Thoughts on The Avengers

May 9, 2012

I didn’t grow up as a comic book geek. I grew up as a fan of comic book movies, worshiping at the feet of Richard Donner and Tim Burton, but I never really read the comic books themselves. I was, and still am, barely conscious of the Justice League of America comics, and was even less cognizant of the Avengers.

And yet, at the end of the first Iron Man movie, when Samuel L. Jackson appeared with those immortal words, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” I was every bit as giddy as all the fanboys who’ve been reading the comics for years. Why? Because I knew, as did everyone else, that it was the start of something huge.

Many years ago at Comic-Con I had heard screenwriter Zak Penn hint at creating a horizontal world in the comic book universe. At the time, I had no clue what was coming. But he sure did. According to this ScreenwritingU interview with him, he was hired years ago as the one to manage creating a single narrative thread through all the comics; to make sure that each movie adequately set up what would culminate in The Avengers.

It was a job very, very well done. One of the biggest challenges, I think, of a movie like this is figuring out how to stuff ten characters, each a leading man in his own right, into a single story. As Joss Whedon put it, “Too much is going to throw people, and at the same time, you don’t want to leave anybody in the cold.” So you start with the villain, bring in the heroes one by one, create a bunch of interpersonal conflict among the heroes themselves, and have the ultimate battle turn into a war. Throw in a whole lot of humor thanks to a rewrite by Joss himself and the presence of king of the one-liners Robert Downey, Jr., and you’ve got the makings of a hit.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

As a writer, I think my favorite part of the whole movie was the decision to kill off Agent Coulson. I was commenting to someone the other day that I stopped watching Fringe the third time Olivia went into the hallucinogenic tank of doom, because they kept trying to convince us that it was so dangerous, but she ended up being fine each time, and we knew she was going to die anyway because she was the lead character and you don’t kill off your lead character in the first season. Meanwhile, I watch Grey’s Anatomy religiously, because they create characters that I care about, and then (sometimes) kill them off. When an artist actually proves that he’s willing to kill someone you care about it, the stakes become that much more real. Agent Coulson, having assembled the Avengers over four years’ worth of movies, was not someone we expected to die. So when he did, we totally bought into the emotional stakes — i.e., that he was important enough to all the other characters to have them avenge his death.

END SPOILER ALERT

I’m positively ecstatic that this gamble on the part of Marvel and Disney has paid off. A few years ago I heard a screenwriter for some comic book movie (don’t remember which one) say that when he was writing the screenplay, he begged the studio, “Let me put a blind lawyer named Murdoch just in this one scene.” In the comics they do that stuff all the time, but in the movie world they were seen, for the longest time, as completely different properties and didn’t want to cross them over. The studio refused. And now creating this horizontal world as they have, we’re seeing how powerful it can be.

Given the tag during the credits, and this summer’s auspiciously-timed reboot of Spiderman (only five years after the last Spiderman movie, the same time difference as between 2003′s Hulk and its 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk), I’ve heard some people speculate that Spiderman will be joining the Avengers for the sequel. That sequel has been confirmed, so now our job is to look for other clues — like, for example, a reboot of The Fantastic Four.


The All-Important First Page (12.02 – Open by Andre Agassi)

January 26, 2012

I’ve been taking ScreenwritingU’s ProSeries classes, and as with any class of this sort there’s a lot that can cross over to other kinds of storytelling. As I write this post, having just finished reading Open, we’re starting the module on “The First 10 Pages” of a screenplay. So it’s fitting that Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, is a book I read and purchased because of its first page.

I first saw it at a bookstore maybe a year ago. It was on a whale (the islands in the middle of the store with all the featured books), and I picked it up and read page 1. Here it is:

I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am. Not all that unusual — I’ve spent half my life not knowing. Still, this feels different. This confusion is more frightening. More total.

I look up. I’m lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now. I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back. Too many hours on a soft mattress causes agony. I count to three, then start the long, difficult process of standing. With a cough, a groan, I roll onto my side, then curl into the fetal position, then flip over onto my stomach. Now I wait, and wait, for the blood to start pumping.

I’m a young man, relatively speaking. Thirty-six. But I wake as if ninety-six. After three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body, especially in the morning. Consequently my mind doesn’t feel like my mind. Upon opening my eyes I’m a stranger to myself, and while, again, this isn’t new, in the mornings it’s more pronounced. I run quickly through the basic facts. My name is Andre Agassi. My wife’s name is Stefanie Graf. We have two children, a son and a daughter, five and three. We live in Las Vegas, Nevada, but currently reside in a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in New York City, because I’m playing in the 2006 U.S. Open. My last U.S. Open. In fact my last tournament ever. I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.

As this last piece of identity falls into place, I slide to my knees and in a whisper I say: Please let this be over.

Then: I’m not ready for it to be over.

A year later, I still remembered that first page. The screaming irony of  it all: that a soft mattress, or standing up in the morning, causes this great athlete complete agony. That he’s thirty-six but feels ninety-six. And, most importantly, that one of the best tennis players in the world hates tennis and always has. And then most excruciating irony of them all: “Please let this be over. I’m not ready for it to be over.”

If you want to capture someone in a screenplay, or in a book, and get them to read the whole thing you have to create intrigue. And what better way to do that than to expose this kind of irony? What better way than to provide an opening with more questions than answers?

And that’s the beautiful thing about this one. Watching the agony he experiences in the first few paragraphs just getting out of bed is enough to get us to read the next few. “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have,” will get us to read at least through the next chapter — after all, we want to find out why he plays it if he hates it so much. But those last two lines: “Please let this be over. I’m not ready for it to be over,” will get us to read all the way to the end of the book, because we want to see why, if he hates it so much, he doesn’t want to stop.

In case you’re wondering, the rest of the book is excellent. This prologue chapter continues with a blisteringly suspenseful account of the match he plays that afternoon (a match he won, as was the case with many of his wins, during his afternoon shower), and then in the next chapter we start over from Agassi’s youth. The middle may drag out a bit as it delves mercilessly into the battered self-immolation that was most of his career (in particular I think he spends a tad too much time dwelling on the details of individual matches), but I think it serves us well to capture the agony of the lows before rising out of the ashes to the sweet, understated climax that’s so perfectly befitting a professional athlete’s career.

But I will always remember this first page, which is what got me to read the darn thing in the first place.


Completion & Creation

January 1, 2012
As has become my annual tradition, it’s time for me to complete on my goals from 2011 and create for the new year:
  • What I said I’d do: 55 blog posts and  average 500 visits a month for the 4th quarter.
    What I did: 37 blog posts and ~400 visits a month for the 4th quarter. The latter isn’t bad, considering I didn’t post anything the entire 4th quarter. I actually hit my highest numbers ever in July, and was headed up, but then just stopped blogging.
  • What I said I’d do: Finish three screenplays, one in time to submit to AFF, Nicholl, and several other screenplay competitions.
    What I did: Finished one. Submitted it to AFF (didn’t make it past the first round), Blue Cat, and some other places. And I discovered that I’ve made just enough as a screenwriter that I don’t qualify for Nicholl.
  • What I said I’d do: Attend San Diego Comic-Con, Austin Film Festival, WLT Agents’ Conference, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, as time allows (some of those my be on conflicting dates).
    What I did: Attended AFF. Tried to register for Comic-Con, but I made the mistake of waiting two days to buy tickets, and they were already sold out. Bonus mention: managed to create my own weekend writing retreat to finish Postville, and it worked very well.
  • What I said I’d do: Start acting again. And get paid for it. God I miss acting. And getting paid for it.
    What I did: Started acting again. And got paid for it. Technically. I probably made about $1 an hour at TRF, when you look at all the time and expenses that went into it. But it was well worth the investment, both to my emotional psyche and (ultimately) to my pocketbook.
  • What I said I’d do: Edit 12 books. Close sales on two more ghost writing projects.
    What I did: One ghostwriting project and two book editing gigs. But I also closed some good technical writing contracts, produced some technical videos, and developed scripts in other ways. So on a professional level, I’m happy with how things turned out.
  • What I said I’d do: I want to produce $25,000 in revenue in the month of January. This will require, rather than just surviving at the game of being a professional writer, growing a pair of balls and creating something completely new. It’ll mean finding clients who  really recognize what good content is worth, and who recognize that I can provide it.
  • What I did: Not $25,000. But I did end the survival aspect and started doing the writing that I love, and getting paid well for it. And I found clients who recognize what good content is worth, and who recognized that I could provide it, and have been getting rewarded for that.
Goals for 2012
    • Finish ScreenwritingU’s ProSeries and graduate into the PS Alumni.
    • 52 blog posts and 1000 visits a month by the end of the year.
    • A stage show at TRF, getting paid a living wage for the time I put in. Write and publish a book of poetry (written by my character) that I can sell as part of that.
    • Sign with an acting agent and land 2 auditions per week.
    • Land a paid screenwriting gig.
    • Edit 6 books. Close sales on two more ghost writing projects.
    • Pay off all interest-bearing debt (including the car I just bought) and max out my wife’s and my IRAs for 2012.
    • Finish three personal writing projects, and a rewrite of one more. At the moment this looks like screenplays will be the larger portion of that, but I don’t want to limit myself, in case I decide, for example, to write a novel. I should also mention that this seems somewhat ambitious, given my results from this year, but I figure if you reach for the stars, you won’t come up with a handful of dirt.
    • Semi-finalist in at least one national screenplay contest.
    • Direct a feature film, or at least start pre-production on it.
    • Bring internal peace and confidence to the likelihood that my wife and I will be having children in the near future.

Catching Up

December 26, 2011

It’s been a while. My last post was three months ago, and since then a whole lot has happened. With the end of the year coming up, I’ve been thinking about my annual completion of goals/creation for the New Year, but in the meantime there are just so many things I want to talk about.

  • Acting: Went on cast for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and pretty much accomplished everything I set out to do. Created a swordfight that everyone was talking about. Won Performer of the Day on the third weekend, and Best New Character at the end of the season. Made a lot of friends, and had just a ton of fun. And I’m setting myself up to do more with that (hopefully in a way that I can actually make money at it) in the coming year.
  • Books I’ve read: Reading for AFF seems to slow things down on the reading front. Up to a point this year, I was counting the number of books I read, and then I stopped, because it just seems weird that the entire couple of months I’m reading 30+ scripts, I don’t get to count any of that toward my book count. But whatever. I’ve been on a crusade looking for self-published books that have sold well, as a possible avenue to finding property to adapt into movies. To that end, I just got done with Waiting for White Horses by Nathan  Jorgenson. As a storyteller I felt the drama could have been much more consistent; as a screenwriter I felt it could have been much less meandering; as an editor I felt it was way overnarrated; and as a product of the twenty-first century I would have preferred the plot move in a different direction. But the literary fictionist in me could appreciate it for what it was – a product of love, and a deeply personal story to which anyone familiar with rural America can relate.
  • Movies I’ve seen: Been a lot of these. Two of the recent ones – and also two of the best I’ve seen this year – were Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (in IMAX – totally awesome) and Midnight in Paris. Both had really well-written scripts with strong character voices.  Also watched the entire first season of Dexter (and can’t wait to see more), and got to see some amazing stuff at Austin Film Festival – the ones I still think about, and talk about, are The Artist and Butter.
  • Screenwriting: Taking ScreenwritingU’s ProSeries. Although I am, at this point, about three weeks behind, the information and the attitude of the class is really amazing, and I’m hoping to spend the next week or two catching up. Tonight I get to watch The Usual Suspects, starting with the end first. Fun. The script I’m working on is the true story of Ragen Chastain, the world’s only plus-sized professional Country & Western competitive dancer. And I’m continually taking Postville to the next level.

I guess that’s it for now. Catcha in the New Year for completion and goals.


Kaizen

July 31, 2011

Of the handful of people I’ve sent Postville to, so far I’ve gotten two responses, and both have indicated that the pacing in the second act is too slow. Which explains the lack of response I’ve gotten from everyone else, since in this business silence is the new “no.” So it’s time to take another crack at it and take it to the next level.

Hal Croasmun, of ScreenwritingU, has a series of philosophy tips on becoming a screenwriter. One of these is Kaizen: he says that 1% improvement per day leads to 365% improvement after a year. He’s actually incorrect about that. 1% improvement per day leads to 3678% improvement per year. We’ll call it “compound improvement”: After day 2, your script has improved by 2.01%. After day 3, by 3.03%. After day 4, by 4.06%, and so on. Just like the interest in your bank account, the improvement adds up after a while.

So I’ve been going back through Postville with my eye on improving it at least 1% per day. A few days ago I improved the children’s dialogue. The day before that I cut several lines in the first 10 or 15 pages that could be construed as obvious exposition. Yesterday I cut a thematic scene that I quite liked, but ultimately took 3/8ths of a page of description and just slowed the script down. I’m cutting a few words here and there to make that 5 lines of dialogue into 4. A whole page and a half has come off the script, and I’m only about halfway through.

Next I think I’m going to give the script to someone whose only job is to look for cliches. And in 3 months, hopefully I’ll have a script that’s 145% better.

‘Cause that’s kaizen.


Truly Gritty Dialogue

June 9, 2011

Last week I finished ScreenwritingU‘s 10-day dialogue class, and then last night watched True Grit. So naturally, as I was watching this 10-time Oscar-nominated movie (including Best Adapted Screenplay), I was paying pretty close attention to the dialogue. Something Hal Croasmun, creator of ScreenwritingU, has said is that good voice in dialogue is not about ums and ahs or anything like that. It’s about having distinctive personality traits and/or interests for each character, and then making sure that every line they speak has some element of that character.

A few days ago I was reading a screenplay where a partner in a law firm was a cyclist. Though he was a minor character, he was extremely memorable. The first time we see him, he’s wearing no-modesty shorts, with his package staring at our protagonist as they ride the elevator. After that, every line he says is about Lance Armstrong or the Tour de France, which he uses as a metaphor for everything that’s going on at work. It’s all hilarious, and as the old advice goes, I could have covered up the character names and identified, beyond a shadow of a doubt, every line that belonged to him.

In watching True Grit, the best example that came to mind was Matt Damon’s character, LaBoeuf. First, notice the name. He’s called “the beef,” because he’s got a beef with everyone about everything. From there, almost all of his lines show his bordering-on-hubris pride. Probably half of them reflect the fact that he’s a Texas Ranger, and most of the rest are meant to impress/dominate our tweenage protagonist, Mattie Ross.

Speaking Mattie Ross (side note: Supporting Actress? Are you kidding? Come on, Academy!), she’s precocious and bullheaded, so most every line that comes out of her reflects that. For example: ‘And “futile”, Marshal Cogburn, “pursuit would be futile”? It’s not spelled “f-u-d-e-l.”‘ The whole negotiation scene where she threatens to sue the man who held her father’s horse showed these characteristics every step of the way. And with every line, she speaks in perfect elocution.

Which is in contrast, of course, to Rooster Cogburn. Again, notice the name. He’s not just arrogant – he’s cocky, hence the name, “Rooster.” And what does “Cogburn” imply? He’s fiery, yet thoughtful, perhaps? Speaking with a heavy southern slang, some of his lines: “Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer,” or “You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”

Although it’s tough at this point to distinguish the dialogue as written from the character as played by Jeff Bridges, it’s clear that the Coen Brothers know what they’re doing when it comes to creating characters — and dialogue — that speaks to the viewer and to the actor.


Postville Part II – The Screenplay

February 7, 2011

To date, this has been my most successful screenwriting endeavor, which only serves to confirm the suspicion I had from many years ago that I should really start my career as an adapter of screenplays, rather than generating original concepts which is so much harder.

To walk you through the process by which I started working on Postville:

2000 – Stephen Bloom publishes Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,  a nonfiction book that recounts the author’s move to Iowa from San Francisco to be a college professor, and his two years investigating the cultural conflict that’s occurred between the Postville locals and the Lubavichers who had moved in to open a kosher meat-packing plant.

2008 – My father, Don Fried, reads the book, options it, and writes the play, Postville, a fictionalized retelling of the conflict. A few things look strikingly similar: a journalist moving to Iowa to be a teacher acts as the vehicle for the exposition, someone for everyone to tell their backstory and their problems; an Easter headline that reads “He Has Risen,” which violates just about every rule of journalism you can imagine (it’s not breaking news, it’s not impartial, and it hasn’t been verified by two independent sources); the Hasid who buys the plant is the son of a New York butcher who was having trouble getting his meat; the locals battle for annexation, and a terrible tragedy occurs on the day of the referendum. The names, of course, are changed. He takes dramatic license with the characters. The best scene in the play — near the beginning when the locals welcome the Hasids with a big sign that reads “Welcome Jews” — was not mentioned at all in the book. The tragedy that occured on the day of the referendum — a train derailment — was combined with an event that actually occurred while the play was being written — a raid of the plant by Immigration & Customs Enforcement for some 389 counts of illegal workforce violations. But the spirit, so I’ve heard was similar.

2011 – Here come I, moved by this play and the potential that its story presents. I re-read the play a few times before I start. I write down what happens in each scene, as well as what happens offstage – the things that the characters say they’re going to do, or the things they say they have done. I put these on index cards, that becomes my beat board, used to inform the outline. I start reading the book.

And here’s the critical piece … I schedule a reading, to be conducted at Austin Screenwriters Group, for March 6th, just two months from when I began writing. And lo, I realize I need to bust my butt to get this screenplay written by mid-February, so I have time for a rewrite or two before presenting it to the public. In the mean time, I take ScreenwritingU‘s class on rewriting, which proves to be the best three hours I’ve spent on my education in a long time.

What’s made the process easy, though, is having all the source material to draw back on. Although the majority of the dialogue is original, I’ve been able to lift entire scenes from play. In that way, a week after starting the “writing” process, I already had over 40 pages complete, spending only an hour or so a day.

From there it started to slow down, but reading the book helped, as did having the deadline to work toward. No time sit down and spend an hour crafting the perfect line of dialogue. Just gotta get it down on paper. In that way, I’ve now reached 103 pages, with one more scene to add at the end, and a couple more to add in the middle. I need to visit the local Chabad to ground myself in some Orthodox traditions — how a mikvah in a small town like that would ordinarily get set up; what role the father might play in the birth of his child. I also need to visit a slaughterhouse to see for myself what the slaughter and processing might look and feel like (recognizing, of course, that any slaughterhouse I visited would not be kosher).

But even with all of that, I should have my first draft done by the end of the week, as planned. There’ll be a ton of work to do in the rewrite process. I’m clear on that. But fortunately I’ve got a process to follow, now, which I’m convinced will move the screenplay miles forward in the next three weeks.


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