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



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Monday, June 30, 2008

We just turned in a draft of our first animated feature. We were trying to figure out if we're doing the Right Things, or if there's some magic that an animation film is supposed to do that we didn't do.

Of course in an animation script you describe the action much more carefully. In particularly you load in a stack of sight gags.

In animation, of course, you can defy the laws of physics. Wile E. Coyote doesn't fall until he realizes he's run off the cliff. Eyes bug out three feet.

You also have to be a little more careful in your metaphors. When you write "Spongebob is crushed," you might want to specify whether he is crushed emotionally or by a large conch falling on his head.

We had to cut down on our dialog. As live action writers we were writing minute-long scenes that were all dialog. We were asked to reduce the talking and increase the action.

You can't depend on visual acting as much. The human face can form hundreds of expressions. Animators mostly stick to a few basic, exaggerated expressions. A human actor doing a deadpan face can be funny; an animated face doing nothing is rarely funny.

Most subtly, we noticed that the best animation features create their own worlds. FINDING NEMO creates a world of talking fish. THE INCREDIBLES creates a world where superheroes not only exist but are oppressed. MONSTERS, INC. creates the world of the monsters in your closet. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST enters a world of talking teapots and candlesticks.

What else do you find is different between live action writing and great animation writing?

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

I just finished writing my first screenplay. I need to get it to some people ASAP but I'm afraid they will reject it not because I don't have a great story with compelling characters and engaging dialogue but because I didn't write it professionally. Please advise.
I disagree. If you've just finished writing your first screenplay, you need to set it aside for a little while. Write something else. And then come back and rewrite it.

No professional sends out a first draft.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

I waste inordinate amounts of time surfing. The problem, as tech venture capitalist Paul Graham points out, is that surfing looks a lot like working. If you're your own boss, it's worse. You can blow off a whole morning surfing and doing email.

So, Graham now has one computer for work, which he keeps off line, and one computer for email and surfing. That way he knows when he's working and when he's not.

I think I might try that next week, since Hunter's computer is available for the summer.

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My writer buddy Doug T and I went to see YOUNG PEOPLE F***ING, which of course turns out to be as much romantic comedy as sex comedy. I think had the parliamentarians excoriating it actually seen it, they would have felt it was fairly tame by today's standards. Certainly there's nothing you couldn't air on Showtime or Showcase, and, with the exception of one shot of breasts, possibly nothing you couldn't see on broadcast at 10 pm. If anything, you'd wonder if young women these days really prefer to have sex with their bras on.

What you get, instead, is a rather charming series of vignettes about, yeah, young people involved in various sexual encounters. It's a relationship movie about a first date, two exes having a date, a couple, a pair of friends and a pair of roommates. The stories go in different directions, from happily romantic to bittersweet to mildly messed up.

The actors are some of the most charming people you will see on the screen. And that's always fun.

Doug and I like to story edit movies after we see them. Our criticism would be that the movie doesn't go particularly deep. Maybe it didn't want to, and that's a valid commercial point. I don't know if a deeper movie would have got made as fast or been as entertaining. But if it had combined a little more insight with its superb observation of couples, it could have been great instead of merely très fun.

For example [SPOILERS...]:

The exes are adorable together. They obviously love each other in spite of their protestations that they're "over" each other. But what keeps them apart? Shouldn't we see the parts of their relationship that tore them apart? Could there be flashes of little "let's not go there" moments that they know they have to ignore for the evening to work -- but which make plain why they might not want to pick up their relationship again?

Likewise, the friends: what has kept them from sleeping together? Why has it taken this long for them to get together? The math don't add up. Dude, your best friend is Carly Pope and you haven't tried to jump her bones already?

Which brings up the old casting issue: cast real or cast pretty? YPF chose to cast pretty. I got nothing against pretty. I'd rather watch pretty people in bed, too.

But if you cast a young Janeane Garofalo type in the role of Kris, I might be willing to suspend my disbelief that her best friend had never tried anything.

(Though personally, if I weren't spoken for, I'd probably fall for Janeane G before I fell for Carly P. But that's me.)

Or: establish that they tried this once before. And it was a disaster. Or they've tried this before, many times, and it's never added up to anything more than Friends With Benefits.

Drama is all about obstacles. I felt YPF could have made some of the obstacles a bit bigger.

But for all that, it is an adorable movie. Sexy, funny, sweet and bittersweet.

If you see it with a date, you'll probably get lucky. And honestly, what better reason is there to go to a romantic comedy?

UPDATE: YPF platforms in late August in New York and LA.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

My fellow Canadians:

It looks like we have a shot to get the dread Section 120 out of Bill C-10. That's the section that would allow the Minister of Heritage to retroactively yank government funding from an already-made picture by deciding it is "contrary to public policy." It's a dumb idea because it would destroy the business model of the Canadian feature film industry. We could live with a censorship board if we had to; we can't live with retroactive censorship.

There is a movement afoot to define "contrary to public policy" as "illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada." In other words, the taxpayer shouldn't be funding hate films or pornography. I think we can all agree on that, especially as no such film has ever actually been funded by the taxpayer.

If you care about the future of the Canadian film industry, please harass the following parliamentarians:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper: pm@pm.gc.ca
Leader of the Opposition, Stephane Dion: Dions@parl.gc.ca
Minister Josee Verner: Verner.J@parl.gc.ca
Minister Jim Flaherty: Flaherty.J@parl.gc.ca
Bill Siksay (NDP): siksab@parl.gc.ca
Jack Layton (NDP leader): laytoj@parl.gc.ca
Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Leader): duceppe.G@parl.gc.ca
Maria Minna (Bloc Heritage Critic): minna.m@parl.gc.ca
Denis Coderre (Lib Heritage Critic): coderre.d@parl.gc.ca
Angus, W. David Chair ‐ C ‐ (Alma ‐ Quebec)anguswd@sen.parl.gc.ca,
Goldstein, Yoine Deputy Chair ‐ Lib. ‐ (Rigaud – Quebec) goldsy@sen.parl.gc.ca
Banks, Tommy – Lib – gautht@sen.parl.gc.ca
Biron, Michel ‐ Lib. ‐ (Mille Isles ‐ Quebec) bironmi@sen.parl.gc.ca Eyton, John Trevor ‐ C ‐ (Ontario) rokosg@sen.parl.gc.ca
Fox, Francis – Lib – foxf@sen.parl.gc.ca
Harb, Mac ‐ Lib. ‐ (Ontario) harbm@sen.parl.gc.ca
Jaffer, Mobina S.B. ‐ Lib. ‐ (British Columbia) ) jaffem@sen.parl.gc.ca
Massicotte, Paul J. ‐ Lib. ‐ (De Lanaudière ‐ Quebec massip@sen.parl.gc.ca
Meighen, Michael A. ‐ C ‐ (St. Marys ‐ Ontario) meighen@sen.parl.gc.ca
Moore, Wilfred P. ‐ Lib. ‐ (Stanhope St. / South Shore ‐ Nova Scotia) moorew@sen.parl.gc.ca
Ringuette, Pierrette ‐ Lib. ‐ (New Brunswick) ringup@sen.parl.gc.ca
Tkachuk, David ‐ C ‐ (Saskatchewan) tkachd@sen.parl.gc.ca
Or, in email friendly format:
pm@pm.gc.ca, anguswd@sen.parl.gc.ca, goldsy@sen.parl.gc.ca, bironmi@sen.parl.gc.ca, rokosg@sen.parl.gc.ca, harbm@sen.parl.gc.ca, jaffem@sen.parl.gc.ca, massip@sen.parl.gc.ca, moorew@sen.parl.gc.ca, meighen@sen.parl.gc.ca, olived@sen.parl.gc.ca, ringup@sen.parl.gc.ca, tkachd@sen.parl.gc.ca, hervic@sen.parl.gc.ca, lebrem@sen.parl.gc.ca, Verner.J@parl.gc.ca, Flaherty.J@parl.gc.ca, Siksay.B@parl.gc.ca, BelanM@parl.gc.ca, Mourani.Ma@parl.gc.ca, Mulcair.T@parl.gc.ca, Crete.P@parl.gc.ca, McCallum.J@parl.gc.ca, pm@pm.gc.ca, duceppe.G@parl.gc.ca, laytoj@parl.gc.ca, Dions@parl.gc.ca, gautht@sen.parl.gc.ca, foxf@sen.parl.gc.ca, coderre.d@parl.gc.ca, minna.m@parl.gc.ca

Here's what I wrote:
Dear Prime Minister:

I am one of the writers of the smash-hit Canadian comedy movie BON COP BAD COP. I'm writing in opposition of Section 120 of Bill C-10.

The proposed section would create a form of backwards censorship that would cripple the Canadian film industry's basic business model. I take it personally, because it would throw me, personally, out of work.

There is a simple solution. Rather than allowing the Minister of Heritage to define "contrary to public policy" on a whim, define it as any unlawful content according to the Canadian Criminal Code.

No one wants to see illegal films funded by the Canadian taxpayer; but no illegal films have been funded by the taxpayer. On the other hand I hope even the most socially conservative politicians will recognize that throwing an entire industry out of work is bad business and bad politics.

Yours very truly,

Alex Epstein


For more info, go to the WGC press release (PDF).

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

There are two kinds of story structure. One matters a lot more than the other.

Usually when execs talk about structure, they mean act structure. They might say the first act needs to get up to speed sooner, or the act four out is a rebeat (the same beat as an earlier beat). 

Usually when I talk about structure, I mean the elements of the story. Who is the character, what is his opportunity/problem/goal, what are the obstacles he faces, what are the stakes, what is the jeopardy? The structure I'm talking about includes who is the villain, the love interest, the intimate opponent.

These are the real bones of the story. 

Both kinds of story structure are relevant. You can't get around act outs in TV. But the second kind of structure takes more experience to see. When I work on a story, I have shapes in my head. I couldn't tell you exactly what that sentence means, but I have shapes in my head and if I change the elements of the story the shapes change. And when I make a breakthrough, the shape of the story feels better, stronger, sharper, smoother. Or something.

You can work at a story from the outside in. You can tighten up that first act. It is rarely as effective as working at a story from the inside out. Don't tighten up the first act. Work on the character more; or do a better job convincing us of his problem. If the act four out is a rebeat it's because you haven't increased the jeopardy, or revealed the real antagonist, or uncovered a previously hidden obstacle. 

If the structure is all there, the writing is easy. If it's not there, massaging the scenes will only get you so far. 

Try to learn to see the underlying structure of stories. Nothing to do with the page numbers; it's all about the rush and tumble of the characters' desires. See the shape of it, and mold that. A great storyteller is like a sculptor in clay, molding and kneading the story until it's right. Once it's in the right shape, it's a matter of mere application to decorate the pot and apply heat.

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I'm rewriting one of the episodes of the pay cable series I'm developing. I have some excellent notes on it from the guys in my brief writing room; and I have several months of perspective. The episode seems kind of fragmented now; I'm trying to get it back on track.

I went straight at it, first, but got lost in the scenes. Then I tried making an outline out of the script -- leaving the sluglines but replacing all the scenes with thumbnail descriptions of those scenes. Still felt lost.

What I'm doing now is boiling the whole episode back down to elemental stories. What does this character want? What are the obstacles to her getting it? Then I'm breaking those stories again, from first principles. What are the essential steps of this story? Which act does each step belong in?

When I've got stories and steps that make sense, I'll weave them together back into a new outline. Only then will I go to pages.

And only then will I consult my old draft. Probably many or most of the steps in the new draft will be scenes I've already got in the old draft. They may be in new places but they may only need tweaking. Some of the scenes will be new. Some of the old scenes won't make it into the new draft.

I don't usually take a script apart like this; I don't usually have to. (If I'd structured the script properly in the first place, I wouldn't have to.) But when I feel I've lost the thread, tinkering and tweaking will only waste time. Walking a script back to first principles, though hard, is a great way to get back on track.

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Ah to be young again, and fancy free. And get free money from government agencies:
For Quebec WGC Members Only

Sprint for your script: Call for submissions - 10th edition

SODEC invites young screenwriters to enter SPRINT FOR YOUR SCRIPT !

For the tenth edition of this annual competition, screenwriters are asked to submit a first draft script with dialogue for a short drama or animated film (maximum length: 12 minutes) before August 11th, 2008.

MORE THAN A CONTEST!
The selected screenwriters will enjoy the benefits of participating in a truly unique screenwriter’s workshop. They will be paired off with an advisory screenwriter and will participate in intensive individual and group work sessions in the charming atmosphere of the Old Dawes Brewery at the Guy-Descary cultural complex in Lachine, from mid-September to the beginning of October
2008.

Grand Prix consists of a $55,000 investment in production by SODEC and more.

Special Prizes
- the $1,000 CBC/WGC Prize for the Best English Language Script
- the SARTEC Special Mention consisting of a $1,000 prize for a French script
- the Prix coup de coeur du public consisting of a $1, 000 prize
-
In addition, the finalists’ seven scripts will be read publicly by professional actors. This event will be held during the 37th annual Festival du Nouveau Cinéma de Montréal (October 8th-19th).
The event will be followed by a cocktail a presentation of the awards.

Eligibility

Writers must:
• Be between the ages of 18 and 35 (i.e. not have turned 36 at the time of script submission deadline)
• Be a resident of Québec for at least two years
• Be pursuing on a professional writing career (high school, college and university undergraduate students are not eligible)
• Have had a script produced and publicly released or broadcast (proof required)

For more information about eligibility for Sprint for Your Script, please visit the WGC website and click on the Sprint for Your Script icon on the home page.
I'm not complaining, mind. My network just ordered two new scripts on the urban metaphysical series I'm developing for them.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bob Wertheimer has asked me and the boys to do podcasts on CHARLIE JADE eps. 10-16; I think he's doing 1-9 and 17-20. They'll go out on XM Satellite Radio and be available online.

What questions would you like answered about these episodes, the world of the show, etc., in the podcasts?

(And if you're lurking on any CJ or sf forums, please direct people here.)

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Friday, June 20, 2008

If you want to know what it's like to be a production assistant (as opposed to a writer's assistant), here's one oppressed flunky's take on it...

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mystery Man dissects why Frank Darabont's draft of INDIANA JONES 4 was better.

You can download Darabont's INDY 4 here.

I think I'll skip the movie and just read the good version, thank you.

Via Webs.

UPDATE: Yeah, I'd pay money to see this version on the screen!

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Rude, crude, and political, too.

But funny.

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Charlie Jade has, alas, moved to 3 am on Mondays on Sci Fi Channel. (Thanks for the tip, RA.) I'm trying to think of worse imaginable time to screen a show... nope, if you were trying to bury a show, that would be it. I guess the numbers weren't as good as hoped.

Fortunately, all of you have TiVo, right?

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We watched a bit of PAULINE A LA PLAGE last night. What Lisa remembered as sophisticated and exotic just seemed terribly dull now that we actually know French. Some movies don't hold up very well. It felt very flat and talky and desperately short on plot.

I finally got around to throwing my Zip disc of MICHAEL CLAYTON into the DVD drive. That was a pleasant surprise. It is really a superb study of a fixer in a fix. It takes a while to figure out exactly what it's about, but the characters are so well drawn and real that I didn't mind. Really keen writing and direction by Tony Gilroy. The desperately self-justifying hit-and-run client in the beginning is superb; so is the scene where one character orders a hit without ever saying so in so many words. ("And... the other way?" "The other way is the other way." Nice.)

I thought it was neat how we really don't know which way the movie is going to end until it ends. I could think of several dramatically satisfactory endings, and the movie hadn't tipped its hand tonally. It could have convincingly gone at least four ways: tragic downbeat ending (Michael is killed), morally tainted bittersweet ending (Michael sells out for the sake of his brother's family), brave Hollywood ending (Michael gets the bad guys), or the transcendent ending (Michael accepts his "death" and disappears into a fresh life).

Tony Gilroy is a heavy hitter writer (BOURNE ULTIMATUM) but this is his directing debut. Kids, this is how you get your break as a director. Write a frakking awesome script and convince George Clooney that you can direct it.

George Clooney has really nailed down his brand: really smart drama.

I notice that Steven Soderbergh and Antony Minghella are both Exec Producers. Interesting. Were they on the project as directors at some point? Or did they sign on as godfathers? How are there two major directors on board as godfathers?

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Here's an interesting blog project. Film Industry Bloggers has a slew of professionals who blog weekly about what they do. Check'em out:

MONDAY
The Genre Director - Brian Trenchard-Smith
The Personal Assistant - By Avery
The Production Assistant - Brandie Posey
The Screenwriter - Joe Gazzam

TUESDAY
The Digital Video Assist Operator - Glenn Cannon
The Film Journalist - Kate Tremills
The Production Designer - Mark Tanner
The Storyboard Artist - Warren Drummond

WEDNESDAY
The Actor - Liesl Ehardt
The Australian Filmmaker - David Parker
The Casting Director - Matthew Lessall
The Music Supervisor - Dominique Preyer

THURSDAY
The First Assistant Director - Philip Elins
The Independent Filmmaker - Jen McGowan
The Screenwriting Professor - Coleman Hough
The Non-Industry Spouse - Laurie Gazzam

FRIDAY
The Animation Prod. Coordinator - Christine Deitner
The Documentary Producer - Amy Janes
The Reality TV Producer - Top Secret
The Script Analyst - Megan Close

SATURDAY
The Dreamer - Lauren Petre

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Friday, June 13, 2008


Crafty Irish reader Mike McH sends me this link to where you can order Infinite Monkey pint glasses. Who knows? Maybe someone will buy me a couple and I can upgrade from drinking out of mason jars.

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I have a reputation of writing good busniess letters in my MBA classroom.

but when it comes to show biz, I'm ending up in problems.

for example: if I were to target Dreamworks, and I address the letter to Steven Spielberg. it'll go to the trash can.

if I were to find out an intern and then address to him, he may change companies in weeks so that he can get more pay. so whom do I target.

It is the same even with the smallest Producer co/agent/management firm. how do I solve this.

so I decided to go to www.inktip.com and maybe www.scriptpimp.com. what is your take on posting screenplays on these websites?

which else are the other recommended sites for presenting your work on the net so that it is accesible to prod co.s/agents/managers?
Yeah, I wouldn't send anything to Steve, he's busy. However, reading material is what interns and assistants and development people do. It doesn't matter how long they're there, so long as they read your script and bump it up to the next person. Moreover, if someone likes your script, they might take it with them to their new job and try to interest people there.

I still think sending queries (as I've blogged and written about extensively -- see my book CRAFTY SCREENWRITING) is the best way to get material into the system from outside. (The best way from inside is to give a script to people who like you who are higher up the food chain. That's why you move to LA.) The main change I'd make in my book (if they'd let me publish a second edition) is that email has largely replaced snail mail for queries.

I don't think the script web sites are a great way to go. There's no record of who's reading your script or what they're doing with it. People rarely steal scripts, but they might steal your concept -- you can't copyright a concept -- and rewrite it with different characters and a different plot. You'd never know and you'd have no way of proving anything. If you send it to a person at a company, they are far less likely to poach it. They may option it for almost nothing, but at least you'll have an eventual payday if a film goes based on it.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

McGrath reposts his fine essay on how to give notes. The key: rather than telling the writer what to do, challenge his or her assumptions. Why did they do it that way? What were they trying to achieve? Is that what you, the buyer, wanted to achieve?

The best division of labor is for the buyer to decide what he wants the result to look like, and to ask the writer to figure out how to get there.

In the US Army, the commanding officer decides what he wants: take that hill, relieve that battalion, stop that enemy assault. He leaves it to the guy or gal leading the troops to decide how to take the hill, how to relieve the battalion, how to stop the enemy. They are going to have to do it, after all. They will spend ten times as long pondering the how as the CO has available. They are closer to the material: the soldiers, the terrain, the equipment.

Micromanaging from the top can lead to spectacular failures. The Spanish Armada failed because King Philip of Spain, a landlubber, insisted that his admiral follow his orders precisely -- orders written several months before the battle. The Iraq invasion of 2003 turned into a debacle because the Secretary of Defense, who had never been in combat, was micromanaging troop deployments.

The best notes say: "we want a wham-bang opening," for example; not, "when Nick gets to the bridge there should be snipers and they should be shooting tracer bullets at him." The best notes come from being a great audience member who understands his own reactions: "I want to be pulled into the story viscerally before I even understand what's going on."

The most challenging notes are those which don't make clear what exactly the note-giver is looking for. The more prescriptive the note is, the harder it is to parse. Why does he want snipers? Is the opening not scary enough? Does he want the opening to take longer? Did the note-giver see a movie with cool snipers and he wants something like that? Are we appealilng to the Halo crowd?

It takes a lot of restraint to avoid giving writers unnecessarily specific notes. Everyone in this industry wants to be creative. The writers are having all the fun. Execs want to share that fun. But execs: you will look like a genius if you simply make clear what results you want, and let the writer get there by his own path. The results will be much fresher, and more coherent, too.

Writers: you need to address notes, but you don't always have to take them. Don't be afraid to ask, "what are you looking for, here, exactly, because I may have another way to do this."

Obviously when you're writing for a director or an animator or a real creative producer -- a Zanuck, a Spielberg, someone who is truly taking part in the creation of the project -- then the situation changes. If Spielberg wants snipers, give him snipers. On BON COP BAD COP, the director had entire action sequences he had mapped out in his head; my job was to happily write them down and marvel at how fun they were. But even in this case, don't be afraid to ask what your creative collaborator really wants when he asks for certain details. You may be able to come up with something better, and most creative people are open to a better solution most of the time.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Celtx 1.0 Now Available For Free Download!

After 4 years, 1,000,000 downloads, 20 languages, 160 countries, and 250,000 very active users like you, we're thrilled to announce that Celtx 1.0 has arrived. With 1.0, Celtx is now truly the world's first full-featured, all-in-one media pre-production software. And, like every other version before it, you can download Celtx 1.0 for free at www.celtx.com.

We've added some new features and innovations to 1.0 that we think you'll find useful and enjoy, like:

Adapt To - a single click now converts a fully formatted script of one type into a fully formatted script of another - for example a Stageplay to a Screenplay - displaying instantly the multi-media potential of your work.

Comic Book - a new editor to write properly formatted Comic Books, and a common framework for collaboration between writer and artist.

iPhone - now view your Celtx projects from just about anywhere with a display optimized for your iPhone.

Catalogs - a new organization and searchable dashboard view of all your story's elements and production items.

Sidebar - annotate and break down each scene with notes, media (images, audio, and video clips), and production items through an easy to manage, thoroughly upgraded new sidebar.

Project Scheduling - has been vastly upgraded to fully integrate with the script breakdown and provide a Call Sheet and a host of new shooting reports.

Storyboarding - as requested, you can now choose from a variety of ways to view and manage your images, create a storyboard outline based on your script, and add shot descriptions to each image.
I don't know how they plan to make money giving away software. And I don't know anyone professional who uses it. But if you're a n00b, why spend $150 for Final Draft 7 when you can download Celtx for free? You can always use Final Draft when someone buys you a copy.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

THE DIALOGUE SERIES is a DVD series of 70-90 minute discussions in which more than two dozen top screenwriters share their work habits, methods and inspirations, secrets of the trade, business advice, and eye-opening stories from life in the trenches of the film industry. Each writer discusses his or her filmography in great detail and breaks down the mechanics of one favorite scene from their produced work.

Interview subjects include Oscar® winners and industry veterans like Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco), Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Peter & Bobby Farrelly (There's Something About Mary, Stuck on You) and David S. Goyer (Dark City, Blade, Batman Begins). The series is hosted by Michael De Luca, film fanatic and former President of Production at New Line Cinema. In a climate where "industry" talk shows are mostly fluff pieces, Mike De Luca's probing and savvy style elevates this series to a true exploration of the craft and its masters.
The people behind this series were kind enough to send me the David Goyer interview.

Now, I'm not the best person for this sort of disk. Most of what David Goyer has to say in this disk isn't news to me. It may be interesting for you, though.

What I want in a writer interview is for someone to ask the questions I'd ask the writer if I were taking him out for Irish whiskey at the Paddock, or fine tequila at Reposado. Questions about writing craft. Questions about how the business works at a high level.

Granted, most writer gossip is too specific to publish. How is it working with [name of executive]? What is up with him? How fast do you think [name of writer] is gonna get a show on [network] now that he's dating [name of executive]? Did she jump or was she pushed?

Or, Hey, I hear you're working with [supposedly respectable producer who owes me $33,000]. Watch out!

But smart writers always have arcane questions for each other. And perhaps if the interviewer had been another writer, instead of the former President of Production at New Line (i.e. a suit), the questions might have been more probing and useful.

For example, De Luca asks Goyer about his monicker "The Prince of Darkness," and Goyer talks about how he got that nickname in high school, and then goes on to talk about his tattoos. I would have asked: do you promote that name as part of your brand as a writer? Do you find it helps you get jobs like the movies you've been writing -- DARK CITY, BATMAN BEGINS -- because people say, "Hey, let's get that Prince of Darkness guy!"? Do you find you're losing out on period dramas and rom coms because you're that Prince of Darkness guy?

Or, Goyer mentions that on the first BLADE he was a writer, on a second a writer-producer, and on the third, a director. Both Goyer and De Luca are very interested in Goyer's experience as a director, because directors are important people in Hollywood. But I would have been interested in knowing what it means to be a writer-producer. Was that just a courtesy title? How much authority came with it? And authority over whom? Did the director listen to you any more?

It's hard coming up with good interview questions. It is perhaps the hardest part of doing an interview. You have to really know your subject and figure out what to ask him that he hasn't been asked before. The rest is typing.

This is a DVD, and that ought to have a higher signal to noise ratio than a radio interview, say. Because you're paying for it, and you're supposed to actually look at it, not just listen while you sit on the 101. (The Dialogue Series does leverage the screen a bit, by explaining who people are talking about when they name drop.) I want someone to take a three hour conversation and squeeze it down to the juiciest one hour. I want ideas going by at high speed so I want to stop the disk and run that by me again. I did not feel these discs met that standard.

But then, a DVD like this is not for me, and you may not have a lot of writer friends to quiz over Red Breast. If you're still getting a sense of the biz, and wonder what really, really successful writers are like in person, you may find these disks useful.

UPDATE: I ran this by a smart emerging writer, who wrote:
There's lots of interesting information about Batman, Blade, The Flash, and other superhero movies. De Luca asks him questions that are related to screenwriters in terms of working and surviving the industry -- how to deal with notes, problem actors and directors, being rewritten, rewriting others, studio politics, cycles of movies, how genre movies can be taken seriously... things that are all useful.

But there is nothing on craft.

The closest they get to it is when David Goyer talks about finding a theme to focus on -- Batman is really about fear and parent issues, The Flash is about speed as a vice, something you get addicted to. But that's maybe a minute or two out of a 79 minute running time.

One thing that was kind of interesting was a writing exercise called "the object". De Luca presents a random object (in this case, a toy clown on a scooter), and Goyer has to mine from it a story or idea (something about a cop searching for a supernatural killer, and "the souls of 40 murdered children"). Hearing him explain how he got that from the object, and in turn, how he gets inspiration and ideas from other things, was insightful.

The questions De Luca asks that are actually related to screenwriting are along the lines of "did you go to film school, how did you break in, what kind of stuff do you have in your office, do you outline, how many hours a day do you work...". Things that are somewhat interesting, but not that helpful. ... It is cool to find out these sort of things. But there needs to be more than just that.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

A Friend of the Blog is having trouble parsing an email her would-be producer has sent her about financing. She's unsure how to react.

First of all, if someone is being unclear about whether they are going to be able to pay you or not, you are entitled to ask for a straight answer. If they don't have a straight answer to give you, then the answer is probably "no," and if they are resistant to giving you a straight answer, then the answer is "no" with a topping of "you don't want to work for them."

Second, don't use email as your primary form of communication. Many people these days hide behind email. What email is great for is creating a paper trail. After a creative discussion, write up what you think you understand from it, and send it to the other parties. Same with negotiations.

But if you are trying to find out answers, call. You can't tell tone of voice from an email. Better yet, if you can, drop in. Best of all, go to lunch. The more time you spend in person with people, the more you will develop your relationship with them, and the more you'll know what is up with them. When you are there in person, people are more likely to remember what they needed to say to you.

If you are cultivating a relationship, that goes triple. Never send an email when you can call. Never call when you can visit. Never visit when you can wangle coffee.

When people get emails, they usually try to bat them away as fast as possible. That means they may not give you a full answer. They will feel justified in giving you less than two minutes attention.

On the phone, they will at least try to finish off their thoughts. They will rarely give you less than five minutes of their attention. But they may not remember everything they had to say, and they certainly won't bring up additional projects.

In person, people usually feel obliged to give you at least fifteen minutes of their time. They will bring up additional projects, but they may not try to get to know you as a person.

Over food, people will rarely give you less than half an hour (coffee) or an hour (food). They will actually try to get to know you as a person.

Try to be there as much as possible. At least until you run out of time and you're so busy that you start telling people, "Just shoot me an email and I'll get back to you."

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Carl P writes:
Greetings from Austria, where the Europe Cup is driving everyone crazy. I am writing my masters thesis on serial narration in childrens literature and I need to work with the term "pilot" or rather different types of pilots (backdoor, establishing etc.) but I can't find any definitions.
A pilot is the first episode of a series.

Traditionally, networks shoot the pilot, and then make their decision to pick up the show or not based on how they feel about the results. There are drawbacks to this system. You can write a kickass pilot that paints the series into a corner; since the networks don't commission more scripts until they've shot the pilot, they won't find that out right away. Also, you spend months waiting to see if the network likes a pilot, then you have to jump into your story room on short notice and start cranking out scripts. In Canada we usually don't pilot (only the CBC goes to pilot). Instead you write a bunch of scripts and the greenlight decision is based on them. That means the writers have some scripts in the bank when the greenlight decision comes down. On the other hand there's no opportunity to recast after the pilot as there is in the American system.

A premise pilot is a first episode that sets up the circumstance of the pilot. In the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pilot, the Cylons attack and the Battlestar Galactica goes on the run. In our NAKED JOSH pilot, Josh returns to McAllister University as a professor. In the BUFFY pilot, Buffy comes to Sunnydale, which turns out to be infested with vampires.

I've heard that you should try to avoid a premise pilot if you can. It's hard to re-air a premise pilot because it is often quite different from the regular show. The SEX & THE CITY pilot is just an episode of S&TC; no explanation how Carrie met the other girls, or how she got her column. The WEST WING pilot starts with Josh about to be fired. However, often you can't avoid a premise pilot. You need to explain who the Cylons are and why the Battlestar is running from them. You need to explain what the LOST island is and how all these people got stranded there. Often, too, it is easier to introduce characters if one of the characters is "coming into the family." Cop gets a new partner. Betty gets a new job. We see the characters through the new person's eyes, whether or not the new person is the hero.

A backdoor pilot is a feature film or TV movie that is made with an eye to an eventual television series. It works as a feature film, but also sets up the characters and situation for the series. If you have a TV series you haven't been able to get off the ground, one possible approach is to write a feature using those characters, that ends up more or less where your series starts. If the feature is a hit, or even well liked by the right people, you can go back and repitch the TV series. TV execs may dig your concept more if they can see it in action.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Successful bloggers like myself have been trying to keep the secrets of our success, well, secret. But now this guy has gone and blown it for us. Ah well. Now I'll have to take up something more lucrative, like knitting.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

CHARLIE JADE, the show I worked on in Cape Town, is coming to the Sci Fi Channel beginning this Friday. It is a strange, impressionistic, dark SF series about a detective from a parallel universe who is blasted to our universe by an industrial accident. Complications ensue.

My team came on board beginning with episode 9 ("Betrayal"), but we (Denis McGrath, Sean Carley and I) didn't really hit our writing stride until episode 12 ("Charade"). I'm particularly proud of eps 17 ("Spin") through 20 ("Ourobouros"), where I think we finally delivered on the vision that showrunner Bob Wertheimer was asking us for. Check'em out!

If you don't get Sci Fi, I believe the episodes will be streaming on their site as well.

UPDATE: RA Porter has a nice bit on the show at Popcritics.

Oh, and... Way to go Obama! Oh, Noes, McCain!

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I'm in Charlottetown for most of the week, teaching at the Island Media Arts "Boot Camp" for writers. I'm putting six emerging TV writers from the Atlantic Provinces through their paces. Yesterday they pitched their shows and we reworked them a bit.

Today the whole class worked as a writing room, pitching springboards for each others' shows. You can't really tell you have a show until you've worked up ten or a dozen springboards. If you have a good idea for a show, a dozen springboards should be the work of a few hours with a bunch of people, or a couple of days on your own. (See how valuable a writing room is?)

(A springboard, as you know from reading my book CRAFTY TV WRITING, is the idea for an episode in a nutshell.)

Tomorrow they're pitching springboards for THE BORDER. Yesterday we watched ep. 7, "Family Affairs" together. (You can watch it here. No idea if it plays outside Canada.) It is one hell of an hour of TV. At the end of each act out you have a pretty good idea where the episode is going, and then it goes somewhere else more interesting. Superb. Y'all probably read Denis McGrath's blog, and he is a fine blogger, but he is a knockout TV writer. (Please don't tell any American showrunners, or they'll steal him.)

If you live in a decent-sized city, try putting together a writing room of your own. In my book I talk about writing groups which critique each other's work, but a writing room would actually pitch stories and arcs and characters for each others' shows. You will learn much faster about writing for TV in a roomful of writers trying to turn an idea into a bunch of episodes than on your own. You'll learn from pitching your idea and seeing what people make of it, and you'll learn from trying to make your writing buddies'

You will all agree -- best if you sign a written one-paragraph agreement -- that the person whose show you're working on owns all the ideas you guys come up with.

If you don't live in a major urban center with other newbie writers, you can still set up a virtual writing room with Skype. Skype calls are free and it's easy to set up a conference call. It will not be as effective to do it text only, and it will be way less effective by email. You need the freewheeling nature of a meeting, where one person jumps on something that someone just said.

Try it, you'll like it. And if your first one doesn't work, build a new one with the best people from your first group and some newbies. Group dynamics are tricky.

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