So, yep. That Happened.

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IMG_1074 When you opened my holiday card you thought you got away without getting one of those cheesy year end letters from me. Ha! I only lulled you into a sense of security. Instead, I’m posting all of my year of babblings, translated through ones and zeroes, here.

My 2013 may look like a face full of pepper spray on paper, but it actually ended up being pretty great for me. This year was full of enormous changes, even though so little happened. If you go back to the post I wrote at the beginning of the year about my goals you’d think I failed worse than the levees in the Ninth Ward. I didn’t stalk Dean Koontz for the rights to The Face or find the screenwriter who is attached to the Newsflesh series and drug her into handing the job over to me. I didn’t sell any scripts or have a literary manager fight for me with a sharpened ball point pen and a broken coffee mug. Good thing none of that was essential to a year well lived.

The beginning of the year was hard. So hard, I became pessimistic and wasn’t sure I wanted to know how the rest of the year was gonna turn out. My birthday passed with little fanfare. I had to quit playing bells at church because of the toll it was taking on my body. I had practically quit every activity because of the toll it was taking on my body. I was in pain and depressed, struggling to write as often as I could between sleeps.IMG_0919

In March, I came home one night to my cat refusing to eat. She could no longer walk in a straight line and would intermittently lose control over her back half. The vet at the emergency room said there was little she could do. The medicines she’d been taking for almost two years could no longer hold back her disease. That night I held her in my arms as she took her final sleep in my arms. That week my grandma began to go downhill fast. My mother cared for her during the day and I took her during the night. As I helped her from the pot one night she said, “I’m getting in that bed and I’m not getting out again.” I laughed and said, “OK, Granny.” When I checked on her 45 minutes later she had passed away.  As odd as that may seem, the next morning began to turn the year around for me.

I knew that my cat, Emily, had gone exactly one week earlier to find the perfect couch to wait for Granny on. Every day, she had waited on the arm of our couch for Granny to come home from the daycare. Emily died so that she could be there to welcome Granny home from her life here. And Grandma? She was tired. She was 97 and didn’t want to stick around anymore. Even though I had laughed at it, she had let me know with her last words that she was ready to go. It was a story I could tell and a comfort that I could give to everyone. It was her choice to go which gave my mother and me incredible peace.

By May, my mom had finally convinced me to go to Mayo Clinic to see if they could help me with my medical problems. I was NOT happy about any of it. I was doing this crap for my mom. Well, I was until the end of the first day when a doctor there was able to diagnose a problem I’d been having for three years. The place still freaks me out but I go because I get better and better every time I do.

I started to be able to do things again. Small things to most of you but things I had fought to do in the last five years. Things like walk without a walker, climb a flight of stairs, and eat something besides rice without having to drink Sprite to keep from throwing up.

July brought a new activity. I play nerd/geek board games with friends and strangers.  I’m able to exercise again and keep a regular writing schedule. Now, I even have the confidence to make commitments to hang out with people without it being a 50% chance I’ll be too sick to go. For the first time, I’m took my nephews to a movie. It was wonderful.

The biggest thing that 2013 has given me is the knowledge that not only am I a good writer but a good screenwriter. My Bass Reeves script teased me all year. Every time I thought that I was done and there was no way I could possibly make it better it would beg to be improved. So for a day or a week, I would pause my current project to rewrite it. It’s on The Black List as The Black King. and I’m comfortable with that. The giddy excitement that I’ve felt every other time I thought that script was done is missing now. I’m hoping that’s a good sign. Soon, I will have two other scripts posted that will benefit from all I’ve learned this year.IMG_0971 (Thanks Craig Mazin, Danny Manus, John August, Scott Meyers, Lindsey Doran, Berry Meyer, Terry Rossio, and The Austin Film Festival)

I’m so happy now. There are times, I find myself wishing things would be perfect with the snap of my fingers. That scripts would flow from my fingers with ease. That my group of friends here would become as special to me as my friends in L.A. That I could see my L.A. friends more often and still keep my family close. And finally, that money would be a thing I’d only have to think about when paying my taxes. But then I remember. Long ago, I told God that more than anything in the world I would love to learn for the rest of my life. Right now, I’m thinking it’s not so unfortunate that God listened.

Rely on the Reply

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Cover of "Akeelah and the Bee (Widescreen...

Recently, my script came up in reply to an article on diversity in black film on The Black Board. Here is part of my response with other diversity in film stuff added.

I think the real reason for the difficulty getting black movies made is a lot simpler and a lot more complicated. Studies show that too often people classify their fellow humans as something so separate from themselves they have trouble empathizing with them. It took this study for me to understand why white friends would say they don’t consider me as black. That has always hurt me. I never understood why I couldn’t be myself to be their friend. The article Brain Research Shows White People Lack Empathy for Brown People and the even more relevant Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies. explains this concept of the racial empathy divide in more detail.

This is one of the main reasons that White males are the default as a story’s protagonist. We have all been trained to see things from the White male perspective from a very young age. In many places around the world, we are still taught that he is the penultimate human being. It hurts my soul when I hear people of color praising or lamenting the shade of their skin. It is easy for whites to accept films on racism. We all know where they belong in these films. They are the bad guy and also the savior. Black people would not be oppressed without whites and would not escape this oppression if not for the one exceptional, kind white person. This gives white people an entrance to the story, someone to empathize with. Where does that emotional connection begin in a film like Akeelah and the Bee?

At the Austin Film Festival this year I saw one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while, The Little Tin Man. I had no intention of seeing this great movie. Why? Because it had a little person and it said it was a comedy. I have been trained that all comedies with little people are of the dumb guy variety. The little person will be flung around and/or treated like he’s (it always seems to be a he) a prop. Many people love the Mini Mes and Jackasses of the world but I hate these gags. Maybe part of the reason people who don’t have this empathy problem still don’t go to black films is that they’ve been taught that if it’s not historical it’s all stupid race jokes, bad writing, and melodrama. We have to make more of all kinds of films so the movie going audience can be open to seeing something that will surprise them that was made with people who will amaze them.

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.

When I Die Young

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10.2.12 028Not if. I don’t want there to be an if. I want to die young. You don’t have to bury me in satin or lay me down in a bed of roses. I know what it’s like to be old and I don’t want it. Though I do think that sinking me in the river at dawn would be pretty cool especially if there’s archers with fire. My Viking dreams aside, I’m good with being cremated in a cardboard box and having a party where those who I leave behind can eat and do what ever the heck else they want in my honor.

I know a little bit about being old because my arthritis robs my body of being ignorant of it almost every day. That old is just physical and means a lot, but nothing at the same time. Of the two grandparents I’ve had in my life both have gotten old. My grandpa died in 1988 of an Alzheimer’s that burned through his brain leaving his body untouched. This man wandered off to be found later that day having walked thirty miles. The sweetest memory I have of my brother is when he coaxed me out of my hiding place after Grandpa hit me in a confused rage. In the end he was a mute that didn’t notice when two little girls snickered over the outline of what was under his hospital gown.

Grandma is different. She has dementia. We’re pretty sure it comes from when she had her strokes. It rolls over her in waves of varying length and intensity. Like a teenager trying to find herself she’s gone through phases and personality shifts that effect those closest to her the most. Her body has not fared well. It’s disintegration causes her even more confusion. She doesn’t know what to do with her own body anymore. It doesn’t work like it used to and she is incapable of learning the new quirks she must use. Unlike Grandpa she knows who we all are and can fake a level of health for the people who see her infrequently. The memories of her past are as spotty and subject to exaggeration as those in the present. The slow erasure of the woman she used to be effects my memory of her as well. From the days before she was sick, I only remember flashes of her in the kitchen cooking. When she dies I will remember her as she descended into old age. I will only clearly remember the times when my mom, and sometimes I, took care of her. I don’t remember when it was the other way around. I don’t remember when I came home from school and she was there waiting with a meal. I don’t remember her taking me on adventures while my mom was at work. I don’t remember her letting me sneak out to the movies in the summers starting at twelve years old. I know all those things happened but the woman who stares, and smiles, and waits, does not seem like the same woman.

Soon Grandma will go into surgery to get her pacemaker replaced. A quick 15 minute procedure, but at 97 they give her a 20% chance of surviving the anesthesia. If it was up to me I don’t think I would give permission for the surgery. I would let the battery die. I would let her die. Being a caregiver to someone who is being stripped of humanity from the inside out is hard for me. Death doesn’t scare me as much as never being able to learn another thing in my life.

A couple of years ago, there was a medicine that worked for my arthritis. I danced, I worked out, I walked. What I couldn’t do was read, or write. I also couldn’t drive. I could feel my IQ take a dive and my freedom was linked to who could drive me that day. I chose to let my joints stiffen and the pain to return because I learned that without my brain fully functioning I could not be me.

I don’t know what Grandma would choose if she was still the person in the not so solid memory of my  youth. But I have made my choice. So let me die young, I have already seen old.

[The song If I Die Young by The Band Perry]

If I Die Young

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.