Monday, November 29, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 152 - No More Idleness, A Writing Resolution

Thanksgiving is over, and Christmas and New Years are right around the corner. For writers not getting paid to work, this can either be a great time to work (what with all the free time) or, more often the case, an extremely detrimental period to one's work ethic. As far as I go, I know two things to be very true for myself - 1) while my team tries to sell my post-Apocalyptic spec, I can no longer afford to miss out on any potential writing time and 2) the temptation to scale back my efforts over the holiday month is great. To avoid stagnating, I have decided that I will not succumb to the holiday slump, no matter the hours that means I will keep.

In truth, I've done little writing in November, costing myself a great deal of time. Granted, I was out of the country and not on a trip conducive to writing for two weeks. And then, promptly after my return, I left the City again for the long Thanksgiving weekend. The result is a month with little more than about a half dozen loglines to show for it. At this stage in my (hopefully) emerging career, I have to consider that entirely unacceptable. 

Part of the reason for the lack of actual writing is that I have yet to settle on a next project. My manager and I go back and forth over my ideas, many of them proving unsuited to the current market for one reason or another. I've allowed myself this difficulty in settling on a project an excuse for little momentum, and over the holiday - which proved more revelatory than I anticipated - determined that was no longer justifiable. My return to New York prompted something in me, which wants to cast off any sense of idleness. I think, actually, something I experienced overseas did that, though I can't say what it was. 

I do know, though, that the position I'm in necessitates writing. To that end, I've decided to begin outlining a project I want to work on, even before receiving my manager's blessing on it. For starters, being able to speak about it at greater length should make my pitch stronger. If nothing else, though, it will get my mind working again after a vital month which, if I am to be completely honest with myself, feels like more of a loss than a gain in terms of progress that is in my hands. I can't control what's happening with the post-Apocalyptic spec at this point, so I feel as though I can't claim any real progress it makes as my own now - not, at least, until I have something solid to follow it up with. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 151 - Developing New Ideas as Producers Read

It's been a pretty eventful two weeks, though not a lot of that time has been spent on writing. As you know, I've been out of the country exploring the Middle East and Cyprus. It was a pretty epic, pretty incredible trip. And to be honest, it was good to get away from everything for a bit, especially the post-Apocalyptic spec, since there's nothing I can really do to further any progress at this point.

While I was abroad, my team went out to some directors and big-time producers. We're still waiting to hear back from most people. Of course, not everyone will like or want the material, but part of the process right now also involves just getting my name out there and familiarizing people with my style. Ideally, even if that doesn't lead to a direct sale right now on this project, it will beget other work in the near future.

Now that I'm back in the country, I need to continue developing other script ideas. I'm working on scaling them back a bit for the time being, and as I tried to kill 13 hours in the Larnaka, Cyprus airport last week, I came up with a half dozen, fairly mainstream and "simple" ideas. I don't mean simple in terms of the idea being basic or dumb or easy. Rather, simple just means that it's easy to comprehend, conducive to an elevator pitch that doesn't require visuals and an entire world or preexisting knowledge. People can hear these ideas in 30 seconds and think, "I know that. It's like (insert well-known movie here), but with a twist." Frankly, that's the ticket right now, at least for me. 

As I mentioned in the past few weeks, the industry is still fickle at this point, and as writers trying to sell big ideas, we have to make things that are unique and new takes on something that has been tried and true. That's what I'm working on now. If nothing else, it's an interesting experiment, just seeing how many ideas I can come up with in an hour, which I'd actually want to write. If I detested them, they didn't even go down on paper. After all, I'm the one who is going to have to spend (possibly) a year on it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 150 - Exploring the World (and Hopefully Finding Inspiration)

It's that time again - my annual "get out of the U.S." trip. Don't get me wrong. I love the comforts of home. Compared to some of the places I've been, life in New York City is a complete luxury. Still, I find it crucial to my development as a writer to get out there and see the world, and that's what I'm doing right now.

The itinerary is three countries: Egypt, Jordan, and Cyprus. I'm taking one of those all inclusive tours (with the exception of a few meals here and there), which is a first for me. The downside is that they rush us through everything before we really have time to take in the sights, and there's little flexibility to stray from the set plan and see other things. The upswing, on the other hand, is that there's very little planning I actually have to do. As long as I'm where I'm supposed to be, when I'm supposed to be, the rest is taken care of. If only someone would chew my food for me, I'd be all set.

Enough about that, though. This trip also comes at a good time for my writing health. As you might remember from last week, I'm developing new ideas again. I still really like a handful of older ones I have, but it seems that - without source material such as a graphic novel to back it up - the market's just not secure enough to risk sending them into now. On top of working out new things, everyone involved in the post-Apocalyptic spec is still strategizing for that. This past and this current week would be too much sitting around, constantly checking email and waiting for my phone to ring for updates. Not being able to access email or phone, in fact, not being in the country, makes the wait much easier.

Sometimes, the best thing a writer can do to get back on the proverbial writing horse is to get as far away from writing as possible. One of the stories we used to hear a lot in school was how one of our professors poured everything he had into one final script while he was trying to break in, then took what little money he had and went to China. He wanted to get as far away from it all as possible. If nothing came of the script, then fine. He'd tried with all his might. But, as it would happen, his agent managed to track him down in China, and one day, that writer got a call telling him to get on the next plane back to L.A. His career had begun. I'm not expecting something like that to happen now, but it just goes to show you - sometimes distance is what the doctor ordered.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 149 - The Dependence on Source Material

The further I get into the industry (and that's still not incredibly far, yet), the more I hear people talk about the importance of source material. If you're unsure what I mean, 'source material' here describes existing material, which your script is based on. It can include anything from books or graphic novels, to other movies or even paintings. Basically, it's something that studio heads and producers can look at as already having found an audience (even if it's a very small one), which makes them more comfortable with backing your big idea. 

A prime example is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (and my favorite western). He wrote an epic script about rangers who drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. No one wanted it. He then wrote an epic - 900+ - page book based on it. It was an in-demand property. He quickly tweaked his existing script and sold it as a four-part miniseries. Go Larry.

What this all means, more or less, is that your awesome superhero movie idea, while indeed quite awesome, is less likely to get greenlit than a movie about a third tier superhero that a dozen people read about each month is. Why? Because the product is already in place. More than that, there are already visuals that the writer (or director, or producer, or whoever) can produce in a pitch meeting. You have an idea - and even a script - which is great. What you don't have is a comic book you can point to and say, "look, here is is, hitting something!" It sucks, but I'm finding it's true. 

In the past few months, as I work out future projects I want to develop, I find myself butting up against this 'source material' wall. Superhero stuff - unless a rarity like The Incredibles or Hancock - is basically not gonna happen without a comic book it's based on. Giant sci-fi epics (unless you're James Cameron) are in the same place. For emerging and unproduced writers now, the waters of the market are cold and rough, and a simple, one-sentence pitch of an idea are (perhaps unfortunately) some of the safest boats. Heat worked, so how can you do Heat with a unique spin? That's what you'll be asked.

Of course, I don't want to limit anyone. I was talking with Onyx about this last week, and he reminded me of something important, worth keeping in mind. Sure, it's tough to launch your own The Matrix without source material, but a couple big sales can make all the difference. A tried and true writer can get a lot more experimental than a newbie. So, for the time being, I know that some of my ideas are going on the back burner. I'll keep working on them intermittently, with the hope of one day being that tried and true writer. Then, look out. Something awesome will happen.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Logline Central - Psycho Killer

Logline Central is an irregular segment that takes a deeper look at loglines of scripts or projects that have just been purchased, as listed on DoneDealPro.

Here's an interesting logline that sprang up on DoneDeal today:

Title: Psycho Killer
Logline: A nameless, masked murderer leaves a trail of victims across the U.S. In a chance encounter on the plains of Nebraska, he kills a highway patrolman. The only witness to the crime, the patrolman's young wife, a fellow officer, sets out to hunt the killer down, as the psycho killer plans his masterpiece: a mass murder which guarantees him a triumphant entry into hell.
Writer: Andrew Kevin
More: Eli Roth and Eric Newman will produce. Gavin Polone will direct. 
Disclaimer up front: I'm always quasi-curious about serial killer films. I even wrote a draft of a low-budget serial killer drama. (I've never seen someone so scared by something I did as when I had to return to the Borders clerk because she overcharged me for the two serial killer books I bought for research. I guess it's not often that someone buys serial killer books - mind the plural - makes "harmless" chit-chat during the transaction, and then comes back a couple minutes later.) 

This logline is interesting. If I was a teacher, I certainly wouldn't use this as a prime example of a logline. It's actually closer to the length of the pitches I delivered to my then-prospective agent a couple weeks ago. If we're talking textbook logline, I still argue for one (possibly two) sentence that essentially follows this format: When X (inciting incident) happens, Y (protagonist) must Z (goal).

That said, I think today's example offers an interesting way to breakdown the film. At first glance, leaving a "trail of victims across the U.S." seems like it could be a movie in and of itself. However, after a bit further reading, it actually strikes me as the set-up. By the time the film opens, this trail of bodies has already been laid, and the authorities are onto the killer (at least the idea that he's out there, that is). The inciting incident - or at latest, end of Act One - is the patrolman's death. That's what really sparks the movie. And even though the logline opens with mention of the killer, I wouldn't be surprised if the patrolman's wife is the protagonist.

HOWEVER (and that's in all caps for a reason), the very last part throws a lot of that back up into the air. "As the psycho killer plans his masterpiece: a mass murder which guarantees him a triumphant entry into hell." Wow. Ok, here's what this does. A) It takes everything to a new level. A mass murder that guarantees a triumphant entry into hell is an interesting sentence, very curious and invoking imagery, but it might be too much. Unless we're following the guy into hell, we don't know what becomes of him after he dies. Therefore, his entry into hell could be completely irrelevant. B) It shifts focus back to the killer as the potential protagonist. His goal is to cause this mass extinction of people in whatever town the film is set. His antagonist, then, is the patrolman's wife trying to stop him. C) It makes me wonder a bit about the other themes. So far, we've had cops and killers. Now, though, invoking hell brings into a possible religious element, and certainly the presence of something much greater, which makes me wonder how it's all strung through - thematically - from the getgo.

Either way, I'll be curious to know more (though again caution that this might not be the best go-to source for logline examples, for the reasons above).

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 148 - When Ideas Seem Too Familiar

It happens to all writers. If it hasn't happened to you, it will. If it has - don't worry, it's not a conspiracy. And chances are, there's no real reason to get all in a huff about it or try to figure out who to sue. Just suck it up, and move on. I'm talking about that fateful day, when your prized idea appears in the trades as a sale that's being fast-tracked for production. Hopefully you're not completing the final pages of your masterpiece when that happens, because chances are, especially if you're not repped by an agent, manager, or lawyer yet, your script just bought itself an open-ended ticket to the back burner.

The above happened to me this week - twice, actually. I have a scrip that I've been toying with for a while now (the "Roman Army spec" of last year's Writing Weeks). To be fair, this script was already put in the proverbial drawer at my manager's suggestion. Before he suggested we sit on it for a while - mainly, some very big concepts that, without source material such as a comic book to back them up, can be hard for a big studio to be very confident in - other movies came out that made me start to worry. Clash of the Titans, Centurion, and a half-dozen other Roman/Greek movies flooded the market in a short period. The success of the pictures aside, there was a lot out there, and my project began to run the risk of redundancy.

This week, though, two more nails were driven into the coffin. One project had a title similar enough to mine to make me cringe. Swap out one word, and they were the same. That was a small issue compared to a sale recorded later that same afternoon - a project that was in concept quite similar. It wasn't identical, but the combination of a similar idea and nearly identical title being used by two projects in one day made me realize that the drawer-time for my Roman Army spec just got extended.

What if I'm in a pitch or something later on, and I get the sense that the producer I'm meeting with is searching for what I have? Sure, I'll pitch it - why not. Can I swap out Roman for some other historical civilization? Yeah, probably. And for the scrip to have any life now, I might have to. Hmm... Mongols, anyone? Anyway, such is the fate of an aspiring writer. This happens, people. If it does, my guess is that no one stole your idea. You'd need more than the notion of a couple being haunted by an evil spirit to claim plagiarism against Paranormal Activity. Get into the details - not just of your idea and how the film compares, but of who you told it to and the people involved in the production - and you might have more to go on. For the most part, though, these experiences can be considered (unwanted) exercises in developing the thick skin necessary to try and make it in the industry.

Should you automatically delete your script because something similar comes out? No. Definitely not. But, at that point, you need to be realistic. If something is the start of a trend, you might have time to get on board. Maybe. On the other hand, if someone else, someone with clout and credits, is doing what you want to, it's time to weigh your options. The spec you use to break into the industry should seem fresh (these days, the fresher the idea or approach, the better for new talent). If it's way too similar to something already in the works, many producers will stay away from it. They might treat it as a sample - never a bad thing - and you'll get other work from it; but that specific project will gather dust for a while. On the other hand, if you don't want to just aim for a sample, and you have other ideas and aren't too far into that particular script, it might behoove you to move onto something else, one of your other ideas that isn't as close to something that just sold. You'll save yourself a lot of time and grief, and chances are greater that you'll impress someone with you ingenuity.

Of course, take all of that with a grain of salt. Take it with a tablespoon of the stuff. It's all about time management, and if you think that the window for an idea just closed, it might be time to see what others are still open. And if you don't have any other ideas, then by all means, finish that one, and make it as solid as you can. The last thing you want to do is let one similar idea stop you from writing all together. If that were the case, we wouldn't have had any new stories for centuries. Then where would we be?