Monday, October 26, 2009

London 14: Day 10 - Where Am I Going?

There is not enough coffee in the world for today.

My big two day class starts tomorrow, and I have had no sleep and too much beer and am a complete mess... and still don’t know exactly where the class is being held. All of the students know, but not me. No one has told me. Every time I ask, I get one of those general answers: “Somewhere off Charring Cross Road” - which is like saying it’s somewhere off Wilshire Blvd - covers a lot of ground. Though I can walk to Charring Cross Road from my hotel, and have grabbed a coffee in the Starbucks on the north end of Charring Cross Road, well, there’s a lot more of that road where the class might be, and no one has given me an address, let alone directions.

Because trudging up and down the hotel stairs is a pain in the ass, I get some room service coffee and sit at the nice big desk looking over my class materials. I am not Robert McKee or John Truby or any of those other guru types - I don’t teach classes for a living. The last time I taught the class was three years ago... and I’ve come up with this crazy new “Thematic” idea and haven’t really incorporated it into the class. The one thing I *have* done is watched GHOST a half dozen times and taken all kinds of notes. The original plan was to turn those notes into the Thematic part of the class on the plane, but that didn’t happen... then to do it in my spare time before the weekend class, but with 5 (FIVE!) Free classes I didn’t really have any spare time. So here I am, day before the class, no sleep and probably still drunk, transferring my notes on GHOST onto the pages that will make up the new addition to the class. And it’s all coming together despite having limited brain power.

This whole Thematic thing began with someone’s typo on a message board. They meant to write “theme” but their fingers just kept going and typed “thematic”. My fingers do that often - it’s the curse of too much typing, your fingers finish a word even if that wasn’t the word you were trying to type. I’ll bet there are over a hundred places on this blog where I typed “and” when all I wanted to type was “an”. Anyway - their sentence made no sense at all with the word “thematic”, but I began thinking about that word... and thinking about theme in screenplays, and how I believe that theme influences everything in a script from characters to dialogue.... and I wondered if you could make a brainstorming tool based around theme that could help you flesh out a story idea. If you’ve read my Zombie Article it explores that idea. So I came up with form/chart thingie that started with character or concept and then found the theme and then used that theme to come up with many of the other things you need to develop your screenplay. Characters, scenes, dialogue, actions, etc - all from the theme. Kind of a cool idea, and basically the way I work (consciously now, subconsciously when I first began writing).

Though this is a really cool tool, it also *sounds cool*, and one of the things that all of those guru guys have is some sort of gimmick that makes their screenwriting method sound cool and maybe even easy. Gotta tell you - screenwriting is *not* easy. But one of the big issues I have at Raindance when they are making up brochures (when they do that - not this year) is that my class has no “hook”. It’s just a bunch of tools and techniques that I use that work. Boring. So once I came up with this, I thought it was the answer to my “hook problem” - it’s still just a technique, but it sounds cool. Thematic! Because I’m really good at shooting myself in the foot and kind of hate the whole guru thing, I came up with this semi-parody of a guru sales pitch for the Thematic - not a machine! - and put it in my class description.

But now, here I am trying to take these notes on GHOST and reverse-engineering the film so that I can use it as an example for the class tomorrow... and it fits perfectly. I go over the rest of the class, look at the *menu* of my clip reel again (but don’t have time to watch the clips) and once everything is organized, I put it in my Script Secrets messenger bag, and put the bag by the front door so that I’ll know where it is when that alarm rings tomorrow morning.

The coffee is gone, but I’m awake enough to greet the world, so I gather up my stuff and leave...

One of the things I pack in my backpack are the originals for the class workbook. Usually when I do the class I give everyone a 120 page workbook, but the problem this time around is that I have the smallest class I have ever taught in my life, and I’m afraid if I give Elliot the workbook to make copies, he may find someway to charge me extra for it. The more expense stuff I give them, the more they'll cut off my split, and with so few students I have to be careful. The only thing I want him to be able to charge off on the class is the room. Look, if I come away from these two weeks with a trip to London and an all access pass to the film festival, that's great - I'll be happy. But the weekend class is a lot of hard work, and it would be nice to get paid for it. I'm afraid once the expenses are added up there will be nothing left, and that means I need to control as many of those expenses as possible. So I’ve decided to just print the syllabus, the thematic pages, and the “home work assignments” and give them the rest of the stuff as pdfs on a disk. I have brought a bunch of blank disks in paper sleeves with the web address on them just in case - and had planned to put some script pdfs on them for the class. Now it’s close to 500 script pdfs *and* the class materials in pdf form. But I still have to burn these.

I grab a coffee at the British Museum Starbucks, joke with the German guy, and look for a copy place. I find one not far away, and make 15 copies of the syllabus and thematic and homework stuff - pay for it out of pocket. It’s 30 pages, and easily fills a paper box. The paper box goes in my backpack...

Oh, I should mention that I also have two bottles of wine in my backpack. When I was on the pitching panel they gave all of us a Raindance messenger bag with some goodies inside - including 2 bottles of wine. Though, unlike Dracula, I *do* drink wine, I had no idea how I was going to get it home with me. It would have to be carry on, and that just seemed like a hassle. So I asked Janet if she wanted two bottles of wine, and now my backpack is filled with 450 sheets of paper (stapled) and 2 bottles of wine, plus the laptop and all of the other crap I lug around with me every day (notes on some script I’m in the middle of - did I really think I’d have time to work on it in London?). I walk cross town to the cinema - stopping at the CafĂ© first to see if anyone knows where my class is tomorrow... nobody knows. Swell! I stop at the office and ask, and get the Charring Cross Road answer... but they tell me which staff member actually knows all of the details. All I have to do is find her. So, I go to the cinema to unload the wine on Janet and see some movies.

Janet has brought along a friend, a cute woman named Suzanne, and we all go see..

MOVIE: THE INVESTIGATOR - from Hungary - So, I’m half asleep... and this film keeps me awake. A really creepy thriller with a dozen big twists, the story opens with a businesswoman going to her office where we see pictures of her family on her desk. As she prepares to leave, she tries closing the window, but part of the shade is in the way. She climbs onto her desk to free the shade... and falls out the window to the street a dozen stories below. The next time we see her she’s on a slab being cut open by the Medical Examiner, Tibi, our protagonist. Tibi sees dead people - every day at work. He’s quiet, reserved... lonely. He goes to the same cafe every night for dinner - a creature of habit. The pretty waitress flirts with him, but that’s her job... except this night, she asks him out to the movies. She’s lonely, too - and knows that Tibi is a good man with an off-putting occupation. Tibi’s mother is dying of cancer, and because of her age the HMO isn’t paying for the available treatment. He’d have to pay out of pocket... but he doesn’t have the money.

Then he gets a phone call from a stranger who calls himself The Cyclops, and quicker than you can say Tom Ripley, Cyclops offers him a chance to make enough money to pay for his mother’s treatment... by murdering a stranger. Tibi is used to dead people, right? Shouldn’t be a problem for him. Tibi takes the job...but killing someone is not the same as cutting them open when they are already dead. The night he’s supposed to kill the guy he has already set up his second date with the waitress, and bought movie tickets in advance. He makes an excuse and goes to kill this stranger... Suspense builds while Tibi follows the victim, working up the nerve to kill him. The day after the murder he goes out with the waitress, same movie, same time, different day... and gives her the ticket stubs for the night of the murder.

He’ll need that alibi, because a pair of detectives come to question him... you see, the stranger he killed was actually his long lost brother. When he was a child he had a brother and sister, but the family was poor and farmed out the kids to relatives... and Tibi’s family moved when he was an infant and he never knew his brother and sister. Now, he has murdered his own brother. Tibi must find out who is behind all of this and why it is happening, as the detectives close in and his new girlfriend wonders what’s happening... but what if the waitress/girlfriend is part of the scheme? Every time you think you know what’s going on, there’s a great twist that changes everything.

One of the great things about this film are the cool “devices” - the brochure for the clinic Tibi wants to take his mother to *comes alive* and the doctors and nurses in the photos tell about the treatments. Instead of having that VO of the person writing a letter while the character is reading it, the letter writer is *there* - standing on a giant letter - walking towards Tibi and talking to him. These devices are interesting and different and turn exposition into something dramatic and visual and magic. The actors are all great, with gentle giant Tibi coming off sympathetic despite being a man of few words who kills his own brother. Lots of twists and suspense, and some swift graphic violence... plus some humor to keep it all from being too dark.

I’ve had pretty good luck with genre films at the festival - this Hungarian film could easily find an audience among thriller and crime film fans in the USA.

LOBBY: Next up is DINNER PARTY, one of two films playing tonight from people who have taken my classes in the past. The other is called DEADLINE and keeps being removed from the Big Board then returning - the showing gets cancelled every day then goes back on the schedule the next day. I have no idea what’s going on with that film, but it may or may not be on after DINNER PARTY. I’m not sure I’ll be awake for DEADLINE, though, as having only 4 hours of sleep is catching up with me and I have a class to teach tomorrow morning - and I still have no idea where that class is.

In the lobby, the writer-director of THE DINNER PARTY is being interviewed by a magazine reporter, and when he sees me, starts telling the reporter about taking my class and now I really do have to see his movie.

When I go upstairs to get my ticket for THE DINNER PARTY I run into some Raindance people and ask where my class is, and get the same Charring Cross answer - which doesn't help me. I hope I find out where it is before the class begins...

The pisser is that DINNER PARTY is *not* marked in my big fat movie program, a film called CRY OF THE OWL is... starring Paddy Considine (who I met at a previous Raindance) and Julia Styles, and based on a Patricia Highsmith novel (she wrote the Tom Ripley novels and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and is one of those great, creepy thriller novels). This is a great book (about a normal man who becomes the center of several murder investigations) and I really wanted to see it, but instead went downstairs and into the cinema to see THE DINNER PARTY... but we’ll talk about that tomorrow.

- Bill


damZway said...

Darren Aronofsky uses the term "thematics" to describe his focus on theme as the starting point for his stories. There's a video of him talking about it on

wcmartell said...

Wow! Did I swipe this from Aronofsky? I'll have to check that out!

- Bill

damZway said...

Not implying that -- nor was I plugging that site -- but maybe the typo wasn't a real typo.

Anonymous said...

One theme coming out of your UK experience to me is, next year dropkick Eliot to the side

ObiDonWan said...

I'm trying to think how you can convert this real-life happening (the film festival, giving free classes, battling sleep, drinking lots of beer, etc.) into a real exciting adventure movie script. Gotta be a way...

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