15 December 2009

Write Large, Think Small

I have little else to do on this my natal day, as the time when such a passage heralded the legal opportunity to drive, vote, or consume massive quantities of alcohol (though never while driving and/or voting) has long since passed.

Therefore, let us continue the discussion on Hollywood's newest darling - the microbudget movie. Shall we?

Note - if you have not already, please read Variety's recent article on Paramount's new microbudget division.

What is a microbudget film? Generally speaking,  a "micro" budget is a feature film whose production costs run under approximately $2,000,000. Or rather, that is how a microbudget used to be defined. With today's digital technology, and the age of DIY filmmaking, today's microbudgets run much, much lower - try under $100,000 in production costs (the cap for the Paramount venture).

That amount sounds miniscule, when compared to the likes of AVATAR's mind-boggling $230,000,000 price tag, or even DISTRICT 9's modest $30,000,000 budget. That being said, yes, Virginia, you can make a feature film for $100,000. If you are British wunderkind Marc Price, you can make a feature film for $100. It might even be good.

How do you do this? There are no rules. There are, however, a few suggestions from those who walk the microbudget walk:

1) Keep it simple. Contained stories. Clean plot lines. Limited locations - a mall, a building, a car, a home - and a limited cast. Actors cost money.

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged." - Peter Brook, The Empty Space.

When you write for micro, you don't have the luxury to rely upon boffo lighting and sound, SFX and costume. Therefore you are served well to write as few characters as possible - andt write them well. Give them conflict, make them complex, and let them Show Don't Tell to a fare-thee-well. Read OPEN WATER ($130,000 USD). Note how much is jam-packed into the first five minutes: marriage in trouble, he's irresponsible, she's addicted to work, they have money troubles ... all expressed through brief bits of dialogue, through moments of impatience, the sound of a cell phone that seems to never stop ringing. Perfectly set up and executed in minutes.

2) Be prepared to wear more than one hat. There are exceptions always, but it is doubtful that you will sell a micro script as nothing more than scribe; instead, you have to sell the whole package - and that means that you will be producing this little ditty. Enroll in a production boot camp, such as those offered by Dov Siemens or Reel Grok's Norman C. Berns. Learn how a film is made from start to finish (every screenwriter should know this anyway). Are you an actor/actress? If so, you might find yourself in the cast. Do you direct? You can join the likes of triple threat Ed Burns and his breakthrough film, THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN ($23,800 USD), Darren Aronofksy's double threat of writer/director in PI ($60,000 USD) and of course, the King himself, Robert Rodriquez and his dazzling writing/directing debut EL MARIACHI   which roared onto the screen at $7,000 USD plus post.

3) Microbudget filmmaking is the ultimate Team Sport. Enlist family, friends, employers and anyone else in your circle to help bring your project to completion. Look at Alex Holdridge's IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS ($25,000 USD), Christopher Nolan's gem FOLLOWING ($6,000 USD) and countless films by John Waters. What do these films have in common? Friends. Friends have houses and businesses that can be used for locations. Your mother might cater a meal. Your neighbor might be an assistant/wrangler (for an associate producer credit, natch). Your police lieutenant brother-in-law might act as security. Scratch their backs...and ask them to scratch yours.

4) Take inventory. In keeping with number three, ask yourself "What are my assets? What do I have at my disposal - and at no or low costs?"before you begin your Beat Sheet. Do you work in a restaurant? Check out MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (precise budget unavailable).  Do you own a purple La-Z-Boy? THE PUFFY CHAIR ($15,000 USD). An office? CLERKS ($27,000 USD plus post). A slightly altered look at the world and those who people it? ERASERHEAD ($10,000 USD). Competition is fierce; you might have to secure financing yourself. If you've done the work as described, you can provide a potential investor with an opportunity to be part of a creative process...and possibly show a nice profit as well.

5) Think outside the box. This applies to each and every facet of the process. It's easy to scare people with razor tipped hands, or starlets being stabbed in the breasts; it's not so easy to scare people with next to nothing - but it is not impossible. Think of new twists on old standards.

Outside box thinking also applies to distribution. Do you want to feed your ego, or do you want to feed your family? If your answer is the former, good luck to you on getting that big marquee and a nationwide opening. If, however, you are a forward thinker, look to downloads, to on-demand and other inexpensive ways of delivering media - and chuckle your way to the bank.

Microbudget isn't for everyone. You have to hone your skills as a writer. You must be able to evangelize your project - and yourself. You have to be fearless but not feckless; determined yet flexible, and above all, very, very organized. If attention to minutiae is not in your skill-set, time to look at the small picture. This frontier requires courage and commitment. Those lacking in focus and ambition need not apply.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

11 December 2009

Darwinism in Tinseltown - Part Three

Lords and Ladies of the Court ~

Sometimes, it is the little creature that can affect us most.

If you were not paying attention to the previous blogs on this subject, will you now?

New Paramount division will think small -- latimes.com

Posted using ShareThis

Flex those fingers ... write Large and think Small.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

10 December 2009


Tune into author John West's interview @ http://www.cfax1070.com/  

9:30 PST today; podcast available later.

About "The Last Goodnights":

A husband and wife, both medical professionals, are gravely ill. Rather than living in pain, they choose to end their lives, and turn to their son for help.

Told with intensity and bare honesty, John West's account of the death of his parents is both gritty and loving, frightening and illuminating, nerve-wracking and, even at times, darkly humorous.


I don’t know what my booze bill was for that time, but I’m sure it was big. I had a good reason, though: I had to kill my parents. They asked me to. Actually, they asked me to help them with their suicides, and I did. And if that doesn’t justify throwing back an extra glass or three of Jameson’s on the rocks, then I don’t know what does.

My father was Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West, MD, a world-renowned psychiatrist and former chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, age seventy-four. My mother was Kathryn “K” West, PhD, a respected clinical psychologist at the West Los Angeles (Brentwood) Veterans Administration Hospital, age seventy-five.

Jolly and K were wonderful people–brilliant, academic medical professionals, highly cultured, and well-rounded. Neither was at all religious, but both had deep insight into the human condition. They knew what was what. And they knew what they wanted.

So when they made their wishes clear to me, I wasn’t about to argue. I respected my father and mother, and I loved them. And I believe, as they did, in freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy and self-determination–which includes reproductive choice (as the law now recognizes, although it didn’t used to), the right to refuse medical treatment (as the law now recognizes, although it didn’t used to), and the right to choose death with dignity (as the law does not recognize–not yet–although a few states are getting close).

My father’s desire to end his life did not shock me, especially since his newly discovered cancer–a particularly vicious type–was literally eating him up and would take him from playing tennis to lying dead in just five months. Should Jolly have been forced to endure a few more days or weeks of agony just to satisfy some people’s notions that death should be “natural”?

And what about my mother? K had midstage Alzheimer’s disease, plus osteoporosis and emphysema. Should she have been forced to deteriorate into a walking vegetable, soiling herself, wandering into traffic, hunched over like a crab, and coughing up blood, just because some people say that’s how it’s always been and always should be?

Jolly and K said no. And I agreed.

01 December 2009

Darwinism in Tinseltown - A Post Script

Grabbed from the headlines, a prime example of where DIY can lead the budding scribe:

Panic Pushes Hollywood Buttons

And the video that started it all:

What's left to do? Easy Peasy.  Just Add Story.


13 November 2009

Darwinism in Tinseltown

"Well!" thought Alice to herself, "after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs!”

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of the entertainment industry these days is less a road trip in unchartered territories and more like a trip down the rabbit hole. Hollywood itself seems poised on the brink of a great upheaval usually reserved for a Roland Emmerich style apocalypse.

I was having coffee with a writer/producer last week, with a string of blockbuster credits that would turn the average scribe green with envy.

He took a long sip of his macchiato, and squinted at me. “You know what I would do, if I were a new screenwriter today?” he growled.

“No,” I said, leaning in to catch every pearl of wisdom cast straight towards me. “What?”

He took a long pause.

“I’d get the hell out of town, give it up and get a life.”

His pessimism does not come without reason. A-list writers are finding themselves swimming in the schools of the much smaller fish. There was a time when a pitch would seal them a deal; today, they are forced to write specs, pitch their completed scripts and slog it out with the rest of us – at a time when the spec sale is at a mind-boggling low.

Such a reversal in a career can cause a cataclysmic response to the artist who is much more used to being coddled than the rest of us. Many of them simply don’t know what to do. I had another conversation with another writer who bemoaned the fact that she was going to have to work on rewriting old specs. Why, I asked, don’t you just start something new?

“You mean start a whole new script?” she said, panic clearly present in her eyes. “It’s so much work, and I don’t get paid for it. What am I supposed to do?”

Ah. Let me direct you to an excerpt from an amusing little publication:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

~ Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

The times, they are a-changin’ my friend, and this is a time to evolve.

Last week, I interviewed scribe Jim Hemphill, and published this interview on the Blake Snyder website. Jim is a brilliant man, a kind soul … and a survivor. Like Lloyd Kaufman, he made his own damn movie - he took control of his career - and his life.

Generally speaking, two kinds of scripts are making their way into production – tent-pole epics and micro-budgets. Studios are not about to throw hundreds of millions of dollars towards an untested scribe; therefore, logic and the glut of affordable technology suggest that it’s time for writers to evolve, to stop dreaming the pipe dream of the big sale and the walk down the red carpet, to put up or shut up and make their own damned movies.

Don’t take my word for it – look at the focus of this year’s AFM Conference Schedule. Independent financing, independent filmmaking and DIY distribution – using the new technologies of video on demand, online streaming media, mobile devices, social networking and marketing.

While you're at it, take a look at CA's new(ish) tax incentives, giving indie filmmakers here even more reasons to shoot local. For once, it's cheap.

DVDs? Fuhgeddaboudit. They’re so 2009, as discussed on Monday’s edition of “The Business”. Pay close attention to the new distribution catch phrases, and how studios are already cashing in on the Brave New World. Plus, hello - landfill fodder?

So, what do you plan to do to survive the ever-changing landscape? Have you planted your feet on the so-called terra firma, loudly proclaimed that you will weather the storm, and clicked your heels thrice while dreaming of Kansas? Do you go the way of the Dodo … or you do you evolve?

Me? I’m making my own damn movie.

Now, you’ll understand my absence. Thanks for hanging on.


13 October 2009

Sneak Peek

Dear Lords and Ladies~

HRH is on a writing hiatus for the next few days. Until then, a few treats for the court.

Today's treat - at long last! A sneak peek - nay, a free download of Chapter 3 from Book 3 in the Save the Cat! series of books - Save the Cat! Strikes Back - More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into - and Out of!

27 September 2009

Forgive me, Father...

We screenwriters are a funny breed. We’re awfully good about telling what we do well - we have to, in order to compete. The DIY generation has cornered the market on self-promotion.

What we’re not so great about is sharing what we don’t do well. God forgive the writer who admits to needing help in an area. Oh, the horror! The horror! Imperfection is seen as weakness, which translates to failure in the psyche of all things Hollywood. If we can’t discuss our weaknesses, we cannot improve them, so the problem becomes one of self-perpetuation, a Sisyphean-like existence, pushing the boulder of mediocrity up that hill, day in, day out, only to have it barreling down, crushing us under its weight, and then we start the task all over again.

In baseball, we revere players, who miss the ball seven times out of ten, with celebrity endorsements and multi-million dollar contracts. Why, then, are we so hard on artists?

I was working on my for hire yesterday, and began to ponder this quirk of very human nature. I went into shower (my method for generating the aha! moment), and realized that the solution might, just might, be absolution through confession.

Think about it – how much less powerful something is, once it is out there. To name it is to claim it, and by claiming it, you become the master instead of the slave.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Daniel Day-Lewis (please don’t ask me to discuss his politics, I’ll never be able to shut up). That being said, early in his career, he was able to identify his weaknesses, and then put forth Herculean effort, through hard work and discipline, to overcome these obstacles, and, by doing so, propelled himself into arguably one of the biggest box office draws of the latter part of the 20th century. He knew his dialect was unintelligible; he knew he could not act. He put in time – up to four hours a day – refining his speech and his skills, and it paid off.

All writers have talent. They would not be drawn to the craft if they did not. That being said, talent alone cannot sustain you. It’s the work, the hard work put into the craft, which distinguishes writer A (sales, hires and options) from writer B (still trying to complete script 1).

So, confession time. What is your weakness? What muscles need more flexing?

For me, it is a specific form of dialog, usually found in confrontation scenes. I find that, in my early drafts, I write these scenes with on the nose dialog. Absent of subtext and glaringly awful.

Within the rewrite process, I am slowly able to identify these moments, and cull through them, searching for the textual and sub-textual meaning behind each interchange. It is hard and it is frustrating. It is work. I can spend countless hours polishing a half page scene. I ride an emotional roller-coaster with these moments, often questioning my existence, my mental health, and why the f*ck I got into this crazy business in the first place.

That being said, there is nothing better when you have the breakthrough, when the great Aha! hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s better than chocolate. It’s better than cheese. And, if you create your Aha! moments as I do - in the shower - you’ll be clean and fresh as a daisy.

Confession time. What are your weaknesses? What muscles do you need to work out more? What process do you use to make this happen?

A friend and writer, Dan G., turned me onto a random logline generator.  He uses it to issue weekly challenges on his Yahoo! Group; I have begun to use it each morning to generate a logline and write a 1-2 page scene, dialog heavy, as an early morning workout. I allow myself one hour to write and refine, and then put the pages away until the next morning, so I may see what worked – and what didn’t – and use that data to help me move forward in the craft.

Writing is an art, and a craft. It is always in motion, never stagnant. The day you cease to learn, is the day you might consider a new day job.

~ HRH, Princess Scribe

TODAY'S ASSIGNMENT: Commit to your craft. Spend at least one hour each day flexing the muscles that need it. Do this the entire week - every day. Emails, message boards and blogging do not count.

16 September 2009

Is Story Dead?

1101660408_400April 8, 1966 marked Time magazine's publishing of the provocative cover titled “Is God Dead?” spawning a knee-jerk reaction style of debate that swept through the country like a plague. Rather than apply critical thinking to this incendiary yet thought provoking piece of journalism, the masses reacted with hysterics, encouraged by social conservatives, already unsettled by the threat of change then sweeping through the country.

The title was a simple reimagining of Frederick Nietzsche’s statement, “Gott ist tott”, appearing in a significant number of his philosophical works. From “The Madman”:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Of course, what the ill-informed public did not grok was that Nietzsche did not mean for his statement to be interpreted in a literal sense; what he was expressing was that the “God” of the times – religion – was no longer a source of subjective wisdom.

Today, I would like for you to consider a new reimagining of this phrase. Is Story dead?

Consider the following quotes:

“When storytelling declines, the result is decadence.” ~ Aristotle

‘Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.’ ~ Alasdair MacIntyre

Each year, over 50,000 scripts are registered at the Writers Guild of America, west. By including those scripts that have not been registered, the number is easily doubled. Each year, Hollywood spends over 1 billion dollars on story development.

Out of those numbers of scripts, less than 500 make it to the screen. Out of that number, less than a dozen are films of any true quality. Out of that dozen, we are told that five of these films (next year, it will be ten) are any good. Out of that five, we select one to represent what we believe is truth and excellence in storytelling. That one choice is often held up to the candle, to debate and discuss ad nauseum until the whole cycle begins again.

Technology has swept through Hollywood, like a raging inferno, incinerating each and every standard in its path. The upside to this is that film has never been less expensive – or more accessible – to produce. The price for this discount ticket is mighty – the devolution of story. Language has been reduced to a series of representational text bytes – “ruok” “wn2ply?” - and the enchanting “ull alw remain n my hart!”

This devaluation of language is then expressed in a devaluation of story, as language is the means by which we express story. The box office dependent story factory churns and regurgitates a series of half-truths, vomited up at the local Cineplex night after night. The public is so desperate for truthful storytelling that they then turn to the faux truth of the reality show – a double lie, as there is as much reality in THE BACHELOR and JON AND KATE as there is in DAYS OF OUR LIVES.

The societal implications of this decline are beyond disturbing. If art is a reflection of society, then, lords and ladies of the court, we are officially fucked. If art is a reflection of society, then we are a society of vapid, vain, entitled, thrill-seeking sociopaths with no need for change, or for transformation, because we’re working the system pretty damn well. If art is a reflection of life, we are, by large, a violent tribe, hell-bent on self-destruction, but not before we mow a few (insert perjorative describing the enemy here) down. If art is a reflection of life, then women are little more than big-breasted, long legged nymphs who can master martial art while giving the best blowjob G.I. Joe ever had. Violence is worshipped; rape is seen as a form of recreational sex, and scantily clad prepubescents assure us that there is nothing coming between them and their Calvins.

The above diatribe in mind, in combination with Nietzsche's musings, forces me to assert that yes, story is dead.

And yet ... while I do not embrace religion, I do believe that all may not be lost, that story can indeed be resurrected.

And so, my dear scribes, I challenge you to be the hero/heroine of Story. Take this challenge as a Call to Action on your journey. Understand the relationship of story to life. Accept responsibility for your writings – ask yourself, “Why am I writing this story? Is it necessary?”- and most importantly, “What is its effect upon society? Does this story need to be told/made?”

Last, but not least, get educated. I recently attended a storytelling seminar, filled with screenwriters, novelists and playwrights. Out of approximately 200 attendees, less than 12 had read Aristotle’s Poetics, and less than that number had more than a passing acquaintance with Homer’s The Odyssey. A few more knew Hamlet - one young woman asked me “Wasn’t that the one with Mel Gibson?”


Imagine a doctor, a surgeon, who decided that the study of medicine “got in their way.” This doctor decides that s/he can read a couple of books, and pretty much just wing it. No need for Latin, no need for anatomy, virology or understanding the development of antiseptic practices. S/he scrubs in and points to a row of surgical instruments:

Give me that thingy over there.

Story is God in our society, for story informs us of the deepest, darkest truths about our culture.

Do you want to be known as the writer who killed God? Will you be soulless bastard who made baby Jesus cry?

I hope not.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

WRITING ASSIGNMENT – take out your most trite and trivial tale you’ve ever written – and rewrite it. This time, give it meaning and truth.

SUGGESTED BOOKS – Poetics by Aristotle, The Odyssey by Homer, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, Story by Robert McKee and the collected works of Jane Austen and Robert Heinlen.

29 August 2009

An Open Letter to the Los Angeles Zoo

Gentle readers - While the following note has little, well, nothing, to do with writing, it does provide an example of the power of the pen. HRH thanks you for reading it.

29 August, 2009

Mr. John R. Lewis
Director, Los Angeles Zoo
Los Angeles Zoo
5333 Zoo Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Dear Mr. Lewis:

I am writing in regard to an incident that took place at the Los Angeles Zoo one week ago today, Saturday, August 29, 2009.

As Zoo members, my husband and I participated in the early admission offered on that date for members. We thought it a wonderful idea, a great way to beat the overwhelming heat and crowds that occur each summer.

We had been there for a little over an hour, and were enjoying our favorite “show” – the vocalizations of the Siamings, when we began to hear a great ruckus from the chimpanzee enclosure. Thinking that perhaps the animals were being fed (most were), we walked towards the chimpanzees.

As we drew near, we could tell that something was unusual. Most of the chimps were crowded together near the front of the enclosure, and they were agitated, and very, very vocal.

Children were running excitedly towards the cage, thinking they were going to be treated to an extraordinary sight. Unfortunately, they were.

At first, it was difficult to discern what was the cause of the chaos. Then, suddenly, the horrific truth unfolded. A juvenile raccoon had wandered into the enclosure, most likely overnight. When the chimps were released into the enclosure for the day, it had attempted to hide by climbing into a tree. After a little over an hour, the chimps had discovered it, climbed up the tree, and flung it to the tribe below.

The poor creature was quite terrified. This is not anthropomorphism gone wild – the little raccoon was quite aware of its impending death, its eyes were wide in its great distress. The chimps tossed it back and forth among themselves. At one point, they threw it to the ground again, and the creature made a desperate attempt to escape. Sadly, this did not happen.

The behavior of the chimpanzees accelerated in its aggression. They began to pull the raccoon as it struggled, ripping it from one another’s grip.

My eyes repeatedly scanned the crowd for a zoo employee. I located two and quickly ran to them, asking them to do something, at least cordon off the area, as very small children were becoming quite traumatized. One muttered to me that a “trainer was in the pen” with the chimps (?); the second responded with “that’s just what chimps do.”

By the time I turned back, the raccoon was walking away from the alpha male, who then snatched the raccoon up, flipped it on its back, and drove its teeth into its pelvic region.

Near me, a young girl began to scream, as her horrified mother attempted to comfort her.

I spotted a docent – a volunteer. An unpaid supporter of your zoo was the only person to respond. She pulled out her cell phone and called for security.

My husband and I left the carnage. We walked silently to the front of the zoo. A couple walking near us told us that they had seen the raccoon when the zoo first opened. They told a keeper – the keeper did nothing.

I have a long history of the study of primate behavior, and realize that a single grown chimpanzee can kill a man, let alone an entire pack of them. That being said, the inaction of your employees was absolutely reprehensible and without excuse. Rather than stand around and drink Pepsi, your employees could have immediately called security and restricted the area, thus preventing the public (including about 40 small children) from witnessing such a traumatic event. Of course, the sad truth is that your keepers should have done a great deal more. A visual sweep of the enclosure prior to releasing the chimps into it would have completely prevented this gruesome event. Second to that, once the keeper had been made aware of the presence of the young raccoon in the enclosure, he could have worked to get the chimps back into their holding area, and rescued the little creature.

Think of the goodwill that any of those actions would have set into motion.

Think on this. The Zoo is located in Griffith Park. What if, for example, a pack of coyotes were to wander into the Zoo, and tear apart one of your young animals – oh, let’s say a chimp – for food? Or a mountain lion? For both are indigenous to this area, and they are, as pointed out, just doing “what they do”. I wonder what the Zoo’s action would be then. The hunting and killing of these native animals. Why? Ah. I have it. Your animals cost money. They are of value to you.

These are troubled times, and your Zoo has had more than its fair share of bad press over the last two years. Now, I understand why. Your staff completely disregarded the safety of a native species as well as the emotional well being of close to a hundred Zoo members - Zoo members that have the choice to not renew their membership.

I am asking for an immediate, public response to these events. I would like to know what the Los Angeles Zoo plans to do to ensure that such a catastrophe does not occur again. I am posting this letter on my viral sites (Facebook, Twitter, Linked In) in an effort to raise awareness of your organization's mishandling of this occurrence, as well as to encourage anyone else who was witness to what happened that day to speak up and do the same.

I will never, ever be able to erase the memory of the expression on that poor little animal’s face. And for that, I hold you completely accountable.


24 August 2009

The Importance of Being Structured

Princess Scribe arose this morning to her usual routine – a glorious sunrise, bunnies fetching her slippers, little birdies draping a bathrobe round HRH’s shoulders, and a long-lashed doe presenting her with her ritual cup of green tea. All was right in the world, as Princess sat down to review the morning’s offerings before taking on DISTRICT 9 as a new blog subject.

However, the world is an uncertain place, and Princess found herself, mouth open in dismay, reading the following blog, “Be a StoryWeaver - NOT a Story Mechanic!”

An entire blog devoted to the argument that too much importance is placed upon structure.

While Princess is not inclined to argue with the theories of others, she found herself unable to not address the points raised and suggestions given in this most offending blog. (HRH must concede that the above mentioned blogger has since re-blogged on the subject, and in a mind boggling act of wordsmith acrobatics has simultaneously retracted - and defended - her original post. Oy vey, Maria). Princess also objects to the term "Mechanic" used in a derogatory sense, as HRH's step-princelet is himself a mechanic - with an advanced degree in engineering from a prestigious public university, partially funded by the Carnegie Foundation. Anyone who thinks that mechanics are slackers and hackers has a sadly limited understanding of quantum physics, string theory and mechanical engineering. HRH also has little use for marginalization. She appreciates it about as much as the residents of District 9 appreciate being called prawns.

Imagine her dismay at this sentence: “First, clear your mind of any thoughts about characters, plot, theme, and genre. Avoid any consideration of character arc, hero's journey, acts, scenes, sequences, beats, messages, premises, settings, atmosphere, and formulas. In short - don't give structure a second thought.”

Prior to this ill-given advice, this statement reared its ugly head: “We have all seen movies and read novels that feel like "paint by numbers" creations. Sure, they hit all the marks and cover all the expected relationships, but they seem stilted, uninspired, contrived, and lifeless. The authors of such pedestrian fare are Story Mechanics. A Story Mechanic is a writer who constructs a story as if it were a machine. Starting with a blueprint, the writer gathers the necessary dramatic components, assembles the gears and pulleys, tightens all the structural nuts and bolts, and then tries to make the story interesting with a fancy paint job.”

No, that’s not a Story Mechanic, milady. That’s a lazy writer.

Structure is a necessity. HRH repeats, structure is a necessity.

A story is like an architectural building, with the structure being the foundation, the supporting walls and the beams. The dialogue, characters and action – these are the elements where the artistry come to play – adding layers of color, hand crafting the finishing touches. Without solid structure, these elements are simply creating a façade, and one that could be toppled by the flapping wings of an Amazonian butterfly.

Writing is a craft; it is also an art. Let us look to other artists, those who broke the mold, and how classic structure played into their works:

• Miles Davis studied classical European music at Julliard. Although he did not complete the program, he often said that that training contributed to the theoretical background, which he would rely greatly upon in later years. Before breaking the wall of musical structure with jazz (a highly structured form), he knew he must master the principles of notes.

• Mark Rothko studied the German and Russian expressionists; Picasso spent years perfecting the colorings and shadings of the Old Masters, before shattering traditional structure with his cubist forms.

• Isadora Duncan studied classical ballet before becoming the muse of modern dance.

• Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler … all studied the works of Konstantin Stanislavsky before branching off and creating their own systems of principles as applied to the craft of acting.

To state that structure is over-rated or of secondary or little importance is not just naïve, it is reckless, and terrible advice. Structure is not an impediment to the writing process – structure is the foundation of your story. Even better – structure is liberating. Good, solid structure frees you to focus on character, on dialogue, on writing pointed, breathless lines of action. Structure sets you free, free to breathe life into the world that you have created, and the characters that people it. Free to write with great emotional resonance, to write stories with social impact, with words flowing like the vibrato-laden notes of the Lady Tennant Stradivarius.

Of course, it can feel mechanical when you are a structural newbie. Not unlike the rote learning of notes on a piano, or the painstaking repetition exercises“I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” “I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” – of the actor-in-training, mastering structure takes time and work.

What every good scribe realizes, is that there is the Aha! moment in the practice of their craft in which structure becomes organic. Princess now writes stories, much to her delight, in which each beat drops down in perfect, classic placement without her even realizing it. Catalyst/Inciting Incident – pg 12 – 15. Break into Two? Pg 25. Midpoint? Oh, look, the sequence begins on 55. And so on and so on and so on.

She also finishes them. Completion is an added benefit of structure.

All it takes is practice - a great deal of it.

A secondary note – solid structure weathers the stresses of development hell. A story with a solid foundation can be an impenetrable fortress, the walls of which even the likes of Larry Levy cannot tumble down.

~ The Princess Scribe

TODAY’S ASSIGNMENT – Run, do not walk, far from anyone who suggests that structure is of little importance. Recommended readOutliers, by Malcom Gladwell; Save the Cat! and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder. Make your 10,000 hours happen. Build your foundation. Build it well.

21 August 2009

Married To It

“Dear Princess Scribe:
Once upon a time, I had an idea for a story. It was a tantalizing tale, and I quickly found myself courting it; I’d take it out in public, introduce it to people. Soon, I realized that what I had was a most perfect story. It was time for me to take the plunge, and commit myself wholly and completely.

But now, three years and six drafts later, I fear that the magic is gone. I no longer wake with this story on my mind. Instead, I find myself thinking about other stories. Taking them out. Talking about them. Working out the beats; massaging the B-story. Do I move on, and embrace these new delicious loglines? Or do I remain faithful to the old ball and chain? What do I do to fall in love with my story again?

Disloyal Servant”

Dear Disloyal:

Ah, the capricious nature of the adulterous scribe.

Writing is more than a craft. Writing is a commitment. Not unlike a marriage.

I repeat ~ writing is a commitment.

There are the obvious commitments, of course: time, money, energy, creation of your space. Then there is the single most important commitment – to STORY. Three years and six drafts?

Let’s take a gander at these numbers:

• LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE spent five years and close to a hundred drafts by different writers before production began
• CAPOTE took over seven years to go from conception to completion
• INSIDE MAN, also close to seven years, according to Gerwitz’s post-screening Q&A hosted by Creative Screenwriting

Tell me, my fickle friend, where would any of these stories be if their scribes were two-timing them? Chances are, they’d never see completion.

A conversation I recently had, with a writer, to whom I was giving counsel:

See, I’m a little ADD. I mean, I have to have a bunch
of projects going on. I write a little on this one for
awhile, then I move to that one, and then I have...

He gestures to his Board

this over here...

How is that working for you?

Great! Just great! I mean, I’ve got four projects going.

How many have you completed?

Of these? Well, none, yet.

Have you written other scripts?

Yeah, sure. Six scripts, maybe seven.

And how many of those have you completed?

A pause.

(blank stare)

Good lords and ladies of the court, I rest my case.

A story is like a marriage. You must commit to it, each and every day. Writers write. Each and every day.

There are days, of course, when you don’t feel the magic. Welcome to the world. Guess what? You still have to commit to it. Each and every day. Like a marriage, writing takes work. And you will find that, some days, you just have to do the work.

So, you’ve lost the spark? Instead of blaming your partner – your story – you might take a look inward and determine why that spark isn’t there. Self-sabotage? Fear of failure? Perhaps something as simple as structure gone bad – scenes in need of reorder, a misidentified protagonist, two stories competing in one script. Your ennui may be screaming to you, to wake up, open your eyes, take a step back and explore every nook and cranny of your story. Go back to the beginning. Meet your characters for the first time, all over again. Get to know your story’s world. Try dating your story; I assure you that spark is still there. It’s your job to find it.

You will not find the spark if you abandon your story.

The above being said, Princess Scribe does concede the necessity of managing multiple projects as a challenge in the life of the scribe. Princess finds herself doing the same; she writes spec scripts as she prefers to write her own lies. However, as Los Angeles is a far more costly kingdom than say, Madison, Wisconsin, HRH finds herself working for hire while working on her own material. This arrangement is not an adulterous one. Think of it, instead, as polygamy.
You are Bill Henrickson, and your stories are his wives. Simple time management:

HRH’s Ye Olde Calendar

Princess Scribe rises at 5:30. 7 to 8:30 am is devoted to physical and mental transformation through physical exertion. At 9 am, her workday begins with spec writes/rewrites. 11 am heralds time for other business, face time with clients, phone calls, coffee dates. 2 – 4 pm is devoted to work for hire or consultations.

So, my dear Disloyal Subject, Princess suggests that you resist the temptation to play the field. Instead, she would prefer that you step back, take a deep breath and assess your commitment to your craft – and to your story. Divorce is simple. Writing is not. If it was, everyone could do it.

~The Princess Scribe

TODAY’S ASSIGNMENT: Write a one page article on your story, and why you are not at completion. Take responsibility for your actions, and create a game plan to drive you to the finish line.

Recommended reads: “101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters” by Karl Iglesias; “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield; recommended site: The Business of Show Business Institute

12 August 2009

Save the Cat! Uncaged

As you well know, Hollywood - and the film community at large - lost an unsung hero last week, when screenwriter/author/mentor Blake Snyder died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 51.

Blake’s website has been flooded with tributes and comments, sharing the Tao of Blake - that which made him so special and unique - with the world.

Blake's death was the ultimate Catalyst in the publishing of this blog. Blake and I had many discussions about it - I emailed to him what I had planned to be my inaugural post, “Married to Your Story”. Five minutes later, my phone rang. I glanced at Caller ID, and answered:

“Bonjour! Comme-ce vas?”

“I LOVE THIS BLOG!!” he shouted. “Love it, love it, love it. Can I use it?”

Just a few weeks earlier, Blake was helping me with a rewrite on one of my script options. We were going over Act 2 … it needed to be taken up a notch, up to eleven, as Nigel Tufnel would say. Okay, to be honest, two notches. Maybe three.

Blake closed his eyes for a moment, and then:

“Aha! Move your Midpoint to the end of 2! Pile on the death moments! Bam, bam, bam! Now, all you have to do is rewrite Fun and Games!!”

I promptly shot him “the look”; he burst into laughter, and bounced out of the room telling Jose “I just got the stink eye!!" as he went on a quest for caffeine.

Blake was doing for me what he did for so many in Hollywood, quietly working, behind the scenes, helping me to shape my career, directing my work, even my life. He was more than a mentor to me; he was my great, great friend, and my life will never be the same without his presence. Jeremy Garelick recently said about Blake, "“Blake’s massive contribution to the movie business will be forever unknown…he’s the uncredited partner to countless screenwriters.”

Never were words more true.

Rather than write a traditional tribute in memory of Blake, I’ve decided to post about the phrase that started this whole movement, this reimagining of the story structure paradigm – Save the Cat!, and how deeply integral it is to the story building process.

What is “Save the Cat”? In its simplest form, it is that moment when, early on in the film, our hero/heroine takes some sort of action, like saving a little kitty, which makes us want to go along on the journey with them. On the blogsite Noveldog.com, there is a terrific illustration of this principle from the film HANG ‘EM HIGH:

However, Save the Cat! is more than a simple principle. Blake was no lightweight, he possessed a massive intellect, and no one understood structure better than he did. Save the Cat!, like all of Blake’s principles, contains depth and resonance … and deserves further exploration.

I recently read an article challenging the principle; the author believed that an audience need not “like” a hero. Fair enough, and agreed, but he missed the point. The Save the Cat! moment is not always crafted for an audience
to like their hero. It can, instead, weave in a subtle whiff of empathy, of understanding for our character, using an action or moment taken that we can all relate to.

Let’s look at some Cat! moments, in which the Save the Cat! principle is firmly entrenched – and yet, so deftly woven in that you almost don’t know it is there:

In the first few minutes of the film, Clarice Starling, our heroine, runs the gauntlet at the FBI training center. She’s called in to meet with her supervisor. She enters an elevator filled with huge, young, testosterone laden men. She looks quite tiny and vulnerable – this young woman in an impossibly male world. That’s your Save the Cat! moment. A glimpse into her soul. Vulnerability. That’s what it is all about.

Following the teaser of the initial shark attack, we find Chief Martin Brody in bed with his wife. Through bits of dialogue, we discover that Brody has a pathological fear of water – and lives on an island. That duality within Brody is quite funny – and endears him to us immediately.

One of my favorite films, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is beautiful, complex study of the effects of sexual repression on adolescent girls. I’ll be blogging more about this film in the future. For now, I’ll limit remarks to a great Save the Cat! moment. Cecilia, the youngest of the virgins, has just attempted suicide. In the doctor’s office, the doctor says “What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Cecilia replies “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year old girl.” That bold smack of irony, that in your face moment bonds us to Cecilia, and through Cecilia, to all of the virgins.

Anti-heroes are not immune to Save the Cat’s! claws. One of the challenges of a film such as THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is to take a reprehensible character – such as a snarky, self-congratulatory tobacco lobbyist also known as “Yuppy Mephistopholes” – and make the audience care enough about him to stay in their seats. We get a bit of a double bump here; number one, Nick Naylor is such an absolute over-the-top bullshitter, we can’t wait to see what he pulls next. What keeps us there, however, is a glimpse into his heart and soul. His son Joey has come over to stay for the weekend; the two watch a movie late at night. Joey stretches out and drowses, sprawled over his father like a contented pup. Nick oh-so-tenderly strokes his son’s hair. He truly loves this kid, and for that, we not only forgive him, we cheer him on.

And there it is. See? As Blake would say, “It’s EASY!”

Create your own Save the Cat! moment. Establish a character and a set-up. Determine what it is about this character that will take us along for the ride. You can, of course, save a cat … or you can try for something subtle and layered. It's your story. You decide.

coming soon .... "Married to It"