Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My New Job

I'm extremely excited!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Steven de Souza at the Writers Guild

Last Wednesday, Steven de Souza spoke at the WGA. Rewriting was the ostensible topic for the evening, and de Souza did talk about that -- many of his highest profile scripts were rewrite jobs -- but he also was just a font of great stories and anecdotes. A few that I took notes on:

(As a side note, these kinds of great events are always going on in Los Angeles, held by the Writers Guild Foundation, the WGA, and any number of other organizations. Many are open to non-Guild members; all the WGF ones are. Check 'em out.)

Don Mankiewicz was one of de Souza's first mentors, from whom he learned some great old-Hollywood jargon:
  • Haircut - A ripoff. Change the part, and no one recognizes it. "I hear Miracle Pictures is doing a haircut of TRANSFORMERS for 2010."

  • Dynamite dog - Intercutting to build suspense. You have Rin Tin Tin running to the rescue, off to drag some dynamite out from under a bridge. Cut from the dynamite, to the dog, dynamite, dog.

  • Dog heavy - Low-level bad guy. You have the main heavy, who's the top villain, the one who kills the sheriff, the one whom the hero dispatches mano-a-mano. In DIE HARD, Alan Rickman. Then you have the second heavy, the chief lieutenant, who kills the deputy and gets offed before the main heavy. DIE HARD: Alexander Godunov. The dog heavy is the grunt henchperson, who's around to kick a dog if need be. DIE HARD: Everyone who isn't Alan or Alexander.
De Souza does a fantastic Arnold Schwarzenegger impression.

DIE HARD's principal photography sounded like it was a lot more seat of the pants than the final product would suggest. A lot of the movie's best elements came about during production, and would never have happened had the writer -- de Souza -- not been on set.

Bruce Willis was starring in MOONLIGHTING during production, and it became clear that all the night shoots for DIE HARD plus his rigorous TV days were going to kill him unless he could sit out some nights. The character development of the villains came in direct response to needing scenes that Bruce wasn't in.

The scene where McClane meets an American-accented Hans Gruber also came about during production. De Souza, director John McTiernan, and the producers realized that having the hero and villain meet only at the end felt unsatisfying, and this scene is what de Souza came up with after learning at lunch one day that Alan Rickman could do a California accent.

The bad guys' escape plan was devised three days before the end of shooting. All those scenes where the bad guys talk about the plan, Alan Rickman doodles on maps about the plan, all of that-- no one, de Souza said, on either side of the camera, knew what the plan was.

The escape plan, of course, ended up being that the bad guys would get away in an ambulance they brought with them, hiding amidst the many other rescue vehicles around Nakatomi Plaza. But coming so late in production, this set up a whole cascade of things:
  • There is no ambulance in the truck when the bad guys arrive. This scene was already shot and couldn't be reshot.

  • The clue that the bad guys were all of a cohort was to be their identical Tag Heuer watches, which originally got a lot more screen time.

  • The scene that landed this was one of the bad guys synchronizing their watches, a longer one than in the final cut, and had a long, clear shot of the non-ambulance-containing truck. So this bit had to go.

  • Which means that Bruce is a little bit psychic when he guesses that Alan isn't in fact a hostage-- he was supposed to clock the watch, which he'd seen on other bad guys.

  • So people have invented reasons why Bruce catches on, but de Souza says there really isn't any official reason. The fact that Alan takes a stinky, vile Gaulois cigarette without objecting is the most popular theory. Next to McClane just being that fucking awesome, of course.
De Souza is careful to step out his fight scenes, giving them a page and half at least, so the movie can be timed appropriately. He doesn't just write "They fight" or "The Indians take the fort."

One very cool thing he shared with us was (projected on a screen) all the versions of one page of a Sheena comic book that he did. Over and over and over, working to get it right. And, as he pointed out, not because anyone asked him to or gave him notes. "This is insane," he said. "A cry for help." And it was worth it-- the page is spectacular, an Eisneresque borderless, time- and space-jumping work of art.

He's writing and producing a Web serial now, the Webby-nominated Unknown Sender, for Strike TV.

When writing a first draft he doesn't read anything from previous work sessions. He won't even go back to check on someone's name, subbing in Dog Heavy or the like if he can't remember.

A trick he uses to catch errors in a much-rewritten script is to read the whole thing twice, first only the stage directions, then only the dialogue.

I was happy to see that de Souza uses some of the same tightening techniques that I do when wanting to pull in the page count just a little, namely rewording a line of dialogue or action, or very judiciously tweaking the right margin, to get rid of orphans, those single words that hog an entire line to themselves. If Steven de Souza does it, hell, it's good enough for me.

Another very cool thing he did was to walk us through a few pages from his new script, BEIJING BULLET. He hadn't looked at them since writing them, so as he read (the moderator was the other actor in the scene), he was basically rewriting on the fly, speaking aloud notes to himself, stuff he'll want to change. He thought that one character should be a woman instead of a man-- I'll be interested to see what shows up in the final version. If it's a woman, I will have been in the room when that decision was made! Nifty.

De Souza was once pitched a rewrite job from a producer: "DIE HARD in a building."

Monday, May 04, 2009

Generally Speaking

TV staffing season is upon us! Shortly shows will be meeting with writers -- some already are, particularly at the higher levels.

But by and large during this time of year, TV writers are waiting for the dust to settle around pickup news and the fall schedule. If you're not currently on a show, I've learned that you're doing two things right now:
  • Writing. Always be writing. Spec screenplay and spec graphic novel script in my case, since I'm covered on TV samples for now.
  • Going on general meetings.
General meetings, aka "generals," are one of the few things in the screenwriting business that I haven't found an analogy for in other fields. Imagine an interview at a company where they don't necessarily have a job for you but might in the future: it's a job interview slash get-to-know-you. This kind of thing is rare in other industries, but happens all the time in entertainment.

The way it works is this: your agent or manager gets your script to an executive at a network, studio, or production company. If they like it, a general gets set up.

Going on your first general? A few tips.

Relax. If you're having a meeting, they've already read and liked your script. The meeting is to see what you're like in person, how you relate to other people... basically, to make sure that you're not an axe murderer.

Remember, it's a job interview of sorts, so be prepared like you would for any interview: it's the smart and courteous thing to do.

Read any pilots relevant to where you're meeting, check which shows they have on the air (past or present), learn which shows the execs you're meeting with worked on, and be ready to talk about all of the above. Re-read your own work: if it's been a while since you looked at your own specs, you don't want to get caught flat-footed if they ask you about them.

Also, look up who you'll be meeting with. Google, LinkedIn, the trades' websites, and IMDb are great resources. Check with your agent about pronunciation of names, and gender if necessary. There are Pats, Chrises, and Kellys aplenty, so don't assume.

Be flexible. Rescheduling is common for these meetings, especially this time of year when current and development departments are super busy. Don't take it personally if your meeting gets pushed, even a couple of times.

Dress the part.
This may seem frivolous, but it's not. You're meeting new people and making an impression. You want it to be a good one, no?

As writers, we have a lot of leeway in what to wear in professional circumstances. I usually go with jeans and a nice top, sometimes a skirt or casual slacks instead of jeans if the weather's hot.

Guys can rock a button-down shirt and jeans, or t-shirt plus blazer and jeans. Be comfortable but don't be a slob -- jeans should be clean, no holes. Again, it's a job interview. Look like someone they'd be happy to hire.

And don't overdress. All black risks looking pretentious, like a German DJ, or like an axe murderer. For God's sake, no suits or ties. Few people in Hollywood wear suits except agents, lawyers, and studio presidents.

Leave plenty of travel time.
Yes, I mean to deal with LA traffic and finding the right building/office/gate, but also once you get there. Studio lots in particular are big places. Finding parking, getting out of the garage, walking to the building where the meeting is... All that hoofing around can take 20 minutes or more.

If you're way early, check out the studio store, hang out outside, or hit the restroom. I usually try to be checking in with the receptionist or assistant about 5 minutes before my meeting time. They'll ask you to have a seat, maybe offer you a water (take it), and in a few minutes you'll be shown into an office or conference room for the meeting proper.

Don't be an axe murderer. The meeting itself is Human Interaction 101. Take your cue from the people you're meeting with: some will want you to drive the meeting, some will ask a lot of questions, some want to tell you about their company and projects. Be polite. Listen.

Things you might be asked about, or should be ready to discuss:
  • Your background, where you're from
  • Previous work experience, other shows, people you worked with
  • Your spec, where the idea came from, any special research, etc.
  • Their pilots
  • Their current shows
  • Overall the shows or type of shows you like
  • Breaking industry news
  • Anything else, from the weather to sports to the last book you read.
Honestly, I find generals fun. Maybe I've just been lucky, but the execs and producers I've met with have all been pleasant, smart, interesting people, and the time goes by very quickly. The best meetings have been when myself and the other person had interests or passions in common. One meeting, the exec and I happily geeked out about WATCHMEN and Comic-Con before moving on to talk about my script.

One note about time: meetings can be as long as over an hour or as short as 20 minutes, depending on the exec's schedule and how things are flowing with you. Don't schedule meetings too close together.

Follow up afterward, if you have the means. Sometimes an exec will give you a card. I'm a big believer in thank you notes -- these people are busy, and meeting with me is them being generous with their time. I send a brief thank you email the day after the meeting. You won't always get a card, but don't worry about it. Your agent or manager will follow up for you.

Report back to your agent or manager. Tell your reps how the meeting went -- they'll check in with the person you met with, but it's good for them to hear your point of view as well. Sometimes they'll call you, or you can call them. You can also email, which is handy because you can cc yourself and keep a record of who you met with, when, and what you talked about.

I'm less familiar with the screenplay general, but I gather they're much the same, although there may be open writing assignments they're considering you for, which you should ask about.

If you have questions I didn't cover, ask them in the comments sections and I'll do my best to answer them.

Happy meeting!

UPDATE ON FEATURE GENERALS: Since first posting this in May 2009, I've been on a whole bunch of general meetings for movies. Those meetings are indeed very much like TV generals, so all the above applies.

If it's a general but there's a certain project the exec or your reps have mentioned, research it -- e.g. look up its history in the trades and read it, if it's existing IP like a comic book or article and is available (ask your reps) -- and be able to talk about it. The execs likely won't expect a full pitch, but it can't hurt to be prepared. In addition, you should inquire about open writing assignments.

Have fun, and knock 'em dead!

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Distractable People

Happy New Year!

I was all set to write a go-get-'em pep talk type post to kick off 2009, when as usual someone else did it better than I possibly could have.

This time, it's author Cory Doctorow, on Writing in the Age of Distraction, a post full of useful tips on getting things done when every minute you're tempted with multi-tasking.

The point about not using Word or other word-processing programs isn't particularly relevant to screenwriters -- writing a script in TextEdit or TextPad is a sure path to madness -- but I agree with and use most of his strategies.

I give myself a little bit more leeway than Doctorow does on researching in-line, because I hate leaving details like this undone when a quick search would take care of it and give me less to fix later, but I'm careful not to let the research lollop away into lost hours. And I do drop in a marker and move on if the research proves to be something that'll derail me for a while. Instead of TK as a marker for something unfinished, I use a caret (^), but the idea's the same.* I do this not just for missing research but also for a line or section that I plan to come back to; that way I don't forget it.

In addition to these markers, I also keep a txt file open as I write with a running to-do list. This is where I note the bigger stuff that needs fixing, or to remind myself to add or change something. Also on this list are housekeeping items that I do for every script, final-pass things like "Make sure Days and Nights track."

One of Cory's tips is a favorite of mine, and I love the additional examples from other arts:
Leave yourself a rough edge.

When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint." Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it's hard to build on a smooth edge.
Again, I don't leave things as messy as he does. I have WAY too many control issues to stop in the middle of a sentence, a trick Hemingway also used. I do, however, stop only when things are going well, at a point where I know exactly what has to happen next. That way I'm excited to get back to the story and have a built-in kickstart to the next day's writing, without all that ramp-up time of "Where was I? What do I do now?"

Oh, and RSS readers, IM clients, Twitter, Facebook? I shut those damn things down. I do give myself a little time in the morning before writing to check email and teh blogz0rz and whatnot, and a little more at lunch and then at the end of the day.

I'll add a seventh suggestion to Cory's six: deadlines. Jane Espenson wrote on her blog once that she never had a problem with writer's block, because assignment deadlines from people who are waiting for your pages -- people who are paying you -- don't give you the luxury.

If you're writing on spec, it's harder, of course, since you're only answerable to yourself or maybe an antsy agent. Writing groups, classes, and contests can provide this structure and motivation, but it's essential, particularly for TV writers, to learn the discipline to set and meet your own deadlines.

I'm always interested to hear other writers' productivity tips and tricks. What are yours?

* Fun fact I just found out about the caret: it means "it lacks" and was originally a proofreading mark where something needed to be added, such as a punctuation mark or phrase. I chose it at random, after seeing that the asterisk triggers the track changes flag in some screenwriting programs.