Tuesday, May 26, 2009

opportunity fellowships

My former student Gil McDonald put together a list of fellowships that he applied for. I have copied them below for your reference. I love these kinds of things- contests and the like. Even if you don't get them they force you to rethink your application materials (usually a script)

CBS Writers Mentoring Program:

The Writers Mentoring Program is not employment and there is no monetary compensation. It is, instead, a structured program of career development, support, and personal access to executives and decision-making processes, with the goal of preparing aspiring writers for later employment opportunities in television.

Each participant will be teamed with two different mentors.
  • One is a show mentor who is a senior-level writer on a current CBS drama or comedy series. This relationship builds over the course of the Program and is focused on helping the participant with creative feedback on their writing as well as help and advice on career goals.
  • The other is a CBS network or studio executive with whom they will meet on a regular basis, to discuss their work, get creative feedback on their material and get advice and support in furthering their career.
Once a week, participants will be invited to attend a small workshop-style meeting with various CBS show runners and other industry professionals. Speakers include executive producers, agents, managers, development and current executives and others. The purpose of these gatherings is for participants to gain a better understanding of how the business works from many different perspectives as well as creating the opportunity to make critical networking connections.

WB Writing Program:

For over 30 years, the Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop has been the premier writing program for new writers looking to start and further their career in the world of television. The list of graduates who have gone on to do great things is long: Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Felicia Henderson (Soul Food) to name a few. Every year, the Workshop selects up to 10 participants out of almost 1,000 submissions and exposes them to Warner Bros. Television’s top writers and executives, all with the ultimate goal of earning them a staff position on a Warner Bros.

ABC Disney Fellowship:

Fellows become employees of Disney | ABC Television Group and will be paid a weekly salary of $961.54 ($50,000.00 annualized) plus any applicable benefits for which they are eligible in accordance with the then-current Company benefits plans. The program is designed to expose aspiring writers to key executives, producers and literary representatives – all essential in the pursuit of a writing career. Additionally, while in the program, fellows have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a current programming or development executive to create spec scripts of series from the current broadcast season. The ultimate goal is to prepare and nurture the fellows for a writing career.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

heart attack

I've long had this upsetting theory that shows like Two And A Half Men and movies like Click work because they're mediocre. Like, maybe being crappy enough is the key. Is that the problem? But no, we've all written crappy scripts. That's not how it works. Plus, you can't fake mediocrity as I like to say. John Waters says, "I tried to sell out but nobody was buying."
I had drinks with an executive last week and I asked her about this. The Click phenomenon. What makes Click, click? She said it's heart. Heart being shorthand for deep emotional content. We go to movies to feel something. What she said is basically; it doesn't matter if the script is good or bad so long as it has heart. Curious. And the reality is heart is not easy to do. I've been writing for fifteen years, I've been teaching for five and heart is not easy to do. So... what does this mean? That Click isn't a bad movie? Sort of. It's not my thing. The concept feels vulgar and insulting to my intelligence. But I'm almost certain that if I watched it I'd feel something at the end. No, not rage, but that choked up feeling. How do I know? Because I watched the similarly retarded Ghost Town on an airplane, half paying attention, headphones askew, in a Xanax fog and at the end of that film I felt choked up by the resolution. WTF!? Ghost Town! I know!
The fact is, the writers of Ghost Town achieved the ever elusive heart. The fact that they had a clear marketable concept and perhaps a couple of major actors attached helped, but it's the heart of the thing that turns those red lights green.
So how do you get heart into your script? That is not an easy question to answer. It takes skill, craft, luck and an eye for emotional detail. It takes sensitivity, life experience, a willingness to suspend cynicism and world weary pretense. It takes effort and hard work won through trial and error. It will not be easy. Get to work!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

book report

I just got my copy of "Elephant Bucks" from Amazon. I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet, though it comes highly recommended.  It's by Sheldon Bull, a 30 year veteran of sit-com writing. It arrives at an interesting time; I was reading an article today about how TV is facing a crisis moment as Internet distribution takes off. Cable companies are demanding that studios not release their shows to the web but then if the studios don't, fans with time on their hands will. Bit of a Catch 22.
Anyone with eyes in their head can see what's coming; people want to watch what they want, when they want, on any platform possible. Resistance is futile.
All that to say, I actually think now is a great time to develop CHEAP content for television. Run a multi-cam show out of your living room for fun and profit.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

dressed in sheep's clothing

So this week we took a look at RAIN from 1932 based on the Somerset Maugham short story of the same name. It's funny, I had always viewed this as a pretty tense classic with exciting character details and an interesting message. Yeah, it's got a couple of big holes in it, namely Sadie's religious conversion and de-conversion happening in the blink of an eye. And the preacher character is two dimensional though probably historically accurate. Apparently though, not so much of a hit with the class. I'll admit to a stereotypical fascination with Ms. Crawford, though I am not currently in possession of any postcards or memorabilia. Mommy Dearest ran in heavy rotation on The Movie Channel in the 1980's and was my after-school viewing of choice. So there's that- I'm predisposed to like this film.
But my real reason for showing it was to focus on the antagonist. He has the qualities that a good antagonist should have in order to push your protagonist to a place of change.
First off, the antagonist has society on his side. He or she should be someone who is above reproach. In the conventional sense this means, bosses, tycoons, religious leaders, teacher, parents, kings, politicians of all sorts people in power. But it can also be queen bees of the high school (Mean Girls) or the top of a subculture (mob bosses, video game fanatics). Whoever they are, they're at the top of the food chain in their society and society says they are right.
Your antagonist should think they are the hero of the story. They're doing this for the greater good in their mind. And we should kind of, almost, sort of see their point. They're just trying to preserve the order of things. They may or may not be aware of their selfish reasons, but most likely the way they see it, the protagonist is the real threat. In some cases, like Rain, they believe they're taking their orders from God.
Your antagonist though, will have a fatal flaw; they're not pure of heart. This is what allows the hero to win. In romantic comedies the way this works is "the other guy" that the girl has fallen for generally just wants to get into her pants (or some other variation of exploitation). Our hero is pure of heart, he LOVES her and it is this pure love that allows him to win in the end. It is the lack of a pure heart that always leads your antagonist to see who they truly are and in that moment of realization they are weak and can be destroyed. In Training Day the Denzel Washington character visits the housing project he has terrorized for all these years only to discover that without his power the people no longer fear him. He is shown his true self and forced to flee. Vulnerable, he is trapped in a web he has spun himself, gunned down on his way to the airport. And this is an important detail; most likely your protagonist does not have to kill the antagonist; they only have to show them who they truly are. The antagonist, so horrified by their true identity will self destruct. As it is in Rain where the Preacher, after presumably raping Sadie, can't live with himself and wanders out into the ocean and cuts his own throat. Good times!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

home sweet home

This week we took a look at Junebug, a personal favorite but also a good example of what is known as the "Co-Protagonist." In Junebug Madeline (on the left) goes home to North Carolina with her husband. There she meets Ashley (on the right) and the two strike up a sort of unlikely friendship. The co-protagonist is the sort of character most often seen in "buddy pictures" and that could mean everything from "The Sure Thing" to "Lethal Weapon." The key role of your co-protagonist is to show the protagonist an alternate way. Up to this point the protagonist has been getting by with a malfunctioning sense of self or the world. In Madeline's case she's a somewhat career obsessed art dealer who has distant and breezy relationships with those around her. We get the sense that her family life was somewhat cold and that she's never had a deep love life up to this point. She's lukewarm on the idea of having children (which is fine - but for her it's more of an emotional issue in that she doesn't have the capacity for loving a child).
Ashley on the other hand, is not at all worldly or even all that well educated, but she knows love. She knows how to be a good friend. She knows how to treat people around her as "real" as opposed to Madeline who sees her husband's family in a distant and perhaps even ironic way. She views his brother as a child. His father as a potential artist for her gallery. One isn't sure what she makes of Ashely though I suppose she views her as tragic in some ways. As for the mom... Madeline knows that this woman can see right through her.
The co-protagonist is there to teach the main character lessons. They have in abundance what it is that the main character is lacking. Ashley teaches her (0r us) about being a good friend. She teaches her about being gracious and loving. She even teaches her in an indirect way about the importance of being there for one another. Madeline, in attempting to help her brother in law with a book report on Huckleberry Finn is given the opportunity to learn something; that she is not viewing her husband's family as real people. We're never told whether or not she learns these lessons. It's left very much up to us to decide what she knows. In the classic "independent cinema" fashion, it is the audience who learns if not the main character. In The Sure Thing (not a good film, by the way- I just saw it recently so it's a fresh example in my head) the co-protagonist changes the protagonist- she teaches him about the importance of Love as opposed to "the sure thing" meaning easy sex. It becomes something he values and needs by the end. The key to making your co-protagonist more than just a sidekick is to give them the keys needed to unlock your protagonist's deepest and most painful need.
Next week we'll go camping with Joan Crawford in 1932's "Rain."

Friday, May 1, 2009

carnitas flu

So after a somewhat busy couple of weeks I'm back. And look at what's broken out in the interim. I'm obsessed with the carnitas flu and how it's just moments away from turning everything into a dinner theater production of Stephen King's The Stand. But I shall endeavor to press on, here in my Tami-flu fortress.
This week we watched Sexy Beast. I had the class outline the script according to Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" model which works for most movies as a way of understanding the components of the structure. What's interesting to me is the way that structure reveals the deeper meanings of a film. The essential interconnectedness of plot, character, and theme. As Snyder describes it, "we are building precision Swiss watches of emotion." Sexy Beast is of course a caper film that's light on caper and heavy on emotion. I think it's a good example of what we really care about when we see a movie: the stakes. Very few capers are actually interesting enough to hold our attention let alone our concern. In this film, they do away with the caper, relegating it to the second half of the film- and even then, the caper is not that hard to pull off. Sure they're breaking into the world's safest safe- but it's not much more than a night of tunneling. What the film is really about is a man protecting everything he's ever wanted: his family, his friends, the good life. Simple stuff, but that's why it works; it's primal. The main character Gal, retired from his life as a gangster, finds himself being pulled against his will into the world he never wanted to return to. What's at stake of course is not just his life, but the happiness of those around him. His wife, disgraced in their old world, has a chance at happiness with him in Spain but only if Gal can lay to rest, permanently, the ghosts of his past. Thematically this movie is all about dealing with the past once and for all. Nothing stays buried unless it's good and dead.
What I want to hammer home here are two simple ideas: first your character's stakes have to be clear and universal. I understand in a simple and practical way what it is that my character wants and what will happen if the don't get it. The more dire the consequences the better. Plus you have to be specific about what they want. So often I'll ask a writer what it is their character wants and I'll get back a laundry list of vague complaints; she's the kind of person who has always achieved perfection but now she has to let go of that in order to forgive her brother because there was this time when they were kids... and on it goes. Secondly, you structure your movie around this want. You show how it evolves, what it means, what happens if it doesn't work out. Everything. 95 to 100% of your movie should be about THIS ONE THING: what your main character wants. Tangents, when they happen, should be brief and rare. The more tangential the less we care about your film. Why? Because we feel adrift and and keep asking, "what does this have to do with anything?"
So that's it for this week. Next week we'll be looking at "Junebug." I've been having a bit of a Celia Weston film festival lately. She's amazing in "Observe and Report" plus I just saw her in "Joshua" last night (which is a fantastic "children are evil" thriller). For Junebug we'll be looking at the specific steps a character needs to take from start to finish in order to have a complete and satisfying arc.