Crafted Two Steps of Act II Today

October 29, 2009

Sometimes it’s a labor of love, sometimes it’s no labor at all.  Today was one of those lovely days where the story took me along for the ride as I wrote out two of the story steps in the 2nd act.

The labor was done long ago, when I wrote the story threads—those parallel universes of the various characters and other story elements that get woven into the fabric of the story.  Having done that thread work before, filling story gaps and interweaving story elements for these passages today was magically easy.

Fun stuff.

Looking forward to launching back into the story tomorrow.


Birthing Believable Characters

October 27, 2009

The late film director Edward Dmytryk said in his book On Screen Directing that It is desirable that all characters, even those only briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing."

While he’s addressing directors here, this bit of wisdom is at least as valuableimage for the screenwriter to consider (which is why you’ll also find this on the Story Characters and Characterization page of my collection of favorite writer quotations).

In fact, even though I direct as much as write, I feel that this perspective on story characters is more important for the writer to take to heart because…

They are your babies, baby!

One often painful reality for screenwriters is the business of what happens to the story after they’ve crafted their vision of it. The collaborative nature of filmmaking often diminishes the holiness of your written words to mere suggestions.  The producer, the studio, the director, the actors, the distributors, and a host of others—who may all want a voice in what the movie should be about, and even how your story should be told—will pull, tug, and rip at the the fabric of your story as they make their mark on the outcome of the movie. If you’re lucky, the spine of your story remains intact.  The rest is up for grabs.

So, if you want the story to remain as close to your original intentions as possible, then consider the significance of Dmytryk’s perspective when birthing your characters, long before the director will be in a position to question whether or not one of your characters is important enough to “keep.”

With that in mind, my plan is to…

Make it real to keep it real

If I create story characters that feel real—fully formed: as multidimensional as you or me—no matter how briefly the story reveals them, then the actor or director is more likely to be inspired to invoke rather fabricate each character’s reality. And this Dmytryk quote inspires me to remember this.

For inspiration by example…

I turn to the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs.  Although the powerful portrayals of the main characters is the first thing that likely comes to mind, I ask you to think about the many supporting and bit characters: the victims, the possible witnesses, the agents, the guards. I easily recall how even those shown ever-so-briefly were “presented as whole human beings,” as Dmytryk implores.

For example, when I watch the scene where FBI agent Clarice Starling spends less than 30 seconds at a woman’s doorway, questioning her, I get the distinct impression that this lady is a real woman, not a “day player”—that she has a long and rich personal history, that her universe began long before we see her, and will continue without us once the door is closed.

Silly though, isn’t it? She’s a little bitty slice of fiction, that’s all.

But through the combined talents of the actor and director, the lady at the door, artfully created by novelist Thomas Harris and modified for screen by Ted Tally, has become a real person for us, the viewers. 

As a director I find that inspiring. As a writer, I am also challenged by this to make it a goal in my own stories: to birth characters that, no matter how briefly I present them, will intrigue the reader, drawing them into the apparent reality of each and every character.

What about you?

Any movies you recall whose bit parts drew you in and compelled you to want to know more about them?  Do tell!


Anesthetized

October 23, 2009

Working on a tedious passage of the story’s step outline, my brain needed a little visual stimulation, so I grabbed my laptop and left my home office to go check out a local establishment here in my new ‘hood that advertised good espresso and free Wi-Fi Internet.

As I entered, the atmosphere looked nice enough, but the lack of a/c gave me pause (it’s about 93 degrees here today).  A bevy of big ceiling fans made it tolerable though, so I ordered an Americano and cranked up the laptop.

As I did so, the shop’s sound system loudly pumped out its “background” music. Some instrumental piece with a middle eastern flavor. A tolerable tune, but tediously repetitive.

Well, no biggie; how long can the song be, right?

So, I tuned it out in my mind and got busy on the story.

Good coffee, by the way.

Ten minutes later, I suddenly noticed that the song was still going. And it didn’t seem to build or fade or change keys or …

What the… Could it be stuck in a loop? How would that even be possible, unless they’re using a turntable record player? But surely it was stuck.

So I began paying close attention to the song…

Well, I’ll be hornswaggled.  Indeed, it seems just too repetitive to be anything more than the same three or four bars of music repeating, and there was this little, tiny hiccup in the rhythm that could very well be the skip point causing the song passage loop endlessly.

I should say something about it to the employee, I thought. 

But, no; there’s a line and she looks busy and what if I’m wrong about the song looping because what if it’s supposed to repeat endlessly in this trancelike way and I’m just being culturally ignorant to not recognize that and then I’d be insulting her to tell her that her music is “stuck”and besides I’m here to work on the script, not stand in a line so I can whine about the background music, which is now utterly in the FOREGROUND of my mind, by the way, and doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else…

So, okay, I’ll push it out of my mind.

I’ve got brains. I’ve got willpower. I’ll employ both to ignore it and get back to work. 

Which I did.

45 minutes later, I awakened to the realization that the damned song was still playing. 

And, yes, it was the same three incessant, mind-numbing bars.

I looked around, wondering how it’s possible that no other patrons—nor even the employee behind the counter, who had been there the entire time, and who knows for how long she’d been hearing the song before I got here—seemed the least bit conscious of this never-ending musical faucet drip. How is this possible!?

Had they become completely anesthetized to it?

Those brainless sheep!

Of course, before I spent too much time pondering how stupid everyone must be to remain so unaware of this diabolical melodic torture technique (which was probably also insidiously pumping subliminal anti-American messages into our subconscious, right?), I had to first humbly (sheepishly?) recognize that I had been able to work on the story for nearly an hour without any conscious awareness of it either.

Like the proverbial slow-boiled lobster, I thought.

Which made me smile.  Because that’s at the heart of this story I’m birthing—how we all become anesthetized to an evolving or devolving social situation when it happens gradually—how we can come to shrug off a condition that would enrage us if thrown suddenly upon us—how we are numbed into a state of resignation when a distasteful situation is fed to us initially in an eye dropper, and then in tiny sips before more lethally poisoning our system with big gulps of it, until utterly drowning us in torrents of bile—how we’re unhappy about the bile, yet willingly stomaching it when it’s gently morphed its way into being the status quo.

Made me smile?  No, not the bile, and not the slow poisoning of a passive society, but the symbolic significance of the anesthetization that I just went through with that endless musical loop. It showed me how easy it is to fall prey to it—how, even when I was conscious of the situation, I felt pressured by social mores to not make a scene: to take action.

I could use this in the story.

As soon as that blasted song-loop stops!

So, like my protagonist Joe Cameron, I set aside my work to pick up the cause of the people—to save them from becoming boiled lobsters.

“May I help you, sir?”

“Yes, m’am. First, I’d like to say that your coffee is very good.”

“Thank you,” she said, glancing at the tip jar.

“Second, I have to ask … is this song really so repetitive, or could it be … stuck?”

She looked confused for a moment—maybe the word “repetitive” wasn’t in her vocabulary?—and then tilted an ear toward the ceiling, listening. 

After less than five seconds, she nodded. “I think you’re right.”

She disappeared backstage and stopped the song. I heard a collective sigh of relief throughout the shop. 

Oh, wait.  It was just me.

But it felt collective, if that counts.

I guess they really had all been numbed into ignorance. 

Wow.

A hero’s sacrifices often go unnoticed, I figured.  Yep, they may never know the great good that I’ve done for them.  Still, I felt pretty good about taking a stand—about becoming a shepherd instead of a sheep.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, my social activism had plucked me…

Out of the boiling pot, and into the skillet:

So now, the repetitive instrumental music is gone, replaced with Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which the employee must be very fond of, because it’s playing even louder than the preceding 50-minute-long instrumental loop that I’d just rescued her from.

Like replacing one tyrannical form of government for another.

Yep.

So, with Elton blaring as the FOREGROUND atmosphere of the shop as I write this story, don’t be surprised if there’s a scene in the movie in which a crocodile rocks a tiny dancer on a Saturday night until it’s knocked out by a candle in the wind thrown by some honky cat called Benny who then jets outa’ there before anyone lets the sun goes down on him.

And we CUT TO…


Quotes for Writers on Narrative and Storytelling

October 22, 2009

This category of quotations from my favorite writers quotes collection is about the bigger picture of storytelling– the theme, tone, motive, intent, pacing. A lot of good advice.

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“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”
(William Goldman, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story.”
(William Goldman, from the introduction in his book Five Screenplays with Essays)

“What is happening now is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not happen next.”
(Alexander Mackendrick)

“All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“In art, the obvious is a sin.”
(Edward Dmytryk)

Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.” 
(Rod Serling)

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” (William Arthur Ward) Substitute the word “teacher” with “writer” and you have a powerful, relevent piece of advice for the screenwriter.

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason—I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.’”
(William Goldman, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” (Stephen King)


Readying Step Outline for Delivery

October 17, 2009

While I’m already deep into the step outline for the second act, I’ve gone back briefly today to the first act, cleaning it up for delivery to the producer.

Going back? Say it isn’t so!

No, no — this “going back” isn’t like a retreat. It’s a good thing. And truly a step forward.

You see, there’s an interesting statement by William Goldman in his book Four Screenplays with Essays that inspired me to go back and polish up that Act I step outline before delivery. In his essay introducing the script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he talks about how the standard screenplay format is so structurally counterintuitive to a good read, being loaded with conventions that almost seem designed to interrupt the narrative flow. Which, he explains, is why, “I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason — I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.'”

How I’m applying that

Even though this step outline is mostly for me, the writer, to help me structure the story and test out the narrative flow before I invest so many more hours in the detailed structuring of the entire screenplay with all the dialogue, I figured that the rules change for the delivery. This outline will be, in two days, mostly for the producer, not me.

As the producer reads it, he will be less focused on how artfully structured I have or haven’t made this first act than how much this outline version of the first act will or will not already begin to inspire him as being a potentially good movie. Or not.

So, borrowing on the wisdom of William Goldman, I’m modifying the first act step outline to read well: to flow compellingly from one step to the next, and using turns of phrase designed to make the reading more enjoyable. For the same good and greedy reason. 😉


More Step Outline Progress

October 13, 2009

Things are progressing slowly these days, as you may have noticed.  Competing priorities!  But at least there is progress.

And it was a really enjoyable part of the step outline process — the last sequence of the first act. This is a dramaturgically critical point in the story; it’s that all important Plot Point 1 — that surprising, major event in which the hero’s life is radically changed.

In the case of this story, this will be where the story really takes off — where Joe finally does that thing that we have been wanting him to do all along during the first act: to take off the gloves with both the criminal element and the senior government officials who have been squelching his attempts to achieve justice by traditional means.

In short, this is where things start to get really ugly. 🙂


A Cacophony of Culture?

October 9, 2009

Right. I get that music design is normally a postproduction thing. Primarily.

Unless you’re shooting a musical.

And, no — this movie definitely won’t be a musical.

However, one lasting impression from my four times in the country of Trinidad and Tobago (once for two months, once for nearly 10 months) is the omnipresent role of music there. Even in the very atmosphere itself, really.

Must be something in the soil

It seems that music not only reflects but defines the people of Trinidad and Tobago. If you’ve traveled the country much, you know what I mean. The music is everywhere and anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago – where ever people gather (in crowds of one or more). image

And so, for a movie that we plan to shoot in such a music-centric land such as Trinidad & Tobago, I feel it’s important that the movie’s music design begins now, influencing even the structuring of the screenplay.

Whether I’m thinking as a writer or as a director, I feel it’s important to consider the rhythm and volume of a culture into which the movie will be set. And in the land of Trinidad and Tobago, the volume is up, the rhythms overlap, and the music styles often clash. Beautifully!

I guess you could call it…

A cacophony of culture

… because the mishmash of music you hear on the streets is an honest reflection of the Trinbagonian people: diverse, divergent, overlapping, and surprisingly harmonious.

In that sense, while the near-constant amplified dissonance of so many concurrent and competing sounds can seem a bit discordant or dissonant, it really is as natural and harmonious as can be, when you consider the culture.

I wonder sometimes…

How aware or unaware is the average Trinbagonian of either the volume or the concurrency of the music? If you’ve lived that way from birth, do you notice it? or is it like breathing: a thing that happens at a subconscious level?

To an outsider just visiting the country, it can be initially jarring to the senses. Overwhelming!

I recall feeling psychologically exhausted the first time I spent more than 30 minutes on the streets of downtown Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. I couldn’t wait to escape to the aural insulation of an air-conditioned car, windows up, driving AWAY from the hullabaloo.

But then … you adjust.

Just as I adjusted to working in the (initially) suffocating humidity, I adjusted also to the musical cavalcade. I came to appreciate, and even look forward to, the signature chorus of sounds and music that, like the rooster’s crow, signified the dawning of a new day. And which, unlike the cock’s crow, continued until after nightfall.  🙂

Oh, and I should mention: there were real rooster cock-a-doodle-doos mixed in to the daybreak chorus of sounds too. And the screeching of wild parrots flying over the hills. Morning in Trinidad.

I think it’s the weather too.

With the perpetually warm, tropical climate, the windows in Trinidad & Tobago are almost always open in homes, businesses, and cars. Which makes for this fascinating undulation of overlapping sounds as you walk or drive down the road.

I don’t suppose then that you would experience the aural mishmash in an equally musically-oriented country that has a cooler climate; the music would be more contained by the closed windows and doors.

But, no, it’s more than that.

It’s not just that the windows are open. Because you don’t get a comparable musical kaleidoscope effect in the cities of the hotter regions of the US. Not even close.

Part of what creates the Trinbagonian musical cacophony then has to do with the way that most Trinbagonians…

Embrace the climate

At least compared to Americans in the southern USA.

Now, I’m sure part of this open-air environment is about economics — not as many people in Trinidad and Tobago can afford air conditioning as in the US — but it also has to do with the strange tendency of most of us Americans to

(A) simultaneously seek out and settle in to the country’s hottest climates, and yet;

(B) spend so little time letting that climate anywhere near our bodies: living in air-conditioned homes, driving to work and the store in air-conditioned cars, and then working, dining, and shopping in air-conditioned businesses.

By not embracing our climate, Americans are more culturally cut off from the people around us than in an open-windowed, open-doored culture like Trinidad and Tobago.

But it’s more than that, too.

It’s also the melting pot effect.

Indeed, the US was once a great melting pot, as we often call ourselves even today. But we are a lot more homogenous now compared to many other societies. And certainly compared to Trinidad and Tobago.

And that’s my point with this whole music thing — how the ever-present musical mishmash is a perfectly natural reflection of Trinbagonian culture, which is a true melting pot of French, Spanish, British, African, Indian, and island peoples (did I miss any?).

But here’s the thing; even as each culture’s unique flavors, accents, dress, attitudes, and music have influenced one another, the unique cultures of each have not become so diluted as to loose their distinctness. So you get diversity harmoniously.

And that, you see, is why I describe the musical melting pot of the Trinbagonian culture as a beautiful cacophony — as clashing without clashing, if you embrace the sound as being a reflection of the people whose past 50 years, with a couple of notable exceptions (1990 comes to mind), generally accept and even take pride in their cultural diversity.

So, while Men of Gray III, The Midnight Robber is not a musical per se, I am purposely structuring the screenplay to…

Reflect the musical rhythm of the culture

My intention is to infuse the scenes with the music you would hear if you were in such a modern-day Trinbagonian moment, and to use that music to tell the story as much as the dialogue or images of the scene.

Sometimes, this infusion means envisioning a specific song that’s appropriate for the mood and the moment.

Sometimes, it’s more about the type of music that would be playing in a certain neighborhood or a certain type of occasion that the movie will portray.

Sometimes, it’s about the volume or the degree of musical cacophony in a scene or sequence: whether it’s subtly underscoring a character’s emotion or overpowering the dialogue, causing people to yell, for instance.

But, ultimately, it’s about building a movie that respects and realistically portrays the country’s culture, so that it will entertain and be embraced by Trinbagonians at least as much as it will the rest of the world. With its music as a natural and interwoven thread of this story, i think we can do that.


Now, It Really Is Chaos

September 18, 2009

Strange day… I made much progress on the step outline.

Yep, that’s the strange part.

Since I am moving out  in less than two weeks (the end of my lease), the work of preparing for that move has recently crowded its way into my story development time. While I make it a daily habit to always achieve some measure of progress on the screenplay, they have been token advances for the last several days.

But today was different…

Somehow, in the midst of all my packing, apartment hunting, and handling a couple of freelance client needs, I managed to squeeze in a good three hours of screenwriting, in fact making great advances on the step outline.

When I’m working on the outline, I’m normally referring frequently to the story conceptualization board on the wall with its carefully arranged note cards, laid out chronologically along the story timeline, grouped step by step.

Normally.

But, like I said, today was different

In this earlier post, I spoke against the possible perception that all these notes on the board were chaos. But today, the board really is chaos, as you can see:

image

If you look closely, you can still barely make out the chronological note card arrangement half-buried amidst all the other junk.

What the… what happened?!

I blame it on the move preparation. To make sure I get my full security deposit back, I’m cleaning off anything I have on the walls (with the conceptualization board being the only remaining exception) so I can patch up holes with speckling paste and touch up with paint if necessary.

So, I’ve temporarily made this board the waiting room for anything that I had on the walls around my office but didn’t want to pack away yet. 

So, yeah, it’s chaos, just as it appears to be.

“But only temporarily,” he insisted defensively.