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"