Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Do You Want To Play a Game?

Scott the Reader, in addition to being the first to post a comment on this blog, is a reader (duh) and frequents quite a few screenwriting blogs. He even has his own blog and since it’s a good read, I feel honored that he swung by for a look. After reading my intro post, Scott asked me to share the Super Mario Brothers story. So, here goes…

The year was 1992. My wife and I had been married a year and a half and within two years, we’d have our first of four kids crawling around our apartment.

We lived in Norfolk, VA, but for these few days, I was five hours away in Wilmington, NC and had just finished shooting my tiny walk-on part in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. (Actually it was a sleepwalk-on part. I would take a moment to explain, but it would be doomed to the cutting room floor anyway). After getting out of wardrobe, I stopped to call my wife to let her know I would be hopping in the car and heading home soon. She quickly informed me that I needed to call my agent right away.

Now, my agent never called me twice in a week, not to mention calling to tell me about an audition while I’m on the set of another film. My first thought was, “There’s a problem with these schmucks paying me.” It was a real throwaway role and I really didn’t have much hope of it making the final cut. But they had to pay me, right?

I hung up the phone and immediately called my agent. She wanted me to run over to this abandoned cement factory to audition for Super Mario Brothers. I was really damn close to asking her what the heck she was babbling about.

“It’s a movie based on the video game,” she said.
“But I’ve never played this game,” I replied. “I have no idea what it’s even about.”
“That’s okay. They just need to cast someone for this right away.”

Great. I just love being kept in the dark about things. But I’m a nice guy and she’s a really sweet lady, so I ask her for directions and make tracks for this little slice of desolation.

She wasn’t kidding after all. It really was an abandoned cement factory. Except there were trucks and people milling about. Not cement trucks and not factory workers. Transportation vans and production people. I turned in and was guided to the crew parking lot. The guy asked who I was there to see. I told him…Rocky Morton and Anabel Jankel. At the moment, it didn’t dawn on me that they were the duo responsible for Max Headroom.

So, I go straight in to meet them. They were pleasant, middle-aged artsy folks who spoke to me all of one minute and then informed me that I was now cast as a Devo Chamber Technician. Now that I think back, it should’ve worried me that they didn’t bother to explain anything about the film’s plot. Because I now believe that, at the time, they probably didn’t have a solid idea of what the film was about, either.

I’m not saying they’re shoddy directors. I kinda liked Max Headroom. Not in a fanboy way, just an interesting concept. What I am saying, however, is that this film went through more screenwriters, directors, cast and crew than a dozen films combined. By the time I came to be involved, no one really knew what the hell was going on.

At any rate, I was taken directly to wardrobe to get fitted for a costume. Blue coveralls and a red hardhat. They must’ve found them lying around the factory. I wasn’t sure if I was to be working in a devo chamber or with the band Devo. I was then to report to visual effects. Visual effects? Sweet! This scene wasn’t just going to be people standing around talking. I would be part of a mind-numbing visual film event. I walked into the trailer and was told that they would need me to do a full-head cast. This was just getting cooler by the second.

I decided that I had to ask them what was going to happen in this scene. I figured if anyone knew, it would be the visual effects team. They had to have this thing planned for weeks, right? Here’s the answer I got:

“You’re a technician in the devo chamber. It’s a de-evolution chamber, capable of evolving or de-evolving anything millions of years in a matter of seconds.”
“Koopa is the main villain. He evolved from a T-Rex.”
“Uh-huh. Who’s playing Koopa?”
“Dennis Hopper. Basically, he gets mad at you and de-evolves you into primordial slime.”

I don’t remember which part of that answer I was responding to…Doing a scene with Dennis Hopper or being turned into slime. Looking back, they both generate the same emotional response.

After having my head covered in white goopy shit for a half an hour, I was ready to go home. They told me they needed me back in three days.

A few days later, I’m driving back down to the cement factory, but this time I’m bringing my wife with me. “You have got to get a load of this freakshow”, I told her. We arrived and headed over to wardrobe to put on my new work clothes.

Next stop was hair and makeup. This is when things got truly weird. My wife and I climbed into the trailer and sitting in a barber chair was Dennis Hopper, no eyebrows, hair slicked back in tailored rows going straight down the back of his head. He turned to see who had just arrived.

Now, sometimes when you meet people, you get an immediate gut feeling about them the second they look you in the eye. You either like them or you don’t; they’re either friendly or they’re not. The look that shot out of Dennis’ eyes was just plain creepy. If you’ve ever seen Henry Rollins on stage, you know the gaze. He could nail you to the back wall of the concert venue with that stare. The last time I saw Dennis Hopper come close to the look he had in his eyes at that moment was when he was telling Isabella Rossellini not to f**king look at him. But he wasn’t staring at me.

As I followed his gaze over my shoulder, I saw my wife’s face. She was absolutely terrified. I turned back to look at Dennis. He was locked on her like a cat on a bird. And I’m thinking, “Holy shit! Do they know each other?” I was half expecting him to say in a horrified whisper, “It’s YOU!!”

Just then, one of the hair crew broke the tension and asked him about his golf game. He blinked and turned around, carrying on a perfectly lucid conversation about his swing being off or something. It was like someone flipped off the psycho-switch on the guy.

They ask which role I’m playing and take a quick glance at me. Hell, I’m wearing a hardhat. How much attention to my hair is really necessary? As my wife and I start to leave, this short, stocky, brute of a fellow storms in, kicking and cursing like a cockney sailor. We take a couple of steps back to give the guy some room to vent when he looks up with a wry grin and a wink. It’s Bob Hoskins, pulling a fast one on the crew. As it turns out, he’s a really nice guy.

Finally, we get to the devo chamber. If you’ve seen the film (and I pity you if you have), you know the set. Decorated in pure white bathroom tile, reminiscent of the “TV Room’ in either of the Willy Wonka movies. I was beginning to feel like an Oompa Loompa with an overactive pituitary. I get my sides and we work out the blocking for the scene. It doesn’t take me too long to memorize them. No tricky words or “sci-fi speak”. In fact, I’ve read over it so many times, I’ve even memorized Dennis’ lines.

Which, we will soon find out, is a very useful thing.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Look Who's Linking!

Last week, John August, a screenwriter who runs one of my favorite blogs, provided the less-than-six degrees of separation between him and the other screenwriting bloggers he links to from his site. Since I also link to those same folks, I thought I’d write a bit about each one myself.

Now, since John actually knows these people, his list is emphatically different in tone from mine. I’m just writing a bit about what drew me to those other blogs and why I check in on them regularly.

John August
The writer of several produced scripts (Go, Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), John was the first screenwriting blogger I stumbled upon, and his site’s been a huge source of information for this budding screenwriter. He is quite modest (and a bit of a fellow geek) and is brimming with solid advice, which he gives freely. He also has mixed feelings about pictures of himself.

Man Bytes Hollywood
David Anaxagoras (hey, I spelled it correctly!) feels much like a kindred soul. A fellow aspiring screenwriter, struggling with rewrites, work and occasional self-doubt. (don't we all?!) One major difference, though – he's finishing up the UCLA grad MFA program, and has written somewhere in the vicinity of 12 screenplays. And he lives on the correct side of the continent.

I Find Your Lack Of Faith Disturbing
Reading screenwriter Josh Freidman’s (War of the Worlds, The Black Dahlia) site is like hanging out with a fellow writer at a local bar, ranting about stupid industry people, while knocking back few drinks. I’m not sure if Josh actually drinks, but I like to imagine he does on occasion. Probably rum and Diet Coke.

The Artful Writer
This blog is maintained by Craig Mazin (Rocketman, Scary Movie 3) and Ted Elliot (Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and not only has a plethora of writing advice and WGA news, it also features a great message board haunted by some really smart people. I really try to be one of them, but it’s no use.

The Thinking Writer
As a 12-year veteran of the business, Jon Deer (not the tractor guy) has worked jobs from mailroom jockey to producer. Plus, he’s an entertainment lawyer and loves to answer questions. Standard legal advice disclaimer applies.

A vast knowledgebase of screenwriting wisdom. A great choice for the first place to check when you’re looking for the answer to a sticky writing problem. Run by Ted Elliot (see the Artful Writer description above) and his writing partner, Terry Rossio. Check out the columns. There’s gold in there.

Now, I’m not claiming that my blog will in any way stand up in quality to the ones I’ve mentioned. And yes, I’ll probably end up linking directly to their posts from time to time, thus contributing to the massive replication of content that links all blogs together in some way or another. They’re just really great sites. Hope you’ll enjoy them, too.

Friday, September 23, 2005

It's In the Cards

Finally, after a few weeks of poking and prodding, slapping it around, I’ve finally come up with my first basically workable outline. At least it seems like it’s workable. (Not too sure about the cheesy-ish third act, though) I was kinda torn between whether I should even attempt an outline or throw caution and common sense to the wind and just jot things down on some index cards and play around with the structure that way. I mean, we’re supposed to use index cards, right? It’s almost expected of us.

Syd Field preaching about it in his books. Nick Cage sitting on the floor pouring over a sea of white rectangles in Adaptation. Index cards are simply a tradition among screenwriters. Shuffling story elements around in an unfathomable number of combinations, until just the right order reveals itself like the pattern to an impossible code rising out of the chaos. For some reason, I just feel like I’ll be a real screenwriter if I break out the cards and move them around like a blackjack dealer.

But, I’m glad I decided to go the outline route first. I’ll still put all the elements on index cards and try different structures. With an outline, at least, I’m getting all the ideas down in one place. Whether their current order is optimal remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Note Bene

If you’re anything like me (and God help you if you are), you’ll be doing something completely ordinary and menial when the idea first hits you. The great “what if” story idea that has eluded you for months. It’s a spark so combustible that the basic plot practically writes itself.

Then you suddenly realize that this flash of entertainment industry brilliance is like most any other idea…so fleeting and transitory that you have to record it – NOW! Hurry up and get that shit on paper or on a voice recorder or something! C’mon, just drop what you’re doing and jot it down. You won’t remember it later. Hell, you won’t remember it in the next five minutes.

But what should you use? You’re nowhere near your computer. What’s the best way to record the nugget that might lead to your first bought and sold screenplay? Quickly, you consider the options:

  1. Paper. Easy enough, right? But do you have paper on you right at this moment? Even if you did, you got something to write it down with? I can’t carry pencils in my pocket. Whenever I sit down, either the lead breaks or I get stabbed in the ass with the wooden hypo of black graphite in my jeans. Pens? Forget it. Pens leak and mess up clothes. Besides, I have children in my house. They eat writing utensils when you’re not looking and hide the ones that taste nasty.
  2. PDA. You could write it down on a PDA. Palm, Pocket PC, whatever. That seems like a good choice. You’ll be writing on your computer anyway. You can just copy and paste that sucker and zoom, you’re off! But have you ever tried to write down anything on a PDA? I’m sure there are some out there who are true “Graffiti artists”, able to wield a stylus like a conductor. But, I’ve never been able to write so much as a sentence without having to go back and rewrite it twice as many times. I guess I should get used to doing rewrites, right?
  3. Voice Recorder. Yeah, you could just grab the voice recorder and tell yourself your idea. Like some kind of self-pitching session. But before you do, look around. Are you surrounded by people? Now consider the guy jabbing away on his cell phone in front of you in the grocery store yesterday. Arrogant little prick, wasn’t he? You don’t want to be like him, do you? Of course you don’t. Anyway, you’ll have to listen to your own pathetic voice again when you transcribe this fantastic idea. And the more you listen to yourself ramble on, the less fantastic this idea suddenly seems.

By the time you’ve considered the options, the moment of genius has passed. The spark is gone and your idea, once brilliant, is now a rapidly fading memory as the current task at hand takes precedence. Or your four-year-old wants to start up a rousing theological discussion about whether bunnies go to a different heaven than people. Or the dog has just knocked over something in the kitchen.

My solution? The Hipster PDA. It’s a stack of index cards. What could be more perfect for a screenwriter?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Fade In:

Before I kick off this blog, let me state right here and now a few facts to bear in mind as you pick through future posts:

  1. I am currently an aspiring screenwriter…aspiring…as in, not yet paid for it.

  2. Being an aspiring screenwriter, my experience in the professional realm of motion pictures is somewhat limited to my nearly non-existent past experience (more on that later) and the documented experiences of others.

  3. Having only a small amount of personal experience in the business and having never sold a screenplay (yet…YET!), I am not qualified to dish out sage advice on screenwriting and the business of selling a screenplay.

In short, folks, don’t expect me to tell you how to do it. You’re welcome to follow my progress and watch me stumble along the way, but don’t look for the secrets of the force.

That said, a little about me…

I’m a husband, father of three (not counting the ark of pets around our house) and, not surprising in this business, an occasional actor. It’s this last hat that brings me to the miniscule past experience I mentioned earlier. I have only two entries on IMDB…one for Super Mario Brothers, which would provide more than enough angst for a whole other blog, and the other for a film called Deuce Coupe that has all but disappeared completely from the planet.

While I’m clawing my way toward my screenwriting goals, I bring home the bacon as a multimedia developer.

But here’s the best part…I live in Virginia. Completely opposite from the coast where I should be living. But that’s the challenge. And what’s the fun of reaching your goal if there isn’t a bit of a challenge involved.

Stay tuned and enjoy!