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



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Sunday, August 30, 2009

This is one of those time-wasters that might spark something: the IamA channel in Reddit is full of people who have done or experienced something out of the ordinary, from being a bouncer at a kink club to surviving being shot in the head.

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Hunter and I went to see DISTRICT 9. If you've missed the publicity, it's a mockudrama about insectoid aliens living in a slum in Johannesburg, South Africa. A big chunk of the setup comes in the form of documentary footage following around one government bureaucrat as he attempts to clear out the District 9 slum, evicting a million "prawns" so they can be resettled to a camp outside the city.

It's a wild ride, and the documentary style footage lends a sense of reality to the situation. Until you get out of the movie theater, it's a wild ride.

Go see it -- it's definitely worth seeing -- and then read the rest of this post. But sit a ways back from the screen -- a lot of the documentary-style footage is shaky.

(And here's a really good interview with first-time director Neil Blomkamp...)

/* SPOILERS */

The basic idea is that the "prawn" ship arrived twenty years ago, but has lost its command module, and so hovers, non-functional, over Jo'burg. The millions of prawns have lost any sense of order in their society. They've turned District 9 into a slum that's a dead ringer for some of the poorest townships in South Africa. The aliens seem to spend their days turning over trash heaps looking for things to eat, especially cat food, which is a sort of drug to them -- Nigerian bandits have set up inside the township to sell them cat food at outrageous prices.

/* NO, SERIOUSLY, DUDE: SPOILERS! */

It turns out the only thing the government is interested in are the prawn's weapons: energy rifles of spectacular power that, unfortunately for the arms manufacturers, can only be operated by the prawns themselves, due to a poorly understood biological relationship between the weapon and the prawn's arm.

A mild-mannered and banal but heartless bureaucrat, Wikus van der Merwe, is put in charge of a massive slum clearance operation -- they're moving the prawns to resettlement camps out of town. The resettlement is brutal and deadly.

When the bureaucrat gets sprayed with a liquid used in prawn technology, he quickly starts turning into a prawn. Soon he's taken away by the arms guys, who have been looking for a way to get the prawn weaponry to work. Since his arm is now a prawn arm, bingo, he can fire their cool weapons.

The bureaucrat escapes back to District 9, where he meets the one prawn who seems to have a plan, involving a canister of the precious liquid, which will allow him to fire up the missing command module, get back to the ship, fire it up, and escape from Earth. The bureaucrat and the smart prawn take some prawn weapons from the Nigerian bandits, invade the arms manufacturer's lab, grab the canister, and run back to District 9. The arms manufacturer sends its vicious soldiers after them. In a spectacular firefight, the smart prawn escapes to the mothership with his son, and the bureaucrat, in a heavily armed exosuit, fights off the soldiers.

In the end, the soldiers are all dead. The bureaucrat has transformed entirely into a prawn. The smart prawn takes the mothership away to his home planet.

There are many compelling things about the movie. We watch the bureaucrat transformed not only from human into prawn, but from a callous, cowardly, smug bureaucrat into someone willing to fight, if only for his chance to be turned back into a human being, so he can be with his wife again. And we come to care about the prawns, especially the smart prawn, who has a smart son. You don't often find yourself sympathizing with something with bug eyes and tentacles.

It's also neat that you don't know where the movie's going to go. Because the first half is so unrelenting -- the prawns really live in hell on Earth -- you're expecting a downer ending. So the bittersweet ending is a real surprise.

From a purely narrative point of view, the movie is a success, as a sort of horror/thriller. It's the story we've seen before, about the heartless oppressor who becomes the oppressed and learns the hell he's been putting them before. It could be a story about a Bureau of Indian Affairs guy who becomes an Indian, or apartheid bureaucrat who gets reclassified as black...

As science fiction, there are some gaping holes in the logic of the situation.

A mile-long ship is hovering over Jo'burg. We are asked to believe that, humans having cut their way into it and rescued a million prawns, no one is interested in any of their science or technology except for their portable guns. Surely the prawns know a great deal about their ship, and apparently we've learned their language. Surely every scientist in the world would be working with them to figure out their technology? I know I'd be more interested in a ship that can fly interstellar space than even the most spectacular guns. And what's their medical technology like?

But the filmmakers are making an allegory about arms sales in Africa, so we're stuck with the premise that evil arms manufacturers have been put in charge of the prawns.

Also, if we were hosting a million refugees from a species armed with spectacular weapons and spaceships, wouldn't even evil arms manufacturers want to treat them a whole hell of a lot better, just in case more of them showed up, this time with a functioning ship?

Even if we made them all live in one place, wouldn't we have programs where they came to human labs and universities and factories to teach us what they know? Because, y'know, unlike the Zimbabweans now pouring into South African society and living in slums, the prawns are technologically way ahead of us.

The situation is cheated a bit. It's not as messy as it "really" might be. Unlike illegal immigrants and South Africans, the two societies aren't really slamming into each other. They were, the movie tells us, but now the prawns are all behind walls.

What the filmmakers have made, instead -- if you scrape away the allegory -- is a well-told and moving and exciting but simplistic version of the story we've seen before of an ordinary bastard in a suit who becomes one of the people he's been oppressing. He loses everything, but discovers he's willing to endure any humiliation, any suffering, in order to preserve his hope of going back to his ordinary life.

To keep things simple and exciting, then, the end of the movie degenerates into an extended action sequence where the good guys win and the bad guys lose and virtue is rewarded and evil gets torn limb from limb.

I guess that's why I felt a bit disappointed coming out of the picture. I went to see a movie about humans living with aliens, and I saw a movie about the trials of an ordinary bastard in a suit. And then it became a straight popcorn movie with big explosions, and not so much you need to think about.

Still, ja -- a hell of a movie. Utterly convincing digital effects -- apparently they used no animatronics -- compelling situations, a moving ending. And pretty damn awesome for a $30 million first feature.

Oh, and here, courtesy of reader Frederic, is the original short the movie's based on:


Interesting that many of the "man in the street" interviews in the movie are real South Africans being interviewed about their feelings against the "alien" Zimbabwean illegal immigrants currently flooding South Africa. More here at io9.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

[CANADIAN POLITICS] I sent in my submission about the Canada Media Fund. It reads:
I'm a professional television and feature writer. I co-wrote BON COP / BAD COP, which broke the all-time Canadian box office record for a Canadian movie. I also co-created the television series NAKED JOSH, which ran for three years on Showcase.

Cancon is important to me. It's clear that the Canadian networks don't take Cancon seriously, and would be happy to show nothing but American television series. If the Cancon requirements are reduced, my job will disappear.

It's happened before. When the drama requirements were diluted to allow lifestyle series to qualify as "Canadian drama" in 1999, Canadian drama series on the air dropped immediately from 12 to 2.

It's been proposed to allow American writers and American showrunners to work on Canadian shows funded by the CMF. If Cancon is to mean anything at all, we can't allow that. American writers are not going to tell Canadian stories. They are going to turn our shows into carbon copies of American shows, set in Generica -- that bland, featureless North American landscape that has no aspects of Canadian society in it, but could theoretically be somewhere in Canada.

Cancon is important to everyone in Canada. A country with no sense of itself falls apart. In Canada, falling apart is a real threat. We nearly lost Quebec several times. There are lots of Newfoundlanders who consider their nationality to be "Newfie," not "Canuck." Stories are what bind us to each other and give us a sense of ourself as a nation. Whether they're serious dramas like "Zone of Separation" or goofy comedies like "Corner Gas," watching ourselves on TV is one of the things that makes us Canadians, and not just "not-Americans."

Cancon is important to our place in the world. When Americans think about Canada, if they haven't seen any of our movies or TV shows, they think of us as polite white people who are brave about the winter. They're not really aware of how our society is different. Just look at the spectacle of the Republicans trying to scare Americans away from single payer health care by claiming our health care system is worse, when in fact, it's better. They're not aware that we have lots of New Canadians, that our cities are tolerant and multicultural, that we resolves the whole gay marriage thing without a fuss a few years ago ... they don't know us.

When they see our shows, they get a sense of who we are, whether it's "Corner Gas" or "Degrassi" or "Naked Josh" or "Flashpoint" -- the show about snipers where the snipers try not to shoot people.

Americans take Britain seriously because they know who the British are. If they don't take Canada as seriously, it's partly because we've spent too much money on CSI and "Law & Order," and not enough creating our own popular culture.

Our TV and movies create who we are. Let's not sell them out just because our broadcasters think they can make a few more bucks.

Thank you.

Alex Epstein
Actually, Canadians whine constantly about the winter.

You can send in your own submission at ctf@ctf-fct.ca.

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We held a casting session yesterday. We saw about fifteen actresses for the two lead roles in our six-minute little teen vampire comedy, YOU ARE SO UNDEAD. Yes, it's time to do another BravoFACT, inshallah.

I love casting. Casting is where you get to see professionals make your lines their own. (Or, in this case, Lisa's lines.) If a scene is going to be funny, it's going to be funny in the casting session, or at least in one of your casting sessions. (I think it might have been NAKED JOSH where we saw a lot of auditions that really hurt our confidence in the lines, until we got David Julian Hirsh nailing them.)

I like to take a bit of time with auditions, do multiple takes for the camera, and really see where the actors can take the direction. It's exciting watching a really good actor incorporate your directions. Suddenly a new emotion is there, or the scene takes a different flavor.

I'm always amazed watching dancers pick up choreography. They can see the choreographer do something once, and then repeat it. I can't do that. I spent part of the 70's failing to pick up the Hustle.

A good actor, you tell her, "when she says this, it's like a slap in the face to you," or, yesterday, "When you bite her, it's a huge rush," and boom, it's there.

The part of the brain where dancers can see the choreography in their heads, and actors can see the emotions, I see a sort of shape of the scene, or a shape of the whole screenplay. I can see where something's wrong in a story structure. I can sort of see how it would fix itself if you did this, or that. In my mind, the story actually has a shape that feels wrong or right.

One of the most valuable things I've ever done for my writing was taking Meisner Technique acting classes with Joanne Baron. I never had any intention of acting; I wanted to learn what actors do in the scene. I think every director should do some acting training, so you can understand how to talk to actors. But I found that acting helped my writing. I can feel the emotion in the scene more clearly and brightly. I can act the characters for myself better. I can tell when I'm forcing them to do stuff they're not really motivated to do.

I know a lot of you are taking writing classes. I feel the classes that have helped my writing the most haven't been writing classes. The acting classes were terrific. Taking Richard Marks's editing class at UCLA was really helpful. Taking Robert Farris Thompson's "Afro-Atlantic Tradition" class back in college gave me some pointers on syncopation. Sometimes it's helpful to attack things tangentially rather than head on.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Next week, I'm casting a six minute teen vampire comedy I'm directing, off Lisa's hilarious script. If you know any awesomely talented Quebec actresses who can play 16-18, lemme know. Kthxbai.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I'm an American writer just beginning my foray into writing as a career. Even though I grew up a stone's throw away from Los Angeles I can't see L.A. being my gateway to the industry. I spent my first three years as an undergraduate in New England, enjoyed six months in Ireland, about to head up to UBC in Vancouver for a semester, and finishing up an undergraduate degree in creative writing at UCR . Not only do I tend to live a better life away from California, but most of my writing tends to thematically wrap around questions of cultural identity with a distinctly Anglo tint (the only spec script I've written was an episode of Skins).

While all of my classes, books, and blogs detail Hollywood with steely accuracy, what if we don't want to go that route? What if I'm an American planning to live and work and write abroad? Are there any good resources detailing the non-american systems?
The key issue here is nationality. You can't work on Canadian shows if you're not a Canadian citizen or a Canadian permanent resident. (Permanent resident = Green Card.) I don't know about the British system, but I imagine you would need to be a British or EU citizen, or a Commonwealth citizen residing permanently in Britain. Likewise, I imagine, Oz.

So working in another country's system requires planning, effort and time. It probably takes 12-18 months to get a visa to be a Canadian permanent resident, after which you can come here and work. (You don't have to be here while you're waiting for the visa.)

There are a few automatic shortcuts. I understand that if you can prove Irish grandparents, you can get an Irish/EU passport. If you're Jewish, you can get an Israeli passport, though that's not as useful. And I have heard that if you can prove that your parents or grandparents left Spain during the Spanish Civil War, or if you can prove your Jewish ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 -- you can get a Spanish passport. Who knows if that's true -- ask your Spanish consulate.

The Canadian and British systems have their own flaws. The Canadian English film market is currently dreadful, and Canadian TV is under constant threat from the Conservative government. Canadian producers are only just beginning to appreciate the role of the showrunner in TV. The US market is the only market that doesn't depend on government handouts and regulations. All sorts of Canadians and Brits would love to move to LA, if they could only figure out how.

Also, there are plenty of people making indie movies and co-productions in LA. My first salaried job in showbiz was working for an Israeli producer who made elaborate co-productions. The movie I came in on, EMINENT DOMAIN, was an Israeli-French-Canadian co-pro shot in Poland and partly financed by a Welsh bank. It's a big town, LA. Not everyone's working on the next Michael Bay picture.

You can, of course, write anywhere and have LA agents, though it will be a serious drag on your career.

You can also try to break into the New York showbiz community. The drawback there is that there isn't that much work and the competition is ridiculous, because every other New York prep school kid is trying to avoid going out to the Coast, you're up against them and their connections, and they're living in their parents' classic six on Central Park West, and vacationing in the Hamptons where they might bump into Spielberg.

Without knowing what your specific questions are, it's hard to point you to resources. This blog has a lot of info on Canada, and there are probably Brit writing blogs with a similar slant. What do you want to know?

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Q. Say you have a coffee shop as a focal point in a script. Should you worry about choosing a name for the shop that is completely original? For example, could I use a place called "Capital Coffee," clearly set in Ottawa, if there happens to be a real place called Capital Coffee in Washington?

For that matter, can you set a scene inside a well-known store or restaurant chain without the permission of the company?
This is not an issue in a selling script. You can name real people and places and put real products in their hands, because you're only showing the script to a few people. (Say, at most, a hundred.)

When you get to production, there's a process you'll follow to take care of potential conflicts. The script will go out to lawyers who'll do a "clearance report." If there's only one "Capitol Coffee" in the world and you've got one in your script, you may have to change the name. On the other hand, it may not matter so long as you're in a different city. And it won't matter if there are several dozen Capitol Coffees throughout North America. Similarly, you couldn't put a character named Isaac Asimov in a script, at least not during his life; but you can always put a Lauren Ginsburg in the script (assuming you want a 40-year-old New Yorker), because there are so many of them, you're not held to be saying anything about one of them in particular.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Is there really a recession out there?

Canadians are flocking to the local multiplex in droves -- [Cineplex] sold 18.2 million tickets in the three months to June 30, 2.6 million more than in the same period of 2008 -- helping to drive up the exhibitor's second-quarter profits to $19.8 million, from $6 million in 2008.
Playback says movie ticket sales are up.

I predicted in December that while the crash in credit would hurt showbiz in the short run, in the longer run, the recession might actually help showbiz. After all, TV is cheaper than almost any other form of entertainment, and movies come right after. It's restaurants, theater and travel that are due for the biggest hits.

Good news, anyway. Showbiz has been fairly miserable this past half year, but it looks like things are starting to pick up.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just got this from the WGC. I'm posting this in case you're not WGC, but you are a Canadian creator. Please read it.

Copyright Consultation

The Government of Canada is currently seeking public and stakeholder input on forthcoming copyright legislation. As copyright holders and consumers, you need to make your voice heard. Get in on the debate.

Individual creators are under-represented in the online exchange, and they need to hear your perspectives. You can share your thoughts and ideas through online consultations – by posting to a discussion topic or just writing (and submitting) a letter. The forum has been very active but they need to hear more from the people who create copyright works. Your ideas can influence the public and the policy-makers, and shape the debate going forward.

Visit http://www.copyright.econsultation.ca and be heard. The forum closes on September 13.

What follows is some of the WGC’s thinking around these questions, and we hope that you will find it useful as a starting place for your own contributions to the discussion.

The WGC’s approach to copyright is grounded in one simple principle: copyright law should encourage widespread use and distribution of copyright works while ensuring creators are appropriately compensated for those uses.

Six Questions

The government has set out five points (six questions) for discussion. Writers can address any or all of them – so get in there and start pitching.

What follows is some of the WGC’s thinking around these questions, and we hope that you will find it useful as a starting place.

Question 1: How do Canada’s copyright laws affect you?

Start by telling them who you are and what you do. Personalize it – let them know what you’ve written and how long you’ve been working. It’s important to note your status as freelancers. In this country, screenwriters – unlike staff, and unlike the U.S. model – retain copyright in the script.

Copyright is important for screenwriters of course because it gives you control over future productions of your script and is directly tied to your livelihood. Copyright exists to protect creators from non-creators copying their work and earning revenues from it. It came about because it was deemed fair that the author of a work, or their assignee, be the one with an exclusive right to make money from a work for a limited period of time. But new technologies (e.g. digital files, digital transmission) have made it cheap and easy for non-authors to copy files and make money from them.

At the same time, consumer behavior has changed: consumers have become accustomed to things like time shifting and format shifting – non-commercial practices that currently infringe copyright and generate no compensation for the creators of the works.

Screenwriters are compensated for the primary uses of their material (broadcast, video sales, iTunes download) through negotiated contracts and collective agreements. It is for secondary uses (like storing audio-visual work on a PVR or creating a backup copy, etc.) that Canadian screenwriters are not currently compensated.

Copyright laws will affect the ability of screenwriters to receive remuneration for these secondary uses of their material. This has a direct impact on the livelihood of screenwriters.

The solution is to maintain copyright protection in the case of commercial uses and to allow, through collective licensing, for the commonplace non-commercial uses to which consumers have become accustomed.

The solution for non-commercial use is collective licensing. This system already works for certain Canadian creators through the private copying levy – a modest fee on blank cassette tapes and CDs paid to the owners and authors of the sound recording. For instance, SOCAN collects funds from the private copying levy and distributes them as royalties to composers and music publishers. A similar levy can be added to ISPs, PVRs, hard drives and more, effectively licensing consumers to freely copy works for non-commercial purposes – they’ve paid for the right. No policing or enforcement necessary, and no criminalizing of common consumer behaviour. A win-win for consumers and creators.

Question 2: How should existing laws be modernized?

Rather than criminalizing commonplace consumer behaviours, we can use the Private Copying regime as a model for a new copying regime for personal use that more fully reflects consumer practices in the digital age. Pairing something like a new private copying regime with a collective licensing system would match the consumer’s desire with the creator’s due.

Canadian copyright law should recognize international standards in copyright by ratifying and implementing the WIPO Treaty.

Question 3: Based on Canadian values and interests, how should copyright changes be made in order to withstand the test of time?

Canadians are nothing if not fair-minded – they understand that the creators of the film and TV they enjoy should be paid for that content, that they have mortgages and bills to pay as well. There could be no professionally produced content otherwise.

In order to withstand the test of time, Canadian copyright law should be technology neutral – it should in this sense be based in general principles rather than on specific technologies. Enshrining the principle of access and remuneration through collective licensing will allow us to apply it to a wide variety of technologies, current, emerging and future.

Fair Dealing: there has been a lot of talk out there about expanding fair dealing. Right now, fair dealing allows copying some or all of a work for research, private study, review, criticism or reporting. Advocates for expansion of fair dealing, particularly the library and education sectors, wish to avoid paying licence fees to play movies or make copies of books and other materials for students or researchers. While it is understandable for education and library professionals to want to save money, they are salaried staff. Screenwriters and other creators are unsalaried and, while they want wide distribution of their work, they cannot afford to give it away. Such blanket extensions of fair dealing would be done at the creators’ expense, eliminating for them an existing and fair revenue stream.

Documentary producers too are calling for an expansion of fair dealing to allow them to reproduce copyright material in their documentaries without having to clear and possibly pay for rights. While it is understandable that documentary producers want to save money and time spent clearing rights, documentaries are, like other commercial productions, created with the intent to make money, and to reproduce another creator’s work for commercial gain without paying that creator or at least obtaining their consent is not fair.

Other than amending fair dealing to allow for parody and satire (which is currently not included), we are recommending the government avoid the general weakening of fair dealing.

Question 4: What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster innovation and creativity in Canada?

Creativity and innovation thrive in a culture where they are rewarded. Fair compensation for creators means that they have the resources and incentives to continue to create and further innovation. Consumer desires for easy access and use find a match in creators’ desire for wide distribution and audience. A culture that supports this exchange rewards both consumers and creators. We can achieve this through collective licensing, and thereby create in Canada a sustainable culture of creativity and innovation.

Question 5: What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster competition and investment in Canada?

Canada should ratify our international WIPO treaties so that we can live up to our international obligations. The WIPO treaties contain important rights and protections for creators, and act as an international standard around copyright.

Canada should avoid copyright legislation that mirrors U.S.-style DMCA which imposes stiff penalties on consumers. Maintain stiff penalties for commercial infringement, but open up consumer use through collective licensing.

Question 6: What kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in the global, digital economy?

Canada needs a National Digital Strategy, and creators need to be part of the discussion that informs it. To date, the chief voices at the table in the conferences and brainstorming sessions around the Strategy have been bureaucrats, academics and representatives of technology companies. Innovative content is a key component of the Canadian digital economy. It’s not just about email and ecommerce. Content is king.

Canada can lead the global digital economy by rewarding innovation and creativity. Fair compensation to creators through collective licensing will encourage creators to be on the forefront of innovation, and ensure Canada produces the kind of compelling, professional content that will draw international audiences.
Please feel free to post your answers in the comments, after you post them on the site.

(UPDATE: corrected link.)

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Mad Men is breaking with convention and will bypass traditional broadcasters in Canada in favor of an exclusive online deal with Apple.

Season three of the award-winning series will be available for download on iTunes Canada following a deal with distributor Maple Pictures, making it one of the most prominent shows to forgo a conventional broadcaster in favor of the Internet.

The series will, however, continue to run on its home broadcaster, AMC, which is carried here by certain cable and satellite systems such as Rogers and Bell TV.
Now this is interesting.

The Canadian private broadcasters like to complain about the tremendous burden of having to carry Canadian content. They'd rather run just American content. Yet the only reason they exist is because when they buy American shows, cable companies have to swap out the American signal and swap in their signal during those shows. E.g. if CTV buys LOST, then when LOST airs on ABC, Canadians are actually watching CTV. So the Canadian networks think there should be a free market when it comes to Cancon, but they think it should be a protected market when it comes to Amcon.

What's happened here is that AMC has decided not to sell MAD MEN to any Canadian networks. Maybe CTV didn't want to shell out enough money, who knows. But AMC has decided to make an end run right to the consumer. Obviously it's something that, given the current market, only makes economic sense for a show with classy demographics like MAD MEN. But it could be a wave of the future.

Which might bring on the McGrathian Apocalypse, when Canadian networks find themselves with nothing to offer except Canadian content. And then, who knows? They'll start insisting that the government support writers and producers and directors and actors more.

It could happen.

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Ori and Rom Brafman's SWAY: THE IRRESISTABLE PULL OF IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR is a smart little think book about the many ways in which people stick to an idea after the evidence has turned against it. For example, it's very hard for people to accept a loss now in order to avoid a bigger loss later. (See Vietnam War. See also first impressions.)

The book quotes an interesting study in which men told they were talking to a pretty woman on the phone thought she was also funnier, more sociable, warmer, etc. (They had been given fake photos, half of pretty women, half of plain women.) That's not surprising, but then, when other men listened only to the woman's responses after the first men's voices were edited out, without any indication whether she was pretty or not, the second group of men found the "pretty" women to be funnier, more sociable, warmer etc. In other words, if men think you're pretty you start acting pretty.

I read these books for fun, but I can always winkle out a nugget of screenwriting advice. The Brafmans tell a story about Intel in the '80s, when it was starting to lose money in its core business of computer memory chips.
Grove related, "I was in my office with Intel's chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore... Our mood was downbeat. ... Then I turned back to Gordon and asked, 'If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?" Gordon answered without hesitation. "He would get us out of memories." I stared at him, numb, then said, "Whey shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?"


One of the hardest things to do for a writer is abandon the creative path he's been pursuing when he gets a great but radical note. It means accepting a loss now (you have to junk parts of the script, or even the whole script) in order to head off a bigger loss later (the script doesn't get bought). Any time I get a great note, there's a part of me that thinks, "Damn you! You couldn't have just suggested I tweak the dialog?"

Part of the skills you learn as a writer (or any other creative thinker) are mental. You train yourself to accept radical notes. You train yourself to seek them out. Otherwise you're just polishing a rotten piece of wood.

It's useful to ask, "If I were just arriving on the scene and were given the choice to either jump into this project as it stands now or pass on it, would I jump in?" If the answer is no, then chances are we've been swayed by the hidden force of commitment.
I repeatedly took Richard Marks's editing class at UCLA. He had an amazing ability to look at a film and not remember any of the times he'd seen it before. So he could be confused who the characters were, if the current version had failed to set them up properly. Likewise, one of the skills you want to develop is the ability to read your own script as if you've never seen it before, tracking what the audience knows, what they're thinking, what they're rooting for, what they're scared of. Not knowing where it's going.

That's why it's sometimes good to let a project lay fallow. I'm currently rewriting a pair of screenplays that I hadn't touched in a year. It's amazing how much clearer their flaws become. But if you don't have the perspective of time, someone else's feedback can draw your attention to those flaws. That's why it's so important to listen to all criticisms. Your readers have the perspective you have usually lost.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009


We watched Repercussion Theatre's production of AS YOU LIKE IT last night in the Old Port. It was an odd production. For some reason, the text veered from time to time into French, not in any coherent way, but enough to lose the plot if you don't know the play. But it did that only rarely. The biggest problem was the English. The actors knew their lines, but they couldn't entirely deliver them as if they were speaking.

That's really the biggest issue in a Shakespeare play: saying the lines as if you're talking to someone, as opposed to "delivering the lines." Saying poetry as if you are thinking of it on the fly, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, that is non-trivial.

But if you can get the actors to do that, the plays themselves are practically bulletproof. Shakespeare makes his characters' motivations clear, and if there's any danger of someone losing the plot, he'll throw in an aside or two to make sure you can't miss it. And who doesn't love Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind so she can test Orlando's affection for her?

It does seem an odd decision to have filled the cast with francophones. Getting anglo actors to make Shakespearean lines their own is hard enough. The actors got the acting right, and they knew their lines, they just couldn't make the lines their own. You could see them working at it. And that spoils the effect.

I can't imagine anyone would cast anglo actors in a French production of Molière or Michael Tremblay.

But the play did give me a hankering to see the radiant Laurence Dauphinais in something a little less grammatically taxing.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

(This is a rewrite of an earlier post that Lisa felt was nit-picky and unconstructive.)

I watched the BLADE series pilot. When I'm watching a show with mythology, I'm looking for two things. One is true for any show: I want convincing, compelling characters involved in entertaining, moving stories.

The other is particular to genre shows. I want a consistent, coherent mythology that rings true, and I want the stories to bring insights into that mythology.

So, for example, TWILIGHT had a consistent, coherent mythology that did not ring true for me. If all vamps do in sunlight is sparkle, then Edward is not a scary predator, he's just Bella's big sparkly pony. It's fine for teenage girl wish fulfillment; girls need stories about big, powerful ponies that will obey them. But he's not a vampire. Because to me, the vampire mythos is about the power of death, and the seductiveness of evil, and if he can go out in the sun and doesn't have to kill people, then his undeadness lacks all thematic punch. He's not a vampire, he's a "vampire."

What I love is when a genre story takes itself seriously and really examines what people would do, and who they would be, in a world in which technology is more advanced or different, or magic or fantastical critters exist. So for example, I loved the difference between the Sarah Connor of TERMINATOR and the Sarah Connor of TERMINATOR II. In the first, she's nearly killed by a scary robot from a hell future. A lesser writer might have pretended that she'd try to put that horrible experience behind her, like characters in horror movie sequels. But the truth is, if you've nearly been terminated by a scary robot from a hell future, you become someone different. You remake yourself into a badass killer yourself. You learn how to use guns and explosives. And you probably come off to other people like a paranoid schizophrenic. James Cameron had the courage to pursue the logic of his science fictional universe.

On the other hand I had a bit of trouble with THE LISTENER because I felt their world wasn't self-consistent. The Listener exists in our world. He's a paramedic who can read thoughts. A paramedic? Really? Not a professional poker player, or a spy? Ditto Anna Paquin's waitress in TRUE BLOOD. What's she doing waiting tables? How about working for the FBI? Or the CIA? Or some bigshot negotiator? I mean, the guy in LIE TO ME has a whole business telling whether people are lying or not, and he doesn't even have superpowers.

By contrast, in MEDIUM, Patricia Arquette plays a mom who has visions that come true. So what does she do? Work for the police as a psychic. That makes sense. Oh, and she can't control the visions or always understand them. So she can't go playing the stock market.

I love when a genre story adds to or convincingly change canon. Canonical vampires are undead, drink human blood, and can't go out in the sun. Optionally, they fear crosses, holy water burns them, and they dislike garlic. In Stoker, as in the Buffyverse, every vamp victim becomes a vamp, but simple math shows that's implausible: there would quickly be a vamp population explosion. So, in Rice, vamps only make vamps by draining their victim and then getting the victim to drink vamp blood. That was a logical improvement to the canon; it made it easier for me to believe that vamps secretly exist in my universe. [UPDATE: I stand corrected about the Buffyverse -- it follows Rice Rules.]

And the BLADE movies introduced the daywalker: half human, half vamp, alive but fighting his blood thirst. Very cool.

I wasn't blown away by the first few BLADE: THE SERIES eps, though readers say it gets better. Sticky Fingaz, you are no Wesley Snipes, sir. But I did dig the idea of "ashers" -- human junkies who snort vamp ash, which makes them briefly vamp strong and vamp fast.

If you're working in genre, first, please, make sure you're thinking it through. What would real people do in this situation. Be brave. Pursue the ramifications as far as you can. For vamps to exist in our world without our knowing it, what would the rules of their existence have to be? How are they suppressing our knowledge of their existence? Are they showing up for the first time, as Dracula did in DRACULA -- so, in that case, no one knew about vamps because there hadn't been any in Britain. Do they cut a deal with human society -- do the rich and powerful know that they exist but they're hiding it from us? And so forth.

What would a world be like in which there were regular zombie breakouts. Well, we'd stop burying our dead, that's for sure. We'd burn them. And battlefields would be a lot scarier.

The fun of genre is in the thematic ramifications, and in the "what-if?" But don't stretch the theme so far that the human characters stop behaving like real people -- find the fun in real reactions to the outlandish circumstances. Take that all the way, and you won't be able to help yourself coming up with something convincing and fresh.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Q. Recently, a friend of mine came to me with a draft of her indie feature screenplay. I told her I was gonna rewrite it and she agreed to it. I basically had to re-type the entire thing into final draft because she only had a pdf copy of the screenplay and it was a picture image. Anyway, I retyped the screenplay, edited action lines, and changed a bit of the dialogue to give the characters a better sense of who they are. I basically rewrote the screenplay.

Originally, I was thinking this would be a co-writing 50/50 endeavor. But she's now thinking more like her 70 and me 30. I know we should've laid out a contract before we started. Grant it, she came up with the story, the characters and the concept. But I came in and rewrote it, edited it and punched up dialogue quite a bit.

Basically I just need help in understanding what is the correct percentage on ownership for this sorta situation.
What you've done isn't considered a "rewrite" under WGA or WGC rules. What you've done would be considered a "polish." "Rewrite" and "polish" are both terms of art under the Guild agreements. To do a "rewrite" would entail introducing new characters and new plot elements. You'd have to write completely new scenes or at least move scenes around a lot. Under WGA rules, I believe you could replace every single bit of dialog and not be entitled to an onscreen credit.

I think 70-30 might be appropriate where you're actually doing a rewrite. 50-50 might apply where you're talking about a page one rewrite -- throwing out virtually everything and starting from scratch. But if you're only doing a polish, I think you ought to be happy with 10%. Maybe, maybe 12.5%.

It takes me about a month to come up with a coherent beat sheet for a script and another month to come up with a first draft from that. I can do it a lot faster if I have to, but that's how long I spend on a typical spec. If you brought me a feature and all you wanted was snappier dialog and action lines, I would probably spend about a week on that. (More and it wouldn't be a polish any more.) Suggesting about 10%.

Basically, there is a strong presumption in favor of the original writer. It's easy to come in and tweak dialog and edit action lines. It's hard to come up with something out of nothing. Just ask God.

But next time, definitely specify who's getting what before anyone does any work.

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Teresa Nielsen Hayden is rereading SANDMAN, Neil Gaiman's epic graphic novel about the lord of all things that are not real. This bookmark is for me -- SANDMAN is the kind of storytelling I aspire to -- but you may want to follow her blog, too.

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Casting about for good TV to watch, I borrowed DAMAGES from the Bibliothèque Nationale, and we watched the pilot.

It's an interesting beast, this pilot. A young woman lawyer, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is hired by Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), a hotshot lawyer with a reputation for abusing her staff. And we think we're in the vein of stories about a neophyte hired by a tyrant, who either has to man up or get shredded, e.g. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.

We had a tough time watching the pilot because the pilot did a lot of things that didn't make sense -- at least, at first.

/* spoilers */

For examples, when Ellen is asked to interview for the job on the Saturday of her sister's wedding, she refuses. Hewes shows up at the wedding, and decides she likes her. Hewes says "you remind me of me" and hires her anyway. Since Ellen is a bit of a drip who never says anything smart or tough, we weren't convinced.

Then Ellen's sister in law turns out to -- surprise! -- have, as an investor in her restaurant, the very same rich man, Frobisher (Ted Danson) whom Hewes is suing. And Ellen finds out that the case against Frobisher hinges on something her sister-in-law may have seen. That seemed terribly convenient for the writers.

Then Ellen's sister in law is being stalked by Frobisher's private detective. Her dog turns up murdered, to leave a warning to keep quiet. The threat backfires, because Sister-in-law decides to turn witness. I always hate seeing pets murdered -- it's usually a cheesy way to shock the audience -- but it also seemed unlikely, since if Frobisher wants to threaten Sister-in-law, he merely has to threaten to withdraw his investment in her restaurant.

Well, it turns out all the things we were bumping on were clues. Hewes, it turns out, only hired Ellen because of the connection to her sister-in-law, which she knew about all along. And she's the one who had the dog murdered, to provoke Sister-in-law to testify. Clever clever.

That's why Ellen didn't need to say anything particularly clever to Hewes at the wedding, or blow off her sister's wedding to have an interview -- because Hewes wants her for other reasons. Ahhh, it all makes sense now.

This is dangerous territory for a screenwriter. Having characters do things that are seeingly out of character, or don't make sense, can be a lovely misdirect for the audience, or it can lose the audience's trust entirely, if they decide you're a crappy writer.

It's also dangerous because we don't know what story we're being told. If we think we're in a story about a neophyte lawyer put in the grinder at a law firm run by a bitch queen, then all the inconsistencies keep derailing the story we think we're watching, instead of those same inconsistencies driving the story.

What you want to do is make sure the audience knows what story it's watching by throwing out little hints that, yes, there is something odd about what's happening, pay attention.

So, for example, we never find out how good a lawyer Ellen is. We first meet her professionally when she's getting a job offer from a fancy law firm. They've offered her a whack of money, but when they find out that Patty Hewes has called her, they give up -- they know Patty Hewes gets what she wants.

But what if it's not quite such a fancy law firm? What if it's clear that Ellen is not the best young law school graduate in town? And what if the other law firm calls attention to that: "Really? Patty Hewes? Is she friends with your family, or what?" And maybe even Ellen asks her: "Why me? I'm not the top of my class." And then Hewes can bust out her "You remind me of me," but we start to suspect there's something else going on. And we can follow the story.

I love a good mystery. But the first requirement for a mystery is that you know it's a mystery. If your main character's brother has been found dead of an overdose, and it's going to turn out he was actually murdered, then make sure we know he wasn't a junkie. If he crashed his car, then tell us he was an epileptic and never drove. Otherwise we just take the facts at face value: if he died of an overdose, well, junkies do that. If he crashed his car, well, lots of people die in car crashes. It's sad but it's not a story.

To be fair, the series starts will Ellen, bloody and half-dressed, wandering the streets. So we know something is going to go horribly wrong. But that's a fairly broad hint.

And the show further muddies the waters by lost opportunities elsewhere in the pilot. When Frobisher suborns one of the plaintiffs, who turns the whole body of plaintiffs around to accept a lowball settlement, Hewes just lets it slide. Yet at the meeting between the plaintiffs and Hewes, the corrupted plaintiff has so obviously been coached that it is shocking that Hewes never busts him on it. Surely a top litigator knows what a coached witness sounds like. In fact we never see Hewes being a particularly smart lawyer -- just a ballsy negotiator. So when Ellen fails to show any sign of being a clever lawyer, it does not come across as a clue for the audience; we figure the writers just don't know how to show that someone's smart.

(And incidentally, it's so easy and fun to show that someone's smart. Just have a character pick up on a few small details and put them together. For example, if you had wanted to show that Ellen was supersmart, then when Hewes shows up at the wedding, Ellen twigs that when she was asked to interview during her sister's wedding, Hewes must have already known her sister was getting married, and set the interview at that time in order to test her. And then Ellen busts Hewes for her moral failings -- and it's the spunk combined with observation and intuition that makes Hewes want to hire her.)

I've heard very good things about DAMAGES, and Glenn Close does a fantastic job playing Hewes. I'm sure the show gets better. Certainly once you're past the pilot you'd know exactly what story you're watching. One of my flaws as a viewer is I'm horribly impatient -- I want them to be good right away, while it seems to me that a lot of y'all will give a show two or three episodes to get going. And I've come back to shows later and enjoyed them once I got past the pilot. I didn't love the TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES pilot, but now I'm waiting anxiously for the Season Two disks to come out.

But it did seem to me that a few hints up front about what story we're watching would have given me a much more enjoyable pilot experience.

Track your audience. What do they know? What do they suspect? A great storyteller doesn't leave things to chance. You let the audience figure things out for themselves, yes, but you do it by waving clues in front of them. Depending on how sophisticated the audience is, you may have to hang a lantern on the clues, or you may go subtle. But you have to calibrate things so they do in fact pick it up. Otherwise you're not telling the story.

Imagine you're telling the story at a campfire. The audience should be stopping you to say, "But why did she hire Ellen anyway?" If they're not asking that question, you haven't done your job. If they do ask that question, you're on the right track. You don't answer it, of course. You smile and say, "Why indeed?"

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Thursday, August 06, 2009


We watched ELIZABETHTOWN, mostly because we enjoyed re-watching ALMOST FAMOUS so much.

ELIZABETHTOWN is a weird movie. It's a romantic comedy, but it doesn't follow the traditional formula. For example, the guy doesn't lose the girl at the end of Act Two, and there is only the most perfunctory possible "run to the airport."

It's another movie with tremendous casting: Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and a slew of lovely character actors in the minor roles. It's a movie with great observation of detail and lots of moving scenes.

It does not, fundamentally work, because the story has two broken elements. The romantic obstacle is unconvincing. And the jeopardy is unconvincing.

/* spoilers, probably */

In the movie, Orlando Bloom is a wunderkind shoe company whose brilliant shoe design has, for unnamed reasons, lost his company $972 billion dollars. His reaction to being fired is to go home and try to kill himself. He's saved by the death of his father, which requires a trip to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where his dad's people are.

On the way he meets perky, adorable stewardess Kirsten Dunst. They bond over the phone the night after the flight, and for the rest of the movie she chases after him. Repeatedly.

And he does not do much to shoo her away. The most he does is not say, "I love you, come back to Oregon with me."

So, first of all, neither Lisa nor I ever really felt that Orlando Bloom was going to kill himself, in spite of his setting up an exercycle to stab him to death. Part of this is Orlando Bloom: he just doesn't seem deep enough to kill himself. His range in this movie isn't much more than his range whilst playing Legolas: he goes from somewhat-smiley to frowny. But he never really loses it. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Cameron Crowe had wanted someone else for the role. It needs someone you can believe is on the verge of cracking.

It is also hard, fundamentally, to believe that a shoe designer would kill himself over a failed shoe. A man who's lost the company he built all his life might kill himself over losing his company. (Though he might well not.) But a designer who made a bad shoe? In real life he'd blame the marketing, or the product testing people, or the corporate decision not to roll it out slowly. Who kills themselves over a shoe?

Meanwhile, he's behaving in every way like a responsible son, taking care of his mother and sister, whom he obviously loves, and being considerate of his father's legacy, and kind to the people around him. None of which convinces me that he's planning on checking out soon -- an act which would devastate all the people he obviously has fondness for.

So the jeopardy was never working for me.

Unfortunately the jeopardy is also the obstacle. "I can't be with you, adorable Kirsten Dunst, because I plan to kill myself as soon as I get back to Oregon." Even though he is in the bosom of his dad's family, among Southerners who would be tickled pink that he wrecked some West Coast high-tech company to the tune of a billion dollars; even though a girl he obviously likes is repeatedly throwing herself at him. (I'd say "loves" but he never felt swept away by her. Oh well.)

With no jeopardy and no obstacle, the story never worked. All Bloom has to do in order to "win" is make the decision not to kill himself and accept the love that the utterly charming and loving and lovable Kirsten Dunst is pressing on him for all she's worth.

The performances kept me watching. The scenes were lovely and real. Kirsten Dunst is adorable. Susan Sarandon does a fine bit of standup comedy and tap dancing towards the end. There's as fine a performance of "Freebird" as you could ask for. Small town Kentucky comes through as a place where people care about each other in spite of each other's quirks; it almost seems like a place you might want to live. The cinematography is sweet. Production design, hair, makeup, all primo. I could have lived with a few fewer songs on the soundtrack, and they could have been less loud, but this is a Cameron Crowe movie, and he is a man who believes in the redeeming power of mix tapes.

But the story just did not work. Because two of the story elements were broken.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Screenwriters sometimes toss around the term "Screenwriting 101." Lisa was getting a little miffed every time I brought it up in an argument about a script, as in, "Screenwriting 101 says you want that to be more of an argument." But it's not a put-down. It means, "Unless there's a good reason to violate the rule, here's the rule." Scenes should be conflicts. It's better to have someone realize something onscreen than offscreen. Etc.

Sometimes people break the Screenwriting 101 rules because they think they're being clever. Usually, they're wrong. (That's why they're called "rules.")

We watched 200 CIGARETTES last night, a rambling ensemble movie from 1999 about a bunch of people running around the Village on New Year's Eve 1981.

An amazing casting job by Deborah Aquila, bringing in Ben Affleck, Christina Ricci, Paul Rudd, Dave Chapelle, Janeane Garofalo, Jay Mohr, Kate Hudson and Elvis Costello. And Courtney love, who absolutely lit up the screen. Hell, I did not know she can act, though I suppose the Golden Globe should have given me a heads-up. She was the most watchable person there.

So, first of all: awesome set decoration. Fabulous and dead-on clothes. They really recreated the feel of New York in 1981. And you know when I mention that first, the story didn't work.

Actually, there were barely stories. A couple of girls from Ronkonkoma are looking for a party. Paul Rudd and Courtney Love fight because he thinks she's his best friend and she's really in love with him. Adorable, sweet Kate Hudson is in love with self-centered Jay Mohr who's not really interested now that they've slept together. A bunch of hipsters are looking for dates. That kind of movie. It all winds up at a New Year's Eve party where everyone who's been running around with the wrong person winds up with the right person...

... offscreen. That's right. All the stories are resolved offscreen. As if the screenplay ran out of gas. Or the production ran out of budget. Or the screenwriter thought, "I have no real idea how to get myself out of the corner I've painted myeslf into, let's just cut to the aftermath and let the audience fill in the blanks."

No no no. Cut to the chase. Not the aftermath.

Screenwriting 101 says you do not resolve the story off screen.

Sure, you can flashforward, provided the rest of the story is the mystery of "what happened in there," and that is resolved at the end, onscreen. But you can't resolve the whole thing with, say, a series of polaroids and Dave Chapelle narrating what happened. We've been waiting all movie to see it.

Sometimes directors and writers don't give you a real resolution, because "I wanted the audience to decide for themselves." My feeling is: no, buddy. You are the story teller. If I wanted to tell myself a story, I could do that. I hired you to tell me a story. The ending is the whole payoff to the story.

I'm sure you can come up with examples of really cool, unresolved-jazz-chord endings. The Lady or the Tiger? But I ask you: wouldn't it be more interesting to pursue the hero in the consequences of his choice than to stop at the point where he has to make a choice. (E.g. SOPHIE'S CHOICE.)

But, you know, harder to write.

Anyway, those costumes sure were great. And what a great job casting.

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From the WGC:
Tomorrow, Thursday the 6th of August, the Canadian Television Fund will host a virtual Town Hall to release and discuss initial key policy issues concerning the creation of the Canada Media Fund (CMF). This is the launch of the consultation process that will inform the policies and guidelines of the new program.

From there, stakeholders – that’s you – are invited to write and share their perspectives on the issues. We encourage you to take this opening and run with it – the more Canadian screenwriters voice their perspectives, the more we ensure Canadian voices are represented on our screens.

We’ll know the parameters of the discussion after the 6th, and we’ll tell you more then. We encourage everyone to tune in though and find out first hand. To do so, pre-register at http://www.ctf-fct.ca/ctf_home_en.html. [Important Note: when last we tried, there was some difficulty using Firefox and Safari to register – you may have to be on IE to register and watch the proceedings – so try early to debug and please persevere].
There is scary talk of reducing the restrictions on American writers on Canadian shows. If you think that Canadian culture dollars should go to support Canadian shows, rather than American shows shot on Canadian soil, you might want to participate.

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Just a reminder that the Sprint for Your Script / Cours Écrire Ton Court program deadline is August 17. Check out the SODEC site if you're a Quebec writer between 18 and 35.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Tommy Gushue has been working for me since December reading and doing notes on all my new material. He's the guy who reads my stuff before producers do. I've found his notes to be dead on. The kind of notes where you go, Oh, damn, he's right.

He just got into the CFC, so to raise dough, he's offering the same service to you at the following ridiculously low prices for the next month: $50 for half-hour scripts, $75 for hours, and $120 for features. You can PayPal him and email a script.

That's a hell of a lot cheaper than what I charge!

Email him before he gets too busy getting paid to write.

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