Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Friday, August 31, 2007

Laurie's just uploaded the fruits of his hard HTML labors, and the 12 WAYS TO SAY "I'M SORRY" site is up and running. Check it out and let me know what you think. No video yet -- we're still submitting to festivals and all.

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Is it possible to copyright a spec script based on an existing television series? (using the same characters, personas, etc. and even listing as a speculative script for the show)
I suppose you could theoretically register your script with the US Copyright Office. But what would be the point?

Copyright protects you from someone else publishing your work. But no one is going to publish your spec, whether under their name or yours. They can't; it's based on someone else's property. And copyright doesn't stop someone sending your script around with their name on it. Nor would you even need copyright to protect yourself. If someone were poaching your spec, all you'd have to do is call their agent, who would promptly fire them as a client.

People steal original material much less commonly than people outside the business suppose. Who wants a lawsuit? But spec scripts? I've never heard of someone stealing a spec.

If, on the other hand, your idea is to copyright your story idea, in case the show later uses it -- forget it. You can't copyright an idea. And the show is not going to read your spec for that show. And if they did, they'd ask you to sign a release form that basically acknowledges that they've probably already heard more or less the same idea pitched to them five different ways from Sunday.

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I see that John August's new movie, THE NINES, is out.

August is a top Hollywood screenwriter. But notice what he chooses as his feature directorial debut. The film takes place entirely in a house -- in fact, in his house. It is made of three vignettes involving the same three actors. In other words, it is an entirely controllable shooting situation. No car chases, no explosions, one location, three actors. It's a chamber piece.

He could probably have directed a more ambitious movie, just by writing a hot script and attaching himself. But he's wise enough to start small. (I see he also directed a comedy short nine years ago.)

If you're a writer looking to direct, look at the feature debuts of big name writers. Billy Wilder started with a little piece of fluff called THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, which I think takes place mostly on a train. (Which, of course, means on a train set in the studio.) Stephen Soderburgh's SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE takes place mostly in two houses.

The more controllable your script is, the more likely people are to let you direct it; and the more likely you are to do a good job with it.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Zip.ca, the fine purveyors of DVDs by mail, asked me to blog a bit for them. I've posted two entries on my Zip blog. They are:

My Top 5 Movies and What They Taught Me and...

My Top Five TV Shows on DVD

Check'em out!

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Q. Once someone wants to read our script, should we include a 1 - 2 paragraph synopsis, and should we include any character descriptions? There are a couple of spots where certain jokes require that the characters look a certain way.
No synopsis. You don't want anything that will stop them from reading the script. If they don't have a synopsis, they'll have to read the first page. Which will really grab them. Right?

I try to avoid a big block of character description because I, as a reader, tend to blip over them. What I'll do is put a single sentence of memorable description the first time we meet the character: LARRY, 32, haggard, overweight, looks like he's been working at the same Wendy's ever since high school.

Then I'll drop more clues about the character wherever it seems to relate to what he's doing: Larry reaches one pudgy hand for the doobie. Then hesitates.

And I'll use the appropriate verbs: Larry waddles over to his crappy ten-year-old Ford Festiva... If he were skinny, he could scamper, scuttle, fidget, slink, etc.

Readers absorb info best when it is part of the story, so make sure the description is related to the story, and they'll pick it up easily.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Oh, and here's another thought about listening. Listen to the marketplace. There's a crucial difference in DREAMS ON SPEC between Dave, the guy who succeeds, and Joe and Deborah, who fail.

Dave is listening to the marketplace. His script is a low budget slasher movie with a twist. It's about a masked slasher à la Freddy or Jason, who invites a documentary crew to film his upcoming career.

Complications ensue.

Dave has taken a well-known genre -- low budget slasher movies -- and added a post-modern twist. That's listening to the market.

Also, he takes insults well. The director chops off 20 pages? He sucks it up. The director grabs a co-write credit? He sucks it up. (A better contract would have helped him there.) And then Dave, realizing that his $25,000 fee for the picture isn't going to catapult him onto the list of Studio Approved Writers, doesn't give up his day job. Which is a day job as an assistant at an agency.

Smart boy, Dave.

Meanwhile, Joe's a guy who mortgaged his house to produce and direct his own script, starring himself. It hasn't got distribution.

That's not listening to the market. If no one wants to buy your script, and no one wants to direct or star in it, it's pretty arrogant to assume that if you direct and star in it, they'll want the finished film.

There are always stories about people who spend their own money to break into Hollywood. Hollywood loves those stories. You have to assume that for every Robert Rodriguez who raises $7,000 to make his own feature, there are 100 guys who maxed out their credit cards and didn't get a deal. There are exceptions to every rule, but the rule is still there: Other People's Money, baby. Do not spend your own money on your script. If you can't find anyone willing to put money in it, it may not be that good a script.

Deborah, at least, has the right idea there. She's trying to raise money for her to direct her film. But again: not listening. Has she had one of her screenplays produced? No. Is anyone hankering to buy her script? Not that I noticed. So why does she think her project becomes more interesting if she's directing it? Has she directed before? No.

Climb the mountain one step at a time. Don't try to pole vault. You don't even want to direct your first script. You want to become a really good screenwriter, so that then when you get to direct one, at least you know your script is good. If you direct your first script you'll be cursing your screenwriter the whole way.

Make your mistakes one job description at a time.

Deborah's level of self-delusion is almost as big as Joe's. She's got two months in the bank. So what's her plan? Get funding for her movie in two months. Are you kidding? It takes 6-12 months to finance a picture when all goes well. As a CE she ought to know that. And she thinks she's going to get Oscar-winner Adrien Brody to star in a movie directed by an unknown?

She's not listening to the market. She's listening to her hopes and dreams.

I got out of film school with a degree as a filmmaker, not as a writer. But It isn't until this year that I've dared attach myself to one of my scripts. I was working too hard just getting my pictures made at all. Now that my name's on a hit comedy, I feel comfortable attaching myself to my own low budget romantic comedy. But I also shot a short film (using grant money!) so people can have a comfort level with my directing. (And I can tell you some of the mistakes I made on the short, too.)

Climb the mountain one step at a time. Sure, from time to time, you may find a hidden escalator; be ready to take your shot whenever it comes. But if you come to a chasm, don't assume that you have miraculously been granted the ability to fly. If everyone is telling you, "don't go that way," maybe they know something.

This is hard advice to give, because there's nothing we all love as much as stories about people who held out against all the good advice. Sylvester Stallone, broke, turned down $100,000 for his script ROCKY, which he was insisting in starring in. He'd never had a starring role. He'd had roles like "Youth in Park" and "Mafioso" and he'd starred in some pornos. He held out, and the rest is stardom.

They don't tell you about the guys who were offered $100,000 and turned it down and that was it, that was their break, and they blew it.

They also don't tell you about the people who were probably telling Sly, "This is a freaking awesome script, man! And it's perfect for you! This is your shot! Don't let anyone else take it!!"

They don't tell you, because it's not a good story, about how most people put their careers together, little break by little break. The first script I rewrote for money, I was offered $1000. I have no regrets about taking that gig, even if they did stiff me for the last $200. I'm always asking my agent: is this a good project for me? Are these good people to work with?

Film is a collaborative medium. The writer has to collaborate with the director and the actor and the money. You can't collaborate unless you know how to listen.

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Ever wondered what the guy who's reading your script goes through? Sure, you can read Fun Joel. But now Stan the Studio Reader has a comic strip / graphic blog. A good antidote to that script you were thinking of writing with the five time lines and the bittersweet ending. Chuckleworthy, too.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

I checked out DREAMS ON SPEC. It's an effective documentary about three spec monkeys, one of whom is seeing his slasher film made. I had trouble watching all of it because I personally find it a bit painful to watch writers, or any other creative types, being unsuccessful. Especially when you suspect they're unsuccessful because, from the little you get to see of their actual work, they're bad. But maybe that's a sign of how effective a documentary it is.

There are nice snippets of interviews with pro monkeys like Carrie Fisher and James Brooks, for balance. Amusingly, the successful writers are just as nerdy as the unsuccessful ones. (Okay, except Carrie Fisher.) I bet Charlie Kaufman is at least as weird as that guy Joe who's been writing the same script for three years. The only way you can tell the pro monkeys before a subtitle identifies them is that they have self-confidence -- and haircuts -- that getting paid six or seven figures a pop gives even the nerdiest nerd.

I went through, oh, about ten years of being not a successful screenwriter. I wasn't exactly a spec monkey. I wrote a stack of specs, but I also did a bunch of sub-Guild commissions, starting in film school. And I had agents for most of the time. And I was making a pretty reasonable living as a development guy. So I felt more in the loop than the guys in the film did. But I can sympathize with the frustration.

How do you know when to quit? The problem is that the inability to recognize defeat is one of the marks of a successful screenwriter, but it is also the mark of a crazy loser. You can tell once you're successful easily enough -- the checks start clearing -- but how do you tell if you don't got it? Stephen King wrote any number of bad novels he couldn't sell before he wrote CARRIE. Should his wife have told him to cut it out and get a real job? Apparently not. Should I have quit after eight years? Ten? Apparently not.

And believe me, I was considering it for a while there. Fortunately I couldn't think of anything else I was qualified to do, my computer science skillz having pretty well lapsed over the course of the decade.

On the other hand, I listen to the script reading that guy Joe has, and I think, owwww. Stop. Please. Or, at least, consider it a hobby, not a career track.

Is there such a thing as talent? Or more importantly, can anyone spot it? Or is what we perceive as talent just the state of your craft at the moment? In which case you can be untalented this year and figure something out about yourself and be talented next year. A lot of people said kind things about my writing in those ten years, but I was missing something crucial. Then in 2000, things started happening for me. New city? Maybe. Breaking up an unhappy marriage? Feeling relaxed because feeling loved? A definite possibility. Or maybe I recognized that I wasn't putting enough of myself into my scripts, and I worked on putting more in, and my craft just got 5% better and that put me over the top.

In NO DIRECTION HOME, one of the interviewees remarks how Bob Dylan was just one in a long line of West Village coffee shop folk singers. Then one day he went off, and came back a month later, and he had it. People wondered if he'd met the Devil at the crossroads. I'd sure like to know what happened. But maybe it all just came together.

I read recently about a study of classical musicians. They asked teachers who were their most gifted students and who were not. They caught up with the musicians ten years later to see which were successful.

No correlation with their teachers' rating of their talent.

100% correlation with how much time they practiced.

But Joe's been writing for twenty years, so why does he still suck?

I think it's possible that talent is not what we think it is. It may not be some innate ability to write well, which only needs to be honed. It might be the ability to hear criticism and respond to it. Talent may be above all the ability to listen.

Thing is, you almost always know when you're not listening. You just don't want to hear what you're hearing. So you shut it out.

That might be the hardest thing about being a good writer. Not the rejection. You can tune that out. But forcing yourself to hear what you don't want to hear. Not going down the same old path you've gone before, but hacking your way into the brambles because that's the direction you need to go. That's what separates the writers who are kidding themselves from the ones who are only unsuccessful for now.

Where is your writing weakest? What is the writing project that would force you to get stronger in that aspect? Okay, that's your next writing project.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

I ran across this at Post Secret, and bouncing off DREAMS ON SPEC, I thought it wouldn't hurt to put this up here.

Just in case.

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Shekhar Kapur recommended this movie on his blog. Since he directed one of my favorite movies ever, ELIZABETH, I thought I should check it out. It's about a couple of young Palestinian guys, childhood friends, on the day they're told they've been accepted for a "martyrdom operation."

What I love best about this movie is that it tells a human, believable story about some people that, honestly, I'd like to see shot dead. You don't have to approve of a movie's hero. DAS BOOT was a compelling story about brave German submariners who were out in the ocean trying to sink my Dad in 1945. Neither PARADISE NOW nor DAS BOOT takes a side; on such a highly charged issue, it would make the movie almost impossible to watch.

PARADISE NOW works for me because it is not, as the poster says, a call for peace, in the sense of it trying to convince you that blowing up women and children is not a morally acceptable response to occupation. Nor is it a propaganda film in favor of "resistance," either. The film has admirable characters full of passion and conviction on either side. What the film is about is what is it like to be these guys? What drives them? How do they feel about what they're doing? How does a human being ready himself to blow up other human beings? What happens when he's close enough to do the deed?

The filmmaker, an Israeli Arab, did his research, too. He pored over transcripts of Israeli Army interrogations of would-be bombers who failed to blow themselves up, and talked to people who knew ones who did blow themselves up.

A film like PARADISE NOW is not a plea for peace in the sense of it saying, "hey, peace is good!" but it is a movie that Israelis (or I) can watch and get a sense of where these guys are coming from, without asking the Israelis (or me) to approve of what they're doing. And it is hard to make peace with an enemy when you have no idea where he's coming from.

Oh, it is also a beautifully shot, nicely directed movie with superb casting. Well-crafted in every way. Observant and insightful. Worth watching just as a drama, forgetting that it's taking you into a world you probably haven't been before and won't likely be visiting any time soon.

No doubt you can make too much of what you learn from a fiction film. Or, for that matter, a documentary. But I do think an honestly made narrative film of whatever genre gives you some insight into the culture it comes from that you can't get anywhere else. Eric Rohmer has his own issues, but you can learn a lot about the French from PAULINE AT THE BEACH. Hell, I think you can learn a lot about the people of Hong Kong from John Woo's BULLET IN THE HEAD.

Which is why, incidentally, I think it's important to support Canadian film. Not as a cultural luxury good. Not just because it tells us who we are. But because it tells people in other countries who we are. And I dare say people in other countries, starting with the big one down South, have a terribly vague idea of who Canadians are.

Go put PARADISE NOW on your NetFlix or Zip queue. Worth a couple hours.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

I'm closing in on an outline for episode 3 of the series I'm developing. Everything seems pretty good except the climactic scene. Of course, that's what the whole episode is leading up to and supporting. The keystone, if you will. So I better fix it. On the other hand I am pretty sure that there is a good fix to it out there, I just have to find it. At which point the whole structure will work.

Writing one of these episodes feels something like a military campaign. Sometimes I feel like I'm striking deep into the heart of enemy territory, leaving just mop-up to do afterwards. Sometimes I feel like I'm fighting a war of attrition, maneuvering for position, trying to create and exploit a weak spot in the enemy line.

Okay, let's get out of that metaphor, too hostile.

Some of the scariest writing in the world is episodes two and three of a series you're trying to create. The pilot is hard work because you're introducing characters and at the same time trying to tell a good story. But the hardest decisions come in the next two episodes, where you're trying to figure out exactly what your show is. In the pilot you told one sort of story. Are you telling that kind of story every week? If it's a premise pilot, well, you can't tell that story again, can you? How much does one episode rely on the previous one? How much are you going to vary the tone? Does the character who got the most exposure in the pilot still get the most exposure, or is it an ensemble show?

In episodes 2 and 3, you discover which of your characters are really core cast and which are merely recurring. The pilot won't tell you that. I just cut a character out of episode 3 that I could have sworn was core cast. I guess he's not. On the other hand, there's another character that seems to be starting a story arc, at a minimum. I'm still waiting for one of the core cast to show me a real story. He just keeps hanging on, there, with D stories.

Once I finally beat this outline into the ground (again with the hostility, Alex!) I'll be in pretty good shape. Once I have an outline I like, I feel like all I need is time and effort; I've lost the fear that I won't be able to come up with anything.

It's just about time to show this to my "Director of Development" to see what she makes of it... Hon, you got a minute?

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Kay Reindl posts most of why I hate the Harry Potter series.

The only bit she leaves out, really, is that magic doesn't seem to cost anything. Doing a spell is just a matter of learning the trigger, as far as I can tell. You don't actually have to evoke anything from your very being.

Lisa remarks that the Harry Potter books aren't really about magic. They're boarding school adventure books, dressed up in magic. Yep. That's why they're so popular -- they're magic for people who don't have a real sense of magic. Magic for Muggles, if you will.

That's what I hate about Harry Potter. I don't think you should have magic in your books if there isn't a point to it.

Hmph.

Back to my contemporary urban metaphysical series ... which I guearantee you, has a point.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Trust DMc to smoke out that my old writing group buddy, Kay Reindl hath now a blog. It's called Seriocity. (Actually she's had it for a year, so it's filled with bloggy goodness. But I never spotted it!)

Kay has a wit like Dorothy Parker. We kept her in the writing group even though she never showed us anything she was writing. (She was writing all the time, just not bringing it into the writing group.) She was fondly dubbed "The Queen of Spleen."

Kay got her break in style. If I remember the story correckly, she was writing barbed commentary on a Millennium fan site about how broken a certain episode was, when she got an email from Chris Carter. Yes, the showrunner. Who liked to read the fan sites.

He wanted to know, basically, "Since you're such a smartypants, how would you have fixed it?"

She told him.

He wrote back, basically, "Hmmm. Yeah. That would have been better. Got any spec scripts?"

She wrote back, "Sure. It just needs polishing."

At which point she and her writing partner sat down and banged out a spec in three days.

And they got hired onto the show.

Every now and then showbiz will work the way you would, naively, hope it would. Just to screw with everybody. Star Trek: The Next Generation was actually willing to read your spec Star Trek: The Next Generation script. If they liked it, they bought it.

Do not haunt fan sites hoping the showrunner will recognize your brilliance. Do not send spec scripts of the show you'd like to write for, to the show you'd like to write for. Your mileage will vary.

But do be ready to seize the day.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directed by Shekhar Kapur, opens October 12.

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Q. As being a novice screenwriter, I felt confident to pitch four ideas for a TV show after reading your book. The production company told me they were interested.

Since shooting the new season had already begun and only counts 12 episodes per season, I decided to write two out of four, hoping this would get me participating in that very season. That did not happen. Writing contracts were signed that very week.

When I spoke to the producer a few weeks ago, he told me that communication had been a bit hazy. The production company is small and in the frantic situation surrounding the shooting… etc. However, they are still interested and my scripts would certainly be read and given consideration to be part of the next season.

The thing is that some major changes in recurring/ main characters have been made throughout the current season (information that was nót available when I wrote my two out of four).

The question is if I should rewrite my specs and delete and include the old and new characters of the show? This will improve the script because it is up to date. At the same time – as I am sending in the other two scripts as well now – this might up my chances because I feel that I can also make little changes to the old scripts that will improve them. On the other hand; this might not seem very professional or maybe even be explained as being a trifle uncertain about my own work.
I think you've done enough unpaid work.

If they like your writing, and your ideas, they should hire you to rewrite them.

A spec script is supposed to be a writing sample. What you're doing is writing for the show, on spec. The producer is not allowed to ask you to do that under the WGA.

When the producers read your scripts, even with old information in them, it should be obvious to them if you're a good enough writer for their show. It should also be obvious whether the stories you're bringing to the show will work on the show. At that point, they should either pay you (100% of the script fee) to rewrite your scripts into what they're looking for; or (if they like your ideas but not your writing) buy your scripts and rewrite them themselves.

Generally you should not write for a show on spec. Spec scripts are samples only. The producer or showrunner reads your samples; if they're good enough, you get to pitch. Then he listens to your pitches and decides whether or not he wants those stories in his show. If so, he hires you to write a script based on one of your pitches. That's how it's supposed to work.

Your way creates a lot of work for the writer with no guarantee that the producer likes your writing or seriously likes your pitches. You can lose a lot of time that way. Samples -- spec scripts -- are good for any show that has a few scripts available for free lancers. Your scripts are use-once-then-throw-away. And that's not a good use of your time.

I think you should stop writing for free for this show. Pick your best two scripts. Ask the producer to read them and tell you if you're on the money. If he wants to read the other two as is, that's fine too. But stop writing in a vacuum! You've done too much work already.

UPDATE: Tim writes
I didn't think that newbies could pitch actual episode ideas to production companies for current shows.
The way a free lancer gets a script almost always involves her pitching the show some story ideas first. The key first step is getting approved to come pitch. For example, back when I was a "baby writer," my agent sent my spec scripts to THE OUTER LIMITS. They dug the scripts and asked me to come in and pitch ideas. I came up with a batch of ideas and came in and pitched them. Had they approved an idea, I'd have been hired to go write the script. Even when you're established, should someone ask you to free lancer, you'll be asked to pitch a whack of ideas. The best reason shows have for hiring free lancers is precisely because they come in with fresh story ideas.

What shows don't do is have free lancers send in completed scripts. No one wants to read a completed script, and the odds are the script will be wrong in many crucial ways. Better for the showrunner to get a nugget of an idea that he can reshape into the vision he has of the show, and then send off the free lancer to go write it. And, obviously, much better for the writer not to have to write a spec first draft that will either get rejected out of hand, or have to be completely rewritten to fit the show.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

DMc thinks that I don't like unlikable characters. Or rather, that I don't like series about them.

That's not really true. I can watch a series about a guy I don't like. I didn't like Tony Soprano and I watched the first six seasons of the show, before it descended into utter nihilism. And I'm watching Mad Men, and Dan Draper is a true heel.

But there's a mystery about him, and I want to open the box.

My problem with David Duchovny's character in CALIFORNICATION isn't that I don't like him. My problem is that I don't have a reason to care about him. He's a whiny writer who, in a fantasy not uncommon to writers, gets laid by women all over the place because he's a whiny writer.

I don't feel there's a mystery to him. I just want to slap him upside the head.

It's true that I have quite low tolerance for whiners as main characters. (Sidekicks, fine.) I have an extremely low tolerance for characters I suspect of being a stand-in for the screenwriter. Especially when they have none of the drive or social graces that the screenwriter probably actually has, or he wouldn't have got his movie made. (I'm thinking of the irony of Richard Linklater making a movie about SLACKERS, the irony being how much hustle he had to put into it.)

If the first episode of CALIFORNICATION had implied that Duchovny's character had a dark destiny, and was going to get involved in something much bigger than schtupping hot 16-year-olds, I'd have stuck with it. If he had a dark past that was going to return to bite him in the butt, I'm there. But bitch bitch bitch whine whine whine and that's all there is to it? It's not pulling me in.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Q. When writing a spec for a serialized drama, would it be unreasonable to start out with a "Last time on Heroes/Lost/24..." bit? And if one were to do that, would it be okay to use actual scenes from the produced show?
I've never seen that done. It's probably better to have a stand-alone episode that doesn't rely too heavily on its exact placement in the season timeline.

If you do need to place the episode, I think you could have a paragraph that says, in prose, "This episode takes place after Jimmy breaks his leg but before he finds out that Yersinia is really his evil twin disguised as a woman." The "Previously on" montages can be extremely terse because they're full of acting and music; on paper they'd carry too little information.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

James refers me to this John August post:
Although I don’t do it on every project, I’m a big fan of writing off-the-page, which means creating character bios, alternate scenes and sequence chronologies to help me figure out the story and the characters. For example, I’ll write out the whole story from the villain’s point of view, both to track that the logic works, and also to gain insight on why they’re doing what they’re doing.

You don’t have to stop doing this once you begin writing the screenplay, either. If I’m getting frustrated with the script, sometimes it’s much more helpful to write up related pieces than to bang out another scene I don’t think is working.
I do very little of this. I like to discover things about the characters as I write them. More of the energy goes into the script that way. There are a couple of dangers in writing character bios. You can get locked into a vision of the character that isn't the most helpful one for your story. You can use up your creative impulses writing something that no one else will read. And you can hide in the character bios -- since no one will read them, it's a safe place to write.

I will sometimes write myself notes about "scenes I want to see." And I'll kind of arrange them in order. And start writing down scenes to hook them up. It's the equivalent of moving index cards around, except on the computer.

As for alternate scenes, well, they become alternate scenes when I realize the scene is wrong and I write a new version of the scene.

When I have a scene that isn't working, I tend to pound away at it until it is working. It makes me nervous to write a scene without knowing the scenes that came before it.

But there is no canonical way to write a screenplay. I suspect there are any number of guys who write the way John August does, and any number of guys who avoid "off-the-page" writing like the plague. Whatever works for you.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Q. Would it ever make sense to write a spec of a British (or Canadian) television show (e.g. Jekyll or Doctor Who)? For when someone asks for additional material? The shows might be more obscure, but if you had an excellent stand alone episode it might help you to stand out from the crowd. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?
If you're trying to write for US TV shows, I don't see how it helps you. I'd guess maybe one in ten network execs are going to be familiar enough with DR. WHO to evaluate how lovingly you recreated the cheesiness. And what if you nail it, and the exec thinks you're a "British-style" writer? (Whatever that means.) Unless you're certain that everyone in showbiz is watching a show, it's probably a waste of time to spec it.

I've heard a lot lately about spec pilots being the thing to write these days, anyway. I think you want to shoot for one extremely solid spec script (LOST/HOUSE/DESPERATE etc.) that shows you can write someone else's show, and one spec pilot that shows your range and creativity.

UPDATE: Peter asks about writing Canadian specs for Canadian shows. This comes up every few months ago. I wouldn't. Canadian execs and showrunners mostly watch American shows. You might be able to use a CORNER GAS or a SLINGS AND ARROWS, but why put all your effort into such a thing when you could cover all your bases with a 30 ROCK or a FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS?

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

John August has a post, somewhere, about starting your screenplay by writing the scenes that made you want to write the screenplay. I guess the idea is to defeat writer's block, and to jump into exactly the heart of the screenplay. It might be a climactic scene, I guess, or it might be something that revelatory about a character.

I don't usually write for the sake of a scene, I'm a story-driven kinda guy. I did write an adaptation of the Odyssey because of two scenes I particularly enjoy in the epic; and then there's another scene I'm particularly proud of. But that's not usually what pulls me in. And the approach August suggests is probably more useful for a drama than a suspense thriller -- the scenes of a thriller are more like building blocks for its all important structure.

But it sounds like another handy tool for the toolbox. If inspiration is flagging as you're writing your outline, what is to prevent you from jumping ahead to one of your Big Scenes? That will give you something to write towards, and might also take your screenplay off in an interesting new direction.

Now maybe some kind reader will spot the August post...?

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

DMc has an interesting blog post about There's No Accounting for Taste:
My favorite kind of criticism is the kind where the people run down what they didn't like about something, and I can't really disagree with it. I remember feeling that way about Superman Returns. My agent ran down a particularly devestating critique of that movie, and I saw every one of his points. I couldn't really disagree with them.

Yet I loved the movie. I think it's in these moments that you see little things about yourself. Some good, some bad -- always interesting.

I'm having a similar reaction to Californication right now. Further down in comments there are several people left scratching their heads by Mad Men, another show I just love.
See, now, I'm watching MAD MEN and I find it intriguing. But I can't explain to my dad why I like it. (Except the hilarious take on the late 50's as the time when there were no car seats, kids played cheerfully with BB guns and plastic bags, doctors recommended cigarettes for their health benefits, and everyone smoked in bed.) I don't like Don Draper, but I find him watchable in the way I did not find David Duchovny's pissy, whiny character in Californication. (It helps that Draper doesn't complain, I guess; it makes him more of a mystery.)

Nice thing about being a story teller is that you're not obliged to satisfy everybody. Just enough to keep your net consistent with your nut. I'd hate to be a network guy and have to pick hits. I would have passed on LITTLE MOSQUE, and just about every Adam Sandler movie ever. And I would have stuck with FIREFLY until I was fired.

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Q. I am currently editing a 80 minute movie that I've shot. I want enter New Directors/New Films 2008 and am hoping to get critic review to get recognition and land an agent/manager.

The movie is in Hindi so subtitling is needed. My plan is to make it to as many film festivals as possible and get reviews there. I've shot it on DV. How do I move ahead from here?
Sounds like you're on the right track. Get your film subtitled, which ought to be no problem on DV. Submit it to festivals, particularly those that show a lot of international films. It ought to be pretty easy to find lists of film festivals on the Net -- maybe a reader here will send us a link. Check out last year's films at that festival. If there's something from Israel and something from China and something from Afghanistan, you've got the right festival for a film in Hindi.If your film is a comedy, check out comedy film festivals. If your film is about kids, check out San Sebastiane. Etc.

New Directors / New Films is not bad because it shows films from "Hungary to Haiti, China to Angola, Mexico to Morocco, Italy to Japan." But it also shows only 22 films or so. You want to hit festivals that show 220 films.

Ganesha willing, you get accepted at some festivals and get some good write-ups or even win awards. Then you can approach international distributors -- again, check out films like yours and see who distributed them.

And you're off to the races. Good luck!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I'm working on my metaphysical pay cable series, and as a massive sf&f geek, I find myself tending to look at episodes from a point of view of "what is the cool sf&f antagonist in this ep? And I have to remind myself of (what I'll call) the Rule of Joss: don't start with the sf&f antagonist. Start with where is the hero emotionally? What is Buffy's real-world emotional problem this week? Now, what is the sf&f antagonist that best catalyzes that emotion or problem?

In other words, if you have a ghost story, your story shouldn't be about the ghost. It should be about the protagonist, and why she's seeing a ghost. What is her problem that confronting a ghost will help her resolve? It could be a fear she has to confront, or a bad decision, or a moral qualm, or likely a combination of all of those. But the ghost is only there, narratively speaking, to take your hero through her story.

It's not the only way to write a ghost story. Many commercially successful ghost stories have nothing to do with where the hero is emotionally. The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, for example, are all about the villain. And even a nifty horror movie like DESCENT, which starts the heroine in a truly horrific place emotionally before she even goes spelunking, is really about the cave and what's in it. But the SF&F movies I find stick with me the most are movies, first of all, about what it's like to be the hero. BLADE RUNNER, even the much maligned theatrical version, is not primarily about the replicants and their desire to live; it's about Deckard and his humanity. (Which is why I find the director's cut unnecessarily on-the-nose and self-indulgent.)

Start with your hero. What's the emotional process you want her to go through? Now, how can your supernatural antagonist (or science-fictional situation) put her through that process?

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Friday, August 10, 2007

I just got word that Telefilm has approved funding for me to adapt David Layton's novel THE BIRD FACTORY. It's a comedy -- "About a Boy, with infertility," if you will. I actually agreed to do the adaptation last year, but we had to get all our ducks in a row, and then Telefilm had to have a good gander at them. Um.

I think this will be a funny, funny movie, and I'm looking forward to writing the script -- just as soon as I write two more scripts for my pay cable series.

Fortunately, I broke the story and wrote the outline last month, so I'm ahead of the game. This is a violation of my own rules, really. I have always been extremely wary of doing any free work on projects before the financing comes through, in case financing doesn't come through, or the deal doesn't close, and I'm stuck with pages I don't actually own and can't sell. Also, the Guild bans spec writing.

I've broken my rule three times over the past six months or so, for a combination of reasons. One, the projects looked very likely to go (into development, that is), so I didn't think I was taking a big risk with my time. (Not having to treat every project as extremely unlikely until it actually closes is a real blessing.)

Second, two of the projects were original ideas of mine that I had optioned, meaning I owned the underlying material. Rewriting my own feature on spec means that at worst, if the development deal falls through and the option expires, I still own the project, and now it's better written. Writing the pilot to my own series on spec means that at worst, I have a spec pilot I can take somewhere else.

That still leaves the novel adaptation. If Telefilm hadn't approved the development, I would have been stuck with an outline based on a novel the rights to which I don't control. So why work on it? The calculation had to do with scheduling. I wanted to do as much as I could for the feature before the series deal kicked in. (I'd already written the pilot for the series, so I couldn't write more before getting network notes.) I wound up an outline and 35 rough pages into the adaptation before the series closed. I may not get back to the feature until the Fall, but my producers won't feel they're being ignored.

And emotionally, having figured out what the story is, I know it's just a matter of X weeks of writing to take the outline to a first draft. The point in a project that makes me the most nervous is before I know what the story is. After I've broken the story it's just a matter of time and love.

Bear in mind, I didn't tell the producers I'd specced anything, and had they asked me to do it, I would have refused, with a bit of resentment thrown in for flavor. This all came from me.

Not speccing the commissioned work would have definitely been the more prudent approach. But I wasn't about to go looking for more commissioned work in case it all closed at the same time. And I already had as many TV pitches and spec features in my portfolio as my agents could really handle. So I asked myself, "Is there something better I could be doing?" And since taking a vacation is simply not in my bone structure, I went ahead and outlined.

And then I stopped as soon as I got funding for an outline on another project. Because there was something better I could be doing.

My point is time management. It's always good to have irons in the fire, because you never know what will go. Moreover, It's good to have at least two projects in motion, so when you send a draft to your producer and you're waiting for notes, you can jump to your other project. But you don't want to be all over the place creatively, either. And you never want to be in a situation where you have to write faster than you can write your best. So I chose to focus on the deals I had rather than looking for new ones. And that meant writing without total confidence I would get paid.

There's a creative advantage, too, to writing before you close a deal. They can't really give you notes when they haven't paid you anything. So you can pursue your creative bent freely. Later they can pay you to make it something else. But you've taken it that much further, and a better draft always sells your concept better. Even if later there are notes that take the project in a new direction, you've tried some things and you know your story better. You may have to rip up the whole thing and rethink it. But you'll be creatively ahead.

I think, actually, a lot of this goes on. Marc Cherry rewrote and rewrote Desperate Housewives until the network finally got it. He couldn't sell the concept. We know, because he didn't sell the concept. Had he not written the pilot over and over on his own dime, he wouldn't have his name on a monster hit show. I don't see the WGA squawking.

I think to be a writer at a certain level these days, you have to think like a producer. You might have to take financial risks. You might have to find a network and then find a producer. Or at least take your producer in to meet execs that you know. You have to leverage your representatives too. My agents and manager have at least as strong relationships with the network execs, both US and Canadian, as all but a few big producers up here. So I'm not just selling a concept and a piece of material. I'm offering a package.

I'm not sure how this helps the spec monkey, except this thought: a tv writer is not an artist in a garret. You are a creative flame, sure. But you are also your network of relationships. If you spend half your time developing your relationships, you will not be as good a writer, at first, as the guy who's spending all his time writing. But you will get on the air faster. And seeing your pages transformed into pixels is a better education in practical screenwriting than asking your friends what they thought of your pages. And all screenwriting is practical.

In the end, all three projects got financed and went ahead. So I guessed right. And now instead of having spent my summer wondering what else to write, I'm a pilot, a rewrite and an outline ahead of schedule. Nice.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Q. Should the looming WGA strike affect my timing? Should I try to get a spec out there sooner, or later?
I think you can drive yourself crazy trying to second-guess the market. I'd send your spec out when you don't think you can make it any better, and not before.

I don't think the writer's strike will really affect non-Guild writers. I went through a few writers strikes before I got my union card, and it didn't help me. TV shows can't hire scabs. The studios aren't likely to authorize hiring a non-union "baby writer"; they'll wait for the high-priced union veterans to come back on line. And the kind of producers that might consider hiring a non-union writer wouldn't be working with union guys in the first place.

On the other hand, try to get your spec out there significantly before the strike ends. What do you think all those union writers are doing when they're not walking the picket line? That's right. Banging out specs. After every strike, a flood of specs hits the market.

(Oh, and if you need a laugh ... go check out the WGA picket line. Writers. In the sun. 'Nuff said.)

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Q. When you (or anyone) are hired to rewrite a script, is it industry practice to mimic the voice of the previous writer(s)?

I've been hired to rewrite scripts written by two producer/writers. To be honest, neither script was very good, but the stories were quite good. In each case, I was asked to analyze their scripts first. When I gave my report back, each agreed with my analysis, after which we had long story meetings for how I would repair the scripts. In each case they agreed with me — and liking my writing as well as my understanding of the projects — each decided to hire me to rewrite their scripts. And in each case I would get shared writing credit. I told one it would be a page-one rewrite, and the other agreed to so many changes that logic would dictate a near complete rewrite.

In the case of the page-one rewrite, the producer agreed my script was a huge improvement, and aimed to film my script, but when her funding fell through, she opted to go back to her draft and rewrite it based on my suggestions. In the other case, she fired me, moaning, "I am so upset -- It reads like William Goldman, but it doesn't sound like me anymore!" (Seriously.)

So, before I cut off my nose to spite me face again, is it industry practice to maintain the voice of the previous writer?

Granted these two cases might be special (i.e. producer-written), but I really need to know. Because they feel I've stepped on their toes, I can bet that neither will help spread any positive word-of-mouth about my abilities. And as I try my best to build a professional career as a feature writer, I cannot afford to inadvertently sandbag myself by writing too well or in my voice if that’s verboten. (But that seems like a Catch-22!)
Ah, yes, that's a problem when you're writing for producer/"writers". I put "writers" in quotation marks, because a real writer (a) probably wouldn't hire you to rewrite them, and (b) if they did, they wouldn't get upset because you rewrote them.

In TV, of course, you want to write in the showrunner's voice. Otherwise the show has several voices, and that's confusing. Some of a writer's own voice will sneak through, and that's not a bad thing. But Denis and I had to severely suppress our tendency to write gags on CHARLIE JADE, because that wasn't the show that Bob wanted.

In the movies, most writers are going to write in their own voice. That is presumably why they've been hired. Don't hire John Rogers you don't want smart, funny dialog.

I'm not sure what's going on with the first producer. It sounds like she has more time on her hands now and wants to have another pass at her baby. That's her right. However, read your contract carefully. If you hadn't written a draft, she would be entitled to use your notes without credit. But now that you have put your notes into a draft, which she has read, normally you would still be eligible for the shared credit, assuming that the script that is shot bears a significant resemblance to your draft. Under a Guild contract, you would be eligible to ask for an arbitration if you feel you've been excluded from credit. I don't know what kind of contract you signed, though.

"It reads like William Goldman, but it doesn't sound like me anymore!" That sounds a bit plaintive, dunnit? I assume the first part is a compliment. (Unless it means "you didn't put in any fershlugginer sluglines!")

Normally your contract would call for a couple of drafts and a polish -- called a "set" in the biz. I always insist that my contract requires I be hired through the polish, because if someone doesn't like my first draft, I want the right to fix it -- actually I want the write to be paid to fix it. Your response is, "Gee, I'm glad you like it. How can I make it more 'you'?"

Communicate as much as possible. Many writers have an impulse to keep the script away from the producer until it's perfect. That's usually a good impulse once you're writing pages -- you don't want anyone to read unpolished pages. But you want to start the process with a lot of conversations. Not just the "you're hired" conversation. Try to get your producer to spend at least an afternoon with you walking around town (oops! sorry, I'm in Montreal. I mean "driving around town" of course) talking about her project. Not just where you're taking the plot and the characters. Tone, voice, theme, hopes, aspirations. Everything. Talk through the changes you want to make. Explain them. Don't shy away. Ask what movies she likes. Spend some time getting to know her as a person passionate about movies. The more you know about the genesis of the project, about the producer's goals for it, the better you can see your target.

You could, for example, simply ask: do you want me to try to write in this voice (and describe, in positive terms, how you see that voice); or do you want me to bring my own style to it. Me, I love the snappy banter. I have asked people, "I love to write the snappy banter. Do you want the snappy banter?" Sometimes the answer is, oh yes, do. Sometimes it's "this is not really a snappy bantery show." Maybe they want a Jim Jarmuschy deadpan. Maybe they want the heroic voice, à la 300. Never hurts to ask.

Of course, you may have done this. I can't tell you how many times producers or network execs have okayed changes, or an outline, and then had a surprised reaction to the actual draft. That's because producers and network execs often hear one thing when you're thinking another. It is hard for them to visualize the finished draft. That's why they're not writers. Nothing you can do about it. If she knew precisely how the script was supposed to look after you'd addressed your notes, she could have done the pass herself! Right?

It doesn't sound to me like either of these producers think you did a bad job. Nor would they likely diss you to other producers. They probably know that they are having a personal reaction to another writer raising their baby. Actually, both of these producers sound like pretty nice people -- many producers forget entirely to compliment your work. I think you can reasonably ask the second producer if she'd like you to do another pass, if you feel like doing one for free. No one will mind that, if you don't think you did your best. (Though I object strenuously to producers who want to give notes and not pay for a second draft, I have been known to do a third or fourth draft for free if I feel that it's part of the process. If I'm getting brilliant notes from a great story editor (and you know who you are), I'm going to keep coming back for more notes until they're satisfied with the draft, regardless whether the producer thinks I'm done or not.

You can also ask how they feel you could have done a better job. Most people are uncomfortable criticizing. They appreciate it if you ask how you could have done better. It will take most of the sting out of any problems they might have had with you as a writer. Which is, in general, a good way to depart any job...

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Here's a clearly written argument for hiring fewer, better PERL programmers and paying them well above average. Key point: "a good programmer can do as much as 5-10 average programmers."

I think the same is true for writers. A below-average staff writer is almost useless: you wind up redoing all their work. (And by "all their work," I mean "all their work." I can't tell you how many free lance scripts I've rewritten 100% from page 1, based on the outline that I gave them.) A good staff writer can give you exactly what you're looking for with minimal rewriting. A great staff writer helps you bring the show to another level by showing you aspects of your concept that you hadn't even thought of -- all while keeping on time and on budget.

The effect is harder to see in screenwriting. A program is fairly easily judged by management by whether it does the job without crashing or not. One can quantify some of its parameters -- how many lines of code (fewer is better), how much processing power it eats, memory usage. It's harder for a management (producers, network execs) to tell the difference between a script that works and one that doesn't.

As in programming, there's a good argument for finding the best writer and overpaying them as much as you have to in order to get and keep them. The cost will be lower than hiring more inferior writers. I'd rather have two great staff people on this show than four so-so ones.

On the other hand, writing is not programming. If you choose your writing room well, you'll get different perspectives from everyone in the room. One writer's a single woman who smokes too much, another is a middle-aged guy with kids, another is a gay guy in a long-term relationship. One can bring the funny, another has a really good reality check.

Also, I'm not sure that writers can telecommute as effectively as programmers. I've blogged in other posts about the writing room. You want the writers to be able to break story together, and to help solve story problems on the spot. And, you want your writers to physically see the set and meet the actors so they know what they're writing for.

So the article isn't dead on for show business. But still worth a few milliplatos of thought.

Aside from Brooks' Mythical Man-Month, can anyone else recommend any books or websites on programming that seem applicable to script development?

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If I've been quieter than normal these past few days, that's because I've been breaking story on the next episode of the series I'm developing for The Movie Network and Movie Central, THE FALLEN. I'm not sure exactly how much I can tell you about it, but I'll try to draw out the occasional storytelling moral where I'm not violating any confidentiality clauses. But if you have general questions about developing series, I'll tell you what I know...

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

This has nothing to do with screenwriting craft ... but here's some fascinating footage of a tiger shark apparently about to take a chomp out of a woman swimmer when a dolphin apparently wards him off. (Dolphins are nice to people, but they also have a habit of battering sharks to death, which is probably why the shark chooses discretion over valor.)



Dolphins are also famous for pushing drowning people towards shore.

And I thank them for that, but ... why? Not like we're all that nice to them, is it?

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Thinking about making a short film? Look at ads. You can tell quite a story in a very short amount of time.

Actually, you should try to tell this much story in every scene of your long films, too.

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If you want to listen to Marty Moss-Koane chat with Richard Klein, Kyle Smith and me about smoking in the movies, and you're not in the WHYY-FM listening area, you can stream it in MP3 or Real Audio. Kyle Smith (tv critic for the New York Post) and I start about half an hour into the hour show.

You can also subscribe to her podcast.

(By the way, if you happen to have written a book, and you're on radio, you might wanna stress to the producer of the show that you'd like it mentioned ... otherwise they might only mention your onscreen credits... oops.)

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DMc is raving about Mad Men. Grrr. AMC is not available on Bell ExpressVu.

Anyone have any (non-Bittorrent) ideas how to get Mad Men on Bell satellite TV?

UPDATE: Aha! Available for $2 an episode from iTunes. Season pass is $25. That's cheaper than getting AMC even if I could.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Deej was kind enough to give me the heads up that the other writers of Bon Cop and I are nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award (PDF). The awards are given out October 12 in lovely London, Ontario.

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I'm going to be on Philadelphia's NPR station, WHYY, tomorrow, on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, arguing about when, if ever, it's right to have your movie characters smoke. You can tune in from 11:30 to noon at 91 FM if you're in Philly, or on the Web at www.WHYY.org. There will also be archives and even a podcast. You can also listen in on NPR's Sirius channel, NPR Talk.

Morally, I think it's almost never a good idea to have your characters smoke. It is very hard for the movies not to glamorize the people you see on screen. Your hero is cool. Your love interest is cool. Even your villain tends to be cool. Kids start smoking because they think it's cool. You do the math.

But I think there's an even better argument to keep smokes out of your characters' mouths. Smoking rarely adds to the story. It is almost always a crutch. Give an actor a cigarette in a scene and he will do all sorts of cig business with it. But that's not acting. That's business. That's David Caruso putting on his sunglasses. Give your actor a cigarette, and he'll hide behind it. Take it away, and he'll be forced to actually act.

What does it tell us that a character smokes? They're naughty? They're self-destructive? There are fresher, more distinctive ways to tell us that. All sorts of people smoke in real life, many of them homeless men. Putting a cigarette in a character's mouth wastes precious story time -- all story time is precious -- that you could be using to show us that he has stuffed animals posed in suggestive positions around his bedroom, or scars on her wrist.

I don't buy that you need to have people smoke in period pieces, either. Sure, everyone smoked in the 50's. That's exactly why it adds nothing (except visual coolness) to your movie to have your characters smoke in the 1950's. People did lots of things in the 1950's that you won't see them do in movies. People threw the "n-word" around with abandon, for example. People made anti-Semitic comments. People went to the bathroom, too. Are you going to show that?

The exception, I think, is when cigarettes are part of the story. Joe Gideon smoking in the shower in ALL THAT JAZZ is part of the story. Here's a man who's dead bent on killing himself with work, cigarettes, speed and women. On creative grounds you could almost even justify the smoking in BASIC INSTINCT because the story is about Nick Curran's addiction issues -- addiction to cigarettes, addiction to Catherine Trammell. (On moral grounds you'd have to deal with just how very cool Sharon Stone makes smoking look.)

But by and large, cigarettes are a creative crutch. When you're tempted to have a character smoke, why not see if you can come up with something cleverer, something that forwards the story a little more?

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