Posted tagged ‘screenwriting’

One Crazy Summer (The Not-Savage Steve Holland Version)

October 18, 2009

Jeez, where to begin.  The past few months have been ridiculously busy.  The saga of the Wedding Comedy now contains more twists and turns than a Six Flags roller coaster; we’ve got funding to the tune of $3 million, the Director is still on board, the script has been rewritten and tightened to her satisfaction and that of the producers and the financier, the production was budgeted and given a tentative start date of the first week in November… and then we hit a snag involving rights issues and one Big Studio which, to put it bluntly, is being a giant collective douchebag over the matter.  And because of this problem, we may lose our star for reasons too convoluted and tedious to explain.

Fortunately the financier is still willing to make the movie with or without this guy, but given that I’ve spent the past couple of years tailoring my original spec for him, it would be a bit of a drag to have him suddenly bail like this.

My work has been done since Labor Day, which was my deadline to turn in the latest draft for budgeting and scheduling.  (The two weeks previous to that holiday was one of the most intense writing experiences I’ve ever had, and worthy of its own blog post — but I was just too damned tired to write it at the time.  Hopefully I’ll get to it in my next post; given my posting pace in the past six months, that should be sometime before the New Year.  Maybe.)  Since then I’ve just been sitting on my ass, getting periodic updates from the producers and the Director and crossing my fingers that the whole thing finally comes together and they make the movie.

In the meantime, I’ve been struggling with the rewrite of my latest spec — the Domestic Comedy, one of the scripts that I jammed out before the Peanut was born in July of 2008.  For whatever reason, it’s been virtually impossible to focus; every other dumbass idea I’ve ever had seems more interesting than this script at the moment, but I’ve got to buckle down and get it done.  It’s been way, way too long since I finished a polished spec, and my writing partner and I have a tentative agreement to get our first collaboration going in January, so I want to clear the decks before tackling that one.

While I do battle with my own creative inertia, parenting has become even more of a challenge as the Peanut becomes a toddler… a very, very moody toddler.  If I had a quarter for every meltdown and tantrum I’ve witnessed, I’d probably have enough money for the down payment on a nice-sized house.  The Missus and I are exhausted every night, though after 15 months of being parents, “exhausted” has sort of become our default mode.  Factor in my day job and such distractions as the Xbox, movies, books, and, well, sleep, and sometimes I’m amazed that I can still  complete a sentence, let alone a screenplay.

But that’s bullshit, of course.  I finished my Wedding Comedy draft and it was well received (one of the producers told me I knocked it out of the park, which certainly gave me the warm fuzzies until I decided he was probably just blowing smoke up my ass for reasons unknown), and I did it in record time. I CAN finish the spec at hand.  I just need to believe that I can.

… And if that fails, I could just ask the Missus to nag me to finish it.   The only reason I even wrote this tonight is that she urged me to pay some attention to my “poor blog,” as she put it.  Yes, I can be guilted into anything.  Hopefully she won’t ever  get it into her head that I’d make an excellent bank robber.  Of course, maybe then we could actually afford to buy a home.

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Grindstone Cowboy

December 3, 2008

I seem to be in danger of becoming one of those bloggers who, you know, doesn’t actually update his blog on a regular basis. What the hell is wrong with me? I’ll bet you can guess. Let’s all say it together: “I have no time to write.”

Sadly, this does indeed seem to be the case, at least lately. The Peanut is approaching her five month mark, and just when the Missus and I think we’ve got this parenting shit down to a science, our offspring makes another developmental leap and screws us up all over again. Recent occurrences include such milestones as rolling from her tummy onto her back (a hilarious and weirdly touching sight), the beginning of the teething phase (decidedly less hilarious) and reaching out for random objects — for example, the catalog that Mommy’s holding while the baby sits in her lap — and stuffing them into her mouth. When the Peanut is sitting on my leg and we’re talking gibberish to one another, an experience that occasionally seems to resemble one of my more awkward prodco meetings, I experience a profound happiness that I previously never believed to be possible without illicit substances or religious brainwashing.

Unfortunately, a more active and interactive Peanut keeps me away from my computer for even longer stretches than before. I’m lucky if I have twenty minutes to work on the rewrite of the Apatow Rip-Off, which I’d hoped to finish in time for the tracking board contest and completely and utterly failed to do so. The get-up-at-4:50-with-the-wife-and-write plan is still in effect — unless the Peanut wakes up around that time, in which case it becomes the get-up-at-4:50-and-take-care-of-the-kid plan. A Thanksgiving trip to visit the in-laws in San Diego — traditionally one of my most creatively fertile periods of the year — yielded exactly zero pages this time around. Being stuck in the third quarter of Act II hasn’t helped, either: for the past two weeks, the little time I’ve spent at the keyboard mostly involved A) staring blankly at the screen, B) occasionally trying out and then promptly discarding ideas that I’ll charitably describe as half-baked, and/or C) writing vicious hate mail to myself, then deleting it before the Missus could read some of it and hide the knife block in the kitchen.

I now understand why pro writers often seem to take long stretches of time off for their families. Part of me feels like going on hiatus to let the well refill and enjoy the first year of my daughter’s life without the burden of shoehorning in writing time. I’m not going to do that, of course. The fact is, I’m not getting any younger — I’m rapidly approaching the age range in which most guys settle into whatever profession they’re going to toil in until they hit retirement, and here I am, on a career track to nowhere. Screenwriting is pretty much the only existential “Get Out of Jail Free” card I have to play at this point, which compounds my frustration when circumstances prevent me from putting in the time and effort I need to make my professional aspirations a reality.

I have to keep my nose to the grindstone, even if it ends up shearing off my face.

(Coda: The Missus made me promise to be more cheerful in my next post.)

The Reluctant Early Bird

November 7, 2008

It’s been a real struggle to get back into the writing groove over the past couple of weeks. The good news is that I’ve finally figured out what I need to do to get things rolling again creatively: time, focus, and energy.

The bad news is that I have none of those things.

I realized that the key is time: if I could carve out an hour during which I would face a minimum of interruptions, I could focus. I finally made my peace with the fact that until the Peanut starts going to bed around 8:30 pm or so (and when that will be, I can only dream), I will not be able to get any serious writing done after work, and even if I could, I would most likely be exhausted anyway. My energy level is at its highest when I first get up, naturally. Ergo, the best time for me to write is before work.

Of course, the time between waking up and punching in at the office is hectic — get up, get showered, wolf down breakfast, get the kid up, get the kid to daycare, get to work. No time to write for ten minutes, let alone an hour.

I decided that my only solution is to rise when the Missus wakes up to do her various mommy duties before she has to drive off to her own white collar hell. If she can drag herself out of bed, then so can I: the buddy system worked like a charm on Boy Scout camping excursions and school field trips, so it should work just as well for my marriage, right?

Trouble is, she gets up at 4:50. Every damn morning.

Ugh.

The Missus likes to remind me that way back at the beginning of our relationship, I told her that I would turn her into a morning person. Well, turns out that I was right, though I suppose I had to knock her up to do it. And now I miss the woman who wouldn’t wake up before double digits unless she had to.

ANYWAY, I guess that for as long as I can crawl out of bed and pump myself full of coffee before I drift back into a coma, I’ve got my writing hour. Now I have no excuse to not get my shit together… at least for the time being. I’m sure I’ll come up with something sooner or later.

I Am the Master Chief of My Domain

October 29, 2008

So much for the quickie rewrite.

I’m currently stuck in the middle of the second draft of my Domestic Comedy. No, that’s not right.  Truth is, I’d like nothing more than to be stuck in the middle of it; I’m actually bogged down at the beginning. And I’m talking the beginning-beginning — I’m less than ten pages in and I feel like somebody’s dropped me in the middle of the Congo with nothing more than a bread knife to hack my way through the jungle.

At times like this, distractions are everywhere. My house seems to come alive as I sit there at my computer, fidgeting and wishing my daily quota of pages was done already — I can hear our DVD collection beckoning, our CD spinner whispering sweet nothings in my ear, my shelf of unread books whistling my way and asking if I want a date.

And then there’s the Xbox.

Lately, the console is sounding like that loudmouth jerk who hawks Oxyclean and Kaboom on TV: “COME PLAY ME!  THE SCRIPT CAN WAIT! YOU WILL OBEY!!!”  Increasing the temptation is the brand new copy of HALO 2 that I bought on a whim at Fry’s a few weeks ago. 

Here’s the thing — when I’m in the zone and a script is clicking, nothing can keep me from writing.  I’ll write anytime, anywhere.  (This can make driving a little challenging and occasionally death-defying, but hey, sometimes the Muse takes precedence over traffic laws and common sense.)  But when I’m blocked, I find myself drawn to other people’s stories.  I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t read a long work of fiction while making my way through a difficult first draft; if I do, I usually have a better chance of finishing the LA Marathon in flip-flops than I do of finishing my own draft.  And now that I’m a born again gaming geek, I’ve recently discovered that if I’m playing a story-driven game such as, oh, say, the original HALO or BIOSHOCK, there’s no way in hell any work is getting done.  (Unless the Missus cracks the whip and guilts me into getting my ass in gear.)  I know that I need to focus, to concentrate all of my energy and attention on my own tale.

Consequently, I refuse to let myself open HALO 2 until I finish the second draft of the Domestic Comedy.

And now, naturally, as I struggle with my script, I can’t stop thinking about HALO 2.

Sad, right?  What’s even sadder is that I’m actually trying to bargain with myself now.  It’s gotten to the point that I’ll ask the Missus if it would be okay for me to play ten minutes of the game as long as I get my quota of pages done.  Her answer is always the same: “Is the script done?  Then the answer is no.  Now get back to work, asshole.”  (Okay, she doesn’t actually call me an asshole.  It’s certainly  implied, though.)

This inner struggle is not necessarily due to the fact that I’m dying to play a five-year-old video game — though I am, of  course.  It’s just that by denying myself this minor pleasure, I can’t help but focus on it.  ( What can I say, I was raised Catholic.)  But if I give in, then I’ve lost this battle of wills with myself.  I’m starting to feel like I’m in my own one man version of the legendary masturbation episode of SEINFELD.  And I must remain the master of my domain.  The Covenant and the Flood can wait.

Maybe.

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.

Since When Did Writing Get So Hard?

October 16, 2008

For the life of me, I can barely write my name lately, let alone an outline or a scene.  What the hell is wrong with me?  Oh, yeah, I’m a parent now.  Of course, who’d want to write when presented the chance to spend the evening playing with this little cutie instead: 

Somebody needs to market an adult-sized monkey rug, incidentally.

ANYWAY… so yeah, I’m feeling more than a little distracted lately.  I don’t think it’s just the kid, either.  Despite my best efforts, my attempt to rewrite the High School Comedy has ground to a dismal halt.  Just not feeling it.  So I’ve switched to another one of the scripts I banged out before the Peanut’s arrival — the Domestic Comedy.

Yeah, that one ain’t catching fire, either.

What to do?  I’m well aware that this is one of those situations that separates the men from the boys — you either resist the pull of real life and stay the course, or you drift away and eventually realize that weeks, months, maybe years have gone by and you’ve only written a page of your script or novel since that fateful night you said to yourself, “Eh, I’ll take tonight off and come back to it fresh tomorrow.”  (This scenario is very similar to a somewhat prescient subplot in the Domestic Comedy.  Life is apparently threatening to imitate my mediocre art.)

In my defense, I’ve been working every night, even if it’s for a few minutes while the baby snoozes.  Progress is being made, even if you can only track it with the assistance of a sub-atomic microscrope.  But I just can’t crack either script — I think I understand what’s wrong with both stories, but the solutions aren’t coming.  I suspect the issue is one of focus — or rather, the lack thereof.  The Missus’ sister is coming to town this weekend, though, so that should give me the chance to slip away for some serious solitude.  Hopefully.

I can only hope that the Peanut doesn’t give me a look like this…

 

… ’cause if she does, you can kiss that writing time goodbye. On the other hand, that’s the way it should be.  I’d like to think that that may make me a bad writer but a good dad.  That sounds like a fair trade in my book.

Nothing Should Be Easy (On the Page, Anyway)

October 9, 2008

I can’t believe it’s been over a week since I last posted — where does the time go? Nothing new to report on the Wedding Comedy front; if I haven’t heard anything by next week, I’m planning on bugging one of the producers for an update. We’ll see if they actually return my calls.

I’ve been struggling to get into the rewrite of my latest script, but things haven’t been clicking yet. I suspect I’m creatively tapped out, in which case the best thing for me would be to walk away for a couple of weeks and let the well refill. But I’m going to try to push through anyway — after all, if this was an assignment, it’s not like I could tell the powers that be that I missed my deadline because I wasn’t feeling inspired. Well, I suppose I could if I never wanted to work again.

I will admit that I’ve been distracted lately; I’ve been feeling very stressed about money. My variable hours at the day job are currently working against me as my boss scales me back for the next week or so, which would be awesome if I didn’t have, you know, bills to pay. It’s really hard, having no cash in such times of economic prosperity when everybody else is running around counting the money they just pulled out of the equity in their homes and/or made in the stock market and — oh, wait, I’m having a flashback to four or five years ago. I forgot that we’re all apparently broke now. Well, even if I’m not alone, it still sucks to peek into my checking account and hear a sound akin to the wind as it whistles across the vast, cold emptiness of the Siberian plain, a sound that makes me wonder how I’m going to run power to my PC and Xbox when we’re forced to move into a family-sized cardboard box.

Okay, it’s bad, but it’s not THAT bad. I am by nature a worrier, have been for as long as I can remember — my fourth grader teacher once told me to relax before I gave myself an ulcer. I didn’t even know what the hell an ulcer was at the time, but rest assured, I worried about catching one from that day on. In Little League, I would get so wigged out about getting a hit when I was at bat that I would forget to actually swing at that ball whizzing past my head. To this day I tend to stress myself out over stuff that I should probably just ignore; early in our relationship, the Missus pointed out to me that if we were hypothetically walking through a swamp at night, she’d be looking out for alligators while I’d be worried about being hit by a falling meteor. I open my mailbox the way a bomb squad member opens a suspicious package — after all, who knows what the hell is waiting for me in there?

And yet, maybe these tendencies have actually helped me as a writer. When I sit down and try to figure out the worst thing that could happen to my hero at a given moment, by golly I can come up with an awful scenario in no time. Conflict is usually a drag in real life, but it’s worth its weight in gold in a story. There’s nothing more boring than two characters who get along, or a hero who comes up with a plan, executes it and gets what he wants. Your hero should NEVER get what he or she wants — or if he or does, then the attainment of this goal should come with unforeseen consequences. Everything has a price.

Your story should be full of reversals. I forget which script guru coined the phrase, but I’ve heard of this two-steps-forward-one-step-back story progression as “failing upward” — I like to think of it as the “but” factor. Take the second half of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, for example: Indy finds the hidden location of the Ark BUT he gets busted by the bad guys and ends up entombed with Marion. They find their way out BUT they have to chase after the Nazis to retrieve the Ark. They succeed and board a steamer bound for home BUT the Nazis catch up with them, reclaim the Ark and kidnap Marion. Indy comes to the rescue BUT, when given the opportunity to blow up the Ark, can’t do it and gets caught again. You get the idea.

I know, it’s an obvious lesson but one that many writers — myself included — sometimes forget. Everybody wishes that life was easy, including your characters. No matter how much you might wish somebody would do the same for you, don’t let them catch a break.