The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What if?


OK. So this isn't my usual post (if there even is a usual anymore). It's all science-y and pseudo-sciene-y and if you think the Earth is 3000 years old maybe this isn't the diatribe for you. The following is something that's been knocking around my gourd for sometime. I wanted to get it out. It's more for my personal use, but if it interests you, so be it. I always welcome informed and level-headed discussion.

Most women make one egg available for fertilization each month. The average human male ejaculate has 200 to 400 million sperm. That's the number needed guarantee conception on multiple occasions throughout an adult woman's lifespan. Only one baby is born at a time (normally) because the survival rate of humans is fairly high. Contrast this with other animals like Frogs who spawn thousands of offspring, most of which will perish in short order. But those thousands are needed to ensure that enough survive to propogate the species. And outside of some calamity most species can and do survive.

Tuck that bit of information aside and come with me down the rabbit hole. I'm fascinated by science and people striving to understand the universe. I've watched countless hours of shows about black holes, how life began and how the universe works in general. Recently I've become enamored with how life came to be on this planet. So if you'll indulge me I'd like to go over some of the important things, we think, that make life possible on this blue marble.

First up is our galaxy. While not essential, it's certainly a good thing that we reside in a stable galaxy. We're not currently colliding with another galaxy. The spiral arms are well formed and for the most part there is a kind of order to things. What is essential is our location in the galaxy. Too much closer and the radiation bombarding our solar system would be to great for life to exist. Too much further out and there might not be enough varied elements to foster life. So we're in a Goldilocks zone of sorts in the Milky Way.

We are also in the Goldilocks zone in our own solar system. Not to close to boil and not so far away to freeze. But wait. There's more. The sun is constantly bombarding us with harmful radiation. To combat this the Earth's spinning molten iron core creates a magnetic field that protects all life.  Without the magnetic field, the solar wind would blow the atmosphere right off the earth like the after effect of some cosmic birthday wish. Why does the Earth have a molten core? Some folks much smarter than myself claim that when the sun was created it was spinning at a high enough velocity that when the planets formed they too were spinning fast enough to create a sustainable, spinning iron core. 

Mars also HAD a molten core at one time, but it has long since seized. Why did it seize? Some think a catastrophic cosmic impact caused a chain reaction that shut down the core. Others believe that Mars was just too small and that over time the planet just cooled enough to where the core locked up. Either way, after lock up, the atmosphere was blown off and we're left with the red planet we know and love today.

Recently I read an article about the sun. It seems that while the sun in its present form provides us with just enough warmth. If we turn the clocks back millions of years, the sun should have been 30% cooler and therefore the Earth should have been a block of ice for a really long time. This, of course, isn't the case so they are struggling to find the answers. One possible explanation is that the sun used to be much bigger and some cosmic event blew a bunch of the suns outer layers away. If true I'm guessing it makes life here and elsewhere that much more improbable.

So now that we have a warm planet with a strong magnetic field we need life. And life as we know it requires water. That's where things get interesting. Hydrogen and Oxygen are two of the most plentiful elements in the universe, so it stands to reason that water is in abundant supply (most of it probably frozen). And we also know that life is tenacious at the microbial level (maybe at every level). We've woken up microbes that were in a state of suspended animation for hundreds of millions of years. Through models we've demonstrated how life can survive even in the face of near total planet annihilation. Once life takes hold, it's near impossible to completely get out. Also, I've recently read that some scientists believe that some organic compounds are actually formed in stars and  shot into space. Weird. Eerie.

That's why I believe that while we haven't found it yet, it is a safe assumption that the universe is teeming with life. We've even proven that life, fundamentally different than we know it, can and does exist. Truly crazy stuff.

While liquid water is essential to how life developed on this planet it is also present in Goldilocks type quantities. Too much water and there is no or little land. The chances of intelligent marine life becoming self-aware and building technology to leave Earth become exceedingly improbable (see dolphins). Too little water and it all exists far below a dried, cracked, barren surface. We have just enough to have ample land and a weather system that waters most of it.

So at this point we have warmth, water, and protection. Now all we need is time. Time for life to travel from simple to complex. From microbes to mammals. But the time for life to flourish is finite, short even given a cosmic context. As soon as the sun ignited it was on a clock. It has a lifespan, albeit a very, very, very long one. But a lifespan nonetheless. Also there is the matter of cosmic collisions. While it is great that we exist in a stable galaxy it is doubly great that we exist in a fairly stable and predictable solar system. We've got our share of errant rocks, but the planets, for the most part, have stable orbits. Even with this stability the Earth is under constant bombardment, and every once in awhile a rock the size of Nebraska will hit the earth, kill most everything and hit the cosmic reset button on the development of life.

These huge impacts have happened about 6 times (maybe a couple more) in Earth's history. More frequent are the asteroids or comets that are big enough to wipe out the majority of life, but leave some survivors. Mammals are the survivors of the last great impact, the one that took out the dinosaurs. Mammals are currently on the hot seat with no friend to phone.

So what's keeping Earth safe now? Luck, mostly, but we have a big brother who helps out once in awhile. I'm talking of Jupiter. It is so massive and it's gravity so strong that it acts like the solar system's Roomba. Some say that without the mighty planet, Earth would experience great impacts on a much more frequent basis and as a result life would never really get going.

So now we exist in a brief window of opportunity, a period between cosmic impacts. We are developing technology at a brisk rate, but we lack urgency. Until we can permanently exist separate from the Earth all of our eggs are in one basket. Some will take the narrow view and declare that we should live simply, like our ancestors. Live off the land in harmony with nature. They think those untouched, primitive tribes in South America do it right. They represent how the human animal should be.

I personally can't abide. From a biological standpoint, the explicit purpose of any animal is to reproduce and sustain the species. The need to reproduce is the single biggest drive in every animal on the planet. There's a damn good reason why sex is always on the brain. So if our base instinct is to survive and reproduce, and we understand that another major cosmic impact will happen (it's not an if) then our focus should be to be able to live independent of the planet. Then independent of the solar system. Then independent of the galaxy. Of course it isn't our focus, but that's another post for another time.

Then there's the idea of intelligence itself. There are several animals with large and complex brains. Bottlenose Dolphins, Asian Elephants, and many whales have brains that are bigger than ours, but for one reason or another they can't reason and think abstractly. They aren't self-aware. Could we have evolved with intelligence but never ever progressed to thinking, reasoning, and above all evolved into beings infused with a curiosity to explore and an innate desire to improve our situation? I wonder.

So to recap. Earth is located in a Goldilocks zone within a Goldilocks zone. It's big enough and spinning fast enough to sustain a liquid iron core that creates a life-saving magnetic field. It has just enough water to make intelligent life possible, and a gas giant like Jupiter orbiting deep  in the solar system absorbing collisions that would decimate Earth. And we exist in a calm period in Earth's history in between major cosmic impacts. Some would cite these facts as obvious evidence of God. If the universe were a small place I'd agree. But it's the staggering numbers of planets and stars and galaxies and filaments in our universe  that make our impossible string of happy accidents downright inevitable. It's all about numbers. That's not to say that God doesn't exist. I have no idea. Anyone who claims to know definitively one way or another is pushing an ideology.

What's interesting to me are the "what ifs" (and this is where this whole mess of a post comes together and my crazy comes out.). I see the universe as efficient and purposeful. Everything has a use. Everything has a reason for being. If there is no purpose, why does it exist at all? So if there is a reason for everything, why is the universe so damn mind-boggling big?

Some ("some" doesn't suggest a minority or that they are wrong or fringe lunatics) argue that our existence, the existence of the entire universe is an accident. That the random appearance and interactions of elements in the early universe set in motion the largest chain reaction in the history of everything. That we are just an after effect of the big bang and nothing more. To these people I have no rebuttal. Nothing. Since proving a purpose to the universe is impossible (I'm not sure science even has the vocabulary to even form the question) there is nothing else to believe other than the accident. 

I'm not wired that way. It seems self-evident to me that we are here for a reason, that the universe has a purpose. Since nature traditionally doesn't expend more energy than it has to, the Big Bang seems like a huge waste of energy if it really was happenstance. Since it can't be proven I hold it as my belief, my reality, and if you believe the opposite I can't say I blame you. But my belief brings me to the BIG QUESTION. THE BIG IF. It's an uber cool question that those people on the other side wouldn't even think to ask.

What if the purpose of the universe is to grow a self-aware, intelligent species capable of breaching the fabric of the universe itself? 

Say you had to design a universe that had its own laws, laws that you could not break.  You could make the moment of creation, but everything else had to unfurl as dictated by the chain reaction at time zero. And if your purpose for making this universe is to 99.99999% guarantee the creation of an intelligent/self-aware species or species(pl) capable of liberating itself from the bounds of the universe how big would it have to be to take into account all the little possibilities, all the endless variables of life and creation? How big would it have to be so that if two or more races escaped their planets that they probably would never even bump into one another (because there is a chance they might wipe each other out)? I'm no mathematician,  but I'll fat thumb guess that it would have to be about this big.

What is beyond the universe? How can we escape the bounds of space/time? Why would the universe be designed for this?

I have no friggin' clue. Not even enough of a clue to make a fevered guess. I don't think we'll have answers for untold millennia assuming we survive that long. And when we do reach the restaurant at the end of the universe (I'm an optimist) the chance of me being right is barely north of zero. But if I'm really lucky, inadvertently-stepping-out-of-the-path-of-a-bullet lucky, perhaps there is a nugget of truth in here somewhere.

It's beyond awesome that we are able to think about it at all.

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Emergence of 3-D and the Irony of Hugo

We're all conservative in some way. Some are socially conservative. Some don't want the natural environment to be changed by humans in any way. Others cling to words and grammar as if they have no right to change. Every single one of us has something or some things that we cling to and will fight to preserve (or wish the clocks could turn back). In the case of Hugo I'm reminded of conservatism as it comes to art, specifically movies. It's a kind of nostalgia that people take very seriously. And when nostalgia is married, even indirectly, to technology drama is sure to follow.

Imagine what happened back in the days when color was replacing black and white film. I don't have any old editorials to cite, but I don't think it's a stretch to assume that there were film enthusiasts who saw color as a gimmick, as a debasement of cinema. The same may have even happened when the silent film gave way to the talkies. We could go back even further and laugh at how the artistic community scoffed at movies and their churlish ways.

After color and sound were introduced, the fundamental way movies were projected didn't change for nearly 70 years. That's a long time for people to become attached to a medium. First sound systems changed in the 80s. Very few complained about that (who doesn't want that monster bass?) Then in the late 90s, 00s digital began its glacial movement to replace film that is still happening to this day. There was and continues to be, albeit muted, gnashing of teeth over this. Spielberg talked about how the grains in film were special, blah blah blah. I worked as a projectionist for several years and I knew firsthand how quickly film prints were dirtied, scratched, and faded. The process of making thousands of prints inherently lowers in quality from the original. I knew that on average probably less than 1% of theater goers got a top notch presentation. Digital, even if slightly flawed delivered exactly the same experience every single time. It was never scratched, never out of focus, and had a consistent brightness from corner to corner. It was a no-brainer in my eyes. But then again, I traveled more than an hour on more than one occasion just to see a digitally projected film.

I'm the least nostalgic person I know. I've always been about the future, looking forward to every new technology. I'm excited to witness the evolution of video games into a medium that's poised to really turn into something important (that's a whole other post) and I've always been interested in  the prospect of 3-D movies. I traveled to New York City in 1995 to see one of the first serious 3-D movies, a short called Wings of Courage, and came away impressed. I was giddy at the prospect of becoming even more immersed in my movie world.

The introduction of 3-D is much like the change from black and white to color. At first color films didn't look all that great and were garishly over-saturated. Eventually they became refined and respectable. 3-D is in that over-saturated period now. The need for glasses turns people off and the effect is still not 100% there. And we have to endure a host of 2-D movies converted and others that use it only as a gimmick. But, at some point glasses will be a thing of the past, serious filmmakers will be on board, and the conversion will be complete. It's not a matter of if but when. And since movie distributors are falling over each other to find ways to distinguish themselves from powerful home theaters change is coming sooner rather than later.

Today we have some prominent filmmakers willing to give 3-D a shot. James Cameron is probably the most outspoken. Avatar may not have been the best movie, but I loved his use of 3-D and there were certain shots within that film that made me know that 3-D is the future. Cameron is known for blockbusters and the opinion of his work does run the gamut. I suppose it might be a difficult task to hold up a movie about blue aliens and talk up the arrival of 3-D as a legitimate artistic choice. Kenneth Branagh had some very creative and interesting 3-D shot compositions with Thor, but Thor? Really? It's more than easy to write off as nonsense, but what do you do when Martin Scorsese does it and on a film that centers on the love and preservation of movies?

Hugo blew me away. It has been years since I felt emotion that powerfully. A day later I can feel my voice tense up and start to quiver when I try to talk about certain scenes. The story ended up captivating me, but it was Scorsese's deft use of 3-D that took my breath away. The opening shot which flies over Paris, through a narrow train platform, and ending the face of the main character through the numbers on a huge clock sets the stage for what is to come. It's not only 3-D, but an unabashed celebration of 3-D. Countless shots use depth of field in interesting ways. You are forever looking through the scene and not at it.

It's a movie that spends a lot of its time focused on a man who saw the possibilities in a new technology (movies) and is itself shot in a movie technology that is struggling to find support from the artistic community. 3-D is not new, but this serious push as a viable medium is.

The profound irony is that Hugo plays to the preservationist crowd, the people who adore and love the medium of movies. Yet I'd wager that the majority of these people scoff at 3-D as a medium. It's the nature of the beast. I'm sure you will find people who criticize his use of the technology or better yet, create a special dispensation for this movie. "It worked here, but 99% of the time it's going to be crap." Maybe this movie will change some minds. I'm not holding my breath.

A year ago I was on a nature walk taking pictures when I walked across a footbridge and looked down. I saw a spectacular ravine and noticed how the rocks parted as the water flowed down and down. I took a picture trying to capture the moment. In the end I selected the right framing, exposure, and all the right parts were in focus, but it was drab and boring. I realized that it was the depth that made it stand out, and by smashing it flat I destroyed any possibility of recreating that moment.

I recount this experience to show that 2-D can't do it all. If given the choice and the technology I'd shoot in 3-D, and I think that would hold true for the large majority, just like if early filmmakers had the choice to make movies with sound and color, we wouldn't see many silent/black and white films at all. In general (exceptions given to works that use it as a choice), if given a choice and assuming the technology works as your mind can imagine I'd always choose sound over silence, color over black and white, 3-D over 2-D, holograms over 3-D, and dream state over holograms. 

Hugo shows what's possible. If I had a wish it would be that people would embrace the new and be excited for what's to come rather than clinging to what we've only been using because it was the best we had.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Austin Screenwriters Conference: Man-up Edition

While attending the Austin Screenwriters Conference one of the people I spoke with was a fellow aspiring screenwriter and blogger. He told me that he stopped blogging because he thought that industry people might see it and notice that he's been at it for over five years. In his mind, that span of time showed how long he's been at it without "making it". That somehow it indicated that his shelf life as a screenwriter had already passed, that he'd be viewed as stale in some way. Having yet to have "made it" I can't really offer any insight to the validity of this thinking. All I know is who I am and what I do. And what I do, for better or worse, is let it hang out. We all have our secrets and I'm no exception, but I can safely say that my secret drawer is smaller than most, a sock drawer at best. That's the long, circuitous way of prefacing . . .

I've never felt like more of a failure and poser as I did before arriving in Austin this year. My latest script, the one I was so high on, the one that would cause Glenn Beck and Obama to embrace as knowing brothers crashed and burned in both of the major screenwriting contests. Even though I know that all contests are subjective crap shoots. Even though I know that depending on these contests for validation is a recipe for disaster. Even though I know that relying on them to get you some sort of traction is just shy of winning the lottery I still looked to them as some sort of yard stick. I felt my talent had grown since writing my football drama (which might have its flaws but after talking with some football-minded strangers I came away more confident than ever that if I could get the right person in a room they'd believe in the idea, but I digress) and I deserved some recognition damn it. Instead I was left to wallow in a pool of my own uncertainty which, as it turns out, is fed by a bottomless spring of self-loathing and doubt.

At Austin I was greeted by what now are old friends, friends that I see but once a year but are friends nonetheless. It's always a joy to hoist a bottle of Shiner with them and revel in the moment. This year was a lean year, and there were fewer there than I'd have liked (I drank with them in spirit). But the real story is the others. The other people that I see year after year and never talk to. I don't know how talented they are. I don't know their stories.

Here's where I turn into a judgmental asshole. The only thing I am certain as sin about is that they will never be professional screenwriters. They haunt the Driskill for four days but never really make any lasting connections. They are rarely, if ever, seen talking to any industry professionals. They just hover and pretend to be actively engaged in starting a writing career, when the sad fact is that they are secretly hoping that some producer will pick them out of the crowd and ask to see their work.

I'm scared shitless that I'm turning into one.

Maybe everyone there has the same loathing feeling. Forever stuck on the outside looking in. Having people look at them and think, "Damn, I wish that guy knew how pathetic he is. Just go home and write fan-fiction already." While I do my best to stamp them out, the thoughts linger, waiting for a chance to punch me in the face. I hope someone has the pity to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to get moving before I turn into one of the Driskill's walking dead.

This year I arrived with the desire to meet some new people and get to talking with some industry professionals, more than I have in previous years. I succeeded. On a scale of 0 to 10 I moved from a 0.5 to around 3. Progress to be sure, but not nearly enough. I try to be more personable. I wish I could be loose and free with my words and be the affable guy that I am around my close friends, but I find that near impossible. I wonder if it's possible at all. Maybe it's just not me. My friend Brett sits down and writes notes every night he's there to remind him that he's on a business trip. I wonder if I need to find a way to remind myself that I need to loosen up and have fun (and the good stuff will follow naturally).

One thing is for sure. If I step foot in the Driskill lounge again, it will be with a clear purpose. I'm not afraid to ask for help. I've spent the last five years honing my craft (and I'll continue to do that for sure), but I've got to stop hiding behind the idea that I'm developing my skills and be brave enough to show the world that this is the writer I am, and it's good enough.

Time to man-up.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Zack Snyder and Fetish Cinema

Take a moment and watch this trailer.

Did it disturb something primal within? Did it make you resolute that your ass will be in the theater come release day, but at the same time you kinda don't want anyone to know exactly why you want to see it? Does any part of you want to use slow-mo so that you might get a glimpse of her panties under that deliciously short skirt? If the answer is no, then you might want to go watch Project Runway or some shit.

I don't know him, and I haven't read a single interview with him, but I'm quite certain that Zack Snyder is getting his freak on in front of millions of people. There isn't an ounce of actual sex in the trailer for Sucker Punch, but make no mistake, this is porn. Scrumptious, titillating porn. Zack has his finger squarely on the pulse of adolescent male fantasy in just about every conceivable way. And none of those ways are generic. His images are finely tailored and expose very specific desires. If Zack were a woman, you'd come home to find her wearing lingerie. She'd tie you to the bed and whisper, "I know what you want. That stuff you like, but are afraid to tell anyone else about because from that point on they'd look at you cockeyed? I'm gonna do it to you."

When you see a scantily clad woman with a sword, flying through the air towards a giant robot who is firing some mammoth machine gun, all in slow motion, you know it's about to get freaky all up in here. And the images keep coming, each as scintillating as the last. It's a complete nerdgasm. And this is nothing new for Zack. His last two movies are both highly stylized and highly fetishized. (I haven't seen his Dawn of the Dead remake, but I may have to put it in my Netflix queue)

300
This is the film that put him on the map. It's easy to label his depiction of the Spartans as homo-erotic (and many have), but I don't know. What boy/man wouldn't fantasize about being ripped and being able to fend off an entire army wearing nothing but a helmet, shield, spear, and a tunic? And doing it with brothers in arms. It's totally bad-ass. George-Washington-fighting-a-bengal-tiger-on-a-sinking-ship-in-the-middle-of-a-hurricane bad-ass. If anyone is looking for last minute gift ideas, I want a fucking huge print of that picture to hang in my man-cave. One part patriotic, two parts awesome.

The most weirdly unique and erotic thing about that movie were the women's nipples. It's like he intentionally shot all the nude scenes in a meat locker. Did he cast the actresses based solely on how big their erect nipples were? The world will never know.

Actress - "What scene would you like me to read from Mr. Snyder?"

Zack - "Just take your shirt off. Here. Take this ice cube."

Watchmen
Let's be honest, the first thing you see in your mind's eye when you think of this movie is a huge blue penis. (And if you didn't I GUARANTEE that is all you can see now. You're welcome.). But once you move past the large blue phallus, you come to the very stylized and glamorized fighting. The slow-motion really punctuates the action in a kind of erotic way. It's intoxicating. Then there is Silk Spectre II. Dressed like a superhero streetwalker, you'd gladly catch a beating from her if only she'd fuck you first. And she would fuck you. It would ALMOST be rape. If she killed you, you know you'd be be in heaven high-fiving those kids who had sex with with that hot teacher. The ones where publicly you were like, "How dare she.", but inwardly you were like, "If only I were that lucky at that age. Those kids are Gods."

Zack Snyder seems to specialize in wet dreams and Sucker Punch doesn't seem to be any different. Next he's making Xerxes, which looks to be a companion piece to 300. And it looks like he might be involved in a remake/reboot of Heavy Metal (how perfect would that be?). Whatever he makes, I'll be in line, no questions asked.

Keep your cockeyed stares to yourself.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Idea

Since finishing my script in late April, I haven't written a thing. I wanted to take some time off and just be. And be I did. After a month I started getting restless, and for the past two weeks I've been having trouble sleeping. Then I remembered that this wasn't anything new. During periods of inactivity while writing my last script I would have trouble sleeping. I don't know whether it is my subconscious guilt over not doing what I should be or if it's just a creative need, but as soon as I started to write, I had no trouble sleeping at all.

My body is telling me in no uncertain terms that it is time to stir the ink well and pick up my quill. The trouble is that now I am starting from a blank page, and starting from a blank page is hard which is why I've been procrastinating starting anew. I even entertained the idea of rewriting my first script armed with the writing wisdom I've gained over the years. But that would be falling back, and since General Patton is one of my role models I'm not interested in retreating or holding my ground. I've got to keep advancing or die trying.

So to start anew I need an idea. I don't take ideas lightly. I can't just decide I want to write a romcom and then put characters to screen. A script takes a lot of time to complete. The goal of the script is to get made into a film. I only write when I see a hole in the cinematic tapestry. I need to write a movie that I've been aching to see on the big screen but which hasn't been done before. I'm not trying to invent a new genre or anything. For instance I read Frankenstein in High School and it really captured my imagination in a way that I felt was never captured on screen. Then Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein came out and I hoped it was going to be the movie I wanted to see. It wasn't, so I still see a hole that I want to fill. Maybe someday.

But the idea isn't enough. I've got a text file full of ideas, but they are just tenuous wisps of thought barely tethered to rock. They need form and they need that spark of innovation that will make that one eyebrow raise when you hear it. For my last script I had an idea of a character I've been thinking about for years, but he had no adversary, nothing to really strive against, so I thought and I thought and I thought. And then it came to me. It was right but it was still flawed because the situations weren't nearly interesting enough. In my mind it was a cute idea, but nothing that you couldn't yawn at with mild interest. I needed something that made you stand up and take notice immediately. A something that, from the end of the first scene, makes you realize that you are in new territory. That a road is being newly paved in front of you and that you are among the first to put tire to asphalt. And I think I cracked it, I really do. Time will tell.

Now I have another idea I've been kicking around for years. It has no mooring, no form. I've got to crack its puzzle before I write FADE IN. It seems daunting, but I need a full night of sleep and I don't think I'm going to get it until I start putting the pieces together.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Confidence is a Fickle Bitch

While writing my latest masterpiece I would read the first five pages and think, "You can't read these first five without wanting to see more." And I would read more and marvel at how the scenes flow, and how there aren't any dead spots. I would smile at the humor rife throughout. This is my ticket. This is the script that will bring balance to the Force. It's a breath of fresh air. This is a script that will rise above the others. I was smelling myself.

And then a funny thing happened. I clicked "File" on the toolbar, then clicked "Save as...", entered "Tom's Masterpiece_Final"*, and clicked "OK". With that final click my confidence fell faster than a particle in the Large Hadron Collider. Suddenly, my masterpiece was a mediocre mess of haphazard words and misshapen phrases. It wasn't funny. My characters were transparent. I was waiting for a parade of people to point at me through a window and laugh at my incredible waste of 2 years.

The reason for this lapse of confidence? Before I feature-locked the script I was working with potential. Anything was possible. With the script finalized, I was struck with the finality of it all. There was no more potential. All my script would ever be was now sealed in for freshness. Even though I could start over from scratch and overhaul the whole thing at any time the reality is that I've made it as well as I could make it right now and if it wasn't good enough, it wasn't good enough. I'm closing this chapter for now and unless someone pays me to rewrite it, this will be it's preserved form. I will continue to polish and refine for the next month, but they won't be enough to cover any significant problems. It is what it is.

That was a month ago.

I've recently started my final polish. It's good. It's really good. It reads fast. The humor is ever-present. It's a unique take on a crowded genre. A take that I think will appeal to a lot of people. I'm genuinely proud of it. More than any script I've written to date, I believe in it. I've set lofty goals, and since I'm a rank amateur, most of those goals revolve around the upcoming contest season. That's a dangerous yardstick because the contests are so subjective. More than one script has been a Nicholl finalist and not even gotten a sniff at Austin. Not to mention that the contests are not an end. The best they will get you is a door held open just long enough for you to peer in and maybe get a name before it closes in your face.

So what's different? I think it's just ebb and flow. Sometimes you have to ride out the lows until you start to climb back up. I'm high on my script now, but what happens when I send it out to Nicholl and Austin? What happens when Nicholl thanks me for my $40 donation and wishes me luck with my non-hunting dog next year. What happens when Austin tells me to cram it and then demands a thousand dollars to go there in October so I can pretend to be something I'm not? I've got to maintain confidence in my work and push through. Someone once said to me, "If you don't believe in your work, who will?" True dat. My biggest fear is to be one of those people on American idol who objectively suck and suck hard, but have been blowing sunshine far up their own asses for so long that reality is forever rose-tinted.

I suppose I just have to trust that my critical thinking is still intact. That I can still smell a sun-baked turd especially if it's my own.

The tides of confidence will rise and fall. The true measure is having the base confidence to weather the drought.


*No, I'm not cocky enough to name my script "Tom's Masterpiece"

Saturday, April 03, 2010

5. Abide the Rules

I crave order, but I don't like rules. That's not true. I like rules . . . that make sense to me. If they seem arbitrary and lack sound reasoning they can go straight to hell. Of course one must factor in the consequences of going against any particular rule. As for screenwriting, my thoughts on rules are well documented. There are many books that tell us what to write on what page by dissecting great movies and shoehorning them into a mold. Great movies don't fit into molds. They make their own. These books are destructive in two major ways:

1. They make writers who are NOT storytellers imagine they can follow a template and poof a great script into existence.

2. They arm studio executives, who are also NOT storytellers, with information to make them think that they know something about storytelling. While these rules might help them to weed out the dreck, they also serve to help them destroy anything special.

No, my character doesn't need to save a cat on page 12, and she certainly doesn't need to time travel on page 30. What makes the siren song of these books so powerful is that they are based on a lot of sound examples. They are arguments that can be defended and rationalized. While I deride their use I also can acknowledge their usefulness if mined properly.

So are there any rules to writing a screenplay? If you are a storyteller then you will naturally be able to understand the ebb and flow of your story. You will feel how your characters should change or resist all efforts to do so. After thinking some time on this I've come to the conclusion that there are indeed some rules to screenwriting. These items are things I think you cannot overlook when writing. And if you don't at least consider them, you risk producing something pedestrian.

Rule #1 - Convey to the viewer/reader the unique and interesting qualities of your story AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. In the first syllable of the first word if possible. You've got to hook your audience quickly. You have to give them a reason to root for your story. If you are writing a superhero story, you've got to tell them why it is different than every other superhero story ever made (in a good way). If it's a legal drama, I need to know why it isn't Law and Order. If you are writing on spec you've got to do it with definitive action and dialogue. If you are writing something that will be filmed then you can do it with less action as long as your environment is foreign and intriguing. When I read an unfamiliar script I'm always looking for that reason to keep reading. I need to be compelled. And it could be the smallest thing. It has to be something that sparks your imagination, that begs you to begin to fill in the blanks for parts yet to come. Recently I watched the movie 500 Days of Summer. Going in I was expecting some sort of romantic comedy. I wasn't too excited. Preceding the start of the movie was a black screen with white text:

"Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely accidental ... Especially you, Jenny Beckman ... Bitch."

Before frame one. Before the story even started I smiled. I instantly liked this movie. All it had to do from that point forward was keep the promise it had just made to me. It did. When I first saw Field of Dreams I heard it was good and knew it had something to do with baseball, but I was otherwise ambivalent and half-expecting to leave with a shrug and a sigh. In the first scene the cornfield spoke. Instantly I knew I was where I wanted to be, and to my delight the movie delivered on the promise it made in that Iowa cornfield. Star Wars opens up with a huge space ship chasing a smaller ship. Then we see a firefight followed by a mysterious and malevolent black armored figure. The imagination sparked in those minutes would sustain me over six movies (three of them horrendous).

So please, please, please know why your story is unique and compelling and find a way to bring that out as quickly as possible. If you don't clearly know why your story is a breath of fresh air in a crowded genre then why are you writing it at all?

Rule #2 - Take the path less followed. During story creation the vast majority of us will think in terms of all the movies we have seen and in doing so we will invariably craft familiar feeling scenes and sequences even if our overall story is inventive. So our task as screenwriters is to go over our story sequence by sequence, scene by scene and ask ourselves an important question: How do these situations typically resolve themselves in an average movie? Unless you are thinking outside the box 24/7 you are going to run into a fair amount of situations that resolve themselves in a predictable way. You need to evaluate each and every one of these situations with a critical eye and in situations where the expected outcome isn't completely and utterly necessary (which is most of the time) you need to think of a solution that will make the audience both surprised and delighted. They might be forced to rewrite the story that is unfolding in their heads while watching, but it is a welcome, subconscious rewrite. That is a round and about way of saying that you need to keep the audience guessing and asking questions that aren't WTF?.

Rule #3 - I wanted at least three rules because three rules are like badass, but you know what. I can't think of another. Anything else just seems like a pep talk (be true to yourself) or reiterating stuff from #2 (be your harshest critic and accept only excellence). So that's it. Two rules. Anything more would just be story theory and there's plenty of that excrement already flying around. Told you I wasn't much for rules.

And so that concludes my screenwriting manifesto: Know your audience. Be a storyteller, Keep it interesting, Character starts with the animal. Abide the rules. These are the five pillars of screenwriting. And what gives me the authority to make these reckless proclamations? What makes me different from some guy shouting through a bullhorn atop a milk crate? Nothing. I'm just some schmuck with an opinion. An opinion that may or may not survive the test of time. I hope to reflect on this list when I am wiser and better traveled. I don't know if this is the answer or if there even is an answer, but for now these talking points seem like common sense. Your mileage may vary.

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