Monday, January 28, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 256 - Thoughts on Structure

It's been nearly a month since I began the second draft of my sci-fi collaboration, and I have high hopes of finishing it tonight. Of course, I'll still have to to a word-by-word read-through of the whole thing, but that's neither here nor there. It'll be wonderful to have a hard copy of the script to work off of, and I can already say, without having gone through and read it again, that it's crazy the difference a draft can make.

Already, when I go back and reread draft one (I'm working off a copy of that draft, editing as I go along, so I'm getting intimately reacquainted with the first pass), I find myself thinking what utter crap some of it was. Structurally, it was fairly sound, though a lot of it proved more dependent on coincidence than I would have liked. And there were certain reveals that I withheld until the end of act two, which my partner felt were much stronger as midpoint surprises. In the rewrite, I came to see his point and shuffled a lot of important information around - to the betterment of the script. The dialogue has been streamlined and improved upon; the characters are much more three-dimensional and now have actual arcs, and the world in which we've set the story is infinitely more detailed and unique. All in all, it's a huge improvement.

Part of the rewrite process has gotten me thinking about story much more. This particular one is now much stronger, and perhaps just because I'm in the middle of it now, but I've been more attuned to story in general. Take, for example, Django Unchained, which I saw yesterday. I'm not the world's biggest Tarantino fan in general, and I'd been semi-hesitant to see Django. My viewing experience pretty much validated my initial expectations.


Still with me? As you know, Django is a long movie. And a violent one. And you know what? I didn't feel as though either was fully justified. Primarily, that's because the ending - to me - came 20 minutes before the credits rolled. After Candie is killed - this is the antagonist, we're talking about... sort of... well, one of them - there are at least four dozen deaths yet to come. Django has technically secured his wife's freedom, but it's cost him his own, as well as his friend's life. Candie drops, and his untold number of minions storm the house, ala Scarface, for a shootout that will literally paint the walls red.

But I didn't care. The bad guy was dead. Those who were left to catch bullets were the anonymous faces of extras we'd met briefly, or only in passing. Yet, their deaths and shootout with Django took so much screentime, as a point in which I'd already been sitting for well over two hours. It was time to call it a day. Shootout over, we still have to meet a couple Australian slavers, see their three deaths, and then watch Candie Land get blown to smithereens - after another five deaths in the foyer. I didn't care about a single one of them. Sam Jackson's character was interesting, but at that point, I had already watched Django take out: a trio of brothers he had a personal vendetta against, Big Daddy and his pre-Klansmen, and Candie. How many antagonists are we dealing with? How many should I care about? I cared about Candie. I was please when he got his comeuppance. The others - excess screen time that I didn't need.

My first draft of the sci-fi spec came in at a whopping 130 pages. I'm happy to report that this draft will top out at 116, maximum. I've trimmed the fat, made sure that each scene, character, and line of dialogue is warranted, and I have made the story move as smoothly and quickly as I can. No, I'm no Tarantino and don't have the cinematic license he does. I'm content with that and, for now, simply want to make sure that my story is as strong as it can be. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Logline Central - The General Staff

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.

This week, I want to take a look at a featured logline, not because it sounds like it will lead to a particularly good movie, but because it's one hell of an interesting acquisition.

Title: The General Staff 
Logline: Set in 1979, "cowardly" U.S. diplomats are treated with kindness and eventually delivered to safety by their Iranian hosts. 
Writer: Ataollah Salmanian 
Prod. Co: Arts Bureau  
More: Ataollah Salmanian will direct. The film is being produced by the Iranian government in response to "Argo."

A government-funded response to another nation's fictionalized account of a thirty-year old event. Wow. I wonder how often that has happened before (and plead ignorant on the history of such occurrences). 

What are the implications of the film? (Note that I care very little about the actual content in this case; it is very clearly propaganda, which isn't how I interpreted Argo, but perhaps that bears a closer look.) Is the tone anti-American? Will it portray a wildly different version of the 1979 events, depicting Americans as the antagonists? I reserve no judgment on that, or on whether or not "we" were "bad guys" in that case. Politically, what does the film mean?

Am I ignorant of Argo's implications? I wasn't aware it was a statement that required or even prompted a response. Certainly not of this variety. And, perhaps more importantly, what does the Arts Bureau seek to gain by making such a picture? From a business point of view, the hypothetical Hollywood mogul in our Logline Central posts can question whether this film would ever be picked up for distribution, receive awards consideration, or otherwise make its investment back. On a more intellectual, less financially-driven level, I'd ask - who will see the film? It strikes me that it is made for Iranian audiences to address perceived gross misrepresentations and inaccuracies in an American movie. But will it ever reach beyond the country's borders?

I can't deny that there's a small part of me, a jocular, albeit maybe fractionally optimistic part, that wonders if The General Staff is indicative of something larger, a new paradigm in international relations. Could this be the new way countries wage war? Not a cold war, but a Celluloid War. Propaganda films replace guns, and theaters replace battlefields. We address our disagreements not through bloodshed, but with esoterically re-written histories. Sure, Iran's history in this case would vary greatly from the way we in the States perceive it, but doesn't it already? Dialogue between nations would crumble if every response is delivered in the time it takes to absorb a film and develop and produce a feature film in response, but the body count would drop considerably. And, frankly, can anyone claim that the dialogue that exists now is really any stronger? Maybe the fight of the films is the new way we should go in modern warfare. It would certainly be more civilized.

Or maybe that's just another far fetched, out of touch with reality film idea. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 255 - The Power of Story

We write because we need to tell a story the whole way through. This is different than needing to tell a story, for why do we spin a tale if not to arrive at its conclusion? More than wanting to let our readers and listeners and viewers know how the story ends, we write because we, too, can't bear the thought of not knowing the resolution. 

Twice a day, I board the N or Q train from Astoria, Queens to Midtown, Manhattan, and back again for work. My commute lasts about twenty minutes, barring any technical difficulties, passenger problems, or general New York City subway nonsense. For the most part, I try to spend that time with my nose in a book, feet out from beneath other strap hangers, and my being as far as humanly possibly from whoever has decided that the three-minute trip beneath the East River is the best and only time they can unleash hack after cough after sneeze into the confined metal car. Sometimes, though, despite my best efforts at ignoring everything and everyone around me, my ear will pick up on snippets of dialogue, and I can't help but listen and wonder... what happens next?

"I gave Julie a call last night, asked if she wanted to hang out."
"Oh yeah," said the passenger's friend, "what'd she say?"
"She said she was watching TV and doing chores, but did I want to go over. So I brought some beer and we chilled for a bit."
"Nice, dude, did anything happen?"

"This is Times Square, 42nd Street. Stand clear of the closing doors, please." The conductor has a nasty tendency of interrupting stories, just as I begin to get invested in them.

I don't know who Julie is. I don't know her relationship to either of the men talking about her. Are they all friends? Are they dating? Is Julie his sister? Is she his ex wife? Or his mistress? What could Julie possibly have to do with them, and what on Earth happened when he went over?! Did they hook up? Did she put him to work on the chores? I hope he didn't do anything to Julie, and I hope they had a nice time. But how will I ever know? And why do I care? Maybe nothing came of it. Maybe Julie is the passenger's friend. Maybe the next words to come out of the passenger's mouth were, "We had two beers and called it a night an hour later and were each in bed by 9." Conclusion. The end. But, damn it, I want to know if that's the case.

That is the power of story. 

Give me an introduction and a sense of who the characters are, and I'll want to follow them, even if it's just for two minutes on the subway. Even if it winds up being nothing, a boring tale about a mundane night. Yet don't withhold the ending from me. Don't unknowingly rope me in and dangle the promise of a resolution that I never get to hear. That's just cruel. 

I tell stories because I want to share something - an experience, an idea, a fable - with you. But here's the secret; I also tell them, because I can't abide by not knowing what happens in the end once the beginning has popped into my head. I simply can't. I must know, and you must let me tell you. I'll go mad otherwise. It's why we often watch a terrible movie start to finish, though we know twenty minutes in that it's garbage - there's a fundamental, human curiosity that none of us can shake. Sure, there are exceptions, but when someone says something that they think is not only worth sharing, but also entertaining, dramatic, or stirring, we can't help but listen in to see if it moves us, as well. 

Is Julie's plight an earth-shattering, transformative one? Probably not; it's probably an insignificant tale about a minor, forgettable experience worth telling only in the time it takes to go the two stops from 49th Street to 34th. But just on the off chance it is something more, something worth hearing, shouldn't I listen in? You've unknowingly captivated me, and when we stop at 42nd Street half-way into your yarn, wouldn't you prefer I stay to hear the pay-off? 

I get off the train, despite wanting to know more, because that is my stop. But maybe, just maybe next time, I'll ride to 34th, because that is the power of story. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2013 Oscar Nominees Announced

You've seen some or all of them. Or none of them. You loved, hated, or felt indifferent toward them. You've sung their praises, or have no clue what all the hype is about. Well, for better or worse, whether you agree with the choices or not, here they are, folks - the 2013 Oscar Nominations!

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

You can read all of the nominations here.

What are your predictions, favorites, and snubs?

The Oscar telecast will be Sunday, February 24, starting at 7pm EST. 

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 254 - A New Year, A New Outline

Happy New Year! Off, it's been a while since my last post. I guess the end of 2012 saw me veer off schedule with these "weekly" updates. No more - I am trying to get back on track! At the very least, though The Writing Weeks might have fallen off track, I'm happy to report that my writing itself did not.

Where to start? The end of December was actually pretty exciting/interesting. For one, we decided to do another push with the post-Apocalyptic spec. As far as I know, we got a couple reads over the holidays, which ideally I'll have some updates on by the end of next week. One of the people reading is actually a manager, which will be interesting. (If you've been reading, you know I have reps in LA already, but I got the requisite go-ahead to send, so we'll see what happens.) He is someone I was in touch with years ago when I was fresh out of school. My material wasn't ready at that point, especially the script that he read then, and I recognize that now. Naturally, I had high hopes, and he responded generously, but we didn't wind up working together. Looking back on that script, that's no surprise to me at all. I'll be the first to admit that screenplay was not ready for industry attention. Perhaps the second time will be the charm. I certainly like to think I've grown much stronger as a writer in the ensuing years.

The sci-fi collaboration hit a bit of a bump at the end of the year. A (very) similar project was announced at a major studio. Well, perhaps that needs some qualification. A studio picked up the rights to some material that is strikingly similar. I won't speculate as to why it might be eerily akin to ours, as it's not really my place, but it was - to say the least - a shock. My writing partner and the producer who paired us agree that our best plan is just to push forward and produce a polished screenplay before the other project comes to fruition. We have too much invested to stop, and neither my partner nor I want to. I have no way of knowing what the outcome will be, other than to tell you that the immediate result was a fire lit right under my butt.

Sitting above the flames, I cranked out a revised outline for the project in question over the holiday week. The second half of the script remained largely the same, structurally. In fact, much of the script did, but I made a lot of adjustments earlier on, since we decided to skew toward a slightly younger audience and wanted to emphasize the science elements, rather than the action ones. My writing partner and I already had another hour discussion on the new outline, emphasizing the big points we want to hit that weren't called out in the outline, which are mostly emotional. End result: I started revising last night and am aiming for the draft to be done by the end of the month (knock on wood). 

How is your 2013 starting?