Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hear it now

Just for L.A. peeps, Julie Gray has graciously accepted the first act of my rom-com for her next table read. I went to the last one and it was a lot of fun. Just the writer and some actors in a room reading the material aloud, with follow-up suggestions for improving it. So if you're in the area and want to attend, just go to The Rouge Wave II and RSVP.

It's happening Wednesday, November 12th at 7:30p. The location is The Attic Theater in Culver City -- 5429 W. Washington Blvd., ZIP 90016.

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And if you're in need of a laugh, check out this Onion-y satire of The Hollywood Reporter: The Hollywood Roaster! Funny stuff if you're at all familiar with the trades (which you should be, if you're hoping to have a career as a writer).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How Werner Herzog can change your life

Julie Gray has started (another) fun feature, a weekly movie discussion, on the Rouge Wave II networking site she set up. It's a good way to finally watch all those films on your list that you know you should have seen but just never got around to. And then talk with other screenwriters about what worked, what didn't, etc.

The first movie she chose was "Fitzcarraldo" by German director Werner Herzog. Unfortunately, I didn't get to watch for that discussion and it remains on my list of must-sees. But it did get me thinking about Herzog, the man, and his unique aesthetic. "Fitzcarraldo" is the story of a European man (played by Herzog's frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski) living in Peru who decides to fulfill his dream of building an opera house in the middle of the rainforest. One piece to achieving that goal involves dragging a 320-ton steamship over a mountain to ferry the valuable rubber that will fund the construction of the hall. When it came time to depict this in the film, Herzog refused to use special effects and actually dragged a real steamship over a mountain in Peru.

What makes "Fitzcarraldo" perhaps the seminal Herzog film is not just the extremes to which he went in making the movie -- once he got the ship over the mountain, he nearly crashed it to bits filming a sequence through river rapids; he fought so much with Kinski that a native chief offered to murder him for Herzog (who declined because he needed the actor to complete filming) -- but because it also exemplifies the dominant theme running throughout the director's body of work and his own life. Like so many of his subjects, Werner has rarely let anything stand in the way of his filmmaking obsession.

The BBC documentary "Beyond Reason" tracked down Herzog here in Los Angeles and is a good review of the highlights of his career. You can watch it in two parts online:

Watch Werner Herzog: Beyond Reason [Part 1] in Entertainment Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Watch Werner Herzog: Beyond Reason [Part 2] in Entertainment Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at

In addition to footage of him getting shot by a pellet gun sniper (just a flesh wound to Werner), the documentary has lots of other great Herzogian moments. He admits that when filming Aguirre, Wrath of God (also in the Amazon rainforest), Kinski threatened to walk off the set until Herzog calmly promised to shoot him if he did. Kinski finished the movie. When he was starting out as a director, and needed a camera, he stole it from the Munich Film School and shot eleven pictures with it.

The anecdote that stuck most with me was Herzog's wager with fellow documentarian Errol Morris. Morris apparently was struggling to finish his first film. Werner challenged him, betting that Morris would never finish the movie or he (Herzog) would eat his shoe. In Herzog's words, he didn't think that his friend had the guts. Well, Morris had the guts and finished "Gates of Heaven." And, true to his word, Herzog cooked up his shoe and ate it. There is even a documentary about it, fittingly titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." Here is a recent conversation between Morris and Herzog about documentaries.

How I think Herzog can change the life of screenwriters, filmmakers, or anyone really, is to follow his philosophy of doing whatever it takes to bring one's dreams and vision to reality. To have "the guts" to do it no matter what obstacles -- even a mountain in the rainforest -- stand in one's way. As he points out in Beyond Reason, barriers to entry for filmmaking have become so low with digital technology that there really is no excuse to not just do it. So prove Werner wrong, make him eat his shoe. Go do it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The holy grail of screenwriting

Okay, so back to blogging. I've been (semi) busy working on a TV pilot rewrite for a client from the day job. It started as just a dialogue punch-up, which turned into a more substantial reworking of the story. If there is one piece of advice on television writing that I would comfortable giving (having now completed a spec and original pilot) it's is simply to know your "act outs." One-hour dramas are divided into four (sometimes five now) acts, with the endings corresponding to the commercial breaks during broadcast. As you may already surmise, it behooves the successful television writer to give audiences a reason to want to come back to the show after a two-minute bombardment from fast food, soft drink, and automobile companies. Thus, the end of each act should be as cliffhangy as possible -- a shocking plot twist that will ensure viewers stay tuned to see what happens next. Every plot point in your episode's storyline should be built around maximizing the dramatic potential of the act outs.

I'll try and post more writing and career tips as I come by them in my own experiences. Until then, I'm hesitant to make pronouncements about the process or business that I aren't based on firsthand knowledge. An empiricist theory of screenwriting, as it were. But that's not the purpose of this post. The purpose of this post is to provide validation and encouragement to all of us who are afflicted by the procrastination bug. That is to say, all of us. In some strange Orwellian twist, procrastination is now productive! The WSJ article caught my eye because it quoted a Maryland attorney who "was surfing the Web, avoiding several pressing matters" when she came across the website of Stanford University professor John Perry: structured procrastination.

Perry's thesis is that putting off the big, big tasks can be functional if (a big if, in my experience) if you fill the time you're not doing the big, big tasks with numerous, smaller tasks:

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

I haven't tried to put this system into practice yet, but I've promised myself I'm going to get around to it just as soon as I finish that next rewrite on my biopic assignment I'm starting next week . . .