Brooke Gladstone does the "On the Media" program on NPR, where she takes on how the media shape, distort and hype stories. Her podcast on the revolution in Egypt is particularly compelling. She's been one of the rare voices of reason in a media market saturated with blatant untruths.
Now she's got a book on the media. THE INFLUENCING MACHINE tracks the history of the news media and how they shape our world, from ancient Mayan publicists through Civil War journalists to Fox News. And it's a cleverly drawn graphic novel whose style is inspired by Scott McCloud's excellent Understanding Comics.
How do we get the media we deserve? Why does debunking a lie often make it stick in people's heads even more firmly? This book should be (and probably will be) required reading in communications courses. It's also worth reading by screenwriters, because every story teller needs to know how we understand the stories going on around us.
Check it out.
Full disclosure: Brooke is a dear friend, and I'm acknowledged in the book.
Vampires and romance are two things that the Twilight franchise has yet to combine successfully in its first three installments. You Are So Undead, however, riotously spoofs the horror genre with this clever take on a girl’s first time. You’ll laugh just as hard as you did when Edgar first sank his teeth into Bella. The only difference is that this film by Canada’s Alex Epstein is funny because it’s supposed to be.
We watched NETWORK, which I hadn't seen in decades. Now it seems prescient. Paddy Chayefsky predicts reality TV, Fox News and Glenn Beck.
It's fully of chewy, operatic dialog; no wonder Aaron Sorkin loves it.
One thing I noticed was how well-constructed a story it is. In 1976 it was hard to imagine someone could stay on the air ranting and raving. It would have been easy to say "his ratings are good," but how do you plausibly get to that point? So everyone in a position to shut him down gets a strong personal reason not to shut him down, until he's too big to shut down.
Talk about big-deal screenwriters: Chayefsky gets authorial credit. On screen it's "Network by Paddy Chayefsky" followed by "Produced by" and "Directed by." Chayefsky actually had script protections built into his scripts. Anyone know how he got those?
Q. I just talked with a fellow writer at length about my series idea. She asked a whole bunch of highly pertinent questions about it, and I was eager to test out the work I've been doing over the last few months by giving her strong, crisp answers, and seeing her response. But as I hung up the phone, I grew nervous that I'd basically just handed over my bible to her. She seems like an ethical person, and I don't think the friend who put us in touch would have connected me to someone sleazy, but nevertheless, it would be devastating if my ideas were stolen. Is there anything I can do? Perhaps I can send an email thanking her for the call, and reiterating some of the details of what I've mentioned, so that there is a written record of my having been the originator of the ideas?
I generally don't worry too much about people stealing my ideas. Usually I worry about how I can possibly get people interested in them. When writers gather, they generally don't complain about idea-stealing, but inane-note-giving.
But it's not a bad idea to protect yourself.
You could protect yourself by copyrighting your material at the Library of Congress, but that would get expensive if you did it every time you wrote a pitch. Generally what I do is send my material to a few people. My agents, obviously, and a few people I trust to read my stuff. If you just get your pitch out there to a handful of people, it is going to be easy to prove that you wrote it first. And that's all I think you really need.
Let's all take a moment to appreciate NBC for piloting Stephen Gaghan's S.I.L.A. Gaghan is the weaver who brought you TRAFFIC and SYRIANA, and the S.I.L.A. pilot is only a little bit less complex of a tale. Certainly this went against the trend in primetime broadcast to give us nothing but episodic cop shows. This is a cop show, but it's serialized, with complicated threads that only begin to weave together by the time the pilot fades out. Of course, they didn't pick it up. [Note: I was confused before, and thought they had picked it up. Thanks, alert readers.]
Kyle Killen's R.E.M. (now called AWAKE), on the other hand, is your basic episodic cop show, with a character who has a gimmick. After a fatal car crash, his wife is dead. However he dreams a world in which his son is dead and his wife is alive. Or, possibly, he dreams the first world and the second one is real -- he can't tell.
Wouldn't you know it, facts bleed from one reality to the other, and he can use his dreams (or his alternate reality) to solve crimes.
What makes the pilot compelling is that he's unwilling to be "cured" of his dreams (if dreams they are) because he hasn't really lost his wife or his son so long as he lives both realities. He's clinging to both. And the human reality of a guy who would rather be crazy than lose his wife
I'm not sure where the show goes from there. I imagine it will be something like MEDIUM, where there are nicely-sketched Non-Player Characters that inhabit his worlds, and he cleverly solves crimes, and we get to see his process. There's a race to catch the bad guy, and he runs into flak because he can't explain why he has the hunches he does.
There's a suggestion that his mind is really trying to figure out what happened in the accident -- he can't remember drinking, he can't remember the accident -- so presumably the mythology is going to expand from there.
Not exactly ground breaking TV, but an interesting gimmick.
Many tired of having to pay such close attention to all the plot twists in "The Event." "I kept hearing, 'After a hard day's work I don't want to have to think,'" Wong said. The show premiered to almost 11 million viewers, but this week's episode had less than half that audience, and "The Event" probably won't make it to a Season 2.
The sci-fi show wasn't the only new drama to struggle this season. In fact, of the 22 dramas that have premiered on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW, only five are likely to make it to a sophomore year.
Part of the problem, explain producers, is that digital-age audiences don't just focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the freeway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.
Well, bear that in mind when you're writing your intricate multi-plot drama.
Supposing the premise is actually true, I think it has a lot to do with venues. Everyone starts out crap. But where do you get good?
Britain has pubs. So does Ireland. Pubs will hire crap bands to perform on an off night. The US also has lots of bars where a crap band can get their act together.
That's not true everywhere. Look at France. There are places in Paris for a good band to perform, but there are almost no places for a crap band to perform. Bands don't play in bars in Paris.
There are other factors. Canada does well exporting performers because there is a lot of protection for Canadian content in the music industry, so budding performers can get airplay. And the other factor is whether people are interested in listening to bands from their own country.
But I think the availability of venues for crap bands has a lot to do with it.
A Friend of the Blog was kind enough to send me the PLAYBOY pilot by Chad Hodge. The series is Imagine/Fox TV's/NBC's answer to MAD MEN, complete with cigarettes and sexism.
Interesting to note that Hodge breaks three important "rules":
a.He casts the show. Characters are introduced with movie actors in mind, actors who will obviously not be cast in the show, but are there just for type, e.g. "a ditzy Amanda Seyfried."
b.He puts music in the show. We've got a character singing "Chicago," and we've got Ike and Tina Turner singing some of their hits.
c.In the Act Five act out, he explains, in the action, who someone important really was.
(a) is generally deprecated as a crutch. If you say "Amanda Seyfried," then you aren't forced to write a character with her brand of slightly disturbing vulnerability. Also, you aren't going to get Amanda Seyfried.
(b) is generally a no-no because everyone may not have the same reaction to a given song. And the music can't really "play" on the page the way it does on the screen. And what if you can't get the rights?
(c) is generally considered cheating. Sure, you can write "she realizes it was Ziggy all along" in the blacks, but how does anyone act that? You can act emotion, but how do you act information? A more accurate description of what's going on her face would be "as she realizes something shocking" or "putting two and two together, with horror."
So does that mean the rules are off? Well, "There are no rules, but you break them at your peril." Chad Hodge obviously believes he can get away with them. Can you, if you're not a showrunner working with Brian Grazer? I don't know.
I think it does mean, though, follow the rules until you need to break them. Hodge did not want to put the realization at the end of Act 5 in the dialog, because the character would never, conceivably, say it to anyone. And, arguably, if the scene is shot properly, the information will get through to the audience.
It also means that, hell, if you can get away with it, go for it. J. J. Abrams doses his scripts heavily with f-bombs, obviously feeling it pumps up the energy. If that's "you," maybe try it, and see if you get away with it.
The show, interesting, is quite daring for prime time. It's period. It's serial. It shows us another world. It has a style. It's intelligent. No one solves crimes. I can imagine watching this. I am very far from being "the audience," but NBC is apparently hoping that intelligent scripted drama will pull it out of the rut it has dug itself into through cost-cutting and reality series.
And while we're talking about talking, I've done a four-minute podcast to go with our five-minute movie YOU ARE SO UNDEAD. It's on the Worldwide Short Film Festival's page o' podcasts. Let me know what you think.
(Meanwhile, Meaghan Rath kindly pitches the short to ADD's Bryan Reesman on the red carpet!)
In January I helped organize, and moderated, a panel discussion on Storytelling in the Gaming Industry. We are still working on the snazzy visuals for the video version, but you can download the audio podcast on McGill's iTunes U page. You should be able to find it under 'Panels & Debates'.
I recently developed a screenwriting app called Logline. The idea for Logline was born out of what I saw as an inadequacy in other screenwriting software. When writing a script, I could never get a sense for the structure of my screenplay when interacting with the software. Logline builds the story structure into the interface. Please check out the free Beta.
The book is written in such a way as to walk you thoroughly through each step of the software. In that respect, I found it well written. Earlier versions of the Celtx application I used were very intuitive, but this book would be a good companion for the absolute beginner. It can carry over for more intermediate users as well, in terms of how to use Storyboards and different projects other than your standard screenplay format. If you aren't familiar with how to load and install software, the author also does an excellent job of giving you all the details about Celtx and the pitfalls you might run into.
The problem with building a book around free software like Celtx is that the developers can release fairly frequent updates and the book can become obsolete quickly. The author does say that there was a new product release around the same time as the book release, and he goes on to highlight the minor changes. I used an older version of Celtx and I still recognized everything in the book, which is nice. So, even though there may be updates, I imagine this book will hold up well for future releases, until they decide to do a major overhaul of their product.
The guide is written in a very loose language format. In some sections, the author writes as if he were talking with a friend. I'm not a big fan of this type of language for a “technical” manual. For someone just starting out, it could be a bit more easy to digest. However, if you just want to know “how” to do something, it can get in the way if you want to quickly find out what it is you want to accomplish.
The order of the chapters aren't necessarily how someone just starting out would use the product. If you were to follow the book exactly, as outlined in the Table of Contents, I'm not sure how many screenwriters would go to the trouble of using the Storyboard feature before setting up a project. For example, Chapter 4 – Tools for Getting Organized and, Chapter 5 – Tooling Up for Scriptwriting, would have been more useful before Chapter 3 – Visualizing Productions Ahead of Time. In all the time I used Celtx (about 4 years), I never once used the Storyboard feature. But, everything is in there if you need to reference it at a later date, which is very helpful.
I do like that it's a book not just about the Celtx software itself. The author has made every attempt to describe other things required to write a screenplay - story and character elements as well as treatments and step outlines.
Overall, the content and know how to use Celtx is all there in a easy to read format. The only serious drawback: if you're someone picking up Celtx for the first time, but have been screenwriting for a while, there is information that you will find redundant.
Q. I've written a spec destined for pay cable. But I was taught to have strong act outs, and the script actually has them. Should I leave them in my spec (so people notice my excellent act outs?) or take them out (so people recognize that I'm aiming at pay cable)?
I've wondered about this myself. On the one hand, you don't want to look like you don't know what an act out is. On the other hand, if you're aiming at pay cable, then shouldn't the script reflect that? On the other other hand, with no act outs, are you precluding having an exec think, "Huh, this would actually make a great pilot for CBS if the main character just solved crimes"?
If you read scripts as part of your living, would you expect a pay cable spec to have no act outs? If your specs are circulating, what do you do if your script is a natural for pay cable?
As teenagers, we all experimented and did things that we shouldn’t have done, but Epstein’s film shows that no matter what you did as a teenager, it will never cause you to become immortal. A light-hearted season opener, You Are So Undead gives the vampire genre some much needed bite.
I listened to Terry Gross's Fresh Air interview with Tina Fey, and came away with two interesting bits of advice:
1. When you're in an improv group, and your buddies are doing a scene, when do you come into the scene?
Is it when you have an idea? When you have a joke?
Nope -- it's "when you're needed." When the scene is starting to drag, or someone's mentioned something that would be better if acted out. You don't push yourself into the scene; you let the scene pull you in.
2. When she wrote for a guest host, she wrote down two sorts of ideas: ones that go with the host's personality, and ones that don't.
Sometimes the most original ideas, natch, come out of the ideas that don't go with the host's personality. The one she was referring to was a hospital sketch in which Alec Baldwin played a little girl afflicted with a disease that made her look like a handsome adult man, so the nurse kept coming on to her ... weird. But good.
A friend slipped me a copy of Ron Moore's pilot for PRECINCT 17. It's a cop show in a world where magic functions as tech.
And for this reason, I found it a bit tedious. The magic functions as tech. There is no mystery to it. Instead of cell phones, everybody has crystals that function, well, pretty much exactly the way cell phones do. The forensics is visually cool, but not really any cleverer than CSI.
I tend to think that what makes science fiction and fantasy resonate is a metaphor. The fantastic element speaks to something that is true in real life, but in a less graphic way. The werewolf represents our primal urges. The Frankenstein creature is technology run amok.
If there is no metaphor, and no mystery, then all you have is a corollary of Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic: if magic is indistinguishable from advanced technology, then it stops being magic.
Also, as Gene Roddenberry pointed out, you can't hang the solution to a mystery on tech. There is a pretty big reveal at the end of Precinct 17 that would be satisfying if we knew the rules of the show's magic. But we don't. So there's just a surprise, divided between "oh, it's him?" and "oh, so you can do that in this universe?" And the latter takes the wind out of the sails of the former.
I would happily watch a cop show in a world where magic functions. But then give me myths that resonate. LOST GIRL, for example, had cops and fae. But each of the fae stand for something human. They are character-centered stories based on human sins and urges personified by fae who take those sins and urges to extremes. What makes LOST GIRL worth watching is that the solution to the mystery is something emotionally satisfying. It's not based on, "Look! We happen to have a Fingerprint Fairy here, and she can solve our mystery."
CAPRICA, also by Ron Moore, was all about tech, but it was first of all about characters and their relationships. A father with more money and genius than sense tries to bring his daughter back to life so he can understand why she belonged to a fanatical terrorist cult... and creates nemesis. The fantastical element was great. But the rest of the story was equally compelling.
So maybe I'm being a little too philosophical. Precinct 17 failed for me, ultimately, because I didn't care about any of the characters. I felt I'd seen them all in other cop shows. And their problems were uninteresting. Magic, alone, does not warrant a story.
Your short "You Are so Undead" will be airing on an upcoming episode of Bravo!FACT's new show, In Short at 10:00 pm ET/7:00 pm PT, Wednesday 11 May 2011 on Bravo!
Launching in early May 2011, In Short will air eight new one-hour specials featuring Canadian short films over eight consecutive weeks. The shorts have all been produced with funds awarded by Bell Media's Bravo!FACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent).
Each episode is based on one of the seven deadly sins and their accompanying virtues: pride/humility, envy/kindness, lust/chastity, greed/charity, wrath/patience, sloth/diligence and gluttony/temperance. Renowned film critic Richard Crouse) hosts all eight In Short episodes. The shorts will also be available for viewing on www.bravofact.com.
Your short "You Are so Undead" will be airing in full in episode #2, about Envy and Kindness, and will be posted in full on the web.
Quite a few actors seem to have a habit of convincing themselves that they wrote or improvised stuff they didn't. I wonder why?
Is it because in order to act, they have to convince themselves that they're not a character saying lines, they're a real person saying all that stuff in a real situation? Therefore how could someone have written anything?
Or is it because movie stars just have big heads? (This is an objective fact. Robert Redford has a gigantic head.)
Thanks to the 100 people who've filled out the screenwriting software survey.
I was surprised how many people are using Celtx -- 25%! Who knew? I guess that's a real program, then!
Final Draft is by far the most popular program across all screenwriters -- 50% -- and particularly among emerging writers -- 65%. But among screenwriters who identified themselves as professionals, Movie Magic Screenwriter leads by 7 to 5 (Final Draft) to 3 (Celtx). The sample size is small, but I think the results are interesting. You can draw two conclusions: either MMSW is easier to use by people who write for a living, or there are a lot of answers from working TV writers who use MMSW for the sake of the production they're on.
Last night, in case you were distracted by the Osama news, the Harper Conservatives gained a very solid majority of 167 in the 308-seat Canadian Parliament. For the next five years, barring a dozen disastrous by-elections, the Conservatives can do what they want.
It will be interesting to see what that is, exactly -- interesting, and to those of us in the Canadian arts, a little terrifying. Canadian productions are heavily subsidized so long as they fulfill requirements of including Canadian creative talent and setting shows in Canada. The Conservatives are, as I understand it, generally in favor of letting business do as it pleases. To what degree they will loosen content regulations in the film and television industry is the big question. I doubt we'll see a sudden influx of money into the Canada Media Fund. But will they allow US media conglomerates to buy up Canadian media conglomerates? Will they abolish the Canadian content requirements, decimating showbiz here? I don't think anyone outside Steven Harper's inner circle really knows.
In Québec, culture is the third rail of politics; the Conservatives missed winning a majority in 2008 because they stepped on it. Ironically, the day after voters deserted the separatist Bloc Quebecois, my Facebook account is filled with calls for Quebec independence. Will a right-wing, corporatist government push this left-wing, culturalist people to secession? And if so, is there a place for anglophone artists here?
These are the questions whizzing around in my corner of the world. How about yours?
The makers of Movie Magic Screenwriter were kind enough to give me a review copy of their latest version, so I've been working in Screenwriter on some of my new projects to familiarize myself with it.
When I wrote CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, I did not like Screenwriter at all. It was a clunky port of a Windows program onto the Mac platform. I found that where Final Draft was intuitive -- it worked about the way I thought it should work -- Screenwriter was a classic Windows program. It had good capabilities, but you had to learn an arbitrary series of commands to get them going.
So I've been a Final Draft guy all along. I've bought (or got a review copy) of each version as they came along. (I liked Final Draft 8.)
But I've been hearing a lot about Screenwriter.
Screenwriter has always had one killer app. Movie Magic makes the budgeting software everyone I know uses (Movie Magic Budgeting) and some terrific movie scheduling software (Movie Magic Scheduling). The three programs are built to hook into each other. So you can save your cast list from Screenwriter and upload it into Scheduling, and you automatically know which scenes which characters appear in, and how many pages they are. This saves a lot of work for the production manager. When you're in production on a TV show, that's a big deal. Production managers would much rather you work in Screenwriter.
Somewhere in the intervening years, Screenwriter went through a heavy redesign on the Mac. It was always a fairly powerful program. It is now much more intuitive and much less cranky.
Its Import feature is much, much better than it used to be. It used to be quite a chore to port a Final Draft script over to Screenwriter. Now you can save from Final Draft to RTF, and into Screenwriter, and you will have very, very little cleanup to do. Even a port from properly formatted text goes smoothly -- which means you can effectively import a PDF into Screenwriter just by saving the PDF as text.
One thing I like a lot about Screenwriter is that it keeps your scene outline in a sidebar, so you can easily see how your scenes flow -- and change the scene order -- while looking at the pages. Final Draft has its Scene Navigator mode, but you can't look at the script at the same time. In fact, on Screenwriter, you can look at any level of outline, from Act to Scene to Beat, while also looking at your text.
Screenwriter still isn't 100% intuitive. It has its ways. For example, rather than hitting "tab" to go from a character name to a parenthetical, you hit "return" to go to dialog and then parenthesis to change the dialog to a parenthetical. If you want to actually put a parenthesis in dialog, then you have to go hunting for your manual to discover that you need to type "control-open-paren" to get a parenthesis in dialog. To uppercase something is control-U. (Screenwriter loves to use the "control" key, a sign of a Windows port.) None of this is a big deal, you just have to learn it.
MMSW comes with all sorts of features set to "on" that you have to turn off. For example, if you type a period, it adds two spaces automatically. I don't like two spaces after a period (see my post One Space or Two), but even if I did, I don't want them added automatically, because I automatically add my own spaces.
It has a minor flaw that, in index card form, you can't see more than 12 cards at a time. In Final Draft, you can view as many cards across as you like, so if you're willing to put up with small cards (or have a big screen) you can view half the script at once.
It is annoying that you can't OMIT a scene unless you lock pages. MMSW assumes that I would never want to do that. But sometimes I like to cut a scene but keep it available, because I'm not sure I really want to cut it. Sometimes I want to remind a producer or director that I've cut a scene, even though we're in development and long before the point where I'd be locking pages. In Final Draft, I can just OMIT the scene, and I can even revise the omitted header, so it can read:
OMITTED - JERRY GOES TO THE PARTY
And should I ever want that scene back, I can just "unomit" it.
Another minor flaw is that some of the shortcuts get in the way. For example, I like to open up white space on my screen when I'm working on a scene. However if I type "return" twice, Screenwriter assumes that I want a slugline -- because a screenplay should never have two blank lines in a row. I find that irritating. If I wanted a slugline, I'm fully capable of typing "INT." myself.
If you want to write (V.O.) after a character name, it's super-easy: just type "(v" after the name. But if you want to write (V.O. PRELAP), which is something I sometimes like to type, when I'm pre-lapping dialog from the next scene, it's vastly irritating. I have to type "(" after the name, then click on a dropdown list to allow me to "add as text," then type "V.O. prelap."
And apparently you have to do this every time -- there doesn't seem to be an easy way to add V.O. PRELAP to a list.
You can easily change definitions of the standard screenplay elements -- dialogue, character, transition, etc. But what if you want to define a new one? For example, I sometimes define a "song" element that looks like dialog, but has longer lines, and arbitrary line breaks. Or when I'm working on a bilingual script, and want a "subtitle" element to follow the dialog -- I don't see how I can do that in Screenwriter. But I can in Final Draft.
I can format dual dialog and see it onscreen in Final Draft; in MMSW, dual dialog only views properly once previewed or printed.
All this adds up to a little occasional frustration. I actually got my review copy a couple of months ago. I've been playing with it since then because I wanted to take the time to get up to speed. As a Final Draft veteran, it took me almost no time to learn how to do 95% of what I needed. But after over a month, there are still these little doodads that get in the way. It's possible that I could eventually figure out how to fix some of these issues if I spend enough time with the program. But why should I have to, when I can do them all easily in Final Draft? Production managers aren't the people I have to please, producers and directors are. And they read my scripts in PDF anyway.
My feeling is that Final Draft was built on top of a word processor. It assumes you know what you want to do, and will let you do what you want. If that causes formatting errors, that's your lookout. I feel like Screenwriter is built on something other than a word processor -- perhaps a database program of some kind. So if what you are trying to do does not fit Screenwriter's ideas of what a screenplay has to look like, tough luck.
Screenwriter seems ideal for someone who does not type very fast, for whom saving a few keystrokes is more important than being able to freely compose. Since I type slightly faster than I can think, I don't want to save keystrokes, I want to save brain cycles.
Incidentally, neither Screenwriter nor Final Draft, so far as I can tell, can put two pages up on the screen. That's frustrating. I have a beautiful 22" Dell monitor looming over my 15% Macbook Pro screen, so I have a fair amount of real estate. I'd really like to be able to see two pages at once. With so many nifty features packed into this program, is viewing two pages too much to ask?
All in all, Screenwriter is a good program. I give it a solid B+. It's something you probably want to know how to use. Your production manager will thank you for using it. From the survey I did of my own readers, it seems to be the preferred program among professional screenwriters.
But after a month, I am still trying to iron out issues. I will almost certainly finish the screenplay I'm writing in Screenwriter. But I think I might go back to Final Draft when I start my new one. And that is ultimately the only real recommendation I can give.
UPDATE: Note also DMc's terrible experiences with FD's customer service, linked in his comment below. I should also mention that FD uses a bad system of authentification where anything you do to your computer -- e.g. updating the OS -- can wipe out your authorization, requiring a call to customer service. (However, they cheerfully restore installs once you do call them.) Screenwriter uses a smarter system where if you lose your computer you can simply go to the website, delete the old authorization on the old/dead/lost computer, and transfer the authorization to a new computer.
Because I do prefer Final Draft, here's a link to buy it: