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.