Tuesday, September 30, 2008
So Cake Man asked me to write a movie review for Miracle at St. Anna, the new Spike Lee joint. I haven't written a movie review since my high school newspaper days. Training Day was the last one if I remember correctly. I'm pretty sure I gave it a B+. I know, who scores movies with letter grades? I guess you could say it was fitting of the academic setting. But the review and score were fair I thought. You gotta love Denzel Washington. It would have been nice to see him in St. Anna. Not that he had to be the star or anything, maybe just a veteran soldier. I wouldn't be surprised if Spike asked, but to be honest, if he did ask, I don't think Denzel is kicking himself for not signing up.
Miracle at St. Anna is set during WWII and follows a group of four African-American soldiers who get separated from their unit and hold up in a small town in the Tuscany region of Italy. During their time there they befriend the locals, explore the reality that they are more accepted in a foreign country than in their own, and shepherd a boy whose eyes and soul bore witness to horrific events at the nearby town of St. Anna.
A common word I found in published and broadcast reviews of St. Anna is "meandering". I think use of the word is justified for two reasons. The first reason is that the movie has several awkward jumps in tone. One moment you are bearing witness to the horrors of war (I enjoyed Spike Lee taking time and care to show us dead African-American soldiers from WWII, a rare sight in film) and in another moment, seemingly without transition, you're torn between enjoying and disliking jovial, comical, and sometimes oddly spiritual banter between the main characters.
The second reason the flick wanders a bit is what I think hurts it the most. I wasn't prepared for a film that wasn't anchored more solidly to a story purpose for its characters. I won't compare it to other war movies, but I felt like the characters spent a great deal of time just hanging out, satisfied with the fact that they were representing something that had to this point been left unrepresented. I didn't necessarily need to see more gunplay or explosions, but something that would have gotten our characters to lock and load and set out to change their world. I immediately became more invested when the soldiers were given the difficult order of capturing a German soldier. The story manages to bring our main characters a German prisoner without them lifting a finger.
My next biggest gripe would have to be the score. At times it was spot on, but there were other moments where its trumpety sound almost felt like something out of classic James Bond. There were scenes that just became cartoonish, the serious energy sucked right out of it. I fond myself frequently wondering what the movie would have felt like with a different, or somewhat adjusted soundtrack.
Few other quick gripes. There were so many story elements, most of which I appreciated, but I definitely wanted a better allocation of time when it came to some. The framing story was paced well during the beginning, but deserved more time towards the end, a move that I felt would have been more rewarding to the audience. It was odd that it wasn't made clear who the protagonist from the framing story was once we moved to the war portion of the story. If you were paying close attention to detail it was there, but that was something I would expect any director to make pretty obvious up front. But then again my brother felt that it could have been intentional and part of the movie experience. I'm not sure I agree. Lastly, one of the big revelations, and the film treats it us such, came off as not so big. If you've seen the movie you know what I mean. Maybe I missed it. I hope I did.
Yeesh. Looking back on all this I wish I had spent more time talking about what I liked about the movie. I blame it on the league and all the time we spend in our meetings tearing our scripts apart. I will say this. Spike Lee set out to represent the WWII era African-American soldier on film. He did so boldly and admirably, but you can't help but get the sense as you go along that Spike is stepping way out of his element. A part of me just wishes that Spike didn't have to be the one forced to step up to do the job that nobody else seemed willing to do. WWII is one of the most molested and prodded subject matters in history. Its examination extends deep into literature, art, music, video games, and film. It's a little sad that some elements (and not only African-American soldiers) still go largely unrepresented. I could give an example, but I'm hoping it will be my breakthrough script a few years from now. Spike did his part, and I hope writers and directors down the road will do theirs. We should see a great story first, before seeing the color or gender attached.
Last week, I was in the midst of finishing off The Narrows, another Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel that also featured guest appearances by some of his non-Bosch novel characters, most notably FBI Agent Rachel Walling and -- to a degree that I won't reveal because it's spoiler-y -- retired FBI Agent Terry McCaleb. Since then, I've plowed through the rest of The Narrows and finished off Connelly's remaining three Bosch novels, The Closers, Echo Park and The Overlook. I won't go into overly detailed reviews of the three, not because they weren't good, but because I'm more interested in talking about the book I'm reading now.
Of the three, Echo Park was by far the most enjoyable and readable, with the other two serving as functional but not remarkably outstanding Bosch adventures. The Overlook, which was originally published in serialized form in The New York Times Magazine clocked it at barely under 300 pages, which is fairly light for a Connelly book, and read more like it was setting up Bosch's new status quo (new partner, new assignment, old love interest) than really telling an exciting or thrilling adventure. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed all three books a great deal. But, if I had to choose which of the three came closest to some of my personal Bosch favorites (Concrete Blonde, Lost Light, A Darkness More Than Night and, to a degree, The Narrows), it'd probably be Echo.
But after finishing The Overlook I found myself without a new Bosch book to read, which allowed me -- for the first time in a few months -- the opportunity to take a detour outside of the crime fiction/detective genre and work out some of the reading muscles that got lazy while I read about forensics and private eyes.
The first book I went to was David Carr's The Night of the Gun. David Carr, as some of you may know, is a columnist for The New York Times. Most importantly, though, Carr is also a recovering crack cocaine addict. The Night of the Gun tells the horrible, gruesome tale of his descent into addiction. The unique part of the memoir, though, is that Carr actually went back and spoke to the people who he interacted with during his time as a junkie failure -- the woman who gave birth to his twin daughters while both of them were daily crack fiends, the well-known comedian who once tried to gouge Carr's eye out because he was nagging the funnyman about a coke debt and the dealer who Carr went to score from while his twin, four-month old daughters waited in the car. In the winter. In Minnesota.
Truly jarring stuff, but Carr doesn't hold anything back in the telling and gives his interview subjects ample room to be critical and brutally honest about the author. And, in the process, you see how Carr himself has changed, but also how he is being changed by the process of re-living his life. Imagine waking up one day and realizing that, no, you're not the nice person you thought you were. Yeah, those two years you don't really remember? Well, you beat up women, drank and drugged to extreme excess, got arrested over a dozen times and failed at five stints in rehab. The story Carr tells, and the journalistic tools he uses to tell them paint a picture of a man who didn't reclaim his life because he's a great person -- although, from what I can tell, he became a better man -- but because of luck, and because he had caring friends and family. I'm only about 200 pages into the book, so I imagine there's more to be revealed. A friend of mine (who lent me the book) said there'll be at least one jaw-dropping moment toward the end. Which is somewhat frightening, because the pages I've already read have left me oftentimes with mouth agape and my eyes wide. I can't recommend this book any more. But enough of that.
What are you reading?
Monday, September 29, 2008
If you're a manly man, and I mean a real MANLY man like yours truly, then you don't cry at the movies. Oh, it's okay for a manly man to cry in some situations, such as when your favorite football team is the St. Louis Rams or when your arm is broken but you're too proud to tag out of the wrestling match. Or if you're eating a really, really hot chicken wing (I know those aren't real tears). I'd also accept a tear or two when you run our of beer during a Dirty Harry marathon. But crying during sad movies? Your beard was not invented to collect tears, son.
There is one exception to this rule. Manly Men are allowed one flier - each Man has one movie that hits them in their weak spot. (Not THAT weak spot.) Once in a lifetime there'll be a movie that just strikes a certain chord with a man. When it does, he'll be blubbering like a baby. Because these movies are usually Braveheart or one of the Godfather films, you can cry during them without losing any of your Man Cred.
This all stems from Film School Rejects' Mr. Hand posting a list of movies that made him cry. I'm not one to cast judgment, but, dude: Titanic? Moulin Rouge? You don't just admit that stuff.
So what movie makes your humble blogger, the manly (strong, handsome, not-afraid-to-die, etc) Zombie cry?
Let's get a big-ol' John Bonham drum roll, please.
Zombie's tearjerker movie is:
Transformers: The Movie (1986)
If you've seen it, you know the scene I'm talking about. The whole movie has a body count roughly equal to your average John Woo/Chow Yun Fat flick, but the one death that's the granddaddy of them all: the death of brave, badass Autobot leader, Optimus Prime. The Optimus Prime of the 1980s wasn't the watered-down version we got in the (pretty good) 2007 movie - the cartoon Prime was all kick-ass all the time.
I'm including a clip, in case you're uninitiated or just need a refresher course in awesome. I'm going to set it up, like they do on Late Night. In the movie, Autobot City is just getting their shit ruined in a surprise attack by the Decepticons. Optimus Prime arrives on the scene and just kills the hell out of about fifty of the bad guys without breaking a robo-sweat. Then he goes to stomp out Megatron (the Transformer equivalent of Shooter McGavin) and right before he's about to strike the killing blow, rookie dumbass Hot Rod gets in the way and Megatron gets in a nasty, unfair hit our hero just can't recover from.
What you're about to see here, folks, is the saddest, most gripping death scene ever filmed. Just watch and understand:
What the hell, really?? How is it okay for a kid to see that? A kid that probably went to the movie wearing an Optimus Prime t-shirt and holding his action figure? And when his lights go out and he turns all gray at the end?? What the hell?
I remember spending lots of afternoons crumpled into a fetal position on the couch, a crushed child mourning the loss of his robot hero. Some children first learned about death and mourning from Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street; I learned it from Optimus, Ironhide, Wheeljack and crew. That last shot of Daniel Witwicky crying before it fades to black? I was Daniel Witwicky. We all were Daniel Witwicky.
So now I'm throwing this all out to you on the World Wide Web: what movies made you tear up? Is it A Better Tomorrow? Maybe Rocky IV? Or possibly Terminator 2? This question goes out to all of the Manly Men and the lovely ladies in our audience.
In addition to noting that collaboration can take many forms (on most assignments, Smith doesn't even interact directly with his co-writer), Smith also offers up some words of warning and advice:
Check out the full post, which is fairly lengthy to read about Smith's other writing experiences, including co-writing a number of books with his wife. Pretty interesting stuff.
Now some words of warning about collaborations Unless you can find a writer at your same level, who complements you perfectly in style and likes and dislikes, there is no logical reason on the planet to collaborate. None. Write the book yourself. It is easier.
And if I can’t stop you, then for heaven’s sake, have a contract between the two of you before either of you write word one. A very good contract that states who is responsible for final drafts, who gets do the work of marketing, who gets to do the work of proofs and copy edits if the book sells, and things like that. And how to split the money exactly. You will thank me later.
Now, how do I keep others out of my work when collaborating? Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes collaborations such as the book with David that I mentioned are original novels. With Jonathan Frakes, all I had was a cover and wrote a book around the cover. Other times, it’s not possible to keep the other writer out completely, such as the book I am working on now where the other author wrote the entire first half and then had an issue so I stepped in. The key is realizing how much exactly the other author will be involved when you go into a project. And know what you are capable of doing and not capable of doing in writing situations.
But, this post begs the question: Have you collaborated with another writer? How did that experience turn out? What ground rules would you suggest?
As I said, I don’t really know what brought about the change. Perhaps it’s the fact that I think my rewrites are going well. There are some changes that the League was hinting at (and outright telling me to do), which I finally saw in the golden light of necessity. It could be that all my recent research into management companies and script sales has lit a fire under me. Maybe I have this newfound (and much appreciated) drive because of the numerous talks we’ve all been having about this blog and our writing projects. Whatever the case may be, I actually stressed so much about a scene the other night that not only did I keep myself awake, I started to feel physically sick. (And you know what, I was happy when I woke up and that scene was the first thing on my mind again.)
Ok, that probably sounds a bit masochistic. The point is, though, that I think the desire to write and to make it as a screenwriter comes not only from writing. (The following is one of those really obvious facts that everyone tells you but you have to experience for yourself to really learn.) In order to really make it and break into the industry, you have to want it so badly that you’ll work 24/7 at it. I told Zombie that I’ve been spending much more time concentrating on screenwriting than work or anything else lately. In fact, I probably put in close to 10 hours a day – especially this weekend –writing, reading material, following sales and box office info, writing, researching, posting here, and writing.
I only wish the days were longer.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Earlier this week, while I was taking a “mini” break from work at my day job to do something important, something screenwriting related, I scrolled over to Done Deal Pro. I was guided my desire to learn about more management companies to query. At the time, I hadn’t registered for Done Deal’s year-long subscription, so I couldn’t get too far in once I accessed the site. (An aside, I do plan on subscribing to Done Deal Pro – and very well might by the time you read this – not only for the information about agencies/managers, but because I know far less about what’s selling now than I should. At roughly $24 a year, half the cost of a competition, it’s worth it to me.)
One thing I was able to read without having a login and password was an interview with Ryan Condal, who broke into the industry earlier this year with the sale of his spec, Galahad. Condal, who is now penning an adaptation of Warren Ellis’ Ocean, was just like most of us here in The League – someone whose day job didn’t quite cut it for them and who wrote in his spare time, with hopes of Hollywood. He's also not that much older than my fellow Leaguers and I, which is no small boost of encouragement.
This is a great interview for all writers to check out, but I strongly encourage young and emerging talent to read it in its entirety. It’s a bit long, but it covers everything from how Condal first got into writing, through how he got noticed, how he got representation, how he made that first sale, and what life has been like for him since. It even goes into a short discussion on managers vs. agents. vs. lawyers. This is a perfect "how to" about what to do once you've got that spec you know is ready to go out and are wondering how to get to what lies ahead (and what lies ahead).
There are currently 7 League members, and we all write things that are wildly different from one another. As individuals, however, though we like to explore different genres, we tend to remain consistent stylistically and thematically. We all have our strengths and genres that we’re better at, no matter how much we try to break out of those at times. Sometimes we fight so hard to try something new that we lose sight of our strengths. Condal talks about this, being “branded” or sticking to your genre, in a very interesting way:
I think [being a branded or “tent pole” writer] is really important for serious writers to key on. What do you love to write? If you had to write one "type" of movie for the rest of your life, what would that be? Notice for me, I’m writing Ocean, a sci-fi actioner and Hercules, a Bronze Age sword ‘n’ sandal epic. Seemingly different, but inherently the same—big, expensive "tent pole" movies with a big world and big cast of characters. So there is a huge amount of diversity available to me inside my "brand." I know writers hate feeling pigeon-holed but (a) you should only be so lucky to be pigeon-holed—it means you’re getting paid—and (b) you need to accept it as a universal truth, embraceYou can read the entire interview here.
it and use it to your advantage.
Until we’re at Condal’s point, in the immortal words of LoKor, “write on!”
"If you dare... taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD NYMPHS!"
Oh, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I opened up that can of b-movie goodness known as the Hammer Horror catalog. More to come, kiddos. Don't you worry your pretty little heads.
Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin to you, nerds) stars in this film, just like he does in about 90% of Hammer's movies. The plot is pretty standard as can be seen in the trailer - interestingly, this movie was considered brave at the time because of it's portrayal of a lesbian vampire. Oh, how media has come a long way between The Vampire Lovers and The L Word...
And, to business:
At 0:05 - Lady!
At 0:06 - CAT!
At 0:06 - Hand!
At 0:07 - Lady
At 0:08 - CAT!
At 0:10 - Did they get a man to redub this woman's voice?
At 0:20 - Swish! Swish!
At 0:30 - Don't drink and ride a horse.
Ar 0:40 - It doesn't look THAT bad.
At 0:44 - Is George Washington at this party?
At 0:58 - Is she doing it with... Cookie Monster?
At 0:59 - Or maybe bigfoot?
At 1:03 - Oh, it's just a huge cat. Okay. I was worried for a bit.
At 1:18 - For the lowest car insurance rates in town, call The General.
At 1:28 - Way to work that sword, buddy.
At 1:40 -
At 1:50 - What a terrible way to wake up. The worst way, maybe!
At 1:55 - The most dapper one remains!
At 1:56 - This costume was left over from "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."
Note the "Caution: Not for the mentally immature" warning on the poster. Sorry, Cake Man, Suckerman... I knew you guys wanted to see this one!
"You mist die. Everbuddy mist die!"
Friday, September 26, 2008
The Onion AV Club has an excellent article running down the best, worst and most overlooked private detective TV series over the last 50-odd years. The article, which spans about three "pages" of content, is impressive because it not only lists which shows are of quality, but groups them based on structure -- classic private eye shows, shows with a more character-driven slant and shows that are more focused on the portrayal of urban decay and the role of the police and their allies. It serves as a great Cliff's Notes for the history of the genre in televised form, and makes for a quick, informative read. An interesting read for anyone who enjoys crime fiction, on screen or on the page.
Most interesting to me, though, was their list of top series, which capped off the piece. I've excerpted it here:
A strong list, no doubt. I'd argue that The Wire merits a place, beyond a mention in the Homicide blurb (although, that show is great and worth the investment in its own right). I've got Prime Suspect on my NetFlix queue, so I'm looking forward to that and giving Twin Peaks a solid chance (I've only seen a few episodes here and there). I was a little surprised to see Veronica Mars on here, but I've heard a lot of good things from friends about it, so maybe it's worth a shot. The article also doesn't make mention of The Shield, which struck me as odd.
It may not be the most thematically deep detective series ever aired, but Columbo has been reliably entertaining for going on 50 years now, offering mysteries based on unexpected minutiae, along with the iconic clash between too-clever snobs and the working-class drudge who always outlasts them.
2. Homicide: Life On The Street
The Wire is the most profound cop show of all time, but Homicide is the most profound mystery-based cop show, dealing with all the bureaucratic rot and existential futility that The Wire did, but through the prism of the detective series building-block: the case.
3. Law & Order
The formula has long been diluted by spin-offs, rip-offs, and repeats, but there's no greater testament to the enduring quality of Law & Order than this: when a channel-surfer lands on an episode of L&O, it's hard not to keep watching all the way through to the final chung-chung.
4. Veronica Mars
Weak ratings and a creatively confused third season killed one of the decade's best series—detective or otherwise—before its time, but the two season-length mysteries Veronica Mars presented before its downfall stand among TV's finest, both in terms of their narrative twists and the way they mapped out the mood of their times.
5. Prime Suspect
The polar opposite of the "cozy" mystery is the hard-boiled one, and TV detective series don't get much harder than this British import, which sees crime as a continuum, with all of its characters—including its heroine—spread out across the line.
Still, the article is well worth a read. Thanks to Zombie for the heads up.
Who are your favorite TV detectives? Least favorite?
For anyone looking for something to do in NYC tonight, there's a great short film festival going on down in the financial district. And the good news for all of my fellow starving writers: it's free!
From Tropfest NY's website:
Thousands of film lovers will descend on Battery Park City on Friday night, September 26th, for Tropfest NY, the world's largest short film festival. Free and open to the public, Tropfest NY will take place at World Financial Center Plaza, alongside the Hudson River.
Tropfest NY is not your mother's film festival with a bunch of strangers sitting in the dark. It's a rock-concert style event with live DJs and musical acts warming up the crowd before the marathon of eight "Best of Tropfest" short films begin, followed by eight "Tropfest NY 2008 Competition" shorts.
Sure to be a fun evening if the weather holds out!
This year's chosen theme for the short films is "sunflower" (eh?) - Billy Crudup (!) and Parker Posey (!!) are on this year's judges' panel.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Hoskins Reads Scripts In Bathroom
23 September 2008 5:00 AM, PDT
Movie legend Bob Hoskins test reads scripts for films - when he is sitting on the toilet. The Mona Lisa star decides whether or not to take a movie role depending on how engrossed he gets leafing through his lines as he answers a call of nature. And the actor has even given his selection process its own cheeky name. He says, "Cold bum test. I take (the script) to the khazi (toilet) in the morning and if I end up with a cold a**e I think 'This has got to be a good script'. If you notice you've got pins and needles, you think: 'This must be a good one.'"
For one, it's kind of upsetting to think that a script you've toiled for years on could be so close to becoming toilet paper if Bob Hoskins doesn't like it. You'd think that maybe he'd have somewhere else he could read scripts - i.e. an office - where he could just as easily be mesmerized by them. (On the other hand, I think that if you've written a script that has gotten into Bob Hoskins' hands, whether he's taking a crap at the same time or not, means you've done something right.)
More than anything, though, Hoskins' test makes me wonder how good of a script both "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties" and "Son of the Mask" were. Perhaps I should read those to educate myself a bit on the finer points of the screenwriting craft.
This is pretty neat:
As part the first year of Hearts & Minds, Creativity partnered with Penguin Books on a talent contest, asking artists of all types to conceive a cover design for one of the publisher's upcoming titles. Penguin, as you may know, appeared in our Creative Marketers report last year, for bringing an updated art-driven aesthetic to its book covers. Notably, its Graphic Classics have become veritable collectors items, with cover art reimagined by contemporary artists like Frank Miller, Tomer Hanuka, Roz Chast and Art Spiegelman.Click here to view the other 24 finalists. I've posted my favorite up top.
Penguin and Sam Taylor, author of The Amnesiac, kindly offered up Taylor's upcoming novel The Island at the End of the World as the foundation of our competition. Designers, illustrators, painters and photographers contributed more than 300 ideas for the cover design of Taylor's new book, and a jury comprised of Penguin editor Alexis Washam, creative director Paul Buckley and Creativity editors selected the 25 finalists presented here.
Also, here's an item about the best covers of 2007, from The New York Times.
And just to personalize things a tad, here are a few of my favorite book covers, off the top of my head:
What are some of your favorite book covers? What makes them great? Feel free to include links to the images.
The best part is the people writing their respective articles are actual practitioners, as opposed to some guy who's writing a how-to book on creating a novel but has never written a novel.
Definitely worth a read, or multiple.
WENDY AND LUCY, written and directed by Kelly Reichardt. A young woman loses her dog on a road trip through Oregon. It looks like the plot really is that simple, but the movie has gotten great reviews and I really enjoyed Reichardt's Old Joy.
PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, written and directed by Albert Lewin, 1951. This beautiful Jack Cardiff-shot mystery is being screened with a newly restored Technicolor print. The film will be introduced on October 10th by Martin Scorsese.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR, written and directed by Ari Folman. An "animated documentary" about the Sabra and Shatila Massacre that received amazing acclaim at Cannes and nearly won the Palme d'Or. The animation looks absolutely sick - check out the trailer if you don't trust me.
Check out the NYFF's full slate of films here. Those of our readers who aren't in New York can follow full coverage of the festival at the FilmLinc blog.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
MediaBistro's GalleyCat blog has a must-read post about the "overlooked art of agent research":
Click here to see the video.
Hundreds of aspiring writers would sell their left arm for a chance to chat with an agent. Unfortunately, most writers end up telling the wrong agent the wrong things. Without some crucial research, these writers will always end up in the rejection pile.
Earlier this week, author David Henry Sterry taught a room full of writers how to research agents at the Strand Bookstore. GalleyCat boiled down his agent intelligence into this short and practical primer on the fine art of agent research.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Last week, I asked if, while writing, you created a playlist or soundtrack to not only accompany you while writing, but to serve as an official anthem for the work. Not everyone does it, I'm sure. I find it to be helpful and an entertaining facet of the writing process. Or maybe it's just a distraction. No matter.
Also mentioned last week was music/book blog Largehearted Boy's Book Notes series of interviews, which allows authors to talk about the music that inspired them while writing their most recently released book/novel/whatever.
Today, as I drowsily scrolled through my blogs, I discovered that indie siren Juliana Hatfield was being spotlighted, talking about her new autobiography/memoir When I Grow Up.
Here's a sampling:
"Don't" by Dinosaur Jr.
The Blake Babies (my first band) were recording during the overnight shift at Fort Apache studios in Cambridge, MA, and Dinosaur Jr. were making their album "Bug" in the daytime. I arrived early one evening and happened to catch Lou Barlow, bassist and occasional song-contributor of Dinosaur, doing a vocal take of this song in which he scream-sings "WHY DON'T YOU LIKE ME???!!!" repeatedly. It hurt my throat just to listen; Lou was throwing his whole body and soul into it. He seemed to be trying to destroy something with his voice, or to exorcise some evil demon.
It was maybe the most authentically tortured and anguished vocal performance I'd ever had the pleasure (or horror) to witness. Lou really meant it.
He came out of the recording booth and went into the bathroom and spat up blood. That's how hard he had sung. Scary, but righteous, I thought. Maybe rock and roll should hurt. If it doesn't, maybe you're not doing it right.
Now, reading this reminded me of another genre of books I read voraciously (well, when I'm not 10 books into a detective series, that is): Music history or musical bios. And, oddly enough, I find that the best autobiographies in the rock genre are often written not by the big name stars, but lesser-known "almost stars." Which is why I have high hopes for Hatfield's book. I was never much of a fan of her music, but from what little I've read (Rolling Stone had an excerpt), I think it'll be an entertaining and memorable read.
Another example that falls into the category of lesser-known music personality with a good book is Dean Wareham, formerly of bands Luna and Galaxie 500. Wareham's tales -- aptly titled Black Postcards -- of touring, band tension and drug abuse are engaging and brutally honest, making for a great peek into the industry a lot of us only see through the filter of television, radio or iTunes.
I guess the point of this note is to remind you all -- and myself, to a degree -- that while it's great to read stuff in the genre you are writing in, and want to work in, it's doubly helpful to branch out and find other kinds of writing you enjoy. It'll only help your writing get better, and ideally, more diverse.
What are some of the genres you enjoy reading?
(Writers' Warning is a new section we're debuting here on ScreenwritersLeague.com where we post about suspicious and potentially risky services and companies. Not all practices mentioned are necessarily dangerous for writers - some might be completely legit and just sound fishy at first. We only report the facts and encourage comments from people who know better and can speak on behalf of the situations/companies.)
I recently heard back from one company regarding a query letter I sent out. The response I got sent up a red flag. The company, let's call it X Management, since I'd rather keep this to the event and not name names, is a respectable company by everything I've read. I called X Management to see if there was a specific person I should address my query email to (a good practice if you have the time) and sent my personally addressed email. A few days later, I received a message that X Management has a new service to "weed out" writers who aren't serious about breaking into the industry.
Because they receive hundreds of submissions, X Management offers a consulting service that guarantees they'll read your script. For $125, they'll give you one page of notes on your query letter. For $500, they'll read your script. The WHOLE thing (!). People who don't participate will not be considered. The reasons that the email cited for this were: it's become too much of a financial burden for the company to read everything and this is the only way it can continue to accept unsolicited material, writers who aren't "interested and motivated" won't participate, and rather than just a rejection letter, writers will receive personalized notes. I kid you not, those are the three reasons.
This is obviously not something I plan to do. As I said, everything I've read about X Management makes it sound like a great company - indeed, there's a reason I submitted to it. And consulting services are not uncommon. I can understand offering them and know a lot of companies specialize in providing feedback for a fee. I just can't get on board with a management company that claims only serious writers will pay for their consulting services, and that only those "serious" writers will be considered for potential representation. The word 'management' in the company's name seems misleading to me now.
Anyone with any sort of positive experience with "consulting services" like this should feel free to post. I might be making mountains out of molehills, but I have never once heard something like this talked about as anything other than a less than legitimate practice.
Monday, September 22, 2008
Saturday, September 20, 2008
The New York Times has a glowing review of Dennis Lehane's latest, The Given Day, which takes place in the early 20th century, during the historic Boston police strike.
Now, I want to preface this post by explaining that I'm a huge Lehane fan. Specifically, I love his Kenzie/Gennaro detective novels, which kicked off his writing career. His later work, especially Mystic River, was still of high quality, but to me lacked the same verve and energy of his first six novels. But my beef isn't with Lehane -- he's probably written a great book. I plan on reading it and expect to like it. He's one of my favorite contemporary authors. My issue is with this bit from the review:
No more thinking of Mr. Lehane as an author of detective novels that make good movies (“Gone, Baby, Gone”) and tell devastatingly bleak Boston stories (“Mystic River”). He has written a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre.
Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser surround Mr. Lehane’s choice of 1919 as the time for this expansive story. It is not simply the relatively unexplored eventfulness of that year that makes “The Given Day” so far reaching; it’s the relentless fierce-terrible nature of the turmoil on parade.
Now, just what irks me about this review? I can't say it fully struck me until I read David Montomery's post over at Crime Fiction Dossier, so I'll let him speak up first:
One line leapt out of me from the review and stuck with me: "He has written a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre."
I haven't read The Given Day, either. I don't know if it's any good, or about any of the specific plot points in the book. But, I do know that there is some level of crime in the book. Doesn't that make it, to some degree, a crime novel? Why is this, and not, say, Mystic River or Coronado or Darkness, Take My Hand, a "literary" work, and therefore better than Lehane's earlier work? More importantly, why should there even be that distinction? Why can't a book just be good, whether it's a crime novel or not?
I've been thinking about that statement since I read it, wondering exactly what the confines of the crime genre are. And near as I can come up with, a crime novel has to have a crime (either past or future) play an important part in the plot, or else it somehow has to deal with crime or the aftermath of crime in a significant way. Other than that, I think anything is fair game.
As I indicated, I haven't read The Given Day. But judging by the description and the reviews I've read, the book involves the lives of police officers, a terrorist attack, spying, bomb-throwing anarchists, suspense, corruption, anti-union violence...Well, damn, that sounds a lot like a crime novel to me.
It's almost like Ms. Maslin (and I wouldn't be surprised if other critics wrote something similar) is embarrased to admit that she really liked and admired a book of significant literary achievement -- that just happened to be a crime novel.
We saw some of this reaction earlier this year with Richard Price's superb Lush Life, another novel of literary prowess that, oh yeah, was a crime novel.
I'd argue that Lehane is finally stepping into a world that has already been populated by the previously mentioned Richard Price and, more importantly, George Pelecanos, whose last few novels have only peripherally dealt with a crime but instead spent more time painting a picture for the reader of a city or society in decay. Are Pelecanos' works less "literary" because they're still set in the modern day and involve drug deals and stick-ups as a way of showing how our world is melting down? If he'd set his books in the 1800s, would he gain more literary praise? My guess is probably. And that, to me, is really annoying. And, to push the joke a bit, more criminal.
Just because a work of prose, or a screenplay, involves a crime or deals with crime shouldn't lessen the literary or artistic value. The idea that suddenly, Lehane, who has been writing solid novels since he first got published, is a more important author because he's no longer writing a straight-up detective piece is silly, and insulting to those of us that spend time reading crime fiction not just because we find the genre interesting, but because the books in the genre we choose to read are, well, pretty damn good.
I didn't fully intend for this post to become a rant against the literary vs. genre bias -- I brought that up already. But, here we are. What do you think about the literary hierarchy? Does it hold water?
"This is the stupidest damn thing I ever heard!"
Wikipedia's one-sentence summary of this Stepford Wives rip-off is pretty funny:
...the premise of the movie is that a mad scientist (played by Anitra Ford) has created an army of beauties who seduce men to death.
Seduced... to DEATH. What a way to go!
The men of the town are quickly dropping off like flies, and the local law enforcement just can't figure out why. Each of the men are found having suffered heart failure caused by sexual exhaustion. It turns out they've been meeting up with these super-beauties created by a mad lady scientist. It's maybe a rather over-elaborate set-up to just show women in their underwear, don't ya think? It's like in the Fringe pilot, when the main character had to strip down to her bra and panties to be able to communicate psychically with her dead partner. (Thanks, 70s exploitation movies! Thanks, Fox!)
At O:06 - The strange force... of vanilla frosting? That's my guess.
At 0:12 - BEES??
At 0:22 - Mmm, ravishingly beautiful women.
At 0:30 - Ahhhh, the "waka-chika-waka-chika-waka-chika" soundtrack. This movie is from the seventies, folks. In case you didn't believe me, there's your proof.
At 0:53 - Wait, *why* try to stop it?
At 1:25 - Hillbilly freakout alert!
At 1:33 - Loooooooser.
An interesting bit of trivia: Invasion of the Bee Girls was the first produced screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, who went on to work on the screenplays for Star Trek II, IV, and VI. Right, the even-numbered ones. The good ones.
"Abstinence isn't going to be anything new around here!"
On Monday, I asked what kind of music you listened to while writing or to get into the writing mindset. Today, I stumble across this post, from music/book blog Largehearted Boy, in which authors discuss music or a specific playlist and how the songs are relevant to their recently published book or short story. It's an interesting series of interviews done with a variety of writers. Definitely worth checking out.
It also begs the question: Do you ever find it helpful to put together a playlist or "soundtrack" for your project? I've had an iTunes playlist going for SILENT CITY, but have yet to really pare it down enough where I'm comfortable even calling it a soundtrack. It's got a lot of the stuff I mentioned in my previous post, because that's what I like to listen to while writing, period. But, it also has some more story-specific songs that tie into or reflect the overall plot of the book. Lots of Cuban music, some grittier rock numbers (Velvet Underground, Steve Earle, The Replacements), and, in many ways, these tracks serve as the soundtrack for the book and appear in the text itself.
For example, when Pete is talking about listening to the 'Mats at work -- that's what was playing while I was writing. It's kind of fun. At least for me.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Coincidentally hitting the same topic I brought up earlier this week, The New York Times Paper Cuts book blog interviews writer Charles D'Ambrosio, asking him about the evil, evil Internets as part of their "Stray Questions" series. His answer's pretty interesting:
How much time — if any — do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?
I’m coming to the conclusion that any time is too much time. My life hasn’t improved at all with the advent of the Internet; if anything, I’ve turned into a worse misfit. And change isn’t ipso facto good. I’m away from Portland for the year, but prior to leaving I’d been preparing to build a writing shed out in my backyard, with no electricity. Just a kerosene lantern and a tiny wood stove of the sort you see in ice-fishing huts with a crooked hobo stove-pipe coming out the roof. The world is too much with us. Wordsworth published that 200 years ago. Now I need a hideaway in back of my house just to feel at home. The Internet makes me feel desperate. The spiritual toll isn’t worth the few conveniences. It’s a sordid boon, like that Xmas when you didn’t get what you really wanted, and now that special experience of disappointment is upon us around the clock.
You worked hard on your script and handed it in on time, feeling good that it was a smoking first draft. But you haven’t heard anything in weeks. You begin to worry. An email arrives, finally, and it’s notes from the script editor. You click on the attachment and open the file. Your stomach churns, hoping to see only minor comments but you scroll down the screen to see pages of notes, all critical of what you’ve done. You fail to see the sugar coated or positive remarks, while the negative and critical notes stand out in bold and in capitals, or so it seems. You panic! They hate it. They think you’re rubbish. You are rubbish! You’re never going to work again!
I know I've felt that stage before just from fellow Leaguers' feedback alone. There's always that horrible, sinking feeling in your stomach when your beloved baby gets ripped apart by the wolves.
Check it out, if at least for the great photo illustrations.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Oh, how wrong were we.
Epitaph’s original name is “Gidam”, which literally mean “peculiar tales”. The movie is a three part ghost stories, linked only by the fact that the main characters all work at the same hospital (year 1941), and the stories happen within days of each other. It is, in essence, a series of traditional campfire ghost stories, rather than plots.
The first is about a dreamy young med student who is engaged to the hospital director’s daughter. However, days before his marriage, the corpus of a beautiful young woman arrives, and the student falls in love with her instead. This one, for me, was spoiled by watching the trailers and reading the synopsis (which I really don’t suggest doing. I haven’t found too many good synopsis, and they are either misleading or spoil the stories). The twist, however, came as a surprise for AxelA, who really enjoyed it. It was also suitably scary, kind of like the first hills on a roller coaster ride, before the big spins and drops come.
The second one is about a young girl who is the sole survivor of a car accident that killed her mother and step-father. Despite not having a scratch on her, the girl is haunted every night by her mother. Doesn’t sound like much, but to say “the mother haunting the girl was scary” is like saying “sticking nails in someone’s eyes is not nice”. 1/3 through this story, AxelA curled up into a ball in her seat, and I was staring very intently at the seat back before me rather than the screen. Later we described it as “UN-FUCKING-NECESSARILY terrifying”. Scenes from this story still haunt me.
Here I have to clarify, I’m not a horror movie buff. Maybe Zombie would have just laughed in the face of this movie. On the other hand, my response to The Ring was that it was just suitably scary. I had my mandatory night of bad dreams, and then got over it. This was so much worse.
The third story made the entire movie all worth it. The wonderful opening line was “Back then, I didn’t realize my wife had no shadows.” The story is about a professor who not only finds that his beloved wife might be dead, but might also the one behind the series of brutal Japanese soldiers murders. While both the first and second stories had their own twists, this one has several, and none of them you see coming. I haven’t actually enjoyed twists like these since Rosemary’s Baby, Usual Suspect, Six Sense, etc. AND it was able to complete so much in the time of 1/3 movie. It uses great conflicting emotions, and even more complex psychology. It’s hard to say anything about the story without spoiling it.
What I find interesting is that the English tag line is “Love conquers all…even death”, but when I read the Chinese review, it seems the tag line there is “Death, the only cure for love.” Having seen the movie, I feel that those two, combine, represent the stories best.
Since then, I've finished Dime and another Connelly book, Lost Light, and am halfway through the next one, The Narrows. Light, like most of the Connelly stuff I've read, stars Harry Bosch, a grizzled (now former) LAPD detective who will do anything in his power to solve his cases and speak for the victims, or, as he says many times, "speaks for the unspoken."
Lost Light is interesting for a number of reasons. Unlike the previous eight Bosch novels, Light is told from Bosch's perspective, as opposed to third person narration. The storytelling reason for this is simple -- Bosch has retired from the LAPD and is now a private investigator. Connelly, an unabashed fan of the work of Raymond Chandler, really infuses the book with the same energy of the Marlowe books while still retaining Bosch's clear and recognizable voice and characteristics. Unlike some other crime writers, most notably George Pelecanos, Connelly isn't really prone to switching around his viewpoints characters, instead choosing to stick with Bosch for the most part. So, the switch to first-person narration isn't really all that jarring to a long-time reader of his books. Still, the switch provides some interesting insight into the character and also echoes Chandler's work.
Lost Light follows Bosch as he investigates one of his old, unsolved or "cold" cases -- the murder of a woman about four years earlier. As the story progresses, the original crime is linked up to Hollywood mayhem, a bank heist and Homeland Security. Sounds implausible, but Connelly makes it work, and the author also manages to bring back a number of supporting characters from past novels without making the introductions or background bumpy. The big reveal at the end also comes out of left field, as any good reveal should.
The Narrows picks up a few months after Lost Light but is interesting because it brings together Bosch and a few other characters from Connelly's earlier, standalone books like The Poet and Blood Work. (The latter was adapted into a mediocre Clint Eastwood film.)
Bosch's story is again told in first person, but Connelly switches back to third-person narration whenever Bosch is off-camera, which seems to work fairly well, but would probably be more jarring in the hands of a less experienced novelist. The Narrows serves as a direct sequel to The Poet, with the killer from that book returning to plague both Bosch (who is not in the first book) and FBI Agent Rachel Walling, who was the viewpoint character in The Poet. The book, as a standalone read is interesting and moves at a brisk pace -- I have to admit, though, that it helps to have read the previous Bosch novels. I'm at a slight disadvantage having not read The Poet, but Connelly is good (so far) at filling in any relevant backstory without slowing the overall plot.
Of most interest to me, since I'd ideally like to see SILENT CITY's Pete continue on in other novels, is seeing how Connelly slightly tweaks Bosch from book to book. The changes, of course, seem natural and organic, which is the goal, and a helpful guide when I reach the point where I'm mapping out a second or third novel. Fingers crossed.
Enough about me, though. What are you reading?
This post, over at Crime Fiction Dossier, touches upon one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to the book industry -- the continuation of a writer's work posthumously. It happens more often than you think, and the one person who should be able to decide -- the author -- is obviously not part of the game.
Here's the latest example:
BBC News has announced that author Eoin Colfer (the Artemis Fowl series) has been hired to continue the uber-popular Hitchhiker series created by the late Douglas Adams. According to the article, Adams' widow has given approval for the project. And Another Thing will be published next October.
Adams died seven years ago at the much-too-young age of 49. His early death meant that there were many books he couldn't write -- and that's a damn shame. He was one of the most inventive and entertaining writers around. He even wrote two excellent pseudo-mystery novels (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul). And the idea of someone trying to continue writing in the world he created saddens me.
In the BBC article, Colfer is quoted as saying, "My first reaction was semi-outrage that anyone should be allowed to tamper with this incredible series." And he should have stopped right there. Because his instinct was right. It is an outrage and nobody should tamper with this incredible series.
Authors die, and their books and their series die with them. Sometimes this is a crushing blow -- when Ross Thomas died, I felt like I'd lost a friend, even though I knew him only slightly. But I knew his books intimately, and it hurt to know that there would be no more. But you can't change the past.
The post continues:
This has happened to a number of authors -- Robert Ludlum, Frank Herbert, Raymond Chandler and Mario Puzo come to mind -- over the years, and I have to say I groan a little each time I discover a new example. Uniformly, the books that follow the original source material are painfully bad or mediocre. Never really coming close to the quality of the original. I've read both of Mark Winegardner's sequels to Mario Puzo's The Godfather, and while they were tightly written and at times engaging, you could never really shake the feeling that the characters were a little off (Guess what? Fredo was gay!) or that the story you were reading wasn't really canon. Doubly annoying in this instance was that the book sequels ignored some of the plot points laid out in the movies -- which, as any self-respecting Godfather fan knows -- are as canon as you can get, especially considering Puzo wrote both sequels to the original, and The Godfather II was based on the flashback scenes in the original novel. But, I digress.
The most egregious example of this type of literary grave robbing in recent years was the offense done to the works of Roger Zelazny. One of the finest fantasy writers ever, Zelazny created the beloved Amber series, a ten-book magnum opus that represented some of the most inventive and engrossing storytelling ever created. (Yes, I really mean those superlatives.)
Zelazny also died at too early an age -- only 58. During his lifetime, Zelazny made it abundantly clear that he wanted no other authors to write in the Amber world. Author Neil Gaiman once approached Zelazny with the idea of publishing a book of Amber stories written by other authors -- and Zelazny put the kibosh on the idea.
Even so, in 2002 John Gregory Betancourt -- with the permission of Zelazny's literary estate, allegedly administered by a family member from whom the author was estranged -- began a series of Amber prequels. Apparently the books were garbage, but that's hearsay, as I refused to read them.
I can understand fans wanting to read just one more book featuring the characters and worlds that they loved so much. But it's not possible. Even if a talented writer creates something worthwhile in that existing universe, it will never be the same. This is especially true when the original creator was someone as uniquely talented and innovative as Adams or Zelazny.
I can understand that it's really about money -- the families of these authors want to see profits continue even after the creative force is gone. But that doesn't change the fact that sometimes things are best left as is. You could get a very talented writer to pick up the story, but it doesn't matter, because it's impossible to shake the idea that this isn't what it was meant to be. Things end. Every good writer knows that.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Thought some of you screenwriters out there might want to see my journey from page to screen. Even when you direct your own work, things change onset due to budget, time, and reality. Cuz real life is a bitch; not nearly as malleable as imaginaryland.
It's worth checking out - especially for those of us who have or are thinking of shooting their scripts themselves. Her quick explanation of what worked and didn't work onscreen vs. the script is interesting.
The full post is here.
Your first stab at a scene will often be functional. It gets information across. It gets information into the hands of the characters. It puts characters into conflict.Epstein makes some great points -- if you're a decent writer, your first stab at a scene or chapter will at the very least be, well, decent. But you will gain much more if you go back and work at it. Making the dialogue and actions key to the characters is challenging, but in the long run will make the work more memorable and effective. If your characters sound and act like everyone or anyone, your work will be bland and forgettable.
Then see if you can tweak it to make it more specific to who these characters are. Can you accomplish the same plot goals by having the characters react in ways that only people with their specific flaws would react?
As I've said elsewhere, good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say.
This is the same thing on the scene level. Good scene craft has the characters doing and saying only things those characters would do. Great scene craft has the characters doing things that only those characters would do.
It's a tough standard, but I'm told that Jack Nicholson will do a script if it has "three great scenes and no bad ones."
It's been an ongoing debate for, well, um, forever: is 'literary' fiction by default more important than genre fiction, like sci-fi, thrillers/mysteries/crime novels or fantasy? Some, like TIME Magazine columnist Lev Grossman say nay, and point to the recent forays of some big-name authors into more stylized genre fiction (Michael Chabon's recent work comes to mind) as a sign that fiction is fiction is fiction, and 'literary' fiction shouldn't hover above the other genres just because.
Last week, The New School in NYC held a panel discussion to talak it out. The panel, sponsored by the National Book Critic's Circle titled "Merging Genres." The panelists included: Peter Straub, prolific multiple Bram Stoker award winning author and editor of Poe’s Children: The New Horror, just out from Doubleday, and of the Library of America’s H.P. Lovecraft: Tales, was the moderator. The panelists were Lev Grossman, book editor at Time magazine; Geoffrey O’Brien, poet, editor in chief of Library of America, and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books; Robert Polito, editor of the Library of America editions, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, and director of the Graduate Writing Program at the New School.
Sci-fi and fantasy publisher Tor has a nice summary of the panel, excerpted below:
Theresa DeLucci—only a month back to Tor after Clarion West in Seattle—and I went to listen. Straub, who is a passionate supporter of genre merging, and has done some himself in his works, was an enthusiastic and articulate moderator, and happy in the end to be a genre writer. Each of them read provocative and often enlightening opening statements on genres and literature, from widely differing approaches. The panelists, while agreeing that real literary writers were working with genre materials today, and that some exceptional genre writers were even real literary writers, separated two to one—Polito and O’Brien versus Grossman—on the proposition that this was anything new and different, and that any substantial number of genre texts or genre writers were deserving of serious attention. Grossman attempted to present the Modernist separation between high art and the rest, especially genre, as an important barrier to the acceptance of genre, now in the process of being dismantled, while the others argued passionately that James Joyce was perhaps the archetypal mixer of genres, and that it was incorrect to say that Modernism did not in some way encompass genre and merge genres.
Does the literary establishment still look down on science fiction through its glossy monocle? Apparently so, judging from a panel that took place at New York City's New School over the weekend. Time Magazine's Lev Grossman argued for tearing down the artificial distinction between "high art" and genre writing, and claimed that the recent trend of literary authors using speculative ideas in their work meant it was time to start taking speculative fiction more seriously. But New York Review Of Books contributor Geoffrey O'Brien and the New School's Robert Polito argued that literary authors have always mixed up genres, going back to James Joyce, and they at least implied that genre fiction is only worthwhile as a source of material for literary authors to mine. Oh well.What's your take? I think there's always gonna be some kind of hierarchy in fiction, as in movies and any kind of creative field -- it's just human nature. Should we be more respectful of more "genre" work? Sure. If it's good, it's good, no matter in what context the work was created. I can point to dozens of crime novels or sci-fi books that read better and are more engaging and overall more fulfilling than a more "literary" or "artistic" work. It's all about what you get out of it. A worthy debate that I don't foresee being resolved soon.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Jacket Copy, the book blog of The L.A. Times, has an interesting post up today discussing how writers deal with electronic distractions -- the Internet, cell phones, iPods, etc. -- when trying to get some writing done.
Here's a quote within a quote. Very meta:
Okay, I’ll admit it: work on my new novel, Finch, is going well because every morning my long-suffering yet often amused wife Ann hides the router box and my cellphone. I get up around 7 a.m., I have my breakfast and watch something innocuous like BBC News or Frasier for about half an hour, and then get down to work. Around noon I take a break to get some lunch, then go back to it, usually at that point editing or organizing notes. Around 2:30 I call Ann on our landline and she tells me where the router box and the cellphone are (it has Internet access on it) so I can finish up the afternoon with necessary emails and other work, before going to the gym.
Seems like a pretty hardcore way to avoid distraction -- but if it works, it works. This post kind of ties into my last entry, which dealt with what music people listen to while writing. Music walks a thin line -- it's either a great help or a giant distraction. I think the same can be said for the Internet. I can't count the number of times it's proven to be an excellent research tool. On the flipside, I also can't count the times it's provided a nice escape from having to actually write, allowing me instead to cruise my Google Reader or waste time watching YouTube videos or reading KissingSuzyKolber.
What do you think? How do you deal with electronic distractions when you're trying to write?