‘My Writing Process’ Blog Tour

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This is one of those chain letter blogosphere things. I’ve never done one before, but there’s a first time for everything.

The blogger who tagged me for this tour was fellow Australian screenwriter Henry Sheppard, whose post you can read here. (Note: Link contains hilarious photo of me from 10 years ago, during my filthy backpacker phase.) Henry’s a great blogger, and I recommend subscribing to his site.

The general idea of this game is that I answer some process-related questions and then kick the ball over to three writers who I admire. So, without further ado, on to the questions:

What are you working on?

Right this second, I’m working on the bible for a TV show. I’ve written plenty of pilots but this is the first bible I’ve ever attempted, mostly because no one’s ever asked me to before. I tend to write fairly detailed pitch documents that lay out the tone, characters and broad-strokes plot moments for every pilot I develop; it’s the first thing I do on any new project. I’m finding that a bible isn’t so different from my trusty pitch documents, only this time I have a completed script to work from. It’s fun sketching out what these characters might be getting up to one, two, three seasons into the future.

I’m also breaking down an outline for my next feature spec, a near future science fiction thriller with a dark, twisted and scarily-plausible central scenario.

How does your work differ from others?

This is a great question. It’s the million dollar question, really. And since there’s no good way to answer it humbly, I hope you’ll forgive me if I dispense with the false humility for the duration of my answer:

I’m better at coming up with big ideas than most writers. It took me years to realize it, but this is my biggest strength. I have huge, interesting, weird, emotional ideas that most people would never come up with. My reps once told me, “That’s what we like about you; you always bring us something we’ve never heard before, not just another variation on Die Hard.”

It’s a skill I’ve actively developed. I read widely — weird history, cult fiction and obscure artforms. I collect a lot of information, generate a lot of ideas, and then ruthlessly weed them down to the most interesting and marketable ones. As a result, my scripts tend to be ahead of the curve. Often I’ll read about a project and think “I pitched that exact idea years ago”.

Also, my scripts have fewer spelling and grammar errors than most.

How does your writing process work?

It doesn’t! Har har. But seriously folks…

I mentioned that I collect information, by which I mean that my writing process starts in Evernote. This is going to sound like an advertisement, but Evernote really works for me. I clip bits and pieces from all over the web, or I scan handwritten notes, and sort them into various notebooks and tags. When it seems that a project is getting serious, I give it its own Evernote notebook. Everything related to that project goes in the notebook: research links, inspiring art, character notes, outlines, first drafts of pitch documents, even first drafts of long emails to producers or my reps. Then I have a living record of the project which I can refer to at any time, from anywhere.

The next step is Fade In Pro. This is where the magic (read: the actual writing) happens. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of software and I couldn’t live without it. If you’re still using Final Draft, I feel bad for you son.

Then comes the rewriting, the Skype calls, the notes, the more notes, and the even more notes.

The final step is mostly drinking and crying.

Why do you write what you do?

I blame THE X-FILES and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

Also, when I was 15 years old I won a state-wide competition called the “Young Writer of the Year Award”. There was a ceremony in which a man read out my short story and everyone clapped, after which I was given a trophy, a check and a framed certificate. That was it. I had been given a taste of approval and encouragement, and I wanted more. I was a goner.

And now for the part of the tour where I nominate three other bloggers. I’ve decided to pick three writers who I know and whose work I admire. They’re all fascinating to me as people and as artists, and in my opinion they’re all unique voices — nothing they write could ever be mistaken for the work of someone else.

Josh Hechinger writes frankly awesome comics with punching and bears and jokes in them.

Julie Bush writes deep, dark, emotionally-infused screenplays that are also meticulously plotted.

Ales Kot writes liminal comics and screenplays that are jagged, unorthodox and hard to forget.

Which Godzilla Film Should You Watch?

 

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So you just saw the new Godzilla movie and loved it, and now you’re excited to check out the big guy’s back catalog. But wait! There are thirty of these films. Don’t just open up Netflix, type in “Godzilla” and hit play on the first thing that pops up. You might end up accidentally watching Godzilla’s Revenge, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

No, you’ll want to be a bit more discriminating when choosing your next Godzilla film. Here’s a handy quiz to help you make the big decision…

 

What kind of Godzilla viewer are you?

 

I am a discriminating viewer of refined tastes; I own many Criterion DVDs; black-and-white films with subtitles do not scare me:

Gojira (1954)

 

Screw that, I just want to see awesome explosions and monster battles:

Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

 

I enjoy campy 1960s costumes and papier-mâché flying saucers wobbling around on strings:

Invasion of Astro-Monster

 

Despite the crushing cynicism of our modern world, I am still capable of childlike wonder and awe:

Mothra vs Godzilla

 

I am a connoisseur of late 1990s CG that looks like something you’d find in a cutscene from a CD-ROM game:

Godzilla 2000

 

Two or three monsters are not enough for me; I want to see ALL THE MONSTERS:

Destroy All Monsters

 

Not only do I want ALL THE MONSTERS, but I also want martial arts, motorcycle fights, bullet time, mutant powers, ludicrous explosions and flying goddamn submarines:

Godzilla: Final Wars

 

I have a lot of free time, like a three-day weekend, and no plans:

The entire 7-film Heisei series, from Godzilla Returns to Godzilla vs Destroyah

 

I’m drunk and excitable:

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (any of them)

 

I’m drunk and confused:

Godzilla vs Megalon

 

I’m drunk and maudlin:

Godzilla vs Biollante

 

I just took a bunch of psychotropic drugs and now I can see forever:

Godzilla vs Hedorah

 

I hated the new movie and I wish it had been dumber, louder and less interesting:

Godzilla (1998)

 

I am an evil android time traveler and I have come here from the future with an incredibly convoluted plan to destroy Japan:

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah

 

I hope you found this quiz helpful. Happy Godzilla watching, everyone!

 

GODZILLA (2014) Review

MILD SPOILERS

There’s so much to distract us nowadays: friends, food, tablets, phones, Twitter, television, games. So much noise and light, and still we crave more. We don’t like to be alone; nor can we be without our phones, our lifelines to the artificial world we’ve constructed for each other. As prey animals, we fear the darkness and the silence. Because we know it’s dangerous to be alone. It’s dangerous to be quiet. With silence comes fear, and then a kind of terrible understanding.

GODZILLA is a quiet film. It’s also mournful, guilt-ridden, awestruck, empathetic and terrifying. It’s a film about what it means to be alive in an uncertain and uncaring world.

In an age of superhero films and sci-fi epics, Gareth Edwards and Max Borenstein’s GODZILLA stands out from the cinematic landscape. Critics have called it slow, thoughtful, not your typical Hollywood blockbuster. What they mean is that, unlike its contemporaries, GODZILLA doesn’t traffic in violent catharsis and heroic redemption. There’s no illicit thrill in seeing these monsters shatter a building or destroy a passenger train. Nobody learns a profound truth about themselves; they’re just trying to save civilians or get back home to their loved ones. There’s light and noise here, but it’s balanced with deep, reflective silence and a profoundly uncomfortable existential darkness.

GODZILLA is a disaster film, in the vein of the original GOJIRA (1954) and the so-called “Millennium” series. In those films, we first view the monsters’ attacks from ground level. We focus on the horror and carnage they cause before we see the monsters themselves. As in the Millennium films, the spotlight here is on the military. However, the traditional crisis room scenes — generals and scientists agonizing over what to do about Godzilla — are deftly balanced by scenes of soldiers on the ground. Whether evacuating the wounded or engaging in suicidal night missions, these scenes feel grounded and real. And about those crisis room scenes: we’re never in any doubt why something is happening in this film. Every military strategy and monster attack is clearly motivated, all without overexplaining or holding the audience’s hand.

The timeline of the story is intriguing, as it somehow manages to be both a remake of and sequel to the original 1954 masterpiece. As far as I can tell, this is the first Godzilla film to assume that the events of the original film didn’t happen. In this timeline, the Japanese government of 1954 used nuclear weapons (presumably with the aid of the Americans?) to drive Godzilla back into the ocean trenches. Godzilla never attacked Japan. Doctor Daisuke Serizawa was never forced to use his Oxygen Destroyer, which meant he survived to father a child, Ichiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe. It’s an odd setup but it achieves its goal: this is the first time the world has seen Godzilla on land, which heightens the sense of primal awe and wonder when he finally makes landfall in the San Francisco Bay.

One of the most powerful moments in the film comes when Dr Serizawa attempts to convince the American commander not to use atomic weapons against the monsters. Serizawa does this with one simple action: he hands the commander a pocket watch. The watch belonged to his father, and it stopped ticking at 8.15 AM on the morning of August 6th, 1945, the moment the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. This is the only piece of backstory the film ever gives us for Dr Serizawa. This is the first and only conversation these two characters have about nuclear weapons. A lesser script would have wasted tens of minutes of screentime on heated arguments between the two men, but GODZILLA has no interest in that. It’s already made its point.

Even the outright villains of the film, dubbed “Mutos”, are somewhat sympathetic. They’re simply animals (albeit towering, primeval monsters that feed on radiation) trying to live, eat and reproduce just like the rest of us. If humans hadn’t conducted nuclear tests, they never would have awoken. If we hadn’t built nuclear plants, the Mutos wouldn’t have been drawn there to feed. And if we hadn’t dumped the second Muto spore sac in the desert along with all the other nuclear waste we’d rather forget about, then they wouldn’t have turned Las Vegas into a smoking crater.

As in all the best Godzilla films — hell, the best science fiction films — it is all humanity’s fault. That’s why the film’s characterization of Godzilla is such a fascinating and unusual choice. Over six decades and thirty films, there have only really been three different versions of Godzilla: 1) The oblivious, unthinking natural disaster, 2) The vengeful avatar of rage, and 3) The sympathetic creature acting on animal instinct. Edwards and Borenstein somehow manage to walk the line between all three versions.

In GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001), Godzilla is portrayed as a ghostly revenant comprised of all the souls killed in the Pacific War, hellbent on punishing humanity for its sins. In the Kiryu saga, Godzilla is inexorably drawn towards manmade sources of atomic energy, leaving a trail of destroyed cities in his wake. The original 1954 Godzilla was awakened from its slumber by the atomic testing on Bikini Atoll; enraged, he went on to attack Tokyo. Astonishingly, the Godzilla of 2014 appears to bear no ill will towards mankind. Instead, alpha predator that he is, he’s hunting the Mutos in order to restore the “balance of nature”. Humanity is simply in his way. He is terrifying, unbelievably powerful; the largest, most massive version of Godzilla ever put on film. But he is not cruel.

There’s a fascinating theological angle here. Perhaps the most interesting choice in a film packed with interesting choices is the way the human characters refer to Godzilla. Everyone talks about him in hushed tones, as if scared that he might overhear them. They don’t call him “Godzilla” or “it”. They say “We lost him”. “He’s coming”. “It’s him”. You can almost hear the capitalization on “Him”. If he really is a god, as Doctor Serizawa suggests, then he’s an unknowing, uncaring, yet somehow forgiving god. At the end of GODZILLA 2000: MILLENNIUM (1999), Godzilla defeats his alien foe and then immediately turns against mankind, gleefully setting fire to Tokyo. The Godzilla of 2014 has no interest in punitive punishment. The inference is that we have sinned and we’ll pay a heavy price for it, but it’s not his place to judge us. God is mighty, yet merciful.

I like to think of Godzilla as a timely corrective to the myth of progress, the idea that no matter how badly humans screw up the planet, we’ll always figure out a way to fix it. Because we are special and indomitable. The next generation will have it easier than us; their technology will be better, their buildings will be taller and their lives will be happier. It has to be that way, because that’s the way it’s always been. Right?

Our most beloved stories, our blockbuster movies, are almost always soothing paeans to the myth of progress. Every so often, in times of global crisis, they morph into post-apocalyptic stories. These stories teach us that even when things get too bad we can always burn it down and start again. Civilization will rise from the ashes, because that’s what happens. That’s what has to happen. We’ll build an Iron Man suit, or we’ll construct spaceships to carry us to distant stars, or we’ll rely on the indomitable human spirit to somehow save the day.

Except that none of that is true. We haven’t built those things, we haven’t solved our oldest problems, and all the human spirit does is breed tribalism, inequality and war. This thing we call civilization is an unwieldy experiment, not a guarantee. When gods and titans clash and the world teeters on the brink of destruction, all we really have is love (too weak), family (too vulnerable) and a stockpile of world-ending nuclear weapons that should never have been created in the first place. This mess is all our fault, and we don’t deserve to live to see another dawn. Unless god, incarnated in the form of a 500 foot tall lizard from the dawn of time, chooses to save us.

But that’s up to Him.

Show Us Your World

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I’ve been thinking about an interview I watched recently with Lena Dunham, genius writer and showrunner of GIRLS. She was talking about how her show was picked up by HBO, and more generally about how HBO selects and develops its shows.

The key phrase used was “HBO is looking for worlds”.

That’s about as succinct a summary of HBO’s business model that I’ve ever seen. It really is the one big thing that sets them apart from their competitors: richly detailed worlds. Weird little universes that we never knew existed; strange places that we’ve never been before. Clearly this has been true of all of HBO’s drama series (a Mafia family in Jersey, the brutal frontier town of Deadwood, the dog-eat-dog city of Baltimore, Westeros and its twisted politics). But it’s also equally true of the channel’s half hour offerings. When was the last time you saw a show about the gay scene in contemporary San Francisco? Well, here’s LOOKING. How about a weird version of NYC seen from the perspective of a pair of musical New Zealanders? FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Tech start-ups in Silicon Valley? Er, SILICON VALLEY.

The point is that these characters and situations are not interchangeable with every other television show. You couldn’t pluck them out of their worlds and drop them into the latest procedural on the USA network. These shows aren’t set in Vancouver, California. The settings ARE the shows.

I suspect John Landgraf at FX also believes in this model to some extent. ARCHER, LOUIE, JUSTIFIED and THE AMERICANS all take place in highly specific universes where character informs setting, and setting informs character.

So how do you write a “New World” pilot, a script that successfully conveys a sense of place? (Assuming you want to write such a pilot. Not every story relies on a strong sense of place. For example, ORPHAN BLACK seems to exist in some ambiguous city halfway between NYC, Toronto and London.) What’s the trick to creating a world that feels bigger than your story and characters?

It’s not description. Nobody wants to read acres of florid prose. If you’re into that kind of thing, write a novel instead.

It’s not world-building. That’s something you do on your own time; don’t inflict it on the reader. World-building is just back-story, and back-story is worthless if it doesn’t eventually become actual story.

The answer is authenticity. It’s those little moments that flesh out the world and signify that this is a place with its own rules and systems existing outside the characters.

It’s Louie accidentally driving a school bus on the “no buses” highway. It’s the Bushwick parties in GIRLS. It’s the struggling local newspaper in Deadwood. It’s every person in Silicon Valley secretly harboring an idea for an app. It’s the payphone contact system in THE WIRE, and it’s the house sigils and house mottos of Westeros. These moments accumulate and, combined with the characters’ speech and actions, create the illusion of a larger world outside the 25 or 50 minutes that we actually see.

So keep that in mind when mentally preparing your dream HBO pitch. If you’re writing for networks, it’s okay to set your show in Vancouver, California. But HBO is looking for worlds.

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.

Valve-Free-to-Play-documentary

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

RS_Chess_Computer

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.

Flashback,_Six_Flags_Over_Texas

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.