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



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Monday, September 29, 2008

This is a couple of guys singing Bruce Springsteen's "The River" on a street in Copenhagen.



Oh yeah. One of them is Bruce Springsteen.

What I love about this is you can tell the story. The other guy knows the harmony. He's good. So Bruce Springsteen must have been walking down the street in Copenhagen and heard the other guy playing his songs. And he thought, "Hey, he's good! I think I'll play with him."

Which kinda suggests that Bruce Springsteen walks around with a guitar. Which is kind of how I like to picture him.

Oh... moral of the story: be ready for your break. You never know when or how it will come.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

(Political theater)

Lisa and I had to turn off the American Presidential debate last night because it seemed to us that McCain was making much stronger arguments than Obama. Not arguments we agreed with, mind. Just making them much more convincingly. Obama was not jabbing back. I was thinking of a dozen things I wanted Obama to come back with, and he wouldn't. Obama was reaaaaaal short on specifics.

McCain made a very good point about how Obama's all about how we shouldn't have got into Iraq, which is a question the next president won't have to deal with. The relevant question is how we get out of it.

Silly me. No one was listening to the words! They were watching how McCain didn't look Obama in the eye. They thought he was "antagonistic." (You're not supposed to be antagonistic in a debate?) As the day goes by, it seems more and more like Obama cleaned McCain's clock, just by seeming calm and Presidential, while McCain blew his chance by talking to the audience in the room, instead of to the camera.

I thought Gore won the first debate, too, back in 2000. It turned out he sighed a lot. Apparently that's a no-no, even when your opponent is exasperating.

It just goes to show how much of politics is theater and how little is substance. As far as most people's reactions to the debates goes, they might as well have had the sound off.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. McCain also forgot to mention the middle class, and thinks that Pakistan was a failed state before Musharrraf's dictatorship. And he went on about earmarks too much, and made his "Miss Congeniality" quip twice, which was once too many.

But apparently what he needed to do was to be Miss Congeniality. Instead he was Mr. Why Do I Have to Debate This Whippersnapper.

McCain failed the Beer Test. Most people would rather have a beer with Obama after this, I think.

It's a silly way to elect a president.

But after all, we're only human -- and this is how we're hardwired to choose our leaders.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Q. I've agreed to sell a script of mine to some producers for $5,000, because their movie is very low budget ($1 million). What else should I ask for?
First of all, $5,000 is still fairly lowball. WGC scale for a movie of the week (budget $1.2 mil) is on the order of $30,000. The producers are taking advantage of you. (Don't take it personally, that's what producers do if you let them.)

But sometimes you do a cheapo deal for experience and credit. I've done them.

First of all, you want a guaranteed credit. If they can only afford $5,000 for you, then they certainly can't afford a rewriter. You can ask for a guaranteed sole writing credit. Since that's the most important thing you're getting, and it's not a Guild deal, it should be guaranteed.

Second, if the budget miraculously increases, so should your fee. You could ask for an escalator -- 3% of every penny over $1,000,000 in budget -- budget defined as the bonded budget, if there is a completion bond, or the insured budget if there isn't. (Don't allow any budget definition that excludes financing costs, for example.)

You could ask for a co-producer credit -- you're "investing" in the picture -- though that won't be terrifically useful to you. I've got a couple of Associate Producer type credits; they haven't done much for me.

If they don't make the picture quickly, it should revert to you. Give them a year, extendable by a payment of another $2,500. After two years, you get it back free and clear, with any and all rewrites.

Since this is your idea, you should own the remake / spinoff / adaptation into other media rights. If they want those, they can pay scale. For $5,000, they should just get the right to make one movie, that's it.

In deals like these, think what you can ask for that doesn't cost money up front. They don't have money up front. An escalator is fair because it doesn't kick in until there's more money. Reversion is fair because you're giving up your script in the hopes it will get made -- if it doesn't get made, you've lost the benefit, so you should be able to sell it to someone else. Remake rights don't cost the producer anything now -- just some of his potential upside. And if he wants that, he ought to pay for it.

Alternately, you can grant the remake rights, but attach payments to them. You get $100,000 if the remake rights are sold. That gives the producer control, and it doesn't cost him anything -- the hundred grand will come out of the purchaser of the remake rights.

Remember -- you won't get anything unless you're willing to walk away. But if the producers won't give you a reasonable deal, they're probably not serious producers anyway, and you're probably wasting your time with them.

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(Canadian politics)

I'm organizing a small bash for the various arts communities in Montreal on Tuesday, October 7th, from 7-9 pm. We're trying to help stop the Conservatives from getting a majority by raising money for the Liberal Party. Our special guest is Justin Trudeau, who'll answer questions about his party's support for culture and the arts. If you'd like to come, please drop me a line, or go to our Facebook page and RSVP.

If you're not in Quebec, please give your money or time to whichever of your local candidates has the best chance of beating the Tories!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I've been sick as a dog for the past few days, plus organizing a Justin Trudeau fundraiser, so please forgive the silence.
Q. I'm in several screenwriting groups on Facebook, and saw a post about someone who is looking for a group of young screenwriters to write a script for their 1 hour feature. I've enclosed the entire post below -

"Myself and another director are shooting an hour of feature film drama and we want to do it very differently and try to help people in the process. We want to get a group of young screenwriters (20-30 or so) to collaboratively write the script for the film.

We want to give young unknown talent a chance to get some experience and some credits, as well as experiment with the wisdom of crowds to see how it makes the storyline evolve. The idea is to invite everyone to hold up at our studio for an all-nighter and write the thing in 24hrs, as well as modifying it online together. Everyone involved will get shared copyright, credits and be associate directors.
This sounds like an enormous waste of time for several reasons.

One, faster is not better. A good story takes time to take shape. You have to look at it from several angles. You have to work it. Every now and then you read or hear about how someone wrote a script in three days. They didn't. They thought about it for several months, until they knew exactly what story they wanted to tell, then wrote a draft in three days, then reworked it for several months.

Two, twenty heads are not better than one. A good story does not go down the predictable path. Storytelling by committee will get you the obvious ideas, not the clever ones that start out feeble and need nourishing into something surprising and spectacular.

Writing rooms do gather to break story and, later, to punch up jokes. But after you've broken the story into acts, you send one writer (or maybe a writing team of two, that functions as one writer) to beat the story out. And the showrunner story edits the beat sheet all on his own. There needs to be one controlling intelligence telling the story. Otherwise you just get a mishmash of ideas that might be good on their own, but which muck up all the other good ideas that other people have.

UPDATE: Lisa thinks this is a scam. If they ask you to contribute money as an "associate producer," run.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

FRINGE is losing me fast. And I'm its core audience.

(Ep. 2 SPOILERS)

When you have a science fiction show, it's the ordinary drama aspects of the show that will kill you. I can, for the sake of argument, accept that some kind of genetic flaw creates a baby that grows to an old man in 6 hours, even though that violates the law of conservation of mass. (Where did the 8 lb. baby get the extra mass to become a 100 lb. old man?)

But I can't accept, in any television show, that a creepy guy can walk into a strip joint, make friends with a pretty woman who works there, get her to go home with him, and then convince her to go into his abandoned warehouse. Are you frakking kidding me?

At that point, the show ceases to take place in the same universe I live in.

(And even if she's hooking -- an abandoned warehouse? I don't think so.)

I'm also disturbed that the show is establishing a template where they will solve the mystery, in every third or fourth act, by some science-fiction deus ex machina. In the pilot, Agent (should be Special Agent) Dunham goes into an isolation tank, drops LSD, has a spinal hookup to a guy in a coma, and comes out with a face. In this episode, it turns out you can take the images off a dead person's retina.

I wouldn't mind the latter in the first act; I'll accept most anything as a premise. But not in the third or fourth act, where it's helping the heroes. That's going to alienate the audience. Why get involved in the mystery? In act three or four, Dr. Goofyhead is going to explain how you can use Google Maps Beta to locate the characteristic heat signature of an empathic metamorph, and hey! There she is in Harvard Square!

I think there's a lot of bad, sloppy writing in FRINGE, and there's no excuse for it. It's all visual and cool, but I can't get involved, because the show is insulting my common sense.

At least HEROES is coming back. See, I have no problem with HEROES, even though it violates most of the laws of physics -- because the characters more or less make sense. The only insults to my common sense are the science fictiony ones. You can break the laws of physics. But don't break the laws of character or story.

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Q. The material I like to write is mainly sci-fi/fantasy stuff. I've written one screenplay about vampires, and I'm working on two others - one set in space and one based around magic. If I'm thinking about getting an agent, should I be writing various things, apart from my preferred (and my strength) sci-fi? Should I write a very down-to-earth drama to display what else I can do? (Although as of yet, I have no idea whether I can do that sort of thing.)
In features, spec what you love. That's what you'll do the best job on. When someone is writing something they don't love, the script always seems half-hearted.

After you've written a handful of speculative fiction stuff, then consider stretching out into new territory. Identify your weaknesses. Are your plots flimsy? Write a tightly plotted thriller. Characters weak? Write a straight drama. Scripts too talky? Write an action movie with great action.

But always find a story in those genres that you can love.

Personally, I find I can fall in love with a lot of different sorts of stories. I'm a speculative fiction fan, and I consider myself blessed that the series I have in development is spec fiction. But the show I co-created (NAKED JOSH) was a comic drama, and I'm known best for my work on a buddy cop comedy feature, BON COP BAD COP.

You may find after you've written a few speculative fiction feature specs that you have a hankering to write something new. Follow that hankering. Your speculative fiction scripts will presumably have elements of drama in them; if you can write drama in space, there's no reason you can't write drama here on Earth.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

This hysterical spot explains why those of us in the arts are terrified of a Tory Majority. It is almost certainly incomprehensible to anyone outside Canada. It is probably incomprehensible to anyone outside of Québec. But if you're assez bilingue, it is just very, very funny.

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Q. I'm fleshing out a SciFi script with a fairly complex entertainment technology. I don't want a whole exposition about how the technology works, but at the same time I don't want someone reading the script for the first time to be thrown off by unknown concepts. Should I write a brief description in the action outside of the dialogue? For example...
  • JOE
  • Sir, step out of the quadstar and keep your hands where I can see them.

  • A quadstar is a vehicle that allows users to instantly transport into wherever they like. Its technology is based on beets.
You should never have anything in the script that wouldn't translate to the screen. If you need the reader to know it, for sure you need the audience to know it. So you can describe what a quadstar looks like (the audience will see that on screen), but you can't tell us in the action what it does or how it works. You need to either explain to us, or better, show us, what the new tech does.

So when Rick Deckard uses the Voight-Kampff to smoke out that Rachel's a replicant in BLADE RUNNER, Tyrell asks:
  • TYRELL
  • Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil? Involuntary dilation of the iris?
  • DECKARD
  • We call it Voigt-Kampff for short.
Meanwhile we're seeing on screen that Deckard has Rachel's iris in closeup on his machine.

Earlier in the film, we saw the disastrous Voigt-Kampff test of Leon ("Tell me, in your own words, only the good things you remember about your mother"), and there's some explanation there too.

Science fiction films always have a bit of exposition ("expo" for short). You want to keep it down to a bare minimum necessary for the audience to get it. They already kinda know what the movie's territory is anyway. When you go to see MINORITY REPORT, you know it's about people being arrested for crimes they are going to commit.

But you do need to give the audience an explanation. That can be a TV news report (MINORITY REPORT), promotional film (JURASSIC PARK) or dialog, or any other clever way you can think of.

Also be clear what you need to explain. I don't think STAR TREK: TOS ever explained the transporter, because it was obvious what it did. BLADE RUNNER didn't explain the flying cars; they were obviously cars that also flew. But the replicants needed explanation, so there's quite a bit of talk about what replicants are in the BLADE RUNNER script.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Here's a fun and instructive exercise in editing:

Get your hand on the FRINGE pilot script, and cut it down to 55 pages.

For bonus points, get your hands on the FRINGE pilot itself, load it into Final Cut, and trim that baby down to a TV hour.

I bet you get a perfectly good episode out of it. I bet it's better than what aired.

If you want to do this project but set on "Easy," do it with the MIAMI VICE pilot. Cut that down to a TV hour. Should be a piece of cake; TV took its time in those days.

UPDATE: Well, that was fast. Peter has thoughtfully located the FRINGE pilot script. Thank you, Peter!

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Some clever person seems to have put all the transcripts of THE WEST WING up on the Web. Transcripts, not scripts, but still, that is some fine writing there.

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I am writing a script about a soldier who fought in WWII and passed away recently. While I don't want to necessarily write a story about his life specifically, I do want to use his achievements in battle as the basis for my script. I'm assuming he has living relatives. How should I handle this? Am I safe with just a name change? How much would I need to change his story to not worry about acquiring rights/permission? Do I need to worry about it at all in the first place?
My suspicion is that you are going to change the details so much the guy isn't really recognizable. If what you're doing is "inspired by" true events, I think you're clear, even if your source of inspiration is still alive.

You're right that death is a bit of a dividing line in some rights issues. Keeping in mind that I'm not a lawyer and this is just my understanding: in general, the dead have no privacy rights. I suspect that you could actually tell this guy's actual story and you'd be okay so long as no one in the movie is still alive (readers, can you check me on this?).

Their likeness rights do pass down (you can't put Marilyn Monroe in an ad without talking to her estate) but that doesn't apply here.

You will hear from time to time about relatives suing over this and that. Whether they win their suits is another question. Anyone can find a lawyer to sue about just about anything.

In general, I prefer to go the "inspired by" route for almost anything. People's lives make much better stories when you don't owe the truth anything. Then you can concentrate on the story. Then I don't have to worry about life rights. By the time I'm done with a story, it often has very little bearing on the source material.

That goes for novels, too. I've adapted a bunch of books and by the time I'm done, in most cases, I could just as well have skipped the novel and just liberated some of the insights and ideas and territory (none of which are copyrightable).

Note that public figures have reduced privacy rights. You can make a movie about George Bush without his permission, as Oliver Stone has. Dead public figures have almost no rights -- e.g. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, etc. But their non-public-figure lovers, wives, secretaries, etc., probably still have privacy rights and you'll need them to sign off, or (I'm not sure how this works exactly) make their characters so unutterably bland that they have nothing to complain about.

Where you really need the rights creatively (as opposed to legally) is when you have an "inspiring true story" -- e.g. ERIN BROKOVICH. Sometimes the audience really wants to know that this actually happened, and it's a selling point. Then get the rights. But in most cases, I think you're better off taking liberties with the truth and adapting the truth broadly enough that you don't need anyone's permission.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Q. Should I write a 2-Hour pilot or try to get it done in 1-Hour? Part of me feels it would be natural for one of the stories to unfold over 2 hours as a pilot, but part of me also recognizes a possible danger zone of sending out something twice as big as what someone would normally have to read.
One hour, please. You want to show you can write an hour of great television, not a TV movie.

The day of the two hour pilot is mostly done, thank goodness. I can't think of a two hour pilot that didn't feel like a one hour padded out to double length. Yes, I'm looking at you, FRINGE.

Trim your dialog until it's tight as a drum, drop any scene that isn't strictly necessary, merge characters and plot turns until you've streamlined everything, and you should have no trouble fitting your two TV hours of plot into one TV hour.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I'm going through my beat sheet, making little improvements. One of them might be instructive:
Kid thinks Mom betrayed him. (Let's says she tried to get a doctor to prescribe drugs for him.) Mom defends herself, then gets mad and says "Dad wanted to do it too!"
That's dramatic. But this is a family. They know each other pretty well. Let's make this scene specific to their relationship. Kid knows Dad really well and can hear what he's not saying.
Kid thinks Mom betrayed him. Mom defends herself, but as she talks, Kid gradually realizes the truth: Dad wanted to do it, too. Didn't he?
That's a good, handy sort of generic tweak that very often improves a scene: have a character pull the truth out rather than having the other character push it out there.

But in this story, Mom is a bit of a jerk, and Kid has is on the autistic spectrum -- he doesn't get subtext. So an even better tweak makes the scene specific to these specific characters and not just their generic relationship:
Kid thinks Mom betrayed him. Mom defends herself, but as she talks, we begin to realize that Dad wanted to do it, too. But Kid doesn't pick up on Mom's use of "we," and keeps blasting Mom. Finally Mom loses it and blurts out, "It was Dad's idea!"
Your first stab at a scene will often be functional. It gets information across. It gets information into the hands of the characters. It puts characters into conflict.

Then see if you can tweak it to make it more specific to who these characters are. Can you accomplish the same plot goals by having the characters react in ways that only people with their specific flaws would react?

As I've said elsewhere, good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say.

This is the same thing on the scene level. Good scene craft has the characters doing and saying only things those characters would do. Great scene craft has the characters doing things that only those characters would do.

It's a tough standard, but I'm told that Jack Nicholson will do a script if it has "three great scenes and no bad ones."

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Monday, September 15, 2008


Norlinda comments on a previous post about index cards:
I'm already at 36, and by knowing a rough max index card number, I'll know how much further I have to go before inserting the final climatic scene. I'm going by card numbers to make sure a decent number of scenes have been devoted to a character's development---it's a multi-character plot and this is the only logical way I know how to manage the depth of the story.
What concerns me about your comment is it sounds like you are trying to weave the characters' stories together as you figure them out. In other words you are beating the story out on the fly.

What I do is figure out all the beats of each story, and then weave them together. That way I know if I'm telling a coherent story about each character whose story I'm telling.

I write top-down, the way I learned to write computer programs back in New Haven. I figure out what the A, B and C stories are. Then I break each of those stories down into acts. Then I beat each of those stories out -- separately.

Now I've got three or four columns of index cards for the beats of each story, all laid out on my dining room table.

Then I open up my card table and start stealing cards from each story to make up the beats of the episode. As I go, I move the cards around to see if a different order might be better. That's how I get to the table you see.

Once I've used up all the cards from the stories -- except for any that suddenly no longer seem necessary -- I have a neat little stack of cards, and I can fold up my card table.

Then I sit at my desk and put the cards back into a Word document -- a beat sheet. That quickly becomes a Final Draft document -- a step outline, with scene headings. And that's what I write my script from.

I would never try to skip any of those steps. I'd get confused, and wind up having to disentangle the whole mess -- probably by reducing the whole damn script back to index cards and moving them around again.

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McGrath has a brilliant solution to the classic conundrum of how do you spec a serial show.

Headline: write the first episode of a new season.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

I sent my scripts to coverage report and according to the coverage analysts, in most of the screenplays, English as a Second language is evident, has it happened that anyone with second language as English sold scripts to Hollywood?
I doubt it.

If you can't write utterly idiomatic English, then your route to Ho'wood has to be less direct. Make a picture that is a smash hit in your own language. If the concept is good, Ho'wood may buy the adaptation rights from you.

The same is true in general for breaking in as a screenwriter even from anglophone nations. You're probably better off making movies at home in England/Australia/Canada/South Africa, where you know the ropes, and get some credit for being a local. Then when your movie is a hit in the States, you can come to LA with it, and have something to talk about. It's hard enough competing against the Beverly High crowd if you're from Kansas; if you're from Uttar Pradesh, you're really better off going to Bollywood.

This rule only applies to writers and actors, and to a lesser extent directors. Lots of furriners are making it as cinematographers in Hollywood every day.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ken Levin is hosting another Sitcom Room in mid-November. This is an opportunity to be "in the room" with one of the most experienced sitcom writers / showrunners / creators in the biz.

Most of these seminars are hooey, because they're run by people who couldn't hack it as writers. Ken Levine has written on M*A*S*H, CHEERS, FRASIER, BECKER, and many other top sitcoms.

If I were in LA, I would so totally be there.

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Q. I'm in the brainstorming stages of a feature spec which for me begins with the logline.

My question is: if I'm writing with a certain comedic actor in mind, should I include his name in my logline? Or not so subtlety name him Steve Ferrell in the hopes a reader pictures either Will Ferrell or Steve Carell?
Don't get cute with the character names, it'll be distracting.

One danger in writing for a specific actor is you might not make the character strong enough. Knowing that Will Ferrell can make lots of unfunny things semi-funny, you might not sharpen the gags up enough for the read.

Another is, what if they're looking for a vehicle for Seth Rogen?

I would just write the strongest comic character you can, and let them figure out who it would be great for.

Or, if they ask "Who are you thinking of?" you can tell them.

(It's an entirely different thing when you are writing on a show where people are already cast. Then, of course, you write to the actor. I enjoyed writing for Colm Feore on BON COP BAD COP because I could guess what he'd bring to the lines. On another show, I had an actress who could act but whose English wasn't superb. We gave her short lines with short words, and she was fantastic.)

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Diamond Jim asks about NEVERWHERE
Neil relates that he started the novel during breaks in the [BBC] series when he saw how far it was straying from what he intended. That seems like a really unusual situation--a writer getting to novelize his own script--and if you have any reflections it would be very interesting to hear them.
It is rare. I have the novelization rights in some of my projects; I don't have it in others. I guess he retained his, as a Famous Comics Writer.

If you haven't retained the print rights, you could ask the network to let you write the novel and try to work out a deal. Usually in US TV the writers are way too busy, and are paid too much to be able to afford to write novels. The UK system has shorter series, which leaves more time for a writer to write a novel. And, I guess, the English read more.

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There's a famous story ascribed to all sorts of people, but let's say Steven Bochco.

An actor goes to a director with the script. "My character wouldn't say that!"

The director says, "go talk to the showrunner, he wrote it."

The actor goes to Steven Bochco. "My character wouldn't say that!"

"Sure he would," says Bochco. "See? There it is on the page. He's saying it!"

So, every now and then someone complains about my writing about politics in this blog. "This is a screenwriting blog!" they write, "please don't pollute it with politics."

Let me clarify.

This is a screenwriting blog that talks about politics. You can tell, because most of the time I talk about screenwriting, and some of the time I talk about politics.

I write about what interests me. Right now, I can't keep my eyes off the election. I am particularly interested in the theatrical aspects of the race. You don't see me talking about demographics or GOTV. I talk about the campaign narratives.

I am a political animal. The ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, would have been appalled if someone had said he "wasn't interested in politics." Only an excruciatingly selfish man would separate himself from politics. Politics is, after all, the life of the city -- the polis.

Hence the top of the blog, where it says, "The craft of screenwriting ... with forays into life and political theatre."

Got it? No one is obliging you to read the political posts. They are usually marked "politics."

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Which includes politics.

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[Politics and partisan outrage]

Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times:
Did you hear about how Barack Obama wants to have sex education in kindergarten, and called Sarah Palin a pig? Did you hear about how Ms. Palin told Congress, “Thanks, but no thanks” when it wanted to buy Alaska a Bridge to Nowhere?

These stories have two things in common: they’re all claims recently made by the McCain campaign — and they’re all out-and-out lies.
Since the Republican convention, the McCain campaign has apparently decided that the voters can be blatantly lied to. Sure, there's the occasional "Fact Check" on the air, and columnists like Krugman. But they can drown all that out with repeated ads.

Their whole campaign now requires the voter to believe that the Republican Party is the right organization to clean up the mess created by the Republican Party.

And to judge by the polls, that strategy has put them ahead for the first time since the general election campaign began.

I shudder for my country.

What strikes me is that there seems to be some unwritten rule that politicians and the media can't say "liar." Barack Obama has talked about distortions. Newspapers and TV news say "half-truths".

But these are flat out lies. And the people who tell them are liars.

I think the time has come for the Democratic campaign to call McCain what he is: a liar. Forget the "he served his country well." That man is long gone. If McCain ever had a shred of decency, he has re-shredded it in the grab for the Presidency. He's a liar, Palin's a liar, and the people who make up their ads are liars.

I imagine the Republican response would be "Obama lies too." And no doubt the Obama people have taken McCain quotes out of context. (The "100 years" quote and the "economy is fundamentally sound" quotes spring to mind; though both of those distortions convey an essential truth.) But they are not calling McCain a baby-killer, which, astoundingly, McCain is calling Obama. All sins are not the same. There is a difference between lying about sex and lying to start a war.

As John Neffinger wrote in The Huffington Post, now is Obama's "Dukakis Moment." He's referring to when Michael Dukakis failed to show passion at the question, "If Willie Horton murdered your wife, would you want to execute him." (Even I knew back then that the right answer was, "As a man, I would want to smash his head in with a baseball bat, myself. The problem with the death penalty is that every now and then you discover that you've executed the wrong guy.")
Everyone who sees this ad can see how dirty it is. And if Obama wants Americans to respect him, they must be allowed to see him react with the kind of anger - controlled, but still palpable - that they would feel if somebody did that to them.
I agree. It's time for Barack Obama to show how angry he is at these lies, and to call McCain a liar, and to ask the American people if they want a liar in the White House. Because we've been lied to over and over the past eight years. And if Americans go for more of the same, we'll deserve what we get.

UPDATE: From the comments:
You are a Canadian writer with a screenwriting blog. Why are you polluting it with U.S. political commentary? Especially standard issue left-wing Hollywood talking points?

The answers are not possessed by the rabid left or right - it's somewhere in the middle.
If you don't like the political posts, don't read them. See up top where it's marked "politics and partisan outrage"? I posted a bunch of other stuff today about other aspects of showbiz.

And when I say "other aspects of showbiz," don't for a moment think that politics isn't showbiz. This year in particular. And that's part of what I was analyzing.

Your dismissing my points as "standard issue Hollywood talking points" is a standard issue Republican troll gambit. They are not talking points. "Sarah Palin is a qualified foreign affairs expert because you can see Russia from Alaska" is a talking point. "The Republics are lying when they say Sarah Palin rejected Congressional funding for the Bridge to Nowhere" is a documented fact.

See, "Intelligent dialogue is balanced" is exactly the problem.

When one side says "the moon is made of green cheese" and the other side says "it's rock," the answer is NOT in the middle. But the media gets uncomfortable when it has to take a side, even if one side is right and the other is wrong. As Paul Begala noted, you get a headline that reads, CANDIDATES CLASH ON LUNAR LANDSCAPE.

One side is LYING. And if Americans are too lazy, or as you claim, "balanced," to get their head around that, we get another President who will lie us into another war or mortgage crisis.

And, as for me being a Canadian, I'm a natural-born New Yorker who lives in Montreal. I vote in California, babe. Don't try to bulls*** a bullsh***er.

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Tuesday, I pitched my completely new episode 2 of my pay cable series to our network execs. I pitched it as a breakdown: here's the A story, B story, C story. They approved the new stories.

So, after a day of this, that and the other thing (amazing how fast things build up when you're out of town for four days), I'm working on weaving the stories together.

I do almost all my writing on computer. The exception is when I'm weaving the stories together. I like to be able to see the whole episode at a glance.

For my pay cable series, there ought to be about 40 index cards; each represents more or less one beat. Fewer, and I'm coming up short. Longer, and I'll go over my goal of 60 or so pages. (Remember this is pay cable, so each episode is around 52-55 minutes long.)

You might be able to see in the photo that I'm marked all the cards with a color. (My friend Shelley actually uses colored cards. That's much cleverer.) That way I can tell at a glance if I'm on one story too long. 

TV pulses. You want the end of one scene to slingshot you into another story; then the end of that scene or sequence slingshots you back into the first story. That way you build up forward momentum, and can easily cut out the dull bits.

You don't want to spend too much time on any one story, or the audience starts to lose track of the other stories. So it's juggling.

Broadcast TV is all about act outs, but really, every time you cut from one story to another, you want to leave the audience wondering "what's going to happen next." A man comes through the door with a gun and-- we cut to the B story. Jack tells Jill that yes, he cheated on her and-- cut to the C story.

What makes it tricky is that events have a chronological logic of their own. You might come up with three perfectly good stories -- but one is really an evening and night story, and the other takes place entirely in school hours. You'll have to figure out how to move some of one story to the other's time slot.

So I've been moving cards around, sometimes scribbling on them, taping them together, and occasionally snipping one in two, in order to touch base with a story that would otherwise fall out of the viewer's head.

Tomorrow, it's on to the beat sheet.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

We watched "Maidenform," the last Mad Men but one, tonight. I have to say the show is disappointing me. I feel like they are going for the big ugly moments, but the stories aren't adding up the way they did, and the characters aren't convincing me.

In the episode (SPOILER), Duck abruptly shoves his loyal dog out the front door of the office building. In the rain.

I guess that is supposed to make him out to be about the worst imaginable shit there is. Because abandoning your dog onscreen is one of the lowest things you can do. (In real life it's repulsive, too. But for some reason on TV, serial murder is more forgivable than abandoning a dog, while in real life people take it more seriously.) Apparently he's angry because his wife is remarrying, and can't keep the dog because her fiancé; is allergic. So he takes it out on the dog. Rather than, say, trying to give it away.

The dog, mysteriously, once outside, runs off into the night. I can't imagine any dog that would do that.

Don, for his part, discovers that he has a "reputation" as an adulterer. He seems pretty upset about it. Considering the gusto with which he sleeps with other women, you'd think it wouldn't come as a shock to him. He seems almost ... ashamed.

All big moments. But they didn't add up, for me. They didn't enlighten me about the characters. They seemed forced -- big moments for the actors to act.

(The dog running off just felt like an animal wrangler mistake, or maybe no one was on set who has ever had a dog.)

Last year the big moments were there, but they felt earned. And I'm having trouble caring about any of these people; they're all so awful to everyone around them.

What do you guys think?

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Q. I have an idea for a spec pilot that I think I could knock out of the park, but I'm concerned about commercial appeal and production logistics. It's set entirely in a specific Asian country, but with an international cast of characters. Do I need to worry about any of that in a spec pilot to be used as a writing sample? Will I seem out of touch with what the North American industry wants if I write something along these lines?
I assume you're not talking about a war series. Shows about Americans at war overseas (GENERATION KILL, M*A*S*H, OVER THERE, BAND OF BROTHERS, THE UNIT) obviously can work. (We'll see how ZOS works for Canadians -- it's about peacekeepers, natch. Malcolm MacRury's pilot script is superb.)

If you're intending your spec pilot as a writing sample -- say you're not yet at a point in your career where you need to seriously worry about whether you will actually sell your pilot-- then you have a little latitude. A show set overseas is a long shot, but it might stand out from the rest of the pile of reading, especially if you do knock it out of the park.

I would consider writing it if it has a really great hook and the venue enables you to tell fascinating, fresh stories. I would also make sure that it is convincing as a TV show in every other regard.
  • Is there a core cast that constitutes a "family" either of blood or of choice?
  • Is there a strong story motor? Do "stories walk in the door"?
  • Do the stories tend to unfold in a limited number of controllable venues?
Your lead pretty much has to be American and otherwise relatable since the setting is foreign. Ideally two of your leads are American.

I'm not sure you need to make this a cable show. War stories show up on both cable and on broadcast, so I am not sure that your Asian whatever can't be on broadcast. That determination has more to do with how niche your audience is. MAD MEN is cable because it's demanding serial drama set in 1962. (Quick, name some period shows on broadcast!) DEXTER is cable because it makes a serial killer lovable, and advertisers might balk at that.

If you care deeply about an idea, it's usually worth pursuing. It should be a good writing sample for you; and maybe you'll figure out how to make it more network-ready as you work on it. I say go for it.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Q. I am a US citizen living in Sydney, Australia for the next two years I am hoping to land an Australian agent, but would it be wise to get an American agent as well? And if it is possible, how would I go about doing it?
You get a US agent the same way you always do, by sending in samples. Get a Gmail account, and no one really has to know where in the world you are until they want you to come in for a meeting.

(I know a rather successful agent who spent a whole LA heat wave in Aspen with calls forwarded to his cell phone. He would check the LA weather report every day so he could commiserate with people about how hot it was.)

I'm not sure how productive a US agent would be, though. They'll want to send you on meetings, and you're not available. They can't staff you on TV shows, obviously. They could sell your spec feature script, but they'll be disinclined to do that work if there's no additional upside by getting you rewrite jobs.

I haven't pushed to get a US agent because I wouldn't be able to hold up my end of the relationship very well. I'm not going to be there for staffing season. I'm not available for meetings in LA. And I'm too busy to prepare a "take" on a potential rewrite.

(I actually am talking to a couple of agencies here at TIFF, primarily to sell my US-flavored specs, and on the off chance someone does want me to do a rewrite without meeting me. But I might be a bit more of a known quantity than you.)

So, while it is possible to have dual representation, I think you're better off working the Australian angle for now, until you have built up your craft and your credits and your portfolio of specs. Then when you actually plan to come to LA, you can hit the ground running.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Quick question: given the fact that commercials per hour are going up this fall (to 15 min/hour in both US and Canada) and, as I understand, in two years they'll be going unlimited, what impact do you think this will have on the length of dramas, comedies, and basically anything written for TV?
I dare say they will be shorter, and more disjointed. Nobody is crazy about the new five act structure except advertisers, and I hear writers complaining that they hate the ABC six-act structure. It's hard to get up a head of steam in such short bits between commercials.

The more commercials they push, the more people they will push to buying a DVR and skipping the commercials entirely. That will force TV entirely out of the advertising-supported model. The shift is probably inevitable, but what's the rush?

It's interesting to note that J.J. Abrams "Fringe" this fall is only having 5 minutes/hour, which I'm suspecting means each episode will be chock full of delicious product placement.
I dare say. But I'd rather have product placement -- so long as I can choose what products I'm placing -- than ads. I don't care whether the character drives Ford or Toyota, so long as the environmentalist can drive a small car and the selfish jackass single guy can drive a big SUV.

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What do experienced writers want to hear (if anything) from producer notes about what's working? Should I just keep it simple with what I found funny/enjoyable etc. Or do writers prefer to hear deeper observations (more to do with craft). Or is none of it helpful to experienced writers and they're just fine with "approved".
Well, thank you for asking!

Writers LOVE praise. It helps them with the suicidal feelings they get about the criticisms.

Experienced writers love praise, and have horrible feelings about criticisms, as much as beginners. We just hide it better, and get over the latter more quickly.

Aside from helping your writer spend as little energy as possible contemplating the abyss, praising what works is also good strategy. It tells your writer what not to change. I need to know what ain't broke so I can not fix it. I need to know what you think you're buying, so I make sure that any rewrites will continue to have whatever that is.

I was in a writing group in LA. Our rule was that the first round of feedback on anything was praise. We went around the circle saying what we liked about the script/chapter/story/whatever. The next round we started tearing it apart and putting it back together again.

Then we rounded it off with beer.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Got this over the transom:
There’s more to the 15th annual Austin Film Festival & Screenwriters Conference this year than just big names (Sam Shepard & Greg Daniels will be accepting awards). Aspiring writers from all over the country will once again converge from October 16-23 to make connections and meetings...

Besides enjoying over 200 movies throughout the festival, a 4 day Conference with over 90 panels represents the best in television (Matthew Weiner – “Mad Men”, Tim Kring – “Heroes”, Melissa Rosenberg – “Dexter”, Phil Rosenthal – “Everybody Loves Raymond…) and film (Terry Rossio, John August, Shane Black…). Badges start as low as $95. For more information visit http://www.austinfilmfestival.com or call 1-800-310-FEST (3378).
Has anyone been to the Austin festival? What did y'all think? How was the BBQ?

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Slate has a fun article on which movies people rent from Netflix, but can't bring themselves to watch..

Might worth checking out. These are all movies that got financed ... but maybe not because anyone wants to actually watch them... what does that mean for your pitch about the homeless people and the nun with cancer?

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I am writing a script with a Hispanic character Jesus. What is the proper way to denote the pronunciation of his name? Here is what i currently have:
  • DAVID
  • Jesus (pronounced HAY-SOOS) missed the meeting.
My first inclination would be to not name someone Jesus in a screenplay. It will be distracting on the page.

Try to avoid having anything in a screenplay that throws the reader out of the story. For example, don't name male characters "Leslie" or women characters "Joey." Yes, I know they did it in DAWSON'S CREEK. It's annoying in a spec script.

My second inclination would be to skip the explanation, since it in no way affects the story, and this is not a production script. So what if they pronounce it wrong in their head? Anyway, quite a few people in Los Angeles know how "Jesus" is pronounced.

If you absolutely must have an explanation, I'd rather see it in the action rather than in the dialog:
  • DAVID
  • Jesus missed the meeting.

  • He pronounces the name in Spanish, "hay-sooss."
Especially if you can make it look like you're not telling the reader how to pronounce the name:
  • He pronounces the name in a horrible Texan accent, "Hay Soooss."

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Sunday, September 07, 2008


(Americans, y'all probably want to tune the rest of this post right out.)

Steven Harper has called a new election. Current polls put the Conservatives within spitting distance of a majority.

If you've been following cultural politics the past few months, you know that the Conservatives have been doing their level best to kill off government support for the arts. Cuts in the CFC's funding. Cuts in producer support for marketing. The attempt to kill the CTF. The attempt to allow the Ministry of Heritage to cut a film's funding after it's been made.

It is pretty clear that the Conservatives fundamentally do not want to support the Canadian cultural sector. I don't imagine they feel the same way about the Canadian beef, timber, hydroelectricity, oil or auto sectors; for some reason we don't count as a business that employs people, even though we're a business that employs people.

If you want Canada to continue supporting its own culture on screen, then you should immediately send a big fat check to the party that you think will do the best job of defending that support. You should also volunteer at phone banks. And explain to your right-wing friends why they should care if Canadian culture disappears off screens, out of bookstores, out of your iPod and your radio dial.

Seriously. IF YOU DON'T GET OUT THERE FOR THE NEXT FIVE WEEKS AND DO SOMETHING, YOU FORFEIT YOUR RIGHT TO COMPLAIN. Next year, when they cut the CTF envelopes; when they abolish the requirement that CTV air a certain number of hours of Canadian drama; when they close the CBC; when they abolish the CRTC, I will ask you what you did during the election. If your answer is "I voted," then I will tell you to quit whining. You'll be getting the government you deserve.

I should also point that if you get your ass out there and help win the election for the opposition -- you know, the guys who believe in funding culture -- then you will make friends in government. That might come in handy next year when Maureen Parker has to go up to Ottawa to explain why producers shouldn't be allowed to get Cancon money for scripts written by unemployed American sitcom writers.

IF YOU ARE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION, YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

Montrealers: I will be organizing a fundraiser in the next few weeks. Save your pennies.

Torontonians, Vancouverites, Haligonians, etc: organize your own fundraiser. I'll post anything helpful.

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I see my podcast on Charlie Jade ep 114 is up at CharlieJade.Net. Let me know what y'all think!

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Q. How many scenes on average make up an act in half-hour comedy?
It depends on the show.

If you're writing a spec episode, get your eyes on a few scripts from the show you're speccing, and count the scenes. That's how many you should have.

If you're doing a spec pilot, get some scripts from a show with a similar format (single camera comedy, sitcom, faux-reality, etc.), and count the scenes.

It's a good idea also to take a look at how many interior scenes there are vs. how many exteriors; how many scenes on standing sets vs. scenes on swing sets or locations; how many scenes have multiple characters vs. how many two-handers. Don't be utterly hogtied by these averages, but use them to check how close you are to what you're seeing on TV.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Had a bit of back and forth about agents in a the comments to a recent post:
Why should anyone do a free rewrite for an agent that hasn't agreed to represent you if you aren't supposed to do them for producers or anyone else?
I think this is seriously wrongheaded.

Agents are on your side. If an agent is interested, that means he is interested in helping you make money.

An agent only gets paid when you get paid. This is the polar opposite of the financial relationship you have with a producer. Every dollar you get paid, your producer doesn't have any more. So they want to pay you as little as possible. Your agent wants you to get paid as much as possible.

But they can't do that till your script is salable. If they give you notes, they are giving you the benefit of their commercial judgment. They might be wrong, but on the other hand, they are trying day in and day out to sell scripts. So their commercial judgment is probably a hell of a lot better than yours.

And notes are not free to the agent. If he's doing notes on your script, he's not making calls on behalf of his clients. It takes time to read a script, time to consider the script, and time to communicate the notes. I used to charge a lot of money to give notes; now I don't have time to do it at all.

From an agent's perspective, if you're not willing to do the notes, you're either lazy, or arrogant, or just plain dumb. Any of those is a dealbreaker for repping a beginning writer (and neither is a plus for an established writer).

Now, you may disagree with the notes. If you think they're dumb notes, then you might feel the agent doesn't "get" your writing. You might be right, if you are brilliant and offbeat, and the agent is a sloppy reader, or not very imaginative, or stupid.

The odds are, however, that your agent is more attuned to the market. Unless you are Joel the Reader, your agent has read more scripts than you have, and tried to sell them. The odds are that you are not as brilliant as you think you are. (Lots of aspiring writers have extremely high opinions of their own work; I sure did.) The agent's notes will make your script more commercial. Not necessarily "better" in some literary sense; a good agent is primarily concerned with whether they can sell the script, not whether your script achieves your artistic goals.

I have a section in my first book about how to evaluate an agent. It boils down to: how ritzy is their setup? If they're answering their own phone, they're not making a lot of money. If you have to go through a receptionist and then an assistant, then they are supporting that receptionist and assistant and themselves on 10% of their clients' income. So they probably do their job fairly well.

I think that an agent who gives you notes is a caring, dedicated agent who helps his clients develop their material. That is better than an agent who just throws your stuff out there willy nilly and sees if someone grabs it. An agent who gives you notes is working for you on all levels. If he gives you notes before taking you on, he is investing his time and knowledge in you already. That's the kind of agent you want!

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Nick Hornby, of all people, interviews David Simon about his show THE WIRE in BELIEVER magazine.
think what you sense in The Wire is that it is violating a good many of the conventions and tropes of episodic television. It isn’t really structured as episodic television and it instead pursues the form of the modern, multi-POV novel. Why?
And Simon goes on to answer his own question.

As reader Pardis P wrote me,
I've only read an excerpt, but he talks about what their intentions for the show were versus what they actually pitched to HBO. Soul-crushing, in some ways. A reminder that we're selling content to attract eyeballsin others.

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(Not a Charlie Jade post. Heh.)

Every now and then someone asks me to take a look at their screenwriting blog, hoping I'll link.

If you have a screenwriting blog and you want my readers to check it out, please write me with a link to your best post. If I go to your blog and the first post is about how you're trying to get a job, working in a job, or slogging through a rewrite, I'm not going to recommend it. Sorry to be tough, but posts like this may be true, they may be you, but they are not news:
My writing has been in a bit of a mess lately. After finishing a (rough, rough, rough) draft of a screenplay earlier this summer and a particularly busy late summer on the work front, I've been bouncing around between miscellaneous screenwriting and prose projects, unable to commit myself to any one of them. It's been frustrating, to say the least. I'm writing, but I'm not getting anywhere.
If on the other hand you have written a post that says something new and clever, maybe I'll like it too, and post a link.

If you have just started a blog, likewise, please wait until you have said something you're proud of. I'm not going to link to the post that says you've just hopped on the blogwagon.

I do sometimes check my blog referrals. If I see people coming to my blog from a post on your blog, I might check it out.

This rule also applies, by the way, to sending your work to a connection you might have. If you have a connection in showbiz who is not obliged to read you (such as blood kin, or someone you're sleeping with), never show them a first draft or a first screenplay. Show them your best draft of your cleverest screenplay, the one with the smasho hook. If they aren't impressed with your first submission, they won't be inclined to give your second submission much attention.

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I've been watching Charlie Jade episode 10 with Denis McGrath's commentary, now up at CharlieJade.Net. As Denis says, wow, it's not so bad, is it? Rather a nice episode, even without knowing that we (mostly Denis) wrote it in 48 hours.

Kids, Denis's commentary is the stuff. You could learn a lot from listening to Denis riff on what we were up to. And he has an extraordinary memory for what we were thinking in the room.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

[Political theatre]

The NATIONAL ENQUIRER is running a story that says that Sarah Palin only announced her daughter's pregnancy because they were going to break the news. They are apparently also running a story that says Sarah Palin had an affair with a business partner of her husband.

The McCain campaign is responding with a stout defense of Sarah Palin and an attack on the ENQUIRER for its "vicious smears."

Oh, fer chrissake. You do not win a pissing match with the NATIONAL ENQUIRER. They have the best libel lawyers in the world, and superb fact checkers, and a willingness to pay people for their stories. And they looooooove controversy. You are just making them look respectable by giving them standing to say this:
The National Enquirer's coverage of a vicious war within Sarah Palin's extended family includes several newsworthy revelations, including the resulting incredible charge of an affair plus details of family strife when the Governor's daughter revealed her pregnancy. Following our John Edwards' exclusives, our political reporting has obviously proven to be more detail-oriented than the McCain campaign's vetting process. Despite the McCain camp's attempts to control press coverage they find unfavorable, The Enquirer will continue to pursue news on both sides of the political spectrum.
What is Mark Twain's old aphorism -- never get in a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel?

I think the McCain campaign is so angry about the media vetting Palin that they've temporarily lost their media media savvy. Foolishly, Steve Schmidt is denying the allegations -- which instantly makes it a legitimate MSM story if it turns out to be the least bit true. You don't respond to allegations of an affair, for heaven's sake! By denying it, you make it real!

The correct response to a NATIONAL ENQUIRER article about your candidate is: "Oh, please. Seriously? The NATIONAL ENQUIRER??? Okay, moving on..."

That works. At least until they catch you in a motel room with your love child.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

In honor of Don LaFontaine, voice over trailer artist:

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You can read Neil Gaiman's terrific novel NEVERWHERE online, or offline, for free, for the next 30 days. After 30 days it turns into a pumpkin, so now's your chance.

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I gather the mantra at last night's Republican convention was "change." I can understand trying to glom onto the American public's desire not to continue the Bush administration. But I'm not sure attempting to steal Obama's brand makes sense. Especially on a night when George Bush, the man a large majority of Americans would like to get rid of, is there via satellite to validate your candidate.

McCain has a brand problem. It is going to be hard to brand him as the change candidate. They are trying to call him a "maverick" but he doesn't look like one, and his voting record doesn't look very maverick-y. Sarah Palin definitely helps. But if you're voting for whoever will be more likely to change Washington, you're going to go with the black guy from the opposition party.

They've gone about as far as they can go with the "war hero" thing, too. I'm not sure the pubic is in the mood for a war hero. They're sick of war. "War hero" is awful close to "war monger."

That's why Sarah Palin is such a problematic pick. When you're a veteran Senator up against a 40-year-old junior Senator with a very short record, why wouldn't you do everything to reinforce the idea that you're Mr. Experience? I would try to thread the needle by saying, "Change is good, but change isn't easy. The other guy can promise big changes, but I'll be able to make change actually happen. Remember what happened when Hillary Clinton tried to change health care? Disaster. I'll take Washington as far as it can go -- and I won't crash the car trying to go farther."

I think I would have gone in the other direction -- picked someone else equally experienced, and not young. Then pound Obama for his lack of experience and his willingness to promise the Moon.

Picking an inexperienced Governor with a raft of personal and political baggage suggests, unfortunately, that Mr. Experience may not have learned that much from his experience -- he is not wise, he's impulsive.

The McCain campaign seems to my partisan perspective to be flailing. They keep trying one attack after another, while Obama keeps hammering away at a single attack that can be summed up in a word: McBush. Polls suggest the majority of Americans think McCain will be more of the same; that will be hard to shrug off.

On the other hand, I am continually shocked that Obama hasn't opened up a bigger lead. I think American politics has become extraordinarily partisan -- it is extremely hard for people who voted for Bush to vote Obama, just as the reverse is true. I think Obama and McCain are fighting over maybe 10% of the vote. In that context, Obama's current 8% lead is huge. After all, even a 3% lead in the popular vote all but guarantees a win.

I won't be watching the Republican convention, except whatever snippets Jon Stewart plays. But I'll be interested to read about their branding strategy over the rest of the week.

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Caroline G recommends this Wiki of TV Tropes and Idioms.
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.
The site includes articles on Motifs, Paratext, Crime and Punishment, Professional Wrestling, and Applied Phlebotinum:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad-hoc plot device"
-- David Langford, as a corollary to Arthur C. Clarke's third law

Phlebotinum is the magical substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot. Some examples: nanotechnology, magic crystal emanations, pixie dust, a sonic screwdriver. Oh, and Green Rocks.
Wow, the Internet is just bustin' out all over with so many writer resources I can't keep track of them. Sure didn't have this when I was a kid. Why, in those days, forget computers. We didn't even have ink. Yes, we had to regularly open our veins with knives in order to be able to get any writing done. And before we figured out about goose quills, we were using porcupine quills. You kids have it lucky!

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Q. I'm 19, living in England, studying English at University. The plan is to finish, then do a masters of some sort in screenwriting. From there, I'd LIKE to move to the lovely USA and start my screenwriting career. So, by that time I wouldn't be that young, but my question is basically - do agents and producers etc like the young folk? Do they see them as potential talent that they can shape to their liking? Or do they see them as inexperienced, with their heads in the clouds?
As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, I don't think anyone needs a masters in screenwriting, unless their goal is to teach screenwriting at a university. Working as an assistant at an agency for a year will teach you far, far more, and you'll actually get paid for it. (Underpaid, but that's better than paying for it!) I would urge anyone thinking about getting a degree to spend eighteen months in the biz. If you still think you need that degree (you won't), then you'll make much better use of your time in school, because you'll know exactly what you need to learn, instead of flailing around like the rest of the younglings.

I don't think Hollywood is that enamored of the young. There was that 30-year-old woman who pretended to be 19 and got a job on FELICITY. But she got hired because she had the skills of a 30-year-old writer, AND people thought she was nineteen. If people thought I was 22, they'd look at my writing and conclude I must be some kind of geeeenius. If you're nineteen with the skill set of your average nineteen-year-old, no one's going to cut you slack because you're appallingly young.

it's all about the writing. And the people skills. Both of which take time to craft and build.

Some people do start out young. Once you investigate their biography a bit, you discover that their parents are in the biz. They may be staffing their first show at 21. But they have been writing screenplays since they were 11.

There is also something to be said for going out and actually living. Some screenwriters have been lawyers. Some have been criminals. I knew a guy who'd been a cop. Do you think that gave him an edge writing LAW & ORDER? Having life experience enables you to write from real life, rather than stealing moments you saw on TV -- concocted stories which everyone else saw, too.

If my son were 19 and wanted to be a screenwriter, I would suggest he travel around the world for a year. I would suggest he get a job with the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia. I would suggest he start a company. I would suggest he join a political campaign.

I spent 3 years and change getting an MFA in filmmaking at UCLA, one of the top five film programs on the continent. (USC, AFI, NYU and the CFC if you're Canadian.) I learned more about lighting working as an apprentice electrician on two features. I learned more about screenwriting from being a producer's assistant, reading scripts. I got my first permanent showbiz job because of my French skills and my computer science degree. The first time my degree proved really, really useful was last year, when I made a short film.

To be a lawyer, you need to go to professional school. Going to school for screenwriting is a way to ease into the business. It is much less scary than trying to get a job in the biz, or outside of the biz, and just writing. But if you can't get yourself going without being assigned the work, you need to learn to self-motivate.

Come to LA by all means. But forget the degree. Get a job! You can cover up that crack in the wall with art.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Q. An agent liked a script of mine, and wants some changes. They're good notes, notes I was already planning to incorporate in some fashion into the next draft.

They asked me to try to have another draft by mid-September, and call them when it was done. I finished the draft in 10 days and called them back. They are reading it over the weekend and supposed to call me next week so I can come to their office and meet them.

Is this all pretty typical behavior, and also, what should I be concerned about when I do meet them? Am I trying to impress, and if so, how do I do that? Or is this just a pleasant sit-down preliminary to ... something? They've stated their intention of trying to sell it, but I can't tell if they're really going to be taking me on as a client or just shopping the script around for a while.
They'll tell you whether they want to rep you or just the script. In a big agency, an agent might "hip-pocket" you, which means you're repped only by the agent, not the agency, until the agent can get you a gig, which entitles her to walk your name into the Monday morning meeting as a worthy client. There isn't a big dividing line in a small agency. If all you have is one sellable script, that's all they're going to push either way; and either way, if you get an offer, why wouldn't they negotiate it for you and take 10%?

More importantly, either way, if they got decent responses on your first script ("we like the writing, we'd like to read the next thing this guy has"), you should always take your material to them first. In fact, before you write your next script, you should run the idea by them. They can tell you if it's something they can sell or not.

One flag in your email: you blitzed the rewrite. Wrong impulse. If they want your script by mid-September, take the time to make it as good as you possibly can. Turning it in early gets your nothing. If an agent likes your script, you should be busting your ass to take all their notes to heart, and then some. You know that flaw that you hope no one is noticing? Fix it, even if it means ripping up the first act. People tend not to fix things that ain't broke; but a good write realizes when something really is broken and needs fixing even though no one is saying anything about it. Now that you have interest, light a fire under yourself to turn in the best rewrite you can possibly manage.

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