Friday, November 21, 2008

EXPO 2008 - Post Mortem (part 2)

Screenwriting Expo is laying on the slab and I'm doing that butterfly cut...

Friday is movie night, and that movie is QUANTUM OF SOLACE - which I will rip to shreds at a later date - and afterwards, in the cinema parking lot, one of the guys smells smoke and wonders if it’s even possible for the smoke from the fires near Santa Barbara to blow all of the way down here? You know, Santa Barbara is a long ways away from Los Angeles. Think of all of those states on the east coast... the west coast is mostly California with a little bit of Oregon and a little bit of Washington. On the east coast, Santa Barbara would be a few states away! No way to smell that smoke.

When I get home I flick on the TV... and it’s live fire coverage on every channel. Sylmar is burning. I have a couple of friends I haven’t talked to in ages who live there. That’s also where the county hospital is, I once drove Lou Grantt who ran Hollywood Scriptwriter Newsletter there when she wasn’t feeling well. And there was that hospital on TV with fire burning all around it. I click around the dial - and all of the local stations have live coverage all night. This can be funny because there’s a point where the anchors and field reporters are sleep deprived and may say crazy things. I’m waiting for that to happen... but meanwhile I’m trying to figure out the geography of this fire - and there is not a single *map*. They keep using street names in Sylmar, but I’ve only been there that one time, so I have no idea where these streets are. My friend Kris (one of the guys I just saw QUANTUM with) lives near Porter Ranch, was evacuated in the last big fire and lived in a motel with his dog for a few days... and Sylmar is close enough to Porter Ranch that the fire might be getting close to his house... but I can’t tell because there are no maps at all. Just picture-in-picture double fire footage and voice over from the anchor. I wonder if they call them “Night Anchors”? Sounds like a naval porn term.

Anyway, I keep watching to find out whether Kris’ house that *didn’t* burn down last fire is about to burn down in this one... and for the reporters to do something silly live on camera at 4am. They never show a map They also never show the “Night Anchors” at all - I click around to see if any of the channels show them, Nope. We get the field reporters and Night Anchor voice over shots of fire, but not a single shot of the people behind the desk. Look, I don’t care how bad their hair looks at 4am, I want to see them! And here’s why - in time of crisis, showing me the crisis in picture-in-picture doesn’t calm me. In fact, it panics me. But showing me people in suits sitting calmly behind a desk with perfectly blow-dried hair, that calms me. I think that is why if I click around to Mexican TV or Persian TV or Korean TV or Japanese TV or any other news from any other country or culture - there’s a guy in a suit with perfectly blow-dried hair sitting behind a desk calmly telling me that the world is going to end... and this calms me. I can deal with the end of the world because Brokaw is calmly dealing with it. But at 4am, I just get fire and more fire, and not a single face to put me at ease. No map, no face, no blow-dried hair... but eventually field reporter Gigi on channel 11 has a spark burn a big hole in her blouse, and shows the hole (and some naked flesh beneath) to the world on live TV. Another field reporter is almost engulfed in flames when she gets too close to the fire line - sparks blow over her! She survives unharmed, but it’s pretty amazing footage. I watch the fire coverage much of the night... which pretty much ruins that plan to go to Expo on Saturday. I could probably have just gone down for whatever party they had Saturday night, but figured I’d skip it and just go Sunday.

By the way - the sky is downright black on Saturday night. And you can see flames on the hills. They never showed a map of the fire area, so I call Kris - the fire was getting closer, he had stuff packed and ready to go if they evacuated him again, but the fire didn’t get close enough for that. Even today, almost a week later, there is still smoke and particular matter in the air (gets in your eyes when you cycle... lungs, too). I don’t have current phone numbers for my friends who live in Sylmar, so I have no idea whether they lost their homes or not. Maybe they moved, and live somewhere else.

Sunday I take the subway to Expo, and go to the Dealer’s Room to see if I can find my friend Joan and her writing partner Mike who mentioned online they’d be hanging around. I miss them, but notice a literature table filled with contraband postcards and hand outs. Hey! They said they wouldn’t have those tables this year! I could have brought a pile of post cards! Too late now.

In the dealer’s room I also bump into Gary Shusett, who runs Sherwood Oaks Experimental College - which isn’t really a college, just seminar things. Gary is a character. I’ve done a bunch of classes and workshops for him - and he pays nothing. He just pesters you about teaching until he wears you down and you agree. If we sent Gary to the mideast, he would have worn everyone down by now and we’d have permanent peace. Gary knows everyone in town, and half of them took classes from him. His brother, Ron, co-wrote ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL and a bunch of other movies. His sister is a bigwig at Fox. These days, Gary isn’t looking so good - I think he’s seriously ill, but he’s not saying. He pesters me about doing a class on Monday morning at 9am. Um, 9am is way before my wake time. Of course I say yes - I have a problem saying no and Gary doesn’t accept no for an answer. Drop Gary into one of those Discovery Channel shows where lions are attacking, and he’d wear down the lions until they just left him alone.

9am tomorrow... and I’m going to the Scribeosphere post Expo drinking marathon tonight at the Figeroua Hotel.

I head over to the Closing Ceremonies - a big room... mostly empty. This has got to be the lowest turn out for the Expo, yet... maybe it’s following in the footsteps of Showbiz Expo and just fading out. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe everyone is still watching the fire on TV. The closing ceremonies seem to go one *forever* - and things are all mixed up. After they announce the winner of a contest, they have all on the finalists come up on stage for a picture. Why not do the picture first, then while the finalists are on stage, announce the winner? I’m sitting behind Emily, and I brought a stack of DVDs to loan her (stuff we talked about at the party on Thursday). Emily’s day job is teaching High School English, and the whole state is reading the same novel by a California writer - this year it’s THE MALTESE FALCON by Dash Hammett. She’s taking it even farther by teaching about Noir in fiction and film, and showing a couple of movies like CHINATOWN and talking about the genre. Since this is one of my favorite genres, I have a huge stack of DVDs. I’ve picked a half dozen of the best to loan top her....

But sometime after one of the winners was announced, but I think before Bill (who now owns Expo along with Creative Screenwriting) told a long story about his most recent Match.Com date, Emily leaves. I figure she’ll be back or I’ll bump into her at the drinking marathon... but she had another party and I took the DVDs home with me. Since the closing thing is still dragging on, and on and on, I split.

I haven’t eaten yet, figure I’ll find someplace cheap instead of eat at the Fig, which is a fancy hotel downtown. But there’s really not much downtown in the first place, and it’s Sunday night, so I end up at the Fig for the drinking without having eaten. Another cheap drunk night!

I don’t know the history of the Fig, but it just looks like a well kept old building from the outside, on the inside it’s beautiful. Frescos on the walls, it looks like you’ve walked into a luxurious hacienda from a few centuries ago. The marathon is at the poolside bar, and I am the first one there. But a minute after I do the loop around the pool looking for familiar faces (and seeing none) Fun Joel walks in. We start slamming tables together to make one big table - which kind of fits the whole western hacienda feeling of the place. If you’ve ever seen the Sam Fuller western 40 GUNS, they have this great scene with 40 gunslingers sitting around badass Barbara Stanwyck’s epic dinner table... and we’re building that table in the Fig.

Soon, others arrive and real drinking begins. Though this is supposed to be for screenwriters that blog - the people on that scrolling list on the right side of this page - when other writers show up, no one shoos them away. Last year at the hotels, we were in the sports bar... and eventually took over the whole back section. The best thing about the sports bar is that I could order food, here at the Fig I’d have to go to the restaurant to get food, so I just drink. Everyone has a great time, and I talk to a couple of writers that I know from this blog and my website. If there is an Expo next year, wander over on Sunday and drink with us. No one will kick you out.

I have to get onto the subway before midnight or I turn into a pumpkin, so I leave before they close the bar. I wander down the street downtown looking for the subway station - which does not have the red Metro symbol outside on a sign, it has a classy business-type sign. So I miss it the first few times. I keep passing signs on 7th Street that tell me the subway station where I just came from... and eventually I narrow it down, find the station, and hop on a train before they stop running.

When I get home, I set my alarm for 7:30 am - a few hours away - and sleep. Or try to sleep. I’ve been up all night for the past few days watching the fire, and can’t just fall asleep. By the time I doze off, the alarm is about to go off. I shower and dress and grab a coffee at Starbucks and get to Gary’s class at 8:50am... and the room doesn’t open until 9am... and Gary shows after 9:30. I get another coffee while I’m waiting.

Class begins sometime after 9:30 - and here’s what the class is: Gary does these things where you go to 5 studios in 5 days and talk to 5-8 producers from each studio. This class is tacked onto Expo, and it’s 3 studios in 3 days. Universal Monday afternoon - but Monday morning is a pitch workshop. Though most of the producers just want a one page synopsis of your script, every once in a while one will ask the students what they have - and the students have to pitch their scripts on the spot. Gary has learned from past classes that it’s better for the class to be prepared to pitch. And many of the pitches need work. I’ve done this for Gary for years, now... and I can tell you that the main problem with most pitches is the story itself. Usually after I talk about the basics of pitching and say you want to focus on that great idea at the center of your script, at least one person will ask me what if they don’t have a single idea at the center of their script or their idea isn’t great at all - it’s kind of bland. I really have no idea what to say to those people, but I try to find some way for them to pitch their script in the workshop section.

I am full of energy - the combination of residual alcohol and too much coffee. I know that I will crash and burn in a few hours, but for now I’m okay. I can get through the class... but I won’t be working on the script at all today.

So here’s my question - and I may have asked it before - with so much information on screenwriting out there, how come people write an entire screenplay with some major flaw? There are always some people in these workshops with scripts that have huge obvious story problems. How can that happen in this day and age? Look, we’re all learning - even me - but you figure the basic story stuff would be okay.

One of the interesting things about the Expo that I talked about at the Fig’s poolside bar is that they want you to decide whether your course is for beginners, intermediate or advanced students. I always have trouble deciding, because the problem with scripts often is the basics. I’ve found that the more people think they’re way past the basic three act structure, the more they probably need a class on the three act structure. Yesterday’s tip was all about the problems with the *idea* in the movie THE CORE. So basics are often problems, even though there’s all kinds of info out there for screenwriters. Wordplay, Done Deal, Mystery Man, UNK, and probably a hundred more places to get info. Oh, yeah, my site, too. Yet there are still people who haave trouble with the basics. Not that all of the pitches in Gary’s class were terrible, there were some pretty good ones (and one that was great) - but in this day and age, how come any of them have basic problems? No conflict, passive protagonist, protag not involved in the conflict, all subplots and no plot, etc. These things are so basic, you feel bad for the writers who spent the money to fly to Los Angeles and take the class. Why spend all of that money to pitch a script that has basic problems?

Here’s the thing - not every script turns out as planned. I have scripts that suck... but I’m not buying a plane ticket to LA and spending hundreds on a class where I can pitch my script that sucks to big studio execs, But, then, THE CORE sold, right?

Gary asks if I want to come with them to Universal, but I know I’m going to crash at any minute, so I decline. I drag myself to my local Starbucks, talk to some friends about how sparse AFM was this year, then drag myself home and watch some DVDs before I fall asleep. Tuesday I’m the living dead, Wednesday I’m at 75%, and by Thursday I’m 100% again.

I look at an event like Expo and wonder how it can be reinvigorated or find a new audience. Everything dies out if you don’t reinvent it - including screenwriting careers. You always need a blast of imagination to turn what is old into something new. The folks at Expo need to put on their thinking caps *now* for next year and find a way to make it fresh and new and exciting again. Until then, I have to get back to work on this script!

- Bill


Emily Blake said...

Oh no, I just went to the bathroom because I have to go the bathroom every 95 minutes. I kind of wish I'd gone to the Fig, but my friends didn't want to go because they wanted to eat pizza and go to bed early. One of them won an award but it was indeed weird because they announced the big winner early and then other winners in no particular order. And they never did announce who won the short script contest.

wcmartell said...

Did you miss Bill going on-and-on about his date? That was a show stopper!

- Bill

E.C. Henry said...

Great post, Bill.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

mrswing said...

You're going to tear QoS to shreds, Bill??? Buh-buh-but the reviewers at AICN all said it was a masterpiece...
Nah, go ahead and tear it to pieces. It's a disgrace to the Bond name - in 'going back to basics' they've ripped out EVERYTHING which sets Bond apart from other action films and franchises. And though Daniel Craig is a good actor (he was BRILLIANT in the BBC miniseries Our Friends From The North, one of the best British series ever), he's just not Bond, and from this film you'd swear he only has one expression (morose anger). Looking forward to reading the review!

Dave Ale said...

To answer your question (re: Why the suck?) my thinking is that a lot of screenwriters KNOW the theory -- but they don't apply it to their own scripts.

They're the exception.

As in -- yes, three act structure is a good idea... BUT not in my script because I'm doing a series of flashbacks and experimenting with non-linear structure.

People tend to over-estimate their abilities (myself included) and think that because they know something they'll automatically apply it -- but that isn't the case.

Over the last few months I started doing what Rossio called talent-layering, where I'd take several different passes on a script focusing on one particular thing -- Impressive Failure for instance -- and no surprise, my writing improved dramatically.

Most screenwriters know the theory, but forget the application.

Danny said...

How funny - Gary Shusett was also at a Scriptwriter's Network thing yesterday (he was incorrectly announced as "his brother co-wrote ALIENS ...")

And you're correct - he does not look well.

Anonymous said...

Dave can you go into further about talent layering or provide a link? Thanks.

Eleanor said...

Here's a link to Terry Rossio's long post which talks about talent layering. Stick with it: it's long, but it's good.

Eleanor said...

Sorry, that didn't all come out, I'll break it in two.

Emily Blake said...

I did indeed miss the story. It must have been riveting.

I admit I always figured I did apply what I knew. I know you're not supposed to use passive voice and yet reading over my script I use a crapload of passive voice. We take our knowledge for granted.

That going over a script to fix one thing at a time, that's a good idea right there.

Wendy Gail Ellen said...

Check out Wendy's blog entry on Q of S at

Seems we might all agree on this latest Bond fiasco.

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