Monday, August 31, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 87 - Ahead of Schedule for the Competitve September Spec Market

When last I spoke to my producer and manager, we agreed that I would get them what is hopefully the last rewrite by September 1st. That's tomorrow.

The more I focused on the job ahead of me, the less daunting the task seemed. The larger rewrites shrunk as things clicked more and more. Before I knew it, I was targeting August 26th for my final rewrites and giving myself the 27th and 28th to re-read everything before sending. On Friday the 28th, I shot the "final" major rewrite for this stage of the script off to the producer and the manager.

This process has taught me a few things, and reminded me of others. For one, it's great to have a deadline. I usually approach rewrites by starting with a very cursory grammar and spelling check. That gets the ball rolling on prepping myself for making some actual changes. With a tight deadline, though, the comfort of doing those superficial (and sometimes meaningless, once scenes are cut) changes is gone. Only having time to focus on the actual rewrites with one proofing round at the end forces attention. I usually try to avoid the meat of a rewrite as long as possible, but this week, it was all business all the time.

Another thing I've been thinking about a lot is deadlines. September 1st was a nice round deadline. Many production companies end their year in August, so I'm told, and have little to no cash left for acquiring material then. Come September, though, their bank accounts are open again (so-to-speak) and the buying begins. Add to that the fact that most execs and VPs take their vacation in August, and September becomes a highly competitive time in the spec market. It's our goal to be a part of the competition this year. It was my goal to make that as much of a reality as possible, so I pushed myself to beat the deadline and give the producer and manager more time to read and, therefore, give myself more time for any final tweaks they feel necessary.

That brings me to the last point. Though this will hopefully sound intuitive to most of you, re-reading your material is essential. And I'm not just talking about for typos and grammar - if you don't reread for editing purposes, though, you should probably re-think your career choice. It's important to go through for other reasons, too. Did you make every single change you meant to? If you cut a character, did you cut him/her everywhere, or does their name pop up somewhere. Same with changing a character or location name. Make sure the old is fully flushed away. Also, depending on your method of sending - do you email your contacts scripts in Movie Magic, Final Draft, or pdf format - check the final version. I once sent Onyx a pdf created from Movie Magic, which I use, only to discover that 5 pages had been corrupted. I now scan every single page before sending anything out.

These things might seem small and very "Screenwriting 101," but at a certain point, they become just as important as the content on the page. Make sure the presentation is as flawless as can be, and take the extra hour or so to do so.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wtf is Up With the Number 9?

Is it just me, or does it seem like 9 is everywhere these days? I started wondering this when I first saw a preview for 9. Set in a future where humanity is screwed, 9 little doll-like things run around and fight machines. Or something. In addition to that one, Daniel Day-Lewis (a personal favorite actor of mine), just wrapped shooting NINE, a film adaptation of the 1982 Broadway musical.

Before that, there was the hardly watched (though I both tuned in and enjoyed) THE NINE, which ran on ABC for a short-lived 13 episodes. The plot - 9 people are held hostage during a bank robbery; something (which, had the show lasted longer, viewers would have found out) happens that creates some very weird character dynamics between those involved.

Some other imdb fiddling brings up a handful of other, sometimes lesser known 9 titles. NINE LIVES (2005) chronicled events in the lives of nine women. In 2000, there was NINE - a psychological thriller by Jane Shepard that I've never heard of. 9 SOULS is a Japanese prison break movie from 2003.

Then, just today, just a few minutes ago, I clicked on over to Done Deal Pro. What is the very second logline I see?

Title: I Am Number Four
Logline: A group of nine aliens flee to Earth, disguised as teenagers, when their home planet is destroyed.
Writer: Al Gough, Mils Millar
More number 9! What is it about nine that makes the number so special? Nine circles of hell. Nine choirs of angels. Nine as a perfect number in Hinduism. Nine innings in a baseball game. Nine planets (when I was a kid) in our solar system. Nine as a purity grading scale for metals?

I just don't get it. Maybe it's all a coincidence. Look out vampires, Nine is the new Twilight.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Casting jitters

Pick one. Hearing actors read one of your characters for the first time is:

A) Exciting
B) Creepy
C) Both

We started auditions for katie55 over the weekend. This is the first time I've heard anyone besides myself read any of the script aloud - let alone anyone with a real background in acting. It's an exciting and unnerving experience.

When I say unnerving, I'm referring to the odd feeling of hearing familiar words coming from an unfamiliar face. I'm watching these girls read and I can't help but think "those are MY lines - why are YOU saying them?" Once that initial shock subsides, it's quite exhilarating to see your characters start to come to life.

We've seen our first batch of actors, and will be screen another batch soon. Then, it's time to make some serious decisions...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Screen Alert: Inglourious Basterds - Basterdizing History (In A Good Way)


Major spoilers discussed throughout the entire post.

Last Sunday, after a rave review from Zombie and mounting curiosity/excitement throughout the summer, I treated myself to an early morning screening of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I was glad I went early, because even though it was before noon, there was not one seat to spare in the theater. It's no surprise BASTERDS opened at nearly 38 million.

For those who (somehow) don't know, BASTERDS is treated to Tarantino's signature over-the-top yet slightly humorous (at times) violence. Set in World War II, BASTERDS might just be the most acceptable setting for the gore that Tarantino rewards audiences with. The increasingly visible Brad Pitt (or am I the only one who feels like he's been popping up in movies a lot more in recent years) plays Aldo Raine, a U.S. Army lieutenant who assembles a squad for one reason and one reason only, "killin' Nazis." The hook? The squad is comprised entirely of Jewish soldiers, and to them, the war is personal; they're out for blood.

BASTERDS is one of Tarantino's most linear films, if not the most linear. Sure, he still jumps around a little here and there. While certain characters don't meet up until almost the last hour of the nearly three hour picture, everything seems to be happening chronologically, for the most part. However, my interest now isn't so much to review the film - you can find a ton of reviews online, many of which praise BASTERDS - but to analyze a key part of the ending.

To set the final scene, the orphaned Shosanna Dreyfus owns and operates a movie theater in France. The sole remaining member of her Jewish family, she has a deep rooted hatred for SS Colonel Hans Landa, the man responsible for her family's death. When she finds out that her theater has been chosen to host a premier of a new Nazi propaganda film, she concocts a plan. Burn the theater down with over 350 Nazis - including the top man himself, Hitler - trapped inside.

As the action built, I found myself starting to squirm in the seat. She had such a good plan. Top it off, the Basterds got involved. Overkill (literally). But how, I wondered, was Hitler going to escape sure death? I've been so programmed by historical fact that it never once crossed my mind that Hitler might... dare I say it... die onscreen from anything other than the suicide we know he actually went from. Then, it happened. Eli Roth - "The Bear Jew" stormed Hitler's balcony while the fuhrer was watching the movie and shot him. Dead. To pieces. Not only had Hitler been killed, but it was an unceremonious death. He stood up, got shot, and went down. It was only when The Bear Jew shoots his corpse that we even get a close up on Hitler.

Wow. Hitler killed on screen. I hadn't seen it coming. Then I got to thinking, has that happened before? I've seen some films based on his actual last days - like the amazing DOWNFALL - but I can't recall any movies where he's been blown away like that. I thought it was great. Yes, we got to see Hitler get his, but more than that, my expectations were completely shattered. I honestly wonder now if we can expect to see more movies do this - blatantly buck historical fact for a more gratifying ending. Part of me definitely hopes so. I was apparently way off on my expectations with BASTERDS' loyalty to certain historical facts (not that I thought the film was rooted in accuracy in any way). For the ending I didn't see coming, Tarantino gets my kudos (if he ever wants it, that is).

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 86 – Does Page Count Really Matter?

If you go back and read the archival Writing Weeks and some of our other more writing-centric posts, you’ll probably see a lot of talk about page count. We also talk about it a lot amongst ourselves in the League; “what page are you on?” “Do you think 85 pages is too short?” and that sort of thing. Sometimes, the discussion seems to lean so heavily toward page count and position that I wonder if we’re proving ourselves to be amateurishly focused on the wrong thing.

When we Leaguers were in school, we were taught basic three-act structure. A script is (supposed to be) 120 pages long. Act One is 30 pages long; Act Two is the next 60, and Act Three is the final 30 pages. Even while we were in school, I remember noticing a collective shift away from a 30 page third act. If a script came in at 105 pages, chances are Acts One and Two were pretty true to form, but Act Three was shortened. I actually don’t know if I’ve written a 30 page Third Act in years. Probably haven’t. And of course, depending on the genre, a script might be as short as 90 pages. I personally still aim for a 25/50/25 percent act balance when writing, no matter the page length. (Disclaimer before I go on, I know a lot of people have abandoned act structure for the sequencing method; I haven’t yet, so apologies to anyone who isn’t a fan of Three Act Structure.)

Last night, after working with notes from my producer and manager on the post-Apocalyptic spec, my perfectly nailed 30 page first act dropped to 25. I got to thinking, does that really matter? The five pages of cuts I made speed the story up, eliminate some of the darker and more macabre elements that were making this a tough sale earlier, and get to the heart of the plot much faster. Bottom line, they’re hard to disagree with. Yet, my first act is under what I normally consider to be a full Act One.

Ultimately, I think that the answer is: page count (in situations like this) doesn’t really matter as long as the script is strong. Act One is generally thought to be between 25 and 30 pages, with those being the respective lower and higher markers. The reason I bring it up, though, is that as a reader, I remember looking specifically for that big plot point right on 30. A bit before? Ok. Too much before; well, we might have to talk about this. Similarly with screenwriting competitions; I’ve entered at least one competition where part of the grading criteria listed on the website specifically mentions Act One ending on page 30.

As writers, page count shouldn’t seem like the end all and be all, but there’s enough out there to support my theory that within at least certain parts of the industry, the 30 page first act is still sacred, and to violate that could mean a step closer to disheartening rejection. My advice – know what the industry standard is (not only for page count, but for formatting and any technical part of the craft) and where you can and can’t bend that.
As a new writer, i.e. an unproduced one, I’m already enough of a risk. If I break all the rules in my first industry spec, and especially if I fail when trying to break new ground by abandoning the standards, then I’m not doing myself any favors. Page count does matter, and while it’s not the first thing worth focusing on, it is very much a part of League discussions because it’s something we have to be aware of and is elemental to further displaying our knowledge of the craft.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Picking Sides

T minus two days until the first round of auditions. We've got a very promising selection of actresses coming in Saturday morning/afternoon, and we hope to come out of the day with our two female leads. Co-prod's Bob and Kennon will be in the room with me, and I'm eager to see how the actors interpret my characters.

Before going into the auditions I combed through my script for more than an hour looking for sides to provide the actors with when they came in. (These are what the actors read from at the audition.) I never would have guessed how hard it'd be to find two pages that really represented the whole of a character... I'm not sure if it's a help or a hindrance that I only had three characters that made up the bulk of the dialogue in the screenplay.

I ended up going with the opening pages of the script. If this is where I introduce the character to the audience, this should make a good introduction for the actors, right? Let's hope.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 85 - The Home Stretch?

Thursday night, I was sitting in my apartment, drinking a beer and saving Las Vegas from terrorists in Rainbow Six Vegas 2 when my phone rang. Gretchen, the producer who optioned my post-Apocalyptic spec, was on the line. She was wondering if I had a few minutes to chat about the latest draft, which I sent her way on Sunday night. At this point in the game, there is almost nothing that I wouldn't drop or reschedule when she wants to chat about the script.
Much to my delight, Gretchen really liked the new draft. While I certainly didn't want to give her a sub-par draft, I had been concerned about certain elements of the new draft. I wasn't positive that everything had been integrated efficiently, and I was worried that her interpretation of the events might be clouded - as a failure on my part. Though certain things did need to be threaded through more successfully, she was incredibly pleased overall. You can imagine that was a great weight off my back.
We spoke for about fifteen minutes, discussing some of the larger notes and also speculating about potential conflicts (read: similarities) with movies soon to hit screens. On the one hand, if something's a hit - how many vampire things flooded the market after Twilight? - it's good to be able to provide the studios that missed out on round one their own answer to the demand. But on the other hand, being too similar equals unoriginal and, in some extreme cases, out right copying. (I didn't base this spec on anything or mimic and existing movies, but with the market being sort of post-Apocalyptic heavy now, we wanted to make sure we knew what we were up against.)
Gretchen ended the call with the promise of typed notes to come, which I got on Saturday. We have a conference call with our manager on the project on Wednesday, by which point I'll have started implementing the smaller tweaks and will have had time to sleep on the larger ones. We're still on track to try to bring the script to the market after Labor Day. Until then, though, I'm forcing myself to be as re-write and perfection minded as possible. There's no sense in getting caught up with what-if scenarios, especially when the work is far from done.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And the casting begins

Full steam ahead: I've put out a casting call for katie55, and with the help of Cake Man have secured a space to hold the auditions. Our co-producer/DP is flying up next week and we'll starting seeing actors next weekend.

It's very exciting to see all of these prospective characters. But, there's a small hitch: Having written the script and being so intimately entwined with it for such a long time, I have a very concrete idea of who the characters are in my head; how they look, how they act. The problem? None of the submissions so far are exactly what I had in mind for the part.

I know I'm speaking way ahead of myself at this point - I'm going based strictly off of headshots. (Very shallow, I know.) I'm hoping that when we hold auditions and see the actors reading for the part that I'll change my mind. I'm hoping someone will bring the character to life before my eyes, possibly changing the way I see the character entirely.

These are questions for any writers who have gone on to direct their own material: how do you shed the image of a character that's in your head and learn to love something that might be different than you'd imagined? Will this feeling go away naturally once the right actors sweep me off my feet?

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 84 – Second Draft out to Producer

After close to a month of working on rewrites, I finally popped a revised draft of my post-Apocalyptic spec into an email addressed to the manager and producer who optioned it and hit the ‘send’ button. Cause for celebration? I sure hope so.

In the first draft of the script – in which a bounty hunter has to track someone in a post-Armageddon type world – the different story elements were loosely connected, at best (see last week’s post on the unifying factor). Now, though, everything is much more firmly connected. In addition to providing the script with a solid back bone, the changes also bring a deeper level of meaning to the script. There were a lot of themes I had hoped to touch on, but they were often times lost to moments of more superficial action. I’ve figured out a way to explore those and other themes more thoroughly with this new draft in a way that doesn’t compromise any of the action.

That said, I’m not 100% sure how I feel about the rewrites. Yes, I like them. I think that when they’re totally polished, they could work wonders. I just don’t know if they’re there yet. Onyx has continued to help me brainstorm a lot of ideas. And the more we talk, the bigger the scope of certain parts gets. It’s not unmanageable, but I did have a lot of trouble determining if I’d integrated everything effectively. Certain bits of information show up potentially too late. Others might need more explanation. Characters’ reasoning might be off at time. I’m just not sure. (Then again, I’m never sure when I hit send. That little voice of doubt is hard for me to shake.)

Yesterday, after wracking my brain and trying to determine if I’d answered everything, I realized that the best thing to do was send it off to the producer. After all, we’re supposed to be working on this together, and I keep us both from doing that by withholding pages. Hopefully, my concerns are unfounded. Sure, I expect to have to edit/iron some things out, and I certainly don’t want to give her anything before it’s ready. I think it’s close; now we just have to drive it home.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

We're making a damn movie

We’re making a movie.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the reality dawned on me, but it's something that's been stewing in my brain for the past year. We’re making a damn movie.

Acceptance is the first step, I guess. You’ve got to admit to yourself that you’re making a movie.

Shooting a feature was always a goal, from my first home movies shot with my schoolyard friends in the back yard to more comple flicks shot and edited on DV with friends from high school. Somewhere around the age of 16, my best friend Bob and I made plans to shoot a feature together one day. We shook on it, then I headed off to screenwriting school and he started on a college path that led to a Master’s Degree in cinematography.

My screenplays, for the most part, have a tendency to be tiny. Not in the sense of page count, and especially not in the sense of concept – but in scope. I like to concentrate on a handful of characters and tighten the focus on the small world they inhabit day to day. In short, I like to write low-budget scripts based around two or three actors.

I applied to NYU’s screenwriting program because I wanted to make movies, but was more interested in creating stories than working a camera. Sometime between starting NYU and the two years post-graduation I spent trying to “break in” to the industry, the filmmaking bug died out in me. I had tunnel-vision on the “typical” (I use quotes because there is no such thing as typical in this industry, it seems) path to becoming a Hollywood screenwriter, where you write spec scripts, score an agent, move to LA, sell your first feature and then wait for the lucrative rewrite assignments to roll in. This is how half the books say it’s done, and by golly, that’s how I was gonna do it.

Plans to make my own movie? Say hello to the backburner.

Once I had a few specs under my belt, I tested the query waters. Nothing wide – just dipping my toes. I liked my scripts (or else I wouldn’t have sent them) but I wasn’t in love with them – at least not as much as much as I was with a script I’d been messing with for over a year. This was the one – this was the script that was truly representative of my potential; an idea that had been brewing in my head and in my heart for several years. This one’s my baby. I’ll wait til I finish that one and hit the ground running with it.

And query I did. The logline generated interest – I received quite a few requests for the script, which led to more than a handful of rejection letters. The notes were all very positive: they liked the story, they really liked the characters, they’d love to see what other scripts I have, but they’re sorry, it’s not the type of script that they’re looking to represent. I even received *two* notes from separate agents saying more or less the same thing: they loved the script, but it was too small for them.

Too small? Bah. You could shoot this script for a few thousand dollars. Isn’t that a good thing? I appreciated the kind words when I received them, but the rejections still felt like defeat after soul-crushing defeat.

After many, many frustrating rounds of querying, I got desperate. I received an E-mail from one of NYC’s wonderful indie theaters regarding a screening followed by a Q&A from one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. This particular director is known for her small character pieces, centered around one or two characters and spanning only a minimal number of locations. She’s able to make these wonderfully deep films out of so little material, which is what I really love about her work. There are few writers/filmmakers I feel I identify with, but she’s certainly one of them.

This was my chance. Face-time with a director who I thought might share my ideas of what storytelling should be. Yes, it’s probably rude to approach her with a script right after a screening. Yes, it’s probably extremely off-putting. But, how many chances would I get? So off I trekked, 108 neatly-clasped pages of script in my bag.

(The movie was wonderful. Watching it, I grew even more enamored with my fantasy of her working on one of my ideas.)

I waited until the screening let out and she was hanging around in the lobby before I pounced. After the initial flurry of fan-gushing (“I love you.” “Your movie brought me to tears.” “Did I mention I love you?” etc.) I took a deep breath and came clean with my pitch.

She was extremely sweet through the whole spiel, despite how uncomfortable I regret probably having made her. She asked questions and nodded while I breathlessly ran through the story, the characters, the high concept. When I was finished, she remained silent for a moment before hitting me with a suckerpunch of a question:

“If you love the idea so much, why are you trying to give it away?”

I had to pause – the question knocked me backwards. Not what I was expecting at all. Give it away? I just wanted to see it get made. I told her that.

“If you want to make sure this story is actually made, you should shoot it yourself. No one is going to get it right but you.”

I… I’d never thought of it that way. I told her I’d give that some thought and she told me she’d keep an eye out for it at the festivals. I thanked her and let her get on with living the free-wheeling life an indie auteur while I pondered over the implications of her words.

Shoot it myself? A feature? Me? Don’t I remember setting that life goal back when I was a wee lad? I’d better make a phone call to check with someone who might remember. Remember Bob, the DP from the beginning of this post?

“Hey, Bob. It’s Austin. Listen, I had this funny idea that we should shoot one of my scripts…”

This instantly launched Bob into a long rant which more or less boiled down to “I’ve been telling you that for years!”

Okay, Bob. You were right. It’s time for us to make our own damn movie already.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 83 – The Unifying Factor

Characters are supposed to have arcs. So are plots. So are scripts as a whole. And over that arc, there’s something that, no matter where the character goes or how the plot unfolds, ties everything together. This is the unifying factor (as I like to call it).

The unifier is usually thematic. Family is a great and common theme – the loss of family, dysfunctional families, comparative families. What one character experiences toward the beginning of a film carries him/her throughout and bridges the gap with the other characters he/she meets along the way. The unifying theme can be quite obvious (think Paul Haggis’ CRASH), or a bit more subtle.

However, a unifying factor can also be more tangible. In THE RED VIOLIN, for example, that one object – literally, a red violin – connects the different stories that take place over a few hundred years.

In doing my rewrites, I happened to stumble upon my tangible unifying factor. I had the themes in place that I wanted to work with from the get go, but the numerous characters our protagonist meets in his journey were about as loosely connected as possible. Over the course of reworking the script, I found – with a lot of help through discussions and brainstorming sessions with Onyx – a way to tie everyone together. Though not obvious at first to me, all of the seeds for the common link were there from the get go. All I had to do was turn them from set dressing into part of a larger through line. And I’ll admit here; it’s helped a lot.

My protagonist is a bounty hunter tracking a suspect, and not to say that he didn’t have a solid arc before, but there wasn’t a lot of connection between the suspect’s crimes and the world as a whole. When I added that unifier, though, he fit right in. Suddenly, everything congealed to make this nice big, single picture. I have to go through and re-read the entire script to make sure that I didn’t inadvertently overcomplicate things, but at least they’re all interconnected now.