Friday, December 3, 2010

you are going to die

Essentially every movie is about mortality. I mentioned in a previous post that when a movie is working it is an answer to the question, "how do I live my life?" Well, put another way, a good movie (in my opinion) is about a character figuring something important out before it's too late. All genres, all tones, it's about figuring out that thing that is keeping them from living fully (and if it goes on and on like this, will probably kill them). Kill being literal or figurative, but for sure literal is better. Bigger stakes, better story. That whole thing.
I think people get too wrapped up in plot. Clever plots, contrived plots, plots that serve a device or a joke rather than character driven plot. I've seen writers contort their characters into crazy positions just to make sure they hit a plot point. They're all twisted up like a balloon animal and then invariably the note comes back, "it doesn't feel real." Well of course not. We're creatures who take the path of least resistance. People don't do weird convoluted things for no reason. Who has the time?
For example, pretty much every bad horror film has a scene where a character goes into the basement despite all kinds of overwhelming evidence that they SHOULD NOT GO IN THE BASEMENT. We know it's fake. We know no one would do that. They'd get the eff out of there. But if they don't go down there then the movie is over. So the trick is getting them to go into the basement without it seeming like a bad decision to the character and maybe even the audience, too. So how do you do that? You tie it all into some essential need that the character has. There's some part of them that has to go into the basement.
It's their motivation. Motivation needs to be true and universally understood. "They all will think I'm a pussy if I don't go down in the basement. I'll show them. I'll show Brad -- he thinks he's so cool. I see the way Sarah's looking at him. I'll show her, too. I'm fucking doing this. There's nothing down there -- these stories about the basement being a portal to hell, they're just bullshit dreamed up to scare people." And off he goes -- he's motivated to prove his courage to those who doubt him and win back the affection of the girl he thinks he's lost. Poor guy. The basement is a portal to hell. Pride goeth before a fall. A lesson learned, sadly too late. That's usually how horror films work. So in another genre, you might let your character off the hook. They get off with a warning. They learn the lesson before it's too late.
Getting slightly tangential I heard something yesterday that I thought was quite fascinating. Male archetypes typically go on a journey to discover their true self. Female archetypes typically are forced to make a difficult choice between two things. I spoke with a friend of mine who was a womens study major about this. She says it's true and totally sexist. Women are typically shown having to choose between two guys (Twilight, I'm looking in your direction). Whereas men are allowed to discover their true self. (The Other Guys). I think Legally Blonde and The House Bunny are two examples of a female archetype discovering her true self. While both had "the guy" sub-plots, they were more about female empowerment. Of course, my friend hated those movies for other reasons of sexism so, you know, you can't win.
You are going to die. I'll tell you, the month I've had this message has been loud and clear. Go watch Harold and Maude, it will tell you everything you need to know in answer to the question, "how do I live my life now?"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

web fest 2010

Every year I ask the students in my comedy workshop to send me links to the web content they find interesting, amusing, different. There's so much good stuff out there, mixed in with an even huger dose of crapola. With that in mind, and a reminder, comedy is subjective, our annual line up:

Here are my current faves that aren't between two ferns:

Monday, November 1, 2010

lives of silent desperation

I had this idea for an assignment after reading that 90% of all office workers despise their jobs. Not just dislike but DESPISE. That is a deeply held emotion. No wonder there are so many stress related illnesses in this country.  So here's the assignment. Using the avatars at the writers (in teams of 2) had 2 hours to come up with an office scenario, drawing on personal experience, that got at the heart of being in a place that makes you miserable. I didn't want jokes, I wanted emotion. I wanted it to convey that "death by a thousand cuts" that is the grinding day to day for so many people. Here are the results.

Friday, October 29, 2010

ars moriendi

I heard this quote last week, "A story, when it's working well, is an answer to the question 'how should I live my life.'" It's a pretty elegant way of summing up all the do's and don'ts of screenwriting. I should mention that this entry is a bit of an experiment. Last month I had back surgery and I woke up this morning with a nasty back ache -- something that I thought was a part of the past. Anyhow, long story short, my doctor says it's most likely a muscle spasm due to all the coughing and sneezing of my recent cold and he's prescribed Valium as a muscle relaxant. I'm on it right this instant! It's fabulous. This, however is not an answer to the question how should I live my life now. This is what I call "the damage."

Every protagonist, at the start of their journey has some sort of "damage" that will be healed over the course of the journey. My damage, my latest medical catastrophe, is symptomatic of some sort of personal ambition for thrill seeking that drives me to take physical risks that often result in injury.

For example: Age 12, I thought it would be fun to ride on a pump-jack. (That's one of those pumps one sees in oil fields that looks kind of like a horse with a bobbing head.) Anyhow, it was not fun -- especially when I fell off and nearly lost my right leg in the gear mechanisms that power the hydraulics.

Or at age 20 when I thought it would be fun to go for a walk in my old neighborhood at 1 in the morning.  Anyone can tell you that Miami is not safe. You'd be safer in downtown Tehran wearing a star of David bikini and gay pride rainbow tube top. Anyhow, I wound up getting stabbed a bunch of times.

Or at 38 when I got really into bicycling and decided that it would be reasonable to replace my car with a really fast road bike. Guess how that worked out.

Or most recently when I thought I'd get back in shape following the two years of recovery from the massive fracture of my left arm only to throw out my back at the gym which resulted in me having to have surgery to fix a herniated disc.

So the question is, if my damage is I'm this person who keeps chasing after some kind of ideal, but in the process keeps hurting himself, how am I supposed to live my life now?  What's the movie that I need to see that answers this question. I'm thinking it's "The Wrestler" but I don't really like how that ended for him. Doomed to die a death of a thousand cuts (a dead end job and a withering of his dreams) or go out in a blaze of glory.  Are my only options that bleak?

So what's your damage and who do you need to be to be whole again or for the first time? So often the answer is not what you want, but what you need.

The Wrestler need not go out in a blaze of glory were he willing to dig in and make some fundamental life changes. Like he'd have to go to a bunch of therapy and maybe take up pilates or some kind of meditation practice. Given time he might repair some of the damage with his daughter. He might come to respect himself enough to seek appropriate relationships from emotionally available women.  But that movie sounds really boring.

I guess for me to live out that kind of movie, I'd have to re-evaluate my notion of boring.  Is it possible to make "healthy" interesting?

Yeah. My other favorite film of late "The Savages" is all about that. It's about a woman on a self destructive path who in dealing with her dying father comes to a new understanding about the significance of her life.  She learns to love herself as is -- not a super successful playwright but rather a temp who is able to put on a play in a community theater space.  Not the desired woman of a distant lover, but the owner of an affectionate and loyal dog. No longer seeking the love of a father who will never be capable of appreciating her, but accepting of love from her true friends and family. So in that regard, "healthy" can be interesting.

A story, when it is working, is an answer to the question, "how do I live my life now?"

Friday, October 1, 2010

webisodes rolling in

More and more of my former students are taking production into their own hands and creating content for the web. I'm a big supporter of these efforts because they pay off in several ways. First they have creative satisfaction. They're making new work and seeing it fully realized as opposed to writing a script that may or may not ever see the light of day. Secondly they're learning about storytelling. Things that work on the page don't always work out in production. With these types of undertakings you can always go back and get a quick pick up shot -- and in the process you understand that much more about the transition from script to screen so that the next script will be that much stronger. The last thing is, posting something on youtube is the modern version of the query letter. A number of filmmakers have told me that they have had way more industry opportunities come from some five minute short they made for $30 and a pizza than the thesis film they spent $50K on in grad school.

So, from the class of 2010, The Parking Spot.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Comedy Workshop: Soundtrack Challenge

This year I've decided to get away from spec scripts as much as possible and center the workshop on making original material. I had a conversation with my agent that pretty much confirmed my suspicions about the usefulness of writing a spec half hour of a current show in the hopes of getting on staff. Show runners are looking at original material, stand up routines, online content and features for staff writers. So for now we get to have a lot more fun.

This week I had the writers form teams and I gave each team a 2 minute video clip to record a new soundtrack. I gave them a one hour time limit to complete the challenge. Here are the decidedly NOT SAFE FOR WORK results.  Former students may recognize some of these titles from Movie Night.

Team One: From the film "Alice, Sweet Alice."

Team Two: From the film "Susan Slade."

Team Three (AKA Team Ignorant): From the film "Lady in a Cage."

Friday, September 3, 2010

keeping it real

Empathy is the key to being a good writer.  I've read plenty of stuff from writers that was clever, that had good jokes, cool action sequences or great images but if it's lacking empathy for the characters it always falls flat. In screenwriting instruction for some reason there's not as much emphasis put on empathy as there is on "the rules." You know those rules, "no voice over, no flashback... etc." Empathy should be the one and only rule. If you don't care, we don't care. Developing empathy and getting it on the page takes time to do but it's worth the effort. First of all you have to honestly ask yourself, "how would it feel if..." moment by moment through your story. How would it feel if a recently dumped guy who hasn't been able to get hold of the direction of his life ran into his ex-girlfriend while buying comfort food? The quick answer is "shitty" but we're not looking for quick. We're looking for a way to dramatize those feelings. To explore as much of it as deeply as possible.
We've started the semester at AFI and the students are making their first short films. So I've been reviewing scripts and working with teams to make sure they have a really polished draft before they go into production. I've read the first drafts and they're all like first drafts should be -- not perfect.  Sometimes you've just got to write a draft of the script in order to understand the story -- but for a rewrite, I don't think jumping right into the next draft is always helpful. Particularly if the team hasn't figured out exactly what they want out of that second draft.  It's time for an expanded outline that includes a scene by scene exploration of the subtext.  Of course to write the subtext, you've got to have empathy.
So a scene that could be described in terms of plot, "He goes to the 7-11 and runs into his ex-girlfriend" gets expanded to include all the "interior" stuff. There she is, looking better than ever and she's with her friends. And him? He's got a giant Kit-Kat in his hand, childish and well -- he's not getting any skinnier. She's the one he thought he might marry. He hasn't told his parents  yet and they love her -- he suspects they love her a little  more than him. At first he hopes maybe she didn't see him, he's almost out the door when she calls out to him, "Jerry?" Shit. How is he going to get out of this with his dignity intact? He tries to act nonchalant, waves in a way that is both erratic and effeminate. She's going out -- one of her friends has a connection to get into the extra, extra VIP club in the W. What's he up to? Isn't it obvious, he's wearing his high school sweatpants he referred to as his "eating clothes." He makes up some absurd story about his grandiose plans for the evening and slips out the door. She knows he's lied to her but is too embarrassed for him to challenge the lie.
Explore it in Word before you explore it in Final Draft.  Something about writing prose seems to free the writer from having to figure out the exact dialogue, the exact descriptions and allows them to empathize with the character.  Empathy is key here -- feeling the real and honest emotions of your character, moment to moment -- not letting the plot drive the story, but putting the needs and feelings of your character up front so you discover what you need to do next.