Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Highlights Reel

By Third World Girl's standards, 2008 was a pretty good year.

January 08: The Chicklet turned two. Cake, ice cream, party hats, family and the look of wonder on her face at a living room full of Dora decorations.

February 08: Join writer's group, fulfilling 08 resolution. Soon find myself in two groups, but that's another story.

March 08: Travel to South Africa to start filming documentary on a story that I've wanted to tackle for close to eight years. Hubby and I experience some of the complexity of South Africa and make new friends.

June 08: A wedding in picturesque Wales. Fun times with good friends. Zero work gets done re our big film plans, but am reminded of how good it is to get away and change perspective.

July 08: Shoot more of the documentary in the Caribbean, unearthing more of the story. Fall more in love with it.

October 08: Another wedding. Another chance to renew bonds with good peeps I see too little of.

November 08: Monologue published in collection of monologues from international women playwrights and Obama reminds us of the power of dreams.

December 08: Crazy Bollywood-style musical screenplay wins best project at film festival.

January 1, 2009: ???
The journey continues.

Happy New Year everybody.

Photo by fxr

Monday, December 29, 2008

Movie Night Review: "Rachel Getting Married"

We did our traditional Thanksgiving movie a while back and saw "Rachel Getting Married." This movie is so organic, natural and verite I felt like I was at the three-day celebration. It was kind of like watching a home movie of the most fun, multi-ethnic wedding ever, except the young activist rhapsodizing about the transformational power of Obama's victory wasn't there.

"Rachel Getting Married" is not a particularly ambitious drama and I found its ending unsatisfying but it's got other worthwhile charms.

It'll come as no surprise that Anne Hathaway's good in this. Movie audiences and critics are always impressed by the cute girl slumming it, whether it's physical in the case of Charlize Theron and Halle Berry playing unattractive leads or psychological--an unattractive character in the case of Kym, the protagonist here, who's a recovering junkie.

Kym is proof that you don't have to write a sympathetic protagonist for a movie to work. Kym is self-absorbed, destructive and needy, but she's also fascinating to study in the way tornadoes are. She's the dark force of a juicy family drama, the kind with secrets and ghosts that all comes to a head at her sister Rachel's wedding.

The movie is shot with a variety of HD cameras, often hand-held, which initially I found distracting but it soon settles down. Weirdly enough, there's something of a romantic comedy structure in play at the opening of "Rachel Getting Married", which sets up romantic tension between Rachel and the groom's best man, Kieran (Mather Zickel) and I kept thinking how I would have also liked to watch that movie, the dysfunctional romantic comedy about the junkie and the ex-alcoholic but oh well...

Instead we have the battle between the two sisters Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt) who always feels she's had to play second to the neuroses of her sister Kym who feels like she's the black sheep of the family, constantly under a microscope as folks wait for her next meltdown. The conflict makes for top-notch drama and the ghost of their brother who died under mysterious, tragic circumstances works perfectly to ratchet up suspense. And Kym plows through it all, getting into trouble, making things worse. It's divine to watch.

Unfortunately the movie's ending doesn't really deliver. There's a marvelous showdown between the protagonist and a major secondary character that just peters out and the filmmakers hint that the guilt for the death of the brother may not be Rachel's but it's all frustratingly vague.

I left the movie theater looking for signs of how the ending played with other folks (For the record, hubby was distinctly underwhelmed.) I overheard a couple in the lobby...

MAN: Well that was good.
WOMAN: You think? What did you like?
MAN: Well, I don't know...I have sort of low expectations when it comes to movies.

And while Man in Lobby Theater is a great audience member I'd like at my movie premiere, I think "Rachel Getting Married" fails to give the ending most story lovers crave. Sure, it's true to life and things don't have neat endings, but stories are artificial by their nature. Call me a sucker for form and function, but I like that something happens in a movie, that there's some kind of change, that I've gone on this journey for a reason.

For me "Rachel Getting Married" was interesting, brilliant in parts, but ultimately a let down, although it was kind of neat getting to know a slew of characters, hearing pitch perfect wedding toasts I will someday steal from, and being a fly on the wall for such colorful/chaotic nuptials.

"Rachel Getting Married" gets three and a half Oscars out of five.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Writers Christmas List

1. A heavy duty hole punch like this. It just takes me way too long to print and punch a an entire day. If I had half a brain I could buy the three-hole punched paper from the store (if they still sell it) but I can never remember which way it goes in the printer and then I have to reprint and that's more time wasted.
So please, a decent puncher that lines up and bores holes, does more than a pathetic 12 pages at a clip and takes care of its own mess. Is that too much to ask for?

2. Subscription to Script magazine. I'm always planning to do this but never going through with it. I'm on the fence about Creative Screenwriting. Script seems less academic and more to the point and I love the improved look with Final Draft's takeover.

3. I have been wanting Pilar Alessandra's On the Page DVD. If you haven't checked out her free weekly podcasts you should. They are informative, funny, charming and now the episodes even come with a catchy theme song that I can't get out of my head.

4. When I get fully set up I want a photocopier in my office. Maybe it's from working in production company offices but I love nothing so much as reading a photocopied script: the font's always darker and thicker than anything that comes out of your printer. Plus I love the hypnotic rhythm of a machine at work.

5. A writer's desk and chair. I hate my uncomfortable Ikea chair that I've had for about eight years and the huge surface area desk that has no drawers and encourages clutter. I dream of something more grown up like this.

Okay Santa. That's it. Hope you've got lots of room on your sleigh!

All that's left is for Third World Girl to say Merry Christmas fellow scribes with visions of spec sales dancing in your heads...

And to all a good night.

Photo by hunterjumper

Monday, December 22, 2008

One More Time With Feeling...

No real news on the documentary except that we've now decided that the financing and distribution route that seemed like it might work...might not. We're going to submit the project to a different department of the Network because it seems to have stalled on the current path it's traveling.

Strangely, though, I'm not frustrated. While having several irons in the fire can get tough, I'm learning it's a blessing too because there's always something to do while you wait. And there's a lot of "hurry up and wait" involved in producing.

When I was in undergrad I listened to actors talk about how frustrating it is to wait to get cast in the right piece and it was odd because writers, we don't have to wait. We can always begin that next project. On any given day we can sit down and type FADE IN.

So yes I'm writing, and rewriting and continuing to work on the documentary. We're re-editing the trailer (which is essentially rewriting). We got quite a bit of feedback on it and now we're starting over. In short, people need a guide to lead them through the material.

I bristled at the idea of voice-over because it seemed like cheating and because it feels like an additional layer a viewer has to overcome to get to the real story, but now that we've started I think that we should have been doing this from the get go. We're not doing a straight voice-over...the kind I shudder when I think about...the "In 1983 blah, blah, blah, blah. This is their story" type stuff. It's more personal and a way to infuse the subject with the emotion that's missing.

So no frustration right now with the length of time financing is taking...not when there's work to be done. All frustration will set back in once the new trailer is cut.

Photo by silverlily

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Night Review: "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is one funny favorite dick-flick from the Judd Apatow gang so far, and yep, that is with the inclusion of "The 40 Year Old Virgin" which felt at times to me like an extended character sketch.

Jason Segel, actor/screenwriter here, is such a lovable doofus as Peter Bretter, a music composer for a one hour TV crime drama and Russell Brand steals the show as the raunchy Brit-pop star and new object of affection for the eponymous Sarah Marshall.

I'm amazed at how Segel managed to make a passive goal ("forgetting Sarah") into something so active and engaging. Plus, you have to see this film as an example of how to write strong, memorable secondary characters. The surfing instructor, the bartender, the obsequious fan/waiter, the nervous newlywed, they all come together in an epic tapestry that forms the perfect background to a comic tale about modern love and sex.

I liked too that the romantic lead, Rachel (Mila Kunis) held so many surprises. She was a character I hadn't seen before on screen. Introduced as the sweet front desk concierge, we soon see she's got edge and a colorful past. She's miles more interesting than the bland Apatow female lead of "Knocked Up." And the setting...they get as much comic mileage out of the setting as is humanly possible.

When a movie works this well, it's easy to understand why the studio's hot for a sequel, even if it's hard to figure out what exactly it'd be about.

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" gets four and a half Oscars out of five.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Back to Being a One Group Woman

So after months of agonizing, of trying to decide if and how to break it off with Writers Group B, I did it by phone.

Originally I joined two writers groups in order to get twice as much feedback but it's just too hard, too much commitment. And while Writers Group B came with great credentials, its spirit wasn't right...or perhaps I should say its spirit wasn't right for me.

It was too regimented and yet, strangely, too social. Lots of structure in the ordering of the meetings, exercises and chit chat. The Writers Group A leader once mentioned the perils of meeting in a group member's home and I got to see them up close as the sessions sometimes devolved into the "thank you so much for opening up your home to us, Madame Group Leader" patter. And Madame Group Leader is incredibly generous, giving and successful so it is kind of a thrill (you look up while you're blabbing on about your script and her Emmy shines down upon you), but I never felt totally comfortable.

Anyway, I thought about going on the break up date. Showing up for the last meeting, offering incredible feedback, being the life and soul of the party before mentioning to Madame Group Leader that I wouldn't be coming back but I couldn't rouse myself to that level of artifice. Instead, I called and unable to get her left a message on her voice mail. I know it's the coward's way out but I made the call as fulsome as I could cause it would be dumb not to leave the door open for the future.

Writers Group A might disintegrate again.

The weird thing though is I'm still on her e-mail list so I get word of all the meetings and holiday parties. It's like seeing the ex when you go out all the time and thinking, hmmm....he still looks pretty good.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Adulthood": An Exercise in Target Market

"Kidulthood" is a 2006 movie that gained attention as a grim slice of life depiction of teenagers in a tough London school. Four years later comes "Adulthood", this time directed by the original's screenwriter Noel Clarke, who's also, for good measure, the lead.

"Adulthood" is what happens when a decent little movie overachieves and becomes a success by grabbing its target audience by the throat. The cheap little movie gives birth to the cheap, underdone sequel...but does it matter? "Adulthood" made £1.2 million its opening weekend and looks like it cost peanuts to make.

"Adulthood" was originally going to be a movie night review, but about forty minutes in, reviewing it started to seem like a waste of time. The quality of "Adulthood" is kind of irrelevant. The movie is engaging enough with a likable main character and something of a ticking clock in that the protagonist's trying to protect his family from forces who wish him harm. But the story is all over the map: the main character doesn't have much of a dilemma (the repentant criminal's too good all the time) and the drama doesn't have much build.

I know people complained about "Kidulthood" having too much sprawl but I liked the epic nature of the thing, the myriad teenagery problems. In this one, old characters from the original seem shoehorned and merely introduced for interchangeable "shouty" talking head scenes.

But forget flaws for a moment. Why are people so passionate about these two movies? Yes there's violence and sex but it's pretty tame, and there are no stars. No big production budget. No great thrills or turns in the story. Could it be that the star in these movies is simply the authenticity of the setting, an authenticity that resonates with a lot of people who feel the fakeness of what Hollywood offers up as their lives?

This movie is not for American audiences. This movie is not made to travel. It is not Guy Ritchie/Danny Boyle cool. This movie is made squarely for a target audience of young urban teens from Ladbroke Grove and Hackney who soak up movies and live lives something akin to the characters on screen.

I feel a bond with these kids because what Hollywood offers up as life in my Third World country is often pretty embarrassing. For that reason we are underserved and hungry. I was blown away recently when I was in London by the success of "The Harder They Come" on the West End. The quality of the production didn't do justice to the Perry Henzell movie or the Jimmy Cliff music but throngs of all sorts of people from all walks of life turned out night after night for that celebration of "the real." Real Jamaican music. Real Jamaican accents. And real Jamaican nostalgia. We've got one friend who's seen it five times and I bet that's the tip of the iceberg.

All of this gives me so much heart when I look at the slate of movies that our little company has. We're hobbled in some ways...there's no money, there's no people, we get stuck, we're not commercial enough ...but if we can find a way to build something genuine and attractive for a reasonable price, I know the market is there.

Friday, December 12, 2008

When Is A Co-Director Not A Co-Director? When It's Awards Season and She's Female & Foreign.

So this is interesting. Yesterday the Golden Globes nominees were announced and Slumdog Millionaire gets four noms, including one for its direction.

Turns out though that the nod is only for Danny Boyle. His co-director on the flick Loveleen Tandan isn't included.

Now I don't get how co-directors work but the two-headed monster's been around for a while. The Coen Brothers won double Oscars last year for No Country for Old Men. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were nominated for Little Miss Sunshine. Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson co-directed "The Wendell Baker Story." While unusual, the creature exists.

It's a little weird to me, then, that if the directors are listed together as they are on IMDB and credited as such at the end of the movie that only one name has as shot at being in the envelope. Is it because Tandan's only credited as "co-director (India)"?

At any rate, looks like the Hollywood Foreign Press has some explaining to do.

Here's where to go if you don't get their logic and would like to make your voice heard.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And The Winner Is...

I just got back from an absolutely amazing experience at the Film Festival.

The festival had this emerging filmmaker's program that provided just the tonic Third World Girl's crazy Bollywood-style comedy romance movie needed. After a weekend of in-depth notes on the screenplay and producing strategies to advance the project, there was an awards ceremony to announce the festival winners. The award for best screenplay, or best resident filmmaker project as they called it, capped the night.

I pretended not to be nervous but I'd never been through anything like it. The whole weekend I tried to keep my mind off of it... and off of the cash prize. It wasn't that hard. There were tons of meetings plus I kept thinking all this is subjective. What does it matter what a jury of six people thinks? The real prize is getting the movie made and there were plenty of meetings focused on just that. And the feedback was great. And I kept saying, I don't have to win.

So there we are awards night in a dark theater. The festival founder announces the top three of the five projects so they do put you through some squirming. As soon as they introduce us I'm busy thinking of how I'll have to mask my disappointment at being a runner-up. I practice my huge, wide-eyed grin but then they call someone else, then someone else and it's down to one and I just know...I know.

They announce the winner and it's me and my script and I'm so proud of it, as though it's completely separate from me. What sticks for me is the beauty of the project description, more luscious than anything I've managed in my marketing package...and they go on to say this...
"Our first prize goes to a young writer who has showcased a community rarely seen on the screen, and done it with humor and color and and great style and who impressed us with her talent and discipline."

Oh my God...I'm framing that...cause it sounds foreign to me. Is that me and my script they're talking about? I fairly rush to the stage before they can change their mind, trying not to trip over the film critic Jeffrey Lyons at the end of my row as he looks up at me with a blank stare as if to say, Please Third World Girl, my bones are brittle so spare me the full-on collision.

Then it's all over and everyone's congratulating and it's a blur but there is one person who stands out for me. The morning before the ceremony I had a long meeting with a film guy with lots of international contacts. He's got Third World roots in my Third World country and kept reiterating all through our session just how tough it will be to get this project made, how many people I'll have to talk to till someone says yes.

And I know our odds are long but I pretty much told him line them up and I'll talk to them, because this movie's got to be made. It's time.

As I'm shaking his hand that night there's no warnings, no demurring, no cold water. He just leaves it at "Congratulations."

So it's left to me to shout louder than intended, "Now let's make the damn thing!"

And that's what it feels like...a win for me and the hubby. A launch party for our big hairy audacious project as it sets out into the world.

It may take a while folks, but we're going to go all out... leaving everything on the track.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

You Read it Wrong! (Dialogue vs. Delivery)

One of the big markers of professionalism as a writer is the ability to take feedback of all types, from the inane to the absolutely brilliant. This "thick-skindedness" isn't something that comes to us easily. You have to graduate from Defensive Writers 101. I mean show me the writer who LOVES hearing "I just didn't understand..." and "This didn't make any sense" and "You lost me on page 8" and I'll show you a disingenuous writer. We're doing this because we like to think we have a future as professionals or because we're already getting paid to do this.

In the beginning we are all naturally defensive. The reasons why the reader doesn't understand vary from "This isn't your genre..." "If you lived it you'd get it"..."When it's shot and you see it visually it'll work." One of my personal favorites which you sometimes hear at readings is "The actor read it wrong."

It's one of my favorites because I remember using it when I was starting out. I wrote a monologue and an actress went in a completely different direction than I'd intended. I'm embarrassed to admit it now but I think I said in my defense something like, she didn't read it the way I wrote it.

But as a writer you can't rely on the actress to sell dialogue that's underwritten, vague or unclear. We as writers have no control over how an actor or actress ultimately creates the character. Our job is to give them enough ammunition in the text that they create the character that serves the objective of the piece. My monologue failed because the intention of the monologue wasn't clear.

When you're really green you say, well can't you just write a parenthetical that tells the actor how to read the line. Sure you could write a parenthetical but any actor worth his/her salt is going to cross it out as soon as they see it. It is, after all, their job to create the character with the text as a guide. And quite often, the good actor, has a better idea than you could have ever imagined.

One of the better examples I can think of on this topic is Dan Evan's monologue in 3:10 to Yuma. At about about 50 minutes in Dan (played by Christian Bale) explains to his wife, Alice (Gretchen Moll) just why he's going off on the foolhardy mission.

If I don't go we got to pack up and leave, heading God knows where without a prayer, dirt poor. Now I'm tired Alice...I'm tired of watching my boys go hungry. I'm tired of the way that they look at me. I'm tired of the way that you don't. I been standing here on one leg for three damn years, waiting for God to do me a favor, and he ain't listening.

You can imagine the temptation as an actor to go for the big swing, the meaty, shouty diatribe but Bale (or could be director James Mangold) goes in the opposite direction. He whispers it to his wife and it is coated in desperation. It is an unexpected choice and a hundred times more powerful than the barnstorming. It is a man at the end of his rope, trying to hold it all in. And yet, my bet is any choice Bale made would have worked because the material is that clear. The dramatic purpose of the monologue is not ambiguous.

Christian Bale is what you hope you'll get...Immensely talented "talent" who can make good material soar and salvage average material. But never defensively assume that a piece doesn't work cause it was "read wrong." Don't dismiss a note as..."it's just the delivery" because, more likely than not, there's an underlying issue with the material. Can you look at the Bale monologue and think it wouldn't have worked if he'd have done it differently?

Put it on the page, then let the actor play.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How Do I Hate Outlining? Enough to Send Myself Crazy Trying to Make It Fun!

I hate outlining so much it's a miracle I ever get anything written. To get through the outlining phase I have to perform all sorts of extravagant mind tricks to keep the tedium of plotting a story out beat by beat at bay. My process is chaotic. I jump around from strategy to strategy in order to keep myself going. If there's a method of outlining, I've tried it.

I started out with the "just write the story down on one page" method. I come from a short story background so thinking of the screenplay in prose form wasn't hard but I had to scrap the one page approach because once I started writing the screenplay, I'd write myself into corners. I needed a more detailed road map: a scene by scene that would help me get pacing right.

I tried the index card approach. Forty-five scenes tacked up to the wall, easily shuffled...but I got bored. Being a software sap who never met a new interface that didn't at least inspire some brief burst of productivity, I tried Power Structure. I'd got this when I worked at The Magazine as a freebie. I think it's important to mention this because I hated it and at the time it was kind of hokey. (There's been many updates since I had it.) I remember it being more complex than I needed. It had a couple views that I didn't even know what they did. (What's a Gestalt view?) It had graphs and color coding and I glazed over when I read about it in the way I often do when people talk about Dramatica. Third World Girl is too simple to get all this stuff.

So I went back to the index cards but, in time, I found a template that you download so you can type onto the index cards. It means the outline looks neater on the cork board and you waste some more time fiddling around which is pretty important to my "process." I also used Post-It index cards to do away with the thumbtacks. However, no sooner did I lay out Act One to the midpoint but an index card came loose and went missing and made me think, it is ridiculous to be agonizing about a lost scene because I can't figure out how to save the story in a single document format.

So I gave in to the temptation of working in Final Draft and a simple scene by scene outline. I did this with slug lines because it fooled my brain into thinking that I was writing the script and not outlining which is, did I mention, the part I really hate?

But going into Final Draft meant I got much more detailed than I needed to be. I got taken in by the moments in the individual scene and dialog ideas and in no time at all I was writing the damn scene and losing sight of the forest from the trees.

So I tried Movie Outline which is software I bought back on a job where I was outlining a docudrama. I rationalized it as a business expense and used it sporadically since. ( I'm using it on the current screenplay.) It's got its weaknesses and sometimes it feels no different than typing your scenes into a box and hitting enter, but I like that it's intuitive and that I can make a mess someplace else before I bring everything into Final Draft.

Because that's how I view the outline stage: making a mess. The idea that I'm in love with on Monday is hurled out the window by Wednesday as I search for the best elements to tell the story. I used to think of outlining as a necessary evil, something to be endured like a bad hair day. Once I found a way to get the story from the beginning to the end, that'd be my cue to type FADE IN. But the more scripts you write, the more you realize how crucial it is to go in with the best possible outline...because it's far easier to edit an outline than an entire script. And an entire script disguises things. Once you've written the dialog of your very funny mid-point scene and people really like it, it's harder to see that it doesn't convey the story point you're trying to make.

So this time, with this screenplay, while I can't say I don't still hate outlining, I'm surrendering to the process of it. I've done my time at the reading desk of a couple production companies and I'd say that ninety percent of scripts by new writers fall down in the area of storytelling. Sometimes you'll be lucky enough to find an executive who sparks to a character or story world but more often than not if the story doesn't work, the whole screenplay becomes moot because the script doesn't satisfy that primal human need we have for "once upon a time"...y'know someone goes on a journey, faces tough, increasingly dangerous dragons and returns to his world a better person with the magical elixir in hand.

Stories are our religion, guiding us how to live and outlining, figuring out how the order goes, is at the root of the task. It's not just the pre-writing duties that have to be dispensed with before the real writing begins. A few days ago in my Writers Group, I handed out my beat sheet and experienced a surreal moment, cause I never thought of myself as the kind of girl who'd be workshopping an outline but that's just the kind of girl I'm turning out to be.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Good Writing/Bad Writing... Potayto/Potahto

I read this article the other day about the difficulty that people have discerning between good and bad writing. I've seen some of this in my home country where a couple journalists by dint of their enthusiastic vocabulary have pulled of this trick. In general, I didn't give this lack of discernment much thought until I came across someone complaining about the dishwasher scene in "Rachel Getting Married". I thought this scene was seriously one of the most brilliant, memorable movie moments I've experienced but this person argued that it was pointless. ("Take it out. Demme needs an editor to tell him what to cut.")

But to me the scene was layered, subtle and writing and execution. Too subtle for some I guess but a real gift for me. When you start learning craft folks warn you you'll never be able to appreciate a movie again. You're paying so much attention to the different ticking parts and how they all work together. You're distracted when they don't work, thinking of how they could work better. You slip out of the magic of the movie.

But then, every once in a while, you get lost in a sequence like the "Rachel Getting Married" dish washing sequence and when it's done you just go "wow" because there is no way you could ever come up with something that creative, that organic, that dramatic, that simple. And you're happy at the capacity of art... that in the middle of the tragic (and this last week was pretty grim), you get little things to marvel at.

Friday, November 28, 2008

If Chicklet Wrote the J.Crew Catalogue

In the spirit of "Black Friday"--the day after Thanksgiving named because it's a cash-cow for store owners (in the black vs. in the red)-- I've been imaginary shopping with my imaginary cash and the real catalogs that clutter our mailbox.

The Chicklet thinks of these catalogs as much so that for an entire month when J. Crew was doing its fancy theme catalog in Morocco I amused the Chicklet with a story about a blond girl who goes to Morocco by herself and then meets up with her friends for coffee, goes to the market, saves a camel and then sits in a tent in the desert sands waiting for her plane to pick her up. Naturally she also insisted on dialog. It was like I was forced to write "The English Patient" just in order to see what J. Crew's summer line was.

It was worth it though. I like living vicariously through the J. Crew catalog. I get a special kick from the color options on the Ts and knits: citron, cerise, bright berry, light blade, spearmint, peacock. Doesn't it make you want to dance around or eat something?

Chicklet loves the colors too. She's at the age where she's so over the basic blue, yellow, red. She distinguishes light blue, dark blue, silver, cream, gray. She delights in the gradation of color. Her favorite question these days is "what kind of brown are you?" followed by "what kind of brown am I?"

One day when she was on her color binge, she started pointing to things in the house and identifying their color: gray, green, dark blue. Then she turned to the puff jacket I was wearing and gave me the look, the look she lays on me when she's about to deliver a verbal gem.

"Brown poo," she said. And I looked at my jacket because it is the exact shade of the brown poo she is always so interested in checking out, in her Pamper and in her potty.

"Brown poo," I said in agreement...though I doubt J.Crew will be using that one as a swatch option any time soon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tattoo Craving

So yesterday after dodging a financial bullet, I felt the urge to get a tattoo. A little one, right on the nape of my neck. I have no idea what it would say or what shape it would take but I'm all of a sudden feeling the need to shake things up.

A writer friend a couple years back got a tattoo to remind her to have the courage to create. I guess mine, if I found the courage to get a tattoo, would be along those lines. It would be some kind of rallying call to get out of my comfort zone and take chances and make things happen.

And then a fellow writer-mom was talking about the need you have, once in a while, to forget you're a mom even if it's just for a couple hours. I can't think of a better way to remind yourself of the outrageous person you used to be before pancakes, play dough, princess tea parties and playgrounds than getting a tattoo on your neck.

Of course the tattoo route might not be a good investment in terms of the business. Apart from the little creative shingle I'm always on about, the hubby and I do organizational/industrial videos. A tattoo on the neck might prove a little too rockstar for that clientele... but then again, I could always develop a penchant for scarves.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Great Screenwriting Advice: "A is Better Than A+B"

I've never seen this expression written down in any book but it's one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten from a screenwriter with regard to character motivation.

"A is Better Than A+B" means that one motivation for a given action is better than two motivations. It's a counterintuitive maxim because in real life where we make pro and con lists all the time, the more reasons we have for doing something the better.

But economy is the name of the game in screenwriting so the idea is that you'll go for one strong, consistent motivation rather than muddling the character by giving him/her more than one reason for taking action.

For example, you've got a cop and you figure he wants to avenge the death of his partner but in your heart of hearts you think, that's not strong enough...he barely knew the guy. I know, I'll make it that he wants to avenge the death of his partner and that he also wants to make detective and further his stalled career. Now you've got motivation A+B. That's a whole lot better right? One motivation. If it's weak, raise the stakes and obstacles. Take it from an emotional Richter scale of a 2.0 to an 8. Resist the temptation to add other motivations, no matter how "connected" they might be.

I tend to fall into this trap from time to time. For example, at a recent writers group meeting I found myself explaining the action of my protagonist in terms of his backstory and realized that I was saddling the character with the dreaded "extra" motivation. So I lost the line of dialogue, problem solved.

In short: less is more, even when it comes to motive.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Open Letter to the High School Kids in Barnes & Noble's Film/TV/Radio Section

Dear High School Kids in the Barnes & Noble Film/TV/ Radio Section:

Yes, reading is important. I understand that keeping up with the latest book on "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" or browsing the "Inside Guide To The Hills" is crucial for your status at the top of the social food chain but other people, us thirty-something year-old fogies, would like to maybe grab a screenwriting book from the bottom bookshelf or check out the"Guide to Lost's Buried Secrets" where your torso is currently residing and giving you the lung capacity to have that interminable conversation on your cell phone.

Barnes & Noble seems reluctant to tell you but the shelves are not your lounge to drape yourselves over, nor is the carpeted aisle your bunk bed. I know, I know. I can step over you. Or jump. Or twist. Or shimmy under your coolly outstretched hand...but I didn't sign up for an obstacle course. I just want to buy a book ...maybe.

Also, I don't need to know who you fucked and why and what your boyfriend said when he found out. You really don't need to talk that loud.

A suggestion: why not go form your bottle neck in Self-Improvement or Grooming?

Third World Girl

Friday, November 14, 2008

Movie Night Review: "The Secret Life of Bees"

This week movie night was actually at a theater (God bless sister-in-laws who babysit) but in a certain time slot and geographical radius which meant that we had a limited choice of what we could see.

"The Secret Life of Bees" rose to the top by process of elimination. Have to say I was a little surprised that hubby wasn't more averse to it. This is generally the kind of movie he would have to be dragged into the theater and tied to the seat to sit through.

"The Secret Life of Bees" stars Dakota Fanning and a high-wattage cast-- Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo. It's directed by Gina Price Bythewood who made "Love and Basketball."

The movie opens with a bang. At age four Lily accidentally shoots her mother as she's trying to protect her from a violent domestic row. Immediately following the prologue comes a sense of the time period and the thematic water we're gonna be treading. We see Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act and moments later, Lily's servant Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) setting off to register to vote with Lily at her side. However, on the way to registering, Lily and Rosaleen meet up with a couple of bigoted whites who insult Rosaleen. Rosaleen's not one to hold her tongue and violence breaks out. Police step in and Rosaleen is carted away.

Later that night, Lily provokes her mean, sad sack father (wonderfully played by the underrated Paul Bettany) who tells her that her mother abandoned her. Crushed, Lily runs away, but not before she busts Rosaleen out of the hospital where she's in custody, recovering from a severe beat-down. They run away to a town called Tiburon where Lily's mother once lived and because there's no hotel that will take in a white girl and a colored woman, they try their luck with a well off black family in the area, the Boatwrights, who make the best honey in all of South Carolina.

Our set-up over, thirty minutes in, Lily's knocking on the door of the grand pink Boatwright manor and asking the matriarch, eldest sister August (Queen Latifah) for a place to stay. And so Lily finds a loving family and relishes lots of sage bee metaphors from August.

Meanwhile relationships ebb and flow between the other two Boatwright sisters, the uptight, political June (Alicia Keys) and the sensitive soul May (Sophie Okonedo) and Zach, a good-looking black teen who helps out with August's bees. Inexplicably, no one seems in the least bit concerned about the development of a taboo relationship between Lily and Zach in segregated South Carolina where Rosaleen not too many movie minutes ago got her head beat in by some racist white folk.

It's this short sightedness of the family to the relationship between Lily and Zach that was my biggest problem...that and the wonderful hospitality and forgiveness of the Boatwrights which doesn't help create the kind of conflict internally (within the walls of the house) that would really lift the movie.

By the time the story peters out with a tame resolution for our protagonist, the journey felt derailed and slight. The movie is blessed with strong acting performances but only flirts with darkness underpinning it. As such, "The Secret Life of Bees" is determined to retain the golden hue of its honey to its detriment.

"The Secret Life of Bees" gets 3 Oscars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Word on the Street (Overheard Dialogue at Duane Reade)

In line at Duane Reade. Two women hold magazines waiting to be rung up.

Woman A: How old are you?

Woman B: I'm an old fart. I'm turning 29.

Woman A: That's okay. Don't have a breakdown about it. Neil is 29.

Woman B: I know... Y'know, they say you shouldn't date someone who's 29.

Woman A: I've heard that too! And it totally makes sense. (inaudible) But I think it's okay if you start dating them before they turn 29.

Woman B: I started dating Neil like three months before he turned 29.

Woman A: That's okay then. That's enough time to make an impression.

Woman B: Dave was 31. You shouldn't date guys who're 31.

Woman A: 31 is the new 29.


And to think I had no idea of this seminal rule of dating. No guys who're 29.

Seriously though, you can't beat eavesdropping as a way to sharpen your dialogue skills. So feel better about being plain, damn nosy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shelf or Toss? An Ongoing Guide to Screenwriting Books

I used to write articles for a screenwriting magazine that's since gone under. And for a while I thought I wanted to keep writing about screenwriters and screenwriting because I guess like via osmosis it was going to make me a better writer. (The jury's still out on that one.)

On the plus side, I did get to do some cool things, bag some free software, and go to a couple conferences and screenings on their dime so it wasn't all bad. And I did get paid which is always good. I also ended up with quite a few screenwriting books that you are possibly thinking of buying, have already bought and never since picked up, or are thinking of trashing to your wannabe friends even though you've no idea what they're about!'s your cheat sheet to a couple that landed on my review desk. I'll be sharing my 0.02 on a few from time to time.

Charles Deemer/Portland State University

It’s not just an analogy. According to the laws of probability, by way of a California math professor, it’s easier to win a million dollar jackpot than sell a humble screenplay. That’s the dose of cold reality dispensed on the opening pages of “Practical Screenwriting”, a book aimed at redressing those odds in favor of the unsold scribe.

Written by playwright turned screenwriter Charles Deemer, “Practical Screenwriting” is designed to teach the novice writer craft. Specifically, Deemer seeks to prune the young writer’s enthusiasm for setting down overblown rhetoric, a symptom he traces to the recent trend of publisher’s publishing screenplays that has made today's hopefuls think of screenwriting as literature. Deemer believes just the opposite. He believes for a screenplay to stand out in the crowded contemporary marketplace it must be clean, crisp and clear: an architect’s blueprint that invites a collaborative builder’s vision.

As such, economy, both structural and rhetorical, tops Deemer’s list of new screenwriting essentials.
“Practical Screenwriting” also highlights the usual suspects: character development, structure, format, collaboration and concept. Not all of these are given equal screen time, however, with the book delving into three-act structure a great deal more than characterization, for example.

This skewed perspective is part of the reason “Practical Screenwriting” isn’t a traditional textbook. For one, it’s more casual, but that’s part of its appeal. The matter of fact tone is pitch perfect for the overwhelmed beginner as are the do’s and don'ts of screenwriting, illustrated by excerpts from produced and student scripts.

The Bottom Line: If you're looking for a solid beginning primer or you're one of those "outline, schmoutline" types, this might be your cup of tea. If not, move along. There's not much new here, though I guess Deemer's appeal (It's the economy, stupid) could prove useful even for older hands.

Shelf or Toss: Toss.
As the Chicklet says "not for me." I need a little more meat on my screenwriting how-to bones.

Friday, November 7, 2008

"From a Powerful Antagonist, Boundless Energy Flows"

That's the quote this writing professor used to lay on us about the importance of creating a strong antagonist to keep a script from flatlining.

Yet I just outlined the first half of the new rom com and it feels flat as a pancake with...(you guessed it) no real antagonist. In thinking about this script, I read an old draft of a wedding romcom I haven't seen "Made of Honor" where they made the "Bellamy" (the name given to the Mr./Miss Wrong in a romantic comedy) a real jerk but, for me, that approach didn't work. It just made the whole question of whether the hero would win the girl so much more inevitable. ( I guess in production they went entirely the other way cause one of the Rotten Tomato reviewers complained that the Bellamy was too likable and he couldn't see why the romantic lead would choose Patrick Dempsey.)

Another obvious antagonist in wedding romcoms is the mother-in-law but that feels too easy, though perhaps I shouldn't fight it. It's universal and credible. Also Craig Mazin at "Artful Writer" has this great post about how whenever you write to avoid something rather than write towards something you're asking for trouble. So in reworking the outline, I'll probably be looking for a new twist on the mother-in-law from hell, looking to raise the stakes, and putting my two leads in more direct competition. Because a romantic comedy is primarily the battle between two people who could be perfect for each other but are unwilling to admit it.

Back to the drawing board.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Good Morning

It may be 3.55 PM.

Still feels like morning in America.

Like the POTUS Elect is always fond of saying, his story could only happen in America. And that's why Third World Girl loves this place and this American city she lives in.

One of the MSNBC folk said this morning, "We are a nation of dreamers" and that Obama spoke to a dream in many of us. For sure, that spirit of "can do" he calls on when he talks about immigrants setting out for a distant shore, it makes my eyes mist up.

Hail to the new and the power of dreams.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Question of the Week

Looking at a poster for the imminent James Bond, I have one more question about the clumsy title...

How much is a "quantum of solace" and will it be enough to get me through a McCain-Palin administration if that's what the country chooses tomorrow?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Movie Night... Okay make that Movie Week Review: "Fanaa"

"Fanaa", a Bollywood hit from 2006, had been sitting on our bookshelf for just short of two years but thanks to Movie Night, hubby and I decided its time had arrived.

We're working on this Bollywood-styled Third World musical comedy and a while back hubby went into a Jackson Heights movie store and asked for recommendations. The guy brought out Parineeta which we loved and has become a focal point of the DVD collection and Fanaa which became the stepchild we never watched.

It took us two years to get in the mood for Fanaa but we put it in a couple nights ago and it was um...a revelatory movie-watching experience. I am not kidding when I say I've never seen anything like it.

"Fanaa" is about a blind Kashmiri girl, Zooni, who sets off with her friends to perform as part of a dance troupe to commemorate India's independence at a palace in Delhi. In Delhi, Zooni meets Rehan, a charming tour guide who's a Casanova. They flirt with each other openly, and their clever repartee back and forth shows what a great match these two are for each other, despite all the disapproving tut tutting of Zooni's overprotective friends.

I glanced down at my watch about forty minutes in, thinking, while this is cute, there's not exactly any conflict. Stakes don't seem all that high. Guy loves her though worried about his ability to commit but he's going along and she thinks he's the bees knees. I'm still waiting for something to happen.

It sort of does when Zooni implores Rehan to meet her for a final day of fun in Delhi before she returns home and he stands her up, unable to deal with his attachment to her. She's upset and seeks him out. He tries to give her the brush off with groaners like "Women are like cities. I spend a little time in one and then I move on" but Zooni is adamant that she's met her true love. She throws out the line her mother said she ought to save for her true love...a line that equates with the movie's title "Fanaa: Destroyed in Love"...but Rehan appears not to be taken in by it.

Heartbroken, Zooni sets out on the train back home only to have Rehan stop the train, clamber aboard and declare his love. He takes her back to Delhi and you can be forgiven for thinking they live happily ever after the way the movie's going.

But "Fanaa" has something else up it's sleeve. Rehan gets news of a new surgical operation that can bring Zooni back her sight. This is something he's always dreamed of for her. At long last she'll see the world. Zooni goes in for this operation but Rehan, on the way to the airport to pick up Zooni's parents who are to meet him for the first time, is presumed killed in a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile Zooni wakes up, and she can see! She greets her family who tell her Rehan's died in the bombing. Perversely, Zooni's first sighted act is to identify the remains of her husband...remains which turn out to be his clothing and a scarf she knitted.

At this point as a viewer I sit right up because I think... where is this movie going? It's about seventy minutes in and I just can't figure out the road map. While Zooni wails, and rescue crews descend into flames there is I think one of the coolest but weirdest reversals I've ever seen on screen. We learn that the bombing is the act of a dangerous terrorist who's targeted many other Indian sites. (We see the terrorist looking at all these other tourist sites.) We switch perspective to a "24"-style counter terrorism unit that is tracking the rogue terrorist. We tilt up from the shoes of the rogue terrorist as he strides through an airport. And we learn that the terrorist is...Rehan!

And then the slate tells us it's intermission. Now that's what I call an act break!

The second part of the movie is an entirely new film, like the directors said, we made a romantic comedy, now we feel like making a thriller. In "Fanaa part 2" as I call it, operatives try to track down Rehan and locate the dangerous trigger he wants to secure to launch some diabolical attack. However, when Rehan gets shot down in the middle of the snowy Kashmir mountains, he drags himself on the point of death, to a cabin. The door opens and it just "happens" to be the home of Zooni, who of course doesn't recognize Rehan since she was blind for all of their relationship. Further complicating matters, crowding around the door is the son Rehan never knew he adorable kid who dotes on the mysterious stranger.

The soap opera continues as Zooni and her father nurse Rehan back to health. Zooni gradually learns Rehan's identity (as her former lover) and they get married only for her to discover, as the dragnet for the terrorist tightens, that the man they're searching for, the dangerous renegade, is Rehan. Now Zooni has a totally compelling choice, except it's all so over the top and not treated in any genuine way. Scenes continue to be laughably unrealistic, especially the big finale where a woman agent in an airborne helicopter shoots a pistol into another helicopter and hits the enemy!!! Yes indeed, "Fanaa" will make you shake your head many, many times.

At a running time of 168 minutes, it took me almost a week to watch "Fanaa" but I was so fascinated by it that it made me think of the ability of other non-traditional, non-Hollywood, filmmakers to straddle genres. Is there a comparison here to Tyler Perry and the whole subgenre of gospel plays that confound straight genre types by blending comedy and melodrama so effortlessly? Is there something about us Third Worlders that makes us understand that things don't come in neat boxes? Or is such genre-bending simply amateurish?

Because at the end of the day I'd pick the straight romance of "Parineeta" over the interesting but ultimately unsuccessful hybrid of "Fanaa" any day.

One other quibble that makes me mark down "Fanaa", the music isn't memorable. There's nothing you'll go away humming...which is also a completely new experience for me, fledgling Bollywood movie watcher that I am.

"Fanaa" gets 2 and a half Oscars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Third World Girl & The Golden Ticket

I got a call from a festival. The script for this musical comedy I have got accepted to a residency program. The festival accepts five projects into its program every year and I'll bet I was the last successful applicant to know.

My acceptance e-mail went to my spam. I had to get a call from the programming assistant who said, didn't you receive my e-mail? My first instinct when people say of e-mail....didn't you get it? is to go, yeah, never sent it, mainly because I've tried this ruse myself. But checking my spam folder and going through all the offers of penis enhancement pills and free luxury watches, there was the e-mail. All this fixation on the e-mail that changes my life and it goes directly to my spam. Of course I immediately wondered what other wonderful missives of success had got diverted to my spam, but there was nothing...though there was a very nice letter from a Nigerian prince. (I kid, I kid.)

Anyway, on my first phone call with the festival programmers, I was a little dotty. I entered the contest, but since it was so long ago, I didn't remember the prize. When the guy told me the script was accepted there was a pause before I asked... Exactly what does that mean?

Also, though I hope to win every contest I enter, I never expect to. Plus, I think of these things as marketing tools to create buzz for the script, not as offering meaningful prizes. But as I learn more about this prize and more about the festival and the residency, I can't believe my luck. It sounds like it will be awesome and exactly what I need. Advisors I will be crazy honored to meet, will be working with us, trying to make these projects happen. And luckily enough, they're about building careers which is good, because it's where I am as a writer. Build me baby. Build.

So now I got to go polish up my arsenal (and add to it with the cute, new Third World rom com), and count down the days of course. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another Thing I Love About My Group A Writers Group

So another thing I love about my Group A, Monday night writers group...

When we finish our sessions, I walk past Carnegie Hall to get to the subway. And because of the time it is, more often than not, a show's letting out. The sidewalk is buzzing, mostly with young kids all dressed up in their fancy dresses and bow ties, giddily snapping loads of photos out in front.

And all I can think of is that old joke.
"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice, practice, practice."

And I feel good about the hours I've just spent taking apart the script and bouncing ideas around with some pretty cool, very generous women.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We're In Business

Since the bottom dropped out of the market, the documentary that we've been slaving away on has gone into a state of inertia. Oh, I'm sending out the hopeful e-mails and piling up the leads but I can't say I've been kicking down any doors in our effort to get back into production. The fundraising attempts have *that* disheartening. (We keep being teased by interested parties though. There's no shortage of folks who want to kill us with kind words without opening their wallets.)

Lately, too, there's been this weird disconnect between us and our production partners halfway across the world. For the last couple of months in our almost two year relationship we've been having communication issues. It's like how marriages get some time. One party becomes convinced they're doing all the work, and that the other party's just slacking off. This dynamic is magnified when you never see the other. You read all sorts of things into the silence. As you'll remember for example a couple months back we got word that we'd got some distribution interest but since then, a big fat nothing.

Without that money, we've been looking at what individual donors we might be able to target. We thought about having a fundraising party but decided it's too much work for too little. We've moved to identifying philanthropists who might have an interest in the documentary's subject matter and following them up. In our quest to do just this, three well-connected guys, who incidentally are producers too (who isn't, right?) have taken a shine to the project. The problem is our co-producer thinks targeting individuals for fundraising is a waste, a total cock tease. "Get the money from your distributor no matter how long it takes" is his mantra. In his mind, this is how a movie gets made.

But here in the Big City, what we've been doing in the last couple of months is pursuing folks with resources and trying to get their cash. Seemed logical. It's in Morrie's book...but our co-producer saw in this strategy of going after individual donors some sort of black mark against his own diligence. What I viewed as us trying to push our little project along by getting individual donations using the carrot of an "exec producer" title, he saw as frustration with him, our production partner. According to him, we should be in the boat together, mad about what rages around us, not pointing daggers at each other.

It was only during this conversation, our first fight I suppose, that I realized something. This really cool production company is working on this awesome doc with us. Now, that'll sound strange to you. I'm a producer. I've made TV. I'm not a total slouch. I've gone to a good film school and yet on a level, I still sort of thought that this guy was just trying to help me out, humoring me. See, I first approached him with the project because we had a friend in common and part of me always feels that the people who are working with me are doing so because they haven't figured out a way to gently let me down.

And so in the middle of this conversation that it took us two days to get to, I say to him, point blank... because we are friends, because I believe him when he says we can dissolve this business relationship and still be cool...I say, "Do you really want to do this?" I walk him to the edge of the plank and he pauses what seems like an eternity and he says..."Third World Girl, we're in business."

And I feel like a doof because it's my problem that it took me so long to get that. It's my problem that I can't believe my luck. Cause this producer isn't Paramount or anything, but he's a star to me. And there are days I look at my little company's development slate and I think, man, it's just a matter of time before we find the folks who're looking for exactly what we've got... but those days are interspersed with the weeks of waiting to hear something, anything, the brutal loop of no feedback and of self-doubt.

Once in a while, however, this funk is broken by the epiphany that there is someone else on the boat with you, pulling for you, rowing in sync, even if you can't always see them.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Backwards is Better

So my new favorite trick is the backwards write.

I've done this before with other scripts, usually to make sure scenes worked in isolation and to read them with a fresh eye. (You'll be amazed what jumps out at you when you start from the back of the script where your eye usually tires.) I'd also done this to check for excess flab and to make sure every scene had a story purpose, moving the action forward.

But it's only within the last couple of weeks that I used the backwards write to solve an ending that was just not working.

The backwards write is a method that story consultant Jeffrey Kitchen advocates. I like it because it focuses so exclusively on cause and effect.

It all starts with the ending of the movie. What is the image that dramatizes the object of the story? This question makes you zero in on the "moral" of the tale. Then working from the dramatization of that final object, you go back through the chain of cause and effect for each action until you arrive at your beginning.

What I find is that this really focuses the story. The question becomes less what preceded an event in the story, but more specifically, what happens in your script that causes the subsequent event to happen. For me, the backwards-write method took actions that arose to facilitate the plot and put them in the hands of the protagonist or the antagonist. I can't tell you how much more satisfying these new drafts feel.

Check out Kitchen's method here...

Friday, October 17, 2008

My Little Voice Speaks Up.

A couple years ago I took a short story workshop with a great, warm, no b.s. novelist. The first draft I brought in of a story that had won a contest was in his opinion way too precious, going nowhere. I got hammered at the roundtable and I went back and reworked it.

What I remember of the reception of the rewrite a couple weeks later is the workshop leader being taken aback at how I'd taken a note and ran with it. I can do this to the extreme which I've learned is both a weakness and a strength. I just don't have any sentimental attachment to how things are on the page. In fact, I never met a rewrite I didn't like. If I'm honest, I have a problem realizing the point at which I'm not making things better, only different.

After the workshop I ran into the workshop leader and his editor at a writer's festival and he sat me down and said, Third World Girl, you've got to know what you're doing. To paraphrase, he thought my voice and style was chick lit but that I kind of copped out on it by trying to be too highbrow. There's a place for your little, quirky, small stories...don't be bummed if they're not going to win a Booker Prize.

This is years ago and it's something I've been thinking about recently in light of the fact that I'd been struggling with this social drama. The story's an important one, based on a true, heartbreaking story but the other day when I started to re-outline it I thought...why am I telling this story? Why me?

On reflection, I realized I had fallen into a trap. See, to some extent film in Third World Girl's native country is an academic exercise. It must be "deep." It must say something profound about our post-colonial condition but looking at my work, the best of what I have... and what I've managed to make... is nothing like that.

Once upon a time, I had a mentor from my country who looked at a simple story I wanted to write about a group of Third World students living in a house, doing crazy things to make the rent. The mentor tore into me. "What are you doing? Write the story of your grandmother," he said. Being an impressionable, desperate for validation sophomore at the time, I felt like I had been correctly chastised. I felt like a big dumb sell-out, and cried big dumb sell out tears. Now, however, I think...screw that. You write the story of your grandmother. I'll write what I like.

I guess what I'm trying to say is last night I finally realized, my Third World film doesn't have to be like your Third World film and let the social drama go. Here, now, officially I'm setting it free to the universe to let somebody else write it.

I've got to go grapple with a small little Third World love story that I've been thinking about for a while.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How Do I Turn This Thing Off?

I keep being hit by all these ideas at 2 AM in the morning, just after I've crawled into bed after doing whatever writing I can. My mind is on fire when I'm supposed to be drifting off to dreamland. I can feel the synapses crackling, exploding while the rest of the house sleeps: the perfect line of dialogue, the great title, the best characterization, the best edit, the reason the opening doesn't work...

I wish somebody would write something in one of these writer's magazines about how to switch off the creative impulse so you can get at least five hours sleep. As a parent, there's a kind of desperation that sets in as you lie on the pillow and watch the time tick away, cause you know your very precious alarm clock is going to be up at 8 AM ready and rearing to go.

Of course I shouldn't be writing at night. I should be getting up at 5 AM and writing for three hours before the babe wakes up. But waking up early to write has never worked for me. It takes a tractor to get me out of bed in the morning and I am the original night owl. What this means is that I generally have to wait for her to fall asleep before I my work days start at 10:30 PM, after the usual decompression that consists of surfing the web and watching MSNBC.

So...anybody got any non-pharmaceutical ideas about how to fall asleep fast, other than the great advice below?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cheating Updated...Is it Still Good For You?

After an absence of two sessions, I made a return to the writer's group I'm cheating with. I had planned to go to prove to myself that I can "keep options open" but the decision was cemented thanks to an e-mail from the group leader who pretty much said, "Do you still want to be a part of this... because I've found a couple new people." It sounded to me like emotional blackmail so of course I shot off an e-mail saying "see you later tonight!"

But doggone it, this outside group is so high-maintenance, man. I kept thinking that my other writers group, Writers Group A, they of the laid-back, meet in public, "I scribbled out my synopsis during my lunchbreak" writers, don't have a fit if you miss two sessions. Also, you don't have to RSVP a day in advance...or bring snacks. Though you are welcome to share gum. There are none of those exercises and that free-write crap I loathe.

But I'm doing this thing now where I'm trying to say yes to things I would usually say no to. I mean, I don't need to be part of two writers groups but the theory behind it is that I'll write twice as much and get feedback on two scripts instead of one. Also, Writers Group B savaged the opening pages of the social drama screenplay I'm working on so although it would be easy to slink away convinced they don't get my "genius", I like to think tough criticism of something that clearly doesn't work is exactly what I'm looking for. Plus, I don't want to be that "writers group parasite" that hangs in there long enough to get their work thoroughly workshopped and then disappears off the face of the earth.

Anyway, I show up to Madame Group Leader's loft about ten minutes late and a very strange thing has happened to Writers Group B. It is an entirely new group. The only familiar face is Madame Group Leader. She explains to me that one of the regulars can't make it this week but that the other three have flaked completely. She makes a face as she says flaked, as though she can tell that I am a higher caliber of human being serious about my writing. But instead I panic...did I miss my window to flee?

However, thanks to the housecleaning, the sessions have become less social...which I like. I want my writers group to run like clockwork, allowing me to dive into work, get done and trek back to Brooklyn prontissimo. But unfortunately there's still too much stuffing in the bird. When we finish the opening exercise and go directly to reading pages I grin inwardly because I think, ah, at last they've finally dumped the sucky free-writing. However, a few minutes into the table read, Madame Group Leader says, "Oh no...I forgot the format. We'll do the free-writing after. Remind me if I skip it in the future."

Next thing you know we'll print an agenda. Yep, I chafe against all this structure. I hate writing exercises. What is this pretentious writers block thing? I don't understand people who don't know what to write about. I understand procrastination. I am the queen of that country but I'm not going to be helped by writing with an egg timer. I will be helped by the total annihilation of the internet... but that's another story.

Also, the new problem is, the group is now populated by different types of writers...two or three fiction chicks. This week, I'm just in time for a novelist to read the first two chapters of a book she's working on. It's got some charm and I suddenly hanker after the short stories currently languishing on my flash drive, but I don't want to be tempted into them right now. I want to work on screenplays. I want to learn from other screenwriters. I want a community of people struggling with exactly what I'm going through.

Still, I guess I'll return next time. I feel bad about being the last of the original generation left standing... but my heart just isn't in this anymore.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Movie Night Review: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

The weakest and longest of the J.K. Rowling books makes a pretty entertaining movie that reminds Third World Girl of this really annoying deputy headmistress who once came into her high school and wreaked havoc via totalitarian rules as does the movie's Deputy Minister of Magic Dorothy Umbridge. (Our deputy head was, however, never driven away by a herd of angry centaurs as much as our school population might have enjoyed it.)

But back to "Order of the Phoenix". The installment is directed by David Yates who must have satisfied the studio alright since they've handed off the rest of the franchise to him. (I will perhaps always be partial to the grit of Alfonso Cuaron's "Prisoner of Azkaban" with its cool magical realism though Mike Newell did a pretty bang-up job too with Goblet of Fire. I love it when producers open up novels as diverse as Rowling's to different directors though the first two done by Christopher Columbus now seem dull and slavish to the source material.)

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", like the book it's based on, is a whole lot of exposition...a bridge between the high jinx of the earlier series with its quaint Quidditch matches and house rivalries and the moody, deeper apocalypse of the later books. For that reason it's kind of hamstrung as a movie. (The entire thing, in fact, exists to deliver one really important piece of exposition.) In fact, hubby seemed distinctly unimpressed as he was measuring the movie up against Goblet of Fire.

I won't provide a synopsis here apart from saying Harry's pursued by dementors, uses magic in front of a Muggle while school's out, gets into major trouble for it, gets hauled before the Ministry of Magic who in a very unlikely scene lets him go his way after a Dumbledore speech, heads off to Hogwarts, kisses an Asian girl, gets heat from students who think he's lying about the Dark Lord's return, has really bad dreams that he realizes are Voldemort's visions and seeks to find out exactly what is the relationship between him and said Voldemort, a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named. (Go read it in 870 pages. I'm always amazed that people understand the movies as stand-alones.)

It's good character stuff that sets up a lot of information we'll need for the later novels--oops movies--but "Order of the Phoenix" doesn't really set any fires on its own.

Still a few largely redeeming observations...

1. J.K. Rowling has employed so many top notch seasoned British actors who are so good in these cameos she should get some major damehood.

2. Daniel Radcliffe is really short but he's a pretty decent actor as is the Ron Weasley dude. Emma Watson I just don't get.

3. Rowling's books translate so well to the screen. The dizzying visual landscapes of her carefully created worlds (the Ministry of Magic, the Hall of Prophecies, the Weasley Wizard Wheezes) are all meant to be experienced on the big screen...which is somewhat unfortunate because movie night currently takes place on a humble, old TV that hubby and I bought ten years ago.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" gets three Oscars out of five.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Buzz, Buzz, Buzz

So there's this interesting article in this month's Script magazine about networking. What caught my eye is the advice on the 15-second intro that you always have to give when you meet a new contact who asks what you do. Their advice on how to cut through the clutter and connect? Use buzzwords.

I immediately turned to the profiles of new writers in the spec sale market at the front of the issue to see how those bios matched up on the buzz-o-meter and sure enough, they did. I went off obsessively reading bios for a little while and came up with a few from the copy in no particular order...

AFI film school grad
Nicholl finalist
Dreamworks scriptreader
executive producer turned writer
former model
repped by Circle of Confusion

Then I thought about what my usual stammering introductions are usually like. Short, like a ramble about my commute coupled with something embarassingly generic like "I write and produce videos." (I produce videos has earned me the occasional odd look like...did you just say you make porn?) All this happens because I haven't done the preparation. I haven't sat down and culled the buzzwords of my life.

And so I'm taking the plunge, though it's a pretty short list.

prestigious film school
romantic comedy spec
work screened at festivals
former scriptreader at Tribeca-based prodco

And then the well's pretty much dry. And when you look at the buzz list from two down, they are only quasi-buzzy.

I now understand this crazy desire I used to have to come from some place "in the news." In a sense, it gives you a free buzz word. It's a plus before your level of skill even comes in to play. "Wow. You're a filmmaker from Iran? Tell me more."

Unfortunately, Third World Girl is from a very stable little island not torn apart by war or drugs...therefore no buzz. Not even a kilowatt.

I'm toying with the idea of introducing "London-born" onto my list. If there's a foreign country people in entertainment here love it's the Brits. However, this would be a stretch for me. All told, I probably spent three years in London. Two of them before I was a cognitive being. I'd have to do that Madonna thing and cultivate the accent out of nowhere, which I think might be pretty alarming to the husband and friends...not to mention the Chicklet.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Movie Night Review: "Outsourced"

"Outsourced" seemed like my kind of movie...the kind of light charming global confection that tackles with humor a contemporary, controversial problem.

It's about a mild-mannered customer service manager, Todd (played by Josh Hamilton), whose call center department in Seattle is outsourced to India. While the rest of his team lose their jobs, Todd is hired to go there to train the new manager. (The movie does that really annoying jump cut thing when a character says, "There's no way on earth I'm going to India!" and then the next shot he's in India! Wow, hilarious right?)

A fish out of water, Todd must guide his department through the mysteries of selling Western kitsch to customers who bristle at having to deal with "foreigners" on the phone. This is all in hopes of getting the call center's "incidents per minutes" down to six minutes, a feat Todd achieves by teaching his charges how to sound more American, despite the fact that they're miles away and in a completely different time zone.

I loved the premise of this movie but watching it felt like I was seeing writ large the flaws of this immigration comedy I have that's been kicking my ass for a while. See "Outsourced" is basically a comedy of manners but once the initial humor at Todd adapting to Indian life is mined, there's not much else.

For a comedy, too, the movie lacks a comic character. The romantic sub-plot is thin and incredible and there's not enough conflict in the movie. At about sixty minutes in, Todd's seen the error of his sneering ways and begins to embrace India, and though there's a reversal at the end, it's not a genuine complication. "Outsourced" just meanders along lacking tension for almost half of the movie. As Time Out describes it it's "Office Space"... only shot in Mumbai and not funny.

It's weird though how you can sometimes learn the most from watching an unsuccessful film. "Outsourced" is like looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of my problem script as it is now, though I can only dream of getting a lead actress as hot as Ayesha Dharker in the final product. Somebody please give her more mainstream work.

"Outsourced" gets two Oscars out of five.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Seeing Green

No, not cash for the doc...though that would be nice.

Instead I'm experiencing the lovely pangs of professional jealousy having learned that an old high school acquaintance has landed a big deal major award. I know comparison can be a motivator but right now at this very moment I'm having a mini pity-fest that consists of me moping that all of the projects I have are taking so long to gather momentum.

I always think that people aren't totally above board about the issue of writerly envy. Everyone always pretends to be so happy for their ultra-talented (and, face it, not-so-talented) friends but I think a lot of true, natural feelings get seriously repressed. Then again, perhaps I'm just a covetous person who needs to be beaten over the head with a sharing stick.

The thing I know from experience is that this feeling passes but you can't help but have a brief peek at the road map of your life and reflect on why your path hasn't led where theirs has.

Still here's a quote about the wasted emotion that puts it in perspective. It comes courtesy American sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling. He writes...

"A lot of authors I know, they're eaten up with jealousy of other writers. If they're not jealous of writers they're jealous of movie directors or they want to be more famous or get more public attention or something, more money, more whatever, hotter girls, a nicer car, I don't know - whatever their kink is - but that really wastes a lot of time, it becomes quite self-destructive.

"It's challenging enough just to do things that only you can do. It takes a long time as a writer to find your own voice, some writers never do."

So that's what I'm doing this week. Concentrating on doing the things that only I can do and I'm coming to a greater appreciation that yes, dammit, those exist.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Is it Just Me?

Maybe I'm too sensitive or drinking too much caffeine but I just called a grant agency for the evaluator's comments on the documentary project and the chick on the phone says...

"If the director of programming hasn't gotten back to you it's because she's busy."

Wow. Okay. Let me not bother you anymore with my ridiculous requests for an evaluation that you invited me to ask for in an effort to strengthen the quality of future applications. It's not like you need Third World Girl and her Third World Film. It's not like the sole reason you exist is to fund, commission and award grants to us to provide public television with quality programming that celebrates the cultural heritage of African Americans and the African Diaspora.

Oh wait...that's right. It is the reason you exist. I just read all of the above in your mission statement. Too bad your junior staff doesn't get it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Movie Night Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

Well, if Slate and Netflix are looking for candidates in the most unwatched category next year, this dark but affecting drama out of Romania will probably be high on the list.

I'd heard the tough to remember title "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" referred to as a kind of "The Life of Others" (that Best Foreign Film upset from a couple years ago). I adore "The Life of Others", hubby watches it compulsively and this is one I wanted to see in theaters but missed. I was surprised however when it showed up on the hubby-managed Netflix queue. (He was unaware of the subject matter.)

"4 Months..." is riveting. A fascinating character study framed within an explosive and timely subject: a black market abortion in communist Romania. The film is gritty, naturalistic and graphic. Seeing a 5 month fetus on the floor of a bathroom floor is haunting, a first for me as a movie watcher, and a moment that I'm unlikely to forget.

You know you're watching a foreign film too. The scenes are long, sometimes shot in one take. The tension is excruciating. The camera lingers. The director, Cristian Mungiu, shuns close ups and barnstorming theatrics for quiet moments in the shadows.

The basic plot is about a tech student, Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca) who in the final days of Communist Romania helps her weepy best friend/roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) get an illegal abortion. It's clear from early that they're in over their head. They don't have financial resources and aren't used to dealing with the seedy underworld. It's only the fierce determination of Otilia that pulls them through...but at a brutal emotional cost.

It is impossible to watch a film like this and not think about the current debate on abortion. I came away more convinced than ever that for women like Otilia who want professional lives, who are on par with their boyfriends academically one moment and cooking them and their brood potato stew the next, "choice" is a human right. Having said that, in its gruesome reality, director Mungiu doesn't sanitize the subject, making his audience cognisant of the heart-breaking, flesh and blood sacrifice made in choosing "choice."

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" gets 3 1/2 Oscars out of 5.