Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I'm not advocating that there be a strike or that there not be, but from everything I gather it really won't matter by the middle of September, most of the studios will have effectively committed all their development funds. This means: no spec sales unless you are A++ talent and ready to hit the set with the hot little pages in your hand; no work done on existing projects unless your executive is sleeping with the head of accounting, there will be no checks cut on steps not already commenced; no greenlights on anything not already greenlit; no new executive hires, but possibly some folks will get let go during this time (only if the strike actually starts though).

The town is on fire with folks working around-the-clock. LAT had an article about the number of permits FilmLA has issued in the last couple of months -- which doesn't even begin to guesstimate the amount of work going on out of town. My friends who work at agencies are telling me it is a frantic scramble to get clients on to jobs before there aren't any and my writer friends are telling me they are being told by their studio bosses that if the projects they turn in aren't greenlight-able there probably won't be another step for a while, if ever.

This is a good time to work on your spec material, save your money, and get ready for the post-strike glut when the studios have to prove to top talent that they have money -- the last time there was a near-miss, in 2001, the months preceding and immediately after the strike were ripe for spec writers. A lot of pitches were sold as well, but studios were eager to show that they had budgeted well and were still in business.

Anyway, it's also a good time to take that long vacation in the Andes you've always wanted, but couldn't ever find the time for. You've got about 8 weeks to plan it. :-)

Saturday, July 21, 2007


A friend of mine is adapting a short story of hers into a movie for a well-known indie filmmaker. She's never done this sort of thing before and has put in a lot of time over the last few months struggling with film structure. As a short story writer, plot isn't necessarily an important part of the work -- not to the extent that it is in most films, anyway. I think she's doing an admirable job wrestling the thing into something workable, but she asked me a question the other day that made me realize how artificial the writing advice for film is.

When writing the first draft, DO NOT WORRY ABOUT STRUCTURE. There are people out there throwing up their hands and proclaiming that's bs. Don't listen to them. If you are an absolute beginning screenwriter, someone who is still learning, there is absolutely no reason to beat yourself about the head and neck with 3, 5, 7 or 9-act structure talk, let alone the 8 sequence or reel method that you find bandied about the internet unless you know your story cold.

I know there are people out there who work from character charts, outlines, and arcane algorithms of their own devising. I'm not talking to the 2% of you who do that. You probably go around figuring tip in your spare time or adding things up for fun. God bless you. No, I'm talking to the rest of us who need a flashlight to see in the dark and who double the tax and add a couple bucks when the check comes.

The chances that you are going to sit down and on your first pass pound out a structurally balanced film are pretty doggone slim. No matter how many notecards you go through. I've seen enough failed screenplays and met with many aspiring writers who crashed and burned and went back to their day jobs to know this. No, for the vast majority of newbie writers, the best method to write a screenplay is 1) learn how to write a short story; 2) learn how to write a scene and then 3) write a first draft of your short story as a screenplay without stopping to think about structure.

I'm not pulling this out of my you-know-where.

By their very nature short stories contain around about the amount of story information you need for a screenplay. They have the added advantage of being a story-form that most people (or rather, most of those who went to highschool in the U.S.) have had the (mis)fortune of having to attempt at least at the 9th grade level. No need to learn anything new in order to get out the most important thing for any movie -- the story itself. In film this would be called a treatment. But don't think of it that way, close your eyes, take yourself back to the raging hormones of your early teen years and the smell of chalk and sweaty sneakers, and pound out a short story version of the movie you want to make.

Got that done? OK, now, go through the short story and pick out the scenes: flashbacks, plot-related scenes, characterization scenes, all of them. A scene is a unit of action within a film/play/book that typically takes place in one location (although you could argue that a character moving from the living room to the kitchen is one scene, or conversely, that a movement from dressing table to the bed would constitute a new scene, for my purposes here we're gonna go with the broad definition above). At this point, it may make sense to you to outline. I say may, not that you absolutely have to outline. I mean that. You are trying to stay focused on the story not the container you are going to pour it into. Check over the scenes and make sure there is a narrative flow, that things make sense to you.

Finally, crack open your screenwriting software/template/notepad and have at it. Write all the way through to the end. Do not stop. Do not think about act breaks, just follow the story you have assembled thus far. Done? Good. Make a clean printout/copy. Put it away for a few days.

NOW, get out a chart with the acts broken down by structural element. Not with your story content, but with whatever method you are trying to use. 3-act, 5-act, 7-act, 9-act, 8-sequence, reels (I have no idea how this works, sorry Chris Soth, I haven't bought your book yet, shame on me, I'm sure it's fabulous). Fill it out as best you can based on what you remember. Do not reference your first draft. Don't do it. If you can't remember, fake it.

Pull out that first draft. Read all the way through to the end. Mark-up anything that feels like it doesn't belong with a giant red 'X'. Mark up anything you want to keep. NOW pull out the structure outline you made, and start your second draft outline combining the two. I like to use QUICKPLOT because it lets you see the structural element next to the actual scene work, but use notecards and lined paper if that works best for you. You are on your way to a complete story that is also structurally balanced.

There's nothing worse than leaving money on the table. I'm sure we've all seen movies and felt that nagging suspicion that something could have been better explored, better exploited. by using this method you can really get "underneath" your characters in a way that won't distract you from your real purpose -- storytelling. As you become more adept at screenwriting, you can let go of the short story "crutch" and start leaning on the outline method more, and learn how to incorporate the structural elements into your process sooner. Some very talented filmmakers work this way.

Some of these structures are foreign to the way that people actually tell stories. Listen to any of your friends telling a story and you'll find digressions, tangents, false climaxes that have nothing to do with the story, etc. Even in someone who is a great oral story teller. Don't beat yourself up wondering why your first draft (or any subsequent ones, for that matter) aren't structured like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The truth is that in the filmmaking process, structure takes a beating. Half of the executives and filmmakers you'll come across don't know anything about it. They can tell when something's off (if they've ever made a hit, that is, and let me tell you, that list is pretty damn short), but most of the time, they just have a hunger for something, and they'll know if your story is feeding it.

Because screenplay writing methods are such religiously held beliefs, I'm sure there are folks out there with a burning desire to prove me wrong. Go for it. Feel free to leave questions, comments, hate mail and death threats. But if you brick me on your blog I want a shout-out. I love it when people brick me. No such thing as bad publicity. :-)

Friday, July 20, 2007


It's too hot in my little cottage to do much thinking and I refuse to abandon the dog and head to Starbucks. Last summer we only had about 10 days of really heinous weather, but this entire month has been on-again/off-again heatwave after heatwave. Not to mention the single-digit humidity that's making my eyes dry out and th dog's fur feel like straw. Poor puppy. I rearranged the house a few weeks ago and he refused to sleep in the room where I moved his bed to. He went back in the other room, curled up under the furniture that was now occupying where his bed used to be, and stayed there until I finally gave in, moved the cabinets back where they were, put the old carpet back down and put his bed back on top of it. Stubborn dog....


The director just emailed me to let me know he's picture-locked and is sending the film off for scoring and a sound mix. He's calling in all his big favors for this, so I think there may be a sound stage visit at some point. If there is any interest I could blog about that at some point.

For me, I'm working on my book (more these last few weeks, sorry for the no posting), finishing up that outline I started so many weeks ago, and tweaking my spec pilot. One of my friends was staffed on a show that is new this fall, very exciting. She's been telling me all the good stuff about how the writers' room works on her show, and her boss loved 2 of her pitches, so she's probably going to get something aired this season. She rocks.

I've got some major stuff brewing, but it's slow-boil stuff, so no big announcements yet, if the attorneys get involved I'll share. It's book-related not screenplay or TV stuff, but still very exciting for me. I have a few minor things published, but I'd love to have a big fat unapologetic credit on my resume. When I started the novel, I was looked at it as a creative outlet. I can't imagine it will sell a million copies and by my dream house, but if I sell it and get enough to buy a writing shack in the forest somewhere that would be amazing. Fingers crossed that the slow-barge to publication doesn't get hung up on a sandbar (and, no, the metaphors in my book are not this bad).


With this writers' strike looking more and more real, deal-making around town is stutter-stepping. It's business as usual, except it really isn't since writers are paranoid there won't be work at the end of the year, and studios and networks aren't buying at the same pace. Not to mention all the agency blood-letting going on. Feels like it's almost time for a game of musical chairs. All it takes is the strike, a few bad movies, and a couple of moguls on the loose to upset the applecart.

I was reading all of Nikki Finke's coverage of the Ed Limato madness over at ICM, and I can't help but feel like she's being spoonfed her coverage (big surprise). I remember a few months back reading about another (much more junior) agent's job-hopping and it read like a press release. Note to tipsters: when calling in favors to spin your firing, do not include personal details that only you would tell someone else, but that no one would ever gossip about. First sign of an amateur, and a surefire way to mark you as a big-mouthed narc to friends and foes alike. Just saying.

Anyway, back to the Limato-nightmare. Hollywood is the kind of town that you can except to get jacked in at any time. Especially when you get old. There aren't too many old guys who are sacrosanct around here, and the few who are still know how to administer a beat-down. I don't know Mr. Limato, or the other gentlemen involved personally, so I can't comment on that situation, but the rule of thumb around here is keep attacking. Especially if they don't know you are. Unless they can strip him of his clients, the only thing they can hope to do is keep "servicing" them until one of them decides to defect. I can't see that happening since his clients are known for how loyal they are and Ed's swung for the fences for them for, literally, decades. And those guys still work. I hope he ends up someplace he's respected, with great directors and a solid drama writing list. I hate to see folks disrespect their elders.

OK, I'm going to workout, then I have to meet a friend for dinner. Have a great weekend. Requests, comments and tips are always welcome. But no spam. Unless it's fried.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Don Cheadle stars in this film, TALK TO ME, directed by Kasi Lemmons. Here is a great review of this film at EW. I saw this on Wednesday with a friend of mine and we both had a great time. It's funny funny funny, Cheadle's performance is amazing (I wouldn't go so far as to say Oscar-caliber because the screenplay never allows us to find out what demons are really chasing him, or see him in the community which it keeps telling us he embodies), Ejiofor does his best to be a street ni**a from the 'hood, (a tall order when you can hear his mouth searching for those b-more/dc vowels) and the music is great.

I wouldn't say rush out to see it tonight, but if you are in blockbuster-burnout like myself, this is definitely a solid way to counter-program your brain.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I'm such a sucker for this show. I think the writing is hysterical, but what makes it really work is the chemistry between the two leads. This is the latest promo, and if you don't follow the show, I hope you still enjoy it.


Friday, July 06, 2007

California Dreamin'....

In LA, the Al Gore III DUI/drug bust isn't a story about privilege, wealth and the intersection of celebrity and drug use. No, the story here is about the car. Or, more specifically, how fast the car can go. Today's LAT has a front-page (bottom of the fold, at least) story about how Gore III's reckless driving bust shows that the Prius isn't for whimps.

This may also explain why Transformers did so well this week. Fast cars, drugs and loose women. The New American Dream.