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.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Red-Eye: Quick Note

Liked the film a lot, but I'm probably not the most objective person in matters of Wes Craven thrillers.

Regardless, I thought the second act was a little bit of genius, and something it would be worthwhile for all writers to see since they managed to generate so much tension, and so many emotional story beats, out of two people sitting next to each other on a plane.

One thing I've always believed is that there are two ways to up the stakes in entertainment and find new ways to wow an audience:

  1. Blast people with more spectacle and larger scope.
  2. Move in tight and focus on something small, but make it intensely important to the people involved.

Too much of either and you'll eventually start losing audience; perhaps that's part of the reason The Island and Stealth had problems this summer, even though films of similar quality have done well in the past.

Red-Eye (and, actually, War of the Worlds) does the latter and I think they both benefitted.

In my writing I like to mix both in the same screenplay -- offset large, gory action set pieces with tight, minimalist suspense beats.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Red-Eye: the Posters

The movie, Red-Eye opens today -- and I wanted to mention that it has some of the best posters I've ever seen for a film.

Hmmm, my text feels like blog Twister. Anyway these posters are terrific because all you need is the title and the image to figure out what the movie is about.

Moreover, the images themselves are already suspenseful. You don't even need to go to the theater to be entertained. Anyway, given some of the reviews I've been seeing and the simplicity of these ads I'm thinking this will be a breakout hit.

P.S. One possible improvement to the posters: lose the tagline, "Fear Takes Flight" -- the image and title does everything you need.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

No Bleepin' Way...

Texas is the land of barbecues. When we were looking at houses we'd see these places with patios that had barbecues the size of Hondas built into them.

You go to the supermarket and it's like they have a separate parking lot just for the barbecues for sale out front -- note: this is a supermarket, where you buy avocados and such.

Anyway, I'm doing some barbecuing lately since, you know, it allows me to cook meals that consist entirely of meat, and I've been using the instant-light brand of charcoal since, you know, I stink at this whole outdoors-y thing. But instant-light charcoal is, I figure, about 30% jet fuel, and, what's worse, the left over bits of charcoal are 0% jet fuel, and, thus, not instant-light-able at all. So I wind up with not only a lot of left over ash, but all these small charcoal fragments that a real Texan could make use of, but not me.

Until the CHIMNEY.

The chimney is a, well here's a picture:

You put your charcoal in the top, stuff two half-pieces of newspaper in the bottom, then light the paper.

Supposedly that magically transforms the miniscule amount of heat you get out of two half-pieces of newspaper into something that ignites formerly inert black stuff.

I thought, after lighting the paper and seeing its pitiful flame and way too much smoke, that I'd certainly be going to the pub for fish and chips tonight.

17 minutes later and go back outside and the (used, mind you!) charcoal is gloriously a-glow.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Reading a recent post by Mike Mearls inspired me to write about the boogeyman of any endeavor even remotely creative: COOLNESS.

Mike suggests that story(-like) elements in RPG books should be detailed enough to be interesting, but not so detailed that they become difficult for gamemasters to incorporate into their game.

I feel that it doesn't matter how detailed or not an element is, I'll find some way to include it if it's tres kewl, and blow it off if it leaves me flat. Long winded isn't bad in and of itself, it's bad when it's boring. When it's cool, I'd just as soon it kept going on forever.

Unfortunately, there are no books you can read, or classes you can take, or handy bullet lists of points you can learn in order to start coming up with cool ideas.

Cool is a complete mystery.

That's what made (and still makes) me nervous about going into screenwriting. I knew I could do well at things like programming or academics or science because they have nice, quantifiable tests for your ability in those areas, and, if you're smart, you'll evenutally figure those fields out.

And I am pretty smart -- smart enough to know that being smart has no necessary connection with writing cool. I know enough smart people who tell the most awfully corny jokes.*

But the little RPG writing I did got some pretty decent responses so I thought I'd at least be in the ballpark.

So that's just part of the Cool problem -- you don't know whether or not you are cool until it's too late.

And, by and large, other people don't know whether or not you are cool until it's too late either. So your friends and family either over-estimate or under-estimate your chances at making a career. Comrades in your writing classes might be giving you good advice, but also might be giving you bad advice -- because they might have cool or uncool tastes.

Then, for film-making, you get a whole bunch of people involved in a creative endeavor. And they WILL end up in situations where they disagree on what should happen in this or that scene.

The argument might start off with fairly objective things, like pointing out continuity issues, or making sure the characters behave logically. But, somewhere along the line you'll get to a disagreement about coolness -- and these disagreements cannot be solved by any sort of argument. So, unless everyone in the room happens to know that one guy is the king of mondo-kewl, we'll all think we're the king of mondo-kewl. Actually, even when one guy is the king of mondo-kewl we'll still think we're right -- we just won't press the issue.

Then, finally, the movie comes out in some form or another and the critics and audience trundle to the theater to watch it and, if it wasn't cool, they come back and tell us why it was bad. They will point out all the terrible plot holes (such as that complete deus ex machina where the sailor pops through the door carrying just the item the protagonist needed), or the shallow character arc (such as the hero going through all this melodrama just to learn how to say "I'm sorry"), or the implausibility (such as spaceships flying like airplanes in an atmosphere).

But all of those are just excuses for why we say the movie sucked -- our attempt to turn an irrational process into something quantifiable, with evidence and formal rules. Because we have gleefully ignored every single one of those problems when the movie was cool.

* Colin Quinn had this nice little bit once on his TV show where he asked his guests who they felt sorry for -- when it got back to him he said that he felt sorry for the corny people. You know these people, are probably related to a few. And they certainly try hard; there's no moral turpitude here -- it's just an unfortunate and uncurable affliction.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I Reap the Benefits of Arcane Copy Protection Rules

My friend, Dan, has recently returned to Australia -- finding himself in the keenly-ordered labyrinth of Melbourne's centrally planned streets.

Hopefully he'll have more time to surf while there, given that his last job kept him rather busy.

Regardless, I benefit from the system of region codes and scored the first and second seasons of Millenium on DVD. This show rocked -- and consistently increased its rockingness until Fox cancelled it for rocking too much.

Thanks Dan!

Soylent Green is People

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Gaolers of Paradise

Jaru and I took another drive through Texas yesterday --and finished up coming back through Hill Country, a pleasant part of central Texas.

But, earlier in the day we passed through Eden, Texas. Needless to say, I was curious when I first saw the signs saying it was coming up.

Actually the land around there would probably be Eden for the farmers who first settled the area -- expansive, flat, green, not too rocky, and nice rainfall. Not so great for sight-seeing but storm clouds marched across the sky during our drive giving the place a nostalgic, Midwestern look.

Then the road passed right through the center of town -- which just happened to include a penitentiary. Wikipedia has a nice article and provides the following quote:

Eden is a city located in Concho County, Texas. As of the 2000 census, the city had a total population of 2,561. Approximately one-half of the population consists of inmates housed at the Eden Detention Center, a for-profit prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America under contract with the Bureau of Prisons.

Who knew crime-profiteers could be so poetic?

What surprises me most, though, is that anyone would dare be so sacrilegious in Texas.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Assignment Pitch

Earlier this week a producer called and asked me to put together a pitch (or is it a take?) on a project he's developing.

Up to now I've always started with my own ideas, developed them, then just gone ahead and written the screenplay. So this thing is new on two fronts -- I'm going to tell him what I would do if I were going to write the screenplay; and I'm working off his idea (which is partially a remake, but not wholly).

For my non-screenwirting friends -- this is good training because most films are assignments based on existing properties or ideas of some sort. However, "good training" means I have no idea how to do it yet and I need to learn fast.

I figured I'd start with the normal trying to come up with an interesting twist on the idea then do an outline thing. That's usually a safe bet.

But then I remembered that there's lots of good advice available on the web -- from people with loads of experience at this. So I do a search of various screenwriting websites -- but I'm not very good at this and the best I come up with is this post at Wordplayer. That's definitely good advice for when I get to pitch in a room -- but not quite what I'm looking for.

So I'm hoping that this little public cry for help might result in some other screenbloggers posting their own advice about the assignment pitch.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Math Problem

Back from Los Angeles -- got a chance to meet with several people in business-like stuff so it felt more business-y and less like the hollow excuse to scarf down pizza that the trip actually is.

The trip back forced me to confront a math problem, perhaps even a math paradox (in the, puzzling, but not really self-contradictory sense of paradox).

Flight from Ontario to Phoenix took off on time and landed early -- in fact, I often land early in Phoenix. However, the flight from Phoenix to San Antonio was delayed by 40 minutes, then delayed another 40 minutes while we sat in the airplane, on the ground, and they loaded sundry luggage from other planes on the flight.

It so happens that the flight to L.A. went the same way, early into Phoenix, then a shortish delay before takeoff to Ontario. I'd guess maybe 60-70% of my flights out of Phoenix have been delayed -- which probably translates to 50% after taking into account my natural tendency to exaggerate while ranting.

And that brings up the puzzle: These flights are typically delayed because the plane I'm supposed to be riding hasn't landed yet -- i.e. they're late getting into Phoenix. However, as far as I can recollect I've got close to a 100% on-time arrival ratio from both San Antonio and Ontario, and that just doesn't jibe with my 50% delayed departure ratio.

Maybe all the other airports are just completely screwed up...