Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 279 - The Collaborative Writing Experiment

For over a month now, we've been conducting a little experiment here at League Headquarters. We're trying to see if, as a group and without discussing or outlining, we can write a coherent, well-structured screenplay. There are six of us participating. We take turns (based on the roll of a die) to assign placement each round of six pages and then, when each writer is up, he or she adds one and only one page to the script. There's no discussion about what should come next, what's off limits, or what the direction of the script it. In short, it falls to each individual writer to follow the tone, guide the plot, introduce characters and elements, and adhere to the rules already established by the previous writers. The goal: a completed script, with each of us having taken 16 or 17 pages over the course of the project.

The experiment has been pretty fascinating so far. In the first couple pages, two of us established a particular tone and characters' voices, but we left the direction of the script very ambiguous and open for the next four writers. On page three, the third writer really took the reins and very clearly pointed the script in a clear, perhaps a bit extreme, direction. In all honesty, the rest of us were a bit shocked, but in the spirit of the game, we knew we had to honor the genre and story that had been determined. Page four saw a very well-written wrangling of the scene, reverting a bit to the previous tone, while still adhering to the new reality of the project. 

From then on, the group has pretty much operated as one. Sure, there are temptations we succumb to. As individual writers, we all have ideas and objectives for the piece. However, since we'll only write one sixth of the material (at best), we sometimes feel compelled to cram a lot into our own page to further our individual agendas. I'd be lying if I said there were no pages where this happened; on the contrary, there have been a few instances of one writer (beyond the third page) essentially saying, "This is what I want to do" and doing that, regardless of how well it honors what precedes it. Still, we've sallied forth.

I, myself, have been guilty of another error that's popped up a few times throughout the fifteen or so pages we have to date. Because we're writing so piecemeal without a treatment and with only a fraction of the direct knowledge for why certain things have been introduced, it is too easy to loose sight of minor elements. For example, in the page directly before my third installment, characters disarmed. I inadvertently overlooked/neglected that as I continued the scene into my page, which resulted in a shootout. Guns (that shouldn't have been there) were a-blazing. Opps, my bad. Hopefully, minor inconsistencies like this one will be removed in the collective editing process, which is still TBD.

One of the major take-aways for the project, though, I think will be the ability to write a filler page. No page should ever be boring, but as we all know, there are certain beats within a screenplay that serve as a cooling off period after a major reveal, action beat, or dramatic moment. These in-between scenes further the plot, but they might not be the heart-pounding scenes that surround them. When writing a script as an individual, these scenes are no cause for worry, because one has just had the enjoyment of writing a major beat. However, when writing only a fraction of a script, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of wanting to force a scene to be more than it should, so as to get the full effect of one's turn at the helm. The six of us will each inevitably write a few of these softer, quieter pages. Hell, my second page was muted, compared to the ones that came directly before it. For the sake of the script, though, I know I have to suck it up and write an in-between scene. 

By and large, the group has handled these in-between scenes deftly. In fact, I think the beats and pages in question have become more intriguing in the group project than they might be in a script written by a single writer, because the person responsible still wants to imbue some flare where possible. When I write an in-between scene in my script, I might do so quickly and with less enthusiasm than with other scenes, so that I can advance to the next big beat. When I write the in-between scene in the group project, though, I accept my task, but I take extra effort to make that scene more engaging than it might otherwise be. This drive to instill even the less riveting pages with a sense of excitement has paid off in the league project so far, and I hope it is something I am able to bring to my own writing going forward. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Spring Breakers - A Party Worth Skipping

Driven by desperation at not having the financial means to get themselves to spring break, three girls (Vanessa Hudgeons, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) rob a cafe. Their idoneously named religious friend, Faith (Selena Gomez), rounds out the quartet post-larceny, and the girls board a bus for some beach-based bacchanalia. A hotel bust (completely unrelated to the inciting burglary) lands them in jail and, subsequently, in the company of amateur rapper and all-around bad news dude, Alien (James Franco). 

From the get-go, Spring Breakers seems unsure whether it wants to glorify spring break rowdiness, or condemn it. The only foil for the trio of ne'er-do-wells is Faith with her overt religiousness. As her compatriots are drawing pictures of dongs and robbing people at gunpoint (in that order, with about that much time between them), she is singing hymns with other Christian coeds. The contrast couldn't be more on-the-nose, and in fact, is representative of a larger weakness of the film. Subtext, one of the defining traits of engaging cinema, seems as much a priority to writer/director, Harmony Korine (Rachel's real life husband), as modesty does to the spring breakers.

The two-dimensional characters are frustratingly ambivalent about their malevolent deeds. Perhaps if we had a better sense of who the trio of robbers are as individuals - as opposed to sex and booze hungry coeds with little more depth than that - we could better buy their rash decision to hold up a restaurant for bus fare. As it stands, we don't get to know them and, as such, don't have enough of a foundation to be able to decide whether we're supposed to feel for them and the mess they get themselves into, or if we're supposed to look down on them with disdain. 

If Korine's reluctance to offer some sense of viewer relationship to his quartet of coeds was its only shortcoming, Spring Breakers might be a fun ride. However, a nagging voiceover, inconsistent tone, and repetitive editing all conspire to weigh the film down further. Frequent repetition of dialogue, shots, and scenes from different angles makes one wonder by the 20 minute mark how much actual story there is to the movie. Ninety minutes later, the answer is, very little. When not much is happening anyway, the decision to show scenes time and again works against the finished product. 

More grating, though, are Faith's frequent voiceovers. Perhaps Korine's attempt at infusing the film with depth and his characters with dimensionality, he has Faith question aloud their actions, overlays phone calls between her and her grandmother with the immoral behavior of the other three girls, and try to reconcile her religious beliefs with the crimes she and her friends are rapidly becoming involved in. The existential voice overs are at odds with the near incessant shots of bare-chested coeds, beer bongs, and coke lines. They belong in a deeper film, one that knows whether it wants to condemn or tout such behavior.  In a film where not until 50 minutes in do the girls even have more in their wardrobe than bikinis, it is hard to take any of the characters or their dilemmas seriously. Korine seems to believe (as one would hope he would) that such actions are shameful, but his unwillingness to take a firm stance fails to mesh with Faith's verbal musings. The greater failure, though, is the inability to make the viewer care about any of it. 

Sure, I like a scantily clad woman just as the next guy, but the film blurs the line between trash, porn, and an actual story for 90 minutes straight, and nearly the entire first hour is proof of where the director's priorities lie. If you want to see topless college girls and don't care much for plot or depth, then Spring Breakers will be right up your alley. Of course, you could also just go down to Florida in March and experience it for yourself; it would certainly be more fun.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 278 - Never Delete an Old Draft

It has been a crazy couple of weeks. The children's book went out to my friend in publishing last weekend. Then, early this week, I got another round of notes from my writing partner on our sci-fi collaboration, which I had to turn around. He gave me final thoughts on Wednesday night, the grand total of which were six minor edits (literally, folks, we're talking about cutting a sentence or changing a couple words here and there). We jumped on a quick call yesterday morning, and after 43 minutes of work, I had the revised draft out to him. We have sent it to his manager for a read. Pending notes from the manager (who was a development exec before becoming a rep), we'll get our producer's notes and, fingers crossed, be that much closer to looping in our agents and developigng a strategy to bring it out.  

Yes, I know that sounds crazy. I said six edits, right? Correct. And it took 43 minutes? That's an average of over seven minutes an edit, and all I was doing was changing a word here and cutting a line there? Well... basically. At this stage, every word counts, so I had to choose them carefully. Sure, the cuts happen in the blink of an eye. Find the page, highlight the text, and hit delete. Problem solved. 

When it comes to dialogue, though, you want to be more circumspect. For example, we were altering one small bit of dialogue - perhaps about six lines in total - that describes the enterprises and roles of an underworld character. The existing dialogue hinted at a reason why the character (and his wares) is so important, but it was too vague. The character's role in the world played a major factor in something that was to payoff later, so we had to get it just right. I spent the most time of all the edits on that section, writing and then revising it, wording and re-wording until it felt right. I was happy that my collaborator was pleased with the results. 

I also had to go back and re-incorporate something that had been cut from the current draft, but which was present in earlier incarnations of it. The ability to go back to old drafts and look at what you had, potentially to lift it and re-insert it, is invaluable. It is because of this that I make it a practice of not simply saving over an old draft when editing. I always create a copy of the file and save it as the current version (usually by date). Even if I'm just making relatively small edits in revision mode, I want to preserve the earlier work. Sure, at some point, after the script it made, I can purge the files if I need the space. Until then, though, there's no reason to overwrite an existing file. Script files don't take up that much room on your hard drive, and they can prove valuable (as evidenced in the example above). I suggest that you try to retain all previous versisons, too - you never know when they might come in handy.