Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jumping the Chasm

If you've ever struggled to get a script both true to your vision and into production, you understand the basic problems with 'development'.

Writers are an odd breed. They don't think like most people -- and especially development executives. It's almost as if development developed as a counterweight to the writing process. Good writing is fueled by risk. The development process is intent on removing risk. It's a cliche, but development generally produce a more broadly accessible but less original story. As long as film is an industry this will probably be the rule. It's the same as any other industry. If your market can't identify your product quickly as something they want, you're out of business. It's just the way it is, and no amount of writing brilliance is likely to change that.

So it was with great joy that I read this article by Barbara Schock in Filmmaker magazine. Not only does she lay out the basic genetic divide between writers and the industry, she also prescribe a fairly tremendous solution for the situation. It's an education for all of us.

So read it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I went to see The Life Before Her Eyes last night. It's Uma Thurman's latest performance, and it's well worth seeing. The script must be a fascinating read.

I'd actually wanted to go see one of the blockbusters -- Indiana Jones or Iron Man -- but Rafael vetoed that. So I dutifully sat down in my little independent cinema seat and... got swept up. While the script does start a bit slowly -- establishing the main characters as fairly standard high school friends -- it quickly finds new meaning and depth in ways you simply don't expect. It's one of those movies where you end up watching backwards and forwards at the same time, with new layers of meaning revealing themselves the deeper you sink into it. And I wanted to see Iron Man!

When I sat down to blog, I meant to write about how remarkable it is to find a script that has BOTH surprise twists and a great degree of emotional depth. That's certainly true of this movie. What's delightful here is that the writer, Emil Stern, took his time and worked out a beautiful web of truth that connects Uma Thurman's 30-something character to the 17-year-old who suffered the traumatic event that defines her life.

I've been extolling the virtues of the three-act structure as a heuristic guide on this site for a while now. It's time for me to eat some crow here. While it's absolutely present in The Life Before Her Eyes, I bet it's not that central to the creation of the piece.

I bet the key for Mr. Stern (a new writer, if imdb is any guide) was knowing why he wanted to write the script. He knows what's important to him. It matters. This is how you choose a good strategy. It's how you find the feel. It's how you make a piece your own.

Mr. Stern found the power of metonymy (basically a fancy word for association), and it allowed him to sew up the storylines of the Uma Thurman character as an adult and a teen seamlessly. It's masterful stuff. There's conscious metonymy on the part of the characters: a character encounters a reminder of the past, and the script moves to that moment. There's metonymy on the level of structure, as when the young Diana reconciles with her best friend in front of the house the adult Diana lives in. It's delicate, subtle -- and it provides all the structure and coherence the audience needs to engage the story on many levels.

Getting that metonymy working is no easy task. As with any kind of structure, you have to be consistent and you have to plan it out. I bet I caught about half the clues. But somehow I was still overwhelmed by the twists at the climax. I was still caught up in the drama right up to the end.

When you know a bit about screenwriting, it's not easy to get bored with climaxes. You figure that this, that and the other element is going to come roaring back. There's usually an obvious way to do it, and the end result is usually pretty close to that.

Every once in a while a movie wakes us up to what real storytelling is. We don't take a story somewhere. It takes us to where it wants to go. Listening and knowing what that path is is hard under the best of circumstances. In a world of emails and work and too much TV and thirty-two other distractions, it's nearly impossible. But it's worth it. Take half an hour. Write. Find something to hold with you through the rest of the day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mr. Gary playing at Artsfest

For those of you near Harrisburg, PA, my most recent collaboration with director Lise Swenson, Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show, is showing in the John Waters-centric Artsfest. More info here:


Programming is always a mystery to me, and since Mr. Gary is such a unique piece, I'm happy to see it on any program. Nevertheless, it's heading up a collection of shorts about identity, surviving ovarian cancer, and Zorro in the workplace.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Three Acts and Go!

Back when I first started writing, my eyes would quickly glaze over as screenwriting types would go on and on about three-act structure. I didn't care if it was Syd Field or Joseph Campbell or Linda Seger. It all boiled down to the same thing: answers that are too simple and too rigid. I don't take commandments well.

Only later did I come to realize the real power of three-act structure lies not in WHAT we write, but how we write... and in how readers and viewers receive your work. I believe that there is a sense of narrative hardwired into our brains, and it looks an awful lot like set up-conflict-resolution. You got it: three-act structure. It's in the way we tell stories. It's built into the language.

I'll probably always nod politely when a disciple of screenwriting guru X tells me that in this beat the protagonist absolutely must be separated from ally Y by the scheme of opponent Z because of his misbehavior blah blah blah. But I almost never write a scene or think through a beat without being conscious of my three-act structures. Yes, structures -- plural.

There's your overall structure -- the one you wrote up and reworked forty-two times in your synopsis before you even started to write the script. (You did that, right? Well done.) And then there's the three-act structure of the particular scene event. Finding a resonance between those two almost always helps me tell a better story. It's sometimes a tricky thing, and it does take practice. But it will help you find unity and reinforce your main conflict at every stage.

Why shouldn't it work? Think about it for a second. Let's get downright logical for a moment. Take a look at your climax. It should perfectly reflect the main conflict of the whole movie, right? It should absolutely resonate with your overall message. This means that your main character must be fighting the same internal and external battles on a grand scale. There's a set up, a conflict, and a resolution that feel almost pre-ordained by the rest of the script.

Now look at the inciting incident (the event at the beginning of the script that sets the action in motion). What is the hallmark of a good inciting incident? It plays out the same issues as the climax, just on a (usually) smaller scale. It tells the audience how to watch. It tells the audience how to watch. If it doesn't resonate with the climax, you're probably not satisfying the audience as much as you think you are.

Take any other major beat of the script -- the midpoint, the low point, inner cave, what have you. There's a set up, a conflict and a resolution to each of those. And you got it: each must resonate very strongly with both the overall three-act structure and the events that precede it. From a single idea you can generate huge amounts of story.

New writers often bristle at the importance of loglines and synopses. I certainly did. What I didn't understand is that a trained reader does more or less what I've done here. They take a few traits and a controlling idea (expressed in the logline) and they unfurl a huge story in their own heads. They look for story potential. They are often way ahead of new writers. Wanna catch up? Think through three-act structure from the ground up.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Finding Stories

Writing is a chaotic process. Writers, especially screenwriters, usually bring as much structure as they can to their process. Strong structure doesn't necessarily make a story better. But it does help a writer sort through the huge and varied mess that the creative process inevitably coughs up as you sit down to write. Structure helps a writer more than it helps the story.

My own process has been more chaotic than usual. I've been deeply engaged in student and client scripts. It skews things for your own work sometimes. I've also been working and reworking on several scripts that are moving toward production. So there hasn't been enough time for something new.

What's worse -- what new stuff I've been writing hasn't been screenwriting. The little demon that sits behind my inner desk has been drawing with crayons. It's been hitting the page mostly as poetry and sketches of plays. It feels unproductive. It *is* unproductive. But I don't think that voice is going to come to heel until I let it run free for a while. Maybe it's time to knock off with the hopes for a nice series of shorts and just listen to myself write for a while.

Like a lot of writers, I think in narrative. My brain creates a story that becomes the framework for all my thoughts, feelings, and memories, both in real life. I can't remember actors' names -- or even connect them well to what other movies they were in. But remind me of the character, and I remember him as well as the day I saw the movie. I have trouble remembering the names of movies I saw six months ago. But drop the slightest hint of the plot into the conversation, and I'll rebuild the plot from end to end.

So it hurts a bit when your creative voice keeps you on a ration of little blips and images rather than something you can really sink your teeth into. It's hard, even a little disorienting. I was struggling with this when I came across this quote in CS Weekly:

"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any."
– Orson Scott Card

I walked out of my house and found a juicebox laying on the sidewalk, still dripping. I wondered what the story was. And as I walked down the street, I found out. I saw a young mother with a screaming four-year-old and a sullen 12-year-old. The younger child had dropped the juicebox and then picked it up again. And the mother had thrown it down on the ground and screamed at the little boy. Now the 12-year-old was finding a moment of weakness in her mom -- blaming her for the problem. And as I watched, mom broke down and started to cry, and the whole thing turned on a dime. The daughter shifted gears. They held each other. And the child got a new juicebox. The mother and daughter saw each other in a whole new way. I think this story is called Mother's Day.

Next time you're struggling for a story, just remember to look. There's a reason you're a writer, and chances are it's right in front of you.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

This Week's Movies

I managed to see three very different movies this week. Sometimes you want to turn off writer head. But it's not always possible.

Zombie Strippers is a great deal of fun. It's funny just how self-referential zombie movies have gotten. It's almost strange how they (sometimes) manage not to get real old real quick. Zombie Strippers is one of those movies. You'd think it had already been made -- but apparently not. Everything is a spoof -- right down to George Romero's anti-Bush throw-away lines and the dumb-as-shit paramilitaries and soul-less corporate scientists. Every amateur move is thoroughly dissected and played to comedic effect, right down to a recently dead stripper reading Nietzsche and announcing to herself in the mirror, "This makes SO much more sense now!"

You'd think that a zombie movie would be fairly easy to write. And you'd probably be wrong. Movies, high and low, commercial and art, all require the same basic things to be successful -- structure, character, action, genre. Playing to all those things effectively makes or breaks the experience for an audience. Simply being consistent and remembering the audience is most of the fight. And Zombie Strippers does a remarkable job here. There's a lot of work in that script, even if at times it's intending to look terrible. And for those of you who are not homosexual script consultants, there's also Jenna Jameson dancing on a pole for about half the movie.

Shortbus is a remarkable film. It's probably the most graphic movie I've ever seen -- maybe ever made. What's remarkable about it is that the sex is truly not pornographic. It's simply a story about sex and connection, and the point is clearly not arousal. The writer/director John Cameron Mitchell wrote about the piece:

"In the old days, when you couldn't show sex on film, directors like Hitchcock had metaphors for sex (trains going into tunnels, etc). When you can show more realistic sex, the sex itself can be a metaphor for other parts of the character's lives. The way people express themselves sexually can tell you a lot about who they are. Some people ask me, 'Couldn't you have told the same story without the explicitness?'. They don't ask whether I could've done Hedwig without the songs. Why not be allowed to use every paint in the paintbox?"

And I believe him. While your mouth hangs open through the opening, soon you're caught up in the characters and the sex does become a way of telling some genuinely moving tales.

The script and characters were largely a product of improvisation workshops with the actors. I've worked this way before and I like it, even if I'm not sure the end result is necessarily better than a more conventional approach. Stories reached by committee, even very creative committees, have definite limitations. So when I truly got caught up in the climaxes (if you'll pardon the pun..) of all the stories at the end, I was a bit surprised at myself. I'm thrilled when films that try something new succeed. Shortbus is definitely one of those.

I capped the week with some high art at the SF Museum of Modern Art. The Rape of the Sabine Women is the latest work from art goddess Eve Sussman. Sussman and her coterie The Rufus Corporation specialize in taking classic art and reworking it into post-modern inscrutability. The rape of the Sabine women is a founding myth of ancient Rome. Sussman has reset the stage to 1960's Greece, Tempelhof airport in Berlin, and a modern-day meat market in Athens. While there's a great deal of attention to detail in the visuals and the soundtrack by Jonathan Bepler (who also works with artist Matthew Barney on his films), you get the sense that Sussman can't quite complete a sentence. A half hour later, you get the sense that she doesn't *want* to complete a sentence. You'll watch a camera move through a meat market for twenty minutes. You'll travel about a classical sculpture gallery listening to people cough for another twenty minutes. You'll watch women in 60's dress sit on couches with G-men not saying a word for another twenty minutes. While you can attach meaning and interpretation to each visual, there just doesn't seem to be a sense of elegance or economy to any of it. There seems to be either a disregard of the audience, or perhaps even an attempt to set up a pretty nasty power dynamic here. In the end I couldn't see it as much more than the artist showing her power and prestige. And communicating clearly would work against that goal. If we understood her, she wouldn't be the presence she's asserting.


I'm going to watch Shortbus again just to get it out of my system.