Because I was a math junkie long before I even thought about writing, I tend to apply all sorts of horribly-nerdy mathematical/organizational principles to my writing. I keep a spreadsheet list of basically everything I would like to write – screenplays, short stories, novels, stage plays of any length; and one thing that has mutated far beyond a screenplay and which I might have to re-conceive as some kind of limited series for TV/web.
Even when I have drafted something, that doesn’t always remove it from the list; since, after all, major re-writes are just a part of the trade. The list can be daunting – these days, if I get a new idea that’s too good to dismiss, my first reaction actually tends to be irritation; since it means a shuffling around of priorities. There are worse problems to have, I know. And I know that the glut of them means there are some I will simply never get to. One hopes that some subconscious Lodestar assures that the worst ones are the ones that go unrealized; but how well can we ever really know that?
The top of the list right now has been unchanging for a couple of months – the novel, followed by a couple of screenplay re-writes. One of the re-writes was scheduled to be finished on April 1st for reasons that I won’t jinx by describing here. I wrapped up an early version of that re-write on March 15th and sent it out to a couple members of the team, in the hopes that they could read it in a week or so and bounce it back in case anything further needed to be done before the bigwigs read it on the first. This is a relatively common scenario for a re-write out here, in that it can actually break into components along the way.
To a shock so great I hardly know how to process it; not only did they find that the March 15th draft answered all their concerns, they felt so good about it that they started spreading it out further before they had even shared this good news to me. It’s the best possible scenario for this project, and a massive load off my mind. What it also means is that one of the biggest, most time-consuming titles parked at the top of that list gets to disappear completely for the forseeable future. I won’t have to work on this script again unless the team has broadened and re-configured in a way that means we’re closer to making the movie. At that point, I would be in a pretty good mood for re-writing, I guess.
It is rare that I have too much of my creative life penciled in for far in advance – the typical cycle of a stage play is about as far as it extends, and acting almost never takes up a full day except for those rare days when I have a matinee and evening show. I think I sweated out about 8 pounds the day I had to do two performances of The Odd Couple in August in a warehouse with no air conditioning.
So we’re in an unusual period right now – one which explains why there hasn’t been much blogging. Frankly – there’s a lot of writing to do. That’s a good thing, both for professional satisfaction and the occasional Actual Check For Money. It does mean that a few more personal impulses get shuffled to the back of the line for awhile, and that long, involved blog posts don’t surface nearly so often. Actually, there hopefully will be at least one in the near future – my pants got stolen on Monday, which turned out to be…complicated, because of what was in the pants at the time.
But for now, most of my writing time through May 1st is accounted for. A few years back I was hired off Craigslist to co-write a novel. You might call it a ghost-writing scenario, except that I am going to receive full co-author credit, so I guess “proxy writing” is more accurate – it’s his world and concept, but I think he would agree that the majority of the prose and a lot of the narrative connective tissue is coming from me.
We produced about 40% of the book and then ran aground for awhile; but, just before the New Year he came back with renewed determination to see it through, and we’ve set May 1st as the deadline for a first draft. That’s totally manageable if I adopt a “punching the timeclock” mentality. Monday through Friday, I know how many words I need to get done, and so far it’s fallen very effectively into a pattern of getting done in two daily sessions – one post-breakfast and one post-lunch.
As for the third session – I have a hard deadline of April 1st to turn in a re-write of my Vegas screenplay; there are a lot of inside-baseball reasons for that and I have a “don’t jinx it” attitude regarding discussing such details in public. And I just had a long notes meeting with the director on my micro-budget thriller – he’s headed to Colombia for a few weeks and I’d like to have the new draft of that waiting for him when he returns.
That makes for a crowded March, and probably demands that I squeeze in that third writing session every workday – and if I divide between the two scripts I should get everything done on schedule.
What’s funny is – on top of all that, I often find myself compelled, on evenings when I’m being the penny-pinching shut-in I usually am, to fit in yet a fourth session after dinner, to work on something that’s more purely “mine”. William Goldman said it was essential for the screenwriter’s sanity to work on things that they felt some control over. And I’m working on some short stage pieces as well as the last short story for the collection I am still planning to publish, in addition to a more personal screenplay, in addition to oh such an endless list of somedays.
Right now, though – I’ve got priorities, and I’ve got a plan. Funny what a little structure can do for the writing life.
So yesterday, the first episode of Squaresville crossed 100,000 views. Next week, the channel will cross its first million video views. The show was featured in a print edition of U.S.A. Today, and now?:
#4 on Entertainment Weekly’s “Top 10 Things We Love This Week”. So we’re like, two steps away from world conquest at this point. Groovy.
New episode (our first ever Squaresville Monologue) tomorrow…
Squaresville Season Two is officially-launched. In the “things that make me giggle privately” file, Percy’s backpack from last season’s finale all through this season is mine. I use it for crewing and day hikes, and we were scrambling for one on the first day of this production block and I just volunteered mine. It didn’t have much in it but sunscreen, a notepad, and my phone charger; and that little oval of duct tape on the shoulder strap is there to cover up a logo we didn’t have clearance to show. Production design!
I sometimes overlook sharing shareable information on the public blog when the private version of the announcement is couched in an overall private blog post. Just the way my brain works.
Anyway, it deserves announcing that I finished the first draft of my new spec screenplay a week ago; as I shared it is a horror script, which is a first for my portfolio and something I enjoyed the hell out of crafting. My first goal had been a lean 90-95 pages; as I got into the “mayhem” half of the script and started plotting out gags and kills, I revised my goal to “let’s just squeeze under 100″. Instead it’s 101 pages. I can get that down with time; and it’s still one of the leanest scripts I’ve written since I started actually knowing what I was doing.
It’s out to the inner circle right now, and once I’ve collected feedback from them, I’ll make some tweaks and then share it with a strategic few more. In Hollywood it’s always been true – It Takes a Village – and I’ll need some friendly Villagers in my posse to get this thing rolling.
If it sounds like I’m risking some exposure of what will be barely more than a first draft – that’s what I’m doing. But I have faith in the outline and the premise and the energy of the script. One of the reasons I spend so long on the brainstorming/outlining phase is because I am lazy in the long term – I want to write absolutely as few drafts as possible, so I try and lick the fundamentals before I ever open up Celtx (the screenwriting software I use for reasons of it being free).
As for the next project – well, I’m going to spend some time on a prose commission, as well as try and draft the final piece for the short story collection I want to publish. I have two very personal, rule-breaking screenplays that I have been tinkering with for years and years and years; during windows like this they tend to get a few more pages added to them; although it would be nice to actually finish one or both of them before I die.
I’ll owe re-writes on two other screenplays before April, both of them requested by people on the respective teams for those projects. It feels good to have a lot of work out there with allies who actively want to bring it to life. I basically say it every year, but there’s a real chance of making something great this year. I feel like I’m doing my part towards that goal, anyway.
I didn’t celebrate much, unless you count ordering a birthday cake milkshake at The Counter. In a way, spending a week away from a deadline – even a self-driven one – is a kind of vacation unto itself. But honestly, I should at least buy a nice drink. I’m meeting someone for drinks tonight. I’ll make sure and do that.
My friends have posted the official trailer for Season 2 of Squaresville. I am in exactly one brief shot of this trailer; with my face covered by the logo. Ah well, we did the math and decided that I’m officially the old man of Squaresville, and we do want to keep the kids interested
Season premieres this Friday, February 1st, at about 9am Pacific. And if you haven’t watched Season One yet, the whole thing’s only about an hour long and IT’S FREE (because it’s The Internet). Get caught up already.
I’ve reached 80 pages on the screenplay, and have another writing session to look forward to in a couple of hours. And my chances of bringing this first draft in under 100 pages as I so want to do are…decent? Not guaranteed, but possible; and there are some built-in indulgences that will probably get sacrificed along the way.
On New Year’s Day I had 37 pages, so this has been a stupefying pace for me, and I think I’m starting to feel the fatigue. While writing at lunch today I felt like the stage directions lacked the manic punch I had been enjoying so much about this script. And I worry that I’m out-writing my sense of the coherence and rhythm of the story.
Lately I am hearing some other professional screenwriters discuss the concept of “the vomit draft” – where the point is you just get the first draft over with as absolutely quickly as possible; without heed to logic or cleanliness or grammar or anything. Since it’s such a torturous behemoth of a task getting it on paper to begin with; the thought is to just purge until it’s done, baby.
I admit there’s a compelling argument there, and I am certainly adoping a version of that approach – albeit probably slower than most people would consider a truly vomitous pace. And this could just be momentary fatigue, but it may be that this burst that has fueled me for the last two-three weeks might not be enough to get me across the finish line with quality work. Can I force my way there? I am mighty close, and the final pages of a script tend to come most quickly with me. It has been far too long since I got to celebrate a finished feature screenplay – the first draft of my most recent script is dated at the end of May, 2011; and I’ve been mostly consumed by prose and re-writes since. Although goodness knows, for the last few new scripts I have barely even let myself celebrate.
That might be a nice course to reverse. I have good, incredibly supportive people in my life who know what an accomplishment it is to finish a script. They would want to celebrate with me, even if it’s just going out for a simple toast. Maybe I ought to do that – finish this damn script, and then invite people to celebrate it with me.
After that – well, there are those two personal screenplays that have been so long in the works – both are maybe 60-70% drafted. In my dream world, I would actually get first drafts of both done this year, and thus be closer to the standard I used to hold myself to when it came to screenwriting pace. Do I have that much vomit in me? I guess we’ll see.
I have written about 25 pages for this new screenplay since the Earth crossed the 2013 lap line. For me that’s a no-foolin’ pace, especially when you factor in that I took the weekend off. I’m in the phase of the script for which there is no better name than “everything goes batsh*t crazy”. It’s a horror story, so that comes with the territory, although the same terminology could arguably apply to farces or many other categories under the thriller umbrella.
If I could sustain this pace I’ll have a first draft well before January is out, which is exciting first and foremost because any finished script in the arsenal is valuable. It will also be an enormous asset that I don’t have any other horror scripts in my portfolio. Range!
But what I find most enriching in the present act of writing the script is that I am making a conscious effort to experiment with a different approach. I think, in the past, I have erred on the side of being too dry in my script-writing “voice” – and believe me, your story and dialogue have “voice”; but so does the script itself, in the hands of the reader.
I think I focused for many years on experimenting with the appropriate level of detail the writer needs to dictate or imply, and then expressing that clearly and minimally. That’s a crapton of work to internalize, trust me; and I still struggle with it. We’re always in this battle against stage directions – the torturous irony is that, in what is a visual medium, people generally hate reading visual descriptions even if that’s where the story resides between the dialogue.
This has affirmed for me that people – even people reading a semi-technical document as a screenplay is – never read 100-percent intellectually or analytically. If the movie is ultimately geared towards inspiring an emotional response, some of that needs to live in the script.
In addition to that, remember that much of Hollywood is a confidence game. I don’t shorten that to a “con” because the word “confidence” is important. Remember that nobody has a way to make a movie that’s guaranteed to return its investment or win critical love; and smart people have been trying for over a century. It’s a slippery, nonsensical, Wile E. Coyote gamble every time out, and you need to convince a very, very long line of people that your story is worth gambling on before the cameras start rolling.
I know we’re in the icky territory of salesmanship and bravado – “why, Nick, should I use a bunch of hyperbole in my script? Shouldn’t the story speak for itself? And besides we live in an uncertain universe and blah blah blah“.
Trust me, I have the uncertain universe conversation with myself daily. And yet I keep writing. And maybe you do too. Why? If you’re so smart as to realize your own story could well be a horrible megafail, why do you keep writing it?
I hope it’s because you love your story. I hope it’s because you believe in your story *even knowing* that it could fail. If you feel that, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m not asking you to lie. I’m just asking you, while you are doing the job of rendering the story in sluglines and proper margins, to take a shot on top of that at expressing some of that excitement to us; because you are asking a lot of people to buy into your belief, and really, the better way to accomplish that is not by argument, but inspiration.
Back when I was reading professionally, I remember a screenplay presented me with the following scene direction:
“Suddenly, the most almighty motherfucking cocksucker of a firework fellates the entire sky.”
Whatever else you can say, it is evident that, many years later, I still remember that sentence, word for word. Can’t say the same for some better scripts. Now, that’s an example so extreme as to be counter-productive, but when you read scripts by the likes of Tarantino, you get the sense of this uncontrollable excitement, that they can barely contain their desire to TELL YOU THIS AWESOME STORY.
I remember reading a spec script by a popular horror filmmaker, and it was torment to the grammar nerd in me. There were long, crazy all-caps sections. Constant swearing in the stage directions. Sentence fragments. It was like this story was being narrated to me by a cross between a drunk watching a hockey game and that Hindenburg radio announcer.
I cracked him hard about it at the time – but what I have to admit even now is, for all the sloppy writing, I could almost always picture what he wanted the movie to be doing. And I believed how excited he was about making it.
So here’s this concept: that you have to remember to enjoy your story, and enjoy telling your story. The vision starts with you, so if you don’t enjoy it, how can you expect anyone else to?
It’s all on a spectrum, though. How much “sizzle” in the stage directions is too little or too much? I don’t think anyone can say definitively, although as in the examples above I know I’ve seen times when it went too far, and I can see in my own work where it didn’t go far enough. It’s the only way to narrow your targeting. This is my first horror script, and when I think about what I enjoy about the genre, this decision makes sense to me – to write with excitement and at least one screw loose and maybe, just maybe, shock and disgust and make people laugh right there on the page.
What does that have to do with the result of a good movie? Not strictly much – except that if you aren’t winning over a bunch of readers, there is no movie. Think of it as an ancillary skill worth developing. Are there people who are good at this sort of thing and bad at telling stories that actually work? Absolutely, and it frustrates the hell out of me just how many movies get gamed into existence by people who are “good in a room”. But that doesn’t mean you should scorn that skillset – it isn’t mutually-exclusive to good writing. It means you should recognize its power, and bear it in mind as you work towards that goal of a great script.
That’s today’s realization for myself, anyway. We’re ever-growing. Who knows how I’ll feel in the next script?
Took my first crack at landing an actor-y thing to do for 2013 last night. The whole experience was very modern – I applied for a role in a low-budget feature through the website LetItCast.com.
I didn’t have to drive to a stage or studio for an audition; I didn’t even meet anyone involved in the production. The site listed an overview of the project and a breakdown of the characters by age/gender/type. They provided instructions for what they would like to see – in most cases this will be “sides” (aka an excerpt) from the script itself, but for this one they wanted a monologue, preferably from a list of playwrights whose work they viewed as in the intended realm of the movie. And the idea is, we just film our audition from wherever we are, and then upload it using their provided preferred technical specifications; which are very broad and easily-accessible to just about any equipment you might own.
More and more I believe that people who want to work in this business need a little minimal cross-training when it comes to recording a piece of video. Even if you don’t want to be a director or DP there are simply too many opportunities where these skills can benefit you to ignore it completely. Thankfully, consumer-grade equipment and software has become robust and user-friendly enough that most people who have at least used computers regularly throughout their lives should be able to film a monologue and have their face adequately framed and lit for something like LetItCast without having to go to film school or drop thousands of dollars in order to do it. Just pay enough attention to recognize the most common media file formats and what formats are generated by the equipment and software you have, find an instructional video on basic “3-point” lighting (lots of these on YouTube), and you’re already ahead of the crowd.
I wanted to give myself the best chance possible; so I asked my friend, the super over-qualified Matt Enlow, if he would shoot my monologue. He owns a better camera/lens than I do and is used to shooting in his apartment. The monologue was only two minutes, but I wasn’t sure how long to allow for the whole process. I figured an hour-ish would be safe for set-up and multiple takes, and that there might be some extra time for computer-sweetening afterwards.
But even Matt – who lives and breathes New Media both in his day job and his passion project making that web series I keep mentioning – was kind of blown away by the production cycle. I arrived at his place; he already had his tripod up. He pulled a poster off the wall where I was going to stand, and turned on a couple of regular home lamps. We did a little futzing with which-jacket-should-I-wear/glasses-or-no-glasses, that sort of thing, but basically he was ready to shoot me in about five minutes. Then he hit just hit a button and I started talking, and he cut two minutes later.
He said – kind of surprised – “I think we’ve got it”. I was immediately a little doubtful, just because every actor is insecure and when doing a shot that long there’s all kinds of time to make weird faces or trip over a moment. And who knows – Matt’s a great guy and cares about quality work (we did several takes of every tiny role I’ll be playing in Squaresville this season), but maybe it was Sunday night and he didn’t feel the need to grind too hard at it. Or maybe (I guarantee 90%+ of actors secretly come back to this thought on a daily basis) he thought I was so uselessly incompetent that direction or extra takes weren’t going to do me any good. But he seemed very convinced, so he popped out the memory card and put it in the computer for us to review.
Upload of the raw video to his laptop took about six minutes. We reviewed it and, while I do make some weird faces along the way, I agreed that it seemed surprisingly solid for a single take, and that searching for an ephemeral extra bit of quality might just waste our time and deaden my performance. So we went with that single take.
He trimmed the beginning and end, added fade-ins and out-s, applied a basic color balancing filter and then cleaned out some of the ambient noise. All that took maybe ten minutes in FinalCutPro.
Then he output it to the requested format and that was it. In a half-hour we had made my audition movie; soup-to-nuts.
I completed the audition application there and immediately set it to upload to the LetItCast website. Then we took a walk to go to dinner, which was of course my treat because karma, damn it.
By the time dinner was done, I saw an e-mail on my phone that confirmed the site had received the audition video. We went back to his apartment, I verified the upload, approved the video, and gave them permission to send it to the producers.
This morning, when I woke up, I saw another e-mail, letting me know that the producers had viewed my audition and inviting me to subscribe to e-mail alerts whenever they finalize casting for any roles on the project. Technology.
Maybe I get the role, probably I don’t. That’s how it works. But I found the whole process sort of marvelous and fun – instead of fighting traffic and the clock, having a heart attack over finding parking, waiting around in a hallway staring at my competition for two hours, and turning over one expensive headshot after another in order to act in front of strangers for two stressful minutes; I got to make a movie with my friends, in an environment where I was comfortable, for basically nothing.
I think this may have the potential to show us off better as actors. Best yet – the website doesn’t charge me for a membership, or to submit; Hollywood is full of pay-to-play garbage and this was a welcome exception.
Fascinating start to the acting experience for the year.
I found out that my screenplay The Hatchling has advanced to the semi-final round in the 2012 Screenplay Festival in the Comedy category. Since I wrote it to be a comedy, that is encouraging. Screenplay Festival has been around since 2002, an early “Honorable Mention” awardee was Iris Yamashita, who later wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. According to their website, Semi-Finalists represent roughly the top 25% of submissions. Finalists and Winners should be announced in the vicinity of March/April.
I never did contests/festivals in version 1.0 of my screenwriting career, and these days I’m ineligible for a lot of them because of my prior sale/options and WGA status; but it’s educational delving into the world of them now. It would be nice to bank a little money by winning; but as with my strategy for publishing short stories, it’s really more about exposure and making connections with the right people. It’s damn hard to get people to answer the phone in Hollywood. One way around this is to do something that makes them call you instead.