Friday, November 20, 2009

The Hollywood Reporter Awards Watch

The Hollywood Reporter has a roundtable with six "buzzworthy" scribes who are in contention this awards season. It's interesting to read the content, but reading the comments where editor Jay Hernandez gets all defensive about not including any women on the panel is just as compelling.

His explanation...
  • For the record, several high-profile women were invited to participate and could not either because of scheduling conflicts or a lack of interest. The lack of women is also a function of the industry and awards season, when historically (excepting 2008) very few women are nominated.
You can almost decode the subtext. They are too busy ("overwhelmed"). They lacked interest ("not focused enough, probably PMSing"). They aren't in contention so we didn't bother to interview them ("perennial losers so why bother...") Poor Mr. Hernandez seems surprised at the backlash in the comments section.

Look, presenting a diverse face on an industry that isn't very diverse is always going to be a challenge but that doesn't make it okay not to try. And it's naive of the editor to not at least be prepared for the criticism.

Anyone foresee a one-on-one sit down with Jane Campion talking about "Bright Star" in THR's near future?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sympathetic Characters & the Perils of Backstory

Back when I worked as a reader, when I didn't "get" a character I'd often drop a backstory note about fleshing out the guy or gal in question. The producer I worked for would sigh, like he was disappointed and mutter that I was just like the studio honchos in suits, always yearning to see "how I came to be" scenes shoehorned at the midpoint of a story. He hated backstory with a passion I didn't understand when it seemed to me, fresh out of school, that learning about a character's past was a quick way to "get" him, nay, even like him.

Flashforward a couple years, on a recent draft of the much mutating crazy Bollywood musical, and I understand where that curmudgeonly independent producer was coming from, and how much backstory can be overcredited for making a sympathetic character sympathetic. Very rarely, is a clearly laid out backstory the reason you like or root for a character. Matter of fact, backstory can cripple your otherwise pretty darn compelling main guy.

So how do you create a likable protagonist? Here are a couple ideas from Mary Lynn Mercer's "The True Nature of Sympathetic Characters" which I found on a late night Google. It's intended for fiction writers so you have to chuck the last part about internalization but the rest of it is pretty on target.

• Get rid of self-pity. Readers hate it and furthermore (my opinion now) it's not active and your protagonist needs to be active.

• Scenes of goodness, "saving the cat" scenes that are unconnected to the story

• Melodramatic backstories

• Character's that don't quit. This is connected to that active protagonist. If the character cares deeply enough to continue on the quest when all around is dark, we're going to care about that character.

• Inner weakness. Conflicted characters. They have the drive to see them through the story quest but it must not come easy. Every step is hard but they can't turn back.

• Know your genre boundaries. What's fine and "humanizing" for your hero to do in a Western might be downright death for him to do in a romantic comedy.

Crazy how much the creation of a sympathetic character can have so little to do with laying out explicitly the "ghosts"/backstory of the character's life, right?

Now excuse me while I go cut the part where my protagonist talks about the car crash her mother died in, life in the orphanage and the puppy she couldn't save when the orphanage caught afire. (I kid...kinda.)

Happy writing.

photo by Crail
Originally uploaded by AndyRob

Monday, October 12, 2009

Writing vs. Editing, An Observation

I've been bogged down with the day job, which consists of lots of video editing for the industrial videos my company produces.

We've had so much work I've gained two pounds. This is what happens when I edit. In fact, if I have to keep editing, I'm convinced I will one day weigh 200 pounds, maybe more. It's possible that in the end I will need to be extracted off the editing chair with some industrial equipment and carted off to the hospital for my gastric bypass if this kind of workload keeps up.

It's my fault. I could make better choices but when I'm editing I crave junk. When I'm sitting down at a monitor watching endless footage, I turn into an eating machine. I'm grazing non-stop.

Why is that? I hardly ever want to eat anything when I'm writing. I have my cup of coffee and my laptop and I could sit for hours. Food is an inconvenience. I stop when I get hunger pangs. Editing represents the polar opposite. To some extent I enjoy it too, wrestling with the content, figuring out the sequences, building the argument, I just wish it didn't come with so many calories attached.

Photo by Patrick Swint

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rejection Energizes You (and Other Lessons from Mira Nair)

So after the disappointment of getting my dink from Austin, I needed some upliftment. Luckily Mira Nair provided it in spades at the IFP's Independent Film Conference in New York last week. She described needing elephantine skin to survive the ups and downs of Hollywood. That and amazing self-belief.

With every "No thanks. Not for us," she told herself, "You're wrong. I'll show you." And it's turned out pretty well for Mira. That's the spirit I find myself trying to tap into for the much needed rocket fuel to keep the momentum on crazy Bollywood movie musical going. If making a film is like going to war, it's a mighty long campaign.

Mira's keynote also had two pieces of great advice for Third Worlders...stuff I've felt but not been able to articulate.

1) Make what you make excellently. Do not apologize for its quality by saying explicitly or not, hey this is from the Third World so cut us some slack. For her first feature "Salaam Bombay" she told the story of blowing the entire movie's budget in production, leaving nothing for post. She put all the money in the film ($800,000) and then went looking for finishing funds. She just knew it had to look great.

2) Don't "anthropoligize" or explain too much culturally. If you watch Monsoon Wedding you'll see how much you're thrust into the action. There's no expositional dialogue about why we dress this way or wear this henna, or sing this song. There's no outsider leading you through the action and the work is all the richer and more authentic for it.

There was only one thing that bugged me about the keynote. The moderator kept trying to bring the focus back to Mira as a woman director/filmmaker and she seemed determined to steer clear of that pigeonhole. "It's not like I consciously decided that I wanted to make movies about women and walk around wearing orange pants," she said sitting up on stage at an F.I.T. auditorium, wearing a rather fetching pair of said shimmery orange pants. And then she quoted from what another interviewer said of her work, "I don't make political films. I make films politically."

Perhaps making films politically speaks to her commitment to the collective collaboration involved in filmmaking. (She told a charming tale of how she and her crew would perform a ritual at the start of each day's shooting of The Namesake, breaking a coconut and blessing all the equipment, down to the dolly tracks...since every item is important. "The carpenter has to show up to build the throne for the actor to sit on," as she put it.) Or maybe it's a nod to her ultra-realistic, documentarian roots on display in "Monsoon Wedding."

Whichever it was, it didn't stop her from plugging "Amelia", her first big studio movie, starring Hilary Swank, which opens October 23rd.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

New York Times on Facebook Fatigue

Because I'm so contrary, I guess I'll make the leap to facebook at the precise moment interest in the social media site is beginning to flag...well according to the New York Times anyway.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Third World Girl & the Jay-Z Shoot

A couple Fridays ago found Third World Girl in front of Jay-Z's 40/40 Club meeting a potential DP for the Little Movie I Want to Direct. He's interested in the script, has solid credits and a healthy cynicism for the pitfalls between excited newbie director and the money in hand that a director needs in place to shoot a feature.

Anyway, he was just back from Europe and because we hadn't got a chance to meet up all summer, he suggested I swing by the set of Jay-Z's video shoot for Rocawear and say hi.

My first instinct was to pass on the offer...I'm not sure why, apart from the fear of seeming like a fraud. In the current issue of Moviemaker magazine, Lynn Shelton ("Humpday") talks about feeling like you're living someone else's life after she got a standing ovation at Cannes. I know this is on a way smaller scale but I had a similar reaction to the DP's invite: I do not live the life where I swing onto video sets and say hi, looking all fabulous and pulled together and artist-like.

But in my quest to grow, I'm challenging myself to do the things I would not usually. That means putting my shy, hermit writer self in front of people I wouldn't usually and getting over the fame factor. So yes, dammit...I was swinging by the Jay-Z set and saying hi...if I could find it.

I didn't know where 40/40 was which shows you how sad and unglamorous my life is, but I eventually found it right by Madison Square Park with a couple teamsters and grips hanging out by a truckload of equipment. They seemed to be talking about California vs. New York, the benefits of being in the union, and the cost of the production. Which cost more: a $20,000 light or the line of video girls in front of the club whose job it was to whoop it up when Jay emerged from a yellow cab.

It was all so ordinary and dull that I instantly felt at home. I remembered that at heart, a shoot is just a shoot. Nothing was more shocking to me than my first one as a freshman at film school... up at 5 a.m. on a cold winter morning, P.Ai.ng for some grad students, bored stiff and deciding what I really wanted to excel at was pre-production.

Anyway, a wonderfully polite P.A. helped me find the DP who was shooting a rehearsal alongside director, Spike Lee (yes Spike Lee!) so I had to wait it out with the teamsters and P.A.s. who all seemed to have Caribbean roots. I almost wanted to take out a piece of paper and start taking e-mails to add to crazy Bollywood movie's fanbase.

When the DP finally got a break we had an extended conversation about the problems of film back home, the competitiveness, the cut throat nature, the fact that the gate keepers for content often don't have a coherent criteria or the level of discernment to judge projects submitted to them for funding. He stressed the importance of moxie and hustle...and not rushing.

"What's the difference between shooting this movie in 2009 and 2010?" he said. "Is the story going to be any less relevant?"

It's exactly what I needed to hear. For weeks it's been nagging me that I've been splitting focus between crazy Bollywood project that we have a tight window in which to shoot next year and this other supposedly "small movie" that was supposed to be a quickie shoot early in '09. Production companies have several movies on a slate, was the argument. But production companies have infrastructures. Third World Girl is essentially a girl with a cell phone, a laptop and a home office.

So Little Movie I Want to Direct gets pushed back to 2010 and I can really focus on making crazy Bollywood movie happen. And what you realize standing watching a crew of twenty folks light a scene for a thirty second commercial is that you better get the prep right cause you're responsible for a whole army.

I didn't stick around long after the DP went away to shoot yet another rehearsal. Jay-Z was nearly there, on the turnpike, but it was late and I'd had enough of the monotony, the awful slowness that production can be...when it's not your baby. Plus, I didn't want it to look like I had nothing to do. I had to go home and work on making a movie. Hanging with the Jiggaman, that's jello.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Oh My God. What Did They Do To "Hot Tub Time Machine"?

I read "Hot Tub Time Machine" a while back in the glory days of Scriptshadow's site (when you could still read scripts) and really liked it. It's a ridiculous time-traveling comedy about a groom and his buds who, at a lame bachelor party, get into a hot tub that takes them back to 1987. So like "The Hangover", it's one of those "get the groom to the church on time" movies, except of course they're stuck in a whole different decade!

But the trailer for it they just released is terrible. Unfunny, cliche, visually bereft. I didn't laugh once and I'm not sure about the casting. The chemistry between this set feels odd...to quote the folks over at Vulture, in what universe would these four be friends?

Man, I'm worried for the movie, especially since it's already got the dubious job of proving it's not "The Hangover's" leftovers. I sincerely hope they just started shooting and had little to pull the trailer from because trailerworthy moments these are not.

Friday, July 24, 2009

An Open Letter to Netflix About Its Categorization of My Movie Tastes

Dear Netflix,
I understand you feel a desire to customize my movie offerings. You want me to feel that you care with your constant inquiries about when my movies arrive and invitations to sign up my friends. But really, is this how little you know me that you'd label your special selections of movies you think I'd like: "Critically Acclaimed Dark Movies Based on Real Life?"

Oh I see you there...offering in your defense the thumbnails of Michael Moore's "Sicko" and Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants." I hear you trying to demonstrate how you arrived at this assessment. But that's just weak, yo. Have you ever even watched these movies? "Sicko" is a social issues documentary that's a passionate indictment of the US health system...but "Rosemary's Baby" it is not. And "Au Revoir Les Enfants?" Despite a tragic ending, there's humanity and bravery and hope for the future entwined in its unsentimental vision.

At any rate, Netflix, you got me thinking about what's considered a dark film and I ended up here at this M&M's game so not only do you hardly know me, you are responsible for robbing me for about half an hour of writing time. (I only got 20 out of 50 of the movie titles in the riddle painting so I think that proves that dark movies are so NOT my sweet spot.)

Listen, we don't have to be friends, Netflix. You don't have to "get" me. Just keep sending me my movies and taking my 12 bucks a month. Continue surprising me with stuff in my mailbox I didn't even know I had in my queue and no longer feel like watching because I added them on a whim.

I promise you, I'll still answer your e-mails.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 4th...The Chicklet's Lesson Goes Wrong

I've been reading "The Namesake" and remembering why I fell in love with Jhumpa Lahiri in the first place.

When I started out writing fiction, as a fresh off the boat landed in Washington D.C., my favorite theme was identity, the quest for belonging. But I've been in this country for a while and now it's no longer the thing that defines what I write about. In Lahiri's multi-generational coming of age story of a family's journey from India to the US, however, I'm thrown back into that old terrain, and forced to remember how much I still don't really belong.

Most resonant for me is the segment when the "first generationers" are forced into acculturation because of their children. The Ganguli parents learn to cook American meals, pizza, Hamburger Helper, mac and cheese. They celebrate American holidays, including Christmas, even though they're Hindus. And for me, there's been no quicker path to embracing things I was iffy about than wanting the Chicklet to understand and enjoy her world.

For Halloween, hubby carved her a Jack o' Lantern, and on Thanksgiving we have the turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce that's miles away from what we'd think of as a special feast. But I know things have changed when the holiday I've traditionally been most ambivalent about, July 4th, finds me thinking about where we can go to watch fireworks.

In the spirit of enhancing the Chicklet's appreciation of the holiday, I tried to explain to her that July 4th was America's birthday. (We are on the subject of birthdays because hubby celebrated his birthday this week.)

I say, "It's America, the country's birthday and everybody celebrates because everybody is happy to live in America..."
I find myself mumbling the addendum, "for the most part."

Later on in the day, I decide to reinforce as we're out running errands.
"Whose birthday is it July 4th?" I ask.

The Chicklet screws up her little face, trying to remember with every fiber of her being..."The President's?"

I grin. Impressed. Wanting to give her half points.
"Close...but it's America's..." I eventually concede.

However the Chicklet is still thinking about the President as I begin to harp on once more about America's birthday. "What kind of birthday cake does the President have?"
I tell her I don't know and decide that I need to pause this civics class.

Later on in the day, I'm serving up hubby's left-over cake from the festivities the day before: a delicious red velvet from our favorite sinful bakery. This cake has been promised her from the night before when she had only a little sliver because we got to the celebrations way late.

Chicklet takes a bite of the red velvet, savoring the cream cheese icing. I swear I can hear a cosmic sigh as the sugar hits and all is well in a three year old's world. And then, after what seems like an eternity, she asks, "Is this Obama's cake?"

Oh man. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Study of Gender Bias in Theater Throws Up an Unexpected Twist

The New York Times has this article on gender bias that unearths this surprise: female literary managers and artistic directors are more likely to rate as poor a female-written play than a male one, and are therefore partly responsible for the disparity between the number of male vs. female plays produced.

Other findings from the study conducted by Emily Glassberg Sands, Princeton student: men are more prolific than women and submit more work... which provides a rather more mundane assessment of why more women's work isn't produced. Interestingly enough, however, in the last ten years female written shows have performed better on Broadway. (Plays and musicals by women sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable over all.)

Finally plays featuring women are less likely to be produced.

Any parallels over in Hollywoodland, ya think?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Further Writers Group Adventures of Third World Girl

Just like the projects in my life, my writers group has entered this weird holding pattern. Instead of the weekly, different participants every seven days, the group has gone back to the infinitely more sane bi-weekly schedule but there's the same volatility in its make up.

I have no idea who'll show week to week. Sometimes it feels like it's just me, the group leader, and a background cast. This kind of makes for vastly different chemistry session to session which I find frustrating because the quality of the feedback is unpredictable.

Last night for example, we had a new addition...let me call her The Holder-Forth. She's the one in the group who has to tell you she's read for contests, knows A-list actors, and inform you of how they do it in "the business". The thing is she was whip smart and gave good feedback and I really hope she returns but she bugged me in one particular, all too familiar way.

Allow me to illustrate.

My script, unsurprisingly, is set in my home country because it's the Little Movie I Want to Direct and I figure the only hope I have of getting it made is to call on every bit of goodwill I've managed to accumulate on the island. Holder-Forth seized on the script's concept and started to wax poetic about the kinds of conflicts I might be exploring seeing as the story involves a girl based in London returning to her island home. "I imagine there'd be quite a contrast between her life in London and on the economically depressed island of Barbados."

I bristled but I let it go. What I really should have said is tell me more about my economically depressed island, Holder-Forth. Do they have houses or does everyone still live in mud huts? It turned out I didn't have to invite her to do so, however, because later on in the feedback she expressed a level of perplexity at why all the characters in the movie didn't know each other. "They live on the same island, right?" she said.

I gently tried to explain to her that my particular island, the "economically depressed island of Barbados" actually had more than a quarter million people on it and therefore not all the characters in my movie know each other. It was possible for people to be strangers and meet for the first time. She shrugged and said, "I'm just telling you what the perception in Hollywood is."

So now I know.

Some days more than others I think I need to hurry up and write my goat racing comedy on an economically depressed island where everybody knows each other because Hollywood would totally get that and then I could sell out and go live in Cobble Hill.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The "I Must Make This Movie" Draft of the Budget

Just got back from meeting with the line producer on crazy Bollywood musical.

We're in the process of doing the "I Must Make This Movie" draft of the budget, down from the optimistic, maybe this recession will go away, mid-budget draft he wrote a month ago. We're also doing this paring down because the music artist who's attached to the movie has a window next year to make this thing and so we've got to shoot for it. (He's usually booked year round.)

I've spent a lot of time waiting for permission from other people to make this movie but the thing is sometimes your story begins when YOU begin. I keep giving myself reasons not to move ahead with this project but at every turn the reasons dissolve. Just when I'm losing faith, the right people appear to push the boulder a little further up the hill.

Like a producer said at some IFP panel I went to a couple years ago, the first thing you've got to do in your capacity as producer is greenlight the freakin' movie. Sure you can have more than one plan and budget for it: the Dream Budget, the Mid-Budget and the I Must Make This Movie Budget but in the end, you've got to give yourself that start date and go for it. And that's what we've done.

Now we sink or swim.

Image by moleitau

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An End of Draft(s) Mope

I've just finished rewrites and a first draft on three projects in various stages of development, projects that are all terribly familiar in their own way. (The first draft for Little Movie I Want to Direct is actually an adaptation from one of my short stories.)

For the first time in a long time I have to think about what I want to work on next...and nothing comes to mind. Sure I've got ideas, titles, characters, concepts I think might be cool to explore but do I feel like dedicating months, years to whipping these little wisps into something significant that I care about? Right now....no.

Instead I sit and think about why things take so long to happen, primarily with crazy Bollywood musical... why everything just seems to be in a giant holding pattern for the summer. I'm trying my best to snap out of it and move on since too much "mope" is the enemy of the hope and resilience you need to get anything produced, especially these days.

This leaves me putting one foot in front of the other, servicing the busy day job and trying my best not to pay attention to the fact that half of 2009 is gone.

Ummm...onward?

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Death of the Adult Drama

At the PGA's recent "Produced By" conference, producer Kathy Kennedy ("Diving Bell and the Butterfly", "Persepolis", "Curious Case of Benjamin Button") underscored the sad outlook for adult movies like "The Soloist", "State of Play" and "Duplicity"... all featuring bankable actors, all of which died at the box office.

What studios want more than ever is the big budget, four quadrant tentpole movie. Safe, safe, safe. This way even when a project flops execs can shrug, say "Who knew Terminator 4 wasn't going to be a juggernaut?" and keep their jobs.

In short, indies are back to being indies again.

But why have older audiences, the core audience for the subtle stuff, abandoned the Oscar bait movie? Is it a question of recent releases being underwhelming, folks looking for escapist flicks given the bleak economic times or is something else at play?

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Missing Brad & Austin

It's Murphy's Law that everything that can go wrong, will, right? Well today, in between working the day job, I was planning a quick trip to the post office to toss my scripts in the ring for the Austin Screenwriting Contest. (Today was their deadline.) I've missed every other contest this year being focused on producing the crazy Bollywood movie but this year I'd love to go to Austin and it seemed like a good idea to enter something because...you never know.

I don't know why Austin is so old fashioned, but you can't do an online submission. They make you print pages, three hole punch, fasten and stand in line at a brick and mortar post office! I guess I wasn't aware of how out of practice I was at this job until today.

It's partially my fault. I doubled my workload, deciding I might as well submit a new script in addition to the old problem child screenplay that I've rewritten so much I no longer have perspective on. More than anything, I'm curious to see how "new script" fares and since Austin now offers notes on second round scripts I figured it couldn't hurt to see what their readers think... in the unlikely event that it advances.

Submitting two scripts meant more time spent collating, three hole punching, filling out application forms, attaching checks, writing synopses, but with an iron like will I did it. And then at the point when all I had to do was fasten those suckers, drop them in an envelope and send the whole hulking package to Texas... I realized a brad was missing.

Okay. Don't panic. I'm in the greatest city on earth. I'm sure I can find a box of brads/ fasteners, right? I tried a nearby Office Depot which yes! had fasteners but it was one box of the sad, tiny, one inch ones. I toyed with the idea of trying to use one of these but it looked ridiculous, didn't hold the pages properly and would probably just enrage the poor Austin reader who would be being deluged with a bunch of last minute scripts.

Having no luck with the generic office store I figured I'd try the specialty shop...the Drama Bookshop which BTW sells a great collection of books on film, theater and acting. Unfortunately when I asked about brads, the guy at the register looked at me like I was speaking in iambic pentameter. One of the old timers came out of the back eventually and said, "Yeah, I remember when we used to sell those," and then shrugged an "I have no idea who still sells those things." I felt like the last, obsolete screenwriter in New York City.

Still I became aware of the fact that I was in a shop with actors in New York! Maybe I'd find someone flipping through their "Ugly Betty" or "Law and Order" episode. I figured I could tell them my plight, appeal to their sympathy or simply, if worse came to worse, overpower them, swipe the single brad and sprint to the post office. No such luck. The shop was full of theater people.

Thinking I'd have to head all the way back to Brooklyn, I lucked out and found the missing brad on the floor of my car. Oh happy accident... I headed to a Chelsea post office figuring it might be quieter than Midtown but everyone and their mama was mailing out stuff. It felt like I stood in line forever but the relief when the lady took my envelope and gave me my delivery confirmation... joy unimaginable.

And on my way out of the post office, I saw a guy with bedhead hair in a plaid shirt and shorts, hustling to the double doors, his face streaked with a purple bruise. I looked down at the brown, padded envelope in his hand and saw the first line of the address scrawled on it...Austin Film Festival. I couldn't help but wonder what gave him the bruise...perhaps he'd taken a nasty tumble onto his three hole punch(?)

The point is even though I hardly ever enter contests, a couple of the brass rings like Austin I love, because they remind you you're part of the screenwriting community. Check out the message boards around submission and notification dates and there's kinship in commiserating and congratulating...You get a big fat reminder you're not alone in a line of work that can often be so lonesome. I think that's a pretty neat prize.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Mac Died Yesterday...

And I poured a glass of wine and toasted it because that Mac has worked hard for eight long years, on two TV shows, across two countries so it's earned its final rest.

The poor hard drive gave me plenty of warning signs (sad, wheezing noises) which allowed me to do a decent amount of back-up but you're always worried that you missed something really obvious that has now gone up in smoke.

And of course I didn't back up the latest draft of everything...I'm a tinkerer and tweaker so the draft of crazy Bollywood movie that I was going to send off to co-producer Monday for example will need to be retweaked and retinkered to pre-Mac meltdown status. And then there's the Final Draft 7 I have to get back.

But what can you do? Suck it up and keep moving and not dwell on things lost in the fire.

Photo by Amanda M. Hatfield

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Virginless New York City

Virgin Megastore Union Square is going bye bye, following Virgin Times Square and all the other Virgins in the US.

Hubby and I were browsing the liquidation sale last weekend, feeling a little wistful. Before we were thirty-somethings, had kid and reprioritized, the Union Square Virgin was an iconic place in our relationship.

We'd always meet there. It was close enough to his work and my school. A Friday wind down used to be going from listening station to listening station, checking out new releases, arguing about albums, rummaging through a bargain bin. And I'd always have to go down and visit the books and magazines and pretty soon it was two hours later. (On reflection, I am the reason Virgin struggled so much. Two hours and the most I might have bought was an Orangina from the store's coffee shop...)

I guess when the Circuit City next door closed down we should have seen the writing on the wall but Virgin is/was so New York, so filled with its sense of hipness...and as I realized on Saturday finding nothing to buy, so archaic.

The idea of buying CDs from a store seems so retro. The prices are so high. The listening stations so quaint. Why buy an album when you can just buy the track, anyway? We can hear a track playing in Starbucks, identify it through whatever that I-Phone app is and download it in on the spot with the free Wi-Fi.

So goodbye trip to the city and painful quasi-alphabetical search for artist's CD that may or may not be in stock. Brick and mortar is so 1998. This is progress. This is a leveling of the playing field...so why when the sales associate cheerfully rang me up with my purchase ("Black Orpheus" and "When Harry Met Sally" DVDs) did I feel like so sad?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Two-Minute Screenwriting School

Analyst and story coach Dan Calvisi of Act Four Screenplays has a new Youtube channel that features snappy two minute episodes on the craft of screenwriting. While the first couple installments are pretty basic in terms of content, I love Dan's execution and their brevity. (Even Third World Girl has an attention span of two minutes!)

If you haven't seen them yet check them out here and find out what he's about to do to that cat...depending on the state of your script.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Writers Are Doing It For Themselves

The UK's Screen Daily reports that more screenwriters are being forced into writer/producer roles as development funding dries up. Sure it represents a great entrepreneurial spirit but it's not hard to imagine the trend when the alternative is unemployment.

It is a rough time to be looking for financing. Coupled with the economic downturn is the failure of the old financing model which depended on pre-sales from theatrical distributors to come up with a significant slice of the pie. But distributors are naturally tightening purse strings as well which doesn't necessarily augur well for Third World Girl's mid-budget crazy Bollywood movie...unless we can find a way to make it for a lot less.

Nevertheless, filmmakers and journalists keep trying to strike an upbeat tone, despite worrying signs that our longshot odds are longer than ever. David Pearson, director of the Screenwriter's Festival writes, "The UK industry has to find a way to make more films that make more money, but that doesn’t have to mean empty popcorn fare." That's what we all wish for: make more films that make more money-- but as a directive it rings hollow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fade Out.

No matter how many times you write it, whether it's at the end of your first script or your fifteenth...God it feels good to reach "Fade Out", especially to someone like me who loathes a first draft.
"Little Low Budget Movie I Want To Direct" is now on the page, and officially on the back burner, which is good cause it'll give me the perspective I need for when I take that first crack at a rewrite.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

What's the Story About? Let the Characters Say It in a Few Words.

So I know a consultant who advises writers to use the title of the movie somewhere within the script. On one hand I think that sort of approach is too on the nose but on the other, I think she's on to something which made me think about how theme is expressed.

I've already admitted to being a big fan of The Title since it's the first marketing tool you have. Your title is the 70 point newspaper headline that draws people to your story. After that, comes another crucial element that, if absent, can make a script unsatisfying. Let's get all Freshman English and call it the lack of a "thesis sentence". In good scripts what the whole movie's about is often condensed in a few lines of character dialogue. It's where the writer says, "Hey guys, this is the idea I want to explore or have explored. Do you see how my story tests this idea?"

Why is this important? I think a good number of writers can execute plot, character, dialogue effectively, but nailing story to a theme represents a level of sophistication that sometimes eludes even the more experienced writer. I used to read several entertaining scripts for a couple production companies but at the end of the day, the scripts didn't stick with you because they didn't have a thematic point. The writer didn't hand you the lens you needed to view the story events through. I think when execs or producers talk about a story staying with them, they're really talking about how the theme resonates and the best way to achieve that resonance is through title and "thesis sentence."

There are no rules about where the dialogue that explains the heart of the movie has to fall. In the three examples below, one comes at the beginning, one at the climax and one at the end as a sort of "moral of the story."

One of the simplest execution of "thesis sentence" ever must be Richard Curtis' "Love Actually". It's probably so bare because Curtis knows he has to give the reader of the multi-stranded narrative something to hold on to before he delves into the eight story lines(!) we'll be weaving in and out of. The prologue says: this writer has a plan. It is all, at the end of the day, going to mean something.

Here's the opening voice over....

[scrippet]
PRIME MINISTER
Whenever I get gloomy about the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion has started to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don't see that(... )If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love is actually all around.
[/scrippet]

And we're into the movie and able to enjoy it and take meaning from it because of the "thesis sentence." (I prefer thesis sentence to theme because it's more specific. Theme makes me think of generalities like "love is everywhere" but the thesis sentence gives you a more precise road map...Curtis tells you, this is a modern, Britain in post 9/11 story and these are the specific types of love I'll be dealing with in my argument.) The opening helps a reader relax, know what to look for and settle in for the read.

The thesis sentence doesn't always have to be so obvious but it should somehow tie in to the title. Here's an example from 2008's The Visitor, a personal favorite of mine...not much of a surprise given its subject matter. In this scene, the mother of an undocumented immigrant is confessing her culpability in his detention.



[scrippet]
MOUNA
It's my fault. What happened to Tarek. I did receive the letter telling us to leave. I threw it away. I never told him. We were here for three years by the time the letter arrived. I had found a job. Tarek was in school. Everyone told me not to worry. That the government did not care. And it appeared to be true. And then, after a time, you forget. You think that you really belong.
[/scrippet]

Again here's the thesis sentence that screenwriter Tom McCarthy's been holding back until the climax of the movie. He wants to explore the question of belonging and of course ties it into the movie's title: The Visitor. (I think McCarthy wants us to question who "the visitor" is...Is it Tarek, the undocumented immigrant or is it Walter Vale, the shut-down professor who's coming alive by being introduced to a world he didn't know existed.) That's the movie boiled down to a couple sentences.

But my all time favorite thesis sentence comes from another movie about outsiders "Dirty Pretty Things." At the climax where protagonist Okwe has duped his employer and is delivering contraband to a white buyer, the buyer asks... "How come I've never seen you before?"

And here's Okwe's response which puts an exclamation mark on the idea of invisibility that writer Steven Knight has been touching on throughout.

[scrippet]
OKWE
We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms and suck your cocks.
[/scrippet]

...to which Juliette, his hooker pal, (beautifully played by Sophie Okonedo in the movie) raises her hand to say yeah, I'm present.

It is a powerful iteration of theme and it comes at the climax of the movie. It also ties into the title "Dirty Pretty Things": we get our hands dirty to make your life pretty. (Some day I will get into how Miramax's marketing of this movie and its giving the title an intentionally misleading spin still galls me.)

So does your script have a thesis sentence? Doesn't have to... but a couple lines of dialogue can give the reader an unmistakable lens through which to view your story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

True Confessions: It Took Me Three Years to Read One Novel

Not too long ago the excellent screenwriting blog ("Rouge Wave") was hammering the importance of reading widely, not just scripts and newspaper/magazine articles, and non-fiction books but (sigh) novels.

Fifty three percent of America does no literary reading. Am I surprised? Surprised that the number isn't higher. Right around the time the Chicklet was born, books--fiction anyway-- got evicted from my life. If you want to be technical about it, I did read the last Harry Potter because I just had to know if Harry died or not before someone spoiled it for me...but I gulped it down in seven days, and it felt more like an assignment than a leisure choice.

My readingless life, J.K. Rowling apart, wasn't for lack of trying. Several times I reopened the book that I'd been reading when Chicklet was born, only to close it after a few paragraphs. (I have a hang up about "giving up" so I couldn't give myself permission to start reading something else.) This is how it came about that since 2006, okay late 2005, I've been reading "The Fortress of Solitude" by Jonathan Lethem.

On reflection, this is not the book you want to read when you're pregnant or a new mom. It has a shifting point of view and then, just for good measure, in the final section, a shift in narrative voice altogether. It's beautifully written overall, Lethem sure can turn a phrase, but as a story it lacks narrative punch and cohesion.

I was drawn to "Fortress" because it's a Brooklyn book and as a relatively recent transplant I was curious to peel back the curtain and glimpse a Brooklyn/Boerum Heights on the cusp of gentrification in the early '90s.

Lethem also examines race and the "other" which is a favorite, thematically for me. Plus, unexpectedly, his book contains, in its final segment, a gem of a scene that has his protagonist pitching to a Dreamwork exec: a hilarious must-read for screenwriters.

I finally got through it on April 17, 2009 and though I was relieved at the milestone I was more moved by the general experience of what it meant to read again. It was like a part of my life came back. Novelists used to be rockstars for me. Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Frantzen, Caryl Phillips, Jonathan Safran Foer, J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith...oh how I wanted to be her, living in my Williamsburg apartment writing transcendent things. My first job interview in the "big city" was for a position with PEN America but reading a novel became such a luxury in terms of parceling out my time that in due course it fell away.

But it shouldn't have. Because as a screenwriter nothing builds your chops for appreciating character and the world of the story like a novel. I can't remember which novelist said it, but a screenplay is like a bouillon cube while a novel is the whole stew.

The big question is what I read next. Having not read anything for three years it's wide open. Maybe I'll check out Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" ( I was so tempted to cheat with it during those can't read Lethem days) or maybe I'll just pick up Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" which has been in the corner of the office since hubby stopped reading it. (I've heard mixed things about the novel but, hey, in these economic times you can't beat "free" as a price point or "already in your house" as a location.)

And apparently I'm not alone in rediscovering reading. According to a new NEA report, for the first time since 1982, there's been a rise in the number of people who picked up a book or downloaded some prose — almost 16.6 million more since its 2002 census.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Do Something About It.

I am in love with this Orangebeautiful print. I need to have it above my desk.

Cause there is nothing worse than succumbing to the powerlessness and inertia you can sometimes experience on the journey of trying to get a movie made.

I got a set of notes that threw me a couple days ago, especially after the high of meeting with the music talent in LA and linking up with a couple of cool folks at the Indian Film Fest there.

Needless to say, the less than loving response to the current draft of crazy Bollywood movie filled me with buckets of self doubt. I took the big, general notes with a smile while privately stewing because they were so darn vague.

But you know what? I started thinking it through and trying to hammer down what the reader's issue was and just the act of starting to wrestle with the script again, having something to do, a problem to fix...it made me feel so much better than just staring at the note thinking about what a hack I am.

So that's my advice. Whatever it is...do something about it.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Honesty as a Selling Tool?

David Marlett has been blogging over at Moviemaker.com with some great articles on film financing. This week he touches on something that's the opposite of what you'd think would be a selling point in a pitch meeting: honesty.

Marlett actually considers honesty to be a key ingredient of the sales pitch. (Doesn't honesty in sales sound like a kind of oxymoron itself?)

His attitude in terms of laying out the possible return on investment scenarios for investors reminds me that "people don't want to be sold to...they want to buy." Investors don't want to be hustled or fast-talked. They know if it sounds too good to be true it is. If I had a dollar for every producer I met who said that the movie they were developing was going to snag an A-list actor, an Oscar winning director and make a boatload of cash, well I'd have nearly enough money to start shooting the crazy Bollywood movie.

We're so hardwired to sell, sell, sell it's useful to reflect on how much we stand out by acknowledging that we don't have all the answers. We lift ourselves out of the pack by simply confessing that the final fade out of a movie's run might not be all of its investors sipping champagne on private islands from the movie's theatrical and DVD sales earnings.

But hey, not too much reality. We're in the dream business... We have to pull off the balancing act that requires us exciting a prospective investor at the same time as we (ironically) build his or her confidence by acknowledging we could come up short.

Check out the post here if you're producerly inclined.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Festival Bound...And Missing Tribeca

So while everyone else is descending on New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, the hubby and I are in LA for the Indian Film Festival of LA.

I find it amazing that I have always for one reason or another missed out on Tribeca...(Okay, maybe not all that amazing...I was out of New York for the first three years of the festival.)

The New York Times' preview of the festival makes me determined to catch at least some of it when I get back. "Still Walking", "Departures" and "In the Loop" are top of my list...if I can score tickets.

We'll see.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Someone's Always the Villain. Mostly It's a Thing Called Time.

Last October, I got into a little tiff with our co-producer on the documentary. Frustration at the rigors of financing a project can sometimes cause you to sharpen your knives and point them at the people closest to you. I'm going through this now with the co-producer on the crazy Bollywood project but having already seen the disease before at least I know why it's happening and not to act on it.

When we have so much waiting to do, it's tempting to blame others for why things are taking so long. Throw in distance, different time zones, missed communications (both of the companies we're producing with are based outside of the US) and it's a dangerous cocktail. Especially when you've got so much waiting to do.

Anyway, today I got an e-mail from the same co-producer...a propos of nothing, just saying how much he's been thinking about the documentary, how much he wants to make the film and how sorry he is that it's taking such a long time. It was a sweet e-mail though I immediately felt guilty because I felt like it was coming because of that slightly hysterical place I was in last October when I was sick of the project going nowhere.

I e-mailed him back, essentially telling him...no worries. We'll get it done. We'll make this movie. It's just a matter of time.

How have I become so zen in a matter of six months? I am learning the value of persistence and to think not in weeks or months but years. The other thing that allows me to be so sanguine is having so many other projects on the table. Yes, I know. Some days it's overwhelming and I complain about it here, but it's also grounding and allows you to maintain perspective. Documentary going nowhere? Well this manager wants to read problem child screenplay. Stuck in the middle of new rom com? There's a new financing lead on the crazy Bollywood project. There's a whole board in play, not just a tiny corner.

When I'd just finished undergrad and was working for an eccentric, very successful Third World filmmaker, I learned the story of the making of his famous film. Despite all the accolades it eventually received, the part that stuck with me was the fact that it took nine years to get it made. Nine years! That would always stop me, because I felt I'd picked the wrong path. I was like one of those young quaking apprentices who's looking for the door in the "you kids aren't tough enough scene", because I figured I didn't have that kind of tenacity. Nine years of knocking on doors, raising money, hustling, trying to get folks to say yes...no way! It seemed like such an utter waste.

What I didn't realize then was that it wasn't nine years of waking up every day and pushing the one movie. You do other projects, make other money, do TV, teach writing, chase other dreams in between and suddenly you look up and the years have passed. It's not nearly so daunting when you're in it.

But the other point is, that to stick at something for nine years, you must love it, very very much. I try not to dwell on the fact that I wasted like almost a year on a project that I ultimately abandoned. When I look back on it, I just don't think I was ever passionate enough about the concept. There's got to be something special about a project to get you fired up, to keep you coming back to it: an itch you have to scratch. And of course, if you're not in love with your project, you're not going to get any one else to fall in love with it and go on the crazy journey with you.

And there is something a little crazy about pushing the boulder up the hill for so long. Your friends are in awe that you can still be writing something that you wrote two years ago. Still be finding money for something that you already started shooting. Sometimes they ask "How's your documentary?" and you want to report on it like a kid. "She's two years old now. Potty training. Making full sentences. Going to music class."

But that's ridiculous. For one, there's often no news...just that you're waiting on something to happen... until of course something does happen. There's no fix for it, all that waiting. And sometimes even your champions, the ones who fall in love with your project, just need to be certain that you're in it for the long haul. That you won't break their hearts. And the only way to show them that is to do the "time."

Photo by John-Morgan

Monday, April 20, 2009

Don't Mind Me. I'm Perendinating.

I sign up for "Word of the Day." Mostly it's a cause of inbox clutter and a hindrance to my Inbox Zero campaign but occasionally it throws up a gem I want to slavishly start using.

Today's word is "perendinate", which means to put off till the day after tomorrow.

Or like Mark Twain said in a great dialogue reversal, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow."

Why procrastinate when you can perendinate?

You can thank me later.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What's That Whooshing Sound? Oh Right, Contest Deadlines.

This is the year that contest deadlines are just whizzing by me. At this rate I think I may only do Austin because I really want to go to check out the festival, and it would be nice to go as a second rounder or finalist. Plus it's got one of the later deadlines.

But each other contest I had in my cross hairs (yes, even the Nicholl) I'm abandoning as the due date approaches. I'm finding I just don't have the time to do the intended polish of "problem child" script in the midst of trying to get crazy movie musical made.

As recently as last year I'd have been getting my "submission" on with Withoutabox, checking my meager writing budget for how many contests I was going to enter, memorizing notification dates so I could anxiously check my e-mail around said date. Not this year. This year I'm knee-deep in a business plan. I am, however, not filled with that much remorse, though I am struck occasionally by the irony that it is a contest that gave crazy Bollywood movie musical whatever traction it has.

Pulsing through my brain is this from Scott @ Go Into the Story:
Students ask me all the time about screenplay competitions. Apart from the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, unless you really need something like that to motivate you to write, I don't recommend them. In part because some of them... are of spurious value. But the bigger thing is there is a much better screenplay competition that really pays off: It's called Hollywood! Write a great script and win that sucker!
And the thing is, about winning "Hollywood", you don't even have to write a great script. I mean it helps, but overall the project just has to be marketable and appealing to a sizable enough audience (this is where writing the good script helps) to make a bunch of important people say yes.

Oh my God, do I sound like a producer or what? Maybe next month the writer in me will fight back when I finally finish the draft of the little "doesn't fall neatly into any box" movie I want to direct.

Photo by angst

Monday, April 13, 2009

Will I Ever Write Like A Writer Again?

I'm freaked out. We're currently writing a budget for the crazy Bollywood musical and I'm being forced to think like a producer. Can we afford this montage? How can I do this scene differently? Does this character need to be in the scene?

Pretty much, I will never write another EXT.- EXPENSIVE PLACE- NIGHT slug line again without thinking "how are we going to light this?"

I wonder if this happens to all writer/producers? I was meeting with a fellow producer recently and saying how I've always operated as a writer, thinking story, character, visual and then all of a sudden you sit down as the producer, look at a bunch of breakdowns or schedules and you take out your red pen and you're slashing scenes.

The producer then asked me if I'd ever thought of selling the script...a question that's come up before and I was totally passionate that the material needed to be handled right and that's why I was in it for the long haul. It was a great shot in the arm (being forced to defend the decision) because I was reminded of why I need to be doing the tedious, slightly schizophrenic work I'm doing right now. It is too easy for someone else to create something inauthentic about Third World Girl's culture, and you know how I feel about authenticity.

So I've put aside thoughts of being rescued by big moneybags studio...for now at any rate. I'm learning as much about producing as I can and secretly looking forward to the next script I want to write that I do want to sell and be done with it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Every Draft Is A First Draft

I took a short story workshop once with a hard nosed, no B.S., "but what does that mean!" type of writer. He was great and had an impatience for my overblown language that I'd never experienced anywhere else, that ultimately did me a world of good. He taught story, story, story.

But one thing he said has stuck with me for a long time, primarily because I don't understand what he meant. At our first workshop session, I prefaced what I was about to read with a "this is a first draft" disclaimer.

The short story workshop leader enigmatically replied, "Aren't they all?"

Well...huh?

I've never known anyone else to think like this. I thought we'd agreed that "writing is rewriting", which would mean that the more drafts we do, in theory the better the work gets? Nothing should be like a first draft as we reshape and polish...crack story problems, refine character, get a firmer sense of theme.

But every time I finish a rewrite I sense what he meant. You try to fix problems but in the immediate aftermath of the FADE OUT, you don't really have much perspective. Face it, you can come up with dumb ideas/fixes anywhere in the process.

I'll never wholly agree with him that all drafts are first drafts, but I'll say that I have learned you need to give yourself permission to make a mess and get it wrong regardless of what number draft it is.


Photo by mpclemens

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chicklet's Words of Wisdom on Movies and Jello

The Chicklet has become obsessed with movies. I guess it's natural. It's what she hears us talking about all the time. The latest thing is she'll take a blank sheet of paper and draw tons of faces all over it, characters..."boy with curly-wurly hair", "baby with cold sneezing", "woman with hat and earrings", "man with glasses". When you ask her what she's doing, she'll say. I'm making a movie. (And it does look like some crazy detailed storyboarding, seriously.)

Anyway, the other day after dinner as she was sitting at the table, done messing with her mac & cheese and I asked her if she wanted some jello.

She looked me dead in the eye and said, "First I make a movie. Then I eat jello."

In that instant, I felt like the Chicklet was telling me, focus on what you've got to do: polish the script, make the calls, research the tax incentives, co-production deals, talent search...then engage in the time wasting, web surfing, day dreaming, film festival fantasies... i.e. the jello.

First I make a movie. Then I eat jello.
I want to put it on a T-shirt.
I want to live by it.

Photo by gifrancis

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Predictable Dialogue: Examining the Dialogue Reversal

I've been getting several sets of notes on the Crazy Bollywood script before I send it off to the co-producer whose readers will also run it through the mill before we go out to talent. For the most part, the feedback lines up and the coverage is pretty good...but the other day I got a note about dialogue. The reader didn't think it was bad but thought I could work it harder in terms of dialogue reversals.

My first instinct was to bristle... even if I hadn't a clue what the heck a dialogue reversal was.

I know about reversal "reversals". They're the bread and butter of any scene, the action that turns a story in an unforeseen opposite direction, but I never thought about how the same's true for dialogue...never considered how a lot of laughs we earn as writers are really about surprises in how dialogue's constructed. I went back through the script and the reader had a point. I confess to being so focused on working structure and tone that I'd missed the opportunity to punch up the dialogue.

At any rate, now I've become obsessed with studying quotes for the dialogue reversal and trying to apply it to my own writing. Here are a few of my favorites. Study exactly where the reversal happens in each line and then go write some memorable, A-list attracting dialogue for your characters.

"Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen."
Homer Simpson

"You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take."
Wayne Gretzky

"Actually, it only takes one drink to get me loaded. Trouble is, I can't remember if it's the thirteenth or fourteenth."
George Burns

"I want a man who's kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?"
Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Happy reversing!

Photo by Zevotron


Monday, March 30, 2009

Movie Night Review: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"

I wanted to see this movie for a long time based on its title alone. I'm a sucker for a good title and this one's a great sell. It couples the right amount of story information with the right amount of intrigue. We sense its genre: romantic comedy; identify our two love interests; and get cued into its musical aspirations. Plus the use of the word "infinite" conjures up romantic ideas of the never-ending. And yet, we're left to wonder, exactly what is an infinite playlist? In my days as a reader, I would have been cracking the pages on this one first when I used to tote a bagful of scripts home.

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" is based on the Rachel Cohn & David Levithan novel of the same name, adapted for the screen by Lorene Scafaria and produced by Mandate Pictures. It's a lovely little romp through New York night life, full of characters that feel real, great music and modest intentions.

This is not a hilarious movie. It's a teen movie with charm and sweetness that manages to convey an adult sophistication. Its leads are so likable (Michael Cera and Kat Denning) that you root for them immediately.

The movie's ticking clock is provided by an underground band "Where's Fluffy?" that's playing a rare secret concert somewhere in the city for one night only. Though smarting from breaking up with his girlfriend, Nick gets dragged from Jersey to play a gig with his band, lured by the chance to see "Where's Fluffy?" at the end of it. At Nick's gig, smart, perennially overlooked Norah is there to be the responsible, grown up for her needy, hard drinking buddy Caroline (Ari Graynor) who manages to get separated from the gang during the course of the night. Instead of searching out "Where's Fluffy?", Nick and Norah end up scouring the city searching for the whereabouts of ditzy Caroline.

The stakes aren't particularly high, neither are the complications but in the world of high school where Nick has just broken up with Norah's queen bee, high-maintenance "frenemy" Tris (Alexis Dziena) and identities are cemented by where you head next in the dating pool, the stakes matter enough to keep you constantly engaged. Nick and Norah who share impeccable indie music tastes (she loves his plaintive mix tapes meant for the unsentimental Tris), banter and fall in love in Nick's ridiculous little yellow car which allows for some funny set pieces like the couple who slip into his car thinking it's a taxi and make out in the backseat all the way to their destination.

Equally fun are the cameos, including one from Andy Samberg as a cheerful homeless man in a church cemetery.

And the movie's beautiful to look at...gorgeously directed by Peter Sollet who helmed the edgier, more original "Raising Victor Vargas". While "Nick and Norah" could have benefited from tighter structure (a couple third act scenes seem unnecessary and meandering) the movie's episodic nature perfectly captures the spirit of a random nocturnal adventure.





"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" gets three and a half Oscars out of five.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Script Frenzy Heads Up or Enter the Worst Scriptwriting Contest Ever

Script Frenzy has the most original ad for a contest I've seen in the latest issue of Script magazine...

"TOP 5 Reasons We're The Worst Scriptwriting Contest Ever
No prizes.
No judges.
Cruel deadline.
Takes over your life
Leaves you crying for more."

In a way Script Frenzy aptly reflects what most screenplay contests do for the majority of writers--a big fat nothing apart from providing an arbitrary deadline that makes us get a draft done.

The difference with Script Frenzy is that it doesn't take your money in the form of an entry fee to do it. The disadvantage is, however, you are robbed of that cool daydream where you win the big cash prize, elicit the jealousy of your fellow writers and "make it" in Hollywood.

During Script Frenzy which takes place during the month of April, "frenzied" screenwriters dedicate themselves to writing a 100-page script.

I'm always saying one of these years I'd like to take up the mad challenge of writing 100 pages in a month but the timing's usually been bad as it is this year when I'm winding down the first draft of something and in no position to start revving up something new. Plus, for Script Frenzy to be worth it you've got to have a workable outline. I don't know what the point is of spewing out 100 pages when you could have spent the month outlining. (That's the problem with outlining. No tangible benchmarks.)

But if you're up for a challenge, aching to get started on something long-simmering and the camaraderie of hammering out a first draft alongside 7,736 writers (as of this post) appeals to you, here's where to get frenzied.

Good luck!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Overheard at the Playground


Courtesy two high school kids trying to cram themselves into toddler swings on a cold playground day...


GIRL #1: I'm not a Christian. I grew up around cursing.

BOY #1: Yeah. Me neither. I was baptized. And crucified. I think they still do that in the church sometimes.


Photo by kevindooley

Friday, March 20, 2009

I Hate the 60s.

I hate the 60s. Not the decade. The page numbers...That stretch of the script that comes right after the midpoint break. That's where I hit the wall.

The first 25's a piece of cake, everything's fresh and fun and I'm in love with the idea. And I can coast from about 70 onwards with a murky FADE OUT in sight but man, right now it's like a slowmo sequence.

Time to apply some serious Ass On Chair to get me through draft one.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Writers Group Is Broken... Somebody Moved My Cheese

My Writers Group A, the one I chose over the surly semi-pros, is broken. It's the victim of the establishment, of resources, of change.

Some background. Last February, in keeping with one of my 2008 resolutions, I joined a professional group for women filmmakers because they had an active writers group. I did this because:
a) writer moms need the occasional trip out to converse with grown ups and...
b) there is no quicker way to tell where the work isn't working than hearing it read aloud.

About halfway into the year though the writers group wobbled. First I got a last minute e-mail from a the filmmaking organization that a writer's group meeting the following day had been canceled. Than I got an e-mail from the group leader saying that she wouldn't be leading the group anymore. She was leaving the city. On the dot org's website the status of the writers group changed to "on hiatus."

Down but not out, I joined a group of older pros but it never took. A writers group is more about chemistry than credentials and Writers Group B (they of the fancy snacks) never really worked out. Which was just as well because Writers Group A returned.

And so 2008 had a happy Hollywood ending... until 2009 began.

In January of 2009 the professional group for women filmmakers I joined announced it was being folded into a larger professional organization. Great news, in theory. The new parent org has great resources, connections, workshops but we now meet at the org's offices and there are two writers group leaders and it's weekly instead of biweekly. In short there are a smorgasbord of changes and many old familiar faces have not survived the jump. Meanwhile, some of the new faces seem a little rattled at the varying quality of the feedback.

The worst part of the change for me is meeting in the organization's office. The office reminds me of the non-profit I worked at when I first moved to New York. Carpets. Fluorescent lights. The communal printer. The Filemaker Pro. There's even a cantankerous officer who glares at us as we come in and leave, constantly eyes the clock and bitches about us not having a key. (Are we supposed to have a key? Hey, I don't know. I just write here.)

Also, there's little continuity in our new group. Participants change week to week. One day there'll be eight people with twenty pages, the next there'll be two of us, starting an hour late because...well it's an office with a computer we have access to and there's e-mail to check, coffee to make, pages to print, cantankerous chicks to appease.

Finally the organization's office is in the "officey" part of town: the pox upon the city that is Midtown. Our old meeting spot was in Columbus Circle, with Central Park just a stone's throw away, Carnegie Hall down the street, the walk to and from the subway requiring a stroll past 5th Avenue store displays. Now I stroll past... closed delis. (sigh)

What will happen in the end? I don't know. But the magic is gone. My writers group meetings have turned into the job I grudgingly tolerate, the medicine I have to take to make my sick script better.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Put Down The Gloves. Don't Fight the Story.


Here's what I've learned doing the rewrite on crazy Bollywood project...
Don't decorate a plot that has no story logic. I know I'm sometimes guilty of leaving in a well-written scene that is visually exciting, lovingly crafted... but totally tacked on. You know the one. It stops the story or worse, makes the reader question the credibility of characters.

Better the imperfect, "not as visual" scene than the beautiful scene that defies logic.

Photo by mrkalhoon

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Best Explanation for How "Bad" Movies Get Made

I missed the terrific Tad Friend article in the New Yorker's January 19 issue about how movie marketing now completely shapes the industry. In profiling ace movie marketer, Tim Palen, the new truth of movie-making comes home: there's no such thing as a good or bad movie anymore. The only metric that matters is whether a movie finds its audience or not.

Read it here if you missed it too. Then go have a headache about how to sell your 120 page script on a single poster.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

And Now the Chapter I Didn't See Coming...The One Where We Turn Down Money

Well this is weird. The crazy Third World Bollywood musical gets its first potential equity investor capable of injecting the kind of money that in itself could pay for a low-budget movie, and it looks like we'll end up refusing the money because it would make the production ineligible for some pretty cool location rebates down the line. (Our fault for not reading the fine print properly.)

I suppose on the positive side it's great to know that you have a viable commercial product that folks want to make a substantial investment in, but on the negative...I fear that we're in a tough position because we're making the kind of mid-budget picture, less than 20M but more than 1M that nobody makes anymore...

Apart from the folks that made a little movie called Slumdog Millionaire which suddenly has lots of folks looking again at our project.

Yep, I'm choosing positive.
Positive, positive, positive... but I'm really, really hoping that the next private equity offer, we can take.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Screenplay Reading and I Came Out Alive!

Last week I endured something I haven't had to endure in about ten years.

I sat in the front row of a screenplay reading and listened as an audience responded to something I'd wrote. This is major because I hate screenplay readings. They're so not the ideal way to hear the work. I hate them even more when it's my work. It's like nails on chalkboard.

To make matters worse, the reading was an excerpt of the problem child romantic comedy screenplay. As such, I had this nightmare that we'd sit in the little theater and folks would listen and watch the actors in dead silence. Zero laughs. Maybe someone would cough. That's the problem with comedy. There's nowhere to hide when it's not working.

Luckily, though, this reading experience made up for every single other bad one I've had, and there have been some bad ones. (A student play that looked about ninety minutes on the page in Microsoft Word but that ran like two and a half hours comes to mind.) And I am always the most self-conscious person. I wear my heart on my face. Anything that doesn't work, a line that clunks, a confusing turn of phrase, I slouch in my chair until I disappear.

But not last week. Last week I was a normal person sitting in a chair. Why this transformation? First off, I had a great director who seemed to really get the piece and I don't know what casting gods smiled on me, but I lucked out with the most amazing talent, cobbled together from friends and friends of friends. They sold it. They made it work. Even secondary characters came to life vividly. I've always thought that "there are no small parts only small actors" was a sort of consolation cliche, but now I see its absolutely apt.

And it was great to work with people who were coming fresh to the script with good insights on how it could work better. And man, the reception we got. Like most writers, I'm tough on my own writing and it was nice, for just a night, to sit and listen and enjoy and have people receive it so warmly. We even got a surprise blog review that praised the writer, the actor and director.

"Where can I be updated about the project? What are you plans in terms of production?" this one woman asked me at the wine and cheese after. And I had no answer for her. Because I'm the crazy, juggling girl with prioritization paralysis and too many balls in the air.

Truth is this project goes back in the drawer for now while I concentrate on finishing sucky first draft of "rom-com I want to shoot" and rewrite of "crazy Bollywood comedy romance" (that I just got some pretty good coverage on so I'm feeling pretty jazzed.)

Yes, things are looking up. I'm proud to report I can now survive listening to my own work for fifteen minutes at least. What's more, I can actually like it.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Wrestler: A Big Dissenting "Huh?"

So Third World Girl just doesn't understand what all the fuss is about "The Wrestler". In the last couple of weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, several folks I really respect touted this movie as the best of the year. So I saw it and was alarmed. Because I don't think "The Wrestler" is a great movie, I don't even think it's a very good movie...why such a disparity between me and such smart, discerning people?

Perhaps "The Wrestler" was a victim of over-praise. Maybe if I'd just gone into it with normal expectations, I might have been satisfied, but it all felt a little shopworn to me. Down and out performer, faded glory, estranged family, stripper with a heart of gold? I won't deny that Mickey Rourke's performance was incredible, so was Marisa Tomei's for that matter (and she has considerably less to work with) but the material... Call me a backstory addict, but without screenwriter Robert Siegel placing the character relationship in context, I just couldn't connect to the estranged daughter subplot. Without details, hints of what caused the breakdown, it seemed generic. Was that rage really all about his missing her birthday?

And to touch on the Siegel script once again, there is a line in the movie that made me cringe. The bit Marisa Tomei's character, Cassidy, delivers about Ram being the sacrificial Ram. It's the sort of thing that you write in a first draft because you think it's cool that you have a "hero as Christ metaphor" but it seemed totally out of character for Cassidy, and heavy handed to boot. It sits up there in the movie, begging to be cut.

Luckily I watched this movie with the hubby so I could ask him, was I crazy to think this movie was only average? He shrugged. He couldn't get over that all it took to get back into Evan Rachel Wood's life was a peacoat jacket.

There is no doubt that Mickey Rourke's performance as Ram is extraordinary, and I quite like Darren Aronofsky's naturalistic direction but I have to wonder to what extent the emotional response this movie evokes in an audience is tied into the emotional Rourke comeback tale...that tale that was shortchanged just a little by Sean Penn's upset win at the Oscars. Now why'd they have to go and spoil a really good story?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Favorite Screenwriters: The Wisdom of Nora Ephron


I went to hear Nora Ephron last week. She is funny, as you'd expect from the writer of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail and the upcoming Julie & Julia and terrific on the subject of age and balancing kids and life...the "stuff that interests you in this room," she said to the dozens of women drawing on her every word, "but that is of absolutely no interest to the guys outside."

But she had little patience for victimhood, the sort of "tell us how hard it is for women writer/directors" questions. She just shrugged. It's hard for anybody to get a movie made, she said...but then conceded that yeah, maybe it was a little tougher for women, but so what? Tough cookies. This is the job you signed up for.

She told a lot of great stories, many of them anecdotes relating to directing rather than writing, but I enjoyed the focus because I've decided I want to direct the little personal movie I'm writing now. My favorite part was when someone asked a question about conquering fears and she just gave the smallest sigh. She couldn't speak much to fear, not being familiar with it too much (and I believed her), but she did note that everyone in Hollywood is afraid. She said when the titles come up at the very opening of a movie and it has the studio's logo, she'd add underneath "20th Century Fox did everything in its power not to make this movie." People are afraid of making bad decisions, greenlighting flops, losing money. Far easier to sit on your butt, drink Diet Coke from your personal fridge, putter around your projection room and say no all day.

Your job, then, brave director is to be the bravest one in the room...to continually have the confidence and skill and knowledge to convince the cowardly that this "risk" is the closest thing to a sure shot. Storyboard. Shotlist. Crew up with the best. Overprepare. Be confident.

This bravery isn't limited to directing, though. It's a part of producing as well...that element of building something solid enough that others feel comfortable, that the movie that screens at the end seems like the result of a most natural evolution. And yes, it is the worst possible time financially to be out here doing what we're doing but if it was easy, everyone would do it.

Onward.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Movie Night Review: "Pineapple Express"

I have to believe at some point there's going to be a backlash against these Seth Rogen-Judd Apatow brand bromances. I mean, I liked "Superbad" okay, I loved "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", but "Pineapple Express" while funny in parts, made me long for this era to be over.

In all fairness, I'm not the target market. There are, I presume, guys who find all the gay subtext jokes hilarious. (You know the "Ha! Ha! They're trying to free themselves but if you didn't know it it looks like they're doing it!") I also grew impatient with the movie's rambling dialogue after the first act, imploring the story to get a move on. It did, to some extent, when its basic plot kicked in. It goes like this...

Pothead Dale Denton witnesses a murder, dropping his roach at the scene of the crime as he flees. The roach is full of a rare blend of weed called Pineapple Express that only one dealer in town sells. Making things worse, the dealer's only sold it to Dale so the murderer knows who the witness is and stoner and dealer have to hit the road and run for their lives.

The revelation in this movie for me was James Franco. In playing Saul Silver, the kind-hearted, simple minded dope-dealer he shines. This movie has a great central pairing in Rogen and Franco...too bad there's so little plot to keep things going once the guys go on the run.

Hubby tried to watch this movie three times and fell asleep on each attempt. I think it boils down to that lack of tension. Every scene in this movie is too long and saps the story's focus. The stakes don't escalate and the story's saddled with bad guys who are too bumbling to inspire much jeopardy. Also, its introduction of a drug war at the end of Act II feels hurried and there were too few reversals and surprises.

But as always, there are things to admire in the writing. It's hard to not feel affected by some of the movie's fuzzy charm, comic characters and the occasional hilarious exchange. Plus, I enjoyed the "wink, wink" ending where the band of brothers make fun of what is supposed to happen in a movie, i.e "hijinks ensue as we all learn a lesson." Ultimately, however, the movie's so unstructured and breezy that it floats away.






"Pineapple Express" gets three Oscars out of five.