Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 277 - A Shorter, Streamlined Script

Last night, I submitted a revised draft of my sci-fi spec to my writing partner. The past couple months have born witness to an incredible transformation in that script. By roughly mid-April, we had a really solid idea of the story we wanted to tell. From about mid-May through mid-July, my collaborator and I were going back and forth on the script with each other, as well as with our producer. A lot of notes passed from one mind to the other via email and phone calls, all with the goal of distilling the story down to its most streamlined, concise, and riveting version possible.

Just shy of a month ago, I sent my partner a 108 page draft, which was the culmination of edits driven by the aforementioned notes and discussions. He got back to me about a week later with another round of notes. He asked me to do a major dialogue and action pass through as I edited, looking for anywhere I could cut. I did him one better - I made my edits, and then I did the dialogue and action pass. After that, I did another dialogue only pass, reading for cohesiveness, redundancies, and consistency. I sent him back a 98 page draft.

Not long later, about a week and a half ago, my collaborator came back with more notes. For the most part, his suggestions this last time were cosmetic. He pointed out a few areas that could be further truncated, multiple scenes that could be collapsed into one, and lines of dialogue that could be shortened or cut entirely. Still, he had some larger thoughts. 

One character we meet right around the midpoint wasn't quite working, because he required a lot of back story that a) we didn't have the means to easily convey and b) really affected a lot of the other characters and necessitated a lot more to be directly stated about them and their histories. More so, his presence created a double beat with a pair of characters we meet later in the script (more about them anon). We came up with a smart and easily workable solution - the character remains necessary, but his story was malleable. So, we completely rewrote who he was in the world. He lost his affiliation and history with the others, which solved the back story hurdles, and because he became so different, we didn't have to worry about the double beat any more. In changing him, we crafted a much more interesting character unbound by lengthy exposition. 

As for the duo, we had to spice them up a bit and give them a reason for their current situation in life. With the double beat worry off the table, I was free to take a closer look at what role they had to serve in the story, and the solution I came up with also made them much more compelling and lamentable. 

My writing partner's astute observations for where to collapse scenes all proved right on. I did more edits, consolidating and merging and further streamlining dialogue, for an end result of an additional four pages chopped off, bringing the script to a lean and mean 94. The cuts and reworkings of the characters have worked together to make this the strongest draft of the script yet. Hopefully, my partner agrees that it is strong enough to show our agents next.         

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Breaking Bad, Or Why I'm Underwhelmed

Let me just start by saying that I love Breaking Bad. I think it is possibly the best T.V. show I have seen, and that's no exaggeration. The transformation of the characters, the A+ caliber of the writing, and the show's uncanny ability to craft edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers on a weekly basis blow my mind. I am perpetually awed and floored by the show. 

Except, I haven't been for the past two episodes, and I will tell you why. 


As pretty much anyone with either a television set or an internet connection knows, we're in the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad. (Technically, this is Season Five part 2, but let's get real - eight episodes more than constitutes a season these days, and since it was over a year since the "first half" ended, we might as well just call this Season Six. But I digress...) Because the end is so unfortunately near, I have become overly critical of the show, perhaps a bit to the detriment of my enjoyment of the past two episodes.

My biggest gripe has to do with the frequent rehashing of previous scenes and seasons. Take a look at the three examples below to get a sense of what I mean. I know that all of these conversations had to happen in some form or other, but to me, many of them played as almost wasteful uses of what precious screen time the show as left.

1) Marie confronts Skyler, asking her when she first knew about Walt's criminal activities. This scene was four and a half years in the making (as, to a similar degree, was Hank's sit down with Skyler). As the sisters sit on the bed, Skyler chokes back tears, and Marie slowly begins to realize the length of her sister's complicity in Heisenberg's crimes. Marie says, to paraphrase, "Hank thinks you knew when you jumped in the pool, but it was sooner than that. Was it before Gus Fring? Was it when you bought the car wash? Skyler, did you know before Hank was shot?"

What follows is an incredibly powerful moment that irreparably tears the sisters apart and cements Marie's desire to see Walt taken down. After all, he was directly responsible for Hank's nearly fatal shooting. But did we need Marie to recap over two seasons of events for us? It felt a little bit like the "remember what happened last issue" dialogue that opens every monthly comic book.

2) Todd recaps the train robbery for his uncle. The train robbery was awesome. Todd would totally gloat about it. Would he do so this long after the events of it, though? His uncle surely knows the story by now (in which case, repeating it for us and taking up a few minutes of dialogue is gratuitous). Further, relaying the story in such a public place as a diner is just plain dumb. I expect, for that reason, that this will have greater implications. But still, Todd (aka Meth Damon - thank you, internet) robbed us of golden Breaking Bad screen time. Those of us who saw the train robbery episode distinctly remember it, so unless the uncle or his friend are going to turn state's witness, all that jibber-jabber could have been replaced with new, unfamiliar jibber-jabber.

3) Walt "confesses" to his crimes for Hank. Ok, I'll admit this one is me being a dick. Walt provides Hank with a DVD that provides a confession about his meth cooking, though certainly not the one Hanks wants to go public. Walt frames Hank, saying that his brother-in-law forced him to cook, pinning Heisenberg's activities on Hank. It's devious and evil and perfect reminder of just how smart and dangerous Walter White is. It is also a refresher course on the past few seasons of Walt's most nefarious activities. Granted, Walt's video deftly threatens Hank into silence, but for those of us who have seen every episode, it works in tandem with Marie's previous episode dialogue and Todd's recantations to reiterate stuff we've already seen.

The confession serves a purpose, for sure, but when we only have 220 minutes of Breaking Bad left (five episodes, minus commercials), do we really want to hear the characters talk about what's come already? Personally, I want them to focus more on where they're going.

Beyond the repetitious dialogue, I was starting to grow tired of the characters' paralysis. In the brilliant garage scene of the first episode this half season, Hank confronted Walt, laying out in no uncertain terms that he is onto him. Since then, though, he's been unable to act, unsure what the best course of action would be - and for good reason. Ratting on Walt will mean the end of the family life, the end of Hank's career, the end of so many things. This has left Hank frozen, not unlike how Jesse has been frozen. Jesse's stagnation stems not from being overwhelmed by an earth-shattering revelation, but by depression and guilt over his past crimes. Blank stares gave way only to tears, before leaving his face blank again. Jesse, I feel for you, man, but you are stuck. And with Hank stuck, too, I couldn't shake the feeling that Breaking Bad itself was spinning its wheels a bit, unsure quite how to get to the explosive climax we all know is coming.  It seems that Jesse finally broke, so at least his paralysis is over.  

I know I'm being nitpicky here, but I'm doing so out of love. I love the show and I am dying to know what's next. As much as I can't wait to see how everything wraps up, I dread the notion that we only have five more episodes before it is done forever. I just wish that Vince Gilligan and his team would use the time a little differently in the home stretch. I know what's come before. Why else would I be so hooked?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Article Alert - Are Sequels Statistically Worse?

Nerd Wallet recently released an interesting (and controversial) article that attempts to prove what many of us believe subjectively: movie sequels are almost always worse than their original.

The article makes use of Rotten Tomatoes data to show the drop in both critical and audience response to the subsequent offerings in a film franchise. A staggering number of sample franchises are used in the study - from Batman (not clear whether this is the Keaton or the Bale dark knight), Conan, Men in Black, and basically every slasher film ever made, since they're all part of a series. Take, for example, the Pirates of the Caribbean series. According to the data, the first four films earned, respectively, a 79%, 54%, 44%, and a 33% on the Tomato Meter. (Editor's note: I've seen the first two, and I heartily agree that two was far inferior. I actively avoided three and four.)

However, the study goes further, trying to also prove a direct correlation between the ratings, longevity of a franchise, and its earning potential. In the above Pirates of the Caribbean example, the first film earned $413,295,000 (domestic); the second spiked to $527,367,500, and the final two brought in, respectively, under $370M and under $250M. (Editor's note: boo hoo.) My guess is that a box office spike for the second film in a franchise is not an infrequent occurrence at all - it might even be common (cough Dark Knight cough).

But can we really draw this kind of connection? Sure, some franchises wear themselves out. They become more about money than product (I know, I know... they all are). Dark Knight Rises wasn't as good as Dark Knight, and it didn't earn as much, but there were special circumstances surrounding the second film in that series. The most recent Indiana Jones was, well, if you saw it, I don't need to say anything more. In neither of those instances, but in many franchise examples, the original talent, writer(s), and director leave the series, and new elements come on with a different approach. The X-Men trilogy is a perfect example. 

Still, can we say for sure that they will make less money (mind you, we're not really talking about losing money here)? They just announced that Avatar will will be a tetralogy. The Fast and Furious franchise is zooming ahead, with the sixth offering being the most successful at the box office of the bunch. 

What do you think? Is there truth in the numbers? Should I stop writing Leaving Las Vegas 2?    

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 276 - That WHAM Moment

Ah, rewrites. How you are necessary. How you are exhausting.

It's been a long haul on my sci-fi spec (over 18 months now). For the most part, it has been a wonderful process. My writing partner is great and offers a superb learning opportunity (he has decades of industry experience and work). We (I) have churned out draft after draft, first of the treatment (at least seven major versions), and then the script (I've lost track - maybe five primary drafts with smaller edits in between). Now, we're just about there. 

My collaborator and I spent about 90 minutes on the phone last night going over his final set of notes on the most recent draft I sent him. For the most part, the notes were miniscule - this is a little confusing here, and I'm not quite sure we need this there. A couple larger notes will be fun to address. We're revising one of the characters from a scientist into more of an underworld entity, because the role he fills as a scientist is a duplicated later in more important scientist characters. He became a redundancy as we spoke, and all redundancies must go. We've also figured out how to further simplify the science, which will be fun if for no other reason that it will eliminate some of the headache of explaining the rulse of the world. 

One note, though, demanded a fair amount of chit chat before we decided we had to bite the bullet and forgo what I like to call the WHAM moment. Every script should have lots of "WHAM moments" - scenes, beats, or revelations that glue you to the edge of your seat. No amount of urgency to refill your popcorn or soda or to take a leak should be able to draw you away from a WHAM moment. These will typically occur around the tentpole scenes (inciting incident, act turns, midpoint, climax, etc.) but can be scattered throughout. Our inciting incident draws the protagonist from the everyday into the sci-fi world he was unaware of. He lands somewhere completely foreign to him, somewhere dangerous and devastating; this should be a WHAM moment. It's a big moment, but due to the rules of the world, we can't thrust him into the heart of the chaos. His emergence into this other realm, while jarring, takes place in a controlled environment, which is heated emotional, but not physical, implications. 

My partner and I went over this scene again and again. How can we get him into the chaos? What can go wrong that forces him there? Can we manipulate in a way that the moment he crosses the plane, he's in danger in a big way? That's what the scene should be. That's how we'll capture the audience and the reader in a big way. That's the WHAM moment. 

Ultimately, the rules of the world won't let it be so. Too many things would have to be fudged; too much would have to be explained (or worse, glossed over later). It just wouldn't work. Yes, we lose our WHAM moment, which is a shame, but we do so in order to preserve the rules we have established. Ultimately, though perhaps a less riveting exposure to this other realm, the rules have to trump the WHAM. We can't unravel the story for the sake of the scene. Who knows, maybe we'll figure out a solution. But for now, we have to suck it up on this one and proceed true to the story. 

On a side note, I've been working on editing my children's book further. For a project that has never been longer than 1,670 words, it is an incredibly difficult process. In fact, it is an incredibly difficult process because the project has never been longer than 1,670 words (and needs to be closer to 1,000). 

A friend who works in publishing suggested that I cut the nearly 1,700 word manuscript down to a thousand or so, since the age group of my targeted readership is low. It's a wise note, but cutting is easier said than done. I have excised some portions and looked for redundancies or areas to combine verses in order to truncate others, but the fewer words I have, the harder it becomes to strip further. I'm down to just under 1,350 words now, which is still probably too long, but I feel like I can't cut much more without eliminating entire parts of the story. What I can do, though (another suggestion from my friend) is to look at the verb choices and words I use. If I can't reduce the word count, I can at least make the existing words more active, imaginative, and magical. The goal is to make every single verse sing, which is a laborious, yet fun process. My goal is to be able to send it to my friend by Labor Day, so that she can put me in touch with agents soon after.   

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6 ) part 275 - Need to Plan Next Projects

Half of your success as a writer will be determined by the strength of the screenplay you are trying to sell. The other half is determined by your ability to pitch and sell your next projects.

No agent/producer/lawyer/manager/studio wants a one-off writer. All those entities, whether they outright say it or not, are in the franchise business, and you, my friend, as a writer are a franchise. To be the most valuable commodity you can be, to get all of those people and buyers and businesses behind you, you need to give them a long-term reason. That reason, naturally, is a series of ideas you can continue to produce for them.

When I took my meeting at UTA (can it really almost have been three years ago already?), my manager worked with me to prepare three pitches for additional specs before I even got in the room with the agent. Sure, I had a strong script that we all thought would be a relatively easy sell (it wasn't - so sad), but that wasn't enough. No matter how great that one project was, my agent's time was more valuable than a single sale. I needed to show him that I'd be around working and earning for years to come. But, let's step back a moment - before UTA was even on the horizon for me, I was settling into a partnership with a pair of producers and a new (to me) manager. One of the very first things my manager asked for was another script of mine. He, too, was testing the waters of my writing; he was relieved when I said that the somewhat inferior script I gave him as a followup (the only other viable one I had on hand at the time) was an earlier script. It wasn't as strong, but I was younger when I wrote it. Similarly, if you recall, when I met with a publishing friend about my children's book, one of the first things she advised me to do was come up with other book ideas I could mention in meetings with potential agents. 

Clearly, having additional ideas is valuable - and it is best to keep them in the same genre as the project that you're gaining attention with, since that is where your strengths are most immediately visible to people who have only minimal, but favorable, exposure to your writing. Sometimes, though, it can be hard to focus on what's next when you're in the middle of a large project, or even when you're coming down onto the tail end of it. I recently got the (hopefully) last draft of the sci-fi collaboration to my partner. He liked it, and aside from a few notes we'll discuss in the coming days, didn't see the need for many more edits. If that's in fact the case, then we'll give it to our producer and representatives next. Barring glaring errors or holes that they might discover, we'll be fast approaching the "try to sell it" stage, which means looping my agent in. Yes, that same guy at UTA and, no, he's not aware I'm working on this yet. There's no reason for him to be until there's a product, since I haven't really been on his radar since the post-Apocalyptic spec failed to sell. But, the moment I call or email him to present him with a spec I wrote for a know director, all that will change. At least, it should. And I will be shooting myself in the foot if I don't have a laundry list of the next specs I want to write ready to give him. So it is time to put on my thinking cap, dust off the old ideas, and determine what projects I want to work on next. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Writing Week (vol. 6) part 274 - Busy, Productive Week

Sunday morning, 10am - I meet with a friend in the publishing industry to ask her about what my next steps and considerations should be for my children's book. She tells me that she's moving upstate in two hours. "What? Do you even have time to do this today?" She says she does, so while we wait in line for our bagels and coffee, I tell her I've decided to pursue getting it out there sooner rather than later, that I'm jazzed about it now and want to see if I can make anything happen with it. I give her the pitch and find myself sounding 100% like the token writer I've always tried to avoid being, "I'm really excited about the book. I believe in it and think that it can be great. No, I haven't thought much about the marketing yet, but I kind of thought that the idea itself would be the big grab."


I dial it back a bit. My friend - who, by the way, came to our breakfast meeting with the names of agents she thinks might be a good fit - tells me I should come up with some followup book ideas. Of course! How dumb of me not to have considered this. When in school, the head of our department told my friends and I not to begin pitching to agents and managers until we had at least three projects we could talk about. No rep wants a one-time only client. They want someone who can become a franchise and a more guaranteed sell. D'uh. Silly me. Good to think on.

We part. She - to go move. I immediately head into my apartment and email her the book. That night, she reads it. The following day (her birthday), she texts me that she's read it, that she loves it and thinks it's fantastic. Notes forthcoming. 


So I set that pot on the backburner for the time being. Meanwhile, I need to get the current, and hopefully final (before sending to our representatives) draft of the sci-fi spec to my writing partner, W.A. He cautioned me earlier this week to take my time, to make sure that I've done a solid dialogue and action pass before giving it to him. We want to be able to send this incarnation to our producer and representatives soon, to essentially make this version the one we go out with. Sure, we're open to edits still, but we've identified everything we want the movie to be, and our hope is that we'll have nailed all of that in this draft. 

I spend a few weeks doing edits. Along the way, I trim dialogue and descriptions, but the main legwork is done on scenes and sequences, excising the fat, cutting what's no longer relevant, adding in scenes to fill in the gaps, and trimming back gratuitous elements. The script drops five pages. 

Before I send it to W.A., I pull up a PDF of the script on my iPad Mini, open Adobe Reader (a great, free app for editing PDFs), and spend two nights doing a thorough dialogue and action pass. I trim. Boy, how I trim. If there's a block of text that ends with one lone word on its own line, I reword the paragraph to cut that hanging line. Redundant dialogue goes. Description gets pared down, consolidated, clarified, and, when possible, nixed. The script drops four more pages.

Finally, I do a second dialogue-only pass. I use this to find further redundancies and to track the science in the script - how do the characters refer to everything, and where are the anomalies? I find a few instances that need edits. All that remains, now, is one tiny, though important, beat wherein the protagonist has to realize something. I know what he finds out; I just have to plant something that helps him discover it. The options to do this are manifold, yet I haven't settled on the right one. Once I do, the script goes out to W.A. for his approval. Perhaps, just perhaps, we'll get new eyes on it then.  

Monday, August 05, 2013

Should we Beware the New Batman?

Holy CGI Batman! Cartoon Network debuted Beware the Batman last month, an all new, half hour animated show featuring Gotham City's Dark Knight. There have been a slew of Batman shows in the past two decades, the Holy Grail of them still being Batman: The Animated Series (TAS), which debuted in 1992. So how does this latest offering stack up?

Beware the Batman is unique among the Batman television show family in that it's computer animated. The producers went with a novel approach to the show's aesthetic, and, though different, it's not always successful. While some of the character designs are intriguing (and not the similarities in the character design below, despite the different mediums), the show is plagued by vacuous landscapes. All of Gotham seems wide, sprawling, and empty. Whereas in Batman: TAS the streets were cluttered with pedestrians, motorists, and litter, Beware is perpetually devoid of background players (as if worried about the cost of retaining extras for an animated show). Every set piece is barren - little to no art on the walls, expansive, monochromatic rooms and buildings, unbroken, window-less facades on most of Gotham's edifices. Everything just feels empty, which gives the show a ghostly, skeletal feel. Where are all the Gothamites Batman fights to save? So far, we've only seen criminals and allies, very few of anyone else. 

The trimmed down set design is reflected in the costume design, as well. In the most recent episode, a character was woken up in the middle of the night; though he'd been tucked soundly in his bed, he was still wearing his slacks and blazer from when he was first introduced. Sure, most cartoons adopt unchanging looks for each character, but not at the expense of aesthetic variation.  

The animators of Batman: TAS employed an unusual tactic in order to achieve the look of their iconic show - rather than animate it on white paper, they used black paper as the foundation of each illustration, giving the show a dark, menacing, perpetually shadowy feel. It was beautiful. Beware the Batman, while unique, seems to have been deliberately pared back, a decision I'm not sure works in the series' favor.

Out of a desire to achieve a new look, feel, and sound, and to feature a younger, slightly less veteran Batman, the show's producers decided not to cast the formidable Kevin Conroy as Batman. Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman since 1992, beginning with Batman: The Animated Series and through The New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond, and the animated Justice League series of the early 2000s. He reprised his role as the Caped Crusader in the Arkham video game series. Antony Ruivivar plays Bruce Wayne/Batman this go around; his big break came in 1999, when he appeared as a series regular as a paramedic in NBC's Third Watch. Since then, Ruivivar has played mostly cops and the like. He's a fine actor, but he's not the authoritative Conroy, and his Batman is a shade below menacing, whereas Conroy's was three shades above.

Tonally, Beware is a bit all over the map. Some moments are played clearly for the younger demographic - slapstick moments and youthful humor. The humor, then, is followed up with a moment of darkness or violence that can't help but seem incongruent. Batman: TAS trusted its viewers to handle darker subject matter with a maturity that modern cartoons seem to feel inappropriate for children. Young viewers will absorb what's at their level, and might or might not question what's not. But they don't need to be catered to - part of their development is contingent upon being exposed to heavier material, and it's a shame that fewer modern cartoons embrace that mentality.

All of the above, however, is not to say that Beware the Batman is intrinsically flawed. One of the greatest aspects of the show, especially for true fans, is that the producers decided to scrap the regular cast of rogues and showcase ones that are rarely if ever taken out of the comics. Professor Pyg, a recent villain, was the antagonist in the premier. He's been followed by Magpie, Anarky (rumored to be the primary villain), and Lady Shiva's League of Assassins. Comics fans will recognize these (and other) antagonists as interesting rogues seldomly offered screen treatment. New takes on uncommon villains are exactly what a Batman show needs to hold its own these days. Perhaps we owe our thanks to Christopher Nolan, whose Batman trilogy brought us The Scarecrow, Ra's and Talia Al Ghul, Carmine Falcone, and other Gotham rogues to the big screen for the first time. Beware's decision to introduce a cadre of villains beyond The Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, and Catwoman is commendable and will keep me coming back each Saturday.

Beware the Batman is fun for fans and a worthy 22-minute foray into Gotham each week, but it's still no Batman: The Animated Series. Of course, maybe I'm just a fanboy who grew up watching what's been hailed as undoubtedly one of the best cartoons ever, Batman or other.

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 273 - Back in the Groove

This past week has been good - really good. My creative juices have started flowing again, and the deluge has been fast and fruitful. And I think I have to attribute at least part of that to having multiple project to work on. (The other factor in the equation is a burning drive to move forward on a couple projects quickly and bring them to completion.)

For starters, I've really gotten back into the sci-fi spec. I'd taken some time off to travel, await notes from my producer, and regroup. I'm off an running now, and it feels awesome. I started with linear edits, working my way forward from page one, tackling major revisions first and saving smaller, less readily apparent edits and cuts for a second pass, which I'll do in a few days (I hope). My writing partner, W.A., and I identified five or six primary elements that we wanted to address. There are plenty of smaller issues throughout the script that still need tightening or editing, but the bulk of the work was going to be those half dozen points. To date, I've tackled all but two. I'm really pleased with the progress so far, but it won't be until I do the read-through that I'll really have a good sense of how it's all coming together. (I've abandoned the chronological editing approach and am now doing it piecemeal, which is fine, but can be disorienting and lead to omissions or redundancies.) W.A. and I would like this to be the final draft before we show the script to our reps, and I hope to be able ot get it to him within the next ten days or so.

In addition to the screenplay, if you recall, I had been working on a short children's book, which I completed a draft of a couple weeks ago. A few tweaks later, I think it's ready to see the light. I've sent it to the League for our August meeting, as well as to a few other friends. More than that, though, I've reached out to contacts I have in the publishing industry and have asked to take a few of them out for coffee (independently) to pick their brains a bit. Normally, I would advocate that writers, especially screenwriters, get a few rounds of feedback and push through a couple drafts of a script, at least, before contacting people who have the potential to help get the product sold. But, I'm bucking my own advice here; I believe in the product and, though perhaps a poor excuse, given the brevity of the work, feel that I am in a strong enough place with it to at least initiate the conversations I want to have to help bring it into being. The League's feedback will be much appreciated - hopefully they don't turn around and reveal fatal flaws to me or tell me it flat out sucks - but so far, response has been pretty glowing. If I have friends who can point me in the right direction, I want to learn as much as possible about what considerations I ought to take into account to move ahead with the project.

Lastly, a few weeks back, Onyx proposed a writing project to the League. His idea was simple: we each take turns writing one page (and one page only) of a screenplay. No outlining, no group discussion on the type of story we're telling; just writing. He wrote the first page. I took a long time, but finally delivered the second. Now, it's off to the rest of the group for their contributions. Theoretically, we'll each get about 18 turns before the six of us produce a feature-length script. I'm just as curious as anyone to see where this script goes.