Sunday, May 31, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part VI

Final two pitches starting in 15 minutes. Shuttle coming. Home by 5:00. Fire lit.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part V

Today, the Hollywood Connection phase of SCSFe took over. This is where the educational part stops and the producers come in. First, all the writers get to ask all the producers (about a dozen all together) anything they want in an open Q&A, then you pay to pitch. Five minutes. I think it's $35 each. You sit outside a room and wait for your turn, then you go in and just start talking. It's over before you know it, with the producer either saying "send it to me" or "pass."

Luckily, I'm 1 for 1 so far (pitching Deadbeat Boyfriends). I wasn't supposed to have another pitch until tomorrow morning. But a fellow writer was kind enough to hand me his pass to a pitch happening in about half an hour, because he realized that his story wasn't right for this producer and mine is. Very nice guy. I'm starving.

Friday, May 29, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part IV

Funny what happens when you actually have a chance to immerse yourself in something.

When I started answering my questions listed in the previous post, I realized that I really don't know any great stories. I know great stories from film and literature, and I know great and interesting people, and I know good story vignettes from actual people. But as far as one of those full-arc Hollywood-type stories... uh uh.

So I moved on to the list of personally embarrassing moments (this is not an original idea for mining new material, I stole it from a screenwriting book I read years ago). And this was scary. Scary because it started off slowly, then I couldn't stop. Then I realized that despite the list, which keeps growing as I think of new ones, I've actually spent a good deal of time trying my damnedest NOT to be embarrassed, which makes for a pretty dull, opposite-of- Bridget-Jones-type existence.

Then I started analyzing the list-in-progress and realized that embarrassment has several categories. There are moments where you are completely and publicly embarrassed. Then there are moments where you're embarrassed looking back on it, but you weren't embarrassed at the time. Then there are moments where you should have been embarrassed but actually weren't. And then there are moments that were "embarrassing," but you didn't actively embarrass yourself. Subtle differences, but all very important.

Then I made the list of movies I truly love. Not the best movies ever made, or the most important movies ever made, but the movies I truly love. The list is as follows, in no particular order:

1. Rear Window
2. Vertigo
3. High Fidelity
4. Rushmore
5. Dr. Strangelove
6. This Is Spinal Tap
7. Waiting for Guffman
8. Being John Malkovich
9. Annie Hall
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
11. It's a Wonderful Life (sorry)
12. The Commitments
13. Amadeus
14. The Dead
15. Once
16. Cinema Paradiso
17. Lost In Translation
18. Glengarry Glenn Ross

I initially wrote down Manhattan, but then crossed it off. What I really love is the freedom of Annie Hall... the way Woody Allen moves from present to past, to animation, to imagining how great it would be if Marshall McCluhan appeared out of nowhere to humiliate a pseudo-intellectual standing in a movie line. I'd like to give myself that kind of creative freedom in a script, which is such a hyper-structured (and occasionally downright oppressive) format.

I wanted to watch Annie Hall instantly, so I went on Netflix to see if it was available as a "Watch It Now" movie. It wasn't, but Manhattan was. So I watched Manhattan on my laptop, lying in bed until midnight. And I remembered why I had initially put it on my list: It's the romance of it. Not the romance of Woody Allen's relationships (I don't know how he got away with having a 42-year-old man date a 17-year-old girl... yikes with the foreshadowing), but the romance that the movie is really about: New York. The opening sequence of a struggling author tripping over his own voiceover trying to express his love for the city, moving to breathtaking black-and-white shots of Manhattan set against the score of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"... it's never been equaled and probably never will.

(Then I remembered that as a teenager, I once rented a 30-pound video camera, shot scenes of downtown South Bend and later edited them against the same soundtrack. Let's add that to the embarrassing moments list...)

But making these lists has done two things so far: It's made me remember why I love movies, and it's started a new idea percolating. For better or for worse.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part III

As I sit through the early seminars, roundtables and presentations, rather than writing notes on what people are saying, I've been writing questions that I think will lead me to uncovering a new story. These questions have included the following:

What's the greatest story you know--about a person you actually know?

What are the most embarrassing moments you've ever had?

What are you obsessed with?

Why are you so self-conscious?

Who's the most "unexpected" person you've ever met (meaning, the person who didn't sound like they looked, or knew what you wouldn't think they would know, etc.)

What movies do you truly love?

Who's the most obsessive person you've ever known?

Why do you like satire so much, and is that a sign of weakness or a neutral trait?

When you have been under serious stress, and how did you react?

If you were to write a modern story based on a classic, which classic would you choose?

What was the most romantic moment in your life?

What's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for you?

What's the nicest thing you've ever done for somebody else?

What are 10 moments that made you cry?

I've only just begun to answer these questions, but the results are very interesting.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part II

I was kind of plunged into this conference and still haven't had time to decompress. Airport to crowded shuttle. Shuttle to hotel. Then right into the keynote speech by the guy who wrote Revenge of the Nerds.

First observation: This conference is quite a bit smaller than I had imagined, which is a good thing. So far there might be 50 people. I don't know why, but I had expected 500 or more.

Second observation: The attendees are older than I would have expected. Very few bright-eyed, fresh-out-of-college-looking types. It's a mature group, many of them veterans of this conference.

After the keynote was the Actors' Choice Awards. This is a contest where attendees submit only the first five pages of their scripts. Five winners are chosen, and a team of actors performs the scenes live on stage. I had high hopes that Deadbeats might win one of these slots, since the first five pages have always been the best part of the script (and the only part that has never changed). Plus, I now realized that I automatically had a 1 in 10 shot. But it was not to be.

The scripts that won were very good. One stole the show: A biopic on Bob "Butterbean" Love, a star with the Chicago Bulls in the '70s who has lived a rags to riches to rags to riches story. After his basketball career, he was hampered by a severe stuttering problem and sunk as low as working as a bus boy. But he worked to lose the stutter and is now the Bulls' director of community relations--and one of the country's most sought-after motivational speakers. The writer met Butterbean at a conference and just struck up a conversation. Smartly, he jumped on it. It's a story made for the screen, and I hope it gets there.

As for me, I'm in introvert mode, avoiding meeting people and reading "Long Day's Journey into Night," which unfortunately only inspires one to slit one's wrists. Busy day ahead... ironically, all about dialogue.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part I

So I’m sitting on a plane on its way to Albuquerque, about to spend five days in Santa Fe attending one of the country’s better-known screenwriting conferences. The traditional purpose of events like these is to bring together hundreds of writers to network, attend classes like “Achieving a Killer Outline in Nine Days,” and—in the case of the Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe—to actually pitch their screenplay ideas to working producers and receive pragmatic counsel from those who have quote made it.

My purpose is a little bit larger. I’m looking for inspiration. Specifically, I’m conducting an experiment to see what happens when I force myself to be temporarily unobligated to work or family (thanks, Anne... I owe you bigtime). I haven’t had a significant side project since I started Conk Creative, and I need one to maintain my tenuous states of balance and sanity—and to continue my obsessive 25-year quest to avoid the ravages of mid-life crisis.

Will I come out of here wanting to attack yet another “Deadbeat Boyfriends” rewrite? Will I leave suddenly inspired to fully develop one of four frazzled movie and TV threads, or will a new idea hit? Will I decide to write, fund and self-produce a short film, or will I decide that I’m done with this genre... that I want to start another band, do another basement CD, start a video blog called My Son Is Not Normal, or go total obscuria and apply for a grant to write a book on the history of death rituals in Papua New Guinea?

Or will I spend my time eating guacamole and watching TV in my hotel room?

I’ve got five days to figure it out.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I Don't Believe in Global Warming

The question is asked often: "Do you believe in global warming?" And it's recently occurred to me that my answer is this:

No, I don't.

(Excuse me while I step on top of this soap box here. There.)

I don't believe in global warming because there's nothing to believe in.

There's nothing to believe in because things that require belief are those things that you cannot see, hear, touch, smell, taste, measure, analyze, understand, predict and change.

Global warming is a fact. That human beings have and are contributing to it is a proven theory.

The pattern is established. Causation is obvious. Effects can be measured and analyzed.

Predictions are as imperfect as all predictions are, but they are revealing that reality is actually falling on the "worst case scenario" end of the accuracy spectrum.

So do I believe in global warming?


I accept global warming as a fact. I take the warnings very seriously. And I support efforts to curb it before it does more damage than we want to believe is possible.

Also, please stop asking, "Will the Earth survive? Can we save the planet?" The planet will survive no matter what we do. This isn't about "the planet." It's about the survival of a species on that planet that I happen to care about.

So stop framing global warming in terms of "belief" and "saving the planet." Let's get real about how we talk about this issue so we can get real about mitigating it.

(Exit soap box.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thanks, Bill

I was listening to an audiobook this morning that started with William Faulkner reading his speech before the Nobel Prize committee. His drawl is beautiful, but surprisingly, he reads the speech too quickly and with virtually no passion, or even inflection. Yet, the words themselves really touched me with their ... I guess you would say "deep, fully conscious optimism."

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Random Observation

When a white man is introduced to a black man, he will always add ", man" to the end of "nice to meet you."

"Vickers, this is Jamal."
"Nice to meet you, man."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Success, Malcolm Gladwell & Daddy Issues

As someone staring 40 in the face, I've been thinking a lot about success lately, and it's made me hate Malcolm Gladwell.

Actually, that's not true. Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, has been a pleasant revelation to me in most respects. Anything that demystifies the concept of the born genius is a step in the right direction. Gladwell isn't the only one doing this these days. Book after book is pointing to the unsexy truth: People who succeed have to work really, really, really hard. They're not born with talent; they simply have more desire and a better ability to focus deeply on one goal for long periods of time.

But something still bugs me about Gladwell's thinking. Two things, actually. The first is the big intellectual elephant in the room throughout his book: the definition of "success." With no apologies, Gladwell jumps right into discussions of Mozart and Bill Gates. The success of these men can't be denied; they revolutionized their fields. But I want to know: Were they/Are they successful husbands, fathers, friends, citizens? Gladwell works from one definition of success, and it's not one that favors overall balance and happiness (because frankly, that's not as interesting).

The second is the lack of any discussion about the psychology of motivation behind the highly successful. I think about a screenplay reading I attended about three years ago. The writer was well-known and had adapted an Oscar-winning film already. Actors read the script in its entirety, uninterrupted. It was riveting. Throughout the reading, I thought about how the writer was doing things with character and dialog that I could only dream of. (On the drive home, I realized that in the end I didn't actually like it that much as a whole, but I digress.)

Then I remembered something the author had said during the audience Q&A: When asked about his inspiration for the script, he mentioned that someone had once told him they didn't trust his ability to "write women." That's it! I thought... there's a "chip on the shoulder" element to what's going on here. (See: Brett Favre possibly signing with the Vikings to stick it to the Packers...) The script is in development, and I've heard that Hilary Swank is involved.

Let's face it: The one element that's as important to traditional success as work and focus--the one crucial ingredient that Gladwell ignores completely in Outliers--is having a shoulder that can house many chips. And at least among men, no chip is bigger than the one produced by the absent or disapproving father. Look at presidents. Barack Obama: making up for an absent father. George W. Bush: still trying to please daddy-o. Bill Clinton: proving himself to his alcoholic papa. And did you know that George Washington's father was a violent, abusive opium and meth addict? Neither did I. It isn't true.

The point is this. I hate Malcolm Gladwell. I hate him because he's doing exactly what I would love to be doing: Using a highly integrative mind to form compelling master theses, interviewing fascinating people to support it, writing very interesting books, and then getting paid lots of money to speak about them.

Hey wait, that's a chip! I DO hate Malcolm Gladwell! Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to write...

Friday, May 1, 2009

LangAlert: Redundonyms

Redundonyms (a term I've invented to refer to acronyms followed by the word already represented by their last letter) have been around for years, but lately they've been proliferating faster than swine flu. Here's my running list... I encourage additions via comments.

ATM Machine
IRA Account
HSA Account
MLB Baseball
GPS System
HLN News (CNN)