The Bag Means Your Mind

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

Friday, October 27, 2006

Do Me A Favor. Throw It Hard!*

Armed with a producer’s pass won at the Austin Screenwriter's Conference 2005 pitch competition I entered the Driskill hotel looking forward to the familiar sites and sounds of the conference I attended for the first time last year. What I wasn’t prepared for was the profound Groundhog Day-like déjà vu. When entering the lobby and the lounge and the bar and the hallways and the rooms, it was all exactly as I remembered it. Eerily the same. Like I had never left. The room, while on a different floor was located in the same relative place (1103 instead of 603). The desk, the armoire, the beds, indeed everything about the room was identical. This wasn’t surprising (It is a hotel), but added to the surreal feeling that saturated everything. One person observed that it felt like some of the fancy ballroom scenes in The Shining. I couldn’t agree more.

Luckily the feeling subsided after I joined up with my on-line friends, a great collection of upcoming talent that, for one reason or another, allow me to hang out with them. They are all great people and fun to be around. So let me give a shout-out to my peeps (links to blogs/sites included where possible and if I forget someone it is because I’m a forgetful bastard and not a petty schmuck): Ryan, Julie, Brett, Caroline, Shawna, Murray, Reece, Jon, James, Deborah, Ann, and Aaron. Together we could have been the single biggest group of people at the conference. A menacing gang of screenwriters who would just soon analyze your Act II turning point as look at you.

In one form or another we hung out together attending parties, lunches, panels, movies, and generally hoarding couches and chairs in the Driskill Lounge. The lounge was the beginning and end to every single day. For those that don’t know, a typical day goes something like this: Meet in the lounge, attend two panels in the morning, go to lunch, attend two panels in the afternoon, go to a dinner party, hang out/see movies, attend a late evening party from 11pm to 1am, and drag yourself back to the Driskill Lounge for an hour or two before going to bed. Rinse and repeat four days in a row.

The days are long, and by Saturday it feels like a marathon. The thought of attending yet another late night party swimming with budding screenwriters vying for a producer’s ear and scrambling to make friends with professional screenwriters seems like a beer-swilling chore. It is a competitive atmosphere requiring you to be “on” at all times, and wears you down.

After awhile the cushy confines of the Driskill start to feel like a prison where conference goers are monitored and prevented from leaving a three block radius of the hotel.

All that said, I had a great time and wouldn’t change it for the world. Both exhausted and exhilarated at the end of the journey I crawled back to my home in Pennsylvania with a renewed vigor for this thing called screenwriting and a knowledge that I will visit this place again next year and start Ground Hog’s Day all over again.

*What movie is that line from and why is it relevant here? The winner gets an acknowledging nod from someone they admire.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Tale of Two Pitches

Last year Ryan and I pitched American Jedi in the pitch competition at the Austin Film Festival. The story about an obsessed fan that sets out to kill George Lucas for ruining Star Wars was an unequivocal hit. We rehearsed the pitch and delivered it pretty much as practiced. The judges and the audience loved it. When we presented in the pitch finals we made the audience laugh several times and when we concluded the entire room erupted in cheers. I’ve never felt so proud. Our hard work had paid off in spades, and the afterglow of the victory lingered for quite awhile. It was a moment I will never forget.

This year I utilized the general structure of the original pitch. I crafted a solid presentation and practiced the hell out of it. Indeed I was more prepared for this pitch than the year before. I was confident. I felt I had a leg up on the competition. So it came time for my pitch. I stood up there and delivered it just as I had practiced. A little rushed, but overall a decent attempt.

And then the roof caved in.

One of the judges liked my idea about how a football player’s runaway ego threatens not only his pro career but an entire team’s fading Super Bowl dreams. The other judge hated it. Both of them agreed that my pitch was too rehearsed and didn’t sound conversational. I scored better than the person ahead of me, but worse than practically everyone else. Needless to say I didn’t advance to the finals and a teary Steven Spielberg did not stuff a bag full of money and hop the next plane to Austin with dreams of football glory in his eyes.

I could complain about how I delivered my pitch within the 90 seconds while the winners were cut off before finishing. I could even argue the merits of my story, but when it comes down to it, they were better than me on that day, and the judges were right. My pitch was more of a speech than a conversation. What worked with a comedy and a two person team a year before did NOT work with a drama and one person this time.

When looking back, it is very clear what the problem was. While writing a rehearsing I would comment to myself that I had too many complex sentences, but I decided to lock the script and focus on rehearsal. Another problem was that I had a script. We used a script a year before, but because we traded lines it seemed way more casual and conversational. We also used more conversational sentences. With one person, you really need to come across as genuine and talk to and not at the judges.

So what have I learned? What will I do different next year? The biggest change is that I will have no script and that I will have talking points and endeavor to keep it under 90 seconds, but unless the scoring system changes to penalize people who run over, I won’t worry too much about finishing. But the biggest thing I learned is to not search for a formula and to listen to that inner critic trying to warn me of danger. He is decidedly different than my inner asshole who insists on telling me that I’m doomed to fail.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Off to Austin

I’m heading to Austin for the screenwriter’s conference on Wednesday. This will be my second trip to both the conference and the fair city. The last trip was so fabulous I can’t imagine things turning out as well, yet I traipse on in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle once again.

Last time, I met some great people, took part in and won a pitch competition with my good buddy Ryan, and got a chance to ask Greg Beal what script he was working on and not to give up hope in breaking into the business.* Now it seems that my Nicholl entries will be fed directly into a shredder forevermore.

Because of my stand-up comedy class and writing a pitch for my new as yet unfinished script, I’ve been stuck on page 75 of my football spectacle and am looking forward to starting the gears of production once more. Please join me after the conference for my blog post entitled: A Tale of Two Pitches.

Wish me luck.

*It wasn’t quite that bad, yet it was so, so bad. I had no idea who he was, and made a complete ass of myself. I’m sure he contemplated getting some budding screenwriters to beat me to a pulp just to prove a point. At least that is what I would have done if I were him, but he’s a much nicer person than I.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Look Ma! I'm Racin'!

It’s funny. I just finish talking about experiences when my lovely wife surprises me with one of my dream experiences. No. Not that. As an early birthday present (mine is November 1st) she, along with her mother and father, bought me a half day of instruction and racing at the Bertil Roos racing school. I’ve always dreamed of turning laps in a race car, barreling unfettered down a straightaway without the threat of cops or wayward animals.

This is a bare bones (in a good way) racing experience. The cars are little more than four wheels, a steering wheel, and an engine. The frame is designed to hold the engine in the back with a person jammed into the nose along with a jumble of pedals and some body panels. You sit in the car, inclined with your helmeted head peaking out above the fuselage.

When the engine finally roars to life, it is a deep throaty sound that takes you back to childhood dreams of racing in the Indy 500. The exhaust notes of the cars sound exactly as you imagine they would. Everything is perfect until you actually start to move. It is at that moment that it finally hits you your inner Andretti: “Crap. I’m drinvin’ a freakin’ race car.”

Now, looking at the spec sheet, the cars don’t seem fierce. Four cylinders, 150HP, with an 80 or 90 mph top speed on this particular course. I know you’re thinking “Big Whoop. I do that in my car on the way to Grandma’s house.” I know it all seems pedestrian, but let me reassure you its not. You sit a foot off the ground, exposed to the elements. The closer you are to the ground, the faster it feels. This meager race car was all I could handle. Allow me share some of the details of a typical lap.

At the approach of every turn you need to do a couple of things, drop your speed to the maximum velocity needed to correctly turn into the apex of the turn so that you may accelerate through the turn without flying off of the track. During this time you will likely have to downshift, while judging the exact moment to turn in, remaining straight and true before jamming the wheel toward the inside. If done correctly you will feel as if you will certainly run off of the track before turning in.

Ideally, you take every turn at the very limit of the car’s ability. This means pointing the nose at the apex of the curve and mashing on the gas. If you are correct you can stay on the gas through the turn and your outside tire will hit the edge of the pavement just as you leave the turn. While accelerating, you can feel the forces pushing you out, and you feel as if the car will leave the track. You fight the urge to let up the gas even as you approach the outside of the turn where it appears you will end up in the grass.

Cornering is a fun/maddening exercise that is a perfectionists wet dream. Finding that line is pure heaven … I think. I’ve seen the line. I’ve been close to the line. I’ve ground my gears to a nub in search of the line, but I’ve yet to actually travel the line. Should I ever find it, I will leave a trail of gear shavings and burnt rubber for other hapless drivers to follow.

That is all well and good, but speed is the real deal. Ripping out of that final corner and plowing onto the straightaway is a wonderful feeling. The surge of power. The ascending roar of the engine as you shift from second to third and from third to fourth is among the more pleasing things in this world. As your speed climbs the wind rushes past your head. You fight to keep the line at the bottom of a sweeping banked turn, and you can’t help but scream with joy as you rip around at 90 miles per hour before braking down for turn one and begin the whole process anew.

The half day of racing consists of instruction both in class and on the course and two twenty minute racing sessions. Although I wanted to continue, I felt that the twenty minute limit was appropriate. If you cherish driving a race car more than food money, I say go Top Ramen and buy yourself some track time. You’ll thank me for it.