Thursday, June 14, 2012

What I've Learned So Far From This Blog

So here we are, folks, my final post before my hiatus.  Everyone who comes to this address in the next few months is going to see this post, so I didn’t want to end on the merciless pieces I’ve been doing recently.  The most obvious thing to do is to simply repeat the piece that best sums up all the others, The Ultimate Story Checklist, but a link will do.  Please go there if you want a systematic study of how you can use this blog to improve your story. 

But one thing about the checklist is that it’s very exhaustive, so not all those ideas are ones I can claim.  And so, for this “see you later” piece, I wanted to take a moment to review twenty ideas that were generated by this blog that I hadn’t heard anywhere before.  I could just make this a list of links, but I’d rather try to re-state each one in a self-contained way, as succinctly as possible:
  1. Nobody can become a hero by doing what anybody would do.  A hero should have special skills, and be surrounded by people who lack his/her heroic attributes. 
  2. It’s not very helpful to think about an “inciting incident.”  It’s more helpful to think about a longstanding problem leading the hero to pursue an intimidating opportunity which leads to an unforeseen conflict.
  3. Story comes from a volatile reaction between character and situation, in which each transforms the other. 
  4. A hero needn’t be smart, but must be resourceful.  (Even fools can resourcefully go after what they want, which is why it’s impossible to make anything foolproof.)  This is because audiences find it painful to care for characters that dont care about themselves.
  5. A character’s “metaphor family” is the aspect of his/her background (usually his/her home region, job or developmental state) that determines his/her slang, exclamations, and points of comparison.
  6. A character’s voice breaks down into three components: metaphor family, default personality trait, and default argument strategy.  You don’t need to know everything about a character, you just have to know these three things.   
  7. The best scenes consist of two characters trying to trick and trap each other, resulting in at least one of them doing something they didn’t intend to do when the scene began. Theres nothing immoral about engaging in this behavior.
  8. In the best scenes, there is literal give and take (an object is exchanged, representing larger values), and literal push and pull (characters touch each other at least once, and often only once, to symbolize the completion of the goal).
  9. Sometimes, rather than have an ensemble of fully-rounded three dimensional characters, it’s better to have an ensemble of exaggerated, polarized characters.  One is better at recreating actual interpersonal conflicts, but the other is equally legitimate because it dramatizes our own internal debates.   
  10. The second quarter of a story is usually about tackling the problem the easy way, and ends in a disaster.
  11. The third quarter of a story is usually about trying again the hard way, and ends in a spiritual crisis.
  12. A hero should start out with a false statement of philosophy, which is only replaced by a true statement of philosophy as a result of the spiritual crisis.  
  13. The best way to make a hero compelling is to make him/her misunderstood.   
  14. The theme of a story should never be stated in terms of “good vs. bad”, which is a no-brainer, but rather in terms of “good vs. good” or “bad vs. bad”
  15. Stories thrive on unique, never-before-seen relationships, moreso than never-before-seen characters.
  16. An obstacle is something that makes a task hard to do, but a conflict is something that makes a task hard to want to do. 
  17. Stories that are considered to be literature tend to be primarily about unintended consequences, while stories that are considered to be entertainment are almost always about intended consequences. 
  18. Withhold exposition until both the character and the audience are demanding to know it.
  19. Problems should be visually apparent, so that the characters don’t have discuss the mechanics of the plot.
  20. You shouldn’t have to disable the hero’s cell phone, because your hero should be the only one who can solve the problem.  
That’s it, folks!  I hope to see you all in three months!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Finale: Knowledge Shrinks, Experience Grows

So things are looking bleak for our heroes…  They have been lied to from all sides, fed false dreams and get-rich-quick schemes… They have discovered that the touchy-feely artsy-fartsy profession they thought they were entering is actually a hyper-professional, mercilessly exploitative, brutally competitive visit to the thunderdome!

Can it get any worse?  Well, here’s another seemingly terrible thing you realize after graduation… Every profession is changing very fast these days, but none faster than filmmaking. 

When people advise you to get a liberal arts education as opposed to learning specific job skills, one reason they often give is that you’ll end up getting a job that didn’t exist when you started school, but now we’ve escalated beyond that.  My first real desk job, after a few years delivering pizzas, was one that didn’t exist when I graduated college: digital video editor.  And I know a lot of people with that same experience.

If you’re foolish enough to go to film school, they’re going to teach you all about the profession…or at least how the profession was when your teachers were actually in it.  Not only is that knowledge already out of date, but even the most current information will change by the time you’re ready to earn a paycheck. 

Everything you learn, and yes, that includes every rule on this blog, has a short shelf life.  If you think of your education as progress toward the goal of total knowledge, then I’ve got terrible news for you: you’re moving backwards down that path, not forwards.  Knowledge shrinks faster than it can ever grow, because every year there’s going to be more and more new things you can’t keep up with. 

On the one hand, this is terrible news!  All that education was for naught!  All the know-how and savvy that you had planned to flaunt at job interviews becomes a liability, not an asset, once you realize that it’s all out of date…

…But this is all okay, because while time can render your knowledge obsolete, it can’t take your experience away, and that’s what you’re really selling. You don’t want to brag about what systems you’ve worked with or how much education you have, you want to say to employers, “Hire me because I’ve adapted before and I’ll adapt again, the next time everything changes.” Nothing beats that argument.

Once you realize this, your whole perspective changes for the better.  Suddenly you realize that every mistake you made, every dead end you followed, every boss you pissed off …these are your assets.  There are no real career missteps, because it all gets added to your store of experience, so it all makes you more valuable.  

Okay, folks, that’s it: Twelve rough life-lessons from me to you, in hopes that you’ll avoid some of my mistakes.  So do I leave you on this harrowing note?  Of course not!  Tomorrow, I’ll put up my final post before hiatus: a list of my twenty favorite things I discovered through this blog…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 11: The Better You Get, the Less Intuitive the Work Is


When I got started as a video editor, I had to painstakingly log every scene, sort them into hundreds of carefully-described bins, and slowly discover which clips worked together through trial and error. 

Then as I got better, I started to develop a “sixth sense”.  As I previewed the raw footage, I was able to spot which clips would be the most useful.  I quickly discarded all the footage I wasn’t going to use without logging it.  As I edited, I started making fewer “rough cuts” because I knew instinctively where to cut into a clip and where to cut back out. 

I got paid by the job, not by the hour, so one benefit of this was that I was able to do more work and make more money. “Finally,” I thought, “this is what real professional editing is like.”

But I was wrong.  When I started hanging out with real feature editors, I was shocked to see how they worked.  I visited the editor of Todd Solondz’s movie “Happiness” and I saw that she (or an assistant, when she had one) had not only logged each clip with exhaustive detail, but she had gone much further…

She had painstakingly subdivided each clip into each sentence of dialogue, and then created a separate sequence for every sentence in the movie, demonstrating how it sounded from every possible angle.  She explained that this was standard, because you never knew when the director was going to say “I’m sure there was a better take of that line, let me hear them all.”

Intuition, as it turns out, follows a bell curve.  You start off with little, develop a lot of it as you become a cocky young turk, and then you abandon it again as you become a master.  The better you get, the less intuitive your job is, and the more drudgework you do. 

This turns out to be equally true of screenwriting as well, for several reasons:
  1. As with video editors, once you’re getting paid real money, you have to be able to show your work, to prove that you made the best choices.
  2. You also have to be able to reverse engineer every decision you make, to undo it and redo in 10 slightly different ways. 
  3. But even if you’re just writing for yourself, you find that the more you know, the less you trust yourself.  You’ve had too many scripts go wrong because you coasted on intuition until you crashed.  You force yourself to slow down and work more methodically, so that you can backtrace your steps at any times.
So was all that experience for nothing, given that you end up working just as menially at the top as you did at the bottom?  Is there any hope for your heroes?  Yes, there is.  Tomorrow we will find a ray of hope in our grand finale…

Monday, June 11, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 10: Stay Out of Fantasy Camp

The most reliable way for an aspiring screenwriter to secure representation is to win a contest, and that’s what I did.  I wrote a bio-pic of Alan Turing (who broke the Nazi codes during World War 2 and helped invent the computer) which won a Sloan award and a Columbia award. 

Based on that script and a lower-budget thriller script, I got managers, who circulated the Turing script to a few small companies.  As it turned out, it got me a lot of meetings, and it’s still getting me work as a writing sample, but it never sold.  My reps weren’t that surprised, since they said the subject matter was a hard sell.  Maybe it would have sold a few years ago, but there weren’t a lot of spec sales anymore because money was tight…

So imagine how it felt when I read one day that a studio had just paid a cool million dollars for an Alan Turing biopic from a first-time screenwriter…who wasn’t me.  I can’t help but think of that as the million dollars that I didn’t make. 

Of course, that screenplay might be a lot better than mine (I can’t bring myself to read it) but as soon as it sold, I knew what I’d really done wrong… I chose to live in fantasy camp. 

There are several biographies of Turing, but only one that really goes in depth.  I knew that I should attempt to option that book, but I never did.  Instead, two producers optioned it and hired another first-time writer to tackle it.  Obviously, if I had already been attached, these producers would have had to come to me with their proposal, and if they liked my script enough to back it, we would have been in business…

I complained in my “What’s the Matter With Hollywood” pieces about Hollywood’s insistence on owning a property, but I never took that lesson to heart.  If you bring them a bio-pic that you just sniffed out of the air, then they’ll be suspicious… if this story is just lying around, how come nobody’s used it before?  But if you bring it to them as something that you’ve locked up…and you can sell them the exclusive rights to, then that will seem like something of value. 

So why did I never attempt to option the in-depth biography, which was long out-of-print, and quite possibly not under option when I first wrote my script?  Because I was still living in fantasy camp.  I convinced myself that I didn’t really need to secure the rights, because I had drawn on five or six books, so I could claim that I had used less than 51% of any one book. 

But honestly, I was afraid that I’d track down the author and find out that somebody did have the rights.  I was so enamored of the potential value of this subject that I was terrified to discover the actual value.  If they said “Someone else owns the rights, so cease and desist” then even though I still might have been legally able to pursue a competing project, I would have been too bummed. 

And besides, what if I had been unable to afford the option?  When every script is just fantasy camp, then it seems silly to lay out any money.  Don’t screenwriters create value out of thin air?  Why pay for that? 

I’ll tell you why: One Million Dollars…that I didn’t make because I was more interested in the fantasy of writing a screenplay than I was in treating this like a business.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 9: You Can't Pay Your Dues Until After You’ve “Made It”

For years, I mistakenly thought I was paying my dues: I wrote a lot of screenplays, first ones that were terrible and later ones that were better, and I did odd jobs for big-time screenwriters, like organizing an Emmy winner’s library, and editing banquet-dinner videos for an Academy Award nominee...  But then I realized that actual dues-paying has nothing to do with learning your craft or impressing potential employers.

Aspiring screenwriters often think: “Ill write a dozen screenplays, on my own, behind closed doors, then, one lucky day, my talent will be spotted by someone on the ‘inside’, who will read my work and love it.  Some calls will be made, and by the end of the day, I will suddenly have an agent, a studio contract, and a check for a million dollars.  Then I’ll decide whether or not I ever want to work again.” 

We somehow think that the day we make our first sale is the day our dues paying ends.  This is utterly backwards.  “Paying dues” actually refers to doing excellent work in your chosen profession that pleases your boss but does not please yourself.  Doing paid work of the kind you want to do, but working on projects you don’t really believe in.

Writers are constantly fed fairy-tale stories of writers like Quentin Tarantino, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Diablo Cody, etc., who supposedly hit it out of the park their first time at bat.  Those stories may or may not be lies, but they are certainly not typical.  Note that you get far fewer profiles or writers like Suzanne Collins, who published a lot of semi-successful books before she finally hit it big with “The Hunger Games”.  Stories like hers, while far more common, don’t sound like fairy tales, so they don’t get repeated.

Most screenwriters have to pay their dues for years after they start making money, but before they can do the personally-fulfilling work they were born to do. Matthew Weiner was a staff writer on “Becker”!  Charlie Kaufman was a staff writer on “Ned and Stacey”! And they didn’t contemptuously dash off a few scripts that were far beneath their skill level.  They worked hard.  That’s real dues paying.  And it starts after you’ve supposedly “made it.”

Wow!  Things look bleak for our heroes!  Will it get any worse before it gets better?  Find out tomorrow?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 8: Your Best Connections Are Outside Your Profession

If you’re a would-be filmmaker, then you’re probably not going to impress any pros with your knowledge or talents, no matter how good you are. Many of them are burn-out-cases with no interest in the next generation, but even the nicer ones have a healthy wariness of the endless numbers of hungry up-and-comers. 

Yes, you should selflessly do lots of amazing favors for people above you on the ladder, but understand that many of them will simply consider that to be your obligation.  (In fact, they feel that theyre doing you a favor by letting you do them a favor.)  And yes, you should also selflessly help people below you on the ladder, but beware that they may only resent you more as a result. 

Movies and moviemaking have lost their magic for most filmmakers.  Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone, amateur or pro, how much movies mean to you, because they’ll just roll their eyes.  It’s like someone at a lawnmower company making a speech about genuinely loving lawnmowers.  Nobody is going to believe it.

But… as soon as you step outside the world of movie making, most people you meet, even highly-paid professionals, will find your status as a filmmaker to be enchanting.  Even then, they may still be slightly wary—after all, anyone can claim to be a filmmaker, but if you’ve got a degree, or a credit, or a prize, or anything that makes you seem legit, then that’s all they’ll need to be dazzled by you. 

I put in a lot of time assisting professional editors, but I got my first paid solo editing job because I was the only editor that this client had ever met.  Likewise, I apprenticed to a lot of screenwriters, but I got my first paid gig because I was the only screenwriter who the author of the novel knew personally.

And it works the other way too: the more time you spend developing interests outside the world of film, the more interesting you become to filmmakers, who, after all, are tired of talking about movies.  Whether at a party or a pitch meeting, they’d much rather hear that you spent the weekend at a glass-blowing retreat than a Robert McKee seminar. 

So when I got those jobs, had I finally “made it”?  Let’s get to that next time…

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 7: Be Ridiculously Professional

Screenwriting is a business of razor-thin margins.  For every job opening there are tens of thousands of potential applicants.  It’s really hard to become a better writer overnight, but it’s much easier to will yourself to be (here’s that dreaded phrase:) detail-oriented. 

Producers, like any other employer, would rather hire someone with moderate talent and lots of professionalism than someone with lots of talent and no professionalism. A screenplay with great dialogue and a lot of typos turns them off more than a screenplay with so-so dialogue and not a single typo.

Why?  Because talent actually can, eventually, be taught, but it’s almost impossible to beat professionalism into someone’s head if they don’t want to learn it. They can teach you how to write dialogue, but they can’t teach you seriousness or respect.

Turn in drafts on time, even if you suspect that they’re not going to bother to read them for weeks. Be early for every meeting, even if you know that they’ll show up twenty minutes late. If they disrespect you, show them up by being twice as respectful to them.  Be a pro, and you’ll move to the top of your bracket, whatever bracket you’re in.

Go above and beyond: Reggie Bythwood told me this story about getting hired on “New York Undercover”. Bythwood had been a writer for the sitcom “A Different World” and he was explicitly hired to add jokes to the show, but he quickly realized that there was a problem: creator Dick Wolf tended to put all the experts on policework he interviewed onto his “Law and Order” staff and fill the “NYU” staff with hip-dialogue guys, so there was a lack of expertise on the nuts and bolts of the world of the show. 

Bythwood decided that he would study up on all the procedural stuff, so that he could be the go-to guy when the other writers had questions about that.  Soon enough, everybody loved him. That’s real professionalism.  Do everything you’ve been hired to do, and then go past it to do whatever needs to be done, even if it’s not one of the strengths you were supposed to bring to this job.  

Okay, okay, you say, you promise to be good, but what good will it do you if you cant get hired anywhere?  Guess what, tomorrow Ill finally tell you the number one shortcut to getting your dream job...  

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 6: Only Worry About the Quality of Your Own Work

In any situation, there’s always going to be someone doing a better job than everybody else.  You should be that person.  But you need to accept the fact that, even if you are the best, you will not advance right away. Four things will happen first:
  1. Other people will pocket the extra value that your work creates, for a while, without giving you any extra credit. That’s fine.
  2. They might even steal credit for your work, for a while. That’s fine.
  3. They will also try to get you to do their work, without credit. That’s inevitable, so do it if you can. 
  4. People who are embarrassed by your work will order you to water your quality down.  That’s not fine.  Humbly defer their requests. 
Do you have a bad boss?  Good for you! That’s a great opportunity.  Take your boss’s job.  Of course, in the mean time, you’ll have to work extra hard to please a dud, but that’s okay, because you’re also showing your boss’s boss that you deserve your boss’s job. 

But what if your boss’s boss doesn’t notice for a long time?  And what if your infuriating boss just takes credit for your output?  That’s fine.  Let him.  Don’t worry about working without recognition, because it’s impossible: someone is always noticing.  Even if it’s just your fellow co-workers.  Even if it’s just the customers. 

Of course, if you’ve been outperforming your boss for a year, and there’s been no reward, it might be time for a new job, but guess what?  You’ll be in a great position to get one.  You’ll find that there are a lot of people around you who will give you a recommendation. Ask those admiring co-workers if they know anybody else looking for a person in your position who’s looking to advance.  Or ask those customers who liked you if they know of any other opportunities. 

The point is: don’t do what I did, over and over again, in these situations.  Don’t say to yourself, “This supervisor is terrible, and nobody seems to care, so why do a good job?  I might as well slack off.”  That’s the best way to ensure one of two things: either you’ll have to work for that same bad boss forever, or you’ll leave and be unable to get another job because no one from your old job will recommend you. Work experience that doesnt include a recommendation is a liability, not an asset.

This is the hardest thing in the world to do: Only worry about the quality of your own contribution.  It’s so easy to think: “My good work will be wasted if everybody else around me is doing bad work, so why not redirect my energies to pointing out that their work needs to be better?”  No.  Nobody wants to hear your criticism. Be aware of who around you is doing good work and bad work, but don’t point it out to anybody. If you make a stink, you’ll just stink up the place. 

Quality is a beacon, even if that beacon is temporarily covered in mud. If no one around you is doing good work, then don’t compare yourself to them.  Compare yourself to the people you’d rather be working with and try to meet their level of quality, even if no one around you seems to appreciate that.  

Here’s the good news, If you have a bad boss, that boss will probably be fired soon, and another boss will come in who might appreciate you.  Never assume that the bad situation is going to continue.  Things change all the time.  You may be unappreciated today, but if a shake-up happened tomorrow, would you rise to the top?  Why not?   Worry about that instead of plotting a coup.  You don’t need to plot a coup.  Shake-ups happen.  Everything will be different in a year, especially in this economy. 

So how do you shine brighter than your co-workers?  We’ll get to that tomorrow…

Monday, June 04, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 5: Be Necessary

Yesterday, we talked about the importance of doing a lot of amazing favors, but I cautioned that nobody will owe you anything in return.  This was one of the hardest things for me to learn: nobody really owes anybody anything.  It doesn’t matter what you think they owe you, and it doesn’t even matter how much they actually want you.  The only thing that matters is how much they need you.

Just because you have a great resume, or “paid your dues”, or you’ve been best friends with the boss since childhood, or even if they promised you a job, they don’t owe you anything. Even people who owe you money don’t really owe you that money, unless you made them sign a legally-enforceable paper contract and you kept a copy with their signature on it.  Even then… not really. People who don’t really need to pay you anything aren’t ever going to pay you anything.

Even when someone truly wants to hire you, they often can’t. It’s not their money.  (Even if it seems like their money, it’s not.  Everybody has backers that they are responsible to, even if their name is on the door.)  The only reason that anybody will ever hire you is because you have demonstrated to them that you have something they absolutely need.

No one is going to pay you any of their money.  Instead, they are going to pay you a share of the money that you help them accumulate. And that’s perfectly fair.  It took me a long time to figure out that this is the whole idea behind employment.  The only reason to hire somebody is if they’re going to bring more money in the door each month than they take out of the door at the end of the month.

Trust me: every month that you work, keep a ledger in your head of every dollar that you bring in the door and every dollar in your paycheck.  If the first number is smaller than the second, your days are numbered.  If you want to stay employed, don’t just be nice, don’t just be friendly, don’t just be skillful, don’t just be useful. None of those are going to keep you employed.  Be necessary.  

If you are necessary, they will have to keep you on, at least for a while, even if they despise you.  If you are necessary and a friendly, professional person, then you’re really set, and your whole life will become a lot happier.  We’ll talk about how to do that tomorrow... 

Sunday, June 03, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 4: Favors Are Serious Business

Filmmaking, like any other career in the arts, requires you to do a lot of favors, but you have to do so with your eyes wide open.  You have to be okay with the fact that most favors disappear into the ether, never to be seen again.  That’s okay.  The purpose of doing favors is not to get someone to say “this person did something for me, so now I owe them an opportunity in return.”  Few people will have that response. 

Realistically, you’re hoping that, at some point in the future, they will say, “Shit, my plans fell through, I’m in a bad jam, and I need to call in someone who I can depend on to do an amazing job at the last minute for almost nothing. Who have I been able to depend on in the past?”  That day may never come, but if it does, you want to be on their list of dependable people.  You get on that list by doing amazing favors.

This brings us to the horrifying truth about favors: If you agree to do a favor, even if it’s a huge, unreasonable, last-minute favor for the biggest screw-up in town, you have to do amazing work, better than if you were getting paid

“What?? Why is that?? They’re not even paying me!  Can’t I just phone it in?  At least I showed up!”  Don’t believe it.  No matter much they beg and plead and promise you that they just need a quickie job or a warm body, you still have to say no if you can’t do an amazing job for them.

Agreeing to do a favor, any favor, is a dangerous opportunity.  If you do a half-ass favor for someone, even if they promised you that you wouldn’t have to work hard, they will resent it, and they will bad-mouth you.  Even worse, other people working on the project won’t know that they’re getting paid and you’re not.  All they’ll know is that you did a half-ass job, and they don’t ever want to work with you again. 

So you have to be willing to say no to a favor.  The truth is that, if you do say no, no matter how hurt they pretend to be, they’ll just shrug and call somebody else and give that person the same song and dance they gave you.  It won’t really hurt their feelings. 

It’s vital to do as many favors as possible, but only agree to contribute if you’re prepared to act as if you’re the highest paid person on that project.  After all, this is your chance to audition for everybody involved in this project, all at once.  That’s why you do a favor, not because anybody will owe you anything in return.  In fact, in screenwriting as in life, nobody ever really owes anybody anything.  More on that tomorrow…