Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reasons for Writing Atrociously

The new year is upon us, and scriptwrangler's been busy. Lots of new challenges and opportunities are opening up in front of me -- like an endless blank page stretching to the horizon. Ah yes. Potential. That's good, right? Open spaces. Empty pages. I'll start writing now. Yes. Maybe another cup of coffee will help. Oh look, there's a line written. And it's atrocious. Let's try some scotch -- see if that warms up the prose a bit. Nope. Not yet. Still writing atrociously. Well, other people write well. Let's go see No Country for Old Men again. Let's read some Faulkner. Let's try to get some inspiration. It's bound to happen.

Except it doesn't always. In fact, this is how a lot of writers become readers. It's very easy to put down your work and not pick it up again.

Writing is difficult. It requires much more concentration than our media-addled brains possess. It requires discipline. It requires focus. If you're tired, or upset, or exhausted by the holidays, that's exactly what you don't have. Tackling the heart of a story requires strength. And you just don't have it.

That's where writing atrociously comes in. Ever written something, then immediately ripped it out of your notebook, lest you die suddenly and your mother see it and be unable to hide her shame? Worse yet, ever get a stream of pages that the next morning are enough to throw you into a day-long funk? I have.

But there's a reason for atrocious writing. It's like the scum on the hot chocolate as it gets cool enough to drink. It's the crust of the earth, holding the molten core in place. It's what you have to get through if you're going to write well.

Reasons for writing atrociously vary. In my case, I think it's usually my subconscious diverting a direct attack. It means that somewhere, under all that horrendous prose, there's probably a good instinct to pursue. And if I write atrociously long enough, my subconscious will inevitably run out of terrible word combinations and pitiful genre commonplaces to throw in my way. Sooner or later something simple, elegant and unexpected will appear on the page.

Sooner or later you'll be rewarded for writing atrociously. I'm convinced of this. Writing is thinking. It can't help but pay off. You just need the stomach to get there.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Quote of the Day: Depressing Edition

From CS Weekly..

"I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork."
– Peter De Vries

"Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager."
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Friday, December 21, 2007

Blade Runner

Last night I was Ridley Scott's re-cut Blade Runner, which is back in theaters in limited release. Needless to say, the film kicks ass over just about any sci-fi flick in theaters now. People have been trying to remake Blade Runner for twenty-five years now -- and I don't just mean Ridley Scott. It's a magnificent film with exquisite production design. If you've never seen it on a big screen, do yourself a favor and find this movie at a theater near you. Ridley Scott uses every inch of screen to tell you the story. And he canned Harrison Ford's cheesy voice over!

There's some damn good writing in Blade Runner, of course. Most of it is in the very structure of the film -- a super clean opening that gets you deeply immersed in the plot world right off the bat. I was marveling at how the final fight sequence works. I won't spoil if for you if you haven't seen it yet. It's a famous scene... and would be a pinnacle of film history if it weren't for that damn bird.

The sequence works so well because of some pretty fancy footwork with character sympathy. It wouldn't work at all if Rutger Hauer's character stayed in the realm of homicidal Nazi-looking replicant killer machine. I mean, he's trying to kill Harrison Ford, for god's sakes. He can't be a good guy. But here's the rub: if you just want the bad guy to die, then the movie will fall flat for you.

So Scott (and Philip K. Dick and Hampton Fancher and David Peoples) do something that most filmmakers would shy away from in the big battle scene. They all but flip the character sympathy around. The bad guy's all alone. Harrison Ford just killed his girlfriend. The whole world is against him. And Harrison Ford isn't exactly fighting fair. What's Rutger Hauer do? He pulls Ford's arm through the wall and breaks a couple fingers as he lists exactly why he's angry. And then he gives Ford back his gun.. and gives him a running start.

Suddenly the Harrison Ford's running like a coward. He's fighting for a principle he doesn't really believe in. Plus, he just killed Darryl Hannah.

And Rutger Hauer's fighting for his dead friends and his kind. He's fighting his own genetic code. And he's alone in this world -- and not in a mopey, one-scotch-too-many way like Harrison Ford.

You don't see this much because most writers don't understand just how valuable and exploitable character sympathy really is. But the makers of Blade Runner did know -- and they want you listening to the message that Rutger Hauer is carrying.

There are plenty of films out there inspired by Blade Runner, and a lot of them end with the bad guy choking out some cheesy catharsis and his own blood, a long "Noooooo!!", then call it a day. There are a million films like that out there now... and I can't quite remember their names right now. But I can guarantee most of them won't go back into theatrical release in twenty-five years.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

300 year old Tequila

Had dinner with a friend in the liquor business. He's a true epicurean around wine and liquor. Good wine matters to him. He can sip a scotch and know where it was made. He's been in the business for years -- and the history of the Californian wine industry opens up for him like a brilliant novel. There aren't a lot of people like him anywhere.. real professionals who take true joy in their profession. And no -- this is not a sly way of saying he's a drunk. He's just a smart guy.

Ten years ago most liquor was produced by individual companies -- often family-owned -- that produced something that they really cared about. But the business has been 'consolidating'. Large conglomerates are buying it up, finding economies of scale, rebranding for the yuppie market.. and so on. They're buying the right to slap a name on a bottle, basically, and marketing to a much broader audience than the old company could have dreamed of.

A few years ago it was scotch. Now it's tequila. And suddenly a bottle of the stuff is going for an ungodly sum of money -- $300 or more. How do they do that?

Well, they started selling aged tequila. As my friend is quick to point out, the older tequila gets, the more it's likely to lose exactly what makes tequila good. If you know about tequila, you don't want to drink a ten-year-old tequila. If you're in the liquor business, you know very well that aging tequila is a good way to sell at a huge margin, but makes for a lousy margarita.

So why do they do it? This is something every screenwriter should understand. Very few produced scripts fail to consciously incorporate a winning strategy from a previous script. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's not a sell out. In fact, it's important to build an audience strategy on what you know about your audience. The strategy doesn't always fail. And just because old tequila makes a crappy, expensive margarita doesn't mean you should disregard what the audience is looking for.

But the strategy often does fail -- and that's why buying an overpriced drink feels a lot like watching Hollywood dreck. Some fancy director is hired to direct Blade II because, well, he's a fancy director. But it's still going to be Blade II. Or Jaws 3. Or whatever else they're convinced will sell.

It happens in screenwriting when characters in your script start looking more and more like characters in successful movies. Or when you start making your structure look a little too slavishly like Die Hard's. It's happening when your script starts to have so many bells and whistles that the story can barely hold itself up.

It happens when you read one too many screenwriting books about 'can't miss' tips to take your script to the top, but you haven't actually read your script through recently.

When does this approach NOT fail? If you know your conceit, you can build it up with almost any tool -- and knowledge of your audience is a great tool. This isn't a really deep thought, but it is a common problem. If you're making a great scotch -- make a great scotch. If you're trying to make tequila, make tequila. You won't make tequila better by trying to turn it into scotch. And if you'd like to sell tequila as scotch, well, then you probably don't really care about how it's written.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Support the Strikers

Wanna support the strikers? Want some new swag? Wanna look unbearably cool and hip at your next holiday party? Then buy a T-shirt! is for you! All profits go to the WGA Union Solidarity fund. A worthy cause -- and a big help to some writers struggling through a difficult time!

David Letterman

I promise to get back to regularly scheduled programming soon. But for now, news that David Letterman is reaching an interim agreement with the WGA that will allow his show (and Craig Ferguson's) back on the air immediately. Letterman is a member of the Guild himself, and wants an interim deal that meets the WGA's demands. Letterman has been going out of his way to support the strike -- including paying his non-writing staff out of pocket. Jon Stewart is also apparently pushing for an interim deal.

On Monday the Guild intends to enforce a provision of the bargaining agreement that will force the AMPTP member companies to negotiate individually with the WGA. I'm hazy on how this works... but it seems aimed at making progress with the companies who are actually closer to the writers' side of the argument than the AMPTP: companies like Letterman's Worldwide Pants. We'll have to see how this all works out. The AMPTP has been going for the jugular here -- trying to break the union. It would be sweet irony if they were the ones who got broken.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thought for the Day

"As a person who's truly passionate about words, writing a screenplay never appealed to me because it is so skeletal, it's just dialogue on a page. It's only after having written a movie that I realized how much power there is in a screenplay, because if you're lucky enough to have it produced, the collaborative aspect of filmmaking is so colorful and so interesting and you can really create something lasting. "

Juno's Diablo Cody

Senator John Edwards pickets with striking writers

The election intersects with the strike..

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The AMPTP Responds

Say what you will about the writers' strike. But at least it's funnier than, say, a garbage strike or a nurses' strike.


Saw a very magical movie with a client last night: Once. The movie is a huge inspiration to anyone trying to make movies. It's probably the most beauty, honesty, joy and truth, you'll see in a movie this year. It cost $10,000.

The script is magnificent -- built on the kind of conflict that happens between actual human beings. Scene after scene of simple, honest, strong writing. It's the kind of film that people say you can't make. And those people are mostly right. Most of us can't make them. We dress up the conflicts and build big sets and worry about all the crap that screenwriting gurus and film schools insist is all that truly matters. Then somebody goes and finds more drama in going to buy batteries than you saw in a billion dollars worth of blockbusters last summer. And you know you're in the right profession. And you know why.

Last night was a tremendous evening. Good movie. And we had a nice bottle of sipping tequila to wash down a true meeting of the minds around the movie. We finally left the building late -- 9 PM or so, hours after we'd planned. And walking in was none other than the man himself: Francis Ford Coppola. There was a grunted hello and clear drive to get through the door we stood in the way of. I was drunk enough to kiss the man. But I didn't. It was just a nice, tipsy kind of touchstone to think that this man made great big movies like The Godfather and Apocalypse now when I was still a kid. And now he's getting back to small movies that fit in a van -- nothing more than a beautiful story, nothing more than the only thing that really matters to any of us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Strike Update

The WGA has responded to the AMPTP with a new proposal that follows the basic framework of the AMPTP's proposal, but with different numbers. The latest statements from both sides are a marked toning down of the rhetoric. Who knows what's going to happen.

For now, check out how the producers are thinking about the negotiations. It explains a lot.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Thinking About Audience

I was reading a client script this morning when a character lifted up a piece of glass and realized it was a diamond. The writer was thinking about the clues being laid down for the plot, but there's another, equally important thing going on here. You're telling the audience what the main character can do. She's got a special skill for observation -- and it tells them how to watch her. My second thought was that I wasn't sure how you'd really nail the audience knowing the truth about the glass issue. And if it was important enough, then that needs to be really nailed down. Seems like a small issue -- but if 30% of the audience misses that point, then 30% aren't sure what to watch for. And you're sunk.

Script consulting is often like being a professional audience. It's a lot of fun, of course. But it makes you think about how people watch stories, and how clever audiences have become. It's not hard to get a little depressed that Disney can market a spoof of a fairytale to children.

Once upon a time I was a graduate student of Russian Literature in the fairytale kingdom of Stanford University. I spent my days deconstructing large books and wonderful plays. If Disney made a movie about it, I'd be the horrible ogre strapping these helpless tales of beauty to the rack. And in the end, the beauty and grace of the stories would cause a magical transformation in me, and I'd be free to love and not analyze.

I remember writing a paper on the very beginnings of drama in Russia. The Russian Orthodox church had banned drama (and in fact most art forms) outside of its own use until the end of the 1600's. So when the new audiences saw these new plays, they were absolutely, utterly caught up in them.

The plays were all very safe topics -- mostly strict allegories and morality tales. But the new audiences didn't know there was supposed to be a third wall there. They didn't understand that the audience stays on one side, and the players on the other. They would surge in outrage onto the stage when Greed would attempt to seduce Modesty. One of the first to really examine a human character was about Judith, a heroine from the Bible. Guards were needed to protect the villains from the audience. Early performances often devolved into riots. Drama was real.

Think about that at the multiplex tonight.