Friday, December 30, 2005

Let's active

Back in Charm City after a long Christmas weekend in my hometown. No year-end lists or New Year's wishes or resolutions, but I was able to use the down time to go through a hard copy of my script for typos, formatting, and other egregious errors (nits as they call them). I wanted to take Scott the Reader up on his $60 Script Notes offer while his desk lay fallow as well. Changes made, money PayPal-ed, and I'm leaving that one alone until Nicholl time in April.

Although I imagine some Luddites and holdovers from the 20th century still do their writing on a good old typewriter, presumably most scripts are created on one form of computer or another. Not having a screenwriting software program myself at the moment, I drafted mine using WordPerfect. The word processing software of choice for attorneys, its infinite superiority over Word has been well documented. The keystroke commands and ease of double indenting in WP made it easy for me to come up with something that reasonably resembled a properly-formatted screenplay.

Whatever your tool of choice, however, there is no substitute for editing work on paper with red pen in hand. Even if you think you can catch everything onscreen, I assure you that you won't. I have no idea why this is true but my experience tells me that it is. So when you think you have it perfect in the machine, print it all out and go over it again, line by line. It's the only way to be sure.

Egregious errors aside, the thing that struck me most as I nitted my draft was the extent to which I used the passive voice in my writing. As one who teaches Plain English for Lawyers to law students, this was troubling. A cardinal rule of the plain english method is to always use the active voice when possible. Keeps the writing straightforward, to the point, and strong. Yet there it was throughout.

As a devotee of Strunk's Elements of Style, the reader will no doubt recall that in the active voice, the subject acts upon the object of the sentence:

The robber shot John.

Change it to the passive voice, and the action becomes less direct:

The robber was shooting John. or The robber had shot John.

A simple concept in theory but in practice I think many writers (including myself apparently) revert to the passive voice out of habit, tendencies toward wordiness, or simple laziness. But being able to admit admitting that you have a passive voice problem is the first step to curing it. In addition to just making your writing tighter generally, correcting that passive voice has the added benefit of cutting down the total word count of a document. If you can say something in one or two words, rather than three, four or five, over 90 to 120 pages those little changes will add up. So on that next polish, in addition to spotting the obvious mistakes, find your voice and make it active. Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Born slippy

I'm not much of a fan of cell phones or the annoying ring tones that phone owners load onto them and blast at full volume for all the world to (unwillingly) hear. The ring tone on my cell phone is the opening strains of "Born Slippy" by the band Underworld. You may recognize it as the last song in the movie Trainspotting. Sort of understated as ringtones go but still cool for me personally.

None of which is particularly important except for the fact that I spent the day waiting to hear from Writer's Arc as to whether I would be a fellow in the program that starts next month in Los Angeles. And they were going to be calling my cell with their decision, yea or nay. So my phone was attached to my hand wherever I went, with me on edge in anticipation of it ringing. Other than my family and a few attorney contacts, nobody has my mobile number, so I knew if I heard the tones, it would likely be the word for which I have been waiting over a week.

A little Shawna-like recon revealed that the last round of fellows had been notified after all of the other non-fellow finalists received their phone calls, i.e., late afternoon West Coast time. For me, on the East Coast, that meant good news, if it came at all, would likely not come until well into the evening. Creating the situation where I was left on edge all day long for a phone call that I actually had to hope would come as late as possible. Nobody said it was easy.

But as the hours rolled by and the phone sat idle on my desk or in my coat pocket, my excitement slowly began to build. Assuming things were going according to the previous plan, no news was good news. Seven o'clock . . . eight o'clock . . . nine o'clock . . . midnight and still nothing. This part coming up is what they call in the screenwriting trade a reversal, where you take the viewers' expectations and give them the complete opposite of what they are expecting to happen.

I didn't get in. Amy and Ami, owing to the lateness of the hour here, sent an e-mail stating that they were unable to offer me a spot in the upcoming program. To the extent I could read between the lines, it sounded like decisions were being made up to the last minute that I received my notification. But, for now at least, the answer is no.

Although I suppose I should feel disappointed about not being accepted, I really can't be too upset. The script I sent was the first that I've ever written. It was good enough to get me to a group of 25 finalists out of 1200 original applicants. That fact alone tells me that, to the extent that the group is representative of all aspiring screenwriters, I am starting out that much ahead of the game. Already I don't feel like I'm stumbling around in the dark not knowing whether I even belong at all.

And even if I had been accepted, the fellowship would still have been just a first step in a much longer journey. Admittedly, a great first step and one that presumably makes the journey a little easier. But I was prepared to take that first step on my own before I found out about the program and that has not changed. It just means I'll have to do it the way I had planned all along. Plus, now I have a good script that I can polish and rewrite even further for the Nicholl competition. To say nothing of reapplying for the second round of Writer's Arc this year. So though not the result I had hoped for, there is still something good to be taken even from this rejection. Which I will.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sonic death monkey

Not having anything better to do between midnight and 3 a.m. this morning, I bundled up and headed off to Baltimore's historic Senator Theater for its first showing of King Kong, Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 RKO classic. The buzz on the updated version has been as enormous as the giant gorilla himself. In terms of sheer big-screen entertainment, it delivers as advertised and then some. I would not be surprised to see it give The Love Boat a serious run for its $600 million U.S. take.

Kong's release ties in with an article on Slate this week wondering if the soaring costs of digital effects are in fact ruining Hollywood? Initially it was thought that being able to create in a computer what it used to take loads of extras, sets, props, costumes, etc. to make would be a money saver. Paradoxically, however, as the power of computers to render more and more realistic effects has grown, so have directors' capacities and desires for bigger and better "bangs" for their bucks.

Jackson, for example, ponied up his own money for an extra half hour of effects shots when production ran long and over budget, at a potential cost of upwards of $32 million to him personally. That's a lot of CGI bananas. In Jackson's case, thankfully, every penny of it is up on the screen. Depression-era New York City is recreated meticulously from the Empire State Building down to the Hooverville shanties.

Remember the reveal in Jurassic Park when the party comes upon the brontosaurus (actually called an apatosaurus, apparently there is no such thing as a brontosaurus) eating the leaves off of a tree? A great movie moment and one of the first where the true power of the computer to create a completely convincing artificial environment was realized. Now imagine an entire herd of the creatures grazing peacefully only to be stampeded towards our heroes down a narrow ravine by a pack of maurading T-Rexes. The world of Jackson's Kong is completely immersive with rarely a moment that snaps you back into reality to remind you that it's just a movie.

Like Jackson, I too was enthralled by the original King Kong as a child. Something about the story (Beauty and the Beast) and the imagery of Kong on top of the Empire State Building swatting down biplanes must tap into deeper myth channels in the psyche. And losing myself in the new Kong last night, I was reminded of my other seminal moviegoing experience as a child,
Star Wars.

When the camera panned down on a world we had never seen before, and the screen is filled with these massive starships doing battle over the planet's surface, I don't think you had to be a wide-eyed seven year-old to buy into the conceit, though it probably helped. Many of the effects that wowed viewers then seem quaint by today's standards, and maybe in thirty years so will Jackson's. But the first time you saw Luke pilot his X-Wing down the Death Star trench, it was as real anything you left outside before you entered the darkened theater.

What Jackson understands, and what George Lucas at least understood with Star Wars, is that state-of-the-art effects alone won't save a movie without a good story at its heart. Hollywood produced many effects-laden pictures post-1977, none of which ever duplicated Star Wars's success. If King Kong does as well as expected, I imagine the digital effects race will only be ratcheted up further, along with studios' costs to make the latest greatest CGI-fest. And most of them will be mediocre at best if the executives greenlight them based only on how cool the set pieces sound.

For the screenwriter, it seems to me to be a double-edged sword. Because technology has progressed to the point that literally anything is possible - if you can dream it up, they can make it - the temptation exists to take the computer folks up on the challenge. As the Slate article indicates, it is no longer "we can fix it in post" but "we can create it in post." Before the writer rushes off to draft that scene where the giant army of evil robotic cats marches off to engage the opposing giant army of heroic doggy robots, however, said writer should make sure that there's a solid story underlying the big Pettageddon climax. And write some snappy evil cat leader/hero doggy warrior dialogue, not just the typical "meow meow" "WOOF!" one-liners that have become so cliche nowadays. Otherwise it's just throwing good money after bad.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Show your work

As I become more comfortable with the notion of actually being a screenwriter, I hope to become similarly at ease with sharing any insights I have on the writing process. So, in accord with the "one-page post" challenge at Red Right Hand (I'm not techno savvy enough to do the John August formatting thingy in Blogger or capture a single page to a .jpg) and Shawna's posting of her initial Writer's Arc submission, I'll put my own ten pages that I sent in out there for others to see.

I called mine "Victoria". Have a read and I'll explain a little bit about how I came up with it.

As Shawna mentioned, the setup was: two characters (Chris Marquez and Sandy Fletcher); one setting (station); and one prop (board). Beyond that, it was all up to the writer to come up with five to ten pages of a screenplay. My first instinct was just to keep it simple. I wasn't going to do Lawrence of Arabia in ten pages with two people. The setting to me suggested train station, although it could have just as easily been a gas station, space station, or bus station. But for whatever reason, I thought train.

Which then took me to London. My brother, his wife, and my niece have lived there for some time and I have visited them on several occasions over the past few years. For those that haven't been, British railways are the preferred means of transportation for many, especially commuting in and out of London. Much more than our auto and highway-dependent culture, the train is a way of life for Brits and the extensive public transit system makes getting around fairly painless. So I thought that if my scene was going to be in a train station, why not write what I know.

If you have been fortunate enough to visit London and ride the rails, then you may have passed through Victoria Station at some point. I liked Victoria not only because it is a train station but also because one of its features is the large schedule boards at various locations showing the arriving and departing trains, their gates, and the stops on their routes. Although my characters wouldn't be handling it in the traditional sense of a prop, the board is so big and such the focus of anyone who is at the station to catch a train that I figured it was close enough for my purposes. Here is what the area I am describing in the script actually looks like:

Then it was simply a question of putting my characters in the setting, with the prop, and in some type of situation that would allow them to interact in a real way. Again keeping it simple, I made Chris a Yank in a rush to catch the last train and Sandy a Brit who is already there waiting for it when he arrives. And then to add a little more tension (and set up some sort of plot for later), put Chris in the the position of having to make it through the gates to his train before midnight, when his daily travelcard will expire.

I knew I wanted to make the scene basically their first encounter, but leaving it open as to exactly what might come later. The dialogue between them was flirty (I think it's flirty) from the outset, although I briefly toyed with the idea of turning it more serious about halfway through by having Sandy reveal that she recently lost her husband in the London bombings. In the end, however, I decided just to keep it light throughout. And then when Chris's dander is raised by Sandy's apparent indifference to his advances, he is stranded like Cinderella after the clock strikes twelve and is now reliant on her to pull his bacon out of the fire. Nothing very complicated but a fun exercise nonetheless.

Looking back, I probably took the premise too literally in choosing to keep the action strictly between Chris and Sandy. In reality, Victoria Station is never completely deserted and I could have had other people wandering in and out as the two main characters do their little verbal dance. And was I too limiting in keeping every bit of action in the station area? Maybe Sandy is really a spy and Chris's unexpected arrival has interrupted a planned late-night rendezvous? Her contact could have been observing from afar and mistaken Chris for a rival spook. Complications would really ensue then, eh? But in the end, I like their little tete-a-tete and the dialogue was what I focused most of my attention on. Most of all, getting me through the first round, it showed me that I at least have the basic tools from which to build bigger and better things. So godspeed Chris Marquez and Sandy Fletcher, wherever you are.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Fever pitch

Following my phone interview with Amy and Ami of Writer's Arc yesterday, I have now pitched a grand total of five ideas to persons in the Hollywood industry. Which, considering that is five more than I had pitched before the call, is something of a milestone for me. A romantic comedy, family comedy, superhero/action idea, sports drama, and drama/character study. I tried to show a broad range of possible scripts on which I could work if accepted.

I don't know if I will ever be comfortable with or bring myself to like pitching. I always think my ideas read better than I could ever explain them orally. But they complemented me on my first-time presentation, which I took as a good sign. And the rest of the chit-chat about me and where I'm coming from in terms of the program also seemed to go well. They plan on announcing the fellows next Monday, December 19. The ball is out of my hands now.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The second only makes you wonder

Wow. The extra couple days of waiting to hear from Writer's Arc regarding the finalists for the upcoming fellowship program was nervewracking to be sure. But worth the wait, thankfully, as I'm one of 25 selected to go to the final round. I'm a bit gobsmacked as it was impossible to know what kind of competition my submission was up against. Being the first script I have written, and further being long (129 and 1/2 pages) and talky, and even further being about a subject matter (politics) that doesn't exactly fill the multiplexes on the weekends . . . well, I was unsure up to the moment I received the news. But I think the story is, at its core, a good one and I am reasonably happy with the characterizations and dialogue. So maybe, just maybe, I'm not completely insane for wanting to jump into this volcano after all.

Now I get to pitch my next five ideas for what I might work on as a Writer's Arc Fellow, three to five minutes per idea. Happily, I do have them. I've never pitched anything to anyone in the industry, but I'm trying to convince myself that as an attorney, I've been pitching for a long time, e.g., arguing motions and briefs before judges and trying to convince them to "buy" my argument. That's the theory anyway. We'll see how it goes in practice.

Congratulations also to writergurl, who informs that she too is moving on. Scribosphere represent!

Looks like it's three for three for the screenwriting bloggers as Shawna is into the finals as well. Yay bloggers.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Delay isn't just an indicted congressman from Texas

So the Writer's Arc finalists won't be announced until Wednesday, the e-mail says. Good in that it gives me an extra couple days to whip my five pitch ideas into shape should I be fortunate enough to move on. Bad in that the waiting sucks. But good things come, as they say, to those who wait, right? So I'll wait.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Superman had come to town, to see who he could rock

Although still more than six months away, the big release of Summer 2006 promises to be Superman Returns. Director Bryan Singer's take on the comic book, as I understand it, picks up where Superman II left off and ignores the last two of the Christopher Reeve series altogether. Apparently, Singer is going so far as to insert unused footage of Marlon Brando from the Richard Donner films for the role of Jor El, Superman's father.

The gist of the plot is that Clark Kent/Kal El has been mysteriously absent from Earth for several years. In the meantime, both Earth and Lois Lane have moved on and learned to live their lives sans Cape. Of course, so has Lex Luthor, which can't be good news for either Earth or Lois. Supe returns and complications ensue. Singer has been chronicling the whole shoot at his Blue Tights Adventure Network, though I confess I have only allowed myself the occasional sneak peek. I trust Singer's vision (more Max Fleischer than Donner) and fairly enjoyed his X-Men work. I want to be (mostly) suprised come June.

Also in the pipeline is Truth, Justice, and the American Way, starring Ben Affleck as George Reeves, the actor who portrayed Superman in the 1950s television series. That film will focus on the mystery surrounding Reeves's purported suicide in 1959 and his troubled life after the series left him perpetually typecast as the Man of Steel. All in all, 2006 is shaping up to be a Superyear.

But, you ask yourself, what if I don't want to wait that long to get in on all the cool comic hero action? Glad you asked! Just out is a novel by Tom DeHaven titled It's Superman and it's, well, super man. In prose form - no graphics - DeHaven gives us an alternate version of Clark Kent's coming of age in Smallville, Kansas and eventual move to the big city to fulfill his heroic destiny. Set in the Depression era of 1930's America, It's Superman makes for a great holiday read (or gift to your special Superfan) on several levels.

Foremost, DeHaven's writing and ability to capture the period is outstanding. This is the America of FDR, the WPA, Hoovervilles, the Dust Bowl, strike busters, race riots, and hundreds of other rich details that fill the story and bring that time to life on the page. The characters speak in the language of the Jazz Age: terse, snappy, and with the kinds of exclamations and turns of phrase that have long since passed into linguistic obscurity. Nertz! Rain on that! A fly dick.

DeHaven takes some liberties with the generally accepted Superman myth. First, instead of the fictional Metropolis, the home of the Daily Planet is now real-life New York City. It works. Rather than trying to invent an alternate reality that meshes with all of the other historical details and locations in the rest of the novel, DeHaven simply puts Lois Lane in Columbia University's School of Journalism as she learns the reporter's trade and makes Lex Luthor an Alderman with ambitions for Fiorello LaGuardia's mayorship, and a few other irons in the fire on the side. Again, not strictly by the comic book but seamless nonetheless.

More substantial are the changes to Clark Kent's adoption and raising by the Kent family. Not only does the couple not know what brought the superbaby to them in the first place, they do not tell Clark anything more than he was adopted until he is nearly twenty years old. Although both parents and son realize there is definitely *something* amazing about the boy and his abilitites, they have no idea just what the cause or root of them are. Consequently, we are presented with a Superman who does not realize he's super yet or even consider to what good purposes his powers could be put. He's frankly scared and feels more like a monster than a hero.

And at age twenty from a hick town in Kansas, young Clark comes off as just a dullard in a thoroughbred body. When he and a friend of Lois Lane's on the lam from the NYC mob go riding the rails around the West, it feels more like Of Mice and Men, with Clark as Lenny. Wide-eyed and naive, he only begins to realize his true potential when the pair make it back to New York just in time to land smack in the middle of Lex Luthor's first plot for global domination. Fun stuff and an excellent way to avoid annoying family members or relatives if you're holed up at someone else's house during the holidays.

From a screenwriting perspective, especially with comic books and superheroes being the thing du jour, it is recommended to anyone who is thinking of or in the process of conjuring up such a tale (it's why I picked it up myself). The book raises interesting questions about just how a super anyone goes about figuring out that they are, in fact, super. And then, what exactly should they do about it? Think back to your twentieth birthday, what your life and interests consisted of then, and now imagine being charged on that day with saving a city, or a nation, or a world from any and every danger that might befall it. As Clark finds out, it is not as simple a matter of donning a pair of tights and red boots and being Superman. I think most of these films would benefit from a little deeper characterization and a bit more conflict within the hero about their condition, rather than just turning them loose on the bad guys and blowing up a lot of stuff in the process.