Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Three Acts, Many Uses

I was going through my worklist of the last several weeks, and realized I'd consulted or worked on two sci-fi features, several commercials, a documentary, a couple dramas, a historical epic, a buddy movie caper, a musical, a horror flick and, of course, Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show.

I'm a little amazed. What's amazing to me is what all these have in common: the three-act structure. It doesn't matter if your movie is 30 seconds long or 3 hours. It needs that basic structure, and, in each case, there's a structure that your viewer is already conditioned to expect.

Now the specifics of how you hook a viewer into your personal documentary is quite different from how you hook them into a horror movie. But the mechanism is the same. You frame up your story. You ask a big question. You point to the central struggle. And then you follow through.

The same can be said about just about any other beat in the structure. The climax of a commercial can be defined with the same elements as the climax in the musical, or the sci-fi epic, or Mr. Gary. Your choices and your execution will be very, very different of course. But how you come up with those choices is much the same.

Screenwriters read lots of books about the three-act structure. They quibble over Syd Field vs. Robert McKee vs. Linda Seger. Just remember that what they're all talking about is really audience reception -- that boilerplate that's burned indelibly into our skulls through years of watching movies, musicals, commercials, and whatever else. They have different ways of talking about this structure. And they differentiate themselves out because it helps sell books.

But the three-act structure is nothing more or less than the gateway into a mystery. It's there, and you know it when you see it. But it's too slippery to be a straightforward roadmap. It's a set of guideposts that let you figure out your story. When I'm consulting with a filmmaker, they give us a way to navigate our thoughts. When I'm working alone, the structure is my devil's advocate, telling me what doesn't work, and why. The key is listening to that audience member in your head. Sometimes he's the best collaborator you'll find.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ramping Up

Things are ramping up in Mr. Gary land. We've kicked the sound design into gear, and are recording the voice over and gathering the composers by the end of the week. We've got access to some of the best facilities in the Bay Area for pretty much all our post-production through a very generous grant from BAVC. We've gathered together some of the top people to help out on a really ambitious timeline.

The fundraiser is TOMORROW! If you want to come have a glass of wine, drop me a line and I'll send you the address. We're looking at a strong turnout. The editor, Eric Ladenburg, has been putting together some clips for us to show you. It's incredibly exciting seeing your work on film. It makes all the hard work worth it.

Take a look at the sidebar. I've added a button so any good soul who wants to donate to this very worthwhile project has easy access. The donations are handled through Paypal and our fiscal sponsor, Artists' Television Access (ATA). They should have a donation page up for us shortly.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show

Post-production continues to be a huge education. Part of me is longing for the old days, when my role in post was coming in to look at a rough cut and offer suggestions. Now I'm constantly organizing, reorganizing, selling the project, attracting talent, figuring out just what makes an FX editor good vs. great. And so on. I can feel my career path changing every day.

One of the most exciting things is seeing how 'buzz' develops. Our shot went well. The footage looks amazing. Word gets around. We won a great grant for post-production. That's another set of people who know and want to help. The circle widens, and doors open up. We advertised a fundraiser, and now a local TV station is sending someone to cover the event, and the director may get interviewed on TV.

Someone once said, "In Hollywood, people don't fail. They quit." I'm learning what they mean. You are only going to get to your destination if your project snowballs. And you start the snowball with a fistful of hard work. And then another. And then another. This is what directors do. I see it with Lise Swenson, the director of Mr. Gary. I see it in Roberto Jabor. I did a rewrite on spec for Roberto a few years back. I liked working with him. I liked the script. But I didn't really plan on it becoming real. He never stopped working, and now it's very real indeed.

By the way, if you are interested in coming to the fundraiser, you're invited! It's this Sunday, July 29 in San Francisco. Stop by, say hi, have a glass of wine. I'd be thrilled to meet you! I'll post more about it in coming days.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Random Thoughts

It's been in my mind recently just how reliable classical ideas of structure, drama, and beauty are. We still write drama with Aristotle in mind. When we think of the perfect human form, we often think of Greek sculpture. No matter how post-modern a building gets, its architect still probably worships at the temple of some basic rules about simplicity, proportion and symmetry that somebody worked out 3000 years ago.

What we often forget is that these beautiful sculptures and buildings were once painted gaudy colors. They were dramatic and, to our eyes, probably pretty tacky. It would be blasphemous to color in the robes and skin on an ancient Greek sculpture nowadays. But Greek sculptures as we know them would look unfinished to the very Greeks who made them.

Greek society embraced that riotous joy, that ecstatic worship, that mixture of pleasure, pain and truth, that makes art feel real. Bakhtin called this element the "carnivalic". It's basically the variable element -- the uncontrollable -- that has to be there to make a piece of art resonate with a viewer.

It's easy to see that kind of chaos as directly opposed to the clean lines and graceful economies of classical structure. By the time of Michelangelo, the paint had long since fallen off the sculptures, and the aesthetic itself had changed to one that highlighted the simpler grace of the stone. He didn't paint his sculpture of David.

But what if he had? Maybe we'd still be painting our statues. Our solemn, Greek-columned halls of government and industry might come in a variety of colors. And maybe we'd understand that those rules of aesthetics aren't the whole story. They're just HOW you tell the story. They're gorgeous, simple, and communicative -- no matter what you're communicating.

From a screenwriter's perspective, the filmmaker is painting the statue. Their artistic process is creation born of chaos -- or multiple chaoses. The actor's joy translates to meaning on screen. The DP's eye shapes the story, and makes it resonant. The editor finds a way to unify all the performances (the writer's, the director's, the actors') or to at least make them work together.

A screenplay is an unfinished work of art. Yes -- you have to 'finish' it. But we're just the first step in a long, collaborative process. Finishing means inspiring the next step. It means building a structure both stable and flexible enough to stand up to the chaos and joy and beauty that a whole team of filmmakers will bring to it. That's not an easy task. But we have some good teachers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ask The Dust

Good morning, screenwriters! Let us bow our heads and pray to Mecca.

"Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."

The words belong to John Fante, a writer I'm finally getting around to reading after years and years. Bukowski called Fante his god. The man lived in poverty, riffing off how he spent his last nickel and the sandals on the feet of a beautiful Mexican woman and how he stole two quarts of buttermilk by accident. He's a racist S.O.B. He's an astonishing writer.

His work is original and honest and full of the beautiful moments that only come when you're writing for yourself. There's an ecstatic energy that reminds you of the Beats and jazz, even though Fante wrote Ask the Dust a decade before the Beat Generation and didn't seem to know much about jazz.

I couldn't put down Ask the Dust last night. I had to see what he'd do next. I know how hard it is to be the person with access to that kind of spontaneous structure in your prose. I used to live for that. As I get ready for another day of script consulting and post-production worries and, with luck, a couple hours of my own writing, I wonder if I'd be happier writing about my last nickel.

His life is a cautionary tale for a lot of writers. Fante, like most writers in L.A., flirted with screenplays. And like a lot of writers, it almost killed him. He wrote Walk on the Wild Side --- Jane Fonda's first credited screen appearance. But nobody really remembers him for that. As a screenwriter, he lived a fairly restless (but not terribly remarkable) middle class existence. As a prose writer, he sang like some kind of ecstatic shaman.

As we worry about audience expectation and working with three acts and character sympathy, and all that, it's important to remember that these things are not handed down to us from god. They are, at best, guidelines. At worst, they kill the very thing that makes writing special: that creative light that comes out of nowhere and throws the whole universe into a new balance.

I was fairly horrified to realize this morning that Ask the Dust had been made into a movie starring Colin Farrell, of all people. Fante may have had a certain allure in the right light, but I just can't picture him with pecs. It's sad to think that all Hollywood could do with this astounding book is a fairly drab little love story. Alas! Let's all try to push a little harder today.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Simplicity = Conceit

I spent most of Friday returning gear to various places around San Francisco. I'm not sure what resonated about this Talk of the Nation broadcast about simplicity, but I'd imagine it had something to do with the painful irony lodged in my lower back after returning two 300 lb. generators and thousands of watts worth of lights I'd used to capture images of an elderly woman walking down a hallway and sitting on a couch.

John Maeda wrote a book laying out ten rules of simplicity. While I think true simplicity would probably imply less than ten rules, he was nevertheless spot on about what makes an object successful, workable, and a joy to use. I think it's also what makes a movie enjoyable, and what makes a production smooth. It's an invaluable perspective for a screenwriter. There are almost always simpler, cleaner, more effective ways to do things. Almost all the rules of screenwriting (and good writing generally) boil down to the beauty of economy sooner or later.

When the call-ins started, much of the conversation of simplicity turned to discussions of Apple, and I was reminded of my posting about conceit. Conceit is what makes a work instantly recognizable. It's what makes a work unique. A strong conceit makes a script high concept. And what makes a conceit strong?

Simplicity. As writers, we gravitate to the subtle. We underestimate the brilliance of a concept that states itself as clearly as, say, "a giant shark terrorizes a beach town." But it's the simplicity that allows a writer to make the impression.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Rambling My Way Back to Reality

We wrapped on Thursday night -- one day late. I worked 12-15 hour days all week. The experience was exhilarating, exasperating, energizing, frustrating, satisfying and terrifying. If you've ever been in production, you know what I mean. I have too much to blog about.

It's Saturday now, and I'm just returning to my regular schedule (with two months of post-production thrown on top). I'm a pretty typical personality type for a writer. You can leave me alone with my books and notebooks and I won't need much else. I O.D. on human contact pretty quickly. I need a fair amount of daily ritual and a great deal of autonomy to be happy. The drive to get that back was deep and visceral.

Returning to your daily life gives you a great perspective on yourself. I'm thinking a lot about what I hold dear. I've structured how I live my life (and made significant sacrifices) in order to have a few hours free per day to write, read, and think. I'm 40, and it is all worth it. I'm also seeing that as I approach my writing again, I keep jumping up to do dishes or check email. I've let my attention get untrained. I'll need to deal with that in the coming weeks.

I also have thoughts about my own projects. I'm shying away from a script that's been causing me problems for ages. I'm gravitating to a comedy. I'm feeling lazy and behind with all of it.

I have to keep telling myself that actually moving something I wrote out of my head and into the real world is not lazy and does not put me behind. It's the opposite, I guess. But it's not writing, and so there's a nagging feeling that it just doesn't count.

But of course it does, and the experience of the last week will make me a better writer. I said that we'd run a day over our planned shoot schedule. This was largely due to the DP (cameraman) and the gaffer constantly adjusting and reqdjusting lights and camera settings. They'd try out new ideas. We'd be ready to shoot, and they, like unherdable cats, would be off checking whether we could kill that shadow by hanging two 300's off a polecat. Then endless swapping of gels and diffusions. And then deciding to go back to the original set up and adding a bounce card. And so on. It took hours to light each scene, even when we'd decided beforehand what to do. Somehow the plans were never good enough.

I was perplexed at first, and then frustrated and then angry. And then it dawned on me. I had a moment where I saw the light -- quite literally. I could 'see' how the gaffer saw the light. It was a substance for him -- something tangible somehow, and elusive, full of wonder and a strange, unpredictable energy. Light is to him what words are to me. And the gaffer was doing what I'd done with the script -- rewriting it over and over again. Looking at every possible angle. Trying things, quite open to the possibility that they probably won't work, but realizing that the only way to get to the answer is to try it out. I'd changed every scene in that script numerous times. He was doing the same thing.

He was telling the story. He was telling my story. And he was doing it with light. My impatience became patience. My exhaustion became exhilaration. And missing a few days of writing wasn't so bad after all.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A.D.'ing my own script... Day 1

I've been light on posting recently because I've been moving into production with Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show, a script I co-wrote with the director, Lise Swenson. I had a couple requests to give a daily wrap up, but I'm friggin' exhausted and it's only day 1 of 3. So no promises.

I'm the assistant director. What does an A.D. do? If there's a job to be done, it usually falls to the A.D. You're in charge of making sure everything is in place, on time. You're coordinating the camera people, keeping the actors happy, looking for the lost prop, and locating dinner for 9. You're the guy in the middle.

If you're the writer, then you're in the middle of your own script. This is good and this is bad. On one hand, you remember that it takes an hour or more to get a scene of an elderly woman walking down the hallway. Now go through your scripts, and find the three-page conversation you staged in front of the burning building. Oh yeah. You might want to rethink that one. There's nothing like production to really force you to simplify and think through what's important, and what's on screen.

Of course, it also reminds you that if you do it right, you have a tremendous array of truly talented people all working together on the same page. We were deep in the middle of a scene today, working out inscrutable lighting issues in a tight little space. I was running around looking for a prop and trying to get the caterer the lunch order and working out scheduling for tomorrow when I looked up at the monitor, and there she was: the character that until then had only existed in our heads. My imagination was right there, in real life, on the screen. What more could a writer ask for?

A nice scotch and eight hours' sleep, of course. But I'm going to bed happy tonight nevertheless.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Conceit in the Wild

I worked all day on the Fourth of July. Ah, freelancing! As the day drew to a close, I tried to get excited about fireworks. Not easy in San Francisco. While most of the country is enjoying a warm summer night, hot dogs, watermelon, and sky rockets in flight, July 4 here is all about dressing in layers and watching the fog light up pretty colors. And traffic. And crowds. And braving hills and frigid winds. So after pasta and a glass of wine, the couch and Robot Chicken was looking pretty good. I coulda drifted off to sleep were it not for some awfully large explosions awfully close to my living room window. I might not be going to the fireworks, but the fireworks were coming to me. I stepped outside.

I live in the Mission District. It's a hugely diverse neighborhood that crosses class and ethnic lines without thinking about it. And tonight the Mission was alive. Huge fireworks zoomed into the sky from backyards. Moms set off roman candles for their kids in the middle of intersections. Car alarms wailed. Smoky paper rained down from the sky. Police cruisers zoomed by lights flashing, unsure who to make an example of. The Fourth of July was everywhere. Unstoppable. It was the best fourth I've had in years.

I'd been thinking of blogging about 'conceit' -- which is a literary term for the strategy a writer takes, or, more broadly, the quality of a thing that makes it instantly recognizable. (It's got nothing to do with 'conceited'. It is related to 'concept'.) Conceit is an important concept for a screenwriter to understand, because it helps you frame your story, and to come up with fairly objective ways of improving it. Conceit also exists in the real world, of course. I thought I might talk about the reigning masters of conceit (in both meanings): Apple. Conceit is what makes an iMac seem special next to a similarly equipped PC. It's what drove the design of the iPhone and the iPod. They are instantly recognizable and unique. Their conceit is worked to completion -- you know when you're holding an Apple product.

But this July 4 made me think. What was so special this time? Why wasn't I concerned about the gang members launching M-80's? Why WERE those normally conservative mothers setting off illegal fireworks for 8-year-olds? Where the hell did the people up the street get those pro-level fireworks, and were they going to set my house on fire?

For me, this evening's conceit was much closer to what I think July 4 should be. Rebellion. Independence. Community -- a whole neighborhood out in the streets. The smell of the powder. A bit of danger. Really, really loud booms. That's what brought this country into being.

As M-80's exploded two doors down, I thought about war zones, and the fact that this is probably as close as I need to get. I thought about Iraq and the Fourth of July. How this country was born in fire and is probably doomed to look to war as a solution to its problems. The conceit of the night was all tied up in jubilation and fire. And I understood my country a little deeper. I understood the depth of my love for it more. It reminded me that true love -- of country, spouse, family -- is made up of many conflicting things.

Conceit is why this fourth was special. The conceit was complete -- from 1776 until today, right now, in front of my house. Conceit sets off a process in the viewer's mind. Conceit is powerful.

It's also elusive, and I'll talk about how to locate it in future posts.