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.


The Process

February 9, 2012

It took my years to finish my first feature-length screenplay. I’d done a zillion kinds of writing in the meantime, including TV show development, co-authoring a sitcom spec, and co-authoring a book, but finishing my first solo feature script took an unprecedented level of integrity and determination.

Then I got caught up in the agony of rewrites. Ah, rewrites. (Sigh.)

What I discovered out of finishing that screenplay was a process that works for me. Outline. Refine the outline. When I get blocked, create a beat board. Enter the outline, in its entirety, into Final Draft. And then write at least one scene a day, paying no attention to the order, and just writing what seemed like a good scene to write at that particular moment.

I was shocked to discover that scenes that seemed so hard to write last week, were suddenly easy to write today. I gave up the perfectionism of it, and just got it on paper. Can always rewrite later. (Ah, rewrites. Sigh.) But I was even able to keep this process going on a vacation, disappearing into my room for an hour when I really wanted to be in the living room partying with all my friends, or sleeping or jacuzziing away the exhaustion from the ski slope.

I also discovered my brand. I am, at heart, an editor. An editor with a good eye for story and a wicked sense of dialogue, but an editor nonetheless, which means that as a screenwriter, what I want to focus on is adaptations. No coming up with anything on my own, just rewriting other people’s stuff. (Ah, rewrites. Sigh.) And after all, that’s one of the best ways to get paid in Hollywood. It also has the added benefit of that sense of accountability that comes from someone else waiting for my work to be done. Notice that all the things I was able to finish for those first few years involved other people. (And rewriting their stuff. Ah, rewrites. Sigh.)

As I write this, I’m at the tail end of Dances with Fat (working title), the true story of plus-sized dancer Ragen Chastain‘s quest to win her first national dance championship. Although it’s not quite the kind of source material that I first envisioned when I said I wanted to write adaptations, I do have the tremendous advantage of a vast canon of actual events to draw on. And, as it turns out, the truth is often much stranger than fiction. Since I’m doing this as part of a class, I wasn’t able to perfectly follow the process that I so brilliantly devised for Postville. But the way the class is designed, I was able to get pretty close.

So now I’ve got 5 scenes left to write. And then I get to spend the next couple of months on rewrites.

Ah. Rewrites.


Moneyball

January 30, 2012

I read this book several years ago, and I remember being left with something of an empty feeling. It was like I wished they’d made this into a business book (lessons from Billy Beane to apply to your business) or had a happy ending or something. I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that bugged me about it. Until …

Six months ago, I saw the movie trailer for the first time. And I thought, “Yes! That’s what the problem was!” Immediately I realized my issue: this is the rare book that would make a much better movie. So I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time.

It was different than I expected. The subplot with his daughter wasn’t a part of the book at all. There was nothing at all in the movie about the baseball draft, which is one of the parts of the book I most remember – Billy Beane going to players who expected to be drafted in the 15th round, with offers to take them in the 7th round for 11th round money. I remember the book obsessing over the importance of an out – that a stolen base isn’t worth the risk, and a sacrifice bunt isn’t worth the cost – but that’s something you might’ve missed in the movie if you blinked at the wrong time. And I didn’t remember, nor did I expect from the movie, all the backlash he got from his own team, or the losing record the team had over the first quarter of the season. And structurally the movie was very . . . eclectic, making liberal use of stock footage and flashbacks, sprinkled throughout with no rigidity whatever to when or how they’re used.

But that’s not to say that these stock videos and flashbacks were used haphazardly. They were very carefully placed, just not with the same level of visual formality that one might expect from a Hollywood movie.

As a screenwriter, and one who’s worked with adaptations and true stories, I see everything they did and why. The daughter was there to increase the stakes, as were all the threats of him losing his job (which may very well have been exaggerated). They didn’t talk about the draft, because it adds a layer of complexity to a story that was more easily told through the lens of the handful of players who could represent the entire team. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) was a fictionalized composite of Paul DePodesta and several other people – DePodesta didn’t want his name used, because of the way the character was portrayed. Not a surprise at all.

But I’m thinking a lot about character and dialogue just at the moment, and Peter Brand is one of the more interesting ones to talk about. Every line he has in the first three scenes demonstrates his awkwardness:

PETER BRAND
I wanted you to see these player evaluations that you asked me to do.

BILLY BEANE
I asked you to do three.

PETER BRAND
Yeah.

BILLY BEANE
To evaluate three players.

PETER BRAND
Yeah.

BILLY BEANE
How many’d you do?

PETER BRAND
Forty-seven.

BILLY BEANE
Okay.

PETER BRAND
Actually, fifty-one. I don’t know why I lied just then.

I do. I know why he lied just then. It’s because it’s such a great way to demonstrate this guy as uncomfortable, awkward, and unsure of himself. (And again — not hard to see why DePodesta didn’t want his name on this character.)

Same thing with Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Every line is a demonstration of his frustration at having to put together a winning season with what he sees as an insufficient number of quality players and a lack of faith in his ability to manage the team.

I was not expecting, though I can’t say I was completely surprised, to see Aaron Sorkin listed as the second writer on this movie. Although the dialogue was less circular than usual, and the main characters nowhere near as talkative as anyone we’re used to seeing in a script he wrote, it had his same sense of vitality and imagination.

Overall, excellent movie, and one I’d recommend both to people who have and who haven’t read the book.


The Feel-Good Comedy Phenomenon

August 19, 2009

It’s interesting how easy it is for me now to identify that a movie is based on a book. Immediately after watching Gran Torino last weekend, my wife and I popped in He’s Just Not That Into You, the feel good comedy with an all-star cast that includes Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connolly, Scarlett Johansson, Justin Long, and Drew Barrymore.

By the way, that’s a pretty good clincher, if you’re keeping score at home – if you’re 10 minutes into the movie and still getting introduced to new characters played by A-list actors, then the chances are good that none of them is the hero.  Which is a phenomenon movies generally don’t even try to get away with.  I wonder how many characters the book had, and if it had to be rewritten in order to accommodate a reduction.

Anywho, the feel-good comedy phenomenon is when you come away from a feel-good comedy with a bizarre premise that has you look longingly at the person you’re with and tell them how much you love them, really.  I remember years ago, when Shallow Hal came out, and I came out of the theater looking at my girlfriend with a newfound appreciation.  She didn’t appreciate it so much – understandable, considering the movie was about how beautiful morbidly obsese people are.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere.  I’m just not sure what it is yet.


D for Disappointing – Review of Harry Potter on D-Box

July 20, 2009

This past weekend I went to see Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince in D-Box.  If you’re unfamiliar with the technology, it’s these seats that are programmed to vibrate, tilt, and otherwise move to give you a new experience of the movie.  They started out in the home theatre market, currently serving about 15 titles, and recently expanded into the commercial market with Austin’s Galaxy Highland Theater being, as I understand it, the first movie theater in the world to equip itself with these seats.  Harry Potter was the third movie that was D-Box Motion Code programmed for its theatrical release, and going to see it in this format was really the only circumstance under which I was even remotely interested in seeing this particular movie.

Now most of you probably aren’t wondering what the “D” in “D-Box” stands for, but I sure as hell was, so while the wife and I were killing 45 minutes before the movie started, I asked the guy taking tickets if he knew.  He didn’t, so he got on his walkie-talkie and said, “Hey, I got a question for any manager.  I got a customer here who wants to know what the D in D-Box stands for.”

Silence.

Eventually a manager came out, and after 10 minutes of heightened anticipation as I waited for him to serve another customer with a complaint, he gave me the answer – “Yeah, it doesn’t really stand for anything.  I asked the people who installed it, and they said that ’cause they were French, they used to refer to it as “da box” before they had a name for it, and then shortened it to “D-Box.”

Anticlimactic much?

Unfortunately, the evening went downhill from there.  The theater has two rows of D-box seats, which I guess makes sense since I had to mortgage my house in order to afford the tickets.  The problem is, they’re two-thirds of the way back in the theater, which means you can see the walls as you’re watching the movie.  Something like this requires an experience – feeling like you’re inside the screen, so that when your butt gets shaken as a thunderbolt comes toward you, you think you’re there.

This was not that experience.  Instead, it was kind of like watching a movie.  But with vibrating seats.

Anticlimax #2.

Of course, it didn’t help that the movie itself sucked.  I’m sure that Harry Potter fans loved it, and maybe it would’ve worked fine if you’ve seen all the other movies, but for the casual observer who’s only read Book 1 and seen movies 1, 3, and 4, it all seemed rather useless and shallow, like they were racing to get the plot up on screen, without contributing any depth to the characters or the situations.

The best example I can think of is the half-blood prince payoff.  I’m sure that in the book it’s an amazing moment (and I may read the book just to find out), but in a night filled with anticlimaxes, that moment has surpassed the ending of Fight Club as the most anticlimactic film moment of all time for me.  “Hey, by the way, here’s how it is!  Mwahaha! See ya later!”

What?  Really?

Anyway, I’m not terribly interested in ripping on HP6, ’cause quite frankly, I don’t care that much.  I did care about the D-Box, though, and although I admire Highland Galaxy for their gamble, the payoff didn’t work for me.

Now, combine it with a 3D IMAX experience … then I’ll be interested.


Blips and Hiccups

April 6, 2009

It seems that writing a script in a month is not without its challenges …

It was smooth sailing to start, writing 5 pages the first day and 3 the second to keep on track with my 4-pages-a-day goal.  But then I spent Friday busting my ass in every direction except this one.  I was finally able to find the time to squeeze one page out before leaving for an evening commitment, which then turned into the questionable decision to play poker until 4:30 in the morning, which turned into sleeping until about noon.

I spent the rest of Saturday trying to catch up, before my head finally exploded and I had to take a break.  And then late that night I received an e-mail from my dad, with comments and suggestions that made me realize I have to gut 4 pages of exposition.

So what now?  I made it to 16 2/3 pages last night, which is officially on track for 100 pages by the end of April, and I’m determined to find a way to finish all my other commitments and make it to 20 pages by the end of today.  But a massive chunk of it will have to be destroyed, and in the mean time I’ve got a massive gap from April 17th-19th when I won’t be able to write anything, and that really scares me.

I suppose part of the reason I was shooting for 4 pages a day instead of 3 1/3 is to account for these blips and hiccups.  But yikes … right now, writing even 1 page seems like it might take all day.


More on Adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption

February 7, 2009

I’ve seen and read both before, but revisited the Stephen King novella recently, and decided to follow it up by watching the movie. The main plot is the same. The novella tells the story by subjects, guided by chronology, whereas the movie tells the story chronologically, guided by the subjects. In a few cases they shifted the chronology for dramatic effect – for example, Andy coming into the library before Brookes leaves, so that he can help so-and-so set up the trust fund and so that we care about Brookes when he dies; or Andy spending 19 years at Shawshank instead of 27, so that we can frame the movie with Red’s 20, 30, and 40-year parole hearings.

Casting Morgan Freeman in the role of the Irishman “Red” was just a stroke of genius. As well as being a perfect fit for the character, it just gives a timeless universality to the two heroes of the tale – black and white, hope and despair, yin and yang who make this perfect match. It would seem that this casting wasn’t a given during the writing of the script – supposedly Rob Reiner wanted to direct it and cast Harrison Ford as Red. Can you imagine how different a film that would’ve been?

Something else I’m noticing is the three-act structure. Is it there? There are three parole hearings. Maybe that’s it. We enter the prison and try to assimilate ourselves. We try to improve our situation. The shit hits the fan, and we leave.

Standard wisdom says that the turning points are decisions made by the hero. There a few things Andy does that constitute decisions deviating from the routine – The tarring-the-roof scene and the final exit are obviously huge plot-driving decisions. But the Italian ladies singing Mozart? The library project? The rock hammer or Rita Hayworth? No, I think the structure here is not quite so black and white. I think the story stands on its own, and the turning points are the little successes Andy achieves along the way – including all of the above, as well as Hadley beating the shit out of Bogs and Tommy getting his GED.

The thing is, in the presence of great storytelling, “three-act-structure” is a phantom menace. In this movie, every event is driven by the one before it or the one after it. The characters are constantly making decisions that affect each other and affect themselves, and the situation itself is perfectly sufficient to heighten the tension and the stakes. Because that’s really what the acts are measuring: the tension and the stakes.

I think this is a happy benefit of the adapting a novella of this length. The story is a hundred pages long, which is just long enough to get in every piece of the action, without having to cut anything and without having to embellish, and letting you jump in at just 2 hours. Sure, you shift some stuff around, but you don’t need to worry about restructuring it, because it’s the perfect length as it is.

I wonder how many great screenplays have been passed over or killed in spirit because they don’t fit the mold. I wonder whether, if Darabont hadn’t directed his own screenplay, it could have ended up as one of the most acclaimed movies of all time. I doubt it. Reiner’s version, with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, certainly would have grossed more in the box office, but it wouldn’t have had the same energy or spirit.

A lot of great movies are based on short novels. Darabont himself is currently rumored to be working on an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, which definitely qualifies.  And I have no doubt he’ll make it great, because he’ll have the freedom to do what he wants.


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