Category Archives: Screenwriting

2+0+1+4 = 7

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(via George Takei on Facebook)

(via George Takei on Facebook)

Maybe it’s because I’m happy that I know that’s lucky. Well, I’m hoping that’s the way this numerology thing works anyway. As many of you have heard me say, 2014 is my year. I have no doubt. When I looked at the picture above, the first three words I saw were love, success, and health. That sums up my wishes for myself this year perfectly.

Maybe it’s because I’m older and wiser that I’m determined to strive for what I want. There’s no grand pronouncements this year of exactly what I’m going to do. I don’t need them. I’m going to write and network and people will come to me. I’m done with begging for people to give me a hand up. This year I’m going for a totally different tactic. Before, I only looked for friends. Now, I’m looking for mentors as well as friends. My life experiences taught me to be uncomfortable with people of power because they might think I want something. Worse, I thought they might be right. Well, who cares? …And dammit I do want something! I want to have fun talking, hanging out, and learning a bunch of crap through absorption. Hell, I don’t even have to be noticed if I’m learning. There have been plenty of times that I’ve done my best impression of the Invisible Boy from Mystery Men. “I become invisible until someone looks at me.” (By the way, that’s how I learned that Terry Rossio is not only a great teacher but a great man. At the Driskill Bar Terry taught me how to defuse an argument between two correct people with honestly hurt feelings using only three words. But that’s another story.)

Maybe it’s because I’m more experienced or just old and grumpy but I’m no longer interested in talks or articles of more women/blacks/diversity in this or that part of the entertainment industry. I say let’s stop talking and start doing. It doesn’t matter how you do it.  They did it at The Black List with the diversity opportunities they offer. They did it with Little Tin Man by making a great movie with a little person in the lead. People in a room saying let’s do this is how every revolution starts isn’t it? People in a room tired of being ready to start, instead they decide to start.

I’m starting.

Maybe it’s because you want to start too that you are going to join me as a mentor or friend or colleague. Let’s make 2014 the change for the better we all want.

Wow Wee. They Read Three.

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scriptnotesEeeeeeeeeeeee! So happy that John August and Craig Mazin reviewed my three page challenge for the Scriptnotes Podcast (review starts at 42:19). When I heard it was going to happen I tapped, I paced, I boogied down. I was so excited my mom told me I was making her nervous.

They reviewed the first three pages of my screenplay Bass Reeves: Lawman. Outlaw. based on the true story of Bass Reeves. And yep, Bass is pronounced like the fish. And yes, I’m actively looking for a better title.

Very happy with their notes. That they got the action pleased me because it’s something I’ve struggled with in screenplays. It amazed me how many things I just couldn’t see anymore. The Fade In was there from a previous draft were I had a short voice over against a black screen before the visuals. I never caught that I started the rain before I started the rain (neither did the other people I’ve had read it.) It’s odd how you can get so you can’t really see things anymore.

Like any writer, I was disappointed that it wasn’t perfect. The thing that got me the most is what they said about those last three lines. I fought to get the last two lines within the three pages. Finally resorting to erasing the super of Spring 1876 and adding it to the slug line. I was so proud of this last part. I thought they were going to think it was so clever and funny. I knew it was going to be the highlight of the sample. But this is what they hated the most. When Craig said that these guys had just killed and escape being killed I realized what a horrible mistake I had made. I forgot to make sure these characters where real, with real thoughts and emotions. Instead, I went for what I thought was cute.

In fact, both times in these pages that I went for what I thought was good writing instead of a record of real people I messed up. That second line in which John pointed out the many faults and Craig called Yoda writing I had fallen in love with the words and my fabulous imagery. Maybe my struggles all these years to move away from prose writing to screenwriting is just as simple as it’s not about the words, it’s about the characters. We hear it all the time, a screenplay is only a blueprint. The words are not the final product. Now I understand what that means for me.

That revelation is not the only thing I’ll take away though. Craig Mazin said I can do this and John August said I’m a talented writer. The warm fuzzy feelings those words give me is something to cherish and hold onto for the rest of my life.

P.S. I’m black and I go out of my way to recycle. 🙂

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UPDATE: My revised first three pages for that version of the script that was reviewed on the podcast can be viewed here.

However, this scene is no longer in the script. I rewrote the entire first act and changed the title. Read the entire script of The Black King on my Screenplays page.

Story is Everything

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I know. Seems obvious but it’s so easy to lose sight of. Today, I tweeted three words. No not “Story is Everything.” I tweeted, “Fuck high concept.” This was not a dig at commercialism or a grand rebellion on my part. It was what I was doing at that very moment. I’ve been concentrating on rewriting lately which has caused me to learn a lot about myself and my journey struggling to become a paid screenwriter.

I love thrillers and I’m good at them. The things I can imagine people doing to each other comes in second only to what people actually do to each other. Unfortunately, my thriller screenplays bored those who had blessedly taken the time to read them. In my desperation to sell something I had clung to the words high concept like they were a raffle ticket for a million dollar drawing. I thought having a high concept idea that I was really excited about was all I needed. So I mined that high concept into the ground. Every subtext, situation, and scene had to revolve around this concept. By doing that I got some great moments but I was missing out on a great story.

The same thing happened with my contained thriller. I had two rooms and a hallway to work with and gall darn it these people were going to stay there. When I completed my screenplay with an entire 90 pages in two rooms and a hallway I counted it as a success. They want contained thrillers and I contained the hell out of this thriller. I also contained my ideas, my characters, and my story. When I went back to rewrite after some really harsh reviews I realized that I didn’t put the story first.

In these screenplays, I was asking what is the best way to show off this high concept, or what can I do to keep this contained. Instead, I should have been asking what is the best way to tell this story. What I found out during my rewrite is that when I let everything else go except the story things became much clearer. In the end, 65% of the contained thriller still takes place in two rooms and a hallway but the story became 100% more moving.

Once a date asked me what my favorite thing in life was. Bread was my first thought. Story is my truth.

KISS of the Rules Woman

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Private collectionI’m going to tell you a secret. Well, it’s not really a secret since I’m going to tell it to you, so pretend you never heard this if you’re planning to give me money. My contained thriller sucks. No, it really sucks. I didn’t realize how badly until it got a 3 and a 4 on The Blacklist site.  I know I shouldn’t advertise this but I haven’t written on the blog in a while and I need to use this information to make a point damn it.

When I got those scores back I was super bummed. I knew it wasn’t perfect but a number you could show on one hand was a stab in the heart. After falling on my knees crying, “Why, Lord? Why?” while fanning myself with the church bulletin, I racked my brain to figure out what was wrong with it. The notes were close in content. They each wanted a fuller exploration of the love story and why the woman fell in love with this man who is a killer. It’s a contained thriller, not a romantic comedy, so when I cut the cord on the love story at the end of Act One I didn’t think anyone would care if I left the umbilical dangling. At first, I grumbled to myself about male readers not being able to understand a woman being able to fall in love with a man simply because he’s nice to her. (Sexism, defensive crutch to the wounded for centuries.) Then I ranted about how they didn’t seem to see that as soon as she found out he’s a killer all romantic feelings left her. I mean, after Act One this guy couldn’t make her wet with a fire hose. When I stopped blaming others long enough to tell myself to stop being a sexist asshole I realized something. Even though the majority of the notes were about the relationship between the killer and the victim that’s not what they were really talking about. They were about the rules.

You can find screenwriting rules in every how-to book or website. Rules on structure, description, format, dialogue, etc. You can also find exceptions to every single one of these rules on any top ten list. I realized that without meaning to, I had bashed the rules over the head and thrown them down the stairs. In a fit of love for my killer character I had overthrown the usual horror victim protagonist to tell the story from the killer’s point of view. Through this and many other choices, I had sucked the surprise out of my story and made my characters anemic. By wanting to tell all aspects of the story without paying attention to the rules I broke I had made my script too complicated. I distracted my readers from what was important.

Screenwriting rules are a way of saying Keep It Simple Stupid. Breaking rules is fine just as long as you do it with intention. They’re a way to keep your creative self from dirty dancing with your grandmother. Usually, no one wants to see that but in the right circumstances it could be epic. Rules keep you from adding too many flavors to the pot. Coming from the buffet of a prose writing background, I’ve realized that screenplays are one of the simplest forms of writing. No, I don’t mean in effort. Only poetry further distills narrative through words. We are impressionist not realists. When you look at a screenplay you should see what is intended even though not everything is there.

After polishing a script that got much better reviews, I will rewrite that contained thriller with an eye on the rules. Whether I follow them or not I will do it with intension. Really looking forward to scores that two-year olds would have trouble showing me on their fingers.

Listen for Your Life!

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009The things I know about you would curl your nose hair. Don’t worry, none of it has to do with that one sex scandal ’cause I don’t care about that. Once, I had the unfortunate experience of being told, in great detail, that a performer I knew was a swinger and always had regular orgys. To this day, I can not look at the man without imagining his glasses bouncing on his sweaty face. Yeah, not cute. Most of the time the real truth about people is the thing that they really want to hide even though it’s there for anybody who pays attention. We all can know a person if we bother to listen, with our ears, our eyes, our hearts.

About once a month I pick a theme for tweets where I suggest whom I think people should follow on twitter. I do this in the hopes that people will actually be intrigued by something I said and click follow. This month I chose people who listen. Almost immediately I was struck by how difficult it was to say why I chose these people as great listeners. That they listen to me is so much more and so much less than what their ability to listen means. There is a truth in what I see in their listening that is not mine to share. When talking about those who teach one can describe that teacher’s effect on them without ever really saying anything about that teacher. But when one talks about those who listen, the most honest description of that experience is to talk about who the listener is.

Frozen by my fear of revealing a heart that is not mine, I got to thinking about listening as a large part of our humanity. Listening is a skill that so many don’t have, or choose not to use. There have been times when I have deliberately misunderstood someone as to not have a confrontation or to give them their privacy. Communication is a life skill that depends as much or more on how we receive it as give it. As writers, listening is important to creating character but it also helps understand this crazy entertainment industry. Too often the destruction of a movie begins with people who believe that the power they have means that they don’t have to listen.

In the following story the names have been changed to protect the innocent…and the assholes.

During the production of a movie, Dick Jones, an up and coming star, decides to cast the inexperienced Cutesy McGee. Everyone tries to talk him out of it but he is determined. Powerman, the studio head, had previously nixed the top billed leading woman that everyone had agreed on so I can only assume he took Cutesy McGee as his problem to make up for. In his rush to increase the star power, and hopefully the bottom line, he did not consult the director or producer before casting a Lady Star in a supporting role. Suddenly, this supporting role had to be deepened and expanded by the writer. The story suffers because not only is the supporting female role now more interesting than the leading role, but Cutesy can not help but be over shadowed by this bigger name with the now bigger character. The producer, loosing confidence in every aspect of his project begins to ignore suggestions to make it better.  He just wants it to be over. This sad disconnected overdone story is barely saved from being a horrible movie by Dick Jones’ desperate performance. When it opens, the movie under performs. Dudes flinging boogers at each other could have gotten better numbers.

(Wow, props to Doug Richardson for being able to keep things from being confusing in his blog while at the same time as keeping everyone anonymous. It’s hard.)

What would happen if people in the world stopped thinking about only themselves and started working with each other? What would happen if the people with the power accepted that they don’t have to be right? What would happen if we all started to show that we listened? I’m not sure, but I’d like to think it would make the world better.  So why don’t we each start now?

Can you hear the Cumbayah chorus playing behind this post? You would if you were listening.

The D is Silent, The ism Invisible

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"White" and "Jim Crow" rai...

Cartoon by John McCutcheon.

Let’s get this out of the way right here. In this post, I will be using nigger, not the N word. I will do this not because I use the word but because I feel that any academic discussion about language should be able to verbalize the language being discussed. Code words cheapen the discourse by constantly reminding people to censor themselves. If no one is allowed to talk about it in a civilized, educational, debate how are we going to eliminate the problem.

It disturbs me that the use of the word nigger for a pre-Civil War narrative is a cause for such anger. I don’t understand why history has to be, excuse the term, white washed. If people studied and discussed the true history of the United States open and honestly actual progress could be made on the racial divide. Because the movie I am focusing on in this post is about black slavery I will only be writing about that. However, I recognize that honest discussion is needed for the Native American Genocide, the Japanese Internment, and many other times in our history.

There has been some accusations that the word nigger was not used until after the turn of the century. This is not correct. With little effort you can find first hand accounts of slavery and they use the term as a fact of life. There are regional differences in the frequency and circumstances the word was used, but it is valid to use it for this time period. Too often the word nigger is something to scream about. To shut down any intelligent conversation and wield as a weapon. That is not OK at anytime, but is especially unwarranted regarding use in Django Unchained.

Django Unchained is violent, gory, funny, disturbing, historically flexible, and… a movie. It’s a really fun ride. There are people who have said that we should not allow slavery to be treated with anything but complete and utter reverence. Bullshit. It’s a movie! There have been all manner of movies about the holocaust and I guarantee that because of that more people have discussed, mourned, connected with, and remembered the holocaust. The guilt that many white people in the United States have over slavery combined with the historical shame and anger that black people in the US have regarding racism prevent us from doing better.

A couple of months ago on twitter a Jewish man was complaining that his five-year old had been told about the holocaust in school. He was soliciting opinions on whether he was wrong to think that was too young to know about such a horrible thing to happen to your people. Many people agreed that it was not all right and he should have been allowed to broach the subject himself when the child was older. Something about this conversation bothered me. Throughout the day, I followed the responses and was unable to form an opinion of my own in reply. Finally, I realized why. No black person in the US ever got to choose how they heard about our history of slavery or oppression by the Jim Crow laws. No black parent ever gets to choose when or where a child will learn that his or her people were considered inferior, herded, bought, sold, beat, and killed. Having few creative escapes in which to process this only internalizes it and hurts us as a society. We should embrace the art that encourages us to accept slavery as part of our past.

I actually don’t have a lot to say about the movie. It was good entertainment with some great scenes and brilliant performances. The bad guys were vilified instead of glorified. Jamie Foxx was the best I’ve ever seen him. I didn’t recognize Samuel L. Jackson until he spoke which had to be after over a minute of screen time. And to watch Christopher Waltz in character is a master class in acting as reacting. Now having seen Django Unchained the biggest problem I have with it is actually with everyone who saw it before me. Y’all so busy talking about “the N word” that you couldn’t let me know the D in Django was silent? I’ve been walking around saying Da-Jang-O like an idiot. Still trying to correct myself.

Some links to Slave Narratives:

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/wpa/wpahome.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343129/

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19446/19446-h/19446-h.htm#Page_1

Nickels for Wishes, Sweat for Goals

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Screenwriting

(Photo credit: BLundin)

Before anyone gets a chance to think it, I want to let everyone know that I do not have an obsession with Scott Myers at Go Into The Story. I wanted to write my writing goals for 2013 long before I saw his ten part series on the subject and decided to model this post on it. Plus, his wife made it very clear that I was not too come by their house again. However, she was nice enough to throw away the diaper I wore during the cross-country drive.

Looking Back

As I look back on my writing in 2012 I’m happy. I continued to grow as a screenwriter. I learned things that make my life easier as a screenwriter and things that will make my life harder, but my writing better.

Going to the Austin Film Festival for the first time in my life was a great experience. Hard as all hell on my body, but great for my mind and spirit. Being surrounded by others that struggle and hope, love and achieve, in screenwriting 24 hours a day is a surreal world I want to visit again.

I began to use and have fun with twitter as a networking tool. Besides finding new friends, it’s given me lots of laughter and awesome conversations. It also gives me a lot to ponder. Just like when I lived in Los Angeles full-time, there are people who I find I don’t like but they have a lot of power and can help me reach my goals. A big part of why I left LA is because I found myself kissing those people on both cheeks and smiling. Every time I don’t follow those people on twitter I congratulate myself. It slowly gets easier to do because, every day, I become surer of who I am and who I want to be.

Starting a blog was another thing that I did this year. Being old enough that I grew up in a time where my exposure to computers was confined to the school lab a couple of times a week, it was something I never thought I’d do. Being open and honest to the world about things so personal was a doggone miracle.

Finally, the best part of screenwriting this year has been that even the first drafts of what I’ve written this year has gotten consider ratings from people I trust. Yippee.

Assessing Where You Are

Where I am now is not where I want to stay as a writer, but it is where I am and I’m proud to have gotten this far.

I like the things I’m writing. This year alone I’ve tackled issues like racism, elder care, and women taught that their only power is sexuality. The best part about writing about these things is that I can do it in an entertaining way. The preachy bone that was located in my right arm between the radius and ulna has been removed and stored in an empty coffee can for use responding to non-fiction issues. However, if I could write comedies that are actually funny I would dance a jig. Hell yes, I’d settle for a dramedy. I would still write about serious issues that effect my life but to be able to make people laugh while I do it would make me do a happy dance that would last for days. (I miss Perfect Strangers.)

I’m scared. I don’t know what 2013 holds for me. Being one year closer to my death is not what scares me. The possibility of having another year go by without anyone saying they want to invest in me or my scripts. To have the art gone. That’s what scares me.

Where Do You Want To Go As a Writer

I want to rewrite the scripts I already have so that they get at least strong considers. This will get me a manager and perhaps an agent. I would also like to sell one of my scripts by August so that I can afford to go to the 20th anniversary of the Austin Film Festival.

Unless, Homeland or Game of Thrones or another earth shattering television show calls me up to say, “Hey, you’re disabled and black so the WGA will pay for you to be on our staff. When can you get here?” I’d like to write movies. I enjoy it. It’s challenging and they were my rebellion as I grew up.

I will still write specs but what I want to write adaptations. I love to read and if I could turn a book I love into something that will bring it to more people to enjoy that would make my heart grow three sizes that day. There are two adaptations I have in mind right now. From the moment I finished Feed: The First Book of the Newsflesh Series by Mira Grant I’ve wanted it. I’ve seen how to write the visually stagnant blocks of typing, emails, and internet blogs. I’d down play the zombies using them as a weapon and focus on it as the political thriller it is. The zombie moan I would let out if I got that adaptation would have the neighbors two doors down grabbing their machetes, or wondering just what position I was trying out from 50 Shades of Grey. For years, I’ve wanted to write the screenplay for The Face by Dean Koontz. I know he hates his books being turned into movies because of his experience with the Hollywood culture. But maybe, just maybe, I could get him to realize that giving the rights to a black woman who has never had anything produced in Hollywood would be the biggest “screw you” to the establishment he can send. No, I ain’t above it. If my mom, had sex with him I’d use that instead.

Practical Matters

Having come so far in the last year I don’t want to spend money on the credit card for screenwriting classes or events I can not afford. Since there is little I can afford, I will only accept and take on debt for things that will unquestionably help my career. Things like posting my scripts on The Black List, professional consultation with No Bullscript, and creative juju/kicks in the butt from Screenwriting Master Class.

Because of my disability I will have to find a manager and agent willing to  work with me around or through my limitations. I will try to limit my pity party when rejected because of this to no longer than a day. I will not fail to recognize that because of this I will have more confidence in the partnership between my representatives and myself. There will be communication and belief between us that few others will have so quickly.

Lastly, I will have to decide what I will need to be offered so that I can move back to LA full-time without feeling guilt for leaving my mom alone to care for my 97-year-old grandma.

Going Public

This is pretty damn public don’t you think?

I’m glad I got this out there. I will embrace and work toward these goals. I will pray (carefully) on them too. ‘Cause if prayer works for bacteria why not me?