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 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....

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.

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.

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.

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.

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] 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 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 something about it.

Happy writing.