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.
I drew this years ago; which reminds me: a) I can’t draw, and b) I still feel this way.
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.
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.
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?
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.
(Putting on my “Screenwriter Rant” hat. Buckle in.)
I know I’m asking for a lot of heat by saying this, but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a movie with a lot of good ideas in it. Another Indiana Jones movie? Yes, please! Acknowledging star Harrison Ford’s age with humor? Smart! The high degree of physical stunts, director Steven Spielberg’s gift for visual gags – these are all series trademarks that were welcome back on the big screen. There is a palpable joy in the way he shoots sequences like the opening hot rod race, and many moments in the film have maintained their entertainment value (for me, at least) through multiple viewings.
But the movie as a whole disappointed and upset a lot of people, and I won’t lie by pretending it’s anything but my least favorite entry in the franchise. The scuttlebutt (as much as it can be trusted) is that both Spielberg and star Harrison Ford were against the alien MacGuffin, but series creator/godfather George Lucas made it an ultimatum – do Indiana Jones with aliens or never do Indiana Jones again. I don’t want to dig into the costs of that compromise; CGI gophers, the flying fridge – I am confident you can find people on the Internet happy to discuss these details as strikes against the movie. I don’t feel the world needs my words on that subject.
But I believe that most movies succeed or fail at the story stage, and that this is particularly-pertinent with the Indy series. If you can find it, there is an absolute treasure of a document floating around out there relating to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s the transcript of a multi-day story conference between Lucas, Spielberg, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (many story elements had already been developed by Philip Kaufman at this point), during which they broke out the essential scenes and sequences of what would become Raiders.
You can watch some iconic moments at their genesis, such as Spielberg proposing the giant rolling boulder. And you get to read, step-by-step, how they release their original concept for the female lead (a Dietrich-style blonde cabaret singer) and create in its place the unforgettably-feisty Marion Ravenwood. Bonus pervyness – young Lucas and Spielberg negotiate just how much below the age of consent Marion would be when Indiana Jones raided her.
But that aside, what you can see in this transcript is all the elements that make for great screenwriting – a sense for tone and influences (Lucas’s expertise), the instinct for the visual language of cinema (where Spielberg is unparalleled), and the delicate balance of emotional satisfaction and narrative flow within the story (Kasdan’s gift) – all working in concert. Magic resulted.
Marion’s creation during this process is essential – you see how they started from seeking a way to make her a logical part of the plot (someone needs to have the headpiece everyone is seeking), but that in building the WHY of her having it, they discovered something that enriches both hers and Indiana’s character. In that one, passionate introduction scene, we learn about the rift between Indy and his mentor/surrogate father Ravenwood, and about the real and mutual attraction between Indy and Marion, which he abused when she was too innocent to understand.
This is crackling good stuff. This is the moment where Indiana Jones surpasses the pulp icons that inspired him and is now a flawed, relatably-human character – the “gifted bum” that traffics in the disreputable shadows of a noble profession, struggling to do right but leaving mayhem in his wake. And then there’s a big shootout and the bar burns down. AWESOME.
When casting Indy and Marion – there’s no question, this is the scene they both had to nail
Marion was always the most-beloved of the Indy leading ladies, and I think it all starts with this scene and the way Karen Allen knocked it, along with the rest of the role, out of the park. Bringing her back for Crystal Skull was an easy call to make.
Giving Indy a son was another promising idea – it allows a reversal of the father-son dynamic that worked so well in Last Crusade, it serves as another acknowledgment of the passage of time, and it creates a way to reveal aspects of Indiana Jones we have yet to see.
Now, as a writer on a movie like this, your job is to take those impulses, as handed to you by the filmmakers, and try to make them work within a story in a way that is narratively-satisfying and emotionally-resonant, and navigates the audience to all the action set-pieces. The purpose of the Indiana Jones movies is to make people feel excitement and joy, so you set that as your target, brainstorm like hell, and try to eliminate everything that won’t work. To apply the argot of the franchise, you’re trying to reach the treasure without tripping any of the many lethal traps hidden in the path.
And here is where something went damagingly-wrong with Crystal Skull; something which I believe would have resulted in a failed movie even without the aliens or that damned fridge. This is the thing I want to break down. Let’s call it –
Indiana Jones and the Labyrinth of Three Dads.
Really glad someone has clipped this specific scene, because I use it all the time in my screenwriting class. We know that, for the story to move forward, Rocky is going to say yes to Mickey’s proposal to manage and train him for the fight with Apollo Creed. But it becomes highest-stakes-possible emotional poker, as Mickey exposes more and more about his age and his failures in an attempt to ingratiate himself, and Rocky just keeps ignoring and ignoring him, refusing to help the conversation, punishing him with sarcasm, and all but physically-shoving him out of his apartment, until all this stuff that blocks him from saying “yes” explodes out of him – his own rage that his best years are behind him, his longtime resentment of Mickey’s disrespect, and, deepest and most hurtful of all, his unshakeable belief that he is going to get his ass kicked and be humiliated in front of millions of people.
It’s eight minutes of movie (paced and staged impeccably by studio veteran John Avildsen) that do such an incredible job of making you feel the missing connection between these people who really do need each other, that when it finally turns to that long-desired “yes”, you don’t even need dialogue – just a handshake, a little music, and one of those ever-present trains rattling through the neighborhood. Stallone used to be this good:
Sometimes, you’ve re-written a scene so many times that it has become this galumphing Frankenstein’s Monster of a scene bolted together from fragments you cut-and-paste from so many different script drafts that absolutely all the flow is gone. But you’re afraid to get into it because it goes where you think the script needs to go. That is when you have to nut up, burn out the garbage and start writing anew, even if it ends up somewhere slightly-different from before.