Back in my days as a development exec in LA, I nearly worked with both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I was working for an Israeli producer out of his house in Tarzana; we were trying to make co-productions, to pick up enough money from this country and that to patch together a budget. Shatner signed on to be the star of our action movie, Warriors. We met him up at his house in the hills, and he had some really excellent points about his character's motivation. I went off and rewrote the script, and it was a lot better, and then foreign buyers nixed Shatner as the lead -- we literally could not finance a $2M movie with Shatner in the lead. So we had to apologize to Captain Kirk and cast Gary Busey.
That was before Free Enterprise, in which Shatner discovered that he could play a pompous buffoonish version of himself to great hilarity, which gave him Denny Crane, his brilliant Boston Legal character, and he became a star again.
The Gary Busey movie did not turn out brilliantly. I am not 100% sure Busey ever actually read the script. I'd guess he did not read it before we started shooting. But that's another story. (Actually Gary Busey is a whole flock of my stories.)
Later, we had a movie about the Israeli air strike on the nuclear reactor in Baghdad. Saddam was about to get the bomb in 1981 and the Israelis flew a bunch of F-16's across Jordan and Iraq and blew it up. They did such a good job of flying literally under the radar that the Iraqis thought it had to be the Iranians, until the Israelis admitted it.
Hollywood Pictures, a Disney film label, optioned the project. Soon, Leonard Nimoy wanted to direct it. So we had a lovely breakfast up at the Bel Air Hotel in Stone Canyon -- it's a series of bungalows nestled among trees -- and it was the first time that I'd realized that Leonard Nimoy was an old Jewish guy. He had smart things to say. He grokked the project. He liked my rewrite of the script.
And then Hollywood Pictures got excited about Jan de Bont, a Dutch cinematographer who wanted to direct, and they jettisoned Nimoy. I never felt that de Bont had any particular emotional attachment to the project, like Nimoy did; he just wanted to direct and here a studio was offering him a movie. Two years and $600,000 in rewrites later, Hollywood Pictures pulled the plug on the project. We had various conspiracy theories about why the only film label in town with no Jewish execs would do a movie about the Israeli Air Force; we found it interesting that they pulled the plug shortly after Disney successfully bid for Israel's second (or fourth, or something) broadcast TV channel.
So we never got to work with Kirk or Spock. Damn it.
It's interesting that in all the mourning for Mr. Nimoy, I don't hear the name of the guy who invented Spock, Gene Roddenberry. Nimoy so thoroughly inhabited the role over the years that we forget that Roddenberry invented Spock and the whole Vulcan species. It was Nimoy, though, who invented the Vulcan salute. It's a rabbinical gesture; the hand forms a "shin," the W-shaped Hebrew letter which stands for "El Shaddai," the Almighty: may God be with you.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory," was Leonard Nimoy's last tweet, and it is true, and profound. And it made me think of Roy Batty dying on the rooftop of the Bradbury building, saying words that David Peoples wrote and Rutger Hauer rewrote: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. I've seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain."
I have something in my eye.
I wish there was a Vulcan "rest in peace."
May God be with you on the next step in your journey.
Q. ... although the Avengers did have killer dialogue, my problem with the plot was that all the action felt contrived - some really flimsy excuses for the heroes turning against each other, all the bad guys dying after they took out the controller, and so on.
Well, the heroes turning against each other was the answer to generations of fanboys' "do you think Hulk could beat Thor?"-type argument, so it was brilliant to have those entirely concocted fights in the movie.
The movie was an entertainment, eh? Audiences come to movies for multiple reasons. One is story, sure. But the other is spectacle. The pod racing in Star Trek I was gratuitous and sort of pointless, but the intended audience (kids who buy branded merchandise) ate it up.
Yeah, all the bad guys dying was convenient, but I think a the audience can figure out that without the controller, the aliens would eventually have been hunted down and destroyed like the orcs after Sauron's demise. No one wants to see a mop-up operation. Much, much better to end the movie with the superheroes getting shawarma.
I mean, a movie is a movie. I know you can't hack a computer or a network the way they do in movies, but it would be really super boring to watch real hacking, so I don't care.
I think a good rule is you can do something convenient in order to avoid something boring.
Q. I'm an aspiring author working on a novel, and have been doing so for some time. Recently a mass-market summer blockbuster was announced with several plot and thematic elements - and even one of the main character's names! - virtually identical to those in my drafts. What should I do? Should I scrap it immediately?
My immediate reaction is that if your story is so close to a recent blockbuster that you are thinking of scrapping it, you may not be leveraging the medium. A novel can have more going on than a movie. It can expand and contract time. It can get into the characters' heads. It can have a cast of thousands. It can talk about society.
Q. Alter it to be less like the movie? Wait for the film to come out and get a consensus of some kind? If so, is it better if it's a classic, a bomb, or decent and forgotten?
Well, a bomb, certainly, has less of a footprint. Our last game was known for its "shadow physics." There had actually been an unsuccessful game called, I think, Shadow Physics. But it didn't work well, I gather, so there was room for ours.
However, I'd consider writing something else that's fresher. If your novel is too similar to a summer blockbuster, that suggests to me that your plot is not spectacularly fresh, "a very ancient and fish-like smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest Poor John," as Shakespeare had it. Very few summer blockbusters have clever plots.
To get attention in a crowded market, you really need to do something that no one else has done well recently. For example, George R. R. Martin took the Tolkien tropes, took out most of the magic, and added outlandish sexual misbehavior.
As I keep stressing: your movie or novel or game has to be clever and original. Just because there are hugely successful unoriginal movies/novels/games out there doesn't mean you'll get rich writing one. Those things are commissioned by people with lots of money, and they have marketing budgets.
Q. I have read from multiple sources that producers and such are more interested in reading pilots over specs of existing shows in the past few years. Do you know if the paradigm has shifted this way?
This has been the case for a while now. Showrunners often want to see a spec script (to prove you can write their show) and a spec pilot (to prove you have an imagination and a voice).
Q. When writing a pilot, is it okay to use curse words, even if you're planning on showing the script to execs for more "family-friendly" networks like NBC, Fox, etc.? Or should I avoid cursing to make my script more accessible?
You should ideally have a different version for each network, to take advantage of their mandate. So if you're submitting to a broadcast network, your script should not contain the F word, and if you're submitting to HBO, it has to.
Walter White, you are ... despicable!
But it goes far beyond that. If you're submitting to broadcast, your main characters must be fundamentally good. (They can be good but irascible, à la House. They can also be selfish if it's a comedy.) Your villains must be fundamentally bad.
If you're submitting to HBO or AMC, then your main character should be despicable either visibly (Tony Soprano, Walter White) or internally (Don Draper).
If you're submitting to Lifetime, then your main character must be a woman.
If you're submitting to FX, your main character probably should be a man.
I forget which kid's network it was, but there was a time when you could not have too much slime.
Gone are the days where you wrote one pilot. Every network is looking for something particular. They often don't know what it is, and it changes all the time, but you can't submit your HBO pilot to ABC Family and get much traction, or vice versa.
However, the spec pilot you write to get hired on someone else's show can be more outré than the network. An HBO-style pilot can get you hired on an FX show. The goal of a spec pilot to get you hired is to be memorable and outstanding. The goal of a spec pilot to get set up at a studio is to be memorable and outstanding, and fit a network's mandate closely.
We watched JENNIFER'S BODY last night. Starring allegedly superhot Megan Fox and the radiant Amanda Seyfriend, this movie was marketed to the male horror film audience, and flopped.
It's actually a really intelligent, alarming movie. It adds nifty lore to the horror canon, and it is an insightful movie about a relationship. But the one thing it is not is a movie for young male horror fans who think Megan Fox is superhot.
JENNIFER'S BODY is a movie about frenemies. Amanda Seyfried is "Needy," the dorky childhood BFF of high school boy magnet Jennifer. (You can tell Needy is dorky, because she wears glasses. Only in Hollywood is the dorky girl played by Amanda Seyfried.) Then something happens to Jennifer, and Jennifer starts behaving, well, evil.
But they're still best friends, right? And Needy can't just give up her best friend forever, right? It is an insightful, brilliantly observed portrayal of a relationship. Sure, Jennifer may be evil, and super scary. But she still loves Needy. And Needy still loves Jennifer, to the point where people accuse them of being lovers. (They aren't. No wonder this flopped.) Which means there is a strong character/relationship reason why Needy can't Just Go to the Police.
(Every horror movie needs a good reason why the hero/ine can't just go to the police, whether it is Because She Is In a Cave, or Because There's Only One Way Out of the Valley, or Because They Are In a Simulation, or Because She Is A Wanted Criminal etc. Hopefully it is not Because the Police Don't Believe Him/Her, cuz that is boring and lame.)
You could consider this a movie about what happens when girls' urges for boys get in the way of their friendships. In a way, it's a horror take on Mean Girls. I think the best horror movies take something true about people's relationships and make it graphic and scary. They take something that would require a delicate novel to convey, and turn it into something you can watch in two hours and get it.
The movie also has fun inventing horror lore. Jennifer is not a vampire, and she's not a succubus in spite of the poster. She's something else.
In retrospect, it's easy to figure that boys were not going to recommend a chick movie about two childhood girlfriends torn apart by their attractions to boys. And girls were never going to go see a movie that claimed to be about Megan Fox being a sex demon.
A lot of beginning screenwriters figure that they can come up with something that mixes genres and get the audience for both genres. The reality is closer to only getting the intersection of the two genres: in this case, female horror fans. The genres are there for a reason.
The flip side is that, if you are marketing a movie that mixes genres, be up front about it. THE DESCENT did all right because it never suggested it was about anything but a bunch of women trapped in a cave system with some nasty critters. Based on the marketing, critics and viewers thought JENNIFER'S BODY was a terrible movie. Roger Ebert said it was "Twilight for Boys," entirely missing (I feel) the main thrust of the movie. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 42%.
Also, if you are making a movie that might confuse audiences, budget accordingly. The makers of THE DESCENT did not cast name actors. So the movie cost less to make, so "success" had a much lower threshold. JENNIFER'S BODY actually grossed $16M in the domestic box office ($31M worldwide); but for a studio film, that's a horrible flop. THE DESCENT grossed $26M domestic, but for an indie film, that's a huge hit.
Q. In the FAQ section of your site, you mention that it can be a little more difficult for older people to break into TV writing. I just turned 29-years old and am considering going into television writing. I know I am probably at a disadvantage compared to, say, people fresh out of college who are looking to break into TV writing.
My question to you is this: How much of a disadvantage, if any, is my age? I'm still willing to "rise through the ranks" and take on W.A. and P.A. jobs before becoming a Staff Writer and working my way up. But I know those types of jobs typically go to early- to mid-twenty somethings.
It depends what you've been doing for the past nine years. I started writing TV specs in my thirties and didn't get a TV episode on the air till my late thirties. On the other hand, I had a feature film credit, and a couple dozen feature specs, and I'd worked in indie features for years. If you started breaking into TV writing from being a TV agent, likewise, then 29 is not old at all.
Or, if you are Don Draper, it's not unreasonable, either.
If you were actually a soldier, cop, trauma ward surgeon, lawyer, or rich dilettante who solves crimes for the police, then you could parlay that into being the baby writer who actually knows something about the procedural world.
If you were, on the other hand, an accountant, then you would be, yes, a bit behind. But 29 is not outrageously old, if you're willing to pay the dues and work the ridiculous hours. I continue to think that the real issue for aging writers is not actual prejudice, but an unwillingness to eat all the crap sandwiches you have to eat to break in, or even stay, in the biz. (If you're successful, you get more bread to spread the crap on, which makes the sandwiches much tastier.)
There are also areas of TV where older people are more welcome. Kids' programming, ironically, is a haven for older writers, because they have kids.
But 29, for a writer? Not horribly old. (For an actor, 29 is horribly old. All things being equal, do not attempt to start an acting career at 29.)
Have you ever considered the possibility that print shops, email sites, the WGA/WGC, coverage services, et cetera, even the copyright office, steal non-copyrightable ideas? I recently joined Zoetrope Virtual Studio and realized that people just put their (albeit bad) screenplays up for everybody to read. If I wanted to, I could write ripoffs of these unproduced screenplays and get off scot-free. Likewise, agents can share ideas with their (other) clients, managers (especially the ones who are producers) can just steal stuff. Hell, what if an agent or a development executive or producer is also a screenwriter? It's not unheard of for production companies to do this, but what about other parties? All you need is a logline. Dinosaurs fight Nazis on the moon. Now you can write that screenplay and I can't complain about it.
I don't think print shops steal scripts. (What's a print shop, Grandpa?) I would be stunned to hear that the WGC or WGA registration services, or, Lord knows, the Library of Congress steal scripts. I would be stunned to hear they even read them. And there's no percentage in an agent stealing a script when he could just offer to represent it; and a producer won't steal a script when the writer would probably be only too happy to option it for a buck.
But writers? Especially non pro writers?
I have often wondered about sites like Zoetrope, where bazillions of nonpro writers post their loglines, and read other people's loglines. If you've got a really great hook, the only thing keeping other writers from stealing your hook is the knowledge that you've already written the script, so they're at least six months behind you. Is that enough? Usually it is. But if they have access to your script and find out that you've done, in their opinion, a really terrible job delivering the goods on our hook, they could poach it.
When I was teaching a writing seminar, I came across a script with a brilliant title and hook, but which I felt didn't deliver the goods on the concept. At all.
I'm not a thief, so I optioned the script and got some producers to hire me to rewrite it. But what if I had read the script on an online forum where there was no evidence that I'd read it? What if I dumped the title and wrote another script, with an entirely different plot that, I felt, delivered the goods? Legally, I would be free and clear. You can't copyright a hook.
Later on, the guy refused to re-option the script, so while I got paid for my rewrite, the project is dead. So I paid a price for being honest.
I've never posted my loglines on a site. And I recommend you pitch your script idea to anyone but fellow writers. It's too easy for a writer to "forget" where they got the idea.
However, I think non-pro writers generally have much more anxiety about their ideas being poached than pro writers. If you have a really great idea, odds are, no one is going to steal it; you're going to have to ram it down people's throats. It's all very well and good to think up "snakes! on a plane!" But then you have to deliver the goods. That is, as we say in computer science, non-trivial. A great hook is worth money, but only if you figure out how to deliver the goods on it.
What I was suggesting about agents is that maybe one of them represents Joe Bigshot and Joe Schmo sends the agent a really great hook. If it's the agent's policy to reject any and all queries from schmos, then the agent can tell Joe Bigshot the hook and have him write it.
I am pretty sure this doesn't happen. First of all, you won't be submitting your script to Joe Bigshot's agent; or if you do, he won't read it. He doesn't want to rep a "baby writer." Secondly, Joe Bigshot doesn't want to write your script. Assuming he's not busy with paid assignments, he's got a backlog of ideas he thinks are wonderful. It would be rare indeed to find a pro writer who not only would be willing to steal an idea, but who also likes your idea better than his own.
It turns out that people named Elwood are, per capita, disproportionately farmers. Also, Mavis. If you're Mavis, you're probably drawn to the field, relative to if you were, say, Mitzi, in which case long rows of numbers might appeal. Stuntmen are disproportionately named Alex.
I love having my prejudices confirmed.
(Of course, farmers and stuntment are more likely to be named Mike, or John, than Elwood or Alex. It's just that Elwoods tend in the farmerly direction.)
Careful about using this in a screenplay -- these names are, after all, stereotypical. You can, of course, use it to subtly play against type. Elwood could turn out to be a blues musician. There is a fairly well known Adele who is not an accountant.
But you can name someone Mitzi, knowing that the name will carry a certain amount of baggage. I like to use ethnic names to suggest that minor characters are ethnic without having to say they're ethnic. If I name someone Dr. Takata, I don't have to say he's Japanese. (Nor does the casting director have to cast someone Japanese. On Charlie Jade, "Karl Lubinsky" was a Black actor, Tyrone Benskin.) So along those lines, if I name someone Mitzi, it puts some nuances in the reader's head without my having to say she's an accountant, or from New York, or has probably been to some bar mitzvahs in her life.
Good writing is about packing details into a few words, so any website that helps you do that is useful.
About five, six years ago I started to get into videogame writing. It seemed really fun — you get to play in much bigger sandboxes — and video games were getting to have better and better stories, and Montreal's a big gaming hub. Oh, and, it's getting harder and harder to set up a feature film these days.
Lisa was very encouraging, pointing out that I have a degree in computer science, and that can't hurt. And I had a summer job for two summers programming for an educational computer game company on a 128K IBM. (Yes, that's "K." Some of the newer computers had as much as 256K of RAM, if you can imagine that!)
It wasn't until I'd been working in the business for a while that I put together just how much of my life I've been playing and even designing games. I was a D&D fan at 15, and drew lots of dungeons in my spare time, when I wasn't playing cardboard-chips-and-dice wargames. I was in a live-action role-playing group in LA in the '90's, and I even wrote a one-night LARP that came off pretty well, I thought. I just hadn't been writing or designing games on a computer.
One of the nice things about being a writer is that you get to use all sorts of odd experiences — the odder the better, really. At the time, spending a month writing a LARP about the evening before the battle of Camlann seemed like a huge waste of time. Fun, yes, of course, but time I could have spent writing something useful. A novel, or something. It turns out to have been preparation for my narrative design career.
In the game I'm writing now, moreover, I get to use all sorts of odd bits of history and cultural trivia that seemed kind of useless but fun at the time. ( The execution of Admiral Robert Byng pour encourager les autres! The expression, "Don't be a big girl's blouse"!)
Point is, some of us have a voice in the back of our heads telling us not to waste time. Do useful stuff. Write, and if you're not writing, read or watch stuff that is relevant to your writing. (I certainly do. Your mileage may vary. Contents may have settled. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.) If you're a TV writer, there's no point in reading a history of the War of the Roses, unless you think you might one day get a gig writing on The Tudors.
But over a long career, a lot of that wasted time becomes brain fodder. Grist for the mill. It comes back to haunt you, in useful ways.
In other words, don't be afraid to do fun and useless things.
Which is why it's totally a good thing that I somehow spent 290 hours in the last two months playing Europa Universalis IV. Right, Lisa?
... or rather, framing the cops-and-grand-juries issue.
(This is a post about political story-telling. If you only want to read about screenwriting, please skip it.)
It has come to everyone's attention that cops are killing a lot of black men. The Black community has been up in arms about this for years. (And their arms have been up. "Don't shoot, it's just a wallet!") Lately, though, a lot of white folks have noticed.
On most days that end in the letter "y," the right wing is not particularly interested in what black people are upset about. But now it's upset about this, too. Glenn Beck and George W. Bush find the Eric Garner non-indictment unfathomable.
I wonder if this is an opportunity for protestors to reframe the issue. It is statistically true that cops kill black men in disproportionate numbers. But there's another fundamental issue here, one that even white people who don't care about black people can get behind. Cops don't get indicted for killing people. Not even when a cop jumps on a non-violent guy selling loose cigarettes, puts him in a chokehold, and suffocates him, on video.
I don't think this is a racism issue. Yes, Staten Island is pro-cop. But, as FiveThirtyEight points out:
Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.
Comparable figures for cops: 80 out of 81 grand juries did not bring an indictment.
Is this racism? Maybe there's racism in there, but I think the phenomenon is way too consistent to be racism.
I think the problem is that prosecutors are on the same team as cops. Cops bring in perps; prosecutors indict them. What prosecutor wants to incur the resentment of a police department he has to work with every day? Much easier to go before the jury, allow the cop to testify, don't cross-examine him or the exculpatory witnesses, cross-examine only the witnesses who testify that he did something wrong, don't say the public deserves to see this go to trial, and just ask the grand jury to vaguely "do the right thing." If the prosecutor doesn't want an indictment, the grand jury is not going to bring one in.
We need special prosecutors for cops, like we used to have for Presidents. The Special Prosecutor law passed after Watergate made clear that the US Attorney General could not be relied on to prosecute his boss, the US President, who could fire him at will. Police forces have Internal Affairs cops, who do nothing but investigate bad cops, because ordinary detectives are not going to investigate their buddies.
I think we need special prosecutors who are called in when a cop needs prosecuting. Prosecutors who do not, on a daily basis, work with that police department. It doesn't need to be a full-time job; they could be called in from another city in the same state.
Instituting a law like this wouldn't stop police racism. But it would allow police at least to be held accountable when they kill people.
Framing the issue this way would bring in the majority. Obviously, Black people are exercised about racism, but white people typically aren't, or only theoretically so. White people tend not to see a lot of racism going on, or downplay its effects. White people are not that upset about cops pulling over people for Driving While Black.
But framed as a police state issue, this could get a lot more traction.
The reason I bring this up in this blog is that how you frame an issue is a story-telling question. What story do you want to tell?
If the story is "cops are killing black men," then it's a Black issue. Some white people will get upset about it. But maybe not enough.
If the story is "cops are killing people and prosecutors won't indict them," then it's a universal issue. Everyone is scared of cops. I'm scared of cops. Not because I'm a lawbreaker, but because they might think I am, and they've got guns and permission to use them. They are the embodiment of the state monopoly on violence.
Also, it's easier to insist that a justice department hire one special prosecutor than that they attempt to hire cops according to racial quotas, even assuming that would reduce police killings of unarmed civilians.
Obviously, it's up to Black civil rights protestors to decide what story they want to tell. But the more their story works on white fears of government oppression, I think, the more traction they'll get.
Let's say I've written 20 originals and 22 adaptations, yet despite all statistics, I still can't find a WGA/WGC signatory agent. What's wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? I am not this person, but it's interesting to think about. Is it a lack of a hook or an interesting concept? A lack of lucid thought? A need for more proteins in the diet? What?
If someone wrote to me to say they are this person, I'd ask:
a. Do your scripts all have strong, fresh hooks? When you recount said hooks to friends/strangers, do they say "I would totally watch that," or do they just smile vaguely?
b. Do they have strong stories? (A compelling main character; an opportunity/problem/goal; obstacles/antagonist/flaws; stakes; jeopardy)
c. Do they have fun roles for actors to play?
d. When you pitch their stories to people, do people seem interested all the way through?
e. Do they fit into an established genre? Do they fit into a section of a video store or Netflix? Or are they all arthouse?
f. Are you approaching agents at your own level? I.e. there's no point for a baby writer to hit up CAA.
g. Do you live within driving distance of LA or New York? It is hard to get representation if you don't.
However, if these are features we're talking about, then it should not be impossible -- after all, the agent is selling the script, not you.
I mean, one possibility is you can't write worth a damn. However, even if you can't write worth a damn, if you've written 20 original scripts with strong stories, you ought to have an agent. If the story is good, and the hook is good, a badly written script will still sell.
I'm not sure what to do with the "adaptations" part of this question. Do you have the rights to the material you're adapting? Is the material (or at least the author) you're adapting already really successful? The answer needs to be "yes" to both. If you don't have the rights, the script is unproduceable. If the material is not successful, then who wants to produce an adaptation of it? Unless the author is famous -- e.g. you have the rights to a long-lost Philip K. Dick short story, or an unpublished Stephen King manuscript.
There is no set number of scripts you have to write before you get an agent. But most pro writers get one pretty soon. I had one for my third script, looong before I was making a living writing.
If you are writing and writing and not getting an agent, then I would say maybe you are not learning enough from your writing. Either you're not seeking out good feedback, or you're not taking the feedback to heart. Practice only makes perfect if it is mindful practice.
I would also suggest writing in a different medium. Maybe screenplays are not your forte?
Why do you ask?
If you go to a game convention, and even more to at a game awards show, the ratio of men to women is appalling, a sea of men punctuated by a few women.
It's peculiar, because no one I know actually wants the game industry to be so ridiculously masculine. (Not to say no one wants it; only no one I know.) Everyone thinks, in the abstract, that it would be good to have women environmental artists and animators and programmers and designers. However, it's rare to find a company that is more than 15% women. The games industry is as much of a meritocracy as any creative field can be. People hire the people they think are best, and the people they think are best tend overwhelmingly to be men. No one is willing to hire a less-good programmer or a less-good environmental artist simply because she's a woman.
On Contrast we had two women on a team of ten: our concept artist and our animator. Now we have two women, our concept artist and our lead programmer. At one point we had a woman environmental artist. In almost any other field, that would be considered a sexist workspace. In games, we're considered fairly pro-women. (It helps that our last game starred two women, and passed the Bechdel test.)
How did this come about? The conventional wisdom is that when games started, you had to be a programmer. People like Jordan Mechner made their own games, which meant they had to be programmer, graphic artist, animator and storyteller; but above, all, programmer.
The thing was, there were vanishingly few women programmers. In my Intro Comp Sci class at Yale -- the one required for the major -- we had 60 students, of which three were women.
Why was that? Because in most universities, you were expected to already know how to program if you wanted to take a programming class. That meant either that you happened to have a great computer lab at school (as Bill Gates did), or you had a personal computer. But personal computers, such as the TRS-80 (affectionately known as the Trash-80), were marketed to boys.
So girls arrived in Comp Sci 221 and all the boys already knew how to program, and they were left behind. And then they didn't go on to make games.
What's mysterious to me is: why did women continue to drop out of computer science?
Personal computers really hit around 1985. Oddly, that's when there were the most women computer science majors. There are now many fewer, as a percentage -- even though pretty much every middle class kid has access to a computer, and the Internet does not ask whether you're a girl or a boy.
Is it that games is, outside my happy little indie company, a truly sexist, female-hostile world? Or is it just passively hostile, bro-culture? Or is it that until recently most games were built for 14 year old boys, and girls didn't come into the business to make games because no one was making games for them?
At MIGS this year, Manveer Heir gave a passionate speech about needing more women and minorities in games. Our game designer, said, "Okay, I agree, but what am I supposed to do about it?" He's a white bro dude. The best answers I could come up with is:
(a) Go out of our way to find great women candidates for jobs, and then hire the best person.
(b) Make games that women dig, which will inspire women to join the industry.
No one's going to hire someone who's less good, just because they're a woman. But I think it's legit to look a little harder to find women candidates. And it's just good business to make sure your games reach both halves of the human race.
Is there a short-term solution
with long-term benefits?
Everyone has a motivation. What’s theirs?
a disagreement about the script or miscommunication between me and them?
I express this as clearly as possible?
Don’t expect anyone to know the
script as well as I do. That’s my job.
Are they seeing the big picture?
Take them through the falling dominos.
What can change? What can’t?
standing up for myself or just being defensive?
"I found this scrawled in a notebook. A list I wrote of ten things to remember that I made while waiting to go into a notes session with some studio executives and my producer. Shared in case it helps anyone in some way..."
Nate Silver is a baseball stats geek who turned himself into one of the most accurate interpreters of political polls. He nailed the 2008 and 2012 elections while Republicans were deluding themselves over "skewed polls." I wasted nearly as many hours reading his columns during elections as I have recently enjoyed wasting playing Europa Universalis IV.
Silver has expanded his site FiveThirtyEight to cover Big Data analyses of politics, economics, science, sports and culture. Walt Hickey recently posted an analysis of spec scripts. Which genres of scripts get the highest ratings?
The data come from The Blacklist, a site that offers evaluations from pro script readers for a fee. They're the people the exec will give your script to first.
What do the Blacklist readers like?
First-time writers tend to go one of two ways, said Kate Hagen, a former reader who now oversees the hundred or so readers at The Black List. They write a deeply personal, pseudo-autobiographical screenplay about nothing in particular. “Everybody basically writes that script at first,” Hagen said. “You have to get it out of your system.” Or they swing for the fences and go in the opposite direction, thinking, “I’m going to write a $200 million science fiction movie,” and plan an entire universe and mythology. Those scripts, Hagen said, tend to fail for entirely different reasons.
However, Big Data are not necessarily useful to a screenwriter. If you consider the odds against becoming a professional screenwriter, you'd be mad to try. But, "never tell me the odds." I don't think I know any pro screenwriters who took the odds into consideration. We just kept writing, and got enough encouragement (words, followed by checks) to keep at it. It takes heaps of arrogance to figure you're better than the other ten thousand would-be writers. But then, a screenwriter is someone who creates people, families and worlds, so a certain megalomania is practically a prerequisite.
I would be very wary of Big Data. If you think you're a comedy writer, you should write comedies. Your first will be terrible. Possibly your first ten will be kinda bad. But that doesn't mean you should write dramas, on the thinking that dramas "do better." The question isn't whether dramas do better; the question is whether your drama will do better.
It won't. If you don't love what you're writing, no one else will love it either.
By the same token, don't avoid science fiction because it doesn't "do well." The first script you write isn't going to do well anyway. You're still learning your craft. Write that science fiction script. Hey, a vampire script got me into the UCLA MFA program. (It was terrible! But, I guess, promising in some way. And here I am.)
In fact, the flip side of it is: if you are, at heart, a comedy writer, then you are not likely to write a better drama than writers who love drama. But you might, with practice, write a better comedy than other comedy writers. If what you love is SF, then you're more likely to break in with an SF hook that no one else thought of, than with a drama that you wrote because you thought you ought to.
"Write what you know" doesn't necessarily mean "write stuff about people like you." It means "write stuff you know in your heart."
On the other hand, stretch your muscles. Don't write drama because it "does well." But do write a drama because it will force you to write strong, dynamic, dysfunctional relationships -- that you can then put into your comedy scripts, which need heart, too. Write a drama because a great science fiction movie isn't just about the science fiction -- it's about people, in strong, dynamic, dysfunctional relationships in a science fictional world.
By the same token, if you're a drama writer, try writing a comedy. Maybe it will loosen you up. Can't hurt to try. My creative writing professor, Kenneth Koch, made the very good point that no one is born with a certain number of words. You won't run out. So rather than dithering for a month about what to write, write something.
You level up by finishing missions, right?
The reason people call this sort of writing expedition an "exercise" is because exercise is what makes your muscles strong.
What you can use the Big Data for is to get insight into the minds of script readers. If they find most SF scripts annoying, make sure that you're not falling into the same errors. Make sure your SF script has characters and heart, not just whizbang.
This gets back to "addressing notes." All feedback is valid feedback, and you ignore it at your peril. If script readers don't like something, there's something wrong with it. They are often wrong about what is wrong with it. But if they think something is wrong with it, you better fix what iswrong with it, or you're not going to go very far with it.
“The single-most important thing was the art of working in the studio system,” Nolan told me of his experience with “Insomnia.” “It takes time to learn how to take notes. In the corporate structure, the people giving you the notes are not responsible for the final product. You are. It’s not their job, it’s yours. When you’re taking notes, it’s possible that you’re having an interesting conversation with a very smart individual and everything they’re saying is correct. But they’re wrong. So you have to go back and approach it from a different angle.” He continues to treat executives as, essentially, representative filmgoers. At a development meeting — at, in other words, a conference-room table — before “The Dark Knight,” he had to explain the Joker’s motivations. “Execs are very good at saying things like, ‘What’s the bad guy’s plan?’ They know those engines have to be very powerful. I had to say: ‘The Joker represents chaos, anarchy. He has no logical objective in mind.’ I had to explain it to them, and that’s when I realized I had to explain it to the audience.”
And so occurred the fabulous "some men just want to watch the world burn" speech.
Notes can be excellent. There are two kinds of notes: notes from people who understand story, and notes from everyone else. Everyone else can often include people with power over you and the money to fund your thing.
If someone who understands story gives you notes, then you might benefit from executing them.
If your note-giver is not someone who understands story, then executing the notes might make your script worse. The solution is not "doing" the notes but "addressing" the notes. . "Addressing" the notes is harder. It means finding out where the gap occurs between your vision and the reader or viewer's experience. Note-givers usually focus on where their experience is bad. "This scene is too slow; trim it down." The scene may be too slow, but maybe it's because we don't care enough about the main character; making him more compelling 20 scenes earlier fixes the scene. Or maybe it's because the scene never really gets to the meat of the drama. Sometimes it needs to be longer, not shorter, to build up steam.
Unless you are independently wealthy, your creative career will always depend on your ability to address notes successfully, without always executing them as is.
I've been having a bit of back and forth with a pro-Gamergate colleague, and here's my take, fwiw.
But [Gamergate] isn't, and has never been about [harassment of women]. That's the point. You're making it about women game developers feeling safe, but that has nothing to do with gamergate's positions. Gamergate has condemned harassment from day one, and has never wavered. But I don't think you'll ever understand that until you do more research, because it's easy to buy in to the world view that gamergate is a misogynistic movement. It fits the narrative you more generally associate with (as I do too).
My problem is there seem to be two groups of people who call themselves gamergaters. One is a small group of people who'd like games journalism to be more, y'know, like journalism. The other is a vast warren of trolls [hmmm, what's the noun of congregation? a grunt of trolls?] who jumped on the bandwagon in order to harass women.
I take your point that if games critics want social justice, then mocking gamers by using social stereotypes is not OK. But getting the majority to feel victimized is always the first page in the right-wing playbook. I mean, why now? Folks have been calling gamers neckbeards and virgins since -- well, at least the 70's? D & Ders didn't have a big social reputation at my high school. Any why, particularly, aim at "social justice warriors" mocking gamers, when almost everybody mocks hard-core gamers.
I suspect that what's really going on is that young, socially inept gamers now feel their "gamer" identity is threatened by soccer moms who play Farmville at the field. And they're transferring that fear onto a small number of "social justice warriors." (People who make that an insult worry me. It's like people who use the word "feminazi.") Because obviously they can't do anything about the soccer moms, who either don't even know they exist, or cook dinner for them.
And, I think, gamergate may be the tipping point in the industry for that, because people are sick of being bullied by having their identities attacked.
Really? I think mainstream society is always going to poke fun at geeks. When I was an active witch, neo-pagan geeks were always complaining about portrayals of witches in the media. C'mon, guys, you use the word, people think of you in a pointy hat. Bondage geeks complain that people (especially Jian Ghomeshi) don't understand that it's all done with carefully negotiated consent.
What seems to have got 'gators up in arms are some silly articles about "gamer" as an identity being "over." The very premise of the articles is ridiculous. They remind me of the sort of "trend" articles the New York Times prints whenever a reporter knows three friends who are doing some new thing. The NYT had an article about how beer bellies were becoming sexy. Um, what?
"Gamer" will be an identity so long as people self-identity as gamers, the way "queer" will be an identity as long as gays and lesbians share political needs.
I don't believe there ever was a "conspiracy" against the "gamer" identity. I know journalists, and they talk, and they're usually desperate for something to write about. If there were 10 articles, I can believe a few emails were passed around, but that's in the nature of a meme. A meme in the sense of "what are we going to fill our column inches with this week?" That's laziness, but that's not Dr. Evil. I don't believe a meme is the same as a conspiracy.
Your sympathies are important (no one disagrees with you about creating great work environments for [female] developers), but compassion has to go to both sides...
Okay. Good point.
But I think Gamergate projected a heap of frustration onto a tiny number of previously unknown people. Who ever heard of Zoe Quinn before? That was not constructive. The real question is not "what do we do about some minor female devs and/or anthropologists whom we feel insulted us," but "how do we deal with our precious identity being submerged in a vast welter of games that are not made for us."
If that's a real question. I mean it's not like we're never going to see another Grand Theft Auto game if Zoe Quinn gets her Kickstarter funded.
And, in return, the 'gators riles up a bunch of trolls, who in turn got mainstream feminists like Joss Whedon to come down on the whole Venn diagram with mockery.
Which, in turn, solidifies the gamer identity by defining the social borders better. The quickest way to answer the question "who are we" is to create a ruckus that crystallizes everybody into "us" and "them."
Kai Eriksen wrote a fascinating sociological book (that's not an oxymoron) called Wayward Puritans. His theory was that the Puritans were used to being an out group. But then they came to the New World where they had no neighbors to compare themselves to. (The Natives didn't count, obviously.) They had no "us" and "them."
So they created the witch trials, so they'd have a "them." It was subconscious -- Cotton Mather really through he was fighting the Devil -- but deep down they needed an enemy.
#Gamergate might have accomplished a subconscious purpose. I submit to you that a bunch of white, male, socially inept kids had "gamer" as an identity. Then along come soccer moms who play "Farmville" and call themselves gamers. And people make games about coming home and discovering your sister is a lesbian in the 90's. And the game press jumps all over these games, which are not actually very good games, because lesbian content practically guarantees a good review. (When was the last time you read a seriously negative review of a lesbian-themed film outside of the gay press and the Westboro Baptist newsletter?) And you hate Gone Home and you don't want people who like Gone Home to call themselves gamers, because "gamer" is your identity.
Or even worse, you proudly self-identify as a geek, and now all these mundanes come along and say, "Hey, we're geeks too!" And they're better looking than you, and go to the gym, and really spend very little timing geeking out. Where previously nerds were proud underdogs, now mainstream society fawns on Bill Gates and cosplay has its own reality show. Your culture is not your own any more.
So, you, as a group, pick a fight with some women developers and feminist intellectuals. There's no point picking a fight with Kotaku or Ubisoft, because they won't pay attention. But if you hurl abuse and death threats at some women (or give other, crazier people who share your politics the excuse to hurl abuse), you will provoke a lot of people to come to their defense.
In short order, you and your buddies are the laughingstock of the Internet. People are calling you neckbeards and virgins, and making memes, and #Gamergater becomes an ironic Hallowe'en costume.
But all that, perhaps, is full of win. Your identity is secure. Once again, it's clear who is "you" and who is "them."
The point of #Gamergate, subconsciously, was to provoke a witch hunt. But not against feminists. Against themselves.
Deep down, perhaps, the point of #gamergate was to provoke a witch hunt in which they were the witches.
Now, I have no idea if the above is true, and it's unfalsifiable if it is. But I think it's an interesting way to look at it. A retcon, if you will.
And that's my take on #Gamergate after my conversations with my articulate colleague.
I want to send one of my stories (6 page of containing outline, show summary, story headlines, characters directions and derivations, show themes that lead the entire series ) a "Tv concept idea" contest in L.A.
I get some script consulting about it such as " it will be not a bad idea for TV " from a reputable blogger .He says that the core idea is interesting and the concept has some potential for future episodes, but the only thing is my language barrier .
I know my english as a second language will not be sufficient to write in english like an american fellow even I know all about TV show business ; ... Would you suggest me to get another idea from another guy of business or stick the consulting and suggestions of him ? at least before sanding my outline for the contest.
I am also work for TV time to time in my country, I know everybody says lots of things, usually of non sense to make money esp. in this business.
I want to learn what is the criteria to have "story by" credits, especially on tv. ...
Realistically, the only way for someone to sell a TV concept if English is not his or her first language is to make the series in his own language and then sell the format. For example, the Israeli series PRISONERS OF WAR (חטופים) became HOMELAND; the Israeli series בטיפול (IN THERAPY) which became IN TREATMENT and a dozen other series in different languages; the Dutch series BIG BROTHER which became a metastatized cancer afflicting the entire television medium.
If a paid evaluator says "This will not be a bad idea for TV," I think they are maybe taking your money. That's about the smallest possible thing someone can say about a TV concept. On the rare occasions I read something that really could work, I say, "I think this really has a shot."
(Though generally when I'm evaluating other people's material, I don't say whether it's good or bad; I generally say how to make it better. I don't think it's helpful to say, "This stinks." If you want me to tell you if it's good or bad, you have to ask. The truthful answer, however, is usually, "It's not good now. If you do everything I tell you, and do it well, then I think you have a shot.")
The criterion for getting a guaranteed "Story By" credit in the US under WGA rules is to have written the first draft of the pilot. ("Story by" is the irreducible minimum credit for the original writer.) If you're not a native English speaker, or Vladimir Nabokov, the odds are they won't let you write any draft of the pilot; and they won't read your spec pilot, either. However if you write the pilot in your native language, and sell the format, then you can negotiate something like a "Based on the series PRISONERS OF WAR created by Gideon Rafi."
So, Compulsion Games will soon be hiring a community manager. This is a full-time contract job in our Montreal office keeping up with the people who play (or might play) our games. That means writing back to gamers when they have questions, posting on forums, responding to posts on forums, tweeting and generally making us look awesome. It's about engaging with our community to better understand what they think and feel about our games and help us make better ones.
There will be some dealing with the game media. There might theoretically be a bit of game writing, if you are so inclined, but that's not the priority.
The ideal person is witty and irrepressible. S/he plays a lot of video games and likes to talk about them. S/he probably reads the game press (Kotaku, RPS, etc.) S/he understands social media. We're not looking for a degree in marketing, but we would be impressed by your clever and provocative Twitter feed and your mob of followers.
Compulsion is an indie game company of about a dozen really dedicated developers. Our previous game, Contrast, was a PS4 launch title, passes the Bechdel test, and is shortlisted for 10 Canadian Video Game Awards. Our new game may blow your mind.
If you think you might be the right person for this, email my buddy Sam Abbott at email@example.com.
Q. I'm wondering how fast I should write screenplays if I want to be successful. I want to hit that sweet spot. I understand that pieces of string come in varying lengths. My first took me two months, my second took me two weeks, and my third has taken me two months already and I'm only on page 19. It's probably just a bad story idea and I should probably move on, but I know that in TV writing you are forced to do things you don't want to do.
I've got several non-starters like this. If I were to force myself to finish any one of them, do you think the material would come out best if I went with a fast (2 week), medium (1.5 month), or slow (>3 month) speed for the first first draft? By "best" I of course mean most sellable. I understand that you offer no guarantees, etc. You have advised to plan for a better story in advance, but I do indeed feel pressured to tell a certain (original) story a certain way and would like to just plow through it, I'm just unsure of the speed guidelines.
Every writer is different. Robert Towne takes a year to write a script. I have no idea how he manages to spend a year on a single script. I'm assuming a lot of golf is involved. I usually write a feature first draft in about 24 days. I spend time conceptualizing and outlining, then I write the first draft pretty fast, and then rewriting takes however long it takes. Years, sometimes, with long gaps in between while producers look for money or I wait for perspective.
Both my wife and I find that having a completed script makes rewriting much easier and less stressful. She calls her first draft the "vomit" draft because she just wants to get it out of her system, and it doesn't look pretty.
Joss Whedon writes all the fun scenes first, then writes the scenes that connect them.
If you're on page 19 after two months, something is wrong with your outline. Go back to index cards, or better, go back to telling your story out loud.
The amount of time you spend on a first draft has nothing to do with how sellable the script is. The script is sellable if it has a great hook and good implementation. The hook is in the outline, and the implementation is in the first draft, and the second, and the third, and so on.
The key is that you don't climb a mountain. You take one step up. Then another step up.
You don't write a script. You write an outline. Then you write pages. By pages, I mean scenes. You only write one scene at a time.
Look at the scene you're writing. Who wants what? Why does the other person not want to give it to him? What does the first person say or do to try to get it? What does the second person want? Why won't the first person give it to her? What does she say and do to try to get it?
If you can answer those questions, you ought to be able to write the scene. If you can't answer these questions, there's why you're hung up on page 19.
Sometimes the reason you can't write the scene is that it's boring and doesn't need to be in the movie. Skip it and see if you miss it. Maybe you're telling it wrong. Maybe find another way to present the story elements in the scene. Try writing the scene as a silent movie. Try writing the scene as a phone conversation. Try writing the scene as a scene from a novel. Try having one character refuse to talk. Rewrite the scene as the couple arguing while they're at a cocktail party. Try having the scene happen offscreen and we only find out about it in a conversation with third parties. Try writing the scene with a different outcome than you expected and see if that feels more truthful. Rewrite the scene as all subtext, with everyone saying exactly what's on their minds. Now rewrite with no one saying any subtext at all -- they're refusing to talk about what they mean and want, and talking about anything but.
Get some actor friends to do an improv based on the scene. If you don't have actor friends, do it with your own friends. If you don't have friends, take each person's part and see what they say.
Why does that scene need to exist? How does it move the plot forward? How does it reveal character? A scene should ideally do both. If it's sagging, it's probably either not moving the plot forward, or you've written it so that the characters are saying and doing the things any normal people would say and do, rather than things only those characters could say or do.
I'm a big believer in finishing scripts even if they feel like they suck. Around page 40, they almost always do feel like they suck. But I would never write a script without writing a solid outline first. That's like getting in the car and driving without a destination. You think you're going to wind up some place you never expected, but you usually end up at the supermarket.
Let's suppose two characters are talking. We go in close on their hands. One character speaks.
Is that line of dialog O.S. (offscreen) to make clear that we're not seeing her talk?
(holding out the ring)
Take it. Please.
Or not, because at least part of her is on screen?
(holding out the ring)
Take it. Please.
How would you format this, fellow pro monkeys?
Yeah, yeah, I know. We're not supposed to put in camera direction in scripts.
However, in this case, I'm the narrative director of a video game, and I'm writing a cut-scene that will be pre-rendered. (It'll be generated in the game engine and then treated in various ways.) We need to know how much facial animation we'll have to do, which means I need to write in the camera direction so we can determine whose face is on screen, and for how long. There isn't going to actually be a director as such -- just a narrative director and an animator (plus a game designer and a concept artist, and several programmers and environmental artists).
In a movie script, it occurs to me that (O.S.) is the wrong way to go because a sloppy production manager might think the actor doesn't need to be there.
I've noted before how valuable it is for writers to play poker. Not anything to do with writing, but everything to do with learning how to negotiate. Poker is all about negotiation. Or, negotiation is all about how you play your hand. You can bluff. You can semi-bluff. You can call a bluff. You have to guess what the other guy's reaction to your bet will be.
Tonight, we played Cards Against Humanity. It's a fun game about trigger warnings. (It's billed as "the party game for horrible people.)
One player picks a black card with a phrase ("What ended my last relationship?"). Each other player throws down one of their ten cards to try to come up with the funniest way to fill in the blank. Say one player throws out "unfathomable stupidity." Another might play "kamikaze pilots." A third might play, "Nazis."
So you have to exercise your comedy muscle. And, since you only have ten cards at once, you have to find the clever juxtaposition. "Nazis" is the horrible, funny answer to lots of black cards, though probably not to "Daddy, why is Mommy crying?" So you don't want to use it until you've found a really clever context.
Generally, true connections are not that funny. ("Why is Mommy crying?" "Nazis." Not that funny. "Why is Mommy crying?" "BATMAN!!!" Better.) Better are weird, trangressive connections. But the funniest are weirdly true, transgressive connections. ("What ended my last relationship?" "The Underground Railway.")
This is great practice for writing comedy.
Also, it's a lot of fun.
I wasn't actually playing with fellow writers this time. So I can't guarantee that it's actually fun to play with fellow writers. They are bound to be really funny, but they might take it really seriously. First one to leave the room sobbing hysterically has to buy the whisky next time, I guess.
We saw GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, which was an odd combination of mild goofy humor and an epic save-the-galaxy story. It was in 3D and D-Box. D-Box gives you a seat that vibrates and tilts according to what's going on onscreen.
I've never been a fan of 3D. I feel it doesn't add anything to the experience. I perceive 2D films as 3D. There are a slew of clues aside from stereo perception. Perspective, obviously. Plus objects not in focus are behind or in front of the object in focus. Plus, cinematographers love to slightly fog the atmosphere, so you can always gauge how far something is.
Sound, obviously, added to the film experience in a huge way. Color added important information. 3D adds no information.
But D-Box adds proprioception. As the spaceship arcs in for a landing, your seat actually tilts. When stuff goes boom, your seat vibrates. It's a little bit like being in a 3D motion simulator at a theme park, except much less extreme, of course.
D-Box costs more. In our theatre it added $10 per ticket. And, clever boys, they only fire up the seats you bought tickets for, so no one can sit in a D-Box seat and get the D-Box experience without shelling out.
Lisa thought it was definitely worth it. One of our ongoing questions is, what does seeing a movie in a theater add to the experience? Why shouldn't we just wait for the Blu-Ray? I suspect the main reason the studios keep pushing 3D out there is it's much harder to pirate, and most people don't have 3D on their TV's. D-Box is another reason to go to the theater, and it's currently impossible to pirate.
I doubt I'll be rushing out to see the next D-Box movie. D-Box doesn't make up for a ridiculous rollercoaster plot. I'd rather see a movie with a great story and great dialog. I'd rather see THE AVENGERS in 2D than GUARDIANS in 3D D-Box. But it's worth checking out.
Is it fair to review the first five minutes of a TV show? Well, why not?
We had high hopes for DOMINION. It looked cool. And: angels. I haven't seen much in the way of scary angels. Not since the excellent 1995 Christopher Walken B-movie THE PROPHECY, I think. ("You have become evil. And evil is mine.")
Unlike werewolves, vampires and zombies, angels are not seriously overexposed in movies. And there is so much you can do with angel mythology. Full disclosure: I developed an angel TV series for several years for The Movie Network. I wrote four episodes, I had springboards for nine more, I was in no danger of running out of cool stuff you could do with angels.
So we turn on SyFy's DOMINION series and ... angels are basically flying zombies. In the teaser, the hero (I'm assuming he's the hero -- he looks a lot like Matt Damon) shoots one in the head, drives off, gets attacked by another, plays patty-cake with it, and then it's shot out of the sky by a computerized anti-aircraft gun.
If you can shoot an angel in the head and kill it, I'm going to say, it's a flying zombie.
I haven't seen LEGION, on which DOMINION was based. But I bet the writers had lots of ideas on interesting directions to take the series, even if the movie was this dumb. After all, the reboot of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA was a zillion times better than the original. And the original BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER movie was nowhere near as interesting as the first ten minutes of the TV pilot.
But I can't help thinking the network wanted another WALKING DEAD. So: flying zombies.
Of course, maybe it gets better. Maybe it gets a lot better. Maybe I should watch episode two. Sometimes pilots are the worst episode of a show, because they get too much input, and there are two many notes asking for everything to be made crystal clear.
But when a series about angels has nothing interesting to add to angel canon... I'm not going to watch it.
There are series that find their legs, or their wings. 30 ROCK didn't really hit its stride until episode 8 or so. If the show had stayed at the level of the pilot, I wouldn't have been a devotee. We really need a phrase that's the reverse of jumping the shark...
On NPR, a Chinese playwright was talking about going to see a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic opera THE MIKADO. Her issue was yellow-face. The D'Oyley Carte company was all Caucasians made up to resemble Japanese courtiers:
We don't tolerate blackface performances any more. Not only don't we tolerate Amos'n'Andy style sterotyped Stepin Fetchit blackface, we generally expect that black characters in drama will be played by actors of color. Laurence Olivier could not play Othello these days.
So if we don't tolerate blackface any more, her question was, why tolerate yellowface?
That's an interesting and fraught question. I'd never thought of THE MIKADO making fun of the Japanese. I've thought of it as a parody of Meiji era Japanese mores and culture — arguably a stealth parody of Victorian mores and culture dressed up as a parody of Japanese court culture.
I would be happy to lose Mickey Rooney's horrible bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY's. But THE MIKADO?
No doubt it would be offensive to have European actors in actual yellowface. But from what I can see from Google Images, D'Oyly Carte doesn't seem to put any kind of pseudo-Japanese makeup on its actors. In some performances their actors just look English, in Japanese clothes. In others they're wearing Kabuki makeup. (Whiteface!) Is it still offensive to have Europeans playing nominally Japanese characters, if not made up to look Japanese?
On the other hand: do we really need the kimonos to have the opera? You can dress your singers in sort-of European garb and Kabuki makeup, but still have characters called Nanki-Poo and Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. Is that better?
I guess part of the reason I never felt offended personally by THE MIKADO, while I find blackface offensive, is that no oppression is involved. The English were not oppressing the Japanese, especially not Japanese courtiers, in 1885. The Japanese were simply outlandish strangers that everyone wanted to know more about. (W. S. Gilbert conceived the opera after looking at a Japanese sword he'd picked up. Japanese stuff was all the rage in London in the early 1880's.)
But there's still that nagging question. Is it always bad if a white guy plays a non-white guy?
I love LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Alec Guinness is wonderful as King Faisal and Anthony Quinn plays Abu Ben Tayi with great gusto. But they're both white guys playing Bedouin Arabs. (Omar Sharif, at least, was Egyptian.)
They play Bedouins with great respect. But is that enough?
There's a sort of vague consensus in Hollywood that, I think, goes something like this: any Asian can play any Asian. Any brown person can play any other brown person. (I have an Armenian friend who mostly plays Arabs.) Only black people are allowed to play Black people. Only Natives and Inuits can play Natives and Inuits.
And white people can play anyone except Black people. Because all we only have white and Black stars.
It gets confusing at the borders. Is it okay if Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, who was of mixed heritage? Is it okay if Fred Armisen plays Barack Obama, whose mom was white? Some Black people still subscribe to the "one drop" theory: if you have any African heritage, you're black. Jolie got a lot of criticism for playing Mariane Pearl. Halle Berry says she considers her daughter to be black, even though her daughter is mostly of European descent (and, I'm guessing, Halle Berry too). Ironically, "one drop" was a white racist rule from slavery days. Sally Hemings was 3/4 white, but Thomas Jefferson's slave; her children were 7/8 white, but they were still slaves until Jefferson legally freed them.
(Of course, there would be an uproar if you cast a white actress to play Sally Hemings. But it might not be a good artistic choice, anyway. Virginians would have seen her as Black, even if she probably didn't look it.)
I'm not sure how to frame this consistently as a moral issue. I can't think of a logical moral argument why it's okay for an Armenian to play an Arab but a Mexican can't play an American Indian. It would be considered ridiculous for Danish actors to object when Hamlet is performed by Englishmen, or for Italians to complain that Romeo and Juliet makes them look like a bunch of hotheads. As a Jew, I don't feel that the Merchant of Venice should only be played by a Jew.
But there is a sense that it is unseemly for white people to play non-white roles. Especially when there are so few decent ones.
And maybe there is sort of a calculus of oppression. A Mexican can't play a Native American because we've oppressed the Native Americans so much.
European ambassadors (black caps) meeting
a Moorish king (white turban), who does not look
like Laurence Fishburne.
To further confuse the issue, some racial casting is based on faulty assumptions. In America, Othello must be played by an African-American. But the Moors were Mediterraneans (Berbers and Arabs), not sub-Saharan Africans. Should Arabs complain when Laurence Fishburne gets to play a Moor?
And of course, every time some white chick plays Cleopatra, Facebook explodes with people complaining that she should be played by an African-American. Cleopatra was Ptolemy, meaning a Greek descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. We have lots of coins with her face on them.
And then there's Ridley Scott's new movie EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, where he cast white people in all the leads, and all the villains and servants with Black people. This is wrong both ways. Moses and Ramses were almost certainly not white, but they weren't Black either.
Egyptians riding chariots, attended by Nubians.
The ancient Egyptians probably looked more like modern Coptic Egyptians than like Ethiopians or Southern Sudanese. Ancient Egyptian art makes a clear distinction between Nubians, who are painted in dark pigments, while the Egyptians themselves are painted in reddish pigments.
On the other hand, there are some statues of Ramses that have vaguely African noses.
All of which is to say: I'm confused. I can understand how a Japanese person could feel insulted by THE MIKADO. But I hope she wouldn't be. And I think it's a bit of a stretch for a Chinese person to be insulted by THE MIKADO. But then, I'm not an Asian person watching THE MIKADO. One of the best definitions of privilege that I've heard is "when you don't think something is a problem, because it's not a problem for you."
Is there any valid criterion, other than "this feels uncomfortably racist, and that is just silly"? I can't stand Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S and I'm not going to rent SONG OF THE SOUTH. But LAWRENCE feels okay. And I'd really hate to lose "I am so proud." Why do I draw the lines here and there? Should I draw them somewhere else?
All I can say is: I hope we get to the point where it no longer matters. In Shakespeare's day, Italians and Danes really were foreigners. One day, maybe no one will feel insulted by THE MIKADO because they don't feel that the show is in any way directed at them, and they can enjoy the three little maids who, all unwary, come from a ladies' seminary.
What do you think?
Next post: I babble on about the Ukrainian crisis.
UsTwo's Monument Valley is a beautiful puzzle platformer inspired by the works of M. C. Escher. The world is full of impossible 3D objects; you can rotate and slide some bits of them. The clever idea is that if something looks like you can walk across it, then you can walk across it. So if something is impassible at one angle, you turn it until it looks passible. And then it is.
For example, you need to get the princess up to that button there (SPOILER):
Which means you'll have to get her on top of that yellow totem. But how? She can't climb.
But suppose you put the totem there. It's just a trick of perspective that the top of the totem looks like it's level with that pillar on the left there.
So it's snap to get on the totem now...
And then you can get to the button.
It's also beautiful in a minimalist way. Lisa, who never plays games, tried a level, and decided she better not continue, or she'd fall into it.
It is a short experience -- maybe 3 hours? And there's not a lot of replayability. But for $3.99, it's terrific.
Meanwhile, DragonBox has a new game. They did a lovely job with DragonBox Algebra, which teaches your five-year-old to do algebra. Elements is teaching my 10-year-old to solve geometric proofs. How do you prove that square is square?
Both of these games try to do one thing, and do it super well. They are fun and elegant at the same time.
It's funny, but though I'm a narrative designer, I don't necessarily need a story. Elegant gameplay does it for me, too.
Even if you don't have a kid, you might dig these. If you have a kid, I think you'll definitely dig these.
Friend of the Blog Mauricio Fernandes interviewed me for his blog. Since he translated me into Portuguese, I reprint it here, in English.
Oh, by the way, sorry about the World Cup, Mauricio...
Q. If you could pick just one, what would it be: Character, Plot or Theme? (an unfair question, but it is good to know the focus of the writer)
Of course a great movie has all of them, but: plot. You can have a successful movie without a theme. (What was the theme of HARD DAY’S NIGHT? Unless it was, “Aren’t the Beatles fun?”) You can have a hit movie without strong characters (TRANSFORMERS). You can't have a successful movie without a plot. Except in France.
By "successful movie," I mean butts in seats, not critical success.
I’m sure people can come up with counter-examples. I prefer to use the word “story” rather than “plot.” Story includes the main character(s). You need a story. (Except in France.) I start from the story, and work my way into the characters. I think most pro screenwriters do, too.
Q. An American or Canadian movie to be read, re-read and studied.
I'd cite ALL THAT JAZZ and ANNIE HALL. Both of them tell difficult, complex stories, yet you're never lost, and you always have an emotional reaction to what's going on.
Q. A foreign movie to be read, re-read and studied.
DAY FOR NIGHT made me want to go into the film business. However, I was 20, and I figured I was too old. Seven years later, I went into the film business.
Q. For you, writing a scene, what´s the most frequent thing to arise: an image, a dialog or an action? In your opinion, is there a hierarchy?
I'm more structural. Who wants what? Why can't they get it? Why should I care? (= David Mamet’s crystallization of the 3 questions of drama.)
I try to figure out what the characters are trying to get from each other, and why they won't give each other what the other person wants.
I write the scene long, and then I trim down to the minimum. Get in late, get out early. Leave'em wanting more.
Q. What were the maximum number of drafts that you wrote for a screenplay? What was the problem with it?
"Drafts" is kind of a meaningless concept on a computer. Writers talk about doing a "pass," but sometimes I just do a surgical intervention to address a specific note. I might only look at the scenes involving a certain character. Is that a "draft"?
I consider all drafts a first draft. Except the shooting draft. I mean, suppose you've done 20 drafts, and then you realize the main character should be a woman? Or the hero is really a villain? Do you not do the change because you have a 20th draft? Of course not. You have to always be willing to throw out as much of the script as you have to in order to make it better. Sometimes you have to write 20 drafts in order to realize that you have a horrible structural flaw.
And by "structure," I don't mean act structure -- I mean story structure. A story is
(a) a character we care about
(b) with an opportunity, problem or goal
(c) who faces obstacles, an antagonist and/or his or her own personal flaw
(d) who has something to lose (jeopardy)
(e) and something to gain (stakes).
Any time you realize how you can strengthen one of those, it's time for a new draft. Or pass. Or whatever.
I rewrote a script of mine from 2006, when I optioned it to Cirrus, to 2013, when they finally decided not to do it. How many drafts? Who cares?
On the other hand my total intervention on BON COP / BAD COP was five weeks. I came in on the end of pre-production, and shortly after I rewrote it, they shot it.
Q. When you have a writer´s block, what do you do?
I think professional writers don't have the luxury of writer's block. Do cabinetmakers have "cabinetmaker's block"? Screenwriters are craftspeople, not "artistes." (Except, possibly, Charlie Kaufman.)
Shakespeare was writing to deadline, for a rep company. He had to put in stuff for his actors to do. The Gravedigger is probably in Hamlet so he’d have something for Will Kemp to play. Turned out pretty good.
About 40% of the way into any script, I usually hit The Sucky Point. That's when everything sucks. I don’t stop writing. I keep writing until I have a script, and then go back and look at it. It's never as sucky as I thought, and I can start trimming and restructuring, which is less nerve wracking since I'm almost always making the script better.
However, pro writers use tools. For example, one tool is to go back to the structure. What is the opportunity, problem or goal? How can I put the hero in a situation where his flaw gets in his way?
Sometimes when a script isn't working I take the whole thing back down to index cards and rebreak the story.
Or take it back to the one-line pitch. What goods do I have to deliver? What's a scene the audience really wants to see, given the one-line pitch?
Whenever Raymond Chandler didn't know what to write next, he had someone bust in the door with a gun. Then he'd figure out who the guy was and why he was there.
Q. Do you have someone who reads what you write before everyone and in whose opinion you trust? If yes, who´s it and why did you choose him (or her)?
My wife is a writer. I chose her because I have been madly in love with her since we were kids. However, she is also a superb writer. She has a very different perspective on the world, and she is also a very different writer. She has more of a talent for coming up with weird and fresh new things, while I'm more Structure Guy. We discuss almost everything and read almost everything the other person does, regardless whose name is on the script.
My first wife wasn't a writer, but she had a lot of input on everything I've done.
I had a co-creator and writing partner on NAKED JOSH, my TV show. She, too, was better at coming up with ideas and maybe I was better at judging and shaping them. It was a good creative relationship and a nightmarish interpersonal relationship. At its worst, a writing partnership can be like a toxic marriage, without the sex.
Q. Do you have the habit of doing research? In what consists your research?
I don't usually do a lot of research, except when my story provokes me to go look something up. However, I read a lot, so I'm already carrying around huge amounts of utterly useless information which sometimes turns out to be useful. For example, I’ve been carrying around the formula for bronze for decades, and finally got to put it in something I was writing.
Q. How many time (weeks, months, years) do you take to have a final draft of a screenplay? If depends on the screenplay, please give me one example.
How long is a piece of string?
The only thing I can put a time limit on is the amount of time it takes to write a first draft feature screenplay. That's usually about three weeks. But the outline takes as long as it takes, and the rewriting takes as long as it takes. The best answer I can give you is: much, much longer than you think when you're writing it the first time.
However, there's a lot of fallow time in there. I wrote KIKI WILDER from 2006 to 2013, but that was only one of dozens of scripts, pitches, outlines, treatments, and games that I wrote in there. You learn a lot when you look at something you haven't seen in months.
I don't recommend rewriting only one thing endlessly. Write something, go write something else, come back to the first thing. Your first idea may not be your best. I hear about people who've been writing the same script for years, and I can't understand that impulse. Is that the only thing you have to say? Really?
As an exercise, take a script you've been writing for a while, put it on the shelf, don't look at it, and one month later, rewrite the outline from memory. Compare. The new version will be better: more streamlined, more memorable. That's because anything that wasn't memorable, you don't remember.
Q. What are the best traits for a screenwriter? And the worst?
The best trait for a screenwriter is the inability to go more than a few days without writing. For most of us, it's a jones. An addiction. I just don't like myself if I'm not writing something. Writers write. If someone says they "want to write, but just don't have a lot of time for it," I’m not sure they’re a writer.
The worst trait is the inability to finish. You have to finish things.
Q. What´s the best "school" for a screenwriter? What was your "school"?
Showbiz. I don't recommend school. I recommend writing stuff and getting it out there. You need feedback from people in the biz.
Writing groups are good.
I haven't had a really great writing teacher for me. I've had teachers who were terrific writers, at least one of them Oscar-nominated, but I haven't had terrifically enlightening writing teachers. Maybe they were good for other students, I don’t know.
However, I did learn a hell of a lot about writing from an editing teacher, Oscar-nominated Richard Marks, and from an acting teacher, Joanne Baron. And from an African-American Studies professor at Yale, Robert Farris Thompson. I would say you learn the most from people in adjacent disciplines.
Q. If you could cite just one book about screenwriting, what will it be?
Well, that's a gimme, since I wrote one! CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: WRITING MOVIES THAT GET MADE!