Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Finally put my concerns about Mel Gibson's racism aside and went to see Apocalypto.

It's an extremely well made movie. It's also the most painful movie I think I've ever seen. It made Schindler's List feel like Singin' in the Rain. Scenes of suffering that went on and on long past where the filmmaker had made his story point.

At the point where the kids in the village got left behind at the river ford, I took off. I didn't figure the village had been enslaved to become kick-line dancers on Broadway. And I really needed to hug my family.

This kind of movie makes me feel old. The older I get, the harder I find it is to watch murders on screen. I think the big change came when Jesse Anne was born. It becomes much harder to watch three year olds left in the forest to starve when you have put so much of your heart in your own three year old. It also becomes harder to watch James Bond shoot people when you're a parent. At least it is for me. I find myself flashing on the parents of whoever 007 just dispatched, and how much trouble they must have gone to in order to raise GOON #3; how easy it is to end a life and how hard it is to raise a child.

I wonder if part of the reason for the alleged prejudice against old writers comes from this. Does one tend to get out of touch with the 18-29 audience because they are single and immortal, while you belong to a family and fear for their safety? Do you find it gets harder to kill people on the page as you get older?

I remember on Warriors, a movie I worked on a dozen years ago, we hired an old friend of my boss, a devout man in his 60s. The movie was about a special ops killer on the run, and it opened with a particularly horrific special op where our guy killed most everybody at a wedding. The writer dithered and delayed, and finally we had to fire him off the project. He simply could not write the script we were looking for.

I think I will eventually watch the rest of Apocalypto, when it's out on DVD and I can pause and skip. Almost everything about the movie is impressive: the acting, the camerawork, the makeup. (There a few things I find silly in the script. Who hides his pregnant wife in a hole in the ground when there's a rain forest to hide in? I felt the whole purpose of that was get his wife stuck in a hole in the ground, as if there wasn't already enough jeopardy.) Mel Gibson is a masterly director. But I did feel that there was far more sheer suffering on screen than was necessary to tell the story. I felt Gibson was wallowing in it. It felt like pain porn -- as, I gather, did The Passion of the Christ.

Bear in mind that's not my judgment as a professional. That's my feeling as an audience member.

Mel Gibson's mind must be one of the outskirts of Hell.

I read various comments on the IMDB afterwards. (I wish I'd done that before seeing the movie; I might have spared myself.) A lot of people posting felt that the "violence wasn't nearly as bad as the critics said." It wasn't???

(There was also an interesting re-backlash: some of those posting felt that Gibson was being martyred as an artist because of his racist meltdown. These days, anyone can be a victim.)

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?


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And while we're at it, what do you think of this strategy? Apparently some audience members have been buying tickets for other movies and then going to see Apocalypto, thus seeing the movie while not contributing to the gross.


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Q. I've finished my script, but I'm wondering, is it better to start out with a storyboard? Just what the heck is a storyboard anyway?
Storyboards have nothing to do with writing a script. Storyboards are essentially comic strips created to show what the action on the screen is meant to look like. A storyboard artists works with the director and the script and tries to put on paper the angles and compositions the director intends to use. Or if the director can draw, he can make his own storyboards. Either way the crew can get a clearer sense of what the director's going to be doing with the camera than they might based only on conversations with the director.

They can range from extremely simple stick figure sketches to ornate. Stick figure storyboards don't look impressive, but they do much the same job that the fancy kind do.


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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Q. My writing partner and I have just finished working on a spec pilot about teenagers in turmoil and they cuss a lot. I mean, A LOT. Right now we have the cuss words in there, but the kids are Latino so some of the words are Spanglish and some of them are English. Of course we want to use this as a writing sample, but we'd really love to maybe try to pitch it one day if we can squeeze it into somebody's hands. So should we leave the cuss words in? Should we switch them all to Spanish words? Should we try to take them out, which I really don't want to do for both realism and the giant pain in the ass it would be?
Oh, gosh. Golly. It sounds like you're worried that you might offend someone in showbiz with your bad language.

Would I worry about that? Nope.

Do people in showbiz swear a lot? You bet they do.

Did it take me several years to stop saying the F word around my kids after 15 years in LA? You bet it did.

So as far as offending agents and publishers, well gosh darn it girl, cuss away.

I am assuming, of course, that your spec pilot is for HBO. You can't curse on broadcast TV, thanks to the FCC. (You can curse a bit on Canadian TV. That must be because of the First Amendment. Oh, wait, that doesn't make sense...) Saturday Night Live had to bleep Justin Timberlake's latest, er, hit -- the one about the special present he was wrapping for his girlfriend -- though I suspect the word that people filled in the bleep with was naughtier than the word actually sung.

And "frak" just sounds silly.

You can't curse on most cable networks, either, because they don't want to offend their audience. Jon Stewart is bleeped. But on HBO and Showtime, it's de rigueur to curse as much as possible, so they can justify their subscription fees.

I doubt you can get away with Spanish curses on broadcast, either. Too many Latinos watching in the States. Ironically you can say "bugger" and "bint" all you like (pace Buffy), thanks to the French fleet showing up at Yorktown.

So you may want to consider writing two versions of your spec pilot, one for pay cable, one for broadcast. The pay cable version can be as filthy as you like. (Throw in some gratuitous lesbianism and you're set.) The broadcast version, sorry to say, will have to use innuendo and inventive language to get around Standards and Practices.



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Q. How do you write a montage scene and how can you incorporate dialog during the scene?
Any way you like. There's no canonical way.

You could describe every moment:

THE CAR races down the twisting road.

PIGEONS flutter into the sky.

THE KNIFE comes down.


Or you could describe what you want the editor to come up with:

SERIES OF QUICK STOCK SHOTS of shells bursting, men screaming, tank wheels rolling, etc.

I generally prefer the first way if I'm writing a selling script; sometimes I use the second if I'm writing a production script. Ultimately a montage is a creation of the editor, so in a production script you can cop out a bit. But for a selling script you want to give the reader something as close as possible to the experience of watching a film, so you write out the montage even though you know the editor will probably do something different (and better).

Personally I don't tend to flag anything as a montage in my screenwriting. I feel it's a bit alienating to the reader to say "hey, lookie, it's a montage!" Just be specific about what exactly you're proposing to put on the screen (even if the director editor will almost certainly do something else), and "montage" and don't call it a montage.

On the other hand, when intercutting between two scenes, I usually don't break the scenes up because it starts it get irritating to read. I'll just put INTERCUT: and hope the reader pays attention to the transitional:


--as Prana struts out on the catwalk in an elaborate evening gown --
the finale of the show. The crowd applauds wildly, and Prana, in the
brilliant lights of the catwalk, smiles like a girl who has everything
in the world she ever wanted, as--



... Amber's watching the fashion show on TV, in her darkened hospital room, her eyes rooted to
the screen.

That's going to be me. Soon as I get out of here.
It's going to be me.



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Thursday, December 28, 2006

I'm about through episode nine of Rome (and yes, Denis, when the time comes I'll probably sign on to TMN for Season Two), and it is occurring to me that at some level the show is The Odd Couple. Here's Lucius Vorenus, trying so hard to do the right things by his duty and his gods. And what's his reward for it? He's stuck with Titus Pullus, who pretty much follows his instincts and his dick, and everything comes out fine for him. Titus gets the gold; Titus gets to sleep with the queen; Vorenus gets the slow burn and the ulcer.

The other story this reminds me of is Dick, the utterly charming and silly movie in which Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams stumble their way through the Watergate Crisis, bringing down the Nixon Presidency more or less because he's mean to his dogs. In Episode 2, Titus Pullus is the spark that ignites the crisis that brings down the Republic, basically because he decided to go gambling in the wrong bar the night before.

When you're adapting historical material, and even sometimes when you're adapting a novel of great scope and many characters, it's often useful to figure out what familiar story is the kernel of the story you want to tell. It's a rare movie that manages to show historical events in a compelling way without rendering them down into basic human stories of much smaller scope. (Gettysburg does a pretty good job of making a big sweeping story compelling without rendering it down; it really is about the battle.) You're trying to tell the story of the rise of Julius Caesar? It's so big, how do you figure out how to put it on the screen? Tell it through the point of view of two soldiers -- one an educated, devout republican, the other a common rogue -- and it becomes small enough to fit.

Suppose you were doing the fall of Julius Caesar. You could make it a father and son story -- a family drama about how Brutus came to murder the man who saw him as a son. You could make it a coming of age story -- how Octavian had to grow up fast once his uncle was murdered on the Senate floor. You could make it a love story -- as Rome does for a few episodes, when it seems like Caesar is not pursuing Pompey because he's in love with Servilia.

But pick a story and stick with it. The brain can absorb the vast sweep of armies best when it's filtered through one or two human stories before it is refiltered through the camera's lens. And if we understand the small stories, we can use them as a back door into the larger stories.



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NBC is really pushing Friday Night Lights. Yesterday they aired three reruns back to back to back. They have made every single episode available for download to American viewers. (Not Canadian ones. Damn them.) If you think networks never have the courage to support a great show that opened to low numbers, this is your counterexample. And if you haven't seen the show yet, here's your chance to catch up!

New episodes start on Wednesday, January 3 at 8 pm (7 Central).



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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Making a movie in which evil teddy bears attack a teacher got two budding filmmakers expelled from their high school, but a federal judge says it was the school that was wrong...

The boys worked on the movie "The Teddy Bear Master" from fall 2005 through summer 2006. It depicts a "teddy bear master" ordering stuffed animals to kill a teacher who had embarrassed him, but students battle the toy beasts, according to documents filed in court...

School officials had argued that the film was disruptive and that a teacher whose name was used in the movie found it threatening. Prosecutors reviewed the movie but declined to press charges.
From the CBC
You can tell this was Indiana. In New York, the principal would have complained about the characters needing more development and sentenced those boys to a Jane Campion retrospective.


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Yeah, Rome is oh so violent. Lisa watched it with me for about five minutes and then decided it was not for her. There's that awesome battle scene, then whippings, stabbings, etc.

For me, that's not darkness, though. I don't find Rome to be at all dark.

To me darkness is about the bleakness of the world. People are stuck in situations where they have to choose between horrible and miserable, and sometimes they don't get to choose. In Deadwood, the innocents are slaughtered; everyone else is up for sale. (At least when I quit watching, they were.)

In Rome, people get killed all the time. But they get killed because of the consequences of their actions, not because the world is li'dat. It would be possible in the world of Rome to make sensible choices and live a good life. Even poor Glabius dies, not because he still loves his wife, but because he's stupid about it.

Darkness is also not the same as tragedy. I enjoy watching tragedies. But Hamlet doesn't die because he lives in a world of darkness. Hamlet dies because he passes up multiple opportunities to do his duty and kill Claudius, and also chooses to stick around instead of heading back to university. Macbeth creates his own destruction. In the end he is trapped, but in a cage of his own creation. Lear faces the consequences of his wilful blindness and foolishness.

On the other hand, there's a whole vein of well-crafted dark narrative where innocence is defiled and good intentions are punished because that's how the world works. Maybe there is a school of belief that people are too stupid or too wicked to save themselves. There are stories that end badly just because.

Tragedy is all about people bringing themselves down; the consequences are inevitable only because the hero insists on being who he is. When it could go either way, you're in the land of melodrama. (With the exception of perhaps Richards II and III, the history plays are melodrama, not tragedy.)

Personally I like happy endings. Partly because I've experienced any number of them; partly because I've seen enough pointless pain that I don't need to go to the movies to see more of it.

Take The Commitments. In the end, the band breaks up on the night of their big success. Why? Because they're Irish? I don't know. Because the screenwriter chose for them to break up. The movie would have been as emotionally truthful and as insightful and as dramatic with a happy ending. Perhaps the happy ending felt too "American," too Hollywood. But wanting to be cool and different isn't, I feel, a valid reason to pick a downer ending. Pick a downer ending if it is the logical outcome of the story, or if it goes with the territory. The Days of Wine and Roses or A Star is Born wouldn't work if everyone came out in good shape. But did the "up" ending of the theatrical cut of Bladerunner ruin the movie? I don't feel it did.

Darkness to me is about the absence of hope. To me, it's a perfectly good choice if that's where your head is at. Lots of people like their coffee black. But make sure despair isn't an emotional cop-out. Hope is much scarier than despair, if you think about it.

Everyone in Rome has hope; even Glabius goes down fighting.

So I'll keep watching.



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I've been rocketing through Season One of Rome. It's Shakespearean in its combination of personal drama and historical moment. As someone who's fond of reading history (and wishes there were more historical screenplays to write), I'm loving how modern the characters feel. It's a mistake to conceive of ancient people as archaic. At the time of Julius Caesar, the Romans were the most modern people in the West. They had discipline, and running water, and sewage systems. They had forceps. They were literate. They were religiously tolerant. They had social mobility, and no color line. They had a more coherent and effective society than anything after them in the region for a thousand years. An educated Roman of the republic could show up at an Upper West Side dinner party and fit in. A medieval couldn't.

And yet, they were different. They worshipped multiple gods. They weren't that uptight about sex. They cared what class you were born into. They considered suicide better than dishonor. The father had absolute ownership of his family and had the right to kill his wife and/or children if they disobeyed him. They ate dormice.

The history geek in me adores that the cavalry have no stirrups, so far as I could tell. Stirrups came later. (Without stirrups the cavalry functioned as fast moving infantry; they could not use lances effectively, and so were not the shock weapon they became later.) It's pretty hard core to get your actors up on horses without stirrups for the sake of historical accuracy.

And yet, they were people. The Romans loved their spouses and children and fought with their parents, cheated and lied and schemed just like people now.

I'm loving how the writers and producers have integrated good historical research into eternal human stories of ambition and lust and love and given us a portrait of another time that feels up to the moment.

This is just superb writing and directing. Excelsior!



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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I finally got my hands on Rome, Season One.

No unresolved diminished minor notes here. It's in C major, and it is magnificent.


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Lisa and I watched Broken Flowers last night, Jim Jarmusch's latest movie-of-awkward-pauses.

What I found remarkable was the extreme variation in the acting. The women were strong, vibrant characters with a definite point of view. Sharon Stone, in particular, was awesome. My lord, that girl can act. Meanwhile Bill Murray was doing a more listless version of his detached character in Lost in Translation. He's not mailing his performance in: he's working hard to give us as little as possible to go on.

I get that this is part of what certain audiences loved about the movie. You can make anything you like of Bill Murray's character. You can decide he's feeling deeply but expressing nothing. You can make him out to be clinically depressed. You can decide he doesn't feel anything. Impossible to say, really. What dreams may come when you sleepwalk through life.

There's a whole esthetic of unresolved melodies. There's Swing that wanders through the minor keys but winds up on a major chord, and Bop that might easily end up on a diminished minor seventh. (Side question: did Bop kill jazz as a popular music form, or did jazz people get excited about Bop because the mainstream audience had already moved on?)

Personally I find it more courageous to tell us what the character is feeling. I think that's a pretty important part of the story. To me, the reason I'd watch a movie like Broken Flowers is to understand a character who sleepwalks through life, so when I meet someone who's sleepwalking through real life, I feel I have some perspective on their experience. I think telling the story without a revelatory ending is a form of emotional cowardice.

I find it ironic that narrative artists are so often drawn to portraying characters with no ambition, or no ability to realize their ambition. Ironic, because if you're watching the movie, they've realized their ambition. Jim Jarmusch gets a movie made every two or three years, which is pretty good for an indie director who writes his own stuff. Obviously he is completely capable of getting off his couch; obviously he's passionate about his own life and work. What fascinates him about a guy who can't get off his couch without being prodded?

(Maybe it's that he has to fight to get off the couch, and to express his own emotion, and so he makes a cautionary tale for himself about someone who can't?)

You don't see the unresolved diminished minor chord endings on TV so much as you do in indie films. Maybe a bit on Showtime and HBO, in shows like Huff?

Anyway, it's an interesting film to watch. Sometimes the movies you like tell you less than the movies you don't like. And there's certainly enough in Broken Flowers to reward the watching.

Happy Boxing Day!


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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Emily Blake has a smart post on how to spec a House ep. In brief:

Step 1: figure out what the character stuff is about

Step 2: do your medical research on WebMD.

Notice the order! Character first. Every Buffy was about what was going on in Buffy's life, then what monster she faced. That's why the stories stayed fresh even when the monsters looked like giant sock puppets. Very few people can really follow the medicine on House anyway, so it better be about the character drama!



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These days you're probably going to a bunch of holiday gatherings. (If you're not, I sympathize. Time to submerge yourself in a spec!) And if you're like me, you're a bit shy about talking about your projects.

Most writers I know are shy observers, not outgoing salespeople -- that's why we're not agents and producers. Me, you'd never know I'm shy. Most people probably think of me as outgoing. I'm not really. I find it exhausting to go to large gatherings, even parties I throw myself where everyone's a friend. I find parties full of strangers almost painfully difficult, until I can find some people to talk to.

So if you're like me, you have a tendency to hide a bit. And if you're not making a living with your writing, it's particularly hard to talk about what you're writing. It's a little embarrassing to say you're writing your sixth spec feature, or a "House" spec that you hope will get you an agent.

But you'd be missing a huge opportunity to bounce your ideas off new ears.

I hope I never get tired of saying it: there is no single more useful technique for developing a good movie or TV story than to tell it to people out loud, off the cuff.

Many things happen when you tell a movie story or the plot of your new spec script out loud. You get to test how much it draws in an audience. You see how excited you actually are by the story -- does it keep your interest? Your listener may ask you questions and you can see where the story is too complicated or not well motivated enough. But most importantly, you get your story up off the page and alive. Every time you tell your story off the top of your head, you have a chance to tell it better -- or tell it worse -- to try it different ways. When it sits on the page, you may not notice the dead spots; your eyes will just blip over them. You won't be inclined to fix things that already work. But when you tell it to an actual human being at a party, you'll probably come up with new stuff every time.

A story told out loud is a living, growing thing. A script on the page is just a blueprint.

Also, this time of year, your listeners will be drunk. So will you, maybe. So you don't have to be embarrassed.

Next time you're at a party, tell people you're writing a script. Don't apologize -- everyone loves a good story. Don't ask them to judge it. Just tell them the story. You'll know if they dig it. You'll figure out how to make them dig it more.

And if no one digs it -- and you don't -- or you can't even figure out how to tell it -- maybe you should be working on something simpler, clearer and stronger.

Do this a lot. I guarantee your stories will get better.

Merry Chrismukkah!



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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I'm wondering what the effect of Daybreak's demise -- and the demise of other serial dramas -- will have on the trend towards serial drama. Lost, Desperate, Prison Break and 24 were all big hits and got renewed, so any audience member who got hooked in was rewarded. But this season came out with a whole slew of serial dramas that were all about slowly building to revelations. I'm not keeping track, so I don't know where Six Degrees or The Nine or that kidnapping drama went. But it's tough to get emotionally involved in a serial drama when you know you might get off from your fix -- forever. While an episodic drama like Medium doesn't require you to trust so much. You're getting satisfaction at the end of every episode; you tune back because you like the heroine and the premise. Rogers has blogged about how Jericho is very good at resolving something at the end of each episode, even if you're still dying to know what Robert Hawkins is up to and so forth.

Is the audience going to start feeling burned if a whole bunch of these brand new serials dies off? Will episodics go back into vogue? Or is it all about random reinforcement: we hope this one will be the one that gets renewed, so we let ourselves fall in love, and never mind the heartbreak?



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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Matt asks: what about William Goldman's adaptation of his book The Princess Bride? Pretty good, no?

I certainly wouldn't diss Goldman adapting his own work. And I'd add Michael Crichton's many adaptations of his own novels, e.g. Jurassic Park, which did OK at the box office as I recall. [He shared credit with David Koepp. Also created E.R.]

Of course a novelist can adapt his own book if he understands what a screenplay is. If the writer is familiar with both forms, it can work brilliantly. What's needed is for the writer to re-imagine his story in the new medium, which means giving up some of the beauties of the old medium.

It's usually pretty easy to spot an adaptation, even by a fresh screenwriter. There are scenes that play on their own without forwarding the plot. There are characters who seem important but don't justify their importance. I still go with Hitchcock's technique. Read the book once, or even a couple of times. Then put it down and write the script. Whatever you remember is probably important. Whatever you forget, probably isn't.


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Monday, December 18, 2006

Several people think Clive Cussler is right for sticking up for his vision of his novel Sahara as it was being adapted into a movie -- see the comments in my previous post. Here's why I don't agree.

a. It's clear from the article that Cussler has no clue what a screen adaptation entails. He's insisting that one character have black hair and green eyes, like in the novel. That may be important to Cussler, but it speaks worlds to me. Is Brad Pitt going to dye his hair black? Maybe not. Maybe he looks dumb in black hair. Should the producers have to ditch Brad Pitt over hair color? This kind of literal-minded attachment to specific details suggests to me that when Cussler is insisting that certain scenes stay in the movie, he's probably wrong about those, too.

b. I don't think selling ten million copies of your novel makes you an expert on screenwriting. Anne Rice has sold ten million copies. She was wrong to say Tom Cruise would make a lousy Lestat, and she had the grace to take out a full page ad saying so. Picasso was a great painter, but he would not necessarily have made a great motion picture production designer. (Yes, I know he did some nice sets for Diaghilev.) A novel is an entirely different beast than a screenplay, as anyone who's tried to adapt one into the other knows.

c. Features are not a writer's medium. They're just not. They're a director's medium. You want creative control as a writer, run a TV show. Or direct the feature yourself. (See Crichton, Michael.) And even then, it's not really creative control -- it's creative responsibility. The studio or network has creative control. It's their money. Should screenwriters have creative control of their movies? Sure, as soon as they start paying the tab for the production.

Personally, I think there are somewhere between very few to no people who ought to have total creative control of their movies. Woody Allen is a good argument for creative control. He writes and directs and edits, and he brings his films in on budget, so he can pretty much do what he likes. But I don't think he's made a movie as good as Annie Hall, which is about when he stopped working with co-writer Marshall Brickman. Creative collaboration is good. Does anyone thing George Lucas has made a movie as brilliant as Star Wars since then? I think he'd be a better producer/director if he had to satisfy at least one creative collaborator. And there are any number of disasters one can point to that resulted from someone attaining creative control who badly needs not to have it. Think Heaven's Gate. Think One From the Heart.

I think by and large, novelists write very bad adaptations of their own novels. They're bound to be attached to the novel's perspective. They're likely to be attached to scenes that work on their own but get in the way of the flow of the story. The process of adapting a novel is more akin to pillaging it for ideas, characters, and details than to a gentle pruning. The perspective often has to change. The ending often has to change. Characters merge. Subplots vanish.

I'm up for an adaptation right now. I believe I can make a good movie out of it. But the movie will be its own critter. It won't be the novelist's version of his story. It will be my -- and the director's and the producer's -- version of that story. If I had to run my pages past the novelist for approval, I'd be nuts to take the job.

Now, I agree the producers behaved atrociously. They're probably getting what they deserve for lying to absolutely everybody. And it's nice if once in a while, producers get held to the letter of their contracts. And it is completely their fault for giving Cussler creative approvals. And who's to say that Cussler's draft would have made a worse movie? (I have my suspicions, but who knows?)

But I don't think writers should be privileged. We have our own shortsightedness. It is easy enough to write things on the page that don't work on the screen, or miss opportunities that a director will spot. And that's part of the fun of writing for the screen, seeing what the director and the actors and the editor and the composer bring to the words you put on the page.


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Sunday, December 17, 2006

So, why did I decide to shoot a short film?

A bunch of reasons, really. Earlier in the year I wrote a fun little romantic comedy, and fell in love with the characters and the story so much that I'd like to direct it. And, it being a fun little romantic comedy, it can be made for the sort of budget that people are willing to risk on a first time feature director.

I directed a couple of student films back in film school, but it's been 16 years since then. In order to be taken seriously as a director, I really need to show people I can direct. So a short film is in order.

UCLA film school was all about being a writer director. When I got my MFA, though, I didn't feel it made sense to try being an indie writer-director. For one thing, the kind of scripts I was interested in writing were not frist-time writer-director films. Most of the spec features I've written have been big. The script that got me into film school was a vampire movie. My two favorite specs of mine until recently were an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey that started with the destruction of Troy, and an adaptation of Moby Dick set in space.

So I devoted myself to writing, figuring I'd keep writing scripts until I got good enough to write a script I could reasonably demand to direct. That took longer than I thought. As it turned out, it took 16 years. In fact I pretty well had myself convinced I didn't want to direct. (Especially since I moved largely into television, where the fun is all in being a writer-showrunner.)

Along comes this romantic comedy. And people seem pretty happy with the script. And it's all people talking in rooms, or in offices, or on the street. No car chases, no explosions, no special effects, no makeup effects, no stunts. 97 pages. And it's funny.

So a short film was in order.

I've learned a couple of things since doing my 27 minute 16 mm Oedipal drama at UCLA. One, don't do a 27-minute short film. No one really wants to see a 27 minute film. They want to see a short film. BravoFACT's limit is 6 minutes. That's a great length. If I'd had an idea for something 4 minutes long, I would have gone with that.

It may not, in fact, be much less trouble to make a six minute film than a 27 minute film, because the short I'm doing has nine locations -- about the same as my thesis film -- and a cast of 8 -- again, about the same. But it will have much more bang per minute.

I'm shooting on digital video tape, of course, not 16mm. Film is a pain. It's expensive too shoot, expensive to print, expensive to do special effects in, and expensive to make copies of. Multiple takes cost you more money. It's less friendly in low light conditions. You have to wait to get your dailies back -- that's why they call them dailies. When I did my student film, of course, tape was nowhere near as good as it is now.

FOR THE SHORT FILM?? We had some debate about whether to go HD -- a high def camera costs $1500 a day -- or HDV -- which I can rent from a friend for $100 a day. I chose HDV. I'd rather spend the money on paying the crew. On a medium-to-small screen, it's hard enough to tell HD from HDV unless you're a cinematographer. And 90% of the industry people who see it are going to watch it on DVD or the Internet. They'll judge the film by how well it tells a story -- how convincing the actors are, and how well I choose where to put and how to move the camera. Sound design and music will be critical, though if they're good no one will mention them. Bad sound design makes a good film look cheap, and bad music wrecks the mood.

My student film was trying to be poignant. This short is looking to be funny. Everyone wants to see something funny. Especially if it's short.

My student film had one visual style. A boring one. This film is going to be a series of comic vignettes -- which gives me a chance to show off a series of visual styles. If you think about how commercials can tell a story in 30 seconds, six minutes is a lifetime. We're going to have a flat, propaganda-picture style followed by handheld doc-style camerawork followed by highly composed and lit four shots followed by a steadicam tracking shot followed by an elaborate "fluid master." One of the reasons I picked the material I did was it gave me an excuse to show off different styles.

I also picked material -- I'm adapting a chapter from a bestselling Canadian humor book -- I thought might appeal to the funding agencies. With a student film, you're getting your equipment free. Your crew is working for free. On my student film the actors were free. My main expenses were film stock and food. On a short film, you're renting your equipment. You can ask the crew to work for cheap, but not free. I'm paying my actors ACTRA independent-film scale. We've got a budget of $40,000 and change. I'm not looking to pay for that myself. So, we're applying for grants from the BravoFACT program and the Quebec cultural agency, SODEC, with post production support from the National Film Board. You want to be going to them with something they can be proud to fund, that fulfills their mandate. Our subject matter is a unique aspect of Canadian culture. By making fun of it, we're appealing to a wide audience while at the same time giving the cultural moguls a reason to support us.

Of course, we'll see if they see it that way

Being a free lance creative is all about pursuing options. If you're not busy working, you want to be opening doors. If you've tugged at all the writing doors, look at what else you could do to add value. Produce? Direct? I have TV projects out there and feature projects. With a bunch of TV projects looking good, but not actually going yet, and the same with a bunch of feature projects, it seemed time to try something else. Like a short. While I'm waiting for funding to come in on the short, I'll come up with some more tv projects, and possibly arrange a staged reading of my romantic comedy. It's all about irons in the fire.

Irons in the fire also mean that you always have a positive story to tell. It means you're not calling producers to see if they've read your script yet. Instead, when they call you and ask "what have you been up to?" you can tell them a fun story that has nothing to do with the project you have with them.They'll be much more anxious to work with you if they feel you've got a lot of stuff going on. And they will be less likely to ask you to write for free, or accept a bad deal, when they know you've got a lot of things going on.

The beautiful thing about being a writer is you don't need anyone's permission or commission to write. You can always write the next thing. Directors need material and money. Actors need material and a director. Writers need a computer. Writers who want to direct need a computer and a DV camera.

Aside from writing that spec script, what other projects do you have going? What could you get going with the resources you have? Let us know where you're at in the comments below.



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Kids, don't give the novelist approval of your script adaptation. Especially if he's a self-important jackass.


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Saturday, December 16, 2006

There are excellent books on acting, and a few good ones on directing actors, such as I'll Be In My Trailer by John Badham and Craig Modderno. There isn't room in this blog for everything you want to know about directing actors, and I'm not the best person to tell you. Nor can anyone tell you everything you need to know -- probably the best thing is to take an acting class. I learned quite a bit about writing and directing from my two years at the Joanne Baron Studio training in, and observing, Meisner technique. An acting class gives you a sense of what actors are going through, and a vocabulary for speaking to actors, that will separate you from the "shooters."

But I can tell you a few things about auditions.

First of all, put your actors at ease. You may be nervous. You haven't directed before, perhaps. You might be feeling bad that you're having 27 professional actors show up to audition for 5 parts you're paying bupkis for. (In Canada, ACTRA will cut its scale way down for low-budget independent productions; SAG probably has similar reules.) You might be inclined to overcompensate by being all high-and-mighty with the actors, to establish your position. On my first student film, I wanted to see what the actors would look like in studio lighting, so I basically had lamps shining in their faces during the audition. Don't do that. Be warm and friendly and put them at their ease.

Have your auditions in a neutral place. Don't ask actors to come to your house if you can avoid it. We were fortunate to have gracious permission from Galafilm's head to audition in his conference room. No actor's going to mind coming to a production company's offices, y'know?

Tape your auditions. Get a cheap consumer mini-DV camera. What the actor looks like in person, how his or her performance reads in the room, may not translate to the screen. They may be better or worse on camera. Some actors look younger on screen. Some look older. Someone who seemed to be underplaying in the room may turn out to have perfectly calibrated his performance for the screen.

More importantly, you can't remember everyone's performance. You'll want to go back and look at the auditions several times, as you narrow down your choices. Can't do that if you haven't taped it.

Be sure to put the camera where you can see the actor's whole face! No use having it off to one side!

But, don't you be the person running the camera. You should be watching the actor. Have a friend keep the actor in frame. Also, don't be the one running lines. Have a second friend read lines with the actor. You want to be totally focused on the actor's performance, not worried about what your next line is. I had great help from our associate producer, Laurie Nyveen, and my wife, Lisa.

Don't give any direction for the first take. You want to see what the actor's instincts bring you. They may surprise you. They may get it completely wrong. They may nail it.

Compliment every take! Auditions make everyone nervous. A nervous actor isn't showing you what he can do. Compliments help make the nerves go away.

Now give the actor an adjustment. Don't ask for a result -- "faster!" or "snottier" -- but give the actor an imaginative "as if" adjustment for his next performance: "try this one as if you're illegally parked" or "as if you think she's an idiot." Try not to overload too many adjustments at once.

Try giving the actor a completely different adjustment. I had a scene where the character apologizes. I asked my actors "try this one as if you think you really were wrong," then "try this one as if you think she's overreacting." See how well they integrate your directions.

A cold read can tell you about actors' instincts, and that's valuable. But you need to know how well they take direction. Skilled actors are like dancers, but their footwork is emotional. It's always amazing to me to see a choreographer give dancers some footwork, and the dancers replicate it right away. I couldn't even master The Hustle, myself. Forget the Macarena. Good actors will take your direction and give it back to you beautifully integrated into their performance.

You can add adjustments one at a time: "try it as if you think she's an idiot." "Okay, now try it as if you think she's an idiot, but she's hot."

Casting isn't just a cold reading. I once had the pleasure to direct Mariska Hargitay in a scene for class. I've directed actors who came in with better first readings. But I've never seen anyone who could interpret and integrate a direction more naturally. You need to know what they're going to be like when you direct them. There was at least one actor I thought was very good, but I felt my directions weren't reaching him. I opted to go with someone else, because I need to know I can direct my cast.

I try to leave enough time to take everyone to the point where I feel they've given it their best shot, or I'm sure I don't want them. On one of our auditions, I let someone go but I had a nagging sense I hadn't got everything he could give. So I opened the window and shouted down to him on the street to come back in. Don't be embarrassed -- what actor doesn't want to be called back in? His second performance (after I asked him to run up and down some stairs) was much more effective. We wound up casting him -- which I couldn't have done based on his first audition. Don't be embarrassed to ask, "How do you feel? Was that good for you?" Actors often know if they can do better. Sometimes they're wrong, but it's usually worth another take to find out.

Take your time casting! Casting is easily half the job of directing your actors. And casting is free! There's no crew. You have no obligation to pay or even feed your cast during auditions. I've never heard of anyone spending too long auditioning their cast. But there are any number of disaster stories about directors who hired actor friends without auditions and regretted it.

And finally, remember: have fun! You get to hear your script come to life a bunch of different ways. What's more fun than that?



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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Toronto Star columnist Vinay Menon writes up All a TV Writer Wants for Christmas, with an incredibly flattering compliment for Yours Truly at #24...


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Our package is off to Bravo!FACT. I think we came up with a really strong, funny cast. I'm really looking forward to directing this thing in the Spring, if, Lord willing, we get our funding. (We'll find out in March.)

Tonight and tomorrow it's a bunch of Chrismukkah parties, then off to New York for R&R. Nothing happens in showbiz until the New Year, so time to work on your specs!


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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Q. When speccing an episode of an existing show, should you make reference to past characters and episodes or keep it self-contained?
Keep it as self contained as possible. The people reading you will hopefully know the characters and the general premise, but you can't count on them to be fans who know the show cold. The more you can come up with a plot that works on its own, while still convincing us it's a "lost episode of the show," the better. Not easy, but that's the needle you have to thread.
Q. Is it unwise to spec a show from across the pond? Say, a Doctor Who or a Torchwood? Is it any better to do a North American show that isn't a blockbuster, like Dexter? I guess the real question I'm asking is: how important is it that the person reading the script has actually seen the show it's based on?
Totally important. The point of a spec is to show you can write someone else's show. If I haven't seen the show you wrote, how do I know if you nailed it or not?

If you're American, spec an American show. If you're a Brit, spec a pilot for an original British show. [See David Bishop's comment below.]

If you're Canadian ... you may as well spec an American show. There's no downside, and you can't use your Slings & Arrows or Corner Gas south of the border.



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Monday, December 11, 2006

Today we had auditions. Imagine your script re-imagined by two dozen people, each of whom bring their own humanity, skills and talent to the parts. Yes, it's that much fun.

Also, some of our actors were hysterical. We were bursting into laughter at the end of the take.

What was particularly thrilling was getting to direct the actors, and trying to find imaginative circumstances to give them that would provoke a reading closer to what I imagine the scene to be. (You don't want to just ask for the result you want, or you don't harness the actor's humanity or imagination; you just get a mimic.)

We have some roles already nailed down, and great candidates for the others.

Tomorrow we'll look at the tapes we made. People look differently onscreen than they do in person. Actors often look much better onscreen than off.

Storyboards are moving along nicely from our storyboard artist. We're looking at d.p. reels. We have a great candidate for a composer. It's coming together. It will be frustrating to ship our package off to the funding agencies and then wait three months to hear. But then, it's already the dead of winter, and we wouldn't want to be shooting outdoors next month anyway.

Meanwhile nothing much is happening on any other front. It's the time of year when showbiz wraps up its biz. No one's really taking on new projects. I'm revising an old spec feature, and working on TV pitches for next year. Nice thing about being a writer: you can always write. You may not get paid for it, but you can always write.


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Q. As a writer that has not had anything produced and has only written on spec, is there any value at all to mentioning completed but unproduced screenplays in, say, a grant application?
Ordinarily I would say no. The only things that go on a resume are things you've been paid for, and anything that's been produced. (So unproduced commissioned scripts, and produced freebies like student short films, both count.) The best things, of course, are produced things you've been paid for.

But if all you have is unproduced scripts, and you're applying for grants, then put your unproduced scripts on the application. It's better than leaving it blank! At least it shows you've been doing what you can.

With the IMDB, people less often ask for one's resume. But it's good to keep yours current. I like to keep my resume one page long. As I add new credits, I drop the less impressive stuff off. Ten years ago, I had some of my student films on the ol' resume. Fifteen years ago, I had all of them. I recently dropped the commissioned rewrites that didn't have directors attached; one day, Lord willing, I'll drop off all the unproduced stuff.

Resumes are not as important to writing jobs as writing samples. If an agent sends me a script and a resume, I'll look at the script first. I only care about experience when it's a question of a TV staffing job, and I want to know if someone can take the heat.

In the mean time, go work on some student and indie short films in various capacities so you have something to put on your next grant app! (Like, for example, mine!)


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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Q. I'm a snarky female writer with a produced TV movie looking to do my first spec script. I know the go to show is Grey's Anatomy, but I hate it! Should I go with The Office, Ugly Betty, or New Adventures of Old Christine?
Yes, Virginia, I hate Grey's Anatomy too.

I'm going to say The Office 'cause it's a hip show, and it's done multiple seasons, even if short ones. Christine is your basic sitcom and it's very hard to crack the sitcom market with all the unemployed sitcom writers hanging around. Ugly Betty is the one to watch, I think. But it's always risky to spec a show in its first season.

I should point out, on the other hand, that Betty is an hour and The Office is half an hour. The question is, which do you want to write? Betty will not get you a job on a sitcom. The Office miiiiight get you a job on a drama. In either case they're probably going to want to see a second spec that's actually in the format you're trying to get hired on.


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Friday, December 08, 2006

Macleans magazine has a nice article about Lisa's book.

If you think showbiz is a rough business, try publishing. It's just as iffy as showbiz, but you make so much less money. Just selling your book is not enough. You have to convince your publisher to really support it. For example, Random House Canada assigned a publicist in Toronto and hired a free lancer in Montreal. Result: articles in Macleans, the Gazette, the Globe and Mail, etc. Random House in New York has just arranged for every bookstore in Miami to display her book during ArtBasel Miami, a huge art festival there.

It doesn't always happen like that. With the rapid turnover of editors and publicists, it's easy for you to lose the editor that was passionate enough to buy your book, and wind up with someone who's less motivated to promote a book that someone else bought.


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Joel Levin at Final Draft asked me what I want in Final Draft 8, which they're now designing. I want to be able to print script notes on the facing pages, like I can in Movie Magic Screenwriter. What do you want Final Draft 8 to be able to do? (Aside from "not crash." They know that. And 7.1.3 is pretty stable.)


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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sorry I've been silent. We're putting together an application for BravoFACT to fund our comedy short, and that means we need all our ducks in a row. Not just a script and a budget, but department heads and all the roles cast. Normally you wouldn't cast anything but leads before funding, but they want to know that if they approve you, you're ready to go.

Casting is your most important job as a director. If you cast right, you can do no directing for the rest of the production and you'll still be okay. (Not great, but okay.) Thing is, headshots tell you oh so little. You don't get much of a sense of a person from a headshot. You can tell if someone's inexperienced, but what if they're inexperienced but good? Some agencies are good enough to put people's reels online. This saves everyone a ton of time. I can tell in a minute or two if I'm interested in someone. If they've got it, I'm drawn in. If not, I drift. Of course, the agencies might not want you to tell in a minute or two that you're not interested!

Casting is scary, because you can screw your whole movie up. It's also fun, because when you find the right person, your lines come alive. Sometimes the actor finds something in them that you didn't know was there. That's a joy.

I have a feeling this is going to be a funny, funny piece. If we get the money, yo.


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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

We're putting together a team for the 6-minute comedy short I hope to be shooting here in Montreal in April. Application needs to be in next week. If you or someone you love would like to be considered as a director of photography or composer, please get me a reel pronto. The d.p. needs to be Montreal-based, obviously; the composer should be Canadian but could be living anywhere. Contact me at craftyscreenwriting at gmail dot com. Thanks!


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Monday, December 04, 2006

Q. When is it too early to write a spec script? It seems that with the popularity (that I saw) of West Wing specs, people would be in a rush to start churning out Studio 60 specs as well. But is it too early? Should a writer wait for a show to get legs firmly underneath it and become established, or do we just take what we have now and run with it? As you've noted, the show has turned to more worthwhile themes for the viewers in the way of personal conflicts, and we are a bit more accustomed to each character's voice, so it seems mature enough to move forward.
The received wisdom seems to be that you should never spec a first season show. The risk is just too high it will not get picked up for a second season, and then your spec is no good.

On the other hand, I believe by this time last year people were speccing Desperate Housewives. Though how they did it, I can't imagine, with the serial plot line.

If you're willing to take a gamble, you could spec a Studio 60, knowing that at least it's been picked up for the rest of the season. That means it will still be on the air for next staffing season. (And given how awesome last night's episode was, I'm guessing it will get picked up.) Also in the case of S60, you know that everyone in showbiz has tuned in at least once and probably several times. It would be riskier to spec a Friday Night Lights, even though that got picked up, too, because it's not everyone's cup o' tea. A lot of people have the "yeah, it's good, but it's not my bag" thing. You might be safe with Ugly Betty, too. Or Heroes.

The safest thing is still to call agents' assistants and ask politely if they (the assistant) are willing to tell you what their clients are speccing. But if there are only a few shows you're passionate about, I'd say passion is the way to go. I'd spec a Studio 60, knowing it's risky, because I love it, before I'd spec a Battlestar, because I just don't get Battlestar. Your mileage will vary.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

We're doing funding applications for a six minute comedy short I hope to direct next year, and the funding people would like to see storyboards.

Would any of you like to do storyboards for a short film? No pay up front, but there could be an honorarium if and when we're funded, and of course you get a nice credit and the experience. The camerawork is not that intricate (it's a comedy), so it wouldn't be too many pages of storyboards. Email me at crafty at b2b2c dot ca if you're interested. Thanks!


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Friday, December 01, 2006

They're charging $50 for Bon Cop Bad Cop at But will sell it to you for less than $25! Should get to you just a little bit too late for Christmas. New Year's present, anyone?



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I need some weird party conversation. Preferably weird hipster party conversation. Definitely not geekfest party conversation and way definitely not weird screenwriter party conversation.

So, here's the contest! Please leave your weirdest / most memorable party conversation in the comments, or if it's too embarrassing, email it to me. If I use it, I'll send you a signed copy of your choice of my books. Or name a character after you. Your choice.


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This afternoon I am in the lounge of Toronto's Union Station, waiting for the 5 pm train. I've been making the pilgrimage to Toronto a lot lately, but this has been one of my most focused trips. I went to Telefilm twice to pitch movie projects with some very classy producers. I met with one of Canada's top production companies and one of our top actors who likes one of my projects. (And he's perfect for the part, too. Which don't always go together.) And I got to answer a lot of questions for the current CFC Prime Time TV class. That was fun.

Here's hoping some of these meetings bear fruit.



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