Monday, May 24, 2010

Still Standing

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I didn’t get much writing done because I ran into some old friends at my local Starbucks and we just hung out all night. The very first question everyone asked me was, “Where’s Craig?” And I ended up telling each person as they arrived and asked me that question, “He moved back home”, which was an amazing conversation killer. Moments of silence as people processed this, and wondered if they would move home someday.

The group consists of people from the neighborhood who shop at the local Ralph’s Grocery and often eat at City Wok or Tortas across the street and grab a coffee on their way to work at Starbucks and a beer after work at Residuals Bar. Some of the folks have known each other longer than others - three of them all lived at the Oakwood Apartments (where Jay Leno knocks on doors sometimes as part of a gag) at the same time. The lynchpin that holds it all together is one guy who was one of the Oakwood guys - who would come home from work and go straight to Starbucks, sitting outside by the front doors whether it was summer or winter. We called him the Mayor of Starbucks. He’d say hello to you when you passed him - said hello to everybody. Knew most people by name. And when I hit a snag on a script and needed to step away from the laptop before I smashed it to pieces, I would take a break and sit outside with him for a while. And that’s how I became part of this loose group. We all knew this one guy, and we all started to hang out together.

Two or three times a week - no schedule and no set dates and no real organization - a bunch of us would be at Starbucks at the same time and go to dinner together at City Wok and then go back to Starbucks and sit around and BS. There were directors and stunt men and writers and cinematographers and FX people and a puppeteer. You read that right - a guy who puts on puppet shows. Oh, and actors. For a few years, this loose group would meet and have dinner and BS - sometimes our table at City Wok would be for 4 people, and sometimes they’d have to put a whole bunch of tables together. I often work in that Starbucks, as did a couple of others, so we would always be part of the group. Others came or went or whatever.

Sometimes people would move to the other side of Los Angeles, and we might not see them for months... and then they’d drop in one night out of the blue. Sometimes they moved and just never made it back. And sometimes they would go home in defeat.

Mostly guys, but one ultra hot gal who lived in my building landed a big deal - a TV show - and moved into a luxury pad by the beach on the other side of town and... then it all fell apart. She ended up going home. It was tragic.

One of the guys had the hots for this cute Barista gal, but was kind of scared to ask her out. Every time he was there he would flirt with her and she would flirt with him. She was single. She was dating. She was dating men. But this guy just couldn’t work up the nerve to ask her out. Every time he was there for dinner we would encourage him to just do it - what’s the worst that could happen? She says no. One night, he decides he’s going to do it. We’re all there - over a dozen of us - I think the puppeteer was even there - when he flirts with her for a while and she flirts with him and then he asks her out... and she BRUTALLY shoots him down. You could hear us gasp all the way in Long Beach. It was like a body blow to all of us. He grabbed his tea and sat back down with us and pretended like nothing happened. He was joking about something a few minutes later.

A couple of years ago the group began to dissolve. One of the guys got married (his wife is now expecting), some of the guys moved, and the lynchpin guy who kind of held the group together had some personal problems and doesn’t go out of his house much anymore. I seldom go to that Starbucks, because it became very crowded (difficult to get a table) and too many people know my name (so it’s hard to get anything done). Some days I check to see if there’s a table, some days I just get on the bike and go somewhere else without even checking. But a couple of weeks ago I showed up for the evening shift, the place was almost empty, and I grabbed a table and started working...

When one of the guys came in and said he’d gotten a call that some of others were going to show up later... and we ended up with around 8-10 people. All of whom asked me: “Where’s Craig?” And I had to answer that he’s moved back home.

Craig was one of those other guys in Starbucks with a laptop open writing something. To hear him talk, he had it all figured out. He had quit a high paying job back home and moved to Hollywood to make it big. Make millions. He drove a sports car - leased. He was one of those guys who could talk their way into just about anything - super confident, aggressive about business, a real hustler, cocky but also funny. That was really his biggest gift, because he could make you feel at ease - like you were an insider in his world, joking at the losers on the outside. He had cajones. He would just go up and talk to some movie star or producer and often get them to take his scripts. He landed a deal, that worked out well for him... and it seemed like this was the first step to bigger things. He was walking on air - king of the world - sure that he would just be climbing that Hollywood ladder rung after rung until he got to the top. But after that initial success, he stumbled a bit before he landed his next deal. The stumbling part he shook off, telling us that those deals weren’t met to be and not getting them was a good thing because it cleared the way for the big one. Then he landed his second deal, which looked like the big one... and that did not go as planned at all.

I read one of his scripts once, and it was wild and energetic and had no act 2 and kinda didn’t really come together at the end. But filled with cool stuff. I tried to give him some feedback on it, but he thought it was fine... good enough to get him though the doors. And it was. You know, it’s not easy to get through those doors. But once they tried to make a movie out of it all of the problems became apparent and it crashed and burned horribly and something happened to him - maybe he realized he could get through the door, but when it came time to make the movie he didn’t have those skills. Or maybe he had this dream that making it big would be easy and it wasn’t. Or maybe it was something else.

Anyway, after that second one crashed, he tried to set something else up and nothing happened at all, and then, while I was out of town for the holidays, he called me and said he was going home, I thought just for the holidays.... but he never returned.

The first or second year I was at the Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference, William Kelley who wrote WITNESS said that you don’t know anything until you’ve had a script produced. You *think* you know something, but actually having that script turned into a film changes everything. I think that’s true. I think when it’s a screenplay, it’s all still kind of make believe and the decision to change something isn’t going to cost a pile of money or put production behind by a few days or make the ending impossible. You may have a script that’s an amazing read, but when it is time to put that script on screen most of the cool stuff stays on the page and the film doesn’t work. Or maybe can’t even be filmed. Once your dream becomes something that is going to be scheduled and budgeted and rewritten for budget and schedule and available talent and all of the other physical issues that come along with production (not even bringing in the artistic stuff), it often turns into something so real it is not enjoyable. That scene where he teaches her how to surf while they are on vacation in Hawaii and they fall in love? Well, we are shooting this film in New Mexico because of the tax incentives - Can he teach her how to ride a horse instead? Stuff like that destroys some people. And having to make something that only works on the page due to some fancy word-dancing, work on the screen where there is no dancing allowed, may be outside of some writer’s skill set. They may discover that they are not good enough for that next step.

There are 5 steps to screenwriting, and each is a chance for all kinds of failure.
1) Learning to write the screenplay.
2) Learning to write the screenplay that someone wants to buy.
3) Learning to write the screenplay that gets made into a film.
4) Going through the hell of production.
5) Remaining a screenwriter over a period of time.

I have seen a lot of “big talkers” come and then go. Maybe they are embarrassed because they told everyone how great they were and how great their work was and how easy it was for them to get their first thing set up someplace... and then it didn’t turn out easy after all. Maybe all of that talk is what *made them* go back home or make some low budget film that can’t find a distrib and drop out of sight so that they don’t have to answer questions about it. Maybe they have told everyone they are going to be Kings, and when they end up just pawns, they can’t deal with that.

But here’s the thing - you can get depressed or frustrated or heart broken and go back home, or you can stick it out and figure out what isn’t working and fix that. If you don’t brag about what hasn’t happened yet, no reason to be embarrassed when it doesn’t happen or takes much longer than expected.

At the TALES FROM THE SCRIPT panel, one of the writers said that screenwriting is a job where you get punched in the face again and again and again. And that is the truth. If you haven’t been punched in the face yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen... it means when it does happen you’ll be hit twice as hard. Maybe five times as hard. It will happen.

Best thing to do: Feel the pain, then get up and prepare to be hit again.

The best line in the last ROCKY film: “It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”

Same is true in Hollywood, as I’m sure Stallone can tell you. You want to go the full ten rounds and take a bunch of hits and still be standing at the end of the fight. A setback is just a setback - shake it off, stay in the ring.

"Hello, I'm a screenwriter.... I want you to hit me in the face as hard as you can."

- Bill

I'm sorry, one of my movies is invading the UK again...
Movies For Men Channel: 5/27 - 16:20 - Steel Sharks - When a United States submarine is seized by terrorists, a rescue attempt by Elite Navy Seals goes awry. The submarine crew wages a silent war beneath the waves in this tense undersea thriller.

(oddly wrong synopsis - it's a germ warfare scientist who is kidnaped by Iran, and a rescue attempt by Navy SEALS that goes wrong, etc.)

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: The Terror Of Act 2 - How to keep act 2 exciting... even if the conflict is with unseen forces.
Dinner: Arroz con pollo.
Bicycle: Medium-long ride deep into the valley.
Pages: Yesterday? Nothing but this blog entry.


Brett said...

Thanks for this post.

That's all I'm gonna say. ;-)

Mel Skinner said...

I've never bothered to say it before, but sometimes it needs to be said. You are brilliant and insightful. No BS.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

After the first few punches, it doesn't hurt so much.

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