Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Academic Hell Week

As part of their War on Christmas, liberal academic intellectuals plot their major hiring interview barrages for big conventions in the week between Christmas and New Years -- this week.

The premise is that all the graduate students who have recently, or will soon, pry a PhD from their advisors' hands send out scores of job application packets in the Fall, then all the schools choose those they'd most like to toruture and request an interview at the big holiday conference in thier field. The Modern Language Association Convention, where my wife's friends go to suffer, is being held in Washington D.C. this year. Many of my friends have their Geneva Accord rights violated at the Eastern American Philosophical Association Conference, this year in New York.

While there, the schools shove all the prospects in small cages, then cut off their beaks so they don't injure the other merchandise. Or perhaps that was a flashback. Theoretically, this is all efficient since they don't have to fly a bunch of squrirrely, likely to to set off some Homeland Security watch list, graduate students and recent graduate students, all over the place -- everyone just meets in the big hall and does this kind of speed-dating for nerds thing.

Our friends: Su Weixing, Sara Warner (check out her website; modern nerds are nerds in multiple categories!), and Kristen Abbey all got the short stick and have to go to Washington to experience the Cheney special. Gary Bartlett at least doesn't have to travel too far, but I hear that next year they're going to drop the charade and just hold the Eastern APA in Gitmo.

College teaching doesn't pay as well as other long, slow, awful degree processes, but setting your own hours, working on something interesting, and long summer "research" breaks seem more than enough to sucker lots of people into trying to enter the field. But, the truly bad part, I think, is how little control one has over where one will live. You're pretty much stuck with the places that were available when you got out -- and all too often that seems to be here.

Gary actually managed to score interviews for places on both coasts (and, er, there...) so mucho congrats!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tests and Training Scenes

Not to pick on my friend, Scott, but here I’m going to pick on him. Occasionally he’d run a game of Champions for the rest of us and our superheroes would end up fighting some mildly challenging bad guy, only to later discover that the fight was all set up by some mastermind to test us—so that he could find out if we were suitably heroic for the mission. Of course, somewhere inside our reptilian brain it occurred to us that who else was he going to get for the mission? Recruit the clerk at the Circle K next door, have him write up a character, and send him on the mission?

The superfluous action scene had found its way into the creative arsenal of the next generation.


In Scott’s defense, here’s just a short, trillion dollar or so list, of films with similarly superfluous action scenes:


2 Fast 2 Furious: Drug boss has a test to go to work for him—Paul Walker and Tyrese have to race some yahoos through Florida to pick up a cigar from a car. No, seriously, I was on the edge of my seat thinking that Orange Julius and Slapjack might win and the rest of the movie would be about them.

Paycheck: We see here the strangely common instance of an extended first act scene showing Ben Affleck practicing martial arts. Truly, it's riveting wondering if the dungeon master is sucker enough to give him experience points or a skill check for this. Though in this case I think the idea is that we need to see him doing the kung fu thing so we understand later in the film when this reverse engineering geek kicks ass. I guess just showing a trophy on the mantle wouldn't cut it. Regardless, it's better than:

The Island: Scarlet Johansson engages in some spiffy cyber boxing against some other opponent -- i.e. we get to watch her play a video game. She doesn't really kick enough ass later on to requrie this scene.

xXx: Here the training scenes feel a little less superfluous, they help illustrate Vin's character's cleverness (he's not just an athletic reefer smoking snowboarder) and I think there is some need to show how the character transitions from reefer smoking to world saving. But this is a thankless section to write, and should at least be very brief -- the audience knows it'll be Vin, so there's zero tension, and zero twists in the action, and they don't manage to slip in plot development. Unlike --

The Matrix: We get an extensive training sequence after Neo exits the matrix, and, like xXx, we need some sort of transition. But here the audience also needs the info dump that these training scenes accomplish. That might be enough right there but they take it one step further and even drop some character development on you. We're (sort of) wondering if Neo is the One and his failures to make the jump and beat Morpehus help sustain the worry that maybe Neo actually isn't the One--and help contribute to his own lack of confidence as well.



Saturday, December 17, 2005

One Page Post

Here's my one page for the one-page post thing started up by Red Right Hand. I'd like to use John August's nifty technique for splatting scripts into the web, since it retains the formatting and reads well--but I lack the skillz to do so (and suspect Blogger will slap me around anyway). I'll punt to the jpeg instead (click to engorge):

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Cock Sucking Kills

On CNN the other night we saw a report that one contributor to the spread of the avian flu in Thailand is the widespread cockfighting in that country. What particularly shocked us was how one person got the flu.

Apparently, during a cockfight the, um, athletes peck each other so much that often their beaks and throats fill up with blood, feathers, and mucous. Needless to say, this makes it hard to breath and not breathing puts a crimp in the athlete's otherwise lightning sharp reflexes. To fix this the owner/trainer will grab the rooster, plant his lips snugly around the rooster's beak, then suck the blood and phlegm from the cock's beak and throat.

One of the guys that did this somehow caught the bird flu. Who'da thunk?

CNN doesn't seem to have a writeup of the story on their website but here's a link to a somewhat similar USA Today story on cockfighting and the bird flu.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Notes From Wilderness: Querying

This is probably the last, or maybe only, bit of information I have that's actually useful. I’ll cover various methods to get reads, not just queries. This will be a monstrously long post I’m afraid, but I thought it best to put it all together instead of breaking it up into multiple posts.

I've experimented with a few methods of trying to get material read by people who could possibly get it made so I thought I'd share my experiences. Let's start with the worst method:


Snail Mail Query Letters
As mentioned in the previous post – this technique can turn your 37 cent investment into $15 of work at the far end of the line. Recently I gave this a significant try, sent out about 200 query letters in envelopes. Fortunately, they have stamps you don’t need to lick. Unfortunately, the redi-strip envelopes jam in my printer so there was still plenty of licking involved.

Of those 200 queries I’ve received, let me see here… counting… counting… oh, that’s right, zero requests for a read. I have since received 4 requests for that same script via an eQuery service.

Admittedly, these were all blind queries, but they were addressed to specific people at the places. Since my data was a tad out of date a fair number came back as undeliverable. However, given the added effort and cost of this technique, it would have to be significantly better than other methods to be worthwhile.

InkTip’s Script Listing Service
For those unfamiliar with the service this is a website where you pay to list your screenplay for a period of six months and production companies can look at its short description and download the screenplay, if they desire. This activity is tracked and reported to you so you always know who has read your synopses and screenplays, and who has at least gotten a glance at your logline.

This hasn’t worked well for me. I’ve had three screenplays up for about six weeks. So far the loglines have been viewed a total of 66 times by 26 different companies—most of these companies have few or no production credits.

Of those viewings, 2 have gone on to look at the synopsis I posted, but none have actually looked at the screenplay. That may be due to subpar synopsizing or lackluster loglining, but I’ve had better success using other methods and this post is really just about sharing what methods have worked best for me at getting my stuff in front of people (and hopefully getting stuff happening after that).

My BIG caveat to the above: the screenplays I’ve posted there are not cheap to make – as in, not less than $1 million. Also, I’m forthcoming about this and mark the appropriate check-box in their listing form. Given that so many of the companies look like places that are starting up, and they can choose search criteria that would include cost, the relatively high cost might even be reducing the number of times my logline shows up.

The script I’m working on now should be very inexpensive to make and I definitely plan to post it on InkTip so I’ll come back in a few months with an update to say whether or not micro-budget seems to make much of a difference.

Lastly, fellow San Antonian, ScriptWeaver (warning! link may not be safe if your girlfriend or wife is looking over your shoulder), has enjoyed better success from InkTip (an assignment!!) and also from MovieBytes, a similar, but free service.

Contests
I haven’t entered many contests, largely because so many of them seem to look for high quality screenplays with in-depth characters and rich character arcs – and I write stories about new ways to kill people.

I do look for contests that have genre categories, such as the previously mentioned Screenwriting Expo contest (a quarterfinalist), and I went for the Project Green Light 3 contest (only made it past the “we’ve cut out the people who make us shudder at the tragic state of modern education” round), and I recently entered the Horror Screenplay Competition. I missed one of the other pure horror contests and kind of kick myself for that.

So far, these contests have neither resulted in direct reads, nor seemed to help get my screenplays read when I mentioned my stunning achievement of getting up there with 260-some other struggling screenwriters.

My personal feeling is that contests are one little piece of justice in the world. I write stuff that tends to do well with regular querying; but more dramatic or personal stories (or potato famine period dramas) do better in contests—which in turn might not get the movie made, but can bring the writer to the attention of the people who hire writers for other things.

ScriptPIMP
In addition to their coverage service, they also offer something called a Writer’s Database. This is a listing of about a thousand different production companies, agencies, managers, and entertainment attorneys. These listings are kept fairly up to date and often include useful information for screenwriters such as: whether the company accepts material from new writers, how best to submit a query, what kind of material the company prefers (film genres are especially nice since a fair number of place don’t want horror at all and some seem to only want horror), and a decent percentage also list some of their credits—which is probably the best way to figure out whether your script is a good fit for them.

One particularly nice feature of this database is that a decent number of companies accept queries directly through the ScriptPIMP website. You fill out a form with your own information and information about the script, then just press a button on the company’s listing and off the query goes. I’ve only received one request from maybe 30 to 40 queries, but in the cold-query biz that’s a stellar percentage. Moreover, it was from a good place and, while they passed on the first one, I followed up with my new piece and got another request.

Some companies mention that they prefer to see queries come this way. I suspect this is because when you use this system you also agree to a ScriptPIMP standard release form and this gives the companies enough legal comfort that they’re willing to accept unsolicited query letters. And, frankly, I don’t blame them for seeking a little additional legal protection.

eQuery Services: Script Express
This service is sold by So You Wanna Sell A Script, and has been the primary service I’ve used. Not so much because I’ve done extensive market research and decided on it, but because it’s worked fairly well so far so I might as well stick with it.

What it does is take a query letter you’ve written then send it via email to a large list of production companies, agencies, and managers. The email uses your own return address, so if someone hits reply it goes directly to you.

It is, of course, spamming. But everyone on the list receives these messages on a daily basis and can easily opt out, so I’m fairly confident that the people who receive it do so because, at least occasionally, they like to go trolling through the eQueries to see if there’s any possibles.

I’ve used the service five times and have gotten between 10 and 15 read requests the last four times. My first query scored fewer hits, but it did get one from Fox Searchlight, so even the big companies apparently take a look every now and then.

Again, many of the companies that have responded to me have been fairly small, but often with a few credits at least or a decent client list for the managers or agents. I will note that the most requests I got was for a teen comedy—and that one also got requests from larger places on average.

This is also the service through which I got in contact with the company that optioned THE SOUND. So, to defend these kinds of services to any potential producers that happen by here—not only can they help writers, but production companies can also find projects that interest them, if someone’s willing to wade through all the email.

Like the ScriptPIMP service above, I think there’s a sort of release form you go through when you use the service, so this might be another reason why companies are more willing to respond to these sorts of queries than they are to regular letters.

eQuery Services: eQuery Online
I just recently used this one for the script that I also tried the abysmal failure of the snail mail experiment on. Their website has a number of handy tips so is worth checking out for that reason.

All these services do pretty much the same thing—mass mail your query, likely to many of the same people. Both these companies also limit the number of queries they send per day, to avoid overloading the recipients. This usually makes for a short wait before they actually send your query out. I’ll talk here about the differences.

Instead of putting together your own query, this place has you fill out a form and include just a logline—albeit a somewhat more detailed one. Normally I include a shortish logline and a one paragraph micro-synopsis in my queries, but I hadn’t the vaguest idea how to do a synopsis for the last one so I thought it’d be a good time to give eQuery Online a try.

They were nice enough to give me some comments on how to improve my logline before sending it out—then, when they did so, they put together their own version of the query. This included mentioning the recipient by name in the body of the text to give it the illusion of personalization. This might work better than my “don’t have a Dear XXXX line at all” technique.

I then got five requests, some from decent sized companies. But also one from one of the producers of The Sound! Normally, these services include a place where you can tell them what companies not to email. I list there all the places where I’m able to contact someone I’ve corresponded with in the past—but apparently they messed up that part this time.

Unfortunately, here is also where the problems started showing up. Unlike Script Express, this service has the recipient respond to an email address they set up. eQuery Online then goes to that email account and forwards any emails to your regular email address—then you can go ahead and respond to the original recipient (and work out for yourself what you’re going to do about updating them about your real email address).

From the header information on the emails I received, it looks like the query was sent out Nov 30, and the four fresh responses were sent that day. However, I didn’t receive the forwarded messages until early Dec 4. So either they use an auto-forwarder that’s rather fritzy, or they have some person do it by hand and they were busy.

Also, after having received 4 fresh requests the first day, I’ve received no requests since then, not even “thanks, but not interested responses”. Having a little experience with queries, I’ve noticed a pattern in the responses that jibes with other patterns in nature. Normally I get about half my total number of requests on the first day, then a few over the course of the following week, and a smaller trickle after that—the same nice little geometric pattern that you also see in weekend box office tallies of major films. So, the absence of any following responses of any sort make me suspicious of this dead-drop email account plus forwarding system.

I followed up with some questions about the delay, lack of “no thanks” notes, and getting nothing from the following days, and whoever was at the other end only answered one of my three questions. I followed up with another email asking the other two questions and this time got a response that only answered one of those. Perhaps they have a one question per email rule that I somehow missed…

Now, I didn’t have high expectations for this particular query; four total responses would not surprise me. It did have the contest placement, but it’s an expensive film and that would likely be clear from the query, thus ruling out a bunch of companies right out the gate.

However, the lack of transparency in their process is really frustrating. Why the mysterious delay in receiving my replies? Why can’t I access the mystery account directly? I almost always get as many “no thanks” notes as I do requests, but none this time. And the customer service after the query needs some more time in development.

Previous Contacts
People who’ve read your stuff and responded well previously (even if they passed) are the most likely to request a read. Moreover, they’re more likely to give you some notes if they pass.


Final Note
Those are the methods I’ve tried. Others can tell you about cold-calling or making personal contacts. I do suspect that one side advantage of the pathetic query letter is that the people who do request a read are at least in the market for a script in your genre. You know they’re not reading it just because they like you.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Dire Unsolicited Query Letter


I experimented recently with sending out snail-mail query letters. These unsolicited letters are so toxic, and strike such fear into the heart of Hollywood, that one came back having gone through the following process:

The recipient sent it, unopened, directly to the firm’s legal department. A highly paid legal office worker then placed the unopened letter, along with a standard form letter on cotton-fiber company letterhead telling me that the query hadn’t been opened due to legal mumbo-jumbo, into an 8.5 x 11 envelope. They then sent that envelope back to me—certified mail so that they would have a paper trail showing that I received my unopened query letter.

Any creature so terrifying certainly deserves a standard, d20 system, writeup:

Dire Unsolicited Query Letter

Tiny Construct

Hit Dice: 1/2 d10 (2 hp)

Initiative: +2 (+2 Dex)

Speed: 20 ft. (4 squares); flutter 20 ft. (poor); priority 2-3 days

AC: 14 (+2 Size, +2 Dex), touch 14, flat-footed 12

Base Attack/Grapple: +0/-9

Attack: Bite +1 melee (1d4-1 + 1d4 career damage)

Full Attack: Bite +1 melee (1d4-1 + 1d4 career damage)

Space/Reach: 5 ft./5 ft.

Special Attacks: Paper trail

Special Qualities: Construct traits, flammable, optional qualities

Saves: Fort +0, Ref +2, Will -5

Abilities: Str 8, Dex 15, Con —, Int —, Wis 1, Cha 10

Skills: Disguise +4

Feats: —

Environment: Any coastal

Organization: Solitary or bulk (50-300).

Challenge Rating: 2

Alignment: Desperate

Advancement: —

Level Adjustment: —

The envelope is unremarkable, save for its thinness—just thick enough to hold a single folded page. It’s addressed personally to you, but uses the long version of your name. And who the hell do you know in Leoti, KS?

The dire unsolicited query letter (DUQL, for short) is the bane of beginning agents, assistants, and development executives. It typically comes in the form of a number ten envelope bearing a single piece of paper—but may include colorful pages, letters of recommendation from someone’s creative writing teacher, perfumed paper, mock-ups of potential movie posters, a potential cast list, a potential cast member, and underwear.

When first spotted, a potential victim may make a Sense Motive check opposed by the DUQL’s Disguise check. If the victim fails, the DUQL immediately attacks.

Combat

Paper trail (Ex): The primary threat posed by a dire unsolicited query letter is that it creates a paper trail linking you to a vague idea in such a way that you, your employers, your friends, your family, and other random acquaintances may be exposed to a lawsuit for being even remotely involved in a film to which one (i.e. a lawyer) could—with a small stretch—have a description that included one of the adjectives, verbs, or nouns found in the letter.

Not opening the letter and quickly handing it back to the letter carrier, or to your firm’s highly trained strike force of legal commandos is the best way to minimize the career damage suffered.

Each successful hit by the query letter delivers 1d4 career damage, in addition to the normal damage. The career damage you’ve suffered serves as a penalty on Profession check to gain a promotion or increase your Wealth rating. Any unsuccessful Profession check for either of those purposes removes all accumulated career damage.

Flammable (Ex): It is made out of paper after all. DUQLs suffer double damage from fire.

Creature Options

Like mini-templates, gamemasters may add these options, mixing and matching as they see fit. These options modify what the DUQL can do, and may also modify the DUQL’s challenge rating.

□ To Whom It May Concern (Ex) [-1 CR]: Not addressing a particular person makes this a dead give-away. The DUQL suffers a -5 on all Disguise checks.

□ … You See, It’s A Period Drama… (Ex) [-2 CR]: It’s a brilliant and touching script that won oodles of awards… covering the tragic plight of a young peasant woman living through the Irish Potato Famine.

There’s little chance you’ll ever be involved in this sort of a film; if you are so involved, there’s little chance the writer will ever see the film; and if the writer does see the film, they won’t be able to get any money out of your now-bankrupt movie studio.

The DUQL’s attacks only hit on a natural twenty and those hit may make a Reflex save (DC 5) to avoid all damage.

□ Certified (Ex) [+2 CR]: The victim of the DUQL must sign for it—giving the screenwriter a permanent record that the letter made it past the shields.

The results of this are dire—increase the critical threat range for all attacks to 18-20 and any successful attack also deals 1d3 permanent points of Conceptual Taint. When the hapless victim gets involved in any future films they must roll 1d20 and add the total number of Conceptual Taint points they’ve suffered. If the roll beats DC 20, then the film suffers a plagiarism lawsuit.

There is no known way to remove Conceptual Taint, unless you have access to a druid of at least 7th level. On the upside, certified letters are so inherently scary that victims receive a +2 bonus to their Sense Motive check when first encountering the DUQL.

□ Priority (Ex) [+1 CR]: In addition to using the expedited speed of 2-3 days delivery time, the envelope looks more official, is larger, and more sturdy.

Increase the DUQL’s size to Small, making all normal adjustments for size. Give it a +2 Strength and -2 Dexterity. Increase the hit die to a d10 (6 hp) and grant it +1 natural armor. Due to the official look of priority mailing, the DUQL receives a +2 equipment bonus to Disguise checks.

****

Why did I sign for it?! What could I possibly have been thinking? It was a doomsday scenario. The letter would haunt me the rest of my days: “A team of vampire and werewolf supermodels must battle cybernetic terrorists from the future, bent on converting the world to their cultish religion -- IN THE PAST.” Every studio film (that makes money) includes at least one of those elements.

I considered getting killed then resurrection -- but that wouldn't work. My only hope was getting killed, then a reincarnation spell where I come back as a badger...



All text of the DUQL is designated Open Content and released under the Open Gaming License. The Open Game Content may only be Used under and in terms of this License.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Strange Mirrors


Back from L.A. after the holidays. Phoenix airport maintains its record of 50% late departures. You know how you sometimes see someone's double? What's particularly disturbing is seeing someone's double who happens to be of a different ethnicity -- such as the Filipino Jon Lovitz I saw while waiting for my delayed plane.

Next week I'll have a little post on query letters and trying to get reads.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Notes From Wilderness: Getting Notes


I'll skip right past the whole, writing the screenplay business because that's such an insignificant part of the process...

After you've got the draft to the point where you can't see what's wrong with it anymore, it's time to send it out for notes. This is not an optional part of the process.

Feedback Exchanges: I've gotten fairly solid notes from Helium Feedback's service. I recommend actually shelling out some bucks for the service -- since people are more professional when there's money at stake and they're held accountable for their performance. Also, since the prices are typically much cheaper than other places, you might want to dive straight in and get two sets of notes. These are, by and large, schlubs just like us, but by getting feedback from multiple people you can see if there's a trend.

Another important note: check to see what genres the various readers work in and, all else bein' equal, choose the ones that have done some writing in your genre. This is, I think, a great failing of writer's groups, many reading services, and even production companies.

For instance, with horror everyone thinks they know good horror even if what they really go out of their way to watch is nihilistic documentaries but they happened to like Alien. Everyone liked Alien -- but only after Aliens came along and made Ripley cool. I liked When Harry Met Sally but you sure as hell don't want me giving you advice on romantic comedies. My tastes in comedy are neither commercial, nor critically refined. So unless you think Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was the best comedic film of the past 2-3 years don't ask me for advice on your comedy script.

Online Services: I've used ScriptPIMP multiple times and gotten generally good advice. Often the notes will point you toward some key weaknesses -- but you don't have any control over the reader and so, depending on the genre of your work, you might get advice that pushes away from what would actually be best for your kind of film. If you're still learning the format and structure this won't matter much, but it can undermine the value if you're looking for broader notes on how well the story works.

I imagine other online services will offer similar experiences.

Your own producer contacts, people who've responded with a nice, albeit brief, personal note to your previous submissions can be the best source of advice. Ask for their quick take on your project -- even a few sentences can point you at the big problems in the script and these are really the key things to worry about: is the second act bogging, are they getting a feel for the core characters, and so on. In fact, the one paragraph response where I have to figure out all the particular details has typically been the most beneficial for me.

The downside to this is that you can't get their notes before you show them the script--so the one you'll have after their e-mail will always be the one you'd rather you sent to them. Damn that arrow of time! That said, I suspect that if your screenplay didn't score an option without the notes, then even the improved version wouldn't have scored an option (at least with that reader) -- because concept is king.

BTW -- one way to help cultivate these contacts is to follow-up after you get a read. Just drop quick notes 4-8 weeks after sending the actual script checking in and asking if they have any thoughts. Some of the readers will pass but indicate they thought the writing had potential, and they're the ones who can often give you the handful of thoughts that can lead to you ripping out pages 25-80 and making the movie much better.

Again -- these people come last, since you ideally want to sell the thing to them. Also, do like the managers do and send your script out in waves, one or two producers at first, then get the notes and send to a couple others, and so on. If you have several scripts you're developing this way you also get this nice little feeling of constant activity -- the new one going out small, an older one going out wide, and you working on something else entirely. That helps you avoid the waiting psychosis.

Posting The First 5-10 Pages for Feedback
How does that painting up at the top look? Man, I'd spend hundreds of millions of dollars on that... The first 5-10 pages are sufficient to tell you if the writer stinks, but without the context of the story as a whole they don't do much and any feedback you'll get will be mostly worthless.

*****
Those are the only methods I've used. Here are some I've heard about:

Reading groups are available in most places of decent size or remotely near a university but I'm always wary of getting in there with a bunch of people wanting to talk about the spiritual awakening they experience through the act of writing. If I had a spiritual awakening writing the kind of stuff I do, then someone better call the police...

Trading with other writers over the internet -- I haven't had a chance to do this, but it strikes me as possibly being the best option. Again though, I think it'd be best to make sure you're working with people who have real and extensive experience in your chosen genre.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Notes From Wilderness

I figured I'd contribute to the screenwriting blog-space with my one bit of experience -- trying to break in from the Wilderness. I'll spread this out and update if anything new or moderately interesting occurs.

First, about the Wilderness
Anything outside of unreasonable driving distance to Los Angeles counts as wilderness. Barstow and even Baker don't count, since you could make an afternoon meeting if called by someone capable of getting you work. For some of my friends, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Sacramento doesn't count...

Pretty much every other cubic centimeter of the universe does count as Wilderness.

My guess is that the reason for this largely --maybe solely -- stems from your ability to easily get in a room or at a lunch table with the people who might possibly contemplate working with you. These are the people who will later decide who to hire for re-writes and assignments, the most common sort of job -- and they'll go after people with whom they feel comfortable.

In this interview (you might need a subscription for that link, I'm afraid), producer Lawrence Turman says the following:

I only work with a writer face to face. There have been rare occasions where the writer lives far away and I will annotate a script in great detail as to my thoughts, after which we will have a telephone conversation to clarify any particular point. But I want to see the whites of his eyes and he mine so we can really engage in the most productive, creative partnership.

Of course, you can make it from outside L.A. but the real concern for us out here, living amongst the, um, wild deer, armadillos, and road runners, is how much harder does it make it?

I suspect it makes it significantly more challenging to get representation prior to a sale or big contest win, which means that you won't have a manager's or agent's connections to help get your spec screenplays read.

But at the just writing spec screenplays stage, and the early stages of sending them out, I don't think it's much worse. After all, our early stuff will stink anyway and we just need to get that phase out of the way.

I'll continue on with this, in particular, going over each phase of the process, but right now I collected up some other pages that talk about the chances of making it from the outside. If anyone has more links please drop a comment and I'll edit this post to include them.

The Out of Towners -- The Thinking Writer

Moving to Hollywood -- John August

More LA Relocating -- John August

I Love LA -- Wordplay

Living Outside Los Angeles -- What Are The Chances? -- Done Deal Message Board

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Byte: The Ragged Cat


One of the cats in our neighborhood, Byte (name discovered by Gary, who cleverly looked at the ID tag), has a voice usually reserved for those who've managed to puff down 40 unfiltered Camels a day for thirty years.

And, with a voice like that, I figured I should record it, digitize it, and put it on the internet as soon as possible because, quite frankly, wasn't sure how much time there'd be left. Here's a link to an MP3 of Byte chatting at us:

Byte's Melodic Meow

In addition to her charming meow, Byte drools -- she's the most drooliest cat I've ever seen -- even out-drooling many dogs. Though it's less drooly and more liquidy -- she just keeps up a constant drip of saliva, and when she shakes her head there's this little spray of water droplets.

FROM OUR SPONSERS
Normal cats and even screwed up little beasts like Byte don't just sit there and meow at your pleasure. You have to follow them around for a while with a recording device -- try out your cat-ese on them, and watch as they silently rub their cheeks against the handheld recorder's microphone.

So, to get the four minutes or so of recording down to a reasonable length (and keep the action hopping!!) I used this very nice freeware sound editing software, Audacity. It'll even export to MP3, wihch creates much smaller files than WAVs.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

COOK!!


Our apartment has a half-size stove/oven in it -- as you might be able to make out in the picture it's slightly less than two chopsticks wide (these are authentic chopsticks, not that chintz you get at Panda Express).

It works well enough, so long as you only cook two things at once, or four really small things. Again, as you can see -- the Wok is the exception to the two thing rule, unless your second item is the one can of soup at a time pot.

The oven also works fine -- in fact, too fine. Similar to the bus in the movie, Speed, it cannot cook below 450 degrees. Below that temperature the flames just flicker out. For baked potatoes, pot roasts, and chicken pot pies that's fine. But cakes, cupcakes, and brownies always burn.

So I tried a new trick tonight. Turn on the oven to the full 450, pop in the cook at 325-350 cupcakes, then leave the oven partially open. Of course this warms up the apartment in our 71F 91% humidity weather here in November Texas -- so I also have to run the AC.

My next oven will probably be bloated, make only tepid water, and star less interesting food.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Victory for Intelligent Education?

Voters on Tuesday ousted a Pennsylvania local school board that promoted an "intelligent-design" alternative to teaching evolution, and elected a new slate of candidates who promised to remove the concept from science classes. -- from Yahoo! News

Apparently once people find out what their board of education is up to, non-theories (but interesting philosophical arguments) don't do so well. One thing that worries me though is this bit from later in the article:

The challengers also criticized what they called arrogance and secrecy by the incumbent board.

The voters might not be bothered so much by the content of the science classes, as by the fact that those snooty board members never invite the voters to their parties.

Don't Be Boring


One of my junior high teachers had this advice for the young men getting ready to date:

Whatever you do, don't be boring.


I rented a couple films recently -- the relatively famous (or notorious) Old Boy, which was cool and disturbing. Since it's relatively famous I won't say any more.

And the somewhat less famous Necropolis Awakened. My video store has an excellent selection.

Necropolis Awakened was made for something like $7000, or so I read, and the cast consists almost entirely of this one family.

The dad plays two parts (that's him doing the hand above) -- but I didn't realise that until after I finished watching and looked it up an IMDB. He plays both of them, um, with gusto -- so wildly overdrawn that they develop an insane believability; I served with a couple guys in the Army like this.

The film-makers also do remarkable work with what they have -- actors can all play multiple parts since anyone can be a zombie by tossing on some fake blood and gore. Even the car chases work to an extent, emphasizing engine sound to help give a feel of speed.

Finally, I liked the mishmash of story -- zombies hire gangsters to take out crazy hermit (with the hand) then hermit goes all Mad Max and cleans up the town.

I watch a fair number of often forgettable low to high budget horror films -- this is one I'll remember.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Congrats to Expo 4 Finalists

Congratulations to the people who advanced to the final rounds of the Screenwriting Expo 4 Screenwriting Contest.

My script only got up to the quarter finals but I'll be mentioning that when I send out query letters -- so we'll see if that helps it garner any extra reads.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

My Exploding Computer


This Safely Remove Hardware icon has been sitting in my -- what is it? button tray? Lower right button tray? Anyway, I've highlighted it in the above image -- normally it looks more innocuous.

It's been making me nervous lately -- like if I accidentally press it, then my computer will start ejecting components. I have this image of hard drives and audio cards spitting across the room and impaling me or the cat.

What's worse, it inspires in me a kind of Sartrean anguish that I might suddenly exercise my perfect freedom and make my computer self-destruct.

Better back up the files again...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Where Are All the Action Stars?

I went to Stay last week, which had some interesting editing and camera work attached to a problematic, but not so bad, story. It did pretty poorly box office wise so I'm always curious about why.

Personally, I like Ewan MacGregor -- I think he could be this generation's Harrison Ford. But for some reason that isn't panning out (or not yet at least -- perhaps in a few years) -- even when attached to spectacles like The Island.

The problem might be that we don't know who we're going to see when we go see a Ewan MacGregor film. When we go see a Tom Cruise film we know we'll see the cocky hotshot. Bruce Willis is the tough smartass. Arnold -- the muscular but slightly self-effacing guy. Clint the pure hardass.

And with Tom Cruise apparently in self-destruct mode while most of the others age out of the genre I'm worried that we're running into a low action star market. What's worse -- many of our best candidates are worryingly serious actors --

Will Smith -- great in light action but stop defecting to romantic comedies and the odd serious film...
Colin Farrell -- does brooding badass well, but what's with all the dramatic period pieces??
Matt Damon -- honestly, you can't be an action star if you got a screenwriting Oscar.
Ewan McGregor -- what's with this whole range thing? Action stars perform in one kind of movie, then break up their string of action films by playing against type in a comedy every now and then --

Vin Diesel -- here's the ticket, but we need more than one of these guys.

Jason Statham -- could be one, but still no break out into the "we make movies around you" stage of things. I think he needs a big role that will be quintessentially him, but not The Transporter, something more like one of the roles in Snatch or Lock, Stock...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Context is Everything


This weekend we took a trip to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho for a conference. As can be seen in the above photo, it's a gorgeous place.

However, much of the town away from the lake is like any other town -- small shopping centers and residences.

This led Jaru to note that the only real difference between Couer d'Alene and, say Route 1 in Central New Jersey --



--is that Coeur d'Alene has nicer trees and mountains in the background of its strip malls:



While on the trip we had a sudden urge to check out the other major cities -- and zipped across the state to Seattle, which has a nice international community:



Then down the coast a bit to Portland:


The mayor of Portland figured out that the best way to revitalize the downtown area was to fill it with slacker youth -- and it worked wonderfully.

Portland's downtown has a wonderful vibrancy -- moreover, it feels authentic, not glittery and grating like downtowns designed for tourists, but a place where locals would come regularly, and even live there.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The End of a Genre


Via Wonkette:

Alexander Yakovlev - seen as a key figure behind Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reform policies in the former USSR - has died aged 81. -- from BBC News World Edition.

I had this dream in maybe 1978 or 1979 where I was walking on the streets of my hometown in the rain and there was this massive, air-cracking, BOOM. I remember in the dream thinking that it was a nuclear attack -- but it was actually just thunder. After I woke up I realized that, while I might not have thought about it much, the understanding that global armageddon was always just 30 minutes away must have been there in my unconscious -- otherwise why would that have been my first thought in the dream.

Around this time was also the era of the post-holocaust stories and films and games -- so many of them that it was really the invention (and passing) of an entire genre. Nowadays the post-holocaust genre is quaint.

In 1986 I was serving Uncle Sam watching the DMZ in South Korea. I was on 24 hour pass when Chernobyl happened so I didn't find out about it until a bit later, but when I got back to the tent city they had for us, my platoon mates were all sacked out and grumpy. Our platoon sergeant had them up all night out in the ditches in their Kevlar vests and NBC gear after hearing about the nuclear incident, thinking it was something more drastic. Admittedly, he was a nervous fellow, but I think it was indicative of the fears that percolated beneath our consciousness at the time.


The people who championed and shepherded glasnost and perestroika performed an epic service for the world, remarkable not just for the enormity of the change it brought about, but also for the quiet with which it occured.


--

Monday, October 17, 2005

Fixing Your DVD Player When It Starts Locking Up

This summer my dad's DVD player started doing the freeze up and don't play dance. My first thought was that the previous Blockbuster renters had been using the DVDs as coasters for mugs of frothy drinks.

So we do the clean the disc trick -- over and over. Then try different discs, including some that were recently purchased.

All of that fails so we head out around town and dig up a DVD/CD lens cleaner disc -- these have 6 tiny little tufts of thread distributed around the middle -- and they solve the DVD player's problem for about 4 minutes.

So my dad simply replaces the fritzy bugger and everything's fine.

Just this week our DVD player starts showing the same symptoms. Not having learned my lesson I spend $10 on one of the lens cleaners, it works for the requisite 4 minutes, then I go buy a new DVD player.

Apparently, this is the standard solution.

Given that the new DVD player only cost $36, is more compact and has better features than my old DVD player -- my recommendation when your DVD player starts stuttering: skip the waste $10 on a cleaning disc step and go straight for the new player.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Expo 4

Just a note that my sci-fi/action script, Recursive, made it to the quarter finals in the Expo 4 contest -- these contests always make me nervous, especially given my predilection for what used to be called B movies (but are now given lots of money and called Hollywood movies, but still not the sort of thing that advances in contests). For my geeky over-educated friends, this one might actually be something you'd appreciate -- unlike the vast majority of what I write.

Anyway, this one could use some contest help because it's just a little out of the budget range of my usual "we're paying everyone in night elf porn DVDs" contacts.*

Velvet Steamroller called me saying that they will renew the option on The Sound (yay Bill!), which means that after November I'll no longer be eligible for many of these contests (Expo 5 for instance will be out of the picture). So it's nice that I made it part of the way so far in this one.

TV on iTunes
The download went fairly quickly, all things considered -- I went for a walk while it happened but no more than a couple hours I figure. File size is roughly 200 MB.

Video quality is not so hot -- but not awful. A bit pixellated and occasionally jumpy. It is not in widescreen (unlike the beatific DVD version, where I could just watch the menu page for hours). My impatience could make this a habit -- but my distaste for having the initial experience be less than ideal could help me resist.

My feeling -- this will be good for watching on Playstation Portable and catching up on your shows via satellite internet while you're protecting antelopes in Tibet. But in a country that'll pay $3.50 for slightly better coffee in a nice looking cup, we'll be waiting for the iVideo quality to match the DVD version before we see this explode. However, when that does happen, the explosion will be downright nukular.

I do recommend giving it a try for $2. Then, while you're in iTunes, download Leo Sayer's "Long Tall Glasses".



* I await the massive Enzite-like upswing in my hit rate for this sentence.

My Relationship with TV Enters a New Phase

iTunes announces downloadable TV shows one hour after regular showing.

I'm currently downloading the season 2 opener of Lost -- I'm on DSL so this will go a bit slow and I'm wondering what the quality will be like. But so far all three season 2 episodes are available. Will update later.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Tricksy Star Wars

...and Star Trek.

I caught Serenity last week and thought it was a well put together film, though I think its IMDB rating might be benefiting a bit from the fact that internet ratings favor geek-bait.

Moreover, I'm truly impressed by the visuals in this remarkably inexpensive film. So I'm wondering why it's struggling at the box office. Last year The Chronicles of Riddick came out and, while it had its problems, it certainly didn't have more problems as a film than, say Fantastic Four, which did significantly better at filling the seats.

My suspicion is that the space opera genre appears to have a larger audience than it in fact does have, due to the anomalous success of Star Wars and, to a lesser extent, Star Trek. I think both cases were fresh and well-executed ideas that enjoyed enough success to turn them into self-sustaining brands.

Space opera has this real problem in that, like fantasy, it's about creating an entirely new world for the reader to explore. This works well in novels, which have plenty of room for back story and exploration. But movies are tiny things and if you drop the unitiated into this new universe we have nothing to connect to. Everything's too new and different, the film makers lack the time to give a proper introduction, and that leads to disconnect -- and disconnect leads to a flat experience.

Films like Alien and Pitch Black finesse this problem by making the larger fictional world unimportant. The story is all about this small group of characters and we're fully able to connect to making a few bucks, corporate giving us the shit detail, or simply being forced to travel with a bunch of whackos and creeps.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How to Tell the Amateur Production Companies

After you send a note saying that a script the company requested will get there shortly, they actually respond with a short thank you email.

Politeness -- the mark of inexperience.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Road to Utopia Smells of Cow




Our weekend trip this time took us to Utopia, which, unlike Eden, does not keep half its population in prison. I had previously driven past the side roads to Utopia several times, figuring that achieving Utopia really wasn't worth having to make a left turn.

Getting there one travels along about 23 miles of two lane road. We made this trip behind a pair of pickups towing trailers full of cattle at 30 mph. Given the pace and the recently reasonable weather I decided to roll the window down. Jaru got a little tired of the cow smell after maybe ten miles so eventually the windows went up again. Perhaps if the farmers were towing eggplant...

Also, unlike previous trips, we remembered the camera this time. The problem with our camera is that it's one of those wads-of-AA's cameras so you need to pack like a suitcase full of potential acid bombs to take and transfer pictures. That probably has the nice side effect though of preventing me from saturating this blog with even less relevant photos.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

Sounds a bit like something from Brokeback Mountain -- but it's actually the title of a Lost episode.

For the longest time I knew, in a sort of general, like I know about Uzbekistan, sort of way, that television episodes have titles. I, of course, never knew what any of those titles were (except for "The Trouble With Tribbles"). But with the advent of DVD suddenly I know all sorts of titles (like Hush, and Once More With Feeling).

SPOILERS FOR 1ST SEASON OF LOST (UP TO EPISODE 21)

Unfortunately
I
don't
know
how
to
do
an
"after
the
jump"
thing
on
blogger
so
I'll
be
using
this
annoying
and
ineffectual
vertical
writing
thingie.

And
now
I
ought
to
leave
more
spoiler
space
since
people
will
want
to
read
all
the
way
down
just
in
case
I
included
a
link
to
Twisp and Catsby.


DEFINITELY SPOILERS NOW -- BUT ONLY FOR THE FIRST SEASON BECAUSE I LIVE IN THE CENTRAL TIME ZONE AND HATE TV

Something I find interesting about Lost is that so many of the characters actually have daddy issues and yet the writers still manage to make each of their problems, and thus the characters, feel distinctive. Here's my "daddy issues" count:

Dr. Jack -- kicked dad out of medicine, driving the old man into a suicidal Australian drunken stupor.
Sawyer -- watched father shoot wife, then self, then grew up to be the kind of guy that made other dads do that, and killed the wrong guy to avenge his father.
Walt -- has freaky powers that terrified his adoptive dad and now his birth dad is taking over even though he has no desire to be a father.
Michael -- having problems with suddenly becoming a full-time father to Dark Phoenix.
Jin -- is embarassed by the poverty and simplicity of his own father.
Sun -- father is an over-protective psycho gangster corporate type, but she doesn't know it -- character arc for season two??
Locke -- sacrificed his spiritual son on the island in order to satisfy a harsh and demanding God -- and still hasn't received any answers.

And I think the only reason the other characters don't have daddy issues is because we haven't heard about their daddies yet (pay special attention to Kate in this regard).

It's amazing how much drama you can mine out of the same problem. Or maybe it's just Tolstoy's maxim in action: happy families are all alike but unhappy families are all fucked up in their own distinctive way. Er, to paraphrase that is.

Another thing I noted is how... melodramatic it all is -- and it works perfectly for me. Often characters I write include personal issues that are more mundane, issues that are more realistic (or at least more common).

But I suspect my approach undermines the tension. We're watching fiction. We expect things to be hyped up and more intense than our normal problems. Our connection to the material comes from being able to see reflections of our own problems in the grandiose spectacle of the fictional characters' lives.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Why I Hate Television

The inundation of ads for My Name is Earl worked on me -- this looks like the role Jason Lee was born to play and I swear a couple of my friends (er, and maybe me) have grown up to become this guy.

So Tuesday rolls by and I forget I'm in the central time zone -- and the show's already over. I believe it is on later tonight, like 11 o'clock (er, EDT) on Bravo. Let's see if I manage to remember.

However, that's not so bad. My Name is Earl is an episodic comedy. I'd like to see the premeire but I could probably drop in the second week without feeling my latent obsessive-compulsive desire erupt.

Last week I spent some 5 days or so eye-blastingly tethered to my monitor while I watched the entire last season of Lost on DVD. Amongst other talent, Lost features Terry O'Quinn -- a favorite amongst escapees of the Rutgers philosophy program. (Chris Carter must have the best casting director in the universe--seems all the secondary roles and walk-ons in X-Files and Millenium were terrific).

But the Lost season opener also seemed to be showing at central time in Texas. So now I've got to wait one full year--while studiously avoiding any mention of the show--before I can catch this season on DVD.

Some day, TiVo, you will be mine...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cheers, Dan!

Bad Motherfucker


I actually live maybe 100 feet from a bar -- a place called The Broadway 5050.

Met up with cool fellow screenwriter Richard there and we talked a bit about what it's like trying to break in from the wilderness. For my non-screenwriter friends, it's generally advised to get one's sorry ass into L.A. if you want to write movies or TV.

The place has awfully good french fries -- and is completely done up as a Quentin Tarantino shrine. Pulp Fiction posters on the walls -- a Reservoir Dogs styled billboard outside -- A Big Kahuna Burger -- and even a $3.50 five dollar shake. While there Richard says how Pulp Fiction helped inspire him to start writing screenplays, shows me his Bad Motherfucker wallet, and the universe falls into place. They even had Red Stripe beer to go with my Red Stripe tee-shirt -- but not on tap.

That'd be too on the nose.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Endless Summer


Seriously -- does Summer never end in Texas??? These graphics are from Weather.com (to paraphrase Dan -- ahhh, weather website eases the pain). But not fucking really -- instead it accentuates the pain like a fine tincture of iodine and lemon juice. In what exact circle of Hell is the heat index 88 Fahrenheit at 11 PM on September 18th?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Young Hotshots and Old Bastards

After escaping the army at 22 I went back to school and started writing. Short stories at first then a couple novels. My idea then was to be published before the age of 25 -- because I had read somewhere that some author I respected was first published at 25 (Clive Barker? Stephen King?) and of course I wanted to be a young hotshot.

Well....

I continued my pursuit of implausible careers with many years of studying philosophy, then roleplaying game writing. (By the way, I discovered that if you first pursue roleplaying game writing, then switch over to pursuing screenwriting, your family will actually be relieved.)

Today I turn 40. Being the clever sort, I had a backup plan in case the young hotshot strategy didn't work out:

Raymond Chandler -- published his first short story at the age of 42 and The Big Sleep came 6 years later. Not sure if there's a special term for old bastards so I'll just leave it as the old bastard strategy. One advantage of the old bastard strategy is that the older you are before you get published (or produced), the more impressive the achievement.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Based on True Bullshit

I've been following The Exorcism of Emily Rose for a little bit now -- ever since I noticed it getting high ranks on the IMDB Moviemeter (which tracks web visitor interest in various films) well prior to release. Normally only the big movies crack the top ten prior to release, such as movies with Harry Potter, hobbits, X-Men, or Spiderman in them.

The premise sounded good to me: what happens after The Exorcist, when the police and courts want to know why they've got all these corpses lying around and the prime suspects say "well, you see, Satan was hanging out in this girl..."?

The film came out this weekend and did about twice as well as expected, which may indicate that IMDB's Moviemeter is a better indicator of audience interest than one would expect from such a blunt-object polling tool. My other suspicion is that the film's success might rely a bit on its "religious faith on trial" theme. There's definitely an audience out there that would like to see snotty rationalists get shown up in court by proving that Satan really is working in the world.

I caught it today and liked it. I was hoping it'd be more courtroom-y and less Exorcist-y and that turned out to be the case. Almost all the supernatural stuff was put into flashbacks as recounted by various people -- thus you're left wondering if they're just imagining things or the ghost business was real.

There's one big caveat though... They played up the based on a true story angle way too much. First, they open the film mentioning it, plaster it in the ads, then, in one of the worst offenses, have these little blurbs at the end of the film telling us what happened to the various characters after the trial finished.

Those characters don't even exist. But, and correct me if I'm wrong here, if you claim your film is based on a true story and include after-the-film blurbs isn't there some implication that those blurbs are not like, say the blurbs at the end of Animal House, but instead historically accurate blurbs?

I imagine many people will be wondering why I'm just now figuring this out, given the accuracy of award winning biopics such as A Beautiful Mind -- but for those films the historical blurb was accurate and I'm willing to accept that the contents of the movie part is juiced up for dramatic purposes. Though, even in those cases my patience is wearing a bit thin.

I'm thinking the MPAA should include a Bullshit Rating, maybe something like the following:

  • DB -- Documentary Bullshit: Mostly true but includes some interesting interpretations of fact according to documenter's political leanings.
  • BB -- Biopic Bullshit: events that can be looked up in Wikipedia are accurate (according to Wikipedia) -- everything else made up to sound juicy, unless doing so would expose us to legal action, in which case they're made to sound not juicy.
  • PF -- Pure Fiction: We're making this stuff up, or pretending to make it up when we're actually just changing the name of that drunk crazy guy we knew in our twenties.
  • BoTB -- Based on True Bullshit: We're making it look as much as possible like we're saying this is true, but really we just made this stuff up and figured that if we found some random actual event in the world that vaguely resembled it we'd make a lot more money.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Paths Less Travelled

When you host a web site or a blog you'll discover that people get to your webpage via some strange routes. For my game publishing, um, imprint, Second World Simulations, I'd get a lot of links via web searches for the Second World War -- and, of course, every site gets more than a few porn links.

The recent one that disturbed me involves the phrase:

How to Eat Cats

What's more disturbing is that, as of this posting, I'm the first link in the search list!

It's as if MSN Search is declaring that I am an expert on cat eating and my blog is the foremost place on the internet to discover information about this culinary treat.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Grizzly Man

"I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." -- Werner Herzog, while narrating Grizzly Man

The above quote comes near the end of this incredible documentary -- really a character study of the fascinating Timothy Treadwell. For all my friends and family who have significantly more refined tastes than myself, I think I can finally recommend something you'll like in this.

Herzog says the quote while showing some of Treadwell's footage of a grizzly. In the footage Treadwell goes off on his fairly typical love diatribe for the beast, gazing on it with the kind of affection young children might have for their mothers. And the bears definitely are cute -- at least they are when they're on the screen, and you know they're really a couple thousand miles away in Alaska.

The documentary works on a wide range of levels. I particularly enjoyed the diverse range of viewpoints presented in the film -- we get to hear from parents and friends, park rangers and Inuit. And morticians...

The range of viewpoints I think helps present a fuller picture of Treadwell -- not really a hero, not merely a crackpot: the kind of person who strives toward the heroic in a time and place that doesn't need that -- the bears are doing just fine (30,000 strong with not much poaching in Alaska) and he's quite possibly endangering them more than helping them. But Treadwell also strives toward some kind of greater human experience and, misguided though it may be, that's worth something.

One thing that Herzog does particularly well is pull out the reality of the people he films. Frankly, some of these people are downright flaky. For them, Herzog shows us enough to see the strangeness, but also shows us a bit more -- their human emotions, which aren't strange at all.

He does the same with the un-flaky ones -- but for these a neat little dynamic plays out. We start with the regular interview, and during this the normal people often come off a little affected. The camera is an uncomfortable thing and you need a routine for it. But Herzog leaves the camera running after the scene ends, so that the silence drags out a little bit. And in those moments after the moment you can sometimes see the real person.

He makes this explicit (even explains the technique) when presenting the footage Treadwell shot. Treadwell's planned scenes always feature Treadwell in the foreground -- nature off to the side just a bit. But since Treadwell often set up the camera himself there'd be these moments before and after the shot where he'd be running to or from the camera, or moving around elsewhere.

And it's in these found moments that Treadwell's footage becomes art -- wind sliding through bushes or a pair of foxes at play in the fields.

A common misconception about entropy, held by both nihlists and intelligent design theorists, is that entropy is the tendency toward disorder.

In fact, entropy is the tendency toward equilibrium -- the gap between harmony and chaos.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Help Find A Cure For Hyperactive Camera Disorder


Having finished up some work I went to see The Cave yesterday and was subjected to yet another movie where the makers somehow felt that shaking the camera a lot would add suspense, or maybe tension -- but more likely nausea and a growing awareness of my butt falling asleep.

It reminded me that I wanted to post something to my blog that I had mentioned on DISC/ontent -- and this time I figured I'd add in a little icon. Feel free to steal the image for your own use, or steal and make look better.

HYPERACTIVE CAMERA DISORDER
The striking inability to... hold... the... camera... still... in a lot of modern films. I figure the invention of smaller, more mobile cameras and the fact that so many directors come out of music videos contributes to this, but, really, if the scene is so boring that you feel the need to have the camera bounce around, maybe change the scene.

This also occurs as a result of the desire of some film-makers to increase the realism and immersion of fight scenes by editing them to look the way they'd look if the audience member was watching the film while being beat with sticks by a gang of neo-nazis. Just tell the damn story.

I suspect one contributing factor to the increasing incidence of this disorder is artists transitioning from marijuana to Ecstasy as their drug of choice. Isn't it time for barbituates to come back into fashion?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How Screenwriting Is Like Magic: the Gathering


Magic: the Gathering is a card game that you play in three phases. In phase one you collect the cards you'll use by spending way too much money or beating up smaller kids at your school--much like collecting baseball cards. In phase two you construct a deck from your collection. In most games the deck must have no less than 60 cards but can have as many cards as you want. In phase three you then play the actual card game using your deck.

During the phase two part you will find yourself wanting to add all these cool cards you have--throwing as much stuff as possible into it. Due to the laws of probability being what they are, this is a bad plan. You should strive for as small a deck as legal. In essence, you've got 60 cards to put in the deck; which 60 cards would maximize your chances of winning?

In a screenplay you've got maybe 100-110 pages to tell your story. Occasionally you can get away with more, but most of the time you cannot. Moreover, unless you're writing an epic, do you really need that much more screentime than Casablanca (102 minutes) or The Maltese Falcon (101 minutes)?

Pages are the currency of screenwriting. You've got maybe 105 of them to build characters, explain the world, carry a plot, develop arcs, and throw in some scares, thrills, laughs, cries, or whatever.

So one of the decisions one has to make as a writer is how to "spend" those pages. If I'm writing an action or horror piece (which I usually am) I already know I've got a large part of my page budget devoted to action seuqences. While these will do some double duty as character development, there's only so much character development you can fit in that scene where the monster rips out 40 spleens.

This plays out in my decision about how many characters I'll include. After all, each character costs pages. So normally I try to merge characters as much as possible.

It also factors into plot complexity -- how many different things can you have going on in a movie. This is why focus is so helpful to a movie. While you can make good multi-arc films, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Magnolia, movies are seldom hurt by trimming them down to a sort of elemental purity.

Anyway, my two most recent screenplays are kind of polar opposites in this--they're both bloody horror pieces but one focuses mostly on a single character, often alone. I found this to be difficult since, with no one to bounce off of, it's a challenge to develop the character. But it's an interesting challenge so I wanted to go through with it.

The other screenplay has like 8-10 characters though, almost like a disaster film. And I wanted to give each of them a little story--which means really little, like an arc that plays out on three pages spread out over the whole film. It forces you to try to give scenes a lot of dimensions, but I'll have to see if I made it work. One advantage of having lots of characters is that you're never at a loss for what to do in the script. There's always someone you can put the camera on.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Canada Beware

As far back as November of 2000 I had already started to hear rumblings of an imminent U.S. invasion of Canada. You see, my wife was in the Comparative Literature program -- quite possibly as lefty a program as you can get in graduate school -- and, after the election, a fair number of her classmates talked about the northern defection.

Fast forward four years and those friends threatened again to invade Canada. So did my mom and step-dad.

Fast forward about one more year and now there are, ahem, indications that Hillary Clinton will run in 2008 -- and might even win! So what do I hear next?

My dad and step-mom say they'll move to Canada if that happens.


I see this future where Canada has 99% voter turnout and daily riots and the United States has 1% voter turnout and the most productive congress in its entire history.

Or maybe it will be like the great elk, every four or eight years vast herds of democrats or republicans migrate north while the other side migrates south. It would create these weird, four year cycles for Starbucks and NASCAR -- oddly enough though, the SUV manufacturers wouldn't be affected at all...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

As The Crow Flies


In my high school physics class we had one day where we were to learn about reading maps (um, it was not AP physics...)

So the teacher -- a sharp guy -- gives us this map of Southern California and has us read off various things. I do some measuring and, behold, it's forty miles from Glendale, CA (where I went to high school) to San Luis Obispo (where my grandparents lived).

Now, my family drove that trip fairly often, about 4 hours each way -- road signs saying something like 220 miles or so. Thus, something felt fishy about the map... So I go up to the teacher and point all this out, mention my personal experience travelling up the gorgeous Pacific Coast for long hours.

And the teacher says something like:
No. That's it. Forty miles. As the crow flies.

And he makes a little crow-flying-in-a-straight-line hand motion to illustrate.

So I retire to my seat thinking that might be plausible -- then a bit later it starts to sink in that it's only plausible if the crow flies through hyperspace or has been toking serious quantities of Melange, or something.

Anyway, it was probably one of the most valuable lessons of that class: not only can textbooks and class handouts be demonstrably wrong; but also, otherwise smart people will believe things that actual, real experience (and common sense) proves false, so long as those things are written down.

And, to finally bring this around to my contemporary point: maybe it's not so bad if students get taught Intelligent Design in high school science classes. Start cultivating that suspicion of authority early and maybe sell a few more Pink Floyd albums.