Monday, April 24, 2006

OK computer

Ever since my family's first PC, an Apple IIe, I have been a Mac person. Through the dark days of pizza boxes like the LC II and Performa 6300, to an iMac DV and my new MacBook Pro, I've always liked the way Apples "just work" as compared to Microslop-based products. Even now, as Macs make the move towards running OSX and Windows side-by-side, I can't think of any need that I would have for that capability.

Strictly for screenwriting purposes, though, I think most could get by with v 1.0-level technology. Yes, it's fantastic that the latest software package formats-as-we-go, allowing us to focus on the writing instead of whether the product conforms to some Platonic screenplay ideal. But I wrote the first draft of my first script in trusty old WordPerfect, using "center" and "double indent" keystroke commands, and came up with a fair approximation of the accepted form. Close enough for government work at the time anyway.

But, to streamline the writing process and feel like I was investing in screenwriting as a profession, I purchased the requisite copy of Final Draft before I left Baltimore. I could have just as easily gone with Movie Magic Screenwriter, the other widely-used program. My impression was that Final Draft was slightly more Mac-friendly and still a bit more the industry standard, although MMS has certainly made substantial inroads to the market. There is also the newer celtx package, which is free and open source but not a stand-alone package (it runs in your Firefox browser).

I can't speak to Final Draft's "tagger" breakdown functions (nothing I've written has even seen the light of California day yet), but for what it does in terms of auto-formatting, it does that reasonably well. The "Smart Type" autofills for locations, characters, parentheticals, etc. become intuitive fairly quickly, which translates into less time thinking and more time typing. (MORE)s and (CONT'D)s can be placed automatically both between page breaks and broken dialogue. Or not, if you don't use them. If you can suppress the knowledge that you're paying a tidy sum for a glorified word processor, it's not too bad.

At the same time, it's not all good either. Apparently, the initial release of FD 7.0 was buggy as heck and crashed frequently. I haven't run into anything fatal yet with mine but even version 7.1.1 still feels unfinished. Scrolling and redrawing is a nightmare. Just moving up or down a few lines on the screen is enough to make you lose track of the cursor or have you wondering where that line of dialogue you just wrote disappeared to. Most likely still there but often it's hard to tell. Additionally, features that are commonplace in many Mac apps, like Spotlight searching, a Dock-style toolbar and the use of unicode special characters, are conspicously absent in the current iteration. Final Draft has announced that a universal binary version will be released sometime this summer. Hopefully, many of the identified issues with version 7 are corrected at that time as well.

One glaring omission is the lack of comprehensive outlining features. Although there is some debate, I think most screenwriters will fall on the side of creating an outline of your story before attempting to write the first draft of a screenplay. So it would make sense that any screenwriting software package would include tools for creating said outline before writing said script. Apparently not. A basic outlining program, OmniOutliner, ships standard with new Macs. It's adequate for that task but another program that I've been demoing the past week does outlining and so much more: NoteBook. I think any Mac writers out there should take a serious look at it.

NoteBook allows you to create (obviously) a digital notebook for any project. Within any notebook, individual pages can be devoted not only to an outline but also to drafts of notes, storage of images, .pdf files, or anything else that can be clipped into your notebook's pages. To-do list pages or items can also be synced with your Mac's iCal. But, for me, it's the clipping service that makes NoteBook most appealing from the screenwriting perspective. Now, as I prepare an outline or rewrite, anything relevant to the script gets put into that project's notebook for future reference. A magazine article on my subject matter, a website that shows the exact location I'm using for a setting, the substance of an e-mail giving me feedback on the first draft for purposes of rewriting. If I can access it on my computer, I can put it in my notebook.

And to keep your notebook organized, Trapper Keeper style, you can place tabbed dividers between sections of materials. So outlines go in one section, notes in another section, media clippings, correspondence, etc. all in their own place. The total package. Version 2.0 is current at the moment, and version 2.1 is due out sometime in the next month or so. A 30-day demo is downloadable on the Circus Ponies website. And if, like me, you've spent your whole life hearing "Can you get that program on a Mac," you can turn the tables on the Windozers because NoteBook is Apple-only and will apparently remain so for the foreseeable future.

I am apprised of a new potential Mac-based alternative to Final Draft and MMS. Montage from Mariner Software promises to do all the usual script formatting but via universal binary and native Cocoa, i.e., made by and for Macs from the base up. And will import Final Draft documents, so nothing lost in switching. And synced to Address Book for easy mailing of files to all your contacts at once. And built-in outlining features apparently. And only $150 when it goes on sale. That's what is represented on the website at least. Unfortunately, it's still in beta and doesn't appear to be downloadable in a trial version anywhere that I could find on the website. But I will definitely keep my eye on this, especially if the universal binary update for Final Draft is not a significant step forward.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Ghosts in the machine

I haven't done much exploring in the week since I arrived, but even my short walk over to Creative City is steeped in enough history to make me feel a part of the never-ending Hollywood story. Although the current mishmash of architectural styles in and around downtown Los Angeles can be overwhelming and seems to give little deference to the past, vestiges of the golden age remain here and there. Not to be melodramatic about it, but a few ghosts yet linger in a city that seems to pride itself on having no memory and being the place to come to reinvent one's self.

So it was that, walking up La Brea Avenue last week on a 7-Eleven run, I found myself staring up at a giant statue of Kermit the Frog atop some Tudor-style bungalows. I knew the place rang a bell and sure enough, I was unknowingly living behind the offices of The Jim Henson Company. As yet, however, I have not seen Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, or Sweetums wandering around the neighborhood.

But the familiarity was due more, I think, to its first incarnation as The Chaplin Studios, one of the original Hollywood lots. Opened in 1918, by The Little Tramp himself, some of Chaplin's most admired films were shot on the location. It's both humbling and exciting to think I'll be writing yards away from the place where The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator all made. Would that even a touch of Chaplin's genius is still hanging around the lot for me to tap into.

South and west onto Santa Monica Boulevard is the Formosa Cafe, hangout for Hollywood types since 1939. Maybe it doesn't draw the caliber of stars past, but still fun to pass the joint where Officer Bud White calls out Johnny Stompanato in L.A. Confidential. And, bringing everything full circle, the Formosa sits across Formosa Avenue from the former Warner Hollywood Studio.

Now called simply the lot, it was here that Charlie Chaplin would eventually move from his studios on La Brea after joining with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith in 1919 to form United Artists. At this point I only dare to dream that anything I ever do here will endure one hundred years from now. But it is exciting to think, as I pass these places each day, that I might have a chance to contribute to this continuing endeavor of creation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

It looks fake . . . I like it!

As the change to my profile location on the right indicates, I've finally arrived in Los Angeles, following an uneventful 3 and 1/2 days of driving straight through from Maryland. Getting settled in the new digs and firmly ensconced on a comfy couch at the Creative City Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard working on the rewrite that I will be submitting for Nicholl. Hope to meet other fellow scribosphere members here in town now that I've made the move.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Augusta National is going to have to rename the Butler Cabin the Leftorium if Phil keeps this up.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Mona Lisa smile

As the May 17 release date for The Da Vinci Code draws near, Team Grazer is no doubt breathing a little easier now that a London judge has tossed a copyright infringement suit against the book's author, Dan Brown. Although I doubt even a loss in the English courts would have affected the United States release, the ruling is mostly good news for writers from an intellectual property perspective.

The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a book purporting to show evidence that Jesus Christ did not actually die on the cross but survived to produce offspring with Mary Magdalene. Not having read "Da Vinci" myself, I can only rely on the reports that its subject matter deals with much the same theory. I did, however, read the earlier work about 20 years ago and seem to recall it was interesting in the way that JFK, RFK, and MLK conspiracy theories were interesting to me when I wanted to believe in the mysterious over the mundane.

Apparently, the theories were of some interest to Dan Brown as well. He admitted at trial that he relied on "Holy Blood" in researching the background for his own fictional work. The authors of that book, to the extent that its contents could be construed as historical facts, then sought to claim infringement on the grounds that Brown's use of their "facts" amounted to an improper copying of the book's central theme or "architecture" in his creating of "Da Vinci." Experts on both sides of the pond judged this "novel" theory of infringement a loser from the start and the dismissal did not come as a surprise to anyone following the case closely.

From the screenwriter's perspective, even if not controlling on American courts, the decision is to be applauded because it reinforces the well-settled rule that facts and ideas are not entitled to copyright protection. As Justice Peter Smith wrote for the High Court here: "It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way 'The Da Vinci Code' has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright." Especially where the diligent screenwriter will consult a variety of historical sources to research their subject matter and strive to be as accurate as possible, it would likely have a chilling effect for the authors of the consulted works to be able to then claim infringement. Not an unexpected result, but still good to know that some things in the legal world endure like Da Vinci's painting.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

High fidelity

In the spirit of Nick Hornby's list-obsessive novel, I note that the Writers Guild has published its 101 Greatest Screenplays. Nothing terribly surprising near the top, but it is interesting to note that of the first 25, only two (The Shawshank Redemption at 22 and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at 24) were written in the past decade-ish -- Shawshank was 1994. I'm not sure if it is more a case of they really were better written in the "golden age" or just that there has not been enough distance between more recent, equally good scripts. But grist for the discussion mill nonetheless.

Friday, April 07, 2006


One of my favorite quotes from "The English Patient" comes from the scene where Katherine Clifton attempts to engage Count Almásy in some flirty banter as they drive across the North African desert. Not allowing himself to engage her, he responds:

"I once traveled with a guide who was taking me to Faya. He didn't speak for nine hours. At the end of it he pointed to the horizon and said, 'Faya!' That was a good day."

That's also driving from Baltimore to Los Angeles solo.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Thirty days to Nicholl

Not an April Fool's joke. May 1st is the deadline for entries in the 2006 Nicholl Fellowships program. Applications (print only at the moment) are at the AMPAS site and downloadable. All that's left is for the writing.

Ode to Mobtown, hon

With my meager worldly possessions now on their way to Los Angeles, I finally have a moment to catch my breath. I've lived here in Baltimore for ten years now and it's strange to think that in only a few hours, I won't anymore. As exciting as the prospect of living in Los Angeles is, though, there are many things about The Land of Pleasant Living that I'll hate to leave behind.

Most non-Baltimorons receive their images of the city from one of three main sources: (1) Barry Levinson's tales of Baltmore in the 50's; (2) the television series of former Baltimore Sun police reporter, David Simon (Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner, and The Wire); and John Waters. All entertaining in their different ways, but tending to give the impression that Charm City is either a drug-war DMZ or quirky, blue-collar trashstravaganza. Okay, those stereotypes are actually true to some extent. But it's not all bad, and if you ever find yourself in town, nix the usual Inner Harbor tourist crap for some good ol' Bawlmer sights. Hon.


For cinephiles, Baltimore has the bases covered in relative style. Current independent releases, foreign films, revivals, and even the occasional studio feature are all showcased at The Charles. Just around the corner from Penn Station, and next door to a fab tapas restaurant for pre or post-flick fare, The Charles also hosts the best reason to get out of bed early on a Sunday morning, the Cinema Sundays film series. Catch new or classic films, Q&A with the filmmakers or other guest speakers, and nosh on some bagels. Can't beat that with a stick.

If big-screen action and tentpole releases are more your speed, however, then head on up the JFX to Baltmore's historic Senator Theatre. A movie palace in the grand art deco tradition, The Senator is where the line forms for the latest superhero, sci-fi, or fantasy extravaganza. Even with classic houses like Mann's Chinese, The Egyptian, and El Capitan now within walking distance, The Senator is where I want to premiere any movie that I might ever be fortunate enough to have made.

Mmmmm . . . food

When most people think Baltimore and food they think crabs. But truthfully, locals don't eat them as much as others think. I never was any good at the cracking and picking necessary to get at all the meat myself. My local eatery of choice was (and remains) the SoBo Cafe. Smack dab in the middle of Federal Hill, the SoBo provides good food at a reasonable price and in a funky atmosphere that belies the otherwise upscale surroundings. Chicken pot pie and mac-n-cheese to die for. But mostly it was the great staff that brought me back every week. Cool, funny, and friendly, ask for Lisa, Carrie Ann, or Olivia and they'll take good care of you.

The one bad thing about city dining is that closing time comes early, usually round about 10 o'clock. Not good for the night owl. Thankfully, there is always the Papermoon Diner to save the evening. Breakfast anytime, veggie-friendly offerings such as "Hummuscide: Life on a Pita," and crazy decor (think Hollywood bungalow overrun by an army of mutilated Barbie dolls). Cheap and open 24/7.

Reading is fun and mental

For a time, Baltimore's slogan was "The City That Reads." Which everyone got an ironic chuckle out of, given what The City That Reads passed off as a public school system. But for those who actually do read, there are some typically Baltimore bibliothingies to be found. First and foremost being Atomic Books in the most Baltimore-y of Baltimore neighborhoods, Hampden. Self-described "literary finds for mutated minds," Atomic Books is the source for all manner of underground comics, graphic novels, zines, kitsch, and anything else too hip for the average person to likely imagine. Oh, and it's also the offical repository of John Waters's fan mail. So drop him a line at the shop and they'll be sure to get it to him! Oh, and the current slogan is "The Greatest City In America," which only makes us laugh even more.

No longer in Baltimore (anyone good at anything ends up leaving eventually), but certainly of it, Emily Flake writes and draws one of the funniest strips out there: Lulu Eightball. Four panels of wry social commentary, dark humor, and girls dressed up in bee costumes. Emily got her start writing and illustrating for the local alternative newsweekly, City Paper. Although she lives in Brooklyn now, the comic retains a definite Charm City vibe. And if you don't get it in your own city's free paper, the first year of Lulu Eightball has been collected in a handy volume you can order online from Atomic Books themselves. See how that works?

House music all night long

Although not quite the scene it was when I arrived ten years ago, Baltimore still loves to dance and the best place to do it is the venerable Paradox nightclub. Since the days of the Orbit and Fever parties, this warehouse space in an industrial area near the sports stadiums has been the place to groove until the sun comes up. No bottle service, no VIP noise, just a roomy hardwood dance floor with a 20,000 watt sound system for the bass in your face. Nothing like Scott Henry dropping one of those tracks from back in the day at about six in the morning when the front room is still rammed and you and that person dancing next to you just never want the song to end.

Some of those people who I used to hang out with at Paradox with took that love of the music and now operate the best concert venue in the city, Sonar. Owner Lonnie Fisher has made the nice transition from rave promoter having his civil liberties violated by the "po-po" to the bringer of new bands and djs to a town that historically has been more big-hair heavy metal than house. But his Ultraworld promotion venture still manages to throw down old skool once a year with Starscape, so the scene is still not quite ready to die just yet.

So that's what I'm leaving behind, along with many other great things too numerous to mention in detail (The Tinklers, American Visionary Art Museum, the ten-hole golf course at Carroll Park, the Miracle on 34th Street). It's been a (mostly) fun ride, but the open road beckons and now on to the hills of Hollywood and a new world of experiences. Believe, hon.