s nothing better than finishing a first draft, especially if it ran off painlessly.  That doesn’t mean it’s any good.  Let it sit a while (at least a week, preferably three or four), come back and take a long, hard look at it.  Are there any glaring problems?  Try to fix them.  Don’t see any problems?  You’re still too close to the thing — put it back in the drawer for another week.  Repeat the process.  Then give the tweaked draft to your Trusted Readers for some honest feedback.
  3. GET SOME TRUSTED READERS. Join a writing group.  Take a workshop class.  Avoid your family.  (That said, my wife is the first person who reads anything I write.  She has a fantastic critical sense.  I lucked out.  Maybe you did, too.)  You need 3-5 people who will not bullshit you, will not coddle you, but won’t crush your spirit as they tell you what they think is wrong with your script.
  4. LISTEN TO THE FEEDBACK.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Sometimes you’ll instantly reject a note, then eventually realize it’s 100% dead on.
  5. …. BUT KNOW WHEN TO IGNORE IT.  Occasionally, somebody will give you a note that’s a fantastic idea, but one that would completely change your story.  Maybe you should take it — your screenplay will be that much stronger.  But other times, implementing the note will ruin what you’ve got and kill your script.  A great idea can be completely wrong for the story you want to tell.  You have to know what you’re trying to say in order to tell the difference.
  6. DON’T RUSH THE PROCESS. In the normal industry development cycle, a professional writer usually has 12 weeks to turn in a draft.  The writing of your own spec, however, has no such timetable; take advantage of this.  Sure, it’ll help in the long run if you can learn to write quickly, but you only get one shot with a reader.  Make sure your script is as good as it can be, no matter how many drafts you’ve churned out over however many months it’s taken.
  7. … BUT DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a script is DOA.  If you’ve been struggling on that first draft for the past 15 months, maybe it’s time to admit that you’re not ready to write it.  I’ve spent years — YEARS — on projects that never came together.  Was all that time wasted?  Not really — any writing is better than not writing.  But if I had been honest with myself, I would have put aside an idea after three weeks instead of ten months.  Maybe by walking away for a while, a piece of the puzzle will come to you out of the blue and you can return to the project with this new bit of knowledge.  Everybody is different, of course, but personally, if I’m spending more than a year on a script, something is very, very wrong.
  8. KNOW WHEN YOU REALLY ARE DONE. How do you know?  My rule of thumb is this — if you know in your heart of hearts that you’ve taken the story as far as you can (over however many drafts it takes) and none of your Trusted Readers can agree on what needs to be changed, then the script is ready.  At this point, it is what it is.  Of course, this is only the beginning — you’ll be rewriting your baby until the day it hits the theater or the DVD rack or dies in development hell.  But as a fresh spec, this the end of the line.
  9. DON’T BE BORING.  You’d think this one would be a no-brainer.  You’d be surprised.  Take a serious look at your story — have we seen it before?  What’s the twist?  Where does the fresh air come in from?  Bolting together tried ‘n’ true archetypes (or cliches, to put it less charitably) can still work, but it’s an uphill battle.  You need a hook.  Pretend you’ve got a crime story about the missing wife of a prominent Los Angeles businessman.  If you make the protagonist a tough-but-tender private eye, you’ve got just about ever detective story written since Raymond Chandler perfected the form half a century ago.  Make the protagonist an amiable stoner and his two bowling buddies, and you’ve got THE BIG LEBOWSKI.  Which movie would YOU rather see these days?
  10. THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER CHANCE.  Think you blew your big break?  Relax — there’s always another opportunity if you stick with it.  Just take a look at what went wrong, and try not to make the same mistake(s) next time.  I am living proof that this works.

So there — I feel much better, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest.  Hope this list helps a little, or at least isn’t too insulting in its obviousness.  I’m climbing off my rickety soapbox now.

We will resume our regularly scheduled navel-gazing with the next post!