Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Wall

Not the Pink Floyd movie directed by the great Alan Parker (which I need to add to my DVD addiction) but that one you hit when the brain says “No more, reached your limit, time to take a nap.” Yesterday I hit it.

It’s been a long time since I hit the wall, and I’m wondering if that’s a bad thing. Maybe I should be pushing myself even harder than I already do? Maybe I should frequently test the limits?

But I’m more of the tortoise than the hare - I know that I can easily write 5 “good” pages a day... and get that up to 10 a day if required by some crazy deadline. And 5 pages a day gets me a first draft in a month and usually allows me relax time. It’s like working a real job - you put in the hours, and you have time for a beer afterwards.

The last time I hit the wall was a couple of decades ago when I wrote 27 pages in one day... and then my brain just shut down... for a couple of days! That was an experiment in seeing how many pages I could write in one day. Not nonsense pages that hit the trash can the next day, but pages that would part of the script until *this* day.

But I’m not sure I could write 27 pages now. I’m not as young as I was... and I find myself having to think of things more than I used to. A large part of that is that I think I am a better writer, now, and if I were to re-read those 27 pages I would say, “This is complete shit!” and do a page one rewrite on that script. I say that about most of my old scripts, anyway. Now I really consider every line when I write it - and often every word. Even in the first draft. I think more about the characters, the subtext, the situations. I know what is likely to make an impact on screen and what will probably just sit there like a carp. So I’ve lost some speed and gained some accuracy.... and I can still easily do 5 pages a day (so I’m not one of those “it took my seven years to write my masterpiece screenplay” guys - and when you read their script, “master” is not the word you use with the word “piece” usually). I can still crank it out - it’s just better sausage, now.

Though this hasn’t been tested by an insane deadline in about a decade, I’m pretty sure I can still do 10 pages a day and whip out a script in 2 weeks. I wrote GATORBABY over the Christmas holiday a couple of years ago - it was about 12 days of writing... but with extra days off for those pesky holiday events. It wasn’t a *sustained* 10 pages a day. I had lots of time to recharge the mental batteries.

So, I’m home for the holidays (and one of my nieces getting hitched) now, with no deadlines and no deadlines on the horizon. Nothing to do but work on specs, new tips, finally rewrite the action book, and record and edit some new audio classes. No picketing going on in my home town, so I’m not on the line. I’m almost done with a new spec (SLEEPER AGENT - some of you read along as I was writing it) and set that script aside for Expo and a handful of other responsibilities. Now I’ve pulled it out to finish it... and I can’t remember what the hell I was doing with it. I also set it aside at the exact wrong point - at the end of a scene... in fact, the end of a “chapter” in the story. Now I have to start the ball rolling again after a complete stop and I’m not even sure which is the best way to push it. So I’ve been struggling with that spec - making no progress - and I decided to work on something else... an old script that needs a page one rewrite. It had been on the long list of old gold scripts - the ones that need lots of work, but have been out of circulation for so long - when I do the rewrite they are like new scripts - no one has read them in *decades*. I have a huge stack of these scripts - kind of a hidden stockpile of salable material. All I have to do is apply nose to grindstone and rewrite them.

So I started on this rewrite - and one of the things I decided to do was completely change the characters from almost-cliches to what’s probably a different kind of cliche, but one that I can flesh out better and make more original and individual. The other big change was location - from New York (never been there) to Oakland, CA (was there two days ago... and lived a few miles away for most of my life). I think it’s interesting that when I wrote this script (and many others) I always tried to drop the story into some sophisticated setting to make *me* look worldly and sophisticated.... but now I just want to stick around the house and use places that are “home” and situations that are “home” in my scripts...

Oh, wait, SLEEPER takes place from Turkey to Paris - places I’ve never been - and deals with spies and terrorists. So maybe I’m still doing some armchair adventure.

Anyway, I was *ripping* through this rewrite, and then I realized something. The whole script is leading up to one big juicy scene... that’s not in the script. The events after than scene are in the script and the events leading up to it - but not the scene. Now, I wrote this script so long ago that I may have thought it was *clever* not to show that scene - I don’t remember. Today, I think the audience would try to find me and kill me if I left that scene out. My friend John and I went to see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and both of us were pissed off that they didn’t show a pivotal scene - just the aftermath. It’s like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 - the whole story is about how impossible it is to break into this place and steal this thing - a million alarms and guards - and Tom Cruise gets in and out... and we don’t see any of the details, They left the impossible mission part off screen! I felt cheated. And I didn’t want anyone to feel cheated by *my* script, no matter how clever it made me feel. So I’d have to write that scene.

Now, if this were a screenplay, I would have hit the wall writing that scene. But this is real life. It’s messy. It makes no sense - and doesn’t have to make sense. So I *avoided* writing that scene by writing something else.

No, not the last scenes of SLEEPER... this is messy real life.

I worked on a completely dead project. One I hadn’t even thought about. And found my new wall seems to be 18 pages. Completely from scratch pages. And I finished those 18 pages at about 8pm last night... then went into a walking coma. My brain shut down. I could not tell you what 2 plus 2 equals. I could not tell you my name... let alone could I tell you anything about the Ipcress File. I was a zombie.

I thought if I walked to the local Starbucks and drank some peppermint hot chocolate and went online I might be able to get my brain going again. No luck. I basically just sat there, drooling. I was Randall McMurphy at the end of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. So, that’s the new wall number - 18. If I ever need to crank out 18 pages on a script to meet some deadline, I can do that... then, probably sit there and drool for the next couple of days. I’m writing this, just to make sure I didn’t do permanent brain damage. I can report - but it may take a day or two before I’m up and creating.

So that big scene in the rewrite and the end of SLEEPER will have to wait.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character Creation, using GHOSTBUSTERS as an example.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken Ceasar salad at La Scala in Walnut Creek.

Movies: Saw NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and as mentioned - the “obligatory scene” isn’t in the film... but then, The Dude didn’t get a replacement for his peed on rug at the end of LEBOWSKI, either... and that rug tied the room together. That’s one of those terms nobody uses anymore - “obligatory scene”. Hey, it’s obligatory for a reason!

DVDs: Watched all kinds of stuff on disk over the past few days - some early Hitchcock like THE 39 STEPS... still holds up. One thing that is amazing about this film are the “gags” - there is a density to films from the 1930s that we seem to have lost. Little details that are obviously the work of the writer.

Here’s an example - our hero is on the run for murdering a woman who was actually a spy.... he is captured by two men who claim to be police, but are really bad guys.... and escapes handcuffed to the woman who helped capture him. She is the leading lady - but at this point she thinks he’s an escaped killer. They check in to a B&B for the night... and there must be a dozen gags with those handcuffs. To hide the cuffs, our hero places his hand in her coat pocket. He can’t sign the register, so she has to. He can’t take the keys. He can’t shake hands. He has to use his other hand to eat and drink with (and can’t do both at once) and the topper - the one everyone remembers - when the girl takes off her stockings, his hand has to rub against her legs! But there are probably 5 or 6 more gags having to do with those handcuffs - they have to sleep next to each other in the same bed, and neither can roll over without pulling the other one, etc.

And while all of this is going on - there are about a dozen gags with the innkeeper and his wife playing out downstairs about the “runaway couple” and how in love they are... and keeping the register from the bad guys when they show up looking and kicking them out because they can’t serve drinks after hours - basically, a bunch of gags about running a B&B are going on downstairs while the leg-feeling is going on upstairs. The *density* of this scene is amazing.

DVDs: Hitchcock silent film THE RING... also holds up. Almost no “dialogue cards” in this film - visual storytelling. Story is about a boxer at a carnival, “One Round Jack” who will fight anyone in the audience for a price... and if they win, they win some huge amount of money. The girl selling ticket’s is Jack’s fiancé. We see a bunch of guys get knocked down by Jack within moments of entering the ring. The “Round 1" card is dirty, torn up. Then a Big Guy starts flirting with Jack’s fiancé. Jack is jealous, goads him into paying to fight him. The Big Guy gets in the ring... and puts up a fight! After the first round, they put up the “Round 2" card and it’s brand new - never been used before!

Now you see the fiance at the ticket window and a big roll of tickets... which spins into a very small roll as a crowd buys tickets to see the fight. When the Big Guy knocks Jack down and wins the fight, the carnival guy doesn’t have the promised winner’s money - this has never happened before! He has to go around collecting money from other carnies.

The Big Guy uses his winnings to buy a piece of jewelry for the fiancé - a gold band that goes around her upper arm. He flirts with her and gives her his card... he’s a professional boxer. Jack sees the way his fiancé looks at the Big Guy - so he proposed to her.

They get married - and we have a different kind of ring. It’s a funny wedding - a *carnival* wedding - so we get a dozen gags just in the scene where the guests are being seated, ending with the topper: Siamese Twins, one wants to sit on the groom side, one wants to sit on the bride side.

After the wedding, Jack just isn’t his old self in the boxing ring. You can figure out the symbolism of that on your own.

And you remember that gold arm band the Big Guy gave the fiancé? It keeps sliding down her arm and covering the wedding ring. There have got to be a half dozen different scenes with that gold band *showing* us the fight between Jack and the Big Guy for his fiance’s heart - two pieces of jewelry fighting it out.

Failed fighter Jack quits the carnival... and ends up becoming the sparring partner for the Big Guy as he makes the Big Guy run at champion. Jack’s job is now to get beaten up on a regular basis by the guy who made passes at his fiancé... now wife.

Well, kind of now wife - because she is less interested in Jack The Loser and much more interested in Big Guy The Winner... and starts an affair with the Big Guy! Now Jack is beat up by the Big Guy every day and goes home to an empty bed. You can see why they didn’t need many “dialogue cards” - this story is told through the actions and situations.

And I’ll bet you can tell where this story is going... Jack is going to have to get into the ring again, and work his way up to fighting the Big Guy (who will be champion by this time) in order to win back his wife. This was in the days before Viagra, you had to fight your way back.

There’s a great visual for Jack’s rise from nothing to contender - outside the big boxing arena there’s a huge wall-sized sign listing the weekend’s bouts. Jack begins at the very bottom of the sign in letters so small you can barely see them... then with every fight we see, his name moves up on the sign and the lettering becomes larger, until he is on the line just below the Big Guy in lettering almost as big. Again - this is a way to *show* his progress and *show* what these fights we see mean. No one has to say, “Hey, if you win one more fight you’ll be a contender for champion” - we can see it on the sign outside the boxing arena.

There’s a scene in the film that really choked me up - amazing how a scene from a movie made in 1927 can do that to a viewer in 2007. Jack wins the fight that bumps him up to the same line as the Big Guy and celebrates with his entourage. The entourage is an interesting bunch - they are the same guys who were part of the carnival boxing crew, and Jack has brought them along on his rise to contender. So we’ve had a whole movie to get to know them. By now, they are *our friends* as well as Jack’s. So Jack invites them back to his apartment to celebrate, and can’t find his wife. She’s not in the kitchen when he gets the champagne and glasses, so he searches the bedroom... she’s not there either. Well, not in *his* bedroom. So there’s a big embarrassing scene where Jack looks at his watch waiting for his wife to return before they drink the champagne... and his friends wait... and they *know* his wife is somewhere with the Big Guy... and the champagne in the glasses goes flat - we *see* it go flat. Then it gets late and the friends all have to leave - flat champagne untouched in the glasses. It’s a heart-breaker. Your tear-ducts get a work out. But it also primes you for the championship bout with the Big Guy.

And I’m going to give away the end - after that big championship bout, the Big Guy’s trainer finds the gold arm band discarded ringside - just thrown away - and gives it to the Big Guy. Okay, what has that shown us?

Pages: 18 big ones, baby!


Leif Smart said...

What would say is a better goal to aim for, pages per day or pages per week?

I've been trying to raise my pages per day, but maybe I'm missing the bigger picture. Is it any good writing 23 pages a day instead of 10 if you're wrecked the next 2 or 3 days. Obviously when battling a deadline is a different matter, but I'm a long way from that stage 8)

Anonymous said...

Great stuff all around. I watch the old films on . They really don't make them like they used to.

If you're pounding out 5 good pages a day instead of 10 bad pages, you must be saving yourself rewrite time on the back end.

Video games help me clear my head. They're great for mindless decompression. Or music. I find that if I try to recharge my batteries with other movies, it just scrambles my brains even more. Too much of the same medium, I suppose. Don't worry about the wall, you're a writing machine!

Christian H. said...

It totally agree about the wall. I hit it a few months ago. I couldn't even recognize a two to add it.
I forgot some of my day job tasks and stopped writing for a few weeks.
I'm back at it now, but it was tight there for awhile.

Also, I totally agree with you on the 39 Steps. That was an excellent visual movie. I haven't seen it in awhile but I know it would still be enjoyable. Maybe even moreso now that I have been studying every facet of filmmaking for the last 8 months.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog! Talks about some old movies that are definitely worth screening, along with good personal experience. I once wrote a novel in two weekends. Only later did I realize how bad it was.

Reading Joe Eszterhas' Devil's Guide to Hollywood. Joe seems to say that the way to make it in Hollywood is to be Hungarian, and to threaten the buyers. That's about it.

Richard McNally said...

I was blocked for more than a year and finally got around it by shifting my writing time from morning to night. I find it comforting to fall asleep in a bed of dialogue, nothing softer than fantasia to sleep on, and these strange, incontestably real people who talk silently to each other in one's head and take each other for real. And I think you chose Wenkman and Travis as sample characters in today's Script Secret because you are a long-time iconoclast with a good sense of humor (Wenkman) and felt instinctively drawn to them as brothers.

- Rick

Anonymous said...

I hit the wall about a week ago--

Not on a script, sadly, but on an essay I was writing for my Greek Philosophy class. There I was, typing away while simultaneously reading source texts in three different languages, and typing and typing and I had five pages and it was 4 am when I realised I can't put a coherent sentence together anymore.

Though the fact I was a wee bit sleepy might had something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

I love these little in depth looks at your dvd rentals you tag on at the end of your already fab posts... I love getting a twofer of goodness

Anonymous said...

This is unrelated to the block but related to today's tip (12/06/07). I think you're dead-on with the theme of Pirates of the Carrabean: At World's End. I'm not sure about the Jake betraying himself in limbo idea but the rest seems exactly right. I also love how they really committed to hero myth motifs in the 2nd 2 installments. Jack enters the belly of the beast, which takes him on a journey through the afterlife, which doubles as his innermost cave, followed by a resurrection.

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