Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live in L.A.

January 21, 2013

The attitude around whether or not one has to live in Los Angeles in order to make it in the film industry has changed drastically over the past few years. A decade ago, anyone you asked would say that without a doubt you must live there, at least for some period of time. Then social media happened. All over the place, scripts were getting made not because of who you know, but because of how many people on the Internet know you. Digital technology improved, and the barriers to entry dropped dramatically. More films were getting made at lower costs, resulting in a lot more rough but a lot more diamonds, too. The “top tier” film festivals lost their stranglehold on the indie market, with more and more deals coming out of second and third tier festivals.

In short, the world changed and a new reality emerged, one that’s given an unprecedented level of access to Hollywood for people all over the globe.

Everyone knows this now, and yet people still like to tout the benefits of living in L.A. No doubt, they are plentiful: being surrounded by the industry, the buzz, being able to take that meeting today instead of next week, chance run-ins with industry players, and so on.

Well, I’m here to share with you the reasons why I’m glad I don’t live in Los Angeles–not because I hate the city (I actually love it there), but because it’s been the best thing for my career.

In 2006 I left my day job to start working as a freelance writer. I’ve been doing that full time ever since. The experience has at times been humbling, terrifying, agonizing, and exhilarating. I’ve had moments of joy that are unparalleled in any other profession. I’ve contemplated suicide. I’ve failed more times than I can count, been rejected more times than anyone should have to bear, and succeeded more times than I sometimes feel I deserve. I’ve got evangelists who are begging me to work for them, and I’ve had people tell me I’ll never make it in this industry (sometimes the same people).

But at the end of it all, I’ve learned some invaluable skills. I know how to market myself. I know how to network. I’ve kept staying the course, and have been rewarded for it.

Most importantly, I’ve been making my living as a writer for most of my working career. People are impressed when I tell them I write and edit books for a living, and have been doing that for seven years now. It gives me credibility. It’s given me tremendous experience. Most people don’t think about the similarities between writing a technical manual and writing a screenplay, but they’re there. And of course, the similarities between editing a fiction book and writing a screenplay are considerable.

I don’t know that I would have had this opportunity in Los Angeles. Most of the people you talk to there fall into one or both of the following categories: (1) they’ve been working in the industry full time since they graduated from USC, and (2) whatever job they have leaves them no time to write. You hear all the time stories of people who are talking about it but have subconsciously given up. I’ve been able to keep writing, and make my living. I’ve been patient. And I’m being rewarded for it.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for being an outsider. Most of the people I meet when I come to California are folks I know either directly or indirectly through Austin Film Festival, and they’re delighted to see me and find out how things are going. They love that I offer a perspective from outside the insular bubble of Southern California. And they’re happy to arrange that meeting for while I’m in town. I can call somebody up and ask if they want to go out to lunch just ’cause, but that’s a much more unusual invitation if we both live in the same city than if I’m flying 1,500 miles to be there. And I get to put all my meetings together into one whirlwind adventure of a week.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t move to Los Angeles (though some people I know would). Nor am I saying that I never will–n fact, I fully expect that at some point that’s going to be the natural and obvious thing to do. But I will say that I’m glad, when my wife and I contemplated it a year and a half ago, that we made the choice we did.


The “Let’s just blurt out a whole bunch of crap at once” blog

November 1, 2012

True to form, I haven’t written in a while. The hustle and bustle of reading for Austin Film Festival keeps me in “I can’t talk about the scripts I’m reading so what the heck do I blog about?” mode. This is followed by “It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, what the heck do I blog about?” mode, which is then followed by the “Let’s just blurt out a whole bunch of crap at once” blog. So here goes.

  • Recently finished Lolita. At first, I had it pegged as the best book I’ve ever read. For someone who gets some of the (extensive) allusions made throughout the book, it’s a very interesting read, and I’m particularly fascinated by the way he justifies his actions, at least at first. Also interested how, in the movie, the protagonist Humbert Humbert comes across as someone who can’t really help himself, whereas in the book he definitely comes across as a sexual predator for whom one loses pretty much all sympathy by the end. The middle of the book did drag a bit, but overall a fascinating read and one I’m glad I checked out.
  • Was kind of pissed that they made a movie of Cloud Atlas before I got a chance to read it. It’s been on my list for a few years. So I’ve started reading it now, and hopefully will finish before it’s out of theaters. Another book that’s designed (at least on first impression) for people with allusive minds.
  • Read a few great scripts for the AFF screenplay contest, including The Break-Up Nurse, which won the Enderby category. It’s one of my favorite things to do during AFF is to meet the people’s whose scripts I read. I only briefly got to meet the author of The Break-Up Nurse, but I got her card and am looking forward to sitting down with her when I visit L.A. in December.
  • Two main lessons from AFF:
    • Why is it this character in this particular situation?
      –and–
    • “Words for actors are a problem. Silences between the words are an opportunity.” — Terry Rossio.
  • Speaking of acting (and L.A.), I’m attending Will Wallace’s acting class for two straight weeks in December. Will be glad to get some intensive time practicing on-screen acting. I think that’ll make a huge difference for me.

I’m sure there’s a lot more, but I’m happy just to get something on paper … er, server … again. Ciao.


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.


How to Work Your Next Conference – 2010 AFF Debrief

November 2, 2010

Wow, what a year.

You know, after going through the drag of reading 35 scripts for the AFF Screenplay Competition, I thought I didn’t want to bother with AFF next year or the year after. Now that it’s behind me, I can remember a year when I’ve gotten more value out of it. Takaways from this year’s experience, in the form of advice for working your next conference:

  • Go in with a plan. Before the start of Thursday morning, I sat down with my wife and looked: what are the things I want to get out of AFF this year? I came up with three: Find an agent for Ups & Downs, find someone who can further another Web series project I’m working on that I have yet to disclose, and keep asking the question, “What can I provide?” The first one came through with a big goose egg, but the other two I would say I accomplished my goal. Which is great, because without doing the intellectual effort, I don’t know that I ever would have reached the same level of success with that Web project that I otherwise could have (and think I did). As for the last of those …
  • Stop making it about yourself. Look for ways you can contribute to other people. I happened to be sitting in the Pitch Competition with the two people who wrote my favorite comedy from this year — one of the only ones I advanced to the semifinals, and certainly the highest score of any comedy I read. The one guy who went up in my session didn’t do a great job with his pitch, and when I approached them afterward (to their unending excitement and gratitude) I suggested how to pitch the thing. His writing partner went up in the next round, and won his round. It was a gratifying experience, and one I was glad to be a part of. I also found myself spending a fair bit of time over the weekend with a producer who was looking for a certain kind of script, and I knew the perfect person to introduce him to who might be able to write that kind of script. These things certainly wouldn’t have happened without my commitment to contributing to people, and I think you come out ahead in the long run for  having been the guy who helped that person get ahead.
  • Accept people’s gratitude. Meeting the people whose scripts I moved to the semifinals was just priceless. I don’t remember having quite the same experience in the past as I did this year, where those people said that they’d been looking for me, and were positively effusive in their gratitude. One said he was going to name his first born child after me. I told him that was a bit much, but at least my name isn’t Beelzebub or something.
  • The business happens in the bar. I’ve long been a proponent of the philosophy that more business has gotten done over a beer than in a boardroom. And yet, the previous two years I’ve gone to AFF, I’ve never gone in with that attitude. I’ve always been a panel junkie, going to every session I can to get the full “value” out of the Producer’s Badge. But this time I got really committed to the parties, and I even went to the Driskill bar after the regular parties closed down. And that proved to be invaluable, as I met more people and got to deepen the relationships I had. In fact, probably my favorite moment of the entire festival was when I sat down in the bar at 1:30 in the morning next to someone I’d met at AFF two years ago, it came up in conversation that my wife and I broke off our engagement the morning Juno played at AFF 2007, and after telling her the “long version” of the story (at her request), she told me, “That’s the best pitch I’ve heard all weekend. If I was a studio executive I would have bought that script. If you don’t write it, I’m going to.” That was worth the cost of the Producer’s Badge right there.
  • It’s a long putt, not a tap-in. I think people go to conferences under the illusion that they’re going to magically find the perfect person to hire them and *hey presto* they’ve got a career in the movies. In reality, it’s not quite so simple. I’ve become something of a professional networker over the last year or so, and one of the truths of networking is that you can’t go to a networking event once and expect to get any business out of it. It’s only after you come back a number of times, and these people start to become your friends, do you really start to see the value. Well, a conference is the same way. Now that I’ve been to AFF three times in four years, I’m starting to recognize some faces and deepen some relationships. Last weekend I saw the guy who agreed, two years ago, to read the first five pages of any script I sent him, and I got to strike up a conversation, remind him about that, and brown nose him a little bit by telling him that I constantly re-tell one of the stories he told about his experience breaking into the business. Now, when I do send him those pages, he’ll have a little more to go on than the weak introduction I had before.

I think that’s it for now. Cue abrupt ending.


Movies from Austin Film Festival

October 30, 2010

I love getting to watch a zillion movies in a week. But I decided not to go out and write a ton of reviews during AFF, because (a) everyone else is doing that, (b) I didn’t really want to spend my time on it, and (c) I like to write spoiler-heavy reviews that look at the plot/structure, and most of the movies playing at AFF haven’t been released yet. So instead I’m just going to do a summary of the movies I went to see at AFF this year and my thoughts on each.

  • Exporting Raymond – This year’s opening night film was a documentary about Phil Rosenthal’s attempt to take Everybody Loves Raymond to Russia. The sitcom is a very new genre over there, and one of Rosenthal’s biggest challenges was convincing the Russians — who like their theatre, film, and television to be very dramatic and over-the-top — that this show — which is about exploiting the realities of life — would be funny. This movie was HILARIOUS. Phil Rosenthal is one of the funniest people on the planet, and watching him through this process was just a stitch.
  • 127 Hours – Danny Boyle’s new film about a canyoneer who gets his hand crushed under a boulder, and is stuck there for — yep, you guessed it — 127 hours before he finally saws off his own arm. A true story, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, I was very curious as to how Danny Boyle would manage to make this interesting. But he did an amazing job, giving the hero someone to talk to (his video camera), and plenty of flashback and dream sequences to keep it moving. Very intense, and very well done.
  • Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky, who created such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and most recently The Wrestler, brings us another grim tale about the descent into madness, every bit as poignant as everything of his I’ve seen so far. On the surface, the movie is about a girl who gets cast as the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake, but to describe it like that is like saying Natural Born Killers is about a husband-wife serial killer team. It goes way, way deeper than that, to the point where every moment was an edge-of-your-seat type of moment. There were some things about the script I didn’t like, particularly at the beginning, but by the end I had long forgotten them and was so wrapped up in what was one of the most awesome movie experiences of my life.
  • Brother’s Justice -Dax Shepard mockumentary about his fake attempt to leave the realm of comedy and become a martial arts action hero. Very funny, although during the talkback at the end, when they said that the moments they tried to make funny weren’t, and it was the organic ones that ended up being the funniest, I very much agreed. A lot of comedy is getting too scripted, I think, and this film is no exception. But good, overall. Just what you would expect from Dax.
  • Echotone – The only film I walked out of during the festival. I might have stayed if the volume wasn’t painfully loud, or if the featured musicians weren’t complete crap.  If you’re looking for a masturbatory woe-is-me documentary about how hard it is to be a bad artist in a growing city, go right ahead. Good luck getting through it.
  • I Love You, Phillip Morris – A film that was made years ago, but for whatever reason has been having trouble getting released. Jim Carrey is a con man, compulsive liar, and escape artist who falls in love with Ewan McGregor in prison and continues to be a con man, compulsive liar, and escape artist. Fun movie, beats a dead horse a little longer than necessary, but overall very well done. Of course, outstanding performances by our leads, and plenty of twists to keep us rolling.
  • Company Men – Longtime TV writer/director/producer John Wells makes the jump into film with this story about the executives at a ship manufacturing company that are getting laid off in a tough economy. Great cast, but even though I asked the question afterward, I’m still feel unsatisfied with his choice of heroes. The lowest earner of the three main characters was a six-figure earner, and I personally would have liked to have seen it taken down a notch to get someone in the $60K-$80K range; make it a little more relatable to the masses, maybe.
  • Re-Cut – Horror flick, kind of Blair Witch meets 8mm. About what you would expect. Not terribly imaginative, and the female lead — The Bachelor/Bachelorette‘s Meredith Phillips — was not a very good actress, even though she was playing herself. Decent, though.
  • Rabbit Hole – Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in a film about a family almost torn apart over the loss of their 4.5-year-old son. Probably the best script of any film in the festival, never telling us anything until it comes out completely  naturally in the dialogue. There was one scene in particular where I thought, “ScreenwritingU would be proud.” Very moving, and one I’ll be rooting for come February.

 


10.17 – Big Fish

October 28, 2010

If you’re like me, you didn’t even know that this was a book before it was a movie. Although it kind of has that feel to it, I don’t think anyone had heard of the book before it was a movie. To hear John August tell it, he had to do some pretty heavy lifting to convince a studio to purchase the rights to it, and I imagine that required getting Tim Burton on board, first.

Anyway, something that Austin Film Festival did last week, which I hadn’t seen them do before, was a “Script to Screen” workshop where a screenwriter discusses a particular movie and how it changed in the moviemaking process. A few screenwriters agreed to lead this workshops, including, among them, John August, about this story. The assignment was to watch the movie, read the screenplay, and read the book, all in preparation for the workshop.

It was really awesome getting to work through the process of adapting a script. We looked at certain elements:

  • What are the themes of the book?
  • Who are the characters? Who is the main, central character that this story is about? Or is it a dual-protagonist story?
  • What are the character arcs?
  • What are the main stories and plot points?

After going through this exercise, it became much easier to give up any allegiance to the original script. In this way, characters, locations, and plot points get combined. Other characters get expanded. Whole new storylines open up.

August, a very humble, soft-spoken guy, was never so vain as to assume that his version was the only way to adapt it, and so it became great fun to play with it and look at other ways we might have done it: eliminating the son entirely, or telling the father’s story backward, or maintaining the myth, rather than having the story become more real as time went on.

The book ends a little differently than the movie does. Similar, but the main, glaring difference, is that the book swears no allegiance to reality, and the father actually transmogrifies into a fish. In the movie, the son’s story reaches its climax at this moment, and he finally is willing to tell his father a story. I like that, except what was missing for me in the film version (which I admittedly haven’t seen in years) was something that would have him make that radical shift from his previous attitude. It just felt a little forced. Maybe that was in the performance, less than the script, but I think something else could have been there.

But the book, let it be known, is truly magical, and a quick, fun read.

And I definitely appreciate the opportunity to participate in far and away one of the most valuable events I’ve ever attended at AFF.


Highlights from the Austin Film Festival

October 19, 2008

Things I learned at this year’s Austin Film Festival:

  1. Read Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s website, Wordplay, cover-to-cover, as it were.
  2. Just like a film has a three-act-structure, so too does every act and every scene.  Setup, turn, and completion that drives the action forward.
  3. What makes the chase scene interesting is how the hero overcomes the obstacle in his path – what changes along the way?
  4. Get a manager.
  5. Always be working.  Don’t ever stop writing.  If you’re the guy that churns out three or four screenplays a year, your agent loves you.
  6. Screenplays are really boring when read out loud.
  7. I came to this year’s AFF knowing a small handful of people.  Through each of those people, I met two or three more.  The lesson: keep coming, and you’ll double your circle every year.
  8. Danny Boyle is frickin’ amazing.  If you haven’t seen Shallow Grave, go watch it.
  9. Make your movie cool.  Always look for what can be done differently.  How can we write this chase scene in a way that no one’s ever done a chase scene before?
  10. If you want to do a screen adaptation for a project that’s been “in development” forever, find the themes and the genre elements that turn you on in the source material, and write a different script with those in mind.
  11. A screenwriter’s job is to keep rewriting his (or someone else’s) script until everyone involved is okay with it.  If you don’t look at your job from this perspective, you’ll only get pissed off because you keep having to change something that you already knew was really good to begin with.
  12. Don’t be creepy, annoying, or overeager.
  13. They’ll read the first five pages.  If you haven’t captured them by then, they won’t keep reading.
  14. Apparently, Robert McKee sucks.  This was news to me – I love his book.  But a lot of people don’t, and they say it results in formulaic films.

I’m sure there’s more.  Check back for more details.


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