How Not to Write a Screenplay

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Inspired by this post, I thought I’d share some tried-and-true methods for not writing your screenplay:

  • Agonize over your script’s title.
  • Start a pointless argument on Twitter.
  • Decide you need to do more research. Fall down a Wikipedia hole and forget what you were doing.
  • Change your screenwriting software.
  • Wait for your manager/agent/friend/reader to email you back.
  • Make more coffee; you need it.
  • Eat more snacks; you earned them.
  • Write a pitch, then an outline, then an even more elaborate outline. Show the elaborate outline to other people. Based on their  lukewarm responses, fall out of love with your own concept.
  • Attend a weekly writers group where everybody critiques the last five pages they wrote in a disorganized free-for-all. Take every single note to heart, no matter how vague or unhelpful it is. Fall out of love with your own concept.
  • Worry about whether your protagonist should “save the cat”.’
  • Worry about whether your protagonist is “likeable”.
  • Worry about whether you have a writing “voice”.
  • Out of nowhere, decide that you’re angry about Dropbox’s privacy policies. Migrate all your back-ups to a different service.
  • Watch a lot of television. And I mean A LOT. Watch basically all the television.
  • Play videogames. I hear Dark Souls 2 is good. You could probably waste at least 100 hours on that.
  • Get really into photography/geocaching/hiking/fly-fishing/Ultimate frisbee/anything that takes you far, far away from a computer.
  • Hey, what about that thing you loved when you were a kid? Transformers, NES, Warhammer, Sonic the Hedgehog — what’s up with that now? I bet there are whole wikis full of fascinating trivia for you to read.
  • Decide that your newest concept would work better as a comic. You should totally become a comics writer! It pays terribly, but you’d have more creative freedom. Oh wait… you can’t draw, and you don’t know any artists. Abandon your week-old dream of being a comics writer.
  • Decide that your newest concept would work better as a novel. You should totally become a novelist! It pays terribly, but you’d have more creative freedom. Start by reading some of the classic 19th century novels. With dawning horror, realize that you will never be half as good as these writers who lived 100 years ago. Abandon your week-old dream of being a novelist.
  • Make even more coffee. You drank the last pot.
  • Stare at a blank page on your laptop screen. A thin black cursor in a sea of white, mocking you with its incessant blinking. Blink. This idea probably isn’t marketable. Blink. Your writing vocabulary is comprised of a relatively small number of stock phrases. Blink. You have no idea what you’re doing.
  • Read screenwriting blogs.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Best of luck not-writing your screenplay! And remember: creating art is an act of rebellion against not creating art.

Truly, Madly, Detective

I wrote an article about TRUE DETECTIVE for Popmatters.com in which I discuss how the central theme of the show is a search for truth in a jungle of dangerous, conflicting narratives. My interpretation of the finale is a little different from most critics’. Also I geek out about Lovecraft and the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

Here’s the link:

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/180164-true-detective-stories-told-by-starlight/

Two Documentaries

I recently watched two excellent documentaries, FREE TO PLAY and LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF. Both are unapologetically subjective, designed to serve specific agendas, yet they also deal with universal issues. Both have unusual production histories: FREE TO PLAY is the first film by Valve, the legendary video game studio, and is available free on YouTube and Steam; LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF was put together by film teacher Thom Andersen as an extension of his lectures, and has never been widely distributed.

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FREE TO PLAY is a film about an esports game called DOTA 2. It follows three competitors in the 2011 DOTA 2 tournament which was, at that point, the largest and most lucrative esports tournament ever hold. The game just so happens to be made by Valve, who also sponsored the tournament, who also made this documentary. Ostensibly born out of Valve’s postmodern, laissez-faire, make-your-own-project workplace policy, it’s pretty clear this film has an agenda: bring validation to esports in general and DOTA 2 in particular, thereby enlarging the profile and player base of Valve’s multi-million dollar baby.

Agenda or not, it’s a great film. The editing is breathless, airtight, playing the audience’s emotions like a harp. It brings up every objection a non-gaming civilian might make to esports (it’s for nerds, it’s not a real sport, why don’t you get a real job, you’re missing out on life), quite deliberately, and throws them in the faces of its three characters, forcing them to confront their true fears and desires. It goes deep into the backstory of its characters, imbuing each match with emotional significance.

There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a slick, cynical advertisement (okay, it’s still a slick advertisement, but it’s not cynical). It could have been a dryly objective recap of every game and bracket, alienating those not in the know about DOTA 2. It could have focused on the members of a single five-person team and their relationship to each other, which would have been fine but lacking the emotional depth of the three-protagonist approach.

The interesting thing is, for all we know Valve may have tried these other approaches. This film grew out of the same rigorous, highly structured testing environment that also produces Valve’s video games. Valve famously subjects its games to years of outsourced testing, in which civilians with different levels of gaming experience are closely monitored while playing the games; their emotional reaction to every joke or set-piece is recorded and examined for the programmers’ benefit. Ever wonder why the learning curve of Portal 2 was so perfectly smooth — why it always took you the same amount of time to discern the answer to each room’s puzzle? Focus testing, that’s why.

We don’t know exactly how Valve tested FREE TO PLAY, but remember that the tournament it depicts took place in 2011. This film has gone through three years of (presumably expensive) post-production. Does it manage its audience’s expectations so well because Valve used a battery of beta testers to triangulate the perfect pace of every sequence, the optimal length of every shot? If so, does that make it a new kind of film, one which we should probably be paying more attention to?

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Film teacher and documentarian Thom Andersen’s masterpiece, LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF is the story of the city of Los Angeles on film, as told through hundreds of clips from Hollywood movies stretching all the way back to the 1920s. At nearly three hours long, it’s a monumental, almost overwhelming study of cinematic history, but I guarantee you won’t be bored at any point during those three hours. I want to tell every person making a film in Los Angeles to watch this. Hell, everyone thinking of moving to Los Angeles should watch this.

LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF has an axe to grind. Early in the film, Andersen (or his narrative voiceover, at least) deliberately places himself outside the Hollywood filmmaking apparatus. Only one in forty people in Los Angeles, he tells us, are involved in the movie industry; “the rest of us” are just trying to get by. By identifying himself as a citizen of Los Angeles rather than a filmmaker, Andersen adopts a kind of antagonistic stance towards movies and the warped realities they portray.

It’s a genius move. By freeing himself of the burden of having to celebrate the importance of every “landmark” or “classic”, Andersen is free to take aim at the hypocrisy he sees in the movies.  CHINATOWN is hauled over the coals for its dishonest portrayal of history and its propagation of urban legends about Los Angeles’ water system. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is bashed for its cynicism, and also for downplaying the level of police corruption in the 1950s! Andersen even sees the nickname “L.A.” as a kind of derogatory term popularized by Hollywood; “only a town with an inferiority complex” would call itself by such a name.

The film saves its greatest anger for “condescension”. Andersen refers to foreign directors (those not born in Los Angeles) as “tourists”, and identifies the condescension (whether through laziness, symbolism or geographical looseness) in their work. Hilariously, Joel Silver is decried as an architecture snob. Andersen has particular distaste for Hollywood’s habit of identifying beautiful modernist houses as dens of decadence, corruption and violence.

There’s a deep streak of social justice running through the narration. It brutalizes certain rich, white myths about Los Angeles, for example that “Downtown is deserted”, and “nobody takes the bus or walks”, then backs up its anger with an examination of street-level indie films by black filmmakers. In a fascinating digression, Andersen tells us why he hates the Hollywood Walk of Fame: because none of the victims of HUAC are on there, but the stars of their accusers are. Cut to a shot of Elia Kazan’s star.

You will learn so, so much from this film. Sure, you probably already know about the production history of famous landmarks like the Bradbury Building and the Ennis House. But I bet you didn’t know about the slow, systematic destruction of the vertical neighborhood of Bunker Hill, or its depiction in Charlton Heston’s THE OMEGA MAN. I bet you weren’t aware that the car chases in the original 1974 GONE IN 60 SECONDS are one hundred percent geographically accurate. And you’ll be surprised that a documentary with so much rancor for Hollywood can remind you just how beautiful and socially important films can be.

FREE TO PLAY is available to watch now on YouTube. LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF is also available on the internet, if you know where to look.

Computer Chess and Getting to the Point

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I recently watched COMPUTER CHESS, a 2013 film which I guess is best described as an indie mumblecore mockumentary… about computer chess. It surprises you. What starts out as a dark, sad, funny, Christopher Guest-style film slowly morphs into a stealth remake of BLADE RUNNER. For those playing at home, that makes two stealth remakes of BLADE RUNNER in one year (the other being Spike Jonze’s HER).

Because I don’t want to spoil the crazier twists of the film’s second and third acts, I’ll restrict myself to discussing the first. The really impressive thing about the first act of COMPUTER CHESS is how quickly it makes you care about computer chess.

Here’s the premise: In the early 1980s, a group of computer programmers meet at a hotel for an annual tournament to see who has the best chess-playing program. The best team will win a cash prize and the chance to play their program against a human grandmaster. Okay, so it’s not the most exciting premise in the world, and the film knows it. Here’s how it hooks you:

The first real scene of the film is a panel of team leaders discussing the upcoming tournament. Immediately we learn that–

  • There is long-standing rivalry between the teams, which creates drama and tension.
  • The human grandmaster is a pompous jerk who predicts that no program will be able to beat him for a few more years; immediately the audience wants to see him lose.
  • There is a dark horse contender who all the other teams make fun of.
  • The most respected of all the programmers, a reclusive professor, hasn’t arrived yet. Now we’ve got anticipation, because the audience is waiting for this guy to show up.

This is all in the first few minutes.

Within the first ten minutes we’re shown another important scene: team members sit around a hotel room and discuss the implications of their work. The conversation spins off into discussion of artificial intelligence and the Cold War, and we learn that the Department of Defense is very interested in the work of these programmers. Instantly, we get it: this isn’t just about chess, this is about the future of everything.

What I take away from COMPUTER CHESS is that sometimes you need to justify your premise in the first few pages. Don’t save the good stuff for later. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Hook us immediately. Show us exactly where the human drama and stakes of your story are going to come from.

True Detective: Seasons Two Through Six

HBO's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga

Season 2, 2015

In the 1930s, two female Pinkerton agents — one Orthodox Jewish, the other a lapsed Catholic — unravel a Masonic conspiracy to dismantle California’s streetcar system. TV critics are outraged at the show’s unflattering portrayal of organized religion. Elisabeth Moss wins an Emmy for her role as Scarlett “Red” Steelspur.

Season 3, 2016

Three generations of NYPD detectives investigate a Templar murder pact set against the backdrop of the 1980s New York club scene. A vocal minority of viewers are angered by the show’s treatment of Ronald Reagan. Willem Dafoe wins an Emmy for his role as family patriarch Badger “Badge” Huntington.

Season 4, 2017

At Berkeley in the 1960s, CIA agents investigate a religious cult that combines science fiction with the teachings of the ancient Egyptian priest Nyarlathotep. Scientologists begin a protest campaign against HBO, but this fails to stop Jeff Goldblum winning an Emmy for his portrayal of drug-addled professor turned police consultant Dr Trevor “Trip” Socrates.

Season 5, 2018

Investigators in 1890s Boston hunt a shadowy cabal of serial killers who are attempting to continue the legacy of Jack the Ripper. Idris Elba wins a BAFTA for his performance as Horace “Ace” Manhunter, however many viewers are upset at the show’s treatment of Irish Americans. Nic Pizzolatto suffers a nervous breakdown and goes back to writing novels.

Season 6, 2019

Rural police unravel the truth behind a Wendigo cult in Alaska. Millions of viewers express outrage at the show’s insensitive portrayal of flesh-eating skinchangers, while Matt Damon fails to garner any awards for his performance as rookie detective Dustin “Dusty” Mineshaft. TRUE DETECTIVE is canceled and replaced with a reboot of ENTOURAGE starring Justin Bieber.

Why Flashbacks Suck

I’ve been reading Samuel Delany’s book “About Writing”. It’s fantastic — easily one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. He comes across as effortlessly wise without ever feeling like he’s handing down instructions from on high.

If you’re not familiar with Delany, he’s a gay, black, science fiction author who writes weird, looping novels full of bizarre sex. So you might expect his writing advice to be radical, specific, specialized. Not so much. His advice is practical and general enough to be applied to forms other than the novel and short story. Like screenplays, for instance.

On flashbacks, Delany makes a pretty convincing argument for why they suck. He argues that they don’t resemble any natural means by which human beings tell each other stories. If we’re asked to verbally tell the story of something that happened to us, do we start at the beginning of the scene and work forwards in perfect chronological order, observing every detail in the order that it actually happened? Can anyone actually do that for more than a few minutes before jumping forward, jumping back, getting confused, adding an earlier detail they missed, consulting their friend who was also present at the scene, etc.?

Okay, maybe certain lawyers, detectives and people blessed with eidetic recall can do it, but not the rest of us. Memory is slippery and no two retellings are ever the same. That’s why flashbacks in screenplays often feel phony, especially long flashbacks.

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I plan to put Delany’s advice into practice by:

  • Avoiding flashbacks unless they have a specific narrative purpose, like answering a question that someone or something in the story just raised.
  • Keeping my flashbacks short.
  • Chopping them up, stripping scenes down to a few key lines of dialog, maybe even jumping around in time — anything to make them feel less like interruptions and more like the way that humans actually recall events.

We’ll see how it goes, but I have a suspicion this will help me improve my flashbacks. And if you’re interested in Delany’s book, it’s available on Amazon.

In With The New

I used to have a screenwriting blog.

I started it 5 years ago while working as a script reader in LA. I posted a screenwriting tip a day — over 1200 tips in total. Each post a short meditation on writing. People seemed to like it; it was hosted by the Black List for a while, and was even adapted into a book by Focal Press. Then, about a year ago, I stopped blogging. I went away and wrote other things, like spec pilots and pitch documents. Private work that almost nobody read. Now it’s 2014 and I’ve got that urge again — the urge to write in public, where everyone can see and judge you.

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In the year since I last blogged, many things have happened. I turned 30, I got engaged, and blogging itself finally became completely irrelevant. I blame Buzzfeed (for the irrelevancy, not the engagement). Some time in the last year-and-a-bit, self-indulgent long reads and padded listicles became the only two kinds of content on the entire Interwebs. Well, that and GIFs. These days, using more than 140 characters to express an opinion feels greedy. If it can’t be said on Twitter, chances are it doesn’t need to be said.

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Which is wonderful news for anyone starting a new blog in 2014, because it means that nobody cares. With that in mind, I plan to write whatever I want in this space, up to and including the following:

  • Reviews of things that not enough people are talking about.
  • General discussion of the industry, by which I mean that siren city Los Angeles.
  • Raving about shows I love, like HANNIBAL and TRUE DETECTIVE.
  • R̶a̶n̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶a̶b̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶w̶s̶ ̶I̶ ̶h̶a̶t̶e̶ Or not, because I might like to be hired by those people one day.
  • New screenwriting tips, but actually going into detail this time.
  • Revisions and recantations of the parts of my book which I no longer agree with.
  • How it feels to be planning a permanent move to another country in 6 months’ time.
  • Whisky and its effect on the human writer.
  • Cake. Delicious cake.

I used to have a screenwriting blog. Now here we are again. Time is a flat circle.

To paraphrase Vincent Price: “It’s almost time to lock up the house and then the party will really begin.”