Limited Respite for Our Hero

December 31, 2009

The audience will need a break from the ever-mounting tension of the sequences that lead up to antagonist Cain’s apparent destruction of Joe Cameron. They will get that break in the house-arrest confinement moments that follow the disastrous botched drug bust, during which his mother and others close console and support as Joe wallows in pre-trial self-condemnation. However, such a reprieve must not impede the story’s forward momentum.

The devastating botched bust scene that marked the Midpoint Moment of the second act naturally changes the course of the story. Instead of being on the attack, as Joe has been throughout the second act up to this point, the Midpoint event forces Joe into a defensive position for the rest of Act 2.  And that, I figure, is my opportunity to reignite the dramatic tension, even during this necessary lull of introspection (necessary to Joe’s character arc as well as to the viewer’s attention span). How? By seeding the introspective passage with…

Plot-thickening cutaways

Joe’s brother Cain is an underlying source of antagonism throughout the first act, which become increasingly overt in the second act. Now, it’s time to bring Cain’s battle against Joe fully to the surface. By doing so during the relatively pacific passage of Joe’s confinement and consolation from friends and family, rather than waiting until the softer moment is over, I can reignite the forward propulsion of the story.

To do so subtly, I’m interjecting brief cutaway snippets into this introspective passage, revealing that Cain is busy hammering nails into the coffin of Joe’s fate by tampering with evidence, coercing witnesses, and influencing the prosecutor as the impending case against Joe takes shape.

Building the tension

My goal though is to create a rising sense of anxiety throughout this sequence, such that the viewer will initially only sense the developing threat on some subconscious level while focusing on what Joe is going through. Then, by increasing the pace and intensity of these intercutting scenes, the viewer will be slowly drawn deeper in to the rising tension of the inquisition against Joe. If I craft this right, the viewers should feel increasingly disturbed in this sequence—a feeling brought on by the unfolding plot—even as they receive an emotionally satisfying sense of resolution from that most important thing—the restoration of Joe’s goodness and morality.

By weaving this into the introspective scenes of Joe’s post-tragedy remorse, I hope to keep viewers concerned about Joe’s fate at the same time that they find peace in the restoration of Joe’s moral compass. While the latter is not as inherently visual as the playing out of Cain’s inquisition against Joe, Joe’s ethical restoration is more central to the overriding moral premise of the story and, therefore, critical to its thematic resolution.

This restoration is also essential to the culmination of the story, since Joe’s abandonment of principle (to bring about the admirable results of overcoming the crime bosses’ stranglehold over the country) is what brought about our growing discomfort throughout the first half of the second act because we see Joe becoming the very thing he’s trying to destroy, and since his restored principle is the very thing that empowers him to battle his brother’s Act 3 plot to prevent Joe’s success in the election.

Oh, and one more thing…

Happy New Year.  🙂

Midpoint Moment in the Bag

December 27, 2009

Exciting day at the keyboard: Today, I hammered out the rapid series of events that culminate in (and include) the critical Midpoint moment of Act II.

Probably half of all that has happened in the second act so far is effectively the necessary lead-up events (character and story development activities) to bring about this explosive moment, in which all Joe’s efforts to crush the criminal element’s stranglehold and disrupt the activities of the corrupt politico suddenly come crashing down, destroyed by his brother’s plot. And the way it happens turns this moment into an international event. 

If I achieve the right effect, this event will appear to the audience as the complete annihilation of Joe’s efforts.  Time will tell if I’ve succeeded…

An Influential Gift

December 25, 2009

Got a nice gift from a friend. I can tell, even from a cursory flip-through, this this gift, a book called The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, written by Karl Iglesias, is going to be influential to this blog, at least, but likely even influential to my career.

It will influence this blog because it’s a treasure trove of inspiring and thought-provoking quotations from well-known screenwriters or from others whose words are relevant to the career and efforts of writers. Since I have a large and growing collection of quotations for screenwriters broken down by topics (such as quotations on screenplay structure, scene structure, story characters and characterizationwriter motivation and inspiration, narrative and storytelling, and the lighter side of writing and being a writer), I hope to expand that collection as I read this books, adding selected quotes that provide me with direction and inspiration.

It will also influence my career because of the instructional value of the material, which Iglesias has grouped topically. Some of the topics are on the challenge of staying motivated, while others are about getting your script seen and sold, or about understanding the competitive landscape. Example topics:

  • Being Committed to a Career, Not Just One Screenplay
  • Being Comfortable with Solitude
  • Believing You’re Talented Enough
  • Becoming Possessed by the Story
  • Making Deadlines Your Motivator
  • Avoiding Distractions
  • Rehearsing Your Pitch until It’s Flawless
  • Not Being Paranoid about your Ideas Being Stolen

As you see: very practicable topics to a career-minded writer.

From the book, here’s a useful thought from Garrison Keillor for writers on the topic of avoiding distractions. “Close the door. Unplug the phone. Cheat, lie, disappoint your pals, if necessary, but get your work done.”

Fiction Validated by Real-World Happenings

December 24, 2009

Truth, once again, has proven to be as real as fiction, if not as strange.

Reading last Sunday’s LA Times, I see this article about Tijuana’s top police officer Julian Leyzaola and his effort to restore the peace and the reputation of the police. The details of his effort, his results, his detractors, and his legal roadblocks almost seem to have been ripped from the fiction of our in-progress movie script. But I won’t accuse him of copyright infringement.  😉

While it’s a bit alarming when something like this happens (after all, it may look as though we ripped our story from their reality), it’s also a nice confirmation that my story is plausible and relevant.

When I’m Not Screenwriting or Directing…

December 22, 2009

For most screenwriters or directors, the work is irregular: unpredictable.  Someone recently asked me, what then am I doing for money in the downtimes between screenplay or directing endeavors?  The answer: related stuff usually. Such as:

WriteWorks Agency

WriteWorks is a writing, copyediting, and proofreading business I operate. Most of my clients are those who need wordsmiths for Web sites, marketing endeavors (banners, print ads, e-mail campaigns, sales letters, customer testimonial acquisitions, etc.), and corporate communications (press releases, internal memos, etc.).

Marketing copy may not be as fun as fiction, but it’s bread-n-butter, it’s creatively stimulating, and it’s a great way to keep the dust off the keyboard’s exclamation mark.  😉

Web Program Management/Consulting

I’ve got a deep background in Web program leadership and consulting, including project management, program management, Web strategy, usability design, information architecture, resource management, accessibility consultation, workflow/publication process design and management.

While Web management may not seem at a glance to be related to writing or directing, I have found that the skills it takes to succeed as a director are not that different. Whether leading a Web initiative or directing a movie, you’re crafting a vision that’s based on requisites (i.e., business requirements or a script), selling the vision to stakeholders, hiring people and companies with the right skills to bring life to that vision, communicating the vision to technicians and creative artisans, managing a team of talented individuals, managing to a budget, balancing the competing needs of investors and consumers, being resourceful and level-headed when things don’t go as planned, and staying objective enough to hold to the big picture while being sufficiently versed in all nitty gritty aspects of the process to orchestrate the right results through each step. Consequently, I find that every Web gig improves my directing readiness, and every directing gig boosts my success as a Web program manager.  

Yes, related but…

But there’s a difference. While I enjoy the business of Web leadership, and have the skills to do a bang-up job of it, it’s film directing that I do whether or not I’m getting paid to do it. It “tickles my fancy,” as my grandmother would say.  Likewise, while i enjoy just about any work that involves the manipulation of the written or spoken language, screenwriting is the one type of writing that I do whether or not I’m getting paid to do it.

Retired LA TV Weatherman George Fishbeck once said, “The secret of success is: Find a job you like so much you would do it for nothing. Then do it.” 

I’m doing it.  🙂

Step Outline Solid up to Midpoint of Act II

December 19, 2009

Writing again, after over a week away from the story. It’s good to be back at it!

Today’s goal was to solidify the step outline up until the critical Midpoint moment of the second act, which is where the tide of fortune will suddenly and dramatically turn against Joe. It felt rewarding to reach "up to" that moment… though not as rewarding as it would have been if I had also written that actual moment. Hopefully, I can achieve that in the next couple of days.

Movie Watching: The Obsession

December 12, 2009

As you can imagine, watching movies is a uniquely immersive, engrossing experience for a filmmaker. Even when I’m not in the midst of a writing or directing project, every movie is more than mere entertainment; it’s also an opportunity to study, to learn, to grow … either looking at the movies critically (i.e., “What I would domovie-reel differently is…”) or to admire them (i.e., “Wow, that really worked!”).

Fortunately though, I am still able to turn off the analytical processes of my brain and just participate mentally as an audience member. In fact, I always try to do that on my first viewing—to just enjoy the movie as a viewer. If I cannot “suspend disbelief” and get fully into it for those 90 minutes or so, it’s usually an indication of a flawed movie: an insufficiently engrossing story, overtly flashy directing or lighting or camera choices that draw attention to themselves, weak or unbelievable acting, or other production shortcomings.  But if the movie is good, I’m a pure viewer on the first viewing. 

Beyond that first viewing though…

If the movie is good, I’ll often watch it several times to see what I can learn from it. What I look for depends on the movie and what I liked about it technically. I might watch it once to observe how the writer structurally crafted the story, and then watch it again to study the dialogue or how the characters interacted and affected the plot or how the writer designed the scene transitions.

If the directing was the magic of the movie, I will watch it repeatedly to observe how the director covered the scene (wide vs. tight, angles, lens choices, camera movement vs. actor movement, etc.) and then to study what they did with the actors (pacing, rhythm, intensity, gestures, props, relative positioning, or character-specific camera choices) or what they chose to do with the scene and production mechanics (lighting, sound, transitional devices, lenses, stage pieces, color, design, mood, etc. ) to help them tell the story in the most engaging, beautiful way.

Movies: the cornerstone of my continuing education program

Since leaving USC’s film production program several eons ago, and between working on professional productions, I have informally continued my filmmaking education, believing that no one has ever “arrived,” so to speak, as a completely learned pupil of screenwriting or directing. After all, the medium continues to evolve as viewer expectations change, as technology evolves, and as creative up-and-coming directors and writers bump up the game to new heights. So my knowledge of the craft must evolve too.

Besides, I figure that any writer or director can up his game by not only deepening his knowledge of those challenging crafts, but also by broadening his knowledge into the related crafts of the business that are so critical to the realization of the writer’s or directors vision, such as lighting, camera, special effects, audio, music, acting, and so forth.

After all, is Clint Eastwood’s directing success not positively influenced by his years of experience working as an actor? Could writer-director James Cameron have ever achieved such grand levels of success with films like Terminator 2, The Abyss, and Titanic were it not for his deep and continuing knowledge of computer graphics? Could screenwriter Diablo Cody have been able to craft such memorable and believable dialogue in Juno without immersion into the patois of today’s teenager?

So, I feel that broadening my knowledge is just an important as deepening it.

My homegrown formula for continuing education:

  • Reading books on screenwriting and directing
  • Reading the trades (from the entertainment business)
  • Reading screenplays (and the books from which they were adapted)
  • Acting and studying the art of acting
  • Watching and listening to TV and radio interviews with filmmakers
  • Watching behind-the-scenes features included with DVD movies
  • Attending (or participating behind the scenes in) stage plays
  • Discussing and debating the process and techniques of filmmaking with others in the business

And, of course, watching movies.  Lots of movies. Tons of movies.

It all works together. I get the most synaptic connections when I intersperse my movie watching with the more formal learning processes of studying the craft. Watching movies without also studying the art and craft of moviemaking limits understanding. Studying the craft without observing its application is just even more limiting. So I do both.

Buenos “notches”

I’ll usually gather my learning around a topic of some sort, which not only keeps the educational process fresh and fun but also measurable. Call it silly (although feel free not to), but I find satisfaction in being able to measure my progress through life, not unlike a beat cop purportedly carves notches in his nightstick. It’s why I make lists (I get great satisfaction in looking back at the close of the day or week to see what I accomplished). It’s why I set goals in writing and then mark off my fulfillment of them. And it’s why I usually study filmmaking by deep-diving into one subject for a period of time before moving on to another. I feel more accomplished, carving these notches into the nightstick of my moviemaking education. Now that we’ve beaten the hell out of that analogy…

For example…

I might do a director-focused study. Six months ago, for example, I immersed myself in the writings and movies of legendary filmmaker Edward Dmytryk. He’s written a number of textbooks on filmmaking and directed more than three dozen movies during his two-score career as a director, which had been preceded by decades as an editor, and capped by more than a decade as a filmmaking instructor.  He’s worked in and out of the big Hollywood studio system with some of the biggest names in the business, including John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, and Clark Gable. His work spans multiple genres, continents, and eras. He was my instructor at USC for a single class, and it wasn’t enough. So, several years after that class, I took the time, on my own, to go deep in my lessons. I’ve recently watched all the Dmytryk movies I could dig up, finally taking the time to see and understand exactly what he meant when he talked about his preference for Mise-en-scène—for editing without cutting by moving the camera and actors within the moment to do a close-up or wide shot organically, rather than doing multiple camera setups and cutting the scene together in post. It’s one thing to understand the theory, but quite another to personally experience the director’s style through his movies.

And presently, I’m doing a screenwriter deep-dive, studying the work of William Goldman, which includes reading many of his scripts and novels, watching Goldman interviews, reading his books on the craft of screenwriting and selling scripts, and, of course, watching the movies made from his screenplays. This deep-dive has been not only mind-expanding but downright enjoyable. Try reading one of his nonfiction books about screenwriting and you’ll see what I mean. His writing style is absolutely delightful, as engaging as the content. And so many of the movies have become classics: moving comedies, thrillers, and dramas. A real kick.  And a real education.

Or, I might choose a movie genre to study for a time. As my Blockbuster movie queue indicates, I’m presently engaged in a heavy round of study in political dramas, since the current screenplay project is one. It’s helpful to know what I’m up against, and to learn from those that have come before by observing and figuring out why certain passages in other political dramas are gripping or confusing or compelling or inspiring or boring. It’s a tricky genre: easy to get sappy or melodramatic. And if it’s based on real-world scenarios or events, it’s also easy to get too detailed in an effort to faithfully render it.  So, I’m trying to avoid such pitfall by studying their mistakes and by imitating their successes. 

What’s next?

I’m planning to do a deep-dive on the legendary filmmaker Frank Capra, as he is one of my favorites, more for the storytelling and subject matter of his films. Also on my list: the films of Lawrence Kasdan, Charlie Kaufman, and Neil Simon.

When I get a few moments, I’ll post a list of the books I’ve read or plan to read regarding film directing or screenwriting.