How to Treat People When You’re Famous (Sideways & Vertical – 12.06-07)

April 16, 2012

Several weeks ago I attended a book signing event with Rex Pickett, author of the novel Sideways, the screen adaptation of which which went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005. Though I’d never read the book, and didn’t even want to go when the reminder came up on my calendar, it was one of those events that I knew I’d be glad I attended once I got there, so I sucked it up and went.

It turned out, I was right – I would be glad I went. The attendance was small (a few dozen at most), and as one of few (if any) writers in the audience I had no problem distinguishing myself as someone worthy of the author’s attention. Afterward I came up with an excuse to ask him for his e-mail address, to send him a poem I’d written a decade earlier, which I figured he’d like. He gave it to me, I sent him the poem, and he wrote back:

Not a bad poem, not that I’m any judge of poetry.  And a well-written e-mail.  I can often tell just from an e-mail if someone has the ability to even pursue writing.  Now, the question’ll be:  can you do it in narrative form, create believable characters and transformative, trailblazing stories.  I think you can.  Get to work.

I’m sure it’s a fairly standard response of his to give polite, encouraging words to the (no doubt) myriad aspiring writers he interacts with, but it’s a great practice. I printed off the e-mail and posted it onto my vision board, and soon tucked into the novel that made him famous.

I found it slow at first, a lot of seemingly unnecessary conflicts without my really connecting to the characters or the plot. It was the literary equivalent of cinematic masturbation – because conflict is supposed to be there, it was stuck in, even though each individual scene didn’t really need to be. But then, right around the midpoint, I noticed myself engaged in a dramatic question for the first time: would Jack have sex with Terra, the week before his wedding? Once that was resolved, the protagonist’s goal, for the first time, became really clear and I became emotionally involved in the new dramatic question: would Miles succeed in getting Jack to his wedding? From then on, the pace moved quickly. Every obstacle seemed to matter. Even though the characters were douchebags, I cared about them and wanted to see them through to the end. And when the whole thing was resolved, I was satisfied.

Moving on to the newly released sequel, Vertical, my assessment was nearly identical. I plowed through the first few chapters updating us on the whereabouts of our characters, only to reach a literary masturbation-thon of conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict. It was pretty clear that a dramatic question was brewing, but we weren’t really there yet, the seeds of it just being sprinkled into a whole lot of unnecessary debauchery. But once the penny did drop (once again, at the midpoint), the entire story turned on its head and became a gut-wrenching tale of personal growth. Even though the second half lacked the sex appeal of the first, I finally felt like it actually mattered: I was engaged and wanted to see where our characters would end up, and how they would resolve a problem with no clear solution.

At the book signing, I had mentioned to Rex that there’s only one author whose books I’ve read more than three of. Later, I joked that he’s got to write two more books before I stop reading his work. Although it was said in jest, it’s amazing how quickly a writer’s tendencies become apparent, even for two novels written seven years apart. Although I feel like the juice was worth the squeeze, if I were to read another book of his, it wouldn’t be because of the writing, it would be because of the interaction we had when we met. I think there’s a lot to learn from that.

There’s also a lot to learn from the heartache that Rex endured through this process. I’ll spare you the details – you can read all about it at the end of Vertical – but it’s got something in common with a lot of other writers: he was at one point broke and suicidal, but he never gave up, and even once he at first succeeded, he still had to wade through a sea of crap and try, try, try again.

Looks like I’m on my way.

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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.


Thoughts on The Fighter

April 15, 2011
  1. This is a movie where the hero and the protagonist are not the same person. Because although Mark Wahlberg is clearly the character we’re rooting for, Christian Bale is the one making all the decisions that drive the plot. It’s his climax that really makes the final turning point. And Wahlberg just kind of lets stuff happen to him, speaking up for himself exactly once in the entire film. But I like this a lot. It’s more evidence that if the story is good, the “rules of structure” don’t matter at all.
  2. Supporting actor? Supporting actor? If Christian Bale was the supporting actor, it’s a pretty fine line we’re drawing here. He basically dominates the first half of the movie. As far as I’m concerned, this was a movie with two lead actors, and only one of them was any good.
  3. On that note, I’m sorry. I keep wanting to like Mark Wahlberg. I do. I keep pulling for him. I’m sure he’s a really nice guy, and I know he’s worked really hard to rebrand himself since the days of the Funky Bunch. But seriously, the best he can do is barely above “tolerable.” Watching Mark Wahlberg “act” is like watching a block of wood. Seriously, Jeff Dunham’s puppets are more expressive than him. What happened to his face muscles?
  4. How is it that there are so many championship boxers out there no one has ever heard of? Are we gonna have a Buster Douglas movie? And when are we gonna start having movies about the surprise MMA star who comes from nothing during the Depression to win a title and the love of an impossibly hot woman? Where’s that film?

Stripper-Turned-Writer (11.08)

March 21, 2011

If you’re a writer, particularly a screenwriter, you’d have to be living in a box not to know the story of Diablo Cody. Stripper in Minneapolis blogs about her life as a stripper. Producer/agent/publisher guy finds said blog, and turns it into a book, and then convinces stripper to write a screenplay. Jason Reitman gets screenplay, and they make Juno. Stripper wins Academy Award.

Juno was one of my favorite movies of that year, and I’m totally agree with the Oscar win. But I didn’t even know about the book until I saw it in some random pile at my brother’s house a few days ago. But being a fan of Juno, and of strippers in general (not to mention being someone who still has a yet-to-be-finished screenplay that’s set in that particular scene), I had to read it.

The book is called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, and I read the whole thing in one sitting, in a marathon reading session that lasted from about 11 pm until 2:30 this morning. Rather than being a story about the “girl gone wrong,” it’s more of a “fish out of water” tale, as this desperately conservative (or so she would have us believe) 24-year-old suburbanite steps into her quarterlife crisis, and with it a seedy strip club on amateur night. Over the next year she hits an upscale gentleman’s club, an all-nude hustler bar, the peep show at a porn shop, back to a strip club, and finally a phone sex line, before it was finally time for her to call it quits for good.

One of the markers of Cody’s writing style is that it’s incredibly witty. The sort of thing I used to envy when I was … well, about that age, and convinced that the deeper you delved into the thesaurus, the more idioms you used, the more obscure and creative your analogies, the better the writing. One such perpetrator who comes to mind is the curmudgeon John Kelso of the Austin American-Statesman. (Side note: When I was in college I wrote a poem about a hyperbolically precocious squirrel. I came across that poem a few days ago digging through old boxes, and I still like it. But my favorite poem I ever wrote was called “From the Journal of a 13th Century Peasant”, which consisted of the title, my name, and a blank page.)

At some point I read an article that argued that good writers don’t need to call attention to their own writing in that way, and it cured me forever of that ambition. Every now and then I write something that violates the principle, like my recent short story, an attempt at Poe-esque American Gothic, where I literally spent hours in a thesaurus picking out every obscure word I could shoehorn into my story, and then hours more pulling all those words out. But I still like coining new words and phrases (if you can understand what it means, then by definition it’s a word, dammit!), and do so regularly.

But I no longer feel the need to litter everything I write with obscure references to popular culture or ancient classics. (In an interview with Letterman, Cody refers to herself as a naked Margaret Mead. The audience laughed and applauded. Cody mugged for them. I looked up who the heck Margaret Mead is.)

Regardless, there’s no denying that Candy Girl is exceptionally well told, because Cody has more than just a keen wit, she has an excellent grasp on story telling. This book includes every structural beat you would expect from a well-told story: solid turning points, as she goes from one club to the next along her questionable career path; a midpoint when she quits, but then just has to return because she can’t help herself; rising stakes as she does more and more, going from the partially-clothed to the all-nude to masturbating in front of fetishists, until she finally found herself as the Grade A stripper who took home the gold; and then the need to quit and exit the industry entirely.

Through all of it, the insights are candid; erotic but grotesque: the unmistakable stain spreading through the patrons’ shorts, the declining responsiveness of her genitals, the need to be better than everyone else for just one night, the power through all the objectification. And for that, we love the author, because she gives us, as all great writers should, a window into something we couldn’t possibly have known otherwise.

I like that she addresses, in the conclusion, her motives for doing this and the motives of most of the girls who take this career path. I’ve recently become fascinated with the idea of exploiting stereotypes to call attention to them and offer a contrapuntal alternative. And this book does all of the above.

So all in all, a great read, and one that has me respect this Oscar-winning writer all the more.


Not Another Oscars Post

February 23, 2009

I’m not going to post something about the Oscars.  Every blogger in the world – and especially every writer/screenwriter blogger in the world – will be writing something about the 81st Academy Awards today, but not me, because I’m different.

If I were going to write about the Oscars I would start by saying that Slumdog Millionaire was a good movie, that I thoroughly enjoyed it, but that it seemed like it would make a better mini-series than film.  I would say that Danny Boyle was long overdue for the world’s top Directing accolade, but that this movie was nowhere near as good as his early classics Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.  I would say that Benjamin Button – the only other movie nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay that I actually saw – had a better screenplay, and that my cinematographer friend threw a fit when it won Best Cinematography, and I happen to agree with her – The Dark Knight broke new ground cinematically speaking, and made for a remarkable movie-watching experience I will never in my life forget.  And although I’m not surprised that Slumdog won Best Picture, I did not think it was even one of the best 5 movies of the year.

If I were writing something about the Oscars, I would say that Sean Penn deserved his and Heath Ledger deserved his.  I would say that Robert Downey, Jr. will win an Oscar one of these days, and I will celebrate when he does, and I would say that Brad Pitt deserves one, too, but it may take him longer to get it because he’s so thoroughly underrated as a character actor.  I would say that Benjamin Button deserved its accolades for Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects, but I’d also like to remind people that the makeup in The Dark Knight wasn’t all about the Joker – the revelation of Two Face in that movie was the best film moment of the year for me, and a movie-watching experience I will never in my life forget.

If I were writing about the Oscars, I would probably say that I wish I realized that the Alamo Drafthouse shows all the short films nominated for Oscars every year, and that I will almost certainly go to that event next year, but that they should make it easier for us, the viewers at home, to see all the movies nominated by the time of the awards.  That I wanted to see The Reader, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, and Doubt, but at some point movie theaters are just too damn expensive, and screw you for pricing me and so many others out of being informed viewers of the Academy Awards.

And I would wonder why the hell Seven Pounds was completely snubbed.

But I’m not writing about the Oscars.  I’m writing about what it is to have a dream and to be recognized for having achieved that dream.  Because really, that’s what it’s all about.  At the end of the day we all have opinions about what was good and what wasn’t, about what deserved to win and what deserved to be nominated, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a very large, very talented group of artists choosing the best, most talented artists in their field, and for the most part, they do a pretty good job.  And, more importantly, it creates a dream in us.  And I’m a big believer in dreams.


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