Wednesday, August 13, 2014
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
Next post: I babble on about the Ukrainian crisis.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I've been playing a couple of neat iOS games.
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.
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
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!
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
FAR CRY 3 has a spectacular case of what Clint Hocking calls "ludo-narrative dissonance." That's a fancy phrase for when the gameplay is at odds with the story.
The story is about a callow college boy who is out to save his friends, who have been kidnapped by bandits.
The gameplay is about destroying bandit camps so you can clear out more territory and get better weapons, and hunting wild animals so you can upgrade your ammo pouches.
The gameplay is really tight and the bandit camps become puzzles: how do you knock off the maximum number of bandits without alerting them to their danger?
The problem is that you are in no hurry to liberate your friends. In fact, you do the story missions last. That way, you'll be maximally geared up when you do them. To heck with your friends! They'll still be there when you get to them, right?
In Mass Effect 3, I recall, the LND got so extreme that I realized that whenever the game told me that a given mission to save the galaxy from the Reapers was super-urgent, that meant I should absolutely not do that mission until I'd done all the sidequests. Many of the sidequests went away the moment you did the story mission.
In this Game Informer interview
, Mark Thompson, the Narrative Director, says they're going to try to sync up the player's motivation with the player character's motivation. Sounds like a good idea, eh?
In related news, Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III made some good points in their GDC talk "Death to Three Act Structure
". Their point is that game players experience story differently than movie watches. They remember characters and moments better than they remember plot:
MS User Researcher Deborah Hendersen did a study a couple of years ago that might help to answer that
question. She discovered that players really hardly remember the specific
plots of the games they play.
When asked “tell me the plot of your favorite game” players were unable to talk
at length or with much accuracy.
However, they were *very* able to recall the plots of movies and TV shows
And, of course, in open world games, it's not really possible to tell a three act story -- you have no idea in what order the player will encounter your narrative material.
So, focus on great characters and great moments.
The more I know about story, the more I realize that it isn't everything.
Both the interview and the GDC talk are worth checking out.
Friday, June 20, 2014
Q. I am trying to get in touch with Bill Prady and it appears from some Google searches you know him.
I have 6 scripts attached for The Big Bang Theory. They would be 6 of the best episodes ever, and the one entitled [snip] will win an Emmy for Mrs. Cuoco. I implore you to just start reading it, it encompasses everything the Big Bang Theory is about.
I realize you folks hear this a lot, but Chuck and Bill really needs to see these. I have a lot more where those came from and many more ideas.
Wow, so many things wrong with this email!
One, do not send attachments to someone who hasn't asked for them. No one practicing good Internet hygiene will open them.
Two, do not send attachments to someone who hasn't asked for them. It is extremely rude. Ask if someone wants to read your spec, then send if they say it's okay. They might ask you to sign a release. They might not read other people's material. I do not read the material of strangers unless they sign a release and pay me for an evaluation. It's not my job. I'm a writer, not an agent or a producer. I occasionally read scripts of writer friends of mine.
(See, "No, I Will Not Read Your F#@%ing Script" by Josh Olson for only some of the many reasons why.)
Three, Bill Prady does not want to read your Big Bang Theory scripts. Bill Prady has an office full of writers generating Big Bang Theory scripts, based on conversations he's had with them about the specific needs of the show. You, on the outside, do not know what these are. Your scripts will read spectacularly wrong to him, no matter how close you think they are.
If your scripts are really excellent, then send the best one to an agent. If she likes it, she'll ask for a spec of a different show, or possibly a spec pilot. No one wants to read more than one script from a show from you. If she likes your two scripts, she might be able to get you work on another half hour sitcom.
Star Treg:TNG famously bought spec scripts from the Cloud, but I've never heard of another show doing that.
Four, just because I wrote up a talk that Bill Prady gave a few years ago, that makes you think I'm on a script-giving basis with him? Oh, if only. I would indeed give him a script I thought was amazing. My own. My wife's. If I thought he was receptive to more than that, I might give him the occasional script by a friend I think is really funny. I might give him one every, oh, five years. You don't want to wear out your welcome. Generally you get one shot.
A friend of ours from high school, for example, is a big deal agent in a specific market niche. We have never sent him a script, because we didn't have anything we thought was perfect for him. We did not want to waste his time. (As luck would have it, he noticed she'd won her second Writer's Guild Award this year, and emailed her.)
Five, never send someone a whole bunch of scripts. What if they read the worst one first? Send the best one. If they want to read more, trust me, they will ask.
How do you know I even watch Big Bang Theory? How would I know if your spec was good or bad? If you asked me to critique your BBT scripts, I would have to refuse, because I don't know the show well enough to judge them.
Six, no one wants to read your spec script without a release. You know why? Because if we were ever to read your script, and didn't have a release from you, and later on we wrote a script that you, for some reason, thought was full of your stolen ideas, then you might sue. You would almost certainly lose the suit, but it would still cost a month and $5,000 to get the lawsuit thrown out of court. I would rather spend that money on Zinfandel.
So I did not open your attachments, and I have deleted your email.
Good luck, eh?
Saturday, June 14, 2014
One of the standard bits of advice that the successful give to the aspiring is "write for yourself, and the money will follow." (Well, except for these guys
.) It's a specific case of the broader platitude "Do what you love, and the money will follow."
It's wonderful advice for the successful to follow. Pretty much every breakout success happened because someone believed the world needed something only he or she had -- a personal computer, a better way to index the Web, a story to tell.
And for many people, it is excellent advice. Me, for example. I never really considered the odds against becoming a pro screenwriter. I just kept at it until I could support myself. (And I never had to be completely indifferent to the market; people encouraged me all along the way.) Took longer than I had planned, but now I look at my high school classmates who are doctors and lawyers and bankers, and a lot of them are trying to get out of their business. A friend of mine who's a surgeon is trying to put together a singing and acting career. On a larger scale, while I've made a good living (and sometimes a great one) for, let's say, 14 out of the past 15 years, so many of the businesses that were supposed to be safe turned out to be much sketchier. Who ever thought you could bust your butt for years to become partner at your law firm and then the partners could fire you in a downturn?
The problem with this bit of advice is that you almost never hear from the failures. For everyone who follows their bliss and makes it big -- or makes a living at it, at least -- there are uncounted numbers who follow their bliss and fail horribly.
I get emails from people who have written all thirteen scripts for the first season of their TV series. Unfortunately, they have no credits, and that's not how you make a TV series.
The truth is, "follow your bliss, and the money will follow ... if your bliss happens to be something that everyone turns out to want."
See, the problem is, when Matt Weiner writes MAD MEN or Marc Cherry specs DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES or Sylvester Stallone turns down $100,000 for ROCKY after he's had to sell his dog -- they have something that, in retrospect, the market wanted. What they loved and believed in, other people came to love and believe in, too.
I bet, as well, that a lot of people told Stallone he had a pretty amazing script. And people worked with Marc Cherry to help him make his spec amazing. And Stephen King's wife encouraged him to keep writing, and rescued the manuscript of CARRIE from the fireplace.
"Follow your bliss" is not a blueprint for monomania. The truth is, nobody succeeds alone. Creating something good and new is a tug-of-war between listening to yourself and listening to everybody else.
I'm sure Marc Cherry had nine other ideas he would have loved to write in addition to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. But he had a sense that DH would make it. I'm sure Matt Weiner has a folder full of ideas crazier than MAD MEN. Even Sylvester Stallone had another idea -- about a troubled vet in a small town with a mean sheriff -- that didn't get picked up till he was a star.
It is true that you have to write what you love. If you're not loving what you're writing, probably no one else will like it either. (Unless you're a neurotic genius who never likes their own work, but it's really good anyway. But that's rarer than you might think.) If you're bored, the audience will be, too. And life is too short to write stuff you're bored by. Why go through the trouble of being a writer if you're bored? I've never turned in something I hated.
But I have sometimes had to figure out what I loved about a project. Most pro writers rarely turn down work. That doesn't mean we're whores or hacks. It means we have a talent for finding what we truly love in the material we're hired to work on.
That's what I do when I consult on story: I try to find what I love in the other guy's work, and help him or her carve it out of what is ordinary and stale. It's not my job to say, "Well, I woulda done it this way."
(And, by the way, "hack" isn't the insult you might think it is, not among pro writers. I think most of us respect the ability to hack it out -- to turn in something that's at least shootable, on time, regardless of whether the Muse is taking our calls.)
But you have to learn how to listen. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for me, who am I? If I am not for other people, what am I?"
Saturday, June 07, 2014
I have a strange brain. Scansion sets me off. Today I saw a cheese knife at the Atwater market, and immediately an old pop song popped into my head. See if you can figure out what it was. It went something like, "I like a cheese knife, I like to boogie..."
This happens all the time. Every time I see the phrase "Philadelphia cheese steak," I hear a song by Elton John. With slightly different lyrics.
Philadelphia cheese steak, I luh, uh, uv you, yes I do.
I suppose this is what comes of writing poetry in high school. Or possibly this is why I wrote poetry in high school.
Monday, May 26, 2014
Whitney: "Did you see that video I sent you a link to?"
Me: "Er, no. I, uh, might have played, like, 24 hours of Crusader Kings 2 this weekend."
Whitney: "Good for you, man!"
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
The other observation I had watching HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE was that women make much more interesting action heroes than, say, men. Why:
Women are allowed to be really upset. They can still shoot the bad guys full of arrows. Katniss Everdeen spends a lot of time being really really upset. And then she shoots some people full of arrows, and then she blows a lot of stuff up.
Women heroes can kick bad guys in the balls. They can be really, really effective spies. But, then:
I mean, theoretically, guy action heroes could have feelings. But most of them are all, yippee kay yay, mother f***ers:
I much prefer writing female action heroes, frankly. More interesting for me as a writer.
It's not like this in every culture. The French Canadian show 19-2 has cops who talk about their feelings.
But, in English, it seems like it is very unmanly to have feelings, unless your buddy has just had his head blown off, in which it's okay, so long as you then go into a rage and make them pay.
So, there you go.
Yep, we watched it. And it was a lot of fun.
I would like to point out that this is a movie starring a woman, that grossed $424 million domestic and $864 million worldwide. So, given the right vehicle and the right franchise, women can be action stars. They make a different kind
of action star, but that's my second post.
This post has to do with story vs. spectacle. So that means it has a SPOILER, k?
The Latin phrase deus ex machina
means "god from the machine." In many ancient Greek plays, it seems, various complications would ensue and ensue, until in the end it looked like nothing was going to get resolved. Then a god would descend from Mount Olympos and put everything in its place. The "machine" was a contraption that allowed an actor to be flown out over the stage using a crane.
Hence, ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, which translates to "deus ex machina."
In HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is unwillingly dragged back into the Hunger Games. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the world's worst public relations man, has convinced the evil President that they can destroy her as a symbol of revolution if they can first get her to kill all her buddies.
Naturally she spends a great deal of time being upset about this, and then spends a good deal of time in the games trying her best not to kill anyone. And then she suddenly figures out how to blow up the fancy high-tech arena in which the Games take place, something on which she has spent absolutely no apparent thought until the last reel of the film.
Just as the roof is caving in, you might be thinking, well, how is she going to get out of this
? But no worries! Because it turns out that Philip Seymour Hoffman is part of the revolution! And he is descending out of the sky in a rocketship to rescue Katniss! Yay!
Philip Seymour Hoffman ex machina
I bring this up not to complain that HG: CF is a bad movie, or even a bad story. Structurally, it does have a big problem. The heroine doesn't seem to have a positive goal or a plan throughout the movie, just a point of view ("this sucks!"). And she does not motivate the ending.
But the kids seem to like it, to the tune of $865,000,000. (It made another million while you were reading this post.)
the movie have? Well, it has a character we really like, with a serious problem. It has a hate-able villain. It's got a romantic triangle. It creates a world that is recognizable as a dark reflection of our own. There are horribly rich rich people, terribly poor poor people, and bread and circuses. (As the Romans said, panem et circenses
; why do you think it's called "Panem"?)
It has spectacle.
Movies are spectacles at least as much as they are stories. A movie can survive on spectacle alone. See the TRANSFORMERS franchise, and the STAR WARS prequels, both of which had far, far worse stories than HG: CF.
What I'm suggesting here is really that we, as writers, need to be a bit humble about story. I personally care a great deal about story. I even think that human beings are genetically hardwired to interpret the world in terms of story. But story is not only what happens. It is also who it happens to and where it happens. And if you have enough scrumptiousness in where it happens and who it happens to, you can sometimes get away with serious flaws in what happens.
After all, if you give us the building blocks of story -- the characters and the world and the predicament -- we can make up our own stories. We imagine ourself in the world, not mimicking the heroine's moves, but performing our own. What would we
do if we
were Katniss? Etc.
I'm told that part of the attraction for women watching SEX AND THE CITY was imagining oneself in Carrie's shoes but not
screwing up relationships with perfectly adorable guys like Aidan.
Hence fan fiction.
That's also why I agree with Richard Rouse III and Jill Murray that story in games does not have to be a linear story. It can be presenting the player with a rich world and rich characters and a predicament, and letting him or her tell his own story through gameplay. (But that is also another post.)
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Jim Henshaw over at The Legion of Decency has a wise post about "The Scene You Don't
Write," referring to a particularly shocking scene in the last Game of Thrones but one, involving what went down in a tomb. Also, there was a similar scene he was asked to write years ago, which he refused to write, because it would have destroyed the hero as a character.
(There are not, technically, spoilers in what follow, but clever readers will probably figure stuff out, so if are you are behind in your GoT watching and zealously avoiding social media, read not on.)
I've noticed that certain directors and certain network execs have a very different point of view than I do about what we're putting on screen. I'm all about the story and the characters. I want to tell a story that moves the audience. I've noticed that many directors want most of all to thrill the audience. They want wow factor. They want spectacle. They pay lip service to story and character, but what they really want is cool moments, especially if they can put those cool moments on their reel. How those moments figure into the story is sometimes secondary.
"Why? Because it's cool, that's why."
I'd like to say that these directors' movies don't turn out well, but it's not true, depending on your definition of "turning out." Just about everyone I know thought the STAR WARS prequels were embarrassing, but they made Panamax-sized boatloads of money.
What happens between Cersei and her loving brother is not in the novel. So one wonders what was going through the writers' heads as they wrote the scene. Was it a dictum from HBO? Their mandate is basically, "stuff you can't put on TV":
Well, you certainly can't put the Cersei/Jaimi scene on broadcast TV, now can you. So that is all win. Right?
Of course, it does make Jaimi despicable, which the writers address by having the characters never, ever bring up what happened ever again, sort of like the Supreme Court and Bush v. Gore.
That's what makes me suspect that the scene didn't come out of the writing room, but was a network dictum. If the writers had come up with it, they'd have run with it.
Oh, and Jaimi is superdecent to someone in the next episode, maybe by way of apology?
So what do you do when a director or a network wants to have a character do something that is horribly out of character, and will damage the story edifice you have carefully constructed?
This is a problem that every pro writer deals with constantly; because, unless you're writing a spec, you are responsible to whomever hired you. But you are also responsible to the story; and if your credits are a bunch of crap movies, it's unhealthy for your career (though it is healthier than no credits). It is hard being a good servant to two masters. You can attempt to explain why it's a horrible idea. You can threaten to quit (not recommended). You can actually quit (definitely not recommended).
Or you can try to modulate the bad idea in some way, and twist it so that it's not a bad idea.
The two best things you can do are (a) find the good version of their bad idea, so that you are indeed giving them the scene they want, but in a context where it is not a bad idea; or (b) offer them something equally or more spectacular that obviously will not work with the bad idea, so they have to choose one or the other.
If you can do either of these, people will love to work with you, and you won't feel like a hack or a whore.
I generally find that there is a good version of most "bad" ideas. Figuring it out starts with really isolating ad crystallizing what exactly it is that the client wants. They usually want to fix something they perceive as broken. Try to find out what's behind
the bad idea, even if it's lonely-puppy syndrome. ("You haven't given me enough toys to play with, so I'm going to chew on the couch.")
If you have to write the bad scene, then write it so that it can be taken out of the script without damaging anything. I.e. don't put any important exposition or plot development in it. Maybe, with luck, it will get taken out in post when your exec or director realizes what he or she has done.
Always, always respond to a bad note on a different day than you get it. In the morning, it may not be such a bad note. That's why the phrase "I'll have a look at that" is your friend.
Of course, there are some situations, like Jim H's, above, where you really have to choose between a rock and a hard place. That's where you get to decide whether you want to be a righteous, proud writer, or a rich one. Up to you. "Pride, plus a sack, is worth a sack," as the Ferengi say. But, as we say in New York, if you can't live with yourself, it's going to be hard to find an apartment.
If you want to see how the series lines up with the books, here's a handy article and chart
Sunday, April 06, 2014
The people at Final Draft were kind enough to send me a review copy of Final Draft 9, their snappy new edition of the software.
I've been using it on my current show; I'm not a big fan of Screenwriter's not-very-intuitive interface. I haven't run across any really dandy new features, except that Script Notes are now organized. I'm sure there must be other features; I was going to look them up next week.
However, now I've got a more basic problem. After, originally, activating the software with no problem, FD9 has now decided to deactivate itself. No problem, I put my customer number back in.
Nope, this time, it won't activate. I get a buggy error message:
No problem. I call up the activation hotline. I get a message saying FD9 can only
be activated online. And here's where it gets serious:
The activation people only work Monday-Friday, during Pacific Coast work hours
Y'all do know that screenwriters work on weekends? And nights?
Are you effing kidding me?
In this era of 24-7 Bangalore help centers, it is really inexcusable to have a help desk that only works 40 hours a week, Pacific Standard Time.
They really, really need to fix this.
Oh, well. Back to FD8.
(Yeah, yeah, DMc. I know.)
UPDATE: Final Draft 9 will also not update itself unless it thinks it's been activated. That's just dumb. Doesn't matter though; even if I update from outside the program, it still won't activate.
UPDATE #2: Called the Activation Hotline. Something's wrong with that
. It's the usual "press one for Final Draft 6 through 8..." except it doesn't wait for you to press a button before telling you "I didn't get that" repeatedly.
UPDATE #3: This post
solves the activation problem.
Tuesday, April 01, 2014
According to FiveThirtyEight
, the domestic Return on Investment of movies that pass the Bechdel Test
is $1.37; for movies in which the women never get to talk to each other it's $1.22; movies that don't even have two named women, it's $1.00.
Since Hollywood believes that international markets don’t want to see women in film, we also broke down the median return on investment for films based on domestic (U.S. and Canada) and international box office numbers. We found that Bechdel-passing films still have comparable returns on investment when the movies “travel."
In other words, treating women characters as if they were human beings makes you money.
Saturday, March 29, 2014
I thought this tweet was worth promoting:
Also, decide if their loglines would make a better script than yours, and rewrite your script to match.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Just got off the phone with a writer friend who's been offered a lousy deal for his pitch for a TV series. The deal boils down to some money if the show goes, but no "created by" credit and no guarantee of being in the writing room. If the production company actually shot a whole first season of the show, he calculated, he'd get a maximum of under $20K, and a very, very vague non-writing credit.
The production company, of course, wants to keep their options open. They figure they'll bring on a big-deal showrunner who will rewrite the idea and want a created by credit. He may not want to involve my friend in development. He may or may not want my friend involved in the writing room. There may not even be a writing room. So the production company says they can't give my friend a credit or promise to involve him in development.
By "can't," of course, they mean, "don't want to." Of course they can. They can give my friend a (shared) created by credit. They can guarantee him involvement in the development. He's not asking for control of the show. He's asking to be part of the process on a show that he originated.
This is why writers need agents. Not just agents, but agents who are willing to stick up for them. And are willing to walk away from a deal if it's a lousy one.
The fact is, most shows don't go. If writers had to live on working on their own shows in production, all but maybe two dozen of us would starve. Writers mostly live on (a) working on other people's shows and (b) developing their own shows. The key word here is development. Lots of scripts get developed. Very few pilots get shot. Fewer pilots get picked up. Almost no shows survive their first season.
So when you make a deal for your pitch, you need to get paid every step of the way. Obviously you get paid less for a pitch document than a pilot script. Obviously you get paid less, per hour, for a pilot script (which will have to be rewritten 99 times before it's a go) than for later scripts. But you need to get paid something at each step.
And you need to be creatively involved. If you're not a showrunner yet, you want second chair. If you don't qualify for second chair, you want to be on staff. If they can't put you on staff--
--they can put you on staff. They just don't want to. They can, if necessary, pay you to write 1 1/2 development scripts and then throw those scripts out if they hate them. It's just a cost of doing business.
They can give you a created by credit. After all, it's your idea. And any decent showrunner who comes on later will just have to understand that.
If I were taking over someone else's show, I don't think it would be a dealbreaker for me that they share a created by credit. After all, they created the show. Sure, I would rewriting lots of stuff. But I'm rewriting from what they brought. Someone who tries to erase their name is a bit of a jerk.
I once optioned a script from an amateur writer. I rewrote everything. New plot. New characters. Basically, I kept his title, because it was a great title that suggested a better script than he had written.
I could have just written my own script. But that would have been stealing.
("Good Army compass. How if I take it?" asks Sherif Ali. "Then you would be a thief," says Lawrence, understanding perfectly that Sherif Ali would not at all mind considering himself a murderer, but could not tolerate being thought of as a thief, even by a dead man.)
A good showrunner does not need to steal your credit. He's the bloody showrunner. It's going to be his show to play with anyway.
Here's where your power comes in. You do not have to sell anything. They can't make your series without your agreement. You can't ask for unreasonable things -- to be a showrunner if you don't have the experience, to get paid huge money up front -- but you can insist on reasonable things. And it is reasonable to expect that if someone makes a series out of your pitch, you get some credit and money for it. That's what writers invent series for.
You will lose a few deals by insisting, in the long run, yes. But in the long run, the deals you improve will more than pay for the ones you lose. And companies that are really serious about making your pitch will ultimately consider your demands just the price of doing business. The ones that can't stomach giving you anything, I tend to think, are not the ones who will get your series made at all, ever.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Q. If a person sent you an NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement], in the body of an email, and you were asked to email back "I agree" as the sign that you read and understood the particulars.... what do you think of the validity of that exchange?
Legally, I believe, even an oral agreement is binding. An email agreement is an agreement.
However, an email is just a text file. Any text file can be edited in a text editor. What happens if one of you alters your copy of the agreement? Then it's "he said, she said."
That's why Adobe PDF software enables cryptographic signatures on documents. An encrypted "signature" at least prevents tampering with the document.
In real life, people rarely forge documents. On the other hand, you keep reading about people who do. I'd stick with actual signatures.
(I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.)
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
I listened to Neil De Grassi Tyson's podcast on NPR. He describes the work he did before going on Jon Stewart. He analyzed how long Stewart lets a guest talk before he busts out of a joke. Then Tyson practiced talking in a rhythm that would get out a complete thought in less time than that, so that he would always have made a complete point before Stewart came in with the joke.
He goes on to talk about how people compared Larry Bird as a "student of basketball" to Michael Jordan, who's a "gifted athlete." Of course Michael Jordan works really hard, and smart. No one who comes across as gifted does so without also working hard at it.
"A line will take us hours, maybe
but if it does not seem a moment's thought,
our stitching and unstitching is as nought."
I recently completed the first draft of my first action screenplay. Some of the action sequences take up two-and-a-half pages of (two-lined) description. With no dialogue in between that. I use the 'montage' approach in the way you described in "Crafty Screenwriting". Should this be avoided this at any cost?
Why, no. Movies often have two-and-a-half-minute sequences where nobody says anything. And the screenplay should create the experience of a movie. So QED, scripts can have three pages without dialog.
Of course it depends on the genre. THE AVENGERS is all about action with snappy banter. But if you are telling the story purely visually, well, that is what movies are supposed to do!
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Some games are just too much fun.
CRUSADER KINGS II is a turn-based strategy game in which you play a succession of heirs to a dynasty. Your dynasty keeps going until you hit 1453 -- or, far more likely, it dies out. Having only girl heirs can destroy your dynasty. Having your rulers die before they have kids at all is entirely possible, too.
It is an immensely complex game. You have councillors. They may like you. They may not. They may plot against you. You have vassals. They probably will plot against you. You have neighbors. They will attack you when you're weak and suck up to you when you're strong.
You can play an emperor, a king, a duke or a count. You can try to build your count up to be an emperor. That's almost impossible, but a boy can dream, can't he?
I played the Bagrationi dynasty, rulers of the Kingdom of Georgia. My first three kings did pretty well, expanding from four counties to maybe a dozen. I took two Christian counties back from the Muslims. Some of that was the doing of the Dukes of Kartli, also of my bloodline, and therein lay a problem: they all thought they'd make better kings than I. They were always waiting to overthrow me.
Then my last King had only a girl child. No sons. Then he died of the pox, leaving me playing a 2-year-old princess. None of her vassals liked her: on top of being a minor, and a girl, she was also a coward. (All the characters have a slew of virtues and vices you can do nothing to improve.) The duchess of Kartli (the duke had died in my prison) forced me to accept electoral succession; then a cousin got himself elected to the throne.
My now-demoted duchess saved her gold up until she was 16, and hired four thousand horse archers to take her throne back. She threw the amiable usurper in prison and put her brother on the throne. (I forgot to mention: seven months after the succession crisis, my deceased King's Queen had a boy. If she'd just done that a year earlier, there would have been no succession crisis.)
That was about four in the morning. CKII is as addictive as CIVILIZATION, another game I have banned myself from playing. Turn-based strategy means you can fuss endlessly; there's never a good reason to stop playing. (Well, had I kept playing, the Mongols would have swept the Bagrationi from their throne well before 1453. There's no beating the Mongols.)
But CKII is to CIVILIZATION as DARK SOULS is to SKYRIM: you will eventually die. The fun is in staying alive as long as you can, and doing as much as possible, with the game actively trying to kill you. You don't play CKII for the graphics. It is all maps, numbers and sound effects.
But I found CKII to be one of the most immersive games I've played. The game mechanics are really well thought out. They recreate the travails of being a feudal lord. You struggle to find councillors who are good at what they do; when you do, you can't always use them. I had a courtier whose stewardship, 16, was significantly higher than my current steward, whose stewardship was only 14. Unfortunately the current steward was the red-bearded Duke of Kartli. I really did not want to offend my most powerful vassal by giving some courtier his job. So he stayed on, and the talented guy had to wait years -- until the Duke rebelled against me.
I knew I wouldn't be able to get to sleep with the game merely paused. So I deleted all my saved games. And threw the app in the trash. And deleted the trash.
Now I can get some work done.
Wait ... that wasn't actually the app I trashed ... I think it was just the shortcut.
It wouldn't hurt if I played just a little bit more... would it?
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Larry Zerner, a copyright attorney in LA, has laid out very clearly why you want to copyright your screenplay, not register it with the WGA.
The problem with the Script Registry is that many writers are using it as a substitute for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. As a result, in the event that their work is infringed, the writer will almost certainly lose thousands of dollars. And, in many cases, a writer who only registered with the Script Registry will be precluded from filing a lawsuit because the economic realities of litigation.
Read the rest on his blog.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Friday, February 21, 2014
... Jim Henson used to say about the ancient-but-still-edible vaudeville schtick that was the heart of THE MUPPET SHOW.
According to the NY Times
, Adam McKay, director of ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES, has replaced all 763 jokes in the movie so that the studio can re-release it. The movie was shot improvisationally, so he has the outtakes to make a new, raunchier (not, he says, necessarily better) movie with the same plot.
Post production has got orders of magnitude easier. It helps when your movie has already grossed over $123 million and you can afford it. But this sort of thing is only plausible when it takes only a few keystrokes to move a sound effect. When I was in film school, everyone spent months building their sound tracks for their short films. Now I go into a room with the mixer and we do the sound effects while we're mixing the movie.
One thing I learned shooting my last short, WINTER GARDEN, is just how good actors can be at improvisation. I had a cast of veterans, headed by Enrico Colantoni, and they did all sorts of fascinating things in rehearsals once we got through the script and got into improvs. It's easy to see that shooting with a digital camera gives you more takes. It's surprising and fun to see what possibilities that opens up. Additional takes are still not free -- the clock is still running. But if you can add a few more takes, that means you can shoot the script pages, and then fool around for another take or two. Sometimes you'll find something amazing. Something you might catch a really great moment.
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
I'm very pleased that my short film ROLE PLAY will be screening at the Rendezvous du Cinéma Québecois, at 21h45 on Friday, February 21. It stars Juliette Gosselin (right) and Kat Garcia.
Did you ever write until 1 am, and then have trouble getting to sleep?
|Not the "Flux" I'm writing about.|
There have been assorted studies that show that the relatively blue screen of a computer tricks your brain into thinking it's daytime. In fact, at 6400K, your computer screen is even bluer than sunlight, which is about 5600K. So when you finally close the computer, you're still in daytime mode. It takes a while for your brain to get into night time mode.
The nice people at Flux
have written a free app that will change the relative color temperature of your screen so it's warmer -- anywhere from 5600K down to the 2700K of firelight.
(It has absolutely no relationship with Aeon Flux, whose picture is to the right.)
I tried it last night. I only put the color temperature to 4500K because otherwise it seemed just a bit too orange. (The FAQ
says it takes some getting used to.) But I did feel a whole lot less wired when I finally stopped working around 11 pm.
The only odd feature of the program is that it depends on your location to determine when to turn the lighting of your computer down to night mode. So the transition happens automatically at sundown. In the depths of winter, I don't particularly want to feel sleepy at 5 pm. But it shouldn't take long before they allow you to set the timer manually.
Check it out.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Hunter bought me Stoic's Banner Saga
for Christmas. It is a lovely, lovely game. It's set in a Viking Fimbulwinter world where you must fight obsidian robots called "Dredge" as they swarm across the land. But there is a rich mythology behind them, and their invasion is not what you might think at first.
The game makes the most of its Kickstarted indie budget. (They asked for $100K. They got $725K.) The music is majestic, Viking horns and drums. The visuals are stylized. Outside of combat, you're in a 2.5D world. Cut scenes are stills of the characters. Travel is a tiny line of animated characters walking across a highly stylized landscape. The credits say the world is inspired by the artwork of Eyvind Earle (Disney's Sleeping Beauty
), but I prefer it to his work.
The game has consequences. Characters can die because of your choices. Your daughter can die. Your whole world can die.
To keep your clan alive, you sometimes have to be a bastard. Trusting strangers can get your people killed. Not trusting strangers can get your people killed. Hard to know which is which. So you really feel like a leader of men.
Combat is turn-based tactics, à la XCOM. I love turn-based tactics. I like being able to think out my moves.
What makes a great indie game? Totally delivering the goods on a game that is conceptually fresh but of limited scope. Taking advantage of your limitations to do something new. The stripped-down art style -- the 2D, only half-animated travelogue, for example -- creates a mood that 3D might not have done.
The mythology in this game suggests that there could be a sequel. I'm ready.
I really enjoyed this game. (Thank you, Hunter!) $25 on Steam. Worth every penny.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
I reviewed Avi Shavit's book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
on Goodreads. If you're interested in a new book trying to make sense of Israel, its peoples and the pickle it's in, by a prominent peacenik journalist, read my review. Nothing to do with screenwriting, so I won't post it here.
Saturday, January 11, 2014
Q. I am writing to inquire as to how it would be possible to track down the complete series of NAKED JOSH in any visual media format, for purchase. The production company tells me that DVD release is, of course, driven by consumer demand. However in the absence of reruns, Netflix, or the like, it is difficult to see how the series might be brought to old and new viewers. It is one of the very best series produced in Canada of the past decade or so. Television for grown-up viewers. When one considers some of the schlock that's readily available via DVD, VOD, etc, it is unfortunate that a quality production remains in limbo. I'm only one viewer and consumer, but I for one would happily pay for the privilege of revisiting "Naked Josh." If you can offer any direction, I would be entirely grateful. I of course fully understand that much is out of your control even as creator.
Yes, marketing has always been one of the places that Canadian showbiz traditionally falls down. Maybe people would like the show if they knew about it, right? They certainly can't like the show if they don't know about it, can they?
You could, for example, release the pilot on YouTube for free, and see what kind of views it go. Or you could release the whole thing on iTunes, which wouldn't cost very much. Or if Apple charges too much, maybe Amazon would be willing to put it up there. Certainly Netflix ought to be willing to do a deal.
Or what if the network put all their archived content up on their own site, with ads? And then if something really got a lot of views, they could then have the proof of concept to license it to Netflix or sell it on DVD.
One almost gets the impression that the Canadian networks would prefer if they didn't have to distribute any Canadian content at all.
I don't know why you can't get NJ on Netflix or DVD. But thank you for pestering Showcase. Maybe you'll put a bug in their ear, who knows?
Friday, January 10, 2014
Before being a famous singer and Neil Gaiman's main squeeze, Amanda Palmer was a professional living statue. She made enough money to support herself while doing gigs for even less money than you make for standing around covered in paint. She also learned how to ask people for money in a way that gave them something worth more than money.
As I'm fond of pointing out, quite a few enormously successful people went through periods of being huge flops. Stephen King wrote ten novels that didn't sell before he wrote CARRIE. Andie MacDowell, I seem to remember, lived in a car with her mom.
More interestingly is the lesson in asking. People have become very bad at asking. (Not you, dear blog readers. You are still very good at asking.) For one thing, the skill of calling someone on the phone, rather than texting them, has gone out the window.
But there is a weird human truth: if you can get people to do something for you, they often like you better. That's right. They become attached to you. (I believe it has something to do with cognitive dissonance.)
Also, if you get someone in showbiz to do something for you, then you can figure out a favor you can do for them, and now you can call them a friend.
Anyway, no one gets anywhere in showbiz without help. So you should start practicing asking for it.
That doesn't mean asking total strangers to work for you for nothing. It's the people you already know, a little. And you should not ask them, ever, to do anything you can do yourself. Only those things that only they can do for you. Like give you advice. Give you a contact. Teach you how to do something. Explain what you are doing wrong.
It's a lot of work being a good mentee. But most successful people are willing to mentor, if you learn how to ask.