New Year’s Eve Brings Direction to the Story

January 8, 2011

For the last three months, Producer G. and I have been thoroughly distracted by other projects, other work, and by financing efforts, which has put MOG3 story development on a back burner for a while. 

But good news: We had extensive meetings over the New Year holiday, and the story is moving forward again.

Moving forward AGAIN?—But why had it stopped?

I delivered a 30-page step outline of the story way back in early Spring.  But G. was moving into production on another feature film project, putting this one firmly on hold.  I stopped writing after delivering the outline because, as I explained in this April ‘09 post, without producer feedback, further screenplay development could easily be a waste of time.  

Then, in early October at the close of G.’s conflicting production, I had a brief phone conversation with him.  He had just read the outline. 

And how did that talk go?

G. was generally pleased with the direction the story was taking, but he was concerned with the scope of the story—not in terms of its costs for moviemaking, but in terms of the story itself: with how much we were trying to say or show. 

From that call, it was clear that, before I went any further, we needed a legitimate story meeting to go over his concerns and agree on how I would fix the story to resolve those concerns.  Since we both had conflicting projects, the story was shelved until we could meet.

Which we just did in late December.

So then, what was the rub?

G.’s concern was primarily with the story transition from Joe Cameron the police officer to Joe Cameron the statesman—that we planned to have Joe start off as the former and, at the Act 2/Act 3 point in the story, to take on the latter.   After reading the step outline, he felt that it may be too much story to tell.

Mind you, that’s no small concern. 

One of the underlying themes of the story was the idea that, in a country where the government is dysfunctional, a cop’s best efforts to be an effective law enforcement officer are virtually impotent—that you need to repair or create a healthy legislative and judicial process to have a stable and functioning society.  Thus, since our story conceptualization meetings almost exactly two years ago, the basic storyline assumption was that high ranking police officer Joe Cameron would take radical steps to save his beloved Caribbean homeland, first by unorthodox (and ethically questionable) law enforcement tactics and then, when that fails, by taking on the government, presumably by not only outing the corrupt politicians but by attempting to become a statesman to fill the leadership void.

It all sounded good when we brainstormed the idea. 

It even looked good when I wrote an 8-page synopsis of the story. 

But when I broke it down into a detailed 30-page step treatment, we realized the problem we had on our hands; the story could make a great novel, but it was too freakin’ big to be a movie.  To keep the length of the movie reasonable (under, say, two hours) we would have to rush through the story phases to squeeze it all in.  But doing so would strain the credibility of character arc; if we could not fully develop the major character realizations and transitions, these story transitions would likely feel phony—unrealistic.

How we decided to fix this:

The short story on how the story will change looks something like this:

  1. Kill off the original third act
  2. Build up the legal proceedings phase, originally the end of the second act, to become the new third act

I know—this sounds huge.  That’s only because it is.  More on this later….


Step Outline Basically Complete

January 27, 2010

Pardon my recent silence—my work on the screenplay has been dogged by a number of competing priorities from some of my WriteWorks Agency clients with time sensitive marketing copy and Web site copy needs.

But the good news—the step outline for the screenplay is essentially done.

Whew.

It’s coming in at 27 pages—a substantial foundation for the screenplay.

One last thing though…

Before passing it on to the producer, I’m going to spend a day or two, going through it with a more objective eye, cleaning it up, spell checking, and filling any overlooked holes or gaps. Otherwise, it is ready for delivery.

Took you long enough

Yes, yes, it was a long time in coming: longer than the step outline for most other stories I’ve worked on.

In fact, many stories, simpler ones, can be written without creating a step outline.

Not this one though. Too complex. This has been structurally one of the most challenging stories I have ever worked on.

The biggest challenge so far?

So far, it has been the continual effort required to keep this inherently complex story from being unnecessarily complex—continually trimming away anything that isn’t essential so as to keep it from becoming an epic.

And how much smarter it is to trim the fat before writing out the full screenplay! I’ve done that before, and it’s just way too painful. By making the story structurally sound from beginning to end and getting agreement from the producer before I invest so much emotion in time into writing out the complete 110 pages or so of a screenplay—while it is still in outline form—will save me from many gray hairs.

Sure, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting is a seemingly inevitable part of any screenplay development. But starting from a structurally sound foundation will at least reduce the number or severity of rewrites.

I hope.

Optimistically yours,


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.


Healthy Distractions

December 4, 2009

Hearing crickets? The rustle of a skittering leaf?

Yes, it’s been silent here of late.

Taking care of family matters and writing client projects, both with steep deadlines, has silenced my typing on the screenplay and the blog for a bunch of days.

And I mean "silenced" my typing literally, since I often use voice recognition software to type.

But never you fear…

…not only because that’s a pretty stupid thing for you to be afraid of—unless you’re the one who paid me to write—but because creative writing still springs forth from my verbal quill (again: the voice recognition software); it just springs from a different fountain: a different screenplay.

The scoop:

For the the past two weeks or so, between the rush of duties related to family, holiday, and the copyedit client gigs, I’ve been unfaithful to the Liberty in the Fires/Men of Gray III story, sneaking out to the nearby Buffalo Bruce’s Mercantile coffee shop and engaging in screenplay brainstorming sessions on a completely different story with my friend and fellow writer Jeff Schnaufer. image

Jeff is the bearded guy in the picture you see here. No, he doesn’t dress like this normally. He co-wrote an episode of Star Trek Voyager. Thus, the getup.  Jeff is also a teacher, a blogger (you can read his entertaining blog here), and a seasoned, award-winning news journalist. You can get the full scoop on him at JeffSchnaufer.com.

I’ve never done a true co-writing effort with a screenplay, but Jeff and I have decided to give it go. I’m finding the process to be a real adrenaline kick.

True co-writing? as opposed to…fake co-writing?

No, as opposed to co-brainstorming on creative story concepts, which I have done with producer-actor G. Anthony Joseph. While both processes are similar at first (the brainstorming sessions in particular), co-writing will be a much more interwoven experience from beginning to end, requiring constant interaction: give and take.

When working creatively with G.—which was also a creative adrenaline kick—one of us would come up with an idea, then we’d brainstorm together on how to make it into a story, then I would go off and write the whole thing. Once I completed it, we would either (A.) e-mail back and forth subsequent iterations of the story—a G. tweak, then a Ric tweak, then a G. tweak, etc.—until we eventually tweaked the story to completion, or (B.) we would meet up after he had read my first draft and have another brainstorm session to get agreement on what adjustments the story needed, and then I would keep writing.

Creative and enjoyable, but not what I would call co-writing.

What then does co-writing look like?

By contrast, the creative process of true co-writing is much more conjoined, with every step of the creative process done in partnership. The writers work together on devising the concept, choosing the primary plotline, creating the characters, crafting the scenes, and so forth.

Maybe one will be the primary typist throughout, or maybe that effort will alternate. Maybe one is stronger in dialogue and the other in scene or story structure, so some aspects may fall more to one writer or the other. But it will be a tandem effort.

Exactly how Jeff and I will divvy up the work is TBD, since we’ve never worked together before. And it’s too early to tell yet.

What about MOG3? Are you still writing it?

Absolutely. It’s still not done, and I’m still writing it.  Just not in the last 10 days or so. The Men of Gray III story is too exciting and important to let it go.

And I don’t think it will suffer from the occasional creative jousts with Jeff on our co-writing venture (a nominal time commitment so far). In fact, I suspect that the alternative screenwriting interludes with this other screenplay may actually stimulate my creativity on the MOG3 story, since the styles of the two stories are wildly different, but both involve similar skills. MOG3 is a political drama. The story I’m co-writing with Jeff is a comedy. Both will put a healthy dose of synaptic sizzle into my life.

As for working with Jeff, I suspect that we won’t always be nodding our heads in agreement with every idea that gets tossed up for consideration. It certainly hasn’t been that way so far. And I’m glad. I think it’s great when we both get jazzed on a certain idea. I think it’s equally great when when one of us has to fight to "sell" an idea to the other. If we don’t reach consensus, then we just keep pushing creatively until we find an idea that we both buy.  Like iron sharpens iron. 

Now, if I can just convince him that Chicago style is better than AP style…

But that’s not going to happen.


Calling Out to Trinbagonians with Local Geo-Eco-Knowledge

November 22, 2009

For an element of the MOG3 movie script, I plan to create a story thread that would have a foreign scientific team in the country studying the negative impact upon nature of some human activity. While the scientific expedition itself could be entirely fictional, I want to use examples of actual natural occurrences from Trinidad and Tobago: legitimate natural events or evidence that is assumed to be result of human activity.

Do any real-world examples come to mind?

Any natural evidence worth observing might work for the story. If you can provide me with examples from the country, I’d be most grateful.

Things that might work:

  • Something climate related
  • Changes in the soil
  • Erosion
  • Deforestation
  • Animal habitats that have been compromised, endangering species of mammals, insects, reptiles, fowl, etc.
  • Increased flooding
  • Air quality degeneration

You get the idea, right?

Whatever examples you provide should be current or very recent. And they should be observable (it’s a movie script, after all).

Please use the blog comment field to let me know if you have some real-world examples I could use to justify the presence of an international scientific trip to the country in the story.  If you haven’t any examples to offer, perhaps you know someone who does? If so, please forward them the link to this blog entry so that they may respond.

Many thanks!  🙂


Story Timeline Progresses

November 21, 2009

I gave up on the idea of using Microsoft Project to help me create a visual timeline of the story, as I originally described in this previous entry. Microsoft Project proved to be way too constricting for my purposes. While the visual timeline elements looked great, it was a pain to keep each entry (representing a single step in the story outline) simple to represent.

I briefly tried using Microsoft Word’s table features, but moving line items right or left was unwieldy, and the page size constraints kept getting in my way.

But one program excels…

As it turns out, Microsoft Excel is serving gracefully as the timeline foundation, giving me more control than using a Microsoft Word table, and giving me more flexibility than Project.

image

As you can (barely) see in this image, I’ve . . .

  1. formed each step in the story outline into a row item.
  2. broken down morning, afternoon, and night of each day into columns, grouped into days, and days into weeks.
  3. placed each step into its rightful place in time by dragging it horizontally, revealing the chronological flow of the story.

One example problem I’m trying to solve for:

I’ve got a group of American college students visiting the country on their Spring break, and I want to keep at least one of them central to the developing story. The problem I’m having is that the main storyline, which is interwoven with a major court preceding and an approaching political election, doesn’t fit within the weeklong length of the typical Spring break. So, how do I keep the visiting students involved in the plot?

That problem is what initially alerted me to the timeline challenges.  Drawing up a physical timeline, like the snippet shown above, is helping me to reveal any other time-related plot problems and, I hope, helping me to solve them as well.

Though initially daunting…

I’m finding that this particular time problem isn’t insurmountable. It kept me awake at night for a time, until I finally laid out the story onto this timeline, which made it easy to brainstorm my options, and make a visual check of the effects of initiating such options.

Toward solving the weeklong student break, for example, I’ve mulled over several possible solutions as:

  • Create a weather-related event back home (a freak snowstorm, perhaps, big enough to close airports) that prevents the students from returning at the end of the week, or causes extended school closings.
  • Have an injurious event happen to one or several of the students, requiring hospitalization locally, thus forcing a trip extension.
  • Extend the political events of the main story timeline, such that some of the visiting students (or at least the primary student, who ends up romantically involved with one of the Caribbean characters) return to the island at the end of the school year, reengaging with the storyline at the key moment.
  • Change the motive for the students being in the country from a Spring vacation to being on a student exchange program or college-funded research project, which eliminates the one-week-norm problem. 

So far, this last idea is my favorite solution for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s highly plausible—no stretch for the audience to buy into.
  2. It opens up some excellent opportunities for visual and cultural variety in the story.  For example, let’s say I make it an archeological exploration instead of a Spring break trip; then, we have a wonderful excuse to explore Trinidad’s La Brea tar pits and the pitch lake. Or perhaps it’s a sociological thesis expedition, in which case we can weave some of the indigenous Amerindian Arawak tribal remnants and practices into the story, or the fascinating intermixing of Christian and pagan customs, which are practiced in certain regions of the country, or the Canboulay festival practices, including violent stick fighting and hypnotic drumming. Or, if I make it an ecological expedition, there’s limitless location opportunities open to us, given Trinidad & Tobago’s extraordinarily diverse ecosystem (swamps, rain forests, plains, coastal regions, coral reefs, and more).

Suddenly, with the help of the story timeline and the brainstorming that it evoked, what initially looked like an insurmountable story obstacle has become an enriching new story element.

Although I’m not fully decided which solution to invoke, I know I will sleep easily tonight, confident that the story will be stronger as a result of this exercise.


Starting a Story Timeline

November 15, 2009

As I dig further into the development of the story, keeping the time-space continuum intact is getting tricky. The plot contains many twists and simultaneous or overlapping forces that come up against the hero’s efforts. Each of these forces, which include different characters or events, has its own timelines, so to speak—things that must happen before and things that must happen after—for each to make sense.  Even if the before or after moment isn’t necessary to show in the movie, I still need to at least reveal that they happened.

For example…

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a “Judas” character—a member of Joe’s police squad that is secretly undermining Joe’s efforts. After Joe catches the Judas in his deception and forces him out, he turns against Joe by supporting Joe’s main enemy, making up stories to incriminate Joe. For those two major actions of the Judas character (Joe’s exposing/shunning of the Judas, and the Judas character’s false testimony against Joe) to take place, a chain reaction of events must first happen to make these moments believable and emotionally engaging to the audience. These steps look something like this:

  • We must meet the Judas character and trust him as much as Joe trusts him.
  • We need to see that Joe knows he has a leak in the force: that someone close to him must be informing to the criminals, thwarting their efforts to bust the cartels.
  • We need to see subtle hints that Joe is beginning to question this squad member, but we must not be able to figure this out before Joe figures it out.
  • Joe must establish the importance of loyalty to his team, so we understand the consequences of disloyalty when it’s discovered.
  • We must see the status quo of loyalty in the way the squad operates, so we can empathize with Joe and the squad when the busted Judas is ousted.
  • Joe needs to test his suspicions against this officer.
  • The Judas officer needs to fail the test, revealing his guilt to Joe.

All of that must first happen before the first big moment I mentioned, where Joe confronts the officer.  Also, for the officer to become bitter enough to testify falsely against Joe later, the moment must be sufficiently degrading; i.e., in front of the squad and with Joe’s wrath against this traitor at its worst. And the other officers need to be in the right place at the right time throughout these preceding moments, so we’re “with them” emotionally at this moment.

And, while these things are happening, the story is still traveling forward, including what Joe’s older brother, the primary antagonist, is doing, and how the press is responding to the major events that Joe is creating, and how the crooked politicians are affect by and reacting to all this.

And so forth.

To keep this growing garden of forking paths smoothly interwoven, and to keep the story cohesive and interesting, I’ve come up with a solution, which is to…

“Timeline” the Story

Today, I began to map out the steps of the story outline chronologically, representing the major steps on a timeline. More than just putting the steps in order, it’s putting all the story threads on a calendar: a time breakout. What it will reveal: How many hours or days have transpired from this moment to the next and the next, and what other parallel events are happening, or need to happen?

The Goal:

I’m hoping to accomplish a few things by doing this:

  • Identify character “presence” gaps  (Hey, we just passed through two days of the story time without hearing anything about the reporter Orlando; shouldn’t he be following Joe’s activities?)
  • Reveal any impossible situations based on time (Wait a minute here … the American students on Spring break wouldn’t still be here on the Island after 14 days! Can we have them arrive later? or add a scene to explain why their trip got extended?)
  • Seek compression opportunities (Say, maybe we can combine Cain’s discovery of Joe’s actions against Bishop with Orlando’s discovery of it, since they both need to happen about the same time.)

I’m envisioning that it will a kind of Gannt chart, maybe even using Microsoft Project to do it, so I can change the view to a standard calendar format, and back, with ease. Not sure yet. But I’ll let you know how it goes.