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



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Thursday, August 30, 2012

We've been watching Steven Moffat's reboot of Sherlock Holmes on BBC. Moffat's Sherlock is contemporary, so he's always getting text messages.

Rather than shooting an insert of the phone, which is a pain to shoot, Moffat simply puts the text message on screen as a title.

This seems so obvious, but I don't think I've seen it before. You could probably also do it for emails and texts on a computer: rather than trying to get a shot of the computer screen and a shot of the actor, just shoot the actor and lay the screen text over the actor as titles.

Describing this it sounds like a bit of a kludge. But when you see it on screen, it is immediately obvious what you're looking at. Which makes it more of a hack.

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Tuesday I shot a bunch of interviews on a Sony EX1 for a promotional video for the game I'm working on. Not all the interviews turned out to be what we wanted, so, not wanting to spend $300 to rent it for another day, I wound up shooting more interviews today on my iPhone.

The picture quality on the iPhone is pretty good. I had two issues with it. One is that its has an omnidirectional microphone that picks up the person talking and every air conditioner and truck backing up for miles around. The other is that it constantly adjusts its virtual iris to light conditions, so that if you pan past a bright window, it will reduce its light sensitivity over the whole frame ("stopping down"), which makes everything go dark except the window.

There are theoretically external microphones for the iPhone. I'm considering buying the Owle Bubo. This is an aluminum frame for holding the phone or attaching it to a tripod; a wide-angle lens; and an external microphone. I have no idea how you switch inputs so that you're not using the internal microphone.

Somewhere out there, maybe there is an app that records video but allows you to manually adjust the virtual iris and lock it down. At any rate, there ought to be one. Anyone know of one? Anyone want to program one?

Incidentally, two lessons about promotional videos. They can eat up days of your time. They also eat up quite a lot of the rest of the team's time; you wind up pulling people off their jobs so they can pretend to be working somewhere else in the frame that works better in the shot.

But the upside is they force to think about what you're delivering. It's easy during the creatie process to forget what you're selling to the audience. Shooting a promotional video focuses you on your main selling points. Then as you go back into your creative work, you may be able to spend more time on delivering on your main selling points, and less time on the frills.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

"New measures to spread Québecois culture," reads the headline on this Parti Québecois campaign graphic; at the bottom, it reads "Culture is not an expense but a profitable investment, both economically and socially."

That's what I've been saying.

See, in Québec, culture is the third rail. Voters want to hear about how a party is going to support culture. Parties that don't seem to "get it" about culture lose elections.

If only I had more confidence that the PQ considers me part of the "culture Québecoise" that they want to spread, I would probably vote for them.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Video games are getting more and more impressive every day, but as an art form they're still in their infancy. DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION and WITCHER 2 may have convincing characters, moral choices and permanent consequences. They are my two favorite AAA games. But you wouldn't call either of them a deep emotional experience. You wouldn't say they say fresh, true things about the human condition.

But every now and then a game comes along that pushes that envelope. PASSAGE was a teeny little iPhone game that managed to say something about the shortness of life and the permanence of decisions. And now along comes PAPO & YO from creator Vander Caballero and game designer Ruben Farrus, downloadable on Playstation Network.

In PAPO & YO, you're a little kid in a hallucinatory barrio where houses can be coaxed into sprouting cartoon stilts and walking around; only by rearranging the landscape can you chase after the little girl who keeps taunting you.

Your best friend is a giant rhino-esque monster, who generally only wakes up for coconuts. By bouncing on his belly (see the pic), you can jump places you can't get. He can also open gates for you. You need him.

But, whenever he eats a green frog, he becomes a true monster, belching fire and beating the crap out of you if you don't run. He's terrifying. Your quest, you discover, is to get him to a shaman who can cure him.

And to do that, you have to manage his rages. Sometimes, you need to feed him a green frog so he'll destroy an obstacle you need destroyed.

So here's where this becomes personal expression. The game is about the creator's relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father; it's dedicated to his sisters and mother, who survived along with him. He needed his father, but he needed to manage his father's rages.

I grew up with very reasonable parents who rarely even raised their voices. I don't think I've ever seen either of them drunk. Intellectually I know that an alcoholic parent is terrifying. I've seen it in movies.
People close to me have had parents or lovers who were abusive. I've always wondered why, given the choice, they stayed with their abusive lover. I've always wondered how there's still affection for the abusive parent.

This game taught me something about that. You can't reject Monster. You can't leave him behind. You need him. Most of the time, he's kind of cute, in an ugly way. You wind up forgiving him for his rages. That's just the way he is, after all. It's your fault for not getting out of the way, for not running fast enough, for not hiding better.

I mean, I knew that. But I didn't get it.

PAPO & YO barely has a story. It's a puzzle platformer. But its simple game dynamic and stunning visuals make it a real emotional experience. The mechanics tell the story.
The game's mechanics tell a story. Is there any higher praise I could give a game for its artistic expression? I think the creators have really shown what games are capable of. I hope when CONTRAST comes out, we will have risen to the same standard.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The AVClub talks about how David Mamet added exactly one scene when he adapted GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS from the stage to the screen.

You guessed it. "Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is, you're fired."

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

I listened to Margaret Heffernan's TED lecture, "Dare to Disagree" today. It starts with an anecdote about Alice Stewart, a scientist who was able to prove that it's not a good idea to X-ray pregnant mothers because she had a great collaborator. He was her statistician, and his job, as he saw it, was to prove her wrong. Only by mining the data sixteen ways from Sunday, trying to dredge up any way to show that X-raying pregnant mothers was not correlated with childhood cancer, could they prove that it is correlated.

In a writing partnership, you want a certain amount of creative conflict. If you agree with each other all the time, who needs two of you? You need to be willing to criticize and shoot down each other's ideas. To say, in Denis McGrath's old catchphrase, "Here's why I hate that."

This is hard to learn. (Unless you are from New York, in which case you have to learn when to shut up). In companies, most people often feel they can't voice their concerns. The whistleblower is the odd man out. Or look at American politics, where almost no current politician dares criticize the country's utterly insane drugs policy.

In a creative partnership, you want different points of view to clash.

On CHARLIE JADE, Sean Carley, aside from being a very fine writer, was the guy in the writing room who would call shenanigans on Denis and me when we came up with something he didn't believe.

After all, if someone in the room doesn't believe it, what are the odds that the audience will?

What makes creative conflict useful is restraint. You have to agree on the underlying premise. I've got notes back on my writing where the analyst did not buy into the basic premise of the material. That kind of note is not constructive. (It may be accurate, just not constructive.)

You also have to agree on what you're critiquing. If you're working on our premise, you critique your premise. If you're working on your outline, you critique the beats, and maybe you critique the premise if the beats cannot be made to work. If you're working on pages, you should no longer be critiquing the premise. A creative partner who keeps going back to the drawing board will hold you back. This is particularly true on a TV show, where you just don't have time. But at a certain point you just have to have faith that your premise will hold up.

It's crucial because about 40% into anything, you'll probably start to question whether the idea has any merit. You'll also question whether you're capable of writing it. Or writing anything. You will possibly get the idea that you have lost any talent you had, if indeed you ever really had any. That's why I call 40% in "The Sucky Point."

In the WaPo, Emily Matcher makes the claim that overentitled millenials can help, since they expect everyone to listen to their thoughts.

Criticism is essential to making anything good. But just like heat applied to steel in the forge, what makes it productive is focusing it on the right part of the material at the right time.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I had a chance to attend a panel discussion on “Showrunners” at July’s Just for Laughs Conference with TWO AND A HALF MEN co-creator Lee Aronsohn and BIG BANG THEORY showrunner Bill Prady, moderated by Variety's Steven Gaydos. A few takeaways:

Lee likes to cast “people I can’t stop looking at.” Talent and charisma are two different things. You can’t teach charisma. But it’s not enough. You need talent and professionalism. Charlie Sheen might have been the star, but “the engine that is Jon Cryer” powered the show.

Some standups are terrible sitcom actors. On BIG BANG, there’s only a single standu, Melissa Rauch. Everyone else are professional actors, many with theater degrees, or who were child actors – all serious veterans. A day player can get by on charisma, but a recurring role needs chops.

(I cast a standup once. He could not memorize his lines for the life of him. And he wouldn’t rehearse, either. We had to make cue cards.)

Bill Prady says he lets his casting director filter actors, but he hires writers without a filter. “Sitcoms are made by writers,” he said, and agents are terrible filters. He told a story about an agent who insisted he put a script on the top of the heap. It was terrible. He called back and asked what the agent liked about the script. The agent couldn't answer. Because, you see, he hadn’t read it.

Bill read 400 scripts to make the BIG BANG THEORY room. He didn’t read them all the way through, of course. But he read each one enough to know whether he wanted to work with the writer or not. “Only I know what I’m looking for, and I generally find it in the first five pages.”

Lee Aronsohn said he’s also hired people into the room based on their standup act, or their plays. He hired a woman based on her blog once. 2 ½ MEN does “gang writing” – 9 people in a room at once – so not everyone has to be a structure person.

Bill Prady mentioned that he had been able to rescue a bunch of Chuck Lorre vets who had gone to “kidcoms” (e.g. iCarly) – which are functioning as a sort of farm team for sitcoms now.

The key to survival in a room, therefore, is to know “when to speak and when not to speak.” Don’t be the guy who alwayshas something funny to say, but only 5% of it is relevant to the part of the script you’re working on.

So standup is an easier route to staff writer than it is to performer.

Bill talked about the two pilots he shot for BIG BANG. He considered that a stroke of luck – almost no pilots get reshot, and even fewer get picked up after the first pilot fails. The network thought the pilot was bad because the actress cast to play Penny, Amanda Walsh, came off as too crass and “hookery. Only one scene worked.”

The writers realized the problem was actually that the role was
written too crass. They rewrote Penny, and recast her, and this time the pilot worked.

Bill talked about the habit among successful show creators of getting a bunch of friends to punch up the pilot over a week, and “everyone gets an iPod.” This reminds me of the work that the Seth Rogen / Judd Apatow / Owen Wilson / Steve Carell mafia do on each other’s scripts. I think all our scripts would be better if we’d take the time to work on each other’s material. Wouldn’t they?

An audience member asked about submitting spec pilots versus spec episodes. Bill Prady wants to see both. A spec pilot takes him into your world. A spec episode proves you can work in his; but “it better be better than anything I see on the show.” Because the show episodes are written in two weeks, with production concerns, and he assumes that you’ve spent six months on your spec episode.

Another question was about demographics of the writing room. Bill Prady remarked that the BIG BANG writing room was the first one he’d ever worked in that was majority gentile. It is, of course, mostly men. He insists that he never looks at the title page until he’s evaluated the writing sample, so his room is “a true meritocracy.”

To some extent he blames agents, who send him many more scripts by young white guys than by women, minorities or 60-year-old writers. “Agents are not looking to represent 60 year old writers.” To get an older room, you may have to look outside agents.

Of course, he may just like what men do on the page better than what women do. Certainly BIG BANG is bound to skew male, since it’s about very smart nerdy guys and a relatively dim pretty girl.

“I will say,” he added, “that it is a rare member of a writing staff who is a Protestant who came from money.”

I never did get to ask Bill what he'd learned about writing from his days selling Muppets merchandise. One day, maybe.

Also, check out what The Hollywood Reporter’s took away from the panel.

Photos by Dan Dion, courtesy JFL.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

I'm having trouble with The Newsroom. Dear friends of mine love the show. And yet I find it to be a pompous show about people whose jobs are not really that important.

In THE WEST WING, the characters made decisions that affected millions of people. Their struggles really mattered. In STUDIO 60, the characters made a fluffy variety show, but it was sort of funny that they took their jobs so seriously. And the show was more about the personalities, anyway; we weren't expected to root for whether one skit got on the air or not (except if a character cared about it for her own sake).

But THE NEWSROOM actually seems to be about whether the characters manage to get their sound bites on the air before, or better than, their competitors. It seems to take it for granted that I should care, as if the characters were, say, cops, or soldiers, or doctors, or firemen. I'm experiencing a failure of stakes and jeopardy here. I'm having trouble buying in.

Is it about the wonderful, fresh, witty characters, and the unique and surprising situations they get into?

Are you buying in?

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Monday, August 06, 2012

David Wong, writing in CRACKED, of all places, has a goofy but surprisingly true feature on "5 Ways You Don't Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain." They, too, agree that we are hardwired to tell, and remember, stories:
Thousands of years ago, when your ancestors were living in tribes and hunting gazelles for food, nobody knew how to read. Even if they could, paper wasn't a thing, parchment was rare and precious. They had no written historical records, they had no educational system that could devote years to teaching history to the kids.

This was a problem. Once humans started forming civilizations, the guys in charge didn't just need the next generation of children to know how to fish and hunt, they needed citizens who would fall in line and fight for the tribe. That meant the kids needed to understand the big picture: why preserving the tribe is important, why we hate the tribe across the river, why our tribe is better than that tribe, why it's important to go off and fight in the next war no matter how scared you are.

Now, to do this, they could either A) bore the kids to death with a years-long recounting of the history of the tribe, which nobody has probably written down anyway or B) tell them a cool story. They could tell the thrilling tale of Kolgor the Valiant who, when the evil neighboring tribe came to slay all of the women and children, stood alone and fought bravely through the night, with four arrows in his chest, until the enemy retreated in terror. You want to be like Kolgor, don't you, little one? Otherwise, he will have died in vain.

Clearly "B" is the one that is going to stick in the kid's brain. It doesn't matter that the story is either fiction or grossly exaggerated -- it gets the job done, it makes the kid conform to be the kind of citizen the tribe needs him to be. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- your tribe may very well be better than the one across the river, your real history is probably full of real heroes whose sacrifices were just as important as, if less romantic than, Kolgor the Valiant's. The tribe didn't go with the fictional version because they were liars, they went with it because it was the only way for the "truth" to survive.
With consequences for how we fail to process things that don't fit easily into stories:
That's why, to this day, we're still trying to figure out who "caused" the economic collapse, as if we'll find a cabal of a dozen shady bankers in a room who made off with all our money, rather than a flawed system that millions of investors and consumers drove into the ditch because of a steadfast refusal to think five minutes into the future. Look at the last few wars again -- we can't get past the idea that terrorism will end if we just blow the shit out of the bad guys. Why? Because that's the way it works in the movies. In Star Wars, when the Emperor died, all evil died with him. The same with Sauron, and Voldemort. If we kill/imprison all the drug kingpins, the drugs will go away. Right? Guys?

You can find this in your personal life, too. If something goes wrong at the office, somebody has to get blamed. Everyone goes into ass-covering mode, because they know the bosses will need a villain in their story. When you take on some personal project (a new job, losing weight, whatever), you expect the same three-act structure that you'd see in a movie (see problem, take it on, experience your darkest moment, eventually triumph), and you get depressed when it doesn't happen (that "triumph" part often never shows up). Why are people always so obsessed with the apocalypse? Because every story has an ending, and the idea that the human "story" can just drag on forever, aimlessly, never progressing toward any particular goal, is just unimaginable. We can't process it.
And the moral, such as it is:
So, yes, for the fucking love of God, movies matter. TV shows matter. Novels matter. They shape the lens through which you see the world. The very fact that you don't think they matter, that even right now you're still resisting the idea, is what makes all of this so dangerous to you -- you watch movies so you can turn off your brain and let your guard down. But while your guard is down, you're letting them jack directly into that part of your brain that creates your mythology. If you think about it, it's an awesome responsibility on the part of the storyteller. And you're comfortable handing that responsibility over to Michael Bay.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

Q. I just watched a trailer for a movie that is similar to a short film I'm about to start. Should I still make it? I'm actually encouraged by the fact that I had an idea that someone else had, and that it was good enough for a feature. So I want to press on, but I'm wondering if it would be worth it, especially if people can look at it and say "that's just like so and so." I had no real plans for this becoming a feature, but the response I got from my readings were so positive I pushed it to the front of my project list. What do you think? Shelve it and work on something else, or say "to hell with it, I'm going with my idea!"
A short film depends much more than a feature film on the central concept. If your central conceit isn't fresh, then you're not going to get a lot of attention out of your short film.

To some degree it depends on how similar the two ideas are. But if you can pull the plug on the short at this point, I would probably shoot something else right now.

On the other hand, yes, be happy that you're in the zeitgeist. I've been scooped by a few movies and a few TV shows. It is disappointing to write off a screenplay you've worked hard on, but good to know I wasn't out in left field.

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The very cool guy I'm writing a videogame story for posts about "Stories, Women and Games":
We realized early in our focus test sessions on Contrast that although the game had a strong appeal with men because of the nature of the game mechanics, our context and story also appealed to (gasp!) women as well. Yet, while visiting with an unnamed publisher, we were told by a high-profile woman executive that we should keep that fact carefully under wraps.

Really? So if I make a game that women may actually enjoy in the console space, it becomes a sissy game? Wow. I’m sorry – it’s time we revised our script. I forgot to add gun-toting latex nuns. Yeah. Those should fit right into a 1920′s film noir inspired setting.
I'm pretty thrilled by the story we're coming up with. Our characters are flawed and rich and surprising, and we put the player in an ethical dilemma with no perfect solution.

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Lisa and I started to watch SID AND NANCY, which we both saw when it came out. After about fifteen minutes of heroin-infused self-destructive craziness (and, yes, electric performances by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb), we just didn't feel like watching it any more. So we watched VEEP instead.

Many people claim that there's discrimination against older writers. And I suppose to some extent, some younger producers and execs would rather work with even younger writers whom they feel comfortable bossing around. But I think most of it is coming from the older writers themselves. Partly it relates to the process. Older writers are less willing to work for free. They are less willing to work late and on weekends. They have families and lives.

But part of it is creative. Some of drama is about people clashing about principles, but most of it is people doing unwise things. No one makes movies about rock musicians who have it all together and balance their professional and personal lives. I couldn't write an interesting movie about my relationship with Lisa. And, as you get older, you tend to accumulate wisdom, at least to the extent of seeing the train coming and deciding that, on the whole, it might be a good idea to step off the tracks.

So then, when you're writing characters in conflict, it becomes more of an effort to make them do damnfool things. You can do it, and you can even do it better. But it requires more of a mental effort.

Of course, people doing dumb things is not a plot hole. People doing things out of character is a plot hole. But people do dumb things all the time. The secret to filling plotholes is to show why your character is being such a jerk. What character flaw propels him into the open manhole? Pride, lust, anger, gluttony, sloth, envy or greed, or some combination? I'd want to get into why Sid was such a bag of pain -- not by means of a character aria, I try to avoid those, but by revelatory character moments scattered here and there that allow us to imagine our way into him.

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Say, does anyone have lying around a budget for a one-camera cable sitcom? And/or a prime-time network sitcom?

A Faithful Reader needs one for his investors...

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Being an auteur is what we all dreamed of being, as far [back] as the films of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, when the idea of the auteur filmmaker arrived on the planet. And people kept using that term, and they do with my movies because I suppose they are very individual and they give me all the credit, so they say I’m an auteur. And I say no, the reality is I’m a ‘fil-teur.’ I know what I’m trying to make but I have a lot of people who are around me who are my friends and don’t take orders and don’t listen to me, but who have individual ideas. And when they come up with a good idea, if it’s one that fits what I’m trying to do, I use it. So the end film is a collaboration of a lot of people, and I’m the filter who decides what goes in and what stays out.
Honestly, except for writer-director-editor-actors, all directors are more filteurs than auteurs. They just won't admit it. The "Film By" credit is kinda disrespectful of all the creative people who work on their films, isn't it?

More at Filmmaker Magazine.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

I've recently seen two well-made films that are sort of in the horror genre. I say "sort of," because one is essentially a science fiction drama with some emotionally horrific scenes, and a big creep factor; the other attempted to tell a story that could be interpreted as a horror fantasy, or as a metaphor for a descent into despair.

Both had opaque heroes. In both, for a good deal of the movie, we don't know what the hero wants. In one case, the hero has a monstrous secret that he keeps from everyone, including us, until the very end. In the other, the hero may or may not have done something awful to someone he loves; he has only flashes of a horrific memory that may have happened or not, and the viewer is at a loss to figure out what Actually Happened.

I hate to say categorically that This Doesn't Work. I think both films are getting buzz at genre festivals. But the genre festival crowds are seriously hardcore. They love having their expectations tweaked, because they have seen every horror movie ever made. I think the regular genre audience wants films to deliver the emotional goods.

It is very hard to deliver the emotional goods when the hero is opaque. A hero does not have to be likable; but he has to be relatable. How can you relate to someone when you don't know what he wants? How can you relate to a character when you don't know what his story actually is -- what he's done and why he thinks he did it.

In the science fiction movie, we found out the secret only at the end -- too late to do anything with it. In the horror fantasy, I was not clear exactly what happened, and we definitely never knew why.

In both movies, I found myself latching onto the female love interests. In the science fiction drama, she is in love with the hero, but she doesn't know his terrible secret. I found myself wondering if the movie wouldn't have been more effective if it had been shown from her point of view. In the horror fantasy, I did know what the girl wanted, and her story was a relatively clear case of searching too hard for enlightenment, to the point where you destroy yourself.

Oddly, I am currently rewriting a script where the main character has a Big Secret that she keeps from the audience until halfway through. However, we learn very quickly that she is Not Who She Says She Is; so the audience knows right away that it is going to be that sort of movie. More importantly, we are very clear on what she wants in her current situation. And we know what sort of a human being she is. We can like her as a person and root for her to escape her current predicament; her secret is only how she got in the scrape she's in.

If you want to keep a secret from the audience, I think you have to be very up front with them that you are keeping a secret from them, so it doesn't feel like a cheat. You have to make clear they know that they will find out the secret; otherwise they won't dare invest in it. And the secret better be a good one. If you do that, I think the audience can still leave the movie satisfied at the story you told.

Of course, some great movies violate these rules. I would venture to say they are not actually about the secret. The classic is L'AVVENTURA, a very strange New Wave film from Antonioni. Halfway through, a main character disappears. She's never found and there is never an explanation for what happened to her.

But the movie isn't really about her disappearance. It's about the anomie of the main character. By the end of the movie, you know how he has turned out. And that makes for an effective ending.

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