Friday, June 11, 2010

Act 2 Conflict:
Santa Fe Adventure 3

Josh Olson (Oscar nominee for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) bumps into me in the hallway on the way to the restaurant as does Ian Abrams (writer creator of EARLY EDITION TV show) and we share a table. I know Josh from the old days of the Wordplay website, when it was a magnet for professional screenwriters and serious “pre-pros”. Many of those folks had come over from the AOL Follywood Message Boards that Ted & Terry ran, and I *almost* ran (I turned down free AOL because it sounded like a lot of work, and T&T took the job). Online Josh has a very strong personality and will fight you to the death. Online we have tangled before... but in real life he’s a nice guy. Ian Abrams I met at my first Santa Fe Conference - he’s a pro screenwriter who got tired of the Hollywood bullshit and now teaches film at Drexel University. He’s a big guy, but it looks like he’s lost some weight.

The three of us have lunch - because the conference has taken over the hotel, there is a special conference lunch menu - 3 items and the salad bar. That’s it. That first day, none of the 3 items appealed to me. I ended up ordering a veggie burger - and requested it medium rare... which confused the waiter.

We talked about the event. Josh had never done one of these before, and was surprised that his Academy Class students - who were supposed to be the cream of the crop - were, um, not all cream. One of those things you run into when you teach at these events are those students who say they want advanced classes and don’t want to hear any information that might be considered basics... but their pages are filled with basic mistakes! They have heard these lesson before, but they have not *learned them*. This is often my frustration when teaching - there are people who believe they are much better than they actually are - and *reject* the information that will help them. I don’t know what to do with these folks - because I can’t teach them anything.

I’ve probably said this before - the big problem with so many films ends up being basic screenwriting stuff. Those are the lessons that most need to be learned... even by pros!

When Larry called Josh about doing a class, Josh thought a friend of his had said that Santa Fe was a great event - a non-stop party that’s all panels and drinking and BBQs. But this didn’t seem to be that at all. At lunch he called his friend to ask WTF they were thinking - this isn’t a non-stop party. His friend said - “No, that’s *Austin*”. So, Josh was stuck teaching a class with some students who may not be as talented as they thought they were.

Larry grabs me as I’m leaving the restaurant. One of my students has complained that I am not going to actually tear apart their pages in class. I explain my class plan to Larry, and Larry says this student was really unhappy. Just then, one of my students walks past and I grab her and ask how my class is going so far...

Of all of the students in my class, guess which one I grabbed?

I have the worst luck of anyone I know. If a bird craps over a crowd, the poop lands on me. Nobody else.

So I end up having a conversation with the complaining student, and explain my class plan to her - but she tells me she *wants* her script torn apart in front of the class. I explain that I’m a little uncomfortable ripping apart people’s work in public, but maybe there’s a way to make it work. I can tear apart the scripts without mentioning the writer’s names. Would that be okay with her? She says yes, I apologize... and then she asks if she can send a revised 10 pages based on some of the things she learned in class today. Sure, why not? I plan on turning in early tonight. I find Larry and tell his the problem is solved...

But I wonder if it is. Was her script the other good one? Or one of the bad ones? The other good one is a female lead comedy - and the lead character has some similarities to the lead (age/race/etc). I am hoping that the other good script is her’s, so that I can tear it apart without any more problems. The other thing that is frustrating is when people ask you for your honest opinion... but really want you to say, “It’s brilliant! A work of genius!” You will sell this for as million dollars and win all of the Oscars!” Trust me that you will never hear me say this. I would rather tell you the no BS truth (even if you don’t like it) than tell you that screenwriting is easy and have you not be prepared for just how danged close to impossible that it really is.

Which brings us to...


All of the teachers on one panel answering questions. In those early years there may have been 20 teachers on stage, this year - fewer... but no less impressive. Kirk Ellis - who won an Emmy for writing JOHN ADAMS, and Josh Olson who was Oscar nominated for writing A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and Terry Borst who specializes in new media & video games like WING COMMANDER, and Ian Abrams writer/creator of EARLY EDITION who also wrote a movie called UNDERCOVER BLUES, and cute Wendell Thomas who teaches at UCLA and has some credits, and me with 19 films that the United Nations and Amnesty International have deemed as torture, and... the squat woman on my flight who snagged the bulkhead seat and is a Script Consultant with a new book.

There are tall director’s chairs set up on the stage for us, but Ian thinks they look uncomfortable and convinces the rest of us to swap them out for regular chairs. Not a problem... though I kind of wanted to see the Script Consultant try to fit in one.

Darren Foster - who is a pro writer with a new movie in post production - is moderating, and allows each of us to introduce ourselves. Then he begins asking some questions about what we think are the most important elements in screenwriting. Kirk is on the far end and arrives during the opening announcements and asks if he can go last... so Ian on the other side goes first. Josh and I are in the center. As the questions continue, it becomes apparent that 5 of us are answering honestly - and telling it like it is... and one of us is talking about how talent should be nurtured and hugged and new writers should find someone who loves them and their work and is non-judgmental and non-commercial to help them with their quest to sell a screenplay. Can you guess who that might be?

Wendell and I are diplomatically disagreeing with her. Josh and Kirk and Ian are becoming more aggressive in their disagreements with her. I am sitting between her and Josh and fear that I will be killed in the cross-fire. Finally, she says something really wrong and all five of us strongly disagree with her - we are fighting over microphones.

I do not think Script Consultants are evil - that would be some sort of crazy generalization. There are probably some great script consultants out there who are worth every penny of the $2,500 they charge to read your screenplay. But often Script Consultants generalize about things... and then turn those things into rules... and sometimes those rules are just wrong. On a message board recently someone had a problem dealing with the "rule" that characters must either be called MAN or WOMAN until someone calls them by name. This person had pages and pages of MAN and WOMAN and they were all different people. How can we tell them apart? Well, that's one of those strange Script Consultant "rules" which aren't actually part of real world screenwriting. I'm sure the purpose of the "rule" is to make sure writers get their character's names into dialogue so that the audience knows who they are, but this is the wrong way to do that! Instead, why not just say - hey, make sure you have someone mention your character's name! Instead we have all of this confusion. And, um, what about REBECCA, where the lead character's name is *never* spoken? Are they WOMAN throughout the script? This is a silly "rule" that doesn't work at all, yet some Script Consultant is charging a pile of money to give people this advice.

So they often spread bad information... or, if they have only been readers - know what *not* to do but may not know what *to* do. And some are failed screenwriters who may pass on the reason for their failure to new writers. Plus, I think the more they charge, the more you wonder if you are getting what you are paying for. If a professional screenwriter was giving me their opinion on my script I might think $2,500 was fair, but someone who may have been a $50 a script reader who is now charging $2,450 more to read a script worries me a little. And this particular consultant is saying that all of the working professionals on the panel (including an Oscar Nominee and a multiple Emmy Award winner) are wrong and she is right. Um, I don't have the cajones to disagree with those two guys and I also write for a living. If both Josh and Kirk said they did the Macarena between scenes, I'd try doing that to see if it improved the quality of my writing. But this Script Consultant is disagreeing with the 5 pros on the panel... and we are disagreeing back.

Darren the moderator changes the topic and starts taking questions from the audience - but he waited until we all got out hits in. Obvious where he stood on the issue. The audience questions end up the usual variations on “How do I get and agent?” with a couple of craft questions after Darren asks for *only* craft questions.

What is interesting about having the same question answered by 5 professional writers is that we often disagree. Not on big things, but on small ones. Questions on outlining - some do, some don’t... but the ones who don’t do a lot more rewriting and *everyone* knew the end of their screenplay. None of us agreed on the same element as being most important in a screenplay, some thought it was dialogue, another character, another actions, another situations... we all see the same act a little differently - but none of us thought any of the others was wrong...

Well, except I don’t think any of us thought the Consultant was right. But, we don’t get $2,500 for our opinion, so we are probably wrong.

After the panel I zip off to do my Consults - 3 of them - and it is relatively painless. Major problem among students 10 pages and consult folks 10 pages is starting waaaay too early - we don’t need to see someone’s boring every day life. But the writing seemed okay on all three and one of them had the exact script an Oscar winning producer I met with a few years ago was looking for. I have no idea if they are *still* looking for a script like that, but I gave the writer the producer’s name. Would be cool if she sold the script.

After consults, I splashed cold water on my face to wake myself up and then found the Dallas group in the lobby discussing dinner. The locals had just split with their cars, but there’s a hotel shuttle that goes downtown every hour... but stops running early. Maura asked if the shuttle could take us into town and then if we could call later and be picked up. The driver would be gone, but there’s a maintenance man who could do it.

Mexican food at the Blue Corn CafĂ©... though most people ordered a burger and Steve and my orders got mixed up - and we accidentally ate a quarter of each other’s meals before we figured it out. Oh, and the guy at the table next to us had a heart attack - a sign of great Mexican food - and a team of paramedics were working on him while we ate. He was fine... but this single gal in our group who was hitting on the shuttle driver and the bus boy started hitting on the paramedics. Oh, and I had some Pomegranate Margaritas to ward off any cardiovascular problems.

Then we went back to the hotel bar and told dirty jokes until closing time. Back in my room - new pages from several students plus a redesign of the class for the following day followed by 4 hours of sleep, waking up before the alarm went off again.

Monday - does the last minute class redesign work?

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Personal Keys To Unlock Your Screenplay - and my BLACK THUNDER script that was made into a film... twice.
Dinner: Cinema hot dog and popcorn.
Bicycle: Yes. Semi-epic. Had a meeting in Beverly Hills on a project and decided to subway and bike... then bike to the New Beverly Cinema to see some movies. The meeting ran over and I misjudged the distance between the office and the cinema and had to haul butt - riding really fast - to get there on time. Which is why I had a hot dog instead of Chinese food across the street from the cinema.
Movies: PRISON with Renny Harlin, Courtney Joyner, Irwin Yablans and Charlie Band doing Q&A... and THE HORROR SHOW (aka HOUSE 3). Renny Harlin was great - very funny, very honest, very down to earth. This guy directed DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER and other big films, but talked to people in the lobby.


James said...

I'm a big fan of Josh Olson's ever since he wrote that "I will not read your screenplay" article.

Funny, that you are talking about students in your class wanting to be ripped apart, but really wanting to be told they're brilliant. That's what Josh's article was all about.

-- About the script consultant -- I had an epiphany when I was a reader. It was that things that I failed to do in my own writing I would condemn other scripts for. Also, scripts that may have handled similar material better than my own material, but not perfectly, would get overly knocked as well.
Scripts that were awful (and there were plenty) got ripped apart.

I had to take a step back and realize condemning others wasn't making my writing any better. And that was the point I wanted to be a reader in the first place, to become a better writer.

I started reading scripts like they were something I wanted to read. Before it was a chore, mainly because most scripts you encounter are pretty bad. Reading like every script had potential, even the worst. My critiques became much better and I started to see what the writers were trying to accomplish, rather than where they had failed.

The script that turned me around was a Lawrence Kasdan script. It was pretty bad. But the writing was very good. The characters were interesting, heartfelt, and I knew the writer had a direction/journey he was taking me on from page 1. It was just that the story didn't work, and wasn't very entertaining.

I had to somehow rectify good writing with a bad story.

Good writing violates the "rules." It's as simple as that. If you go in with a preset template on what a script needs to be, you will never find a script that meets all these predetermined qualifications. But if you keep an open mind and see what works, and whether it has potential or not, the likelihood of finding a workable script is much higher.

The problem is because there is such a high volume of scripts out there, closed minded script consultants get rewarded for saying no all the time.

(Sorry, longer comment than I wanted it to be). Lates

Rusty James said...

You know that you're eating way too much processed food right Bill?

Even Subway is bad.

Anonymous said...

As far as which element in a screenplay is more important, this is going to change depending on the type of film you're writing. Obviously in Apocalypto, dialogue wasn't the top priority, but that's different to say, Reality Bites (yes don't ask me why that film occurred to me). BTW I found this interesting post a little incoherent at times. Please think of your readers!


Zephyr -- a superhero webcomic in prose

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