Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 212 - Writing the Rules

Rules are one of the most important part of any screenplay. If you're setting your story in a new, original world, then what are the rules there? Is gravity different? Is society? Are the laws? If it's set in this world, but there are people with special powers or knowledge or abilities or allegiances, then what are the rules that govern their actions, strengths, and weaknesses?

The Matrix is a perfect example of the utter necessity of rules. What can one do in the matrix that can't be done by ordinary people? How do Neo and his allies learn new tricks and skills? What are the agents' limitations? The rules are integral to effective story telling in a case such as this. As an audience, we certainly won't know all the rules going in, but things such as, "if you die in the Matrix, you die in real life" are fundamental to the plot and the world. We - by hearing that - know the stakes. So do the characters.

Even simple seeming stories have rules. They have to. Otherwise, what's to stop the writer from relying on a crutch or a deus ex machina to expedite or wrap the story? With my demon thriller, the rules were something I had yet to solidify when I showed an outline to my manager. I'll admit that was a bit of a rookie mistake, and then move on to a point where I can learn from it.

After talking with the League last month, I took some time recently to hammer out the rules. They might not all be down there on paper, and those that are perhaps seem quite obvious, but I think it's essential to put them down in writing. And, after a prolonged period of inactivity, I have to admit that it also felt very rewarding and refreshing. I wound up writing out about two pages of bullet-pointed rules. Though I have the ability to alter them later, their presence will really prove a very solid guide to hold my hand through the upcoming re-outlining stage. I think that, from here on out, getting the rules down on the page is going to prove a necessary part of my writing process.

On another note, I read on Done Deal Pro today a bit of unsettling news. I hadn't read the site in a while, and what with the month over at the end of the day, I wanted to get caught up on January sales. Unfortunately, something I'd been dreading came a bit to a head today - there was an idea that was disturbingly similar to my post-Apocalyptic spec. I figured that had to happen at a certain point, and the stories are not identical, but the basic premise (i.e., the Apocalyptic event) is close enough to my own to warrant nervousness. I immediately emailed the discovery to my producer, and she reached out to the rest of the team. The sale in question is actually the acquisition of book rights to a novel that is slated to drop this summer. In some respects, that's good news: a) the script for the adaptation is almost guaranteed not to have been written yet, so my project could land first and b) just because the film rights were picked up, that doesn't mean a film will actually get made from it. 

I'm looking at this two ways. First, and least desirable, is that this will effectively quell any interest or heat regarding my script. The more optimistic alternative is that a rival production company will be in the market now for something similar, and the emergence of this novel will light a fire of urgency not only under my team, but under buyers. What with this project now on the table, buyers might come back to my script with renewed interest. I'm sure there's a right way to spin this in our favor; I don't know what it is exactly, but that's what my team is there for. Fingers crossed that this book isn't one of the last nails in the coffin on my post-Apocalyptic spec. While I've prepped for that, I'd hate to see it come to pass.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominees Announced

Forgive the delay - it's been a busy week. After much speculation, the 84th annual Academy Award nominations were announced this past Tuesday. As you probably know, the rules were changed for this year's awards show, leaving open the possibility of there being anywhere between five and ten Best Picture candidates. Essentially, a film must earn at least 5% first-place votes in the nomination process in order to get the nod as one of the Best Picture contenders. In theory, this allows the Academy to recognize more than just five films as being potentially the "best" in a particularly strong year - a lot of people still feel it was the omission of The Dark Knight that least to the expansion back up to ten - but also affords flexibility in terms of not having to nominate ten in a weak year. (I'd argue that this was a weak year, but nine films still made it onto the list.)

The 2012 Oscar candidates for Best Picture are:

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Glose
The Help
Midnight in Paris
Tree of Life
War Horse

I've seen all but The Help. Of those listed - and don't worry, I won't launch into a verbose analysis of them all now - I think that The Artist is my favorite and the one I'll be rooting for. I liked Tree of Life a lot, and Hugo a healthy amount, but I don't see Tree taking it (I'd be happy if it did, though, because as a holistic work of cinema, I think it's incredibly strong). 

I'll be absolutely pissed if War Horse takes top prize. I dragged myself to that and Extremely Loud yesterday (didn't want to see either, but I felt compelled to because of the nominations). Extremely Loud didn't get great critical reception, but I loathed it less than I did War Horse, which was already cresting Top 10 lists before it even premiered. 

War Horse is utter crap. To sound like a critic - and I would bet good money that someone's said this before - it has zero horse power. It's a dull, drag of a movie where the director's hand is as visible as the fifteen hand horses. The music swells into a crescendo at the most obvious moments, and the instruments playing in the background might as well be swapped out for Spielberg's voice, urging the audience to, "cry now, please, and enjoy this touching moment." Only, the moments aren't touching. They're saccharine, phony, and strive to be manipulative. "We need to feel good here, so here's Albert's dim-witted friend cracking a joke and sharing in the Joey love." And before you get on my case, I'm not knocking the story or its sentiments. I was fortunate enough to see the play and was absolutely blown away by it - a kid watching theatre for the first time, marveling at what was unfolding before my eyes. But the movie's not the play. It's weak drivel, an example of a filmmaker relying on technical crutches (music, lighting, and a properly focused teary eye) to engender a response from the audience. Spielberg produced a sleeper here, and I'd hate to see it take the cake.

Let's take a look at the writing nominations, since we're obviously a collective of writers here (and as one of our readers, I imagine you're into that, too). 

Best Original Screenplay:
The Artist
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris
A Separation

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Descendants
The Ides of March
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I have been less proactive about seeing the nominees in the above categories as I should have been, so I can only comment from experience on six of them. For our purposes now, I want to focus on the original works primarily. I was lukewarm on Midnight in Paris - bits of it I thought were fairly predictable or easy, not that I'd ever try to tell the master how to write. Woody Allen has an incredible career and one I won't question; this film of his, though, while enjoyable, doesn't top my list.

I actually love that Bridesmaids is on there, and while The Artist is my favorite among the Best Picture nominees, I wouldn't mind seeing it lose out to Bridesmaids. For one, Bridesmaids is a welcome nod to the ever under-represented comedy genre. More so, it's also great recognition for women. Working in theater, I hear all too often about the lack of opportunities for women writers. Neither Wiig nor Annie Mumolo are exclusively writers, but their nomination pleases me in a way few others do. I hope they take it home, since Bridesmaids was both a commercial and critical success - and a last minute addition to many pre-nomination prediction lists. I think they've earned it.

What are your thoughts to the nominations?

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 211 - A (Possible) Route to Take

I'll admit I didn't do a whole lot of writing in Panama, though I did get the chance to talk shop with a few people. Our second night in Panama City, I met a real estate agent who is passionate about screenwriting and takes some of the Gotham Writers classes toward that goal. He has a pretty ideal setup - traveling four months of the year and writing, while working in the city the other two thirds of the time. I'd sure as hell like that kind of arrangement. Anyway, we chatted a bit about writing, mainly swapping ideas (admittedly not something I really enjoy doing, especially with strangers, so my end of the conversation was a bit quieter than his), and talking a bit about our hopes and goals for our careers.

Not long after that, I moved on to Bocas del Toro, a small Caribbean Panamanian archipelago an hour by plane northwest outside the city (amazing, gorgeous - if you ever get a chance, I highly recommend going). To be quite frank, it was pretty difficult to do much there at all, mentally. Apropos of the weather and overall way of life on the islands, coupled with the ever-present calming lull of the eternal surf, I found it hard to concentrate on much other than sitting on the beach, getting up in time for a swim, and forcing myself to my feet when my empty beer can necessitated movement and replenishment.

However, I did get an interesting email from one of my producers while there. We (or shall I say, they) are still hoping to set the post-Apocalyptic spec up for TV. In fact, that seems to be the main goal now, having overtaken the drive to see it launch as a feature film. Yet, what with Sundance and the fact that television companies are sorting through already existing pilots in an attempt to decide what to set up for mid-season, summer, and fall debuts, this is apparently not a very good time to try and ingratiate one's self into a television production company's sightline. 

That, though, wasn't the intriguing part of the email. What was? A mention that we might look to get the spec set up at a network akin to SyFy (as an example). At first, I'll admit, I wasn't too keen on the notion. Then, I spoke with my friend a bit about it, and he helped me see the silver lining. First - my gut reaction was that a TV network might not be able to pull out the big guns necessary for this kind of project. Would I have to dumb it down? Would we lose important or compelling elements? More selfishly, would the pay be the same? Would I want to make my appearance in made-for-tv-movies, rather than Hollywood blockbusters? There's no doubt that the film could be made on a smaller budget. Even I've been tempted to go out and try to shoot it myself should it come down to that. More than anything, this was a question of ego.

My friend made the very astute point that getting my script produced anywhere would be something to be incredibly proud of. Everyone has to break in (everyone who works in the industry has to start somewhere, that is), and if this is my big break, then why not embrace it. If a television original film is the way to go, then why not explore that route? Is it a big film with A-List talent premiering on 3,000 screens? No, but neither are the vast majority of movies that get made (even some with huge stars get very little visibility on the big screen). My producers have both my and the project's best intentions in mind, and I've no doubt that if this is a route they'd like to pursue, it's one they've thought long and hard about the pros and cons of. I'll trust them, and hopefully that trust will earn a sale and a produced film - wherever that might come from.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 210 - Talking Helps

Despite the fact that no member of The League had any pages to present at this month's meeting, we made it a point to remain on track and gather last Tuesday anyway. (I highly recommend that any group do this; sticking to the schedule - even when there are no physical pages to talk about, is a great way to maintain order and regularity, both as a group and as individual writers.) Surprisingly - or perhaps not so - it was actually one of our more productive meetings.

We went around, BSing for a long time, as is allowed. When we meet, everyone brings some food (mainly appetizer type things) and beer or wine for anyone drinking. We meet at someone's apartment - the same one, not on a rotating basis. It's a good time for friends to gather who might not otherwise see each other too often; it's also a laid back setting, which makes giving and getting notes comfortable and easy.

Once the snacking and catching up is done, it's down to business time. Normally, if there are pages on the docket, we'll start with whoever submitted first and go from there. Someone will say, "ok, you're up, Zach" (if I was the first to send, that is), and then the conversation kicks off. Each person receives however much time is necessary for everyone to get their opinions out. This usually takes about an hour per note-recipient, sometimes more if there is only one project on the table.

This past week, since there weren't pages, we just went around the circle and solicited updates from everyone one-by-one. Some people didn't have too much to say, "I'm working on this or that, but I'm not too far along. Here's a basic idea, but I hope to have an outline out by the next meeting." Others, like Jon and myself, were looking for a bit more in-depth analysis on our projects. I was still a bit stalled on my demon thriller, so I asked the group to help me talk through it a bit. 

I have to say, what I got was really valuable. I was looking for feedback on some of the bigger and more important rules of the world and the characters' motivations. By going around the circle after I explained briefly what I was looking for, the group was really able to weigh in and help me come up with some great solutions. I think I'm at a much better place now than I was before the meeting, which is a great feeling. If you're ever stuck, or if no one in your group has any pages, I genuinely advocate getting a meeting together anyway. Sometimes spitballing is the best remedy for writers block.

For now, though, I'm gearing up to head up to the Bocas del Toro region of Panama for some (hopefully) quality beach - and brainstorming - time.

Adios, amigos.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 209 - Distracted

Personal life can at times get in the way of one's writing life. Granted, it might make sense to presume that the two are too dramatically interwoven to be considered separate. After all, don't many writers write semi-veiled or completely obviously autobiographical pieces? Isn't the commonly held belief that whether we write kitchen-sink dramas or end of the world pictures, we're still writing what (and who) we know?

Quite probably. However, the operative word in both of those assumptions is "write." Without actually putting words down, no level of autobiographical material can considered to have been written. (Sure, one can plan and develop, but I'm talking more literally than now.) This past week has been an example of one of those distracted periods in my attempts at productivity, in which a troika of personal factors have drawn my concentration far, far away from my writing.

Not to get into it too much, but 2012 has already proven itself full of both ups and downs. I'm heading out on yet another trip next week, so part of my mental capacity has been taken up with the planning. It should be fun, and though I travel relatively frequently, I'm still typically filled with nerves and pauses in the weeks leading up to the departure. Focusing on anything (even trip planning) can be difficult. not an excuse, I know, but still... Panama - here I come!

I've also been applying for new jobs, and have a possibly promising lead on one, with an interview later this week. Remember how I was talking about trying to shake things up a bit as a means to spark creativity? Well, this new career path opportunity is one such example of how I'm hoping to do that. Coupled with meeting some new people recently, the professional and social changes have had a deleterious effect on the writing.

Primarily, now, though, I've been consumed with some rather devastating family news. Loss is something one can never fully brace for, even when given time, and it seems as though many of my thoughts this year will be toward steeling myself against an inevitability I dread facing. Ideally, this means I will be able to spend countless hours with my ill loved one, but the immediate result has been an impressive lack of attention (on pretty much everything) and no desire at all to write. 

Life is unpredictable and can come at us quite quickly when least expected. Mine seems busier now than usual (in many instances, in a good way). Though I'm not producing pages now, hopefully I can store these experiences and emotions in my artistic bank and draw on them later, when the mood strikes.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 208 - 2012

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful end to 2011 and a great start to 2012. 

My goal for the Christmas through New Years week was to write. A lot.

I failed. A lot.

But that's ok. I'm feeling re-energized and recharged, which sometimes is just as - if not more - important as actually being productive. I spent an afternoon working on my demon thriller, reassessing the notes I got from the League. More of them aligned than I had previously thought, which leads me to think two things. One: three sets of in depth notes responded unfavorably to a key sin involved in the story, so that clearly has to change. Two: two of the three notes directly touched on my use of guns in the story, and were adamantly against them. Though removing them might make for a bit more of a challenging script, I have to admit that it's a battle I'm feeling up for, and one that I think could really streamline the idea. 

The second tiny bit of productivity was that I spent another afternoon working on a new historical graphic novel idea. I know, I know; you're thinking, "Dude, stick to one idea and see it through, damn it." I'm thinking the same thing, which is why I flat out told the League that I'm not going to abandon the demon idea until I get at least a draft done of it (and by abandon, I mean set aside for a little while). The graphic novel is an aside - unless, for whatever reason, my manager thinks it can go directly to the screen without comic book source material first (a long shot, with this idea), in which case I might sally forth with it. But it's been fun to work on and clogging my mind, so I had to get it down on the page, at least in an introductory way. 

So that's that. My writing - or lack thereof - over the holiday. I hope you fared better. Yet let's not forget, 2012 is just beginning. Time to break out those laptops, pads, pens, or typewriters. Happy writing. May 2012 bring us all sales, maybe some productions, and proof that the Mayas were wrong.