Saturday, December 8, 2012

First Draft

The first draft is a funny thing because all the time you're working on your outline, you feel like a caged bull and can't wait to explode from the abstraction of themes and plot points to the rich detail of the actual script.  Then, when you've been a good little boy and gone through several drafts of your outline and gotten it both really tight and really layered, you stand right where you've wanted to be for weeks or maybe even months:

a luxury car from the early 20th century
Page One.  Now all those wonderful themes you've knit seem really daunting.  How will I put all those subtleties and subthemes in, and how will I make sure they echo and compliment the main theme in just the right way?

And that first scene, wow that's a doozy.  Main character - his or her first line.  What will it be?  It's gotta be active, right?  It's gotta have thematic repercussions and clues to character arc/journey that aren't clear at the moment but make sense in retrospect.  And above all, it's gotta be memorable... simply, COOL!

I'd like to do a study of first scenes in great movies.  There are a few that come immediately to mind... I wonder, if you were to ask someone about a favorite movie of theirs, how often could they recount the opening scene?  I wouldn't be surprised if this was a high correlation.

Isn't it true that as a viewer you can pretty much tell from the first scene whether or not you're going to like the movie?  You're either "on board" or not, strapped in, bought the ticket, going for the ride... or you flip the channel or go get a snack.  My brother was commenting the other day that, when reading, by the time you're ten pages into a script, you really know all there is to know about a writer's voice and where this whole thing is going.  This made me very nervous as I was just about to start my draft on page one.

Anyway, the good news is that I started it and got one page done that day.  I was pretty happy with it.  Of course, I know that everything will be rewritten... but I also like to make my first draft as good as I can because... well, I think it's the right  thing to do, to have some pride and not take refuge in future drafts, and besides... I also believe when you build something you should have a solid foundation.

My brother mentioned also that he tends to overwrite early drafts.  I was kinda envious of this because I find with my own writing that, because I have the story all planned out in my head, I tend toward hyperconcision.  For some reason I assume the story already exists in the world and it is familiar to all... but of course it doesn't and it isn't.

It seems like a dumb trait as I write it down, but if I had to defend it I would say that I've always been fascinated by suggestion as opposed to explicitness, by saying less than is required so as to create a mood and let the reader fill in the cracks with the mortar of his own mind.  I suppose I'm fascinated by what is not there, what is not said.  We'll see how this works out.

In conclusion, on Twitter recently I saw a screenwriting tweet that suggested that writing out of sequence could be a useful tool to avoid the many-headed hydra that is writer's block.  I like this and will try it today.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Power of Time

It's been awhile since my last post.  During that time I went through one draft of my second act, which was very brief and simple.  Over Thanksgiving break I talked with people about the story and came up with a new direction for the female lead.

It really consisted of making her story bigger.  In class my professor was very surprised - "speechless" was the word he used - at the changes or developments I'd made.  But he said he liked them.

By the time I'd shared them in class, I'd assimilated the changes (or rather additions) I'd made and so they didn't seem so shocking to me.  But I remember first "cracking" the new storyline, and I was very excited about it.  It seemed compelling and also natural at the same time.

I think I needed that time to sit with those characters and come up with a natural plotline that didn't feel contrived or stereotypical.

I've got all the characters I need, the main plot, the subplots... now on to first draft.  We're really moving along in this course, and it's good.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Act Two

Since I've decided which story I'll be turning into a screenplay during this term and the next, we've completed a rough outline of the whole movie as well as a scene-by-scene breakdown of the first act.  I am greatly encouraged and have high hopes for "The Cynic."

The rough outline and Act One scene breakdown both benefitted from a reading and critique in our workshop.  There were definitely points in the plot where, like a sloppy contractor, I filled in the gaps quickly and without care.

Some cinematic tropes come all too readily to our mind, and one of the jobs of the writer is to resist their temptation in order to strike more accurately at the truly unique aspects of the story we are birthing.

How easily the wheels of our wagon settle into grooves in the road... and we find ourselves in places painfully familiar.  Worse, the spark of genuine inspiration that set us out on our journey has long been snuffed out.

My task this week is to create a scene-by-scene breakdown of my Second Act.  To all concerned this is readily evident as the most difficult part of a movie to craft well.  How often have you watched a movie that started out fine and then "fell apart" during the middle?  Boredom is the chief evil here.

Given characters and a plot set forth in the first act, we may well guess what occurs in the third act.  If the first act is well laid out, we have clearly have a protagonist, a goal, the suggestion of complications to come, etc.  And by simple extrapolation we can easily guess what the third act will contain.  So much so that if our expectations are not met, we leave the theater with a sense of disappointment and incompleteness.

Why is Act Two so tricky?  It's the longest part, as long as the first and third act combined.  But it's length is not the reason.

It's the toughest to craft effectively because it is, compared to acts one and two, essentially a blank slate.  It's a vast wasteland where our only signposts are vague... we know that things must go well for our hero(es), we know there must be complications, we know that all must seem lost.  Beyond that, our only dictum is that we be original and entertaining.

But in difficulty lies challenge, and if this is where poor screenplays are lost... perhaps it is also where great screenplays are made.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Cynic

I've officially decided which screenplay I will be working on for Fall and Winter terms.  Pretty exciting!

In our eight-person workshop group, which meets once a week for three hours, we all pitched three different loglines to the class.  After the loglines were read, we had the opportunity to answer questions from our classmates.  This served to clarify things like plot, tone, theme, etc.

The whole class voted on which of our three loglines they would like to see us write into a full script.  Our instructor Tim Albaugh weighed in too.  I'd say about half the voting results were pretty unanimous, and the other half were between two.  So, I think the system worked well.

I definitely learned something from the process.  For my three pitched loglines, I chose two projects that I have been developing for YEARS.  The other pitch was one that I came up with just a few days before.

Guess which one won?  The brand new one.  And you know what?  For some reason, that's the one that excites me the most.

I came up with the idea with absolutely no preconceived notions, other than a theme I wanted to explore.  It comes from a quote by Oscar Wilde.  So, I started with a bare foundation of a character who is afflicted with a certain myopic way of looking at the world.

Given this, the plot suggests itself as the story of this character's journey to correct this deficiency in outlook.  Of course, good storytelling dictates that his conscious goal throughout the story is very different.

I think sometimes in life we hold onto ideas and concepts for a long time, and they become dear to us.  The longer we hold onto things, the harder it is for us to look at them objectively.  They can grow moss and barnacles, and lose their vitality and relevance.  I still like my old ideas... and plan to get them done eventually.  But maybe it's smart to listen to and engage in what is fresh and new and vital to me NOW at this very moment.

Initially I was disappointed that the two stories I had been holding close to my heart for years didn't garner more interest.  But perhaps the fact that my latest idea is my "best" is an indication that I am growing.

Shouldn't any artist hope that his latest work is his best?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reader Poem

This young blog already has its first reader contribution, a wonderful poem from Kit in Chicago:

"O regal eagle,
So mysterious and majestic,

What secrets are shrouded in your soul?

The flaps of your wings,
So powerful and whirling with featherdust,

How can we know the brutal gearing of your ways?

The stones of Tomorrow
and the compass of Truth
Soar into consciousness -

The mountain goats of my mind
Cower as you swoop and shriek.

Oh bird of destruction, what goats will you snatch today?"

Stunning, isn't it?  The powerful imagery reminds me of William Blake's "The Tyger."

Kit also included a link to this video by way of inspiration or accompaniment.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Workshop Group

In the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, once a week for three hours we meet with our workshop group.
Lajos Egri
That's where actually be writing our screenplays - two full features over the course of the academic year.  The group consists of a professor and 8 students.

Our professor is Tim Albaugh, who graduated MFA from UCLA's Screenwriting program in 1992.  Tim seems like a good guy who is friendly, knowledgeable and fun.

My groupmates also seem like a good bunch, some are fresh out of college and some have other careers already.  There's a couple very young people, a couple older ones, a couple in the middle (like me).

There's homework every week; the first week we reread Aristotle's "Poetics" and now we're working through Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing."

I was not familiar with this work; I have since learned it is a legendary piece and I am quite enjoying it.  Apparently Egri lived and taught private courses in Los Angeles until his death.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hello World

I'm three weeks into my new Professional Program in Screenwriting at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and TV so I figure I better start now if I'm going to be keeping a blog about it.

Our course lasts over the whole academic year (three terms) and we meet once a week for a large lecture and once a week in a small workshop.  Seems like a good format because you get the macro and micro scale of things.

Our lecturer for the large group is Hal Ackerman.  So far he's been great.  He's got a great sense of humor and also recognizes that writing is a lot about heart and emotion.  He's from New York and started as a playwright.  I'd say he's in his 70's.

The first day of class he ended by playing a Tom Waits song about a hooker in Minneapolis, with the lights off and lyrics projected on the board.  Can't get much better for a screenwriting class than that.

He also told us how his (latest?) wife left him via text message.  That rules.

In the third class he told us "sometimes you get what you need, remember that Stones song?"

I sung it on the walk back to my car.