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Layers of Meaning: September 11th

September 11th, 2011 3 comments

Every day has a special significance to someone.

There are birthdays, wedding days, anniversary commemorations… But few days are as filled with significance and remembrance as September 11th. Since 2001, 9/11 has become a national day of remembrance.

Can I borrow your date?

The scars left by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will always be evident – in lost family as well as challenges to how America balances its senses of security and tolerance. In so many ways, it has changed the way we live, from how we travel to the way our government is structured. Apart from such significant changes, however, are the subtle shifts that take place in the shadow of such a profound tragedy. Those whose special dates of remembrance for their anniversaries, birthdays and other commemorations were on September 11th now have a solemn task: to reconcile their personal celebrations with the nation’s grief. 

Reasons to Smile

On September 11, 1948, more than a decade before Osama Bin Laden was even born, my parents married. Today they celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary. On September 11, 2001, their 53rd anniversary was co-opted by national tragedy. Fortunately for them – and all their family – their sense of love and commitment is strong enough to endure all that life has thrown their way. They continue to love one another and cherish the time they have together, a lesson they have passed down to all of their 6 kids and 14 grandkids – and now they eagerly anticipate two great-grandkids on the way.

It’s the weekend after Labor Day; in my family, that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the Day-Hicks Family Reunion (or Hicks-Day, depending on your fidelity to history). Regardless of what you call it, the Family Reunion is a long-standing tradition I have written about before in For Bards Blog. Held by my mother’s family, the event has slimmed down from its peak years, but the reunion has always drawn relatives living in the central Massachusetts area, as well as a healthy dose of those living hundreds of miles away. An old-fashioned, pot-luck affair, I always looked forward to the reunion to run around with my many, many cousins as the adults reminisced about days gone by and changes to the family. I miss the family reunion, and wish I could be there today.

It’s not every day that a guy praises his brother-in-law, but that’s what I find myself doing today, 9/11, because it is my brother-in-law’s birthday. Born a scant 40-something years ago, he is an accomplished chef, although, somehow, he is also a chartered accountant, a pilot and a magician. (For all I know, the guy’s a Jedi master as well. Let’s face it: he’s clearly an overachiever.) But he’s had to share his date with America ever since he was in his 30s.

Every day is special

Those who previously counted September 11th as ‘their day,’ now share it with America – and the world. What was personal is shared – and perhaps that is the way it should be. My parents anniversary, my family’s reunion and my brother-in-law’s birthday – all today, along with the nation’s remembrance of a historical tragedy – will be in my thoughts. I will continue to celebrate 9/11 for its significance to my folks and my family. I will also be grateful for the fact that my best friend from high school, who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers, had opted to take time off from work to visit his sister in California when the planes hit. Similarly, I will remember with sadness the young man who grew up next door to me in upstate New York, who,  on 9/11/2001, was a bond trader on the 105th floor of tower #1.

Stories and more stories

With the sunrise on September 12, 2011, America will resume life as usual. Cautious, vigilant, wary… but usual. Our lives were changed by 9/11, but they shouldn’t be diminished. For me, September 11th will always be my parents anniversary, my brother-in-law’s birthday. And, it will be time of remembrance. But no matter how I commemorate the big events in life, I’m comforted by the fact that there will be a sunrise the next morning. And it will be beautiful.

Endings: Grace note?

September 1st, 2011 No comments

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Story

Every screenplay has a beginning, middle and ending – and, as has been noted more than once before in For Bards Blog, the ending is usually the hardest part to get right. For those reading a novel or otherwise immersing themselves in some form of entertainment, reaching the ending is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss: this vicarious experience has drawn to a close. For a screenwriter, creating a solid ending that resolves their story to the audience’s satisfaction is a tricky balancing act, but hopefully it gives birth to the urge to create anew. Often it leads to re-examination, second guessing and unlimited fussing in the name of ‘getting it right,’ even though it’s possible the first choice may have been the right one. In other words, it’s hard to let a project go, but it’s necessary. Your script must be complete before it can be produced – and the desired throngs can enjoy it on the big screen, from beginning to end – at which point it will be their turn to yearn for more …

Lasting Impressions

Whether your script is a comedy, a drama or anything else, it will first be judged on its ending. Just the way making a good ‘first impression’ is important when meeting someone, the ‘final impression’ a reader or studio executive takes away from your script’s last page is likely to make the difference between a ‘consider’ or a ‘pass.’ (If you’re lucky enough to garner a rare ‘recommend,’ you probably nailed it way before the last page.) So the ending of your screen story is vital to the success of your project – and you should ensure that it hits the correct notes to offer your audience an entertaining, insightful and emotionally satisfying experience.

The End… or is it?

One of Hollywood’s latest ‘innovations’ in terms of story endings harkens back to the earliest days of film, when all movies were shorts, and many were serials. Now movies have ‘bulked up’ into $200 million behemoths, so studios must hedge their bets by implanting a cryptic plot point at the end of their tentpole films so that they have pre-positioned a sequel in their (presumed) franchise. All superhero films have them, every ghost story, all genre-mashups… If you are lucky enough to get your script made these days, it had better have franchise potential – if you decide to work for a big studio, that is.

Still a place for dignity

Fortunately, there still is a market for original films with challenging themes and endings. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: if you’ve written a screenplay with a ‘downer’ ending, or something that is open-ended, be prepared for requests to change it to something ‘more commercial.’ Because even if you’re fortunate enough to sell your screenplay, the people who bought it still would like to make money off of it, and if that means changing the ending, they will. It’s called show business, not show art. The best way to avoid having your script’s ending changed is to write the strongest one possible in the first place. And that’s where an experienced story analyst can help make a difference.

Omega and Alpha

Endings are part of the nature of things. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. In screenwriting, the one trick to an ending that is emotionally resonant and satisfying is this: there is no trick. There is only hard work, trial and error, and solid writing. So go out there and write – and re-write, if necessary – your screenplay’s ending. But finish it, with a real ending you can justify; if you can argue successfully for a downer, open-ended absurdist nihilstic finale, then that’s probably the right ending for your work. Get it right, and get it done. That way you can start your next  script with a clear conscience…

That Does Not Compute!

August 19th, 2011 No comments

One of the perils of being a writer in the digital age is the prevalence of high-tech gadgets and newfangled gizmos we depend on to get our messages across that are far more complicated than either of those old standbys the pencil or (if you remember back far enough) the typewriter. Sure, some writers still trust in the ‘old ways,’ but most writers these days have surrendered to the digital revolution. As such, we have grown increasingly dependent on these electronic tools. When they work well, they make our lives easier. When they stop working – well, that’s a horse of a different color, to use an anachronistic metaphor.

Presently I find myself bedeviled by computer problems: my stalwart laptop is little more than a shelf for papers and assorted bits of detritus on my desk, since it chose to stop working after a recent software update. And my old workhorse PC is fighting for life after a botched hardware upgrade; using intuition, accumulated past fix-it knowledge and a lot of wishful thinking, I have managed to resurrect the PC with an archaic version of its operating system. That’s the bad news. The good news? I can still write and post, which is something I rely on to maintain my sanity. And that ain’t nothin’, as the expression goes…

But even without digital devices, one can – and should (if you consider yourself a writer, that is) write. It’s been said that artists are compelled to create, and that is especially true of writers. Without a medium and a message, a writer is just another featherless biped (with apologies to writers who have either feathers or a different number of legs). Having a story to tell, even if it is just about your battles with bits and bytes, is life’s blood to creative writers. So a computer malfunction shouldn’t stop you: after all, who tops the food chain when it comes to electrical productivity devices? YOU. Your brain, the most complicated and powerful processor there is, runs on electrical impulses. And, if you play your cards right and behave, it should never present you with ‘the blue screen of death.’ Let’s hope not, anyway!

So is there a moral to this story? Of course. There’s always a moral – or a point. And here, it’s this: you can write anywhere, on anything. The concept for the hit ’80s TV show “Miami Vice” was was two words scrawled on a cocktail napkin: “MTV Cops.” And it made NBC and Michael Mann millions. But I’m not suggesting using serviettes as your writer’s medium of choice. A pad of paper or a notebook along with a pen or pencil will do just fine. Quill pen and parchment? Sure. Even crayons and wrapping paper, if that’s your thing. In short, it doesn’t matter what you write on. It simply matters that you write.

Therefore, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald from his masterpiece “The Great Gatsby,” “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” At least that’s what it feels like writing on a computer that has seen better days, using an outdated operating system and browser. But it gets the job done, and that’s good enough for me. Because the secret isn’t writing efficiently – it’s writing well. And using old equipment to accomplish that? Well, it doesn’t diminish the pleasure I get from creating. Stated another way, I’ll allude to Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” which garnered 4 Academy Awards out of 7 nominations (including a win for Colin Welland’s original screenplay). In the film, which outlines the competition at the 1924 Olympics between runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Liddell, son of missionaries and a devout Christian, explains that when he runs, he “feels God’s pleasure.” I can relate, because when I write, I feel the unmitigated joy at the opportunity to express myself. I own a couple of computers because I just do. But I write because I feel I must.

 

Subject Matter? Yes!!

August 11th, 2011 No comments

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up…

It’s every writer’s eternal quest: finding something ‘interesting’ to write about. I’ve addressed the subject of subject matter before in For Bards blog, most recently last December: “What Should I Write About?” In that post, I described a holiday dinner I attended with a group of friends: a Hollywood set dresser, a Tony-nominated playwright, a TV costumer, a Hollywood studio executive assistant and a last-minute addition: a screenwriter, the son of a famous British knight. And me, of course – after all, every historic party requires its amanuensis.

And that’s where it started to get interesting…

As I wrote last December, the dinner was wonderful – and the company was delightful. All of us had known one another for years, with the exception of the last-minute guest. He arrived after the party had started, a bottle of wine in hand, and proceeded to work his charm – and obvious self-promotion – over the rest of the group. His reputation had preceded him: our host’s dear friends from out of state explained that the man was working on a hush-hush screenplay, and was staying at an acquaintance’s home in ritzy Pacific Palisades as he worked out the final details of a sale to a major studio. Tall and charming, he was the son of a famous British knight connected with the music industry, and possessed a melifluous voice that was alternately soothing and authoritative. In short, he was a real character.

A real character

As I wrote last December, this dinner could serve as subject matter for any number of stories: a “Big Chill” reunion tale, “Home For the Holidays” comedy or – as I’ve subsequently discovered – a flim flam caper. Because that screenwriter son of a famous British knight? He left one item off his resume: con man. In the months since, I’ve come to learn that this man, who really is the son of a knight, has taken advantage of friends, acquaintances and strangers for years. Apparently he has a screenplay, since he later shared some of it with one of the dinner guests (although it’s not clear it’s really his),  but no ‘multi-million dollar deal’ as he’d repeatedly mentioned at dinner. It turns out the out-of-state pals who vouched for him with our dinner host were also taken, for loans and hospitality, and his Pacific Palisades landlord was similarly stiffed. We’ve since surmised that even the bottle of wine brought to that holiday dinner was probably pilfered from his host’s wine cellar.

Prodigal Son or Problem Child?

So the amount of story material yielded from this holiday dinner of late 2010 has increased exponentially. Now it could be a comedy about a huckster, a straight-up drama dealing with identity, or a character study of an antisocial persona. In short, discovering a wolf in our flock of sheep upped the creative ante considerably. Because drama is conflict, the opportunities for fashioning a story out of this experience are manifold. Since learning of this con man’s modus operandi, I’ve also discovered he has been doing this for years; he has been disowned by his illustrious father and left a trail of broken relationships in his wake. Were it not for the force of the man’s personality, I’m certain he would’ve been unmasked as a fraud years ago. His ceaseless self-promotion at dinner was strange, and perhaps should have been take as a red flag, although let’s face it: in Hollywood, people love to brag about their successes. Ironically, in my experience, the most successful people brag the least.

Interesting story – but it needs an ending…

For someone looking for story material, I’ve proven there are at least a few takes on something as simple as a dinner party. The revelation that one guest was a con man adds depth to the story, perhaps propelling it into its second act. Was the con man there to steal something? To find another victim? Taking a day off? There are so many options open to this story, and very few dead ends. The one thing the story presently lacks is a solid ending. Is it a happy ending? A righteous one? What if the ending is simply a new beginning? There are so many choices open to a creative writer – so now all you need to do is create.

The morality of the story…

There may be no moral to this story, but there certainly is morality involved. The con man guest isn’t necessarily the most important character to the story, but he’s a valuable one. His conflicted morality offers multiple plot lines and story points – all necessary to a successful screenplay. So, what have we learned? A dinner party can provide story material, but its story potential multiplies when someone (or perhaps more than one) at that party has a secret. As a writer, your job is to reveal any secrets in a way that makes your work relevant, compelling and entertaining. It’s a tough job – but, hey – you’re a writer, aren’t you?

 Are you up to the task?

Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.

The 15-day First Draft

July 18th, 2011 No comments

Speed writing?

At Forbard Story Services, I provide truthful and constructive criticism of my clients’ work – and always observe absolute confidentiality involving every writer’s story, plot and subject matter. But I did have a unique experience working with a writer recently that I will share. Like a screenwriting version of speed-dating, we worked together and fashioned a first draft screenplay based on his orginal (prose) material in 15 days. My client and his resulting script fall under that ‘confidentiality’ thing, but the experience itself was invigorating and rewarding.

Compelled to write

For a number of reasons, including the writer’s age, I was motivated to help him achieve his vision, even if that meant I had to do more than I customarily would in terms of story analysis services. The writer was clearly compelled to write, and I could sense his urgency, so I simply used his stories as a blueprint to develop a complete script with a beginning, middle and end, containing solid characters and story themes which would resonate with an audience. After a false start or two, we hit on a productive working relationship: as the client offered more primary material, I generated script pages, which we would both revise. Soon, we fell into a comfortable rhythm.

No time for distractions

To create a full first draft script in 15 days, it was necessary to hunker down and work. It meant a minimum of 10 solid script pages a day before revisions, and left very little time for much else. I consulted with my client by phone nearly every day, sometimes multiple times, and set myself the task of adapting and adjusting the writer’s stories into something a producer or director would recognize as a thought-out script, in a familiar format, lacking any serious flaws like plot holes, stilted dialogue or a formulaic feel. It helped that I was home alone while my wife was away, since it allowed me to work any time the whim struck me.

Even God rested…

The 15-day first draft involved 15 days of writing, but not 15 consecutive days… Let’s face it: writing is hard (at least good writing is), and even God took a day off while creating the world. So I took a few days off during this process, and the entire affair unfolded over 18 days. But, as any writer knows, a ‘day off’ isn’t always an accurate description, since most writers keep working in their heads when they aren’t tapping the keyboard or scribbling on paper. In any case, both my client and I took a few days off, but they were needed to recharge – and refine.

First Draft at last!

The final day of writing was spent bridging various scenes, revising some of the previous story lines and characters, and generally just getting all the script’s figurative ducks in a row. After an intense period of living and breathing the stories’ characters and creating and re-hashing plot elements and story lines, the first draft was complete. My client was enthusiastic about the end result: although he didn’t realize it when he started, he was trying to write a screenplay, but lacked a general familiarity with the format and mechanics of screenwriting to come up with a finished script on his own. For my part, I was very pleased: although as a story analyst I usually confine my input to constructive criticism, this project was special, particularly because of the client’s obvious desire to tell his story.

Stay in shape!

What I took away from the whole experience is that it’s good to keep those screenwriting muscles in shape – a 15-day first draft is like running a marathon: you start out with highest hopes and great intentions, occasionally sag in the middle, and are elated to see it end – albeit with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. At least that’s what my runner friends tell me. After all, what would I know about running marathons? I’m a writer.

Nature vs. Nurture: Creativity or Experience?

May 26th, 2011 No comments

Unformed or Informed…?

In the last For Bards Blog post, I mentioned a friend had asked the question “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?” My glib answer was instantaneous: “It’s called the “Citizen Kane” effect.” I did  put in my defense of experience and wisdom by citing filmmmakers like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, or Alain Renais, all of whom  in the last year or two delivered the most mature works of their careers. But my friend’s answer was equally quick – and equally glib: “Yes, but no one  goes to see those.” So why is it that so many creative artists do their most audacious work at the beginning of their career, and what filmmakers have managed to have avoid this pitfall? (Or is it a gift…?)

Enfant Terrible?  –  Seasoned Vet?

Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane” serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to filmmakers, because it signifies the limitless creativity of genius and the relentless demands of commerce at odds with one another. Arguably Welles’ best film (if not anyone’s), “Citizen Kane” showcased Orson Welles’ ample talent and vision and has thrilled audiences ever since its release; but it was not a commercial success, mainly due to the efforts of William Randolph Hearst, who, probably accurately, perceived Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles’ story of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane as a personal attack. The resulting film is a cinema classic, but its arthouse creative ingenuity cost Welles industry work for years. Despite 9 Academy Award nominations, “Citizen Kane” won only for Best Original Screenplay for Mankiewicz and Welles (a credit that its director and co-writer contested for years). Orson Welles’ next directorial effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was taken over in editing by RKO, which savagely re-cut Welles’ original version. Resorting to hire himself out as an actor or wine spokesperson, Welles as a director failed to recreate the cinematic brio of “Citizen Kane,” although he came closest in his 1958 film noir “Touch of Evil.”

Woody Allen is 75 years old. And he still makes movies – almost one a year. Some would argue that his best films are behind him: his “early funny” movies (to quote a sycophant from Allen’s “Stardust Memories”) are a distant memory, and his storylines have tended toward similarity over time. Yet Woody Allen is currently garnering his best critical reaction in years for his latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival recently. Compared by some to his comic fantasy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Midnight in Paris” stars Owen Wilson as an Allen-esque writer whose present-day Parisian vacation changes when he is transported back to the romanticized Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, allowing him to rub shoulders and exchange bon mots with the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway. In a way, it’s  a melding of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Woody Allen: the protagonist is Allen’s Everyman nebbish stand-in, but the film’s setting and sensibility is the ‘new’ Woody, who left his native New York City to shoot all his films since 2005 in England or Europe. His next film, starring Penelope Cruz, will be shot in Rome. 

 

The Argument Continues…

So why is it that some folks do their most evocative  work when they are clearly ‘making it all up?’ Is that naivete? Or pure creativity? And what about a lifetime of experience? John Huston’s two greatest films were probably the first and last he directed (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Dead” in 1987) – 46 years apart! Alfred Hitchcock was limited by film technology when he started directing, embraced it by mid-career and was bored by it at the end – but he delivered films that fall into both the best-work and worst-work categories during each of these phases (among the bests: “The Lodger,” “Notorious,” “Psycho;” among the worsts: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “I Confess,” “Topaz”). But in all these cases – and those of countless other writers and directors, their first project – or even ‘sophmore effort’ – displays a yearning to ‘dream big’ and make a mark. One of the bon-vivants of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, famously said “There are no second acts in American lives,” alluding to the enormous success he experienced with the publication of “The Great Gatsby” in 1924, when Fitzgerald was only 28. Although he struggled to recreate that phenomenal early success, Fitzgerald was forever held to the impossible standard of ‘Gatsby.’ How ironic, then, that yet another adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is in the works for the big screen starring Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and directed by Baz Luhrmann – the 5th version of Fitzgerald’s classic since 1926. Although alcoholism and a hard life brought about his demise at age 44, Fitzgerald’s masterwork lives on. The moral of the story? Create. Then, create some more. Who knows? – you could be the next John Huston… Or, God forbid, F. Scott Fitzgerald, although I suppose worse things have happened…

 Hopefully I’ll see you at the 2012 opening of “The Great Gatsby.” No second acts, indeed…!

The Writes of Spring?

April 6th, 2011 2 comments

Hey, congratulations! You made it through one of the coldest, snowiest, nastiest winters on record (so far), and spring – such as it is – is here. It’s time for ‘spring cleaning,’ and hopefully that includes any ideas you’ve been holding onto over the harsh winter. Washing the windows and beating the rugs – well, that’s your business. But when it comes to following your creative urge and putting those long-gestating ideas down on paper – what I call the ‘writes of spring,’ you should remember the importance of story basics. After all, spring is a time of renewal and rebirth; if you look at the movies coming to a theater near you this summer, renewed and rebirthed is a pretty accurate description of the sequel-heavy fare… It’s why you need to contribute to the ‘writes of spring.’ After all, your idea is better, isn’t it?

The importance of story

More often than not, audiences do not leave a movie theater criticizing the art direction. They find fault with the story – or the way the story is told. The first part means the writer didn’t do their job properly; the latter suggests the director is complicit with the writer. In either case, it’s probably because the story had flaws. Flaws which could have been fixed before the story left audiences wanting something better. That’s where the process of story development comes in: story development analysis reinforces scripts so their seams are not evident.

End with the beginning? Begin with the ending?

No matter what your creative process entails, the important part is getting words down on paper (or bits and bytes on your hard drive) to give your work life. Basics like story structure, pacing, tone, characters, etc. are all important, but without actual substance, all writing is hypothetical. So get those words written – however you want. If you want to begin with your story’s ending (usually the most difficult element of any story or script to get right), go for it! Just remember, while the ending is important, it’s no more so than the beginning or middle. But you’ve got to start somewhere…

Everybody’s a critic

Once you’ve accomplished your goal and put your script down on paper, what next? The subsequent step may actually be the hardest: letting others read and offer criticism of your work. It’s necessary for people to read your efforts – that’s the very definition of being a writer. But you want people to read your work with an eye toward making it better, not simply pointing out misspellings or typos or pronouncing it ‘good.’ Because of their formats, feature film scripts, as well as teleplays and stage plays, can offer a reading challenge to the uninitiated, so it’s a very good idea to have someone familiar with script format read your work for quality and clarity.

Written any good movies lately?

Spring has sprung, the sap is running… So start writing! Or do you WANT another summer of sequels, remakes and reboots? Frankly, it’s your move…

Who ARE you People?!

February 25th, 2011 No comments

For Bards blog has reached a milestone of sorts – it’s turned the page on its first year, and is moving full-speed ahead into its second.

Some Numbers

During the last year, I have written 79 blog posts which have been read by thousands of readers from 65 countries. Not surprisingly, English language-speaking countries account for a substantial share of this traffic, especially since I have relatives (and many close friends) in the United States and the United Kingdom. But that can’t explain why For Bards blog is popular in Australia or New Zealand, where I am delighted to have discovered a loyal readership.

 

It has been fun as well as educational to write For Bards blog during the last year. Many of the posts dealt with the business end of show business, discussing weekend box office numbers or the changing of the guard at one studio or another. Other posts discuss the creative process, or writing in general. But some of my favorite posts have been more personal, like the series of posts I wrote about “My Favorite Week,” when I was lucky enough to hang out with horror movie icon Vincent Price, or relating the ongoing drama of MGM in “Dyin’ Lion?,” which gave me a chance to reminisce about the studio in earlier troubled times. But when the public speaks, its voice must be heard: the #1 most-read post on For Bards blog the last year? It was a relatively innocuous post about big budget releases – but its title must’ve been irresistable to search engines: “Is that a Tentpole in your pocket? (Or are you just shoring up your slate?)” It certainly proves one thing – Madison Ave. is right: (implied) sex sells! From here on in, I’ll try to work something smarmy into every title…

I Hear You

Many readers have been kind enough to leave comments on For Bards blog – and I am always happy to hear from fellow writers and/or film fans. I’ve also learned a great deal about spam: it’s a tool used by some to direct ‘hits’ to their own websites (or sites they advertise on). I’ve learned how to deal with industrial spam while continuing to offer readers a chance to comment. So don’t hesitate to share your opinion (or movie suggestions) – just don’t be surprised if a spam-laden ‘posting’ never appears… I have my ways!

Shameless Plug

My contributions to For Bards blog are linked to my website Forbard Story Services, and both sites have received a good deal of cross-traffic over the past year. As a result, Forbard Story Services has been fortunate enough to help a number of writers with their screenplays, stage plays, teleplays, treatments and other writing projects.  It is always exciting to offer perspective and constructive analysis to writers, and the coming year holds a great deal of promise for more of the same. I encourage writers to keep up the hard work, since Forbard Story Services is ready, willing and able to help.

So, who ARE you people?

Who are For Bards blog readers? They’re writers, they’re movie fans, they’re my voluminous family… They’re also residents of the Maldives, Ivory Coast, Denmark, Slovenia, South Africa, Argentina, Burma, China, Brazil, Russia, and 55 other countries… In other words, they’re lovers of film and writing from around the world. And I look forward to continuing to write about those subjects as For Bards blog moves from its infancy into toddlerdom. In the meantime, thanks to ALL of you for reading For Bards blog!

2010 – The Year in (moving) Pictures…

January 5th, 2011 No comments

Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” but he might as well have been talking about the film year just passed. 2010 brought us pronounced Hollywood highs and lows, from the (continued) historic box-office success of 3-D juggernaut “Avatar” to the cringe-worthy release of “Sex and the City 2,” but perhaps the biggest story all year has been the public’s perceived paucity of quality entertainment coming from Hollywood. For every success like “Toy Story 3,” there were scads of expensive failures, from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” or “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” to “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the latter two films being rare flops from mega-budget producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And then there was “The Last Airbender,” which offended fans of the series and struck out both artistically and at the box office, despite being 3-D retrofitted by Paramount.

But the news wasn’t all bad: there were big-budget successes (other than Fox’s “Avatar,” which made $477 domestically in 2010), like Tim Burton’s 3-D opus “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned Disney $334 million, as well as the think-piece of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which simultaneously thrilled and confounded audiences with its reality-bending storyline, pulling in $293 million domestically for Warner’s. Harry Potter made a return to America’s movie screens in “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1” and pulled-in $273 million, but the film couldn’t be made into 3-D by its already-set release date, so Warner Brothers sacrificed B.O. bucks while gleaning praise by purists for not cutting corners. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Warner’s “Clash of the Titans,” which, like ‘Airbender,’ retrofitted itself to 3-D, with predictably bad artistic results (although being the first at the trough helps, since ‘Titans’ made over $163 million domestically).

But when the Motion Picture Academy announces its Oscar nominees on January 25, 2011, don’t expect to hear too many of these films being mentioned. For starters, “Avatar” was a 2009 release, and it did OK at the 2010 Oscars, but James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked away with the statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” and that film also won for Mark Boal’s original screenplay. This year it’s about critically acclaimed movies (think  either low-budget or so-so box office), like The Weinstein Company’s “The King’s Speech,” whose ad campaigns seem eerily reminiscent of “Shine,” probably because of star Geoffrey Rush, or Sony’s David Fincher-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted “The Social Network,” which packs so much dialogue into its two hour running-time that the shooting script was 180 pages long. Another  potential nominee is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” but after his manic “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s doubtful he’d win again so soon, but James Franco seems a lock for a Best Actor nomination. While you’re at it, add “Black Swan” and Natalie Portman to the list, as well as Lisa Chodolenko’s “The Kids are All Right,” which seems destined to earn a few acting nominations for its stars. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” falls into this group of critically-lauded but low-performing films.

One of the year’s best reviewed films is also its longest and hardest to find. “Carlos,” a 5 1/2 hour epic by Olivier Assayas about the international terrorist known as ‘Carlos the Jackal.’ The film was made for Canal Plus; it’s a demanding biography that travels through the history of international terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s. Because Assayas’ film was initially made for television (and already aired, last October, on the Sundance Channel) it won’t be earning any Oscar nominations. Even still, “Carlos” consistently placed highly on critics’ year-end ‘best’ lists, and was an audience favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

2010 wasn’t really a year for the record books – domestic box office receipts dropped along with ticket sales, approximately 5%. But the 3-D ‘premium’ ticket price kept things nearly even. Even still, of the top ten films at the U.S. box office in 2010, 6 of them were 3-D – but only 2 of those were live-action films: “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The remaining films were all animated: “Toy Story 3,” Universal’s “Despicable Me,” and Paramount’s “Shrek Forever After” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” So although 3-D is credited with bringing additional change into studio coffers, that trend seems to be slipping, with audiences growing more picky about whether they spring for the extra bucks to see “Yogi Bear” in 3-D. Although more 3-D films are in the works, it’s still not clear whether 3-D is a technological advance in filmmaking – or a way for the studios to grab a few extra bucks.

With more big-budget films coming your way for 2011, there should be plenty for everyone. Did I mention Sony’s “The Green Hornet” opens in 3-D next week? See you at the movies!