Thursday, August 04, 2005

Writing: You Don't Need pg. 11

Frank Mula was a co-exec my first year on Cosby. He's one of the funniest bastards alive -- my lovely wife would only come to the show tapings in order to sit in the writer's room, next to Frank, and laugh herself blind at Frank's running commentary on the weekly apocalypse unfolding on the quad-split before them. He was kind enough to supervise me on my first solo pilot script.

Frank: Television is like bringing a box full of baby chicks into an executive's office. Baby chicks you lovingly incubated, hatched, and individually named. You set the box of peeping, beautiful baby chicks on the executive's desk, announcing. "Look, look at my beautiful little ideas." And then, the executive kills them, with a large flat rock. Smashes all of them to bloody paste pulp. BAM BAM BAM BAM. Until one is left. He hands you back the box and says "My work is done."

I once asked Frank for the single piece of advice he'd pass on to a young writer. He thought for a full minute, nodded, and announced. "You don't need page eleven."

"... what?"

"Any script. Go in, pull out page eleven. Don't need it."

This sounds insane. Until you go look at page eleven. Really think about whether you need it. And nine times out of ten, realize that he's right.

Frank's point, of course, was that you can yank pages out of any script, no matter how good. As a matter of fact, consider it a challenge. Go look at your film spec ...

... now pull ten pages out of it.

"Fuck you, Rogers." Yes, I heard you. You said it that loudly. Listen, your job on a script is not to turn the most beautiful phrase, forge the most lilting metaphor. Your job is to write a movie. And one of the crucial things about people reading a script, that in the really good ones, they forget they're reading a script. The reader's seeing the images in his head, fully engaged, totally lost in the moment ... until, as in the Chekov anecdote, the fireman leaves the back of his mental theater.

This is not to say you should be writing stripped-down, colorless business-only scripts. But too many times, writers are focused on the pretty pictures in their head, and forget that the script itself is a piece of art, not just an enabler of other art. Somebody has to read this, love it, and our job is to not just write a great story, not just write the FILM well, but craft the script so the reader understands the tone and pace of the film -- all without stopping the read in order to overtly draw out the tone and the pace. Too many times screenwriters ignore the perils of and opportunities within the physical script-space itself.

Your mission is to convey, along with the actual story, the most vivid sense of the script's intent as efficiently as possible. The script in and of itself, separate from its relation to the movie it will become, is a haiku. Forcing yourself to pull out ten pages will aid you in your craft. You will write in the active voice. You will search for the better word, the one that does the job of five. You will realize that you are uising way, way too many prettily constructed similes. YOU WILL CUT OUT THESE SIMILES. The simile is the enemy of screenwriting. If it's really amazing, it will yank the reader out of the moment. If it sucks ... well, nothing sucks like a bad simile.

"But my masterpiece requires 135 pages!" No. No it doesn't. Hell, if you're at 135 pages, yank 15 damn pages out of the script. And you're probably STILL running fat.

Listen, on a 120 page script, we're talking about pulling one page out of every twelve. You're telling me you can't streamline your writing by 8%?? Every word is that precious?

Again, this is not stripping the script for the sake of a pretty page count. This is an exercise in writing tighter, which is writing better. Understanding what can be conveyed in a look, a beat. It creates a mechanical framework to aid you in learning how to attack that hoary adage of "Enter late, leave early." You will learn to turn speech-y dialogue into its most polished, powerful little nuggets of meaning. That inner thought process you took three action lines to lay out -- can you make it explicit in dialogue, or even lack of dialogue?

Your scene descriptions and actions -- don't waste time on specifics. Somebody else is going to visualize the set, someone else is going to design the set, someone else is going shoot on that set. Don't write for the storyboard, write what the TONE of the set is, conveying how it informs the actions, creates the context for the characters within. Is this limiting? No, it's freeing. It's paradoxically MORE power. You're creating the world, mood, story -- let other people sweat the window size and wallpaper pattern.

Character intros: gahhhh. I never, ever want to read a line of character backstory again. The audience will know this character by what he says and what he does. (in that sense, in-script backstory is actually cheating) The actor will create whatever mindspace/backstory for the character they need to work the person up on screen. Just get the best, snappiest description of who this person is -- not how they dress or how they talk or how their goddam hair's cut, but who that character is in the script-world-- and move the fuck on. Again, not saying we're just typists. Not saying it has to be bland. The challenge is to create the most telling impression in the fewest words.
Don't sit their like so many screenwriters and try to jam whatever central casting idea of a character you have into the reader's head -- create the notion necessary for the reader to complete the image of the script in his head, to personalize it, and move on with the read.

How will the reader know a character's angry? Because he'll say angry words. How will we know he's still an expert in his craft? Because he'll say and do smart things. The reader will know these things the same way an audience member will know these things. The reader blends into audience member, which is exactly where you want your reader to be.

So go ahead, whatever the length of your script, be it spec film or TV show, take one whole damn day. Edit, trim, rewrite, rethink, sweat one out of every ten pages from the script.

End of day, you may say it can't be done. End of day, you may wind up just one page shorter, or less. But by attacking form over function just this once, you looked at the script from the outside in. It helps you catch some of your blind spots with little scenes you love and sweet turns of phrase which are just fat. Push comes to shove this may not elevate your writing at all, but at least it creates some sort of concrete goal to take the boring edge off a rewrite. If even that is all you get out of the attempt, it was worth the time.

I can't quote Frank without also remembering his parting words to me from the show. People ask me how insane Cosby got during those three years. Well, Frank left our New York studios after one. The last night of the season:

John: Frank, geesh are you sure about this?
Frank: John, if on the way home from New York to LA, the plane CRASHES, my last thought before I slam into the earth will be ... "I made the right choice."

Orac ...

... at Respectful Insolence is kicking it hard for science, all old-school Westie style with an ax handle. Here and here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Presidential Vacation Watch - Day 2

Bush Vacation Day: 2
American Soldiers Killed While Kickin' It in Crawford*: 18

Bush Days on Vacation Remaining: 32
Avg. American Vacation Days Remaining: 11*

No comments -- this is just a little countdown post.

*(yes, I know he gets phone calls and signs documents. You know what? I get phone calls and sign things too. It's not gruelling.)

*(based on 13 avg. days of vacation, courtesy World Tourism Organization)

Global Frequency Update

Ahh, for those flooding in here recently: first, I have gotten the e-mails about Joss Whedon saying kind things about Warren's Global Frequency in particular, and repeating the praise he heard about both script and pilot. So thanks, but consider my heads to be upped.

Second: reports of the death of GF have been somewhat misunderstood. Warren is correct in repeating, from his sources, that the show is dead for now in a development sense.

With ten years of television behind me, I'll tell you that you never, ever get to pop right back into redeveloping a high-concept show. All the same humans who bought it/looked at it are still in the same offices. Add to that the presence of an extent pilot, which actually has a following, and it would be insane to try to create a new pilot based on the property at this time.

In the context of getting the shot pilot out in DVD/file form, those conversations are still going on. It's only been two months since this whole thing blew up -- the pilot took a YEAR AND A HALF from pitch to final edit. So, (and still with the caveat that the odds of anything happening are still astronomical) things proceed apace. I'll tell you when, in a corporate sense, dead is dead. But for now continue to harbor unreasonable expectations, spread the word, and write letters. The one thing I'll say is that it's useless to write to the WB Network. They have a shiny slate of shows they have faith in, and will certainly (and understandably) consider no wild-ass alternatives to this schedule for the time being.

Return to your normal madness and as always, thanks for the interest and enthusiasm.

The President and Intelligent Design

That sound you hear is the "pop" of several billion Chinese and Indian economic planners getting simultaneous erections at this:

President Bush invigorated proponents of teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks saying that schoolchildren should be taught about "intelligent design," a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity.

Although he said that curriculum decisions should be made by school districts rather than the federal government, Bush told Texas newspaper reporters in a group interview at the White House on Monday that he believes that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution as competing theories.

"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about," he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
(Via the Washington Post)

Seriously. Here you are, Tsui or Sanjay, looking at a new cenury. A century in which the exponential curve of technology's rise becomes a sheer cliff. In which only the most intellectually nimble countries, best able to master new information technologies and couple them with manufacturing bases with high levels of technical training, will survive.

And you're looking at that big bastard across the ocean, the US of A. First to build the Bomb. First to master the secrets of the atom. First to build the semiconductor. First and only tribe of humans who actually put men on the GODDAM MOON, to have stepped on another rock in space. Decoders of the human genome, the VERY BOOK OF LIFE !!! How will we ever stop --

Wow, they forfeit. Cool.

I'm not going to rehash the whole ridiculousness of Intelligent Design, or as it's more commonly known: "Creationism Trying to Look Serious By, Say, Squinting -- Like Denise Richards Playing the Nuclear Weapons Expert In That Bond Movie". My pal Orac has all the necessary links. If you don't understand that there's absolutely no contradiction between believing in God and evolution, then frankly I'm not going to waste the time trying to jam a rhetorical screwdriver into your pineal gland's butterfly valve and crank up the air flow. Nor will I trot out another version of I Miss Republicans, although I suspect that a fair number of people out there are pretty rattled, as it's become the number one entry page to this blog over the last day.

I just have to say to my conservative friends ... listen, I don't want to hear SHIT when this comes back to bite us in the ass. When you're watching your children rocket downward through the Brave New Working Classes from gamma through delta straight to the epsilons, not a word. When the leader of your party turns his back on science, the product of God's 2nd greatest gift to us, reason,* when he turns from the very process which brought so much progress and prosperity to this land and encourages those would so eagerly toss aside rational thought itself ... gah, never mind voting Democrat: if my choice were between these cowards who would turn back the Enlightenment and anal-probing yet intellectually honest Martians, I would grit my teeth, vote for the Martians and learn to visualize my Happy Place during my Probe-Center appointments.

Am I reading too much into this statement? Am I making too big a deal of this? In one word, fuckno. This is just a symptom of what is, to me, the most destructive thing to occur in America in twenty years.

Even if your kids aren't directly taught ID or aren't in one of the new Bible Class districts, the overarching cultural damage has already been done. Through this group of RadicalRighties' constant rhetoric, they consistently strip away the idea that there is indeed a rigorous scientific process through which certain non-negotiable physical truths can be ascertained. They have suffused the county with with an intellectual laziness and a terrifying narcissism. Opinion has been enshrined as superior to fact. No longer need a person take into account the way the world works when forming their worldview -- they can instead hunt down "facts" and "theories" which support their own comfort zone, and what's worse, we can NO LONGER CALL BULLSHIT. Because if our leaders -- pardon me, your leaders -- don't call bullshit, who will? They have undermined the very process by which we know WHEN to call bullshit!

For the alleged "realists" in the public arena, the guys running the Right are now the ultimate masters of relativism.

Look my conservative pals, we have our agreements and disagreements but on this one, you've got to just take the hit. Don't ever look me in the eye again and try to play the cynicism-dressed-as-realism card again. Seriously. There's no high ground left here whatsoever. The ultimate representative of your political party, standing on the limitless future's shrouded shores, has decided he needs no compass, no maps, no guides, no stars with which to plot his course. Just a shrug and a chuckle before he casts off, eyes closed, into the darkness.

You wouldn't trust your children to an airplane pilot who did that, or a Scoutmaster. If your doctor said "You know what, we're going to blow off all the currently available research and treat your child's cancer with a completely untested, never scientifically proven bit of guesswork which, however, reinforces my world-view. Because what does science really know?" you'd be pulling out of the parking lot before he finished the sentence. But when it's public policy, it's OKAY?

Sure, it's just my opinion. But this is bigger than budgets, or how to fight wars, or how to manage our environment or resources, because where we stand on facts, reason, science, that informs every other decision we make in all those fields and every other. This is what determines whether societies live or die.

Again, our motto at Kung Fu Monkey: "Everybody who wants to live in the 21st century over here. Everybody who wants to live in the 1800's over there. Good. Thanks. Good luck with that."

* I have in a previous post established God's greatest gift to us as doubt. Let it never be said these rants lack an internal consistency.

(NOTE: Find that interesting, enraging or useful? I'm now blogging to raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. Check the sidebar on how to donate.)

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Sideboard restructuring

I know, I meant "sidebar" not "sideboard", but for some reason I was thinking about how I could switch in some Llanowar Elves and really catch you and your Black/White Necrovariant deck off-guard.

Wow. The geekiest sentence I've ever typed.

To Wit: some changes made, more on the way. I urge all of you to sample the wares, including the "They Link, We Link" section.


Sadly, although as a youth I applied for the KISS Army, I was instead accepted into the KISS Navy.

Anyway, Bill Cunningham over at DISC/content has an excellent "working writers" post up. His stuff is always good, go cruise the joint for a while.

Writing: Q&A #1 follow-up

With one hand I giveth the discouragement, with the other I giveth the gooey encouragement.

The somewhat bleak tone of the previous post elicited a perfectly reasonable question in the comments:

"John, what's the appeal of being a screenwriter as opposed to a print fiction writer? If the two are evenly matched for difficulty (in breaking in, in making a living at it, etc.), it seems like the novelist has much more autonomy and creative control. Does anything that makes it to screen ever approximate your vision of it? Doesn't it bug you to have to work with so many other people just to come up with a script, and then you hand it off to so many other people to do with it whatever they will?"

Heck yeah. I believe it's in the second chapter of Adventures in the Screen Trade where William Goldman explains that screenwriting is the only art where you will never, NEVER see your idea expressed as you wish. And that will, eventually, drive you insane.

But as Andy Cosby said, we write movies because we love movies. We love those pictures up on that big screen (or on the little glowing one in your living room). We love how they make us feel, and we want to be a part of it, want to help other people feel the same way. We don't wind up in this craft because we wanted to be writers, went down the list of options and arrived at "Screenwriter". Whatever little itch that's scratched when a novelist gets a piece of writing just perfect, that little itch that makes you chase your art, we get that itch scratched in other ways.

I remember the first time, in a Cosby script, I typed "EXT. ROOF". Showed up on the Tuesday, walked onto the soundstage --- and there it was. They'd built the roof of the house. Full-scale, sitting there on the soudstage. Bill Cosby as walking around on the roof, looking off into the fake Queens horizon. I can no more explain the little spike of pleasure I received from that moment than an addict can explain the nuances of his heroin ride.

The times an actor's found something in a line or character, something which expands on your idea of who this person is ... or makes a choice to express this character in a way which is far more illuminating than anything you thought of ... that's when the idea of a collaborative writing art pays off. Michelle Forbes told me what (in her mind) Miranda Zero did at the end of each day, and it was quantum levels more interesting than anything I could have come up with. But then you build on that, back and forth, forging something new and delightfully unexpected.

I'm a screenwriter instead of a prose writer for the same reasons my friend Lisa spent 15 years of her life studying violin instead of tuba. That's her instrument for her art. I love writing with the intent that actors will eventually speak these lines, with the nine thousand layers of execution, sub/meta/ur-text and intent inherent in that knowledge. I love writing a good action line -- one of the reasons I get a decent amount of work, I'm convinced, is that I spend a fair amount of time on the prose style of my scripts. I love solving a problem within the structure of the screenplay, much as a poet finds both limitation and freedom within the structure of a sonnet. I love discovering that little telling moment, made even more so because I'm anticipating how an actor will deliver it or a director will shoot it. I love writing a joke that will only work when spoken aloud. I know, because I've felt, the difference in effect between reading a description of something and the chest-punch of seeing it on screen while lost in the emotionally open, hypnogogic alpha-wave state of viewing images. I love sweep and scale, I love imagining these images and vistas up on the big screen ...

I suppose, what it boils down to is that I love the way good film or television makes me feel, and I want to be part of that. I want to try to master the process of evoking those emotions, telling those stories -- frankly it comes down to the root of all storytelling regardless of form: I want to somehow touch the inner minds of strangers. Add it all up, and somehow it worked out screenwriting was the way for me to do that.

One of the few things I still use from my Catholic school education are the ideas of vocation and avocation. Your vocation is your calling, your avocation is what you do for a living. They don't necessarily have to be the same thing (and often aren't). What I'm cautioning beginner writers about in the previous post is that, just like them, I know that writing is a vocation. But you cannot, must not forget that it is also an avocation, and that we must carry our skills from the real world, our practicality, our work ethic into our calling.

Writing: Q&A #1

Well, first off, go rent/buy the DVD of The Laramie Project. Christ, I’d forgotten how good that was. It really is a showcase of great acting and a truly, filthily fine debut for director Moises Kaufman . There are a bunch of times, he made very simple but counter-intuitive camera moves (slow pullbacks where a lot of guys would have done the push …) which really knocked me on my ass. Wonderful what he does with so little actually happening on screen.

First of the Q&A comes from JDC, who writes:

"What are the odds of a 40 year old making it as a writer in LA? Do you find age-ism to be a problem?"

Okay, this depends in a failry major way on what kind of screenwriting you want to do. But let’s address that in a bit. My first reaction was to answer …

… would you find age-ism to be a problem in professional baseball?

I’m not being glib here. Okay, I am being glib, but more as a way in to a serious question. My point is that you need to understand something, something they don’t teach you at film school – writing is a career. It’s not just about writing the best damn script you can. Becoming a screenwriter means this. Is. Your. Life. You are not going to sell one script and somehow, magically, be a screenwriter, which means your life becomes … uh … you know, typing cool stuff. And selling it. In between fabulosity.

Becoming a screenwriter at 40 is no more nor no less insane than any other time you would decide to change your day job to something else wildly incompatible with how you currently earn your paycheck and how and where you live your life. The bigger question is, are you ready to give up everything – EVERYTHING – to make this change? Give up your friends, if you don’t live in LA? Give up being close to your family, if you don’t live in LA? Give up financial security? Grind out X pages a day for money, regardless of whether it’s your dream come true or another assignment to pay the bills? By the time you get an agent off your specs, and then get your first assignment, you’re looking at being 45. 45 and taking film assignments or being staff writer on a TV show. (who, by the way, are not listed in the credits. The PA’s are, but not the staff writers) Like any major career worth a damn, know this: you are going to spend ten years getting to the place where you have any rep or control. You can have fun along the way, and do some fine work, but there will be some shit to eat. I’m not saying that should dissuade you; I’m just saying you need to be aware of that when you’re making your life decisions.

This is neither meant to be a fire-ya-up pep talk nor a downer. One of the prices we pay for working in the creative fields is that often people let their passion get in the way of the idea that this is a career. Like law, like medicine. But unlike those fields – and this is a fairly major beef I have with the way film school is usually taught – you can’t just set up a shingle and call yourself “Screenwriter”, or partner up with a group of more successful screenwriters like a law firm, build a client base, etc. … My dad went to law school at 55 (go Dad!), passed the bar, called a couple friends he’d worked with on the other side of wrongful dismissal suits, offered to do some wills and other such work for lawyers he knew, and bingo, he’s a lawyer with a practice. (He also won a case in front of the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. Fighting to make sure a woman who was sexually harassed got full justice. No, I will never measure up. Thanks for asking!)

As insanely difficult as that was, there was still a framework for that occupation.

Screenwriting’s an odd duck even within the writing field itself. We can’t write our novel, get it published (also arduous, no arguments) and then go ahead and live in the exact same house and continue to type the exact same way, mailing in pages to our editor. If you want to write for television, you’ll be staffing which means full day-job hours (and longer), always with the knowledge that if Kevin James eats one too many mozzarella sticks and strokes out on set, you are officially unemployed. Hell, three bad weeks of Nielsen’s in a row and you’re turfed for the year. If you want to be a film writer, that means you need to learn a whole separate set of skills to help you in selling yourself in meetings and conveying your ideas in a concise and interesting manner in which the humans with the monies can understand. Our art is odd in that for it to reach any satisfying resolution, we require the collaboration of literally hundreds of people and millions of dollars*. All this on TOP of being a helluva great writer.

And, if I hear you cry “But there are plenty of shit writers working!” -- why yes. Yes there are. And they’ve been at it since they were 20, and spent two decades developing the contacts necessary to get their lame asses work. And got insanely, insanely lucky. In Hollywood, I cannot stress this enough: it is indeed far smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.

I know we’ve wandered pretty far afield from JDC’s actual question. Yes, there is definitely age-ism … young guys work cheap and hard, and you’re perceived as a “bargain”. Writing and rewriting on a deadline is a far more physically taxing gig than you’d think. Also, people feel they’re developing a relationship with a young writer that’ll pay off over the length of the writer’s career – which will be, in theory, longer if the writer starts younger. Everybody wants to be able to say they’re the ones who discovered some young talent.

BUT … sure this is a world where youth culture drives the business, but I’ve never heard, when discussing writers to hire, anyone say “Nah, he’s too old.” As a matter of fact, the two guys who wrote the first draft of FATAL FRAME were both over forty, and I believe we were their first assignment. One of the team even lived in Houston, if I remember. For TV staffing, I and many other exec producers I know are looking for some cool life experiences or research skills that’ll be valuable to the show dynamic when talking to writers. A fair number of the writers I talked to for GF were just entering TV writing from reportage; there’s been a run on that since the procedurals became popular, and the ability to properly research 22 deadly new conundrums for House to solve rises in value.

The more I think about it, the more I realize there’s a fundamental divide. Do you want to make your movies, or do you want to work in the industry as a writer? Now, I’ll tell you, I just love writing for a living. I only take work I think will be interesting and challenging, but for me, the thrill is in the storytelling. And, we should note, that ability to choose is a luxury I have now that I’m fairly well established. I assure you, writing the “Cosby and Dougie make a wacky bet” episode on COSBY back when I was making my bones … that wasn’t exactly channeling my Muse.

If you only want to make your movies, then God bless you. But you then must accept the idea that you will be working outside of the Hollywood system, and need to then gather up the skillset necessary to compensate for that loss of money and availability of talent for your project. Each film will be years in the making, and you’ll be functioning as a producer while you’re writing.

I guess my concern is – too many people look at screenwriting as a jackpot situation, a lottery, where “this is the spec that’ll break me ...” Getting an agent off your script is just the beginning of a difficult – fulfilling but difficult – lifestyle. Assuming you somehow navigate through the maze of Hollywood to accomplish even that small victory.

Don’t worry about being forty, or a minority, or a women, or anything else. Worry about developing the mindset that writing stories is now your job. It is your craft, your vocation and avocation. It is EVERYTHING. Get paid to write stories. Anywhere, anyhow. Work breeds work, and saying you’re working as a writer in something else conveys a legitimacy as you try to get work in screenwriting. The intrepid David Slack went from running TEEN TITANS to staffing on LAW & ORDER this year (and he’ll be a producer on any show I ever run). All because he started writing animation scripts back as a wee lad. My friends Tyrone and Tom worked on industrial films in Chicago. I get sent spec scripts for staffing from playwrights and even poets all the time.

What are the odds of making it as a 40 year old writer in Hollywood? When the odds for ANYONE making it in Hollywood are 10,000,000 to 1, do you really need to worry about the extra +/- 50,000 against?

Listen, kids, I don’t want you to quit. (if my little downer post made you want to quit, then you don’t have the sack for the industry anyway. Just saved you five frustrating years as a reader at William Morris. You’re welcome) But in the name of God, start thinking about how you want or need to fit into this big-ass beast, and try to be smart about how you go about cracking the joint. Know your strengths, your limitations, and most importantly, what you need to accomplish with your writing to feel like you’re achieving your art. In short, as cheesy as this is – know yourself.

* The closest non-writing job with a comparable problem I can think of is architecture. Make of that what you will.