Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Guest Blog: Lights! Camera! Story!

Kym-n-Mark are excited to share with you the thoughts of our good friend, Alan Wartes,
independent filmmaker and videographer.

Alan describes himself as a writer, musician, filmmaker, and urban farmer who lives in Denver with his wife, the incomparable Issa Forrest, and an assortment of children, grandchildren, goats, and chickens.

But Alan is also a poet and stage performer -- fearless and successful in so many media.

(Be sure to check out the video clips interspersed through his wonderful insights below not only into writing for film but also making that film yourself!)

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 After mulling many different ideas to share with the virtual writer’s community being lovingly assembled here by Mark and Kym, I finally realized that I’m not ready to quit the conversation they began in last week’s blog: “How (Not) to Write a Screenplay.” So at the risk of using my turn at the wheel to steer the site (again) toward screenwriting—and offending those who see it as the novel’s red-headed step-sister—I’d like to share a few insights earned in one of the best (and most terrifying) writing schools known to (this) man: producing and directing my own scripts. 

The timing couldn’t be better, really, since I am presently neck deep in production on a new short film called “The Edge,” so the issues are not merely theoretical in any way. As we used to say when I was in the army, there are two kinds of solution to any problem: book solutions and field solutions. In other words, what you think you know in the classroom isn’t worth diddly squat until it has survived a day in the real world where people are shooting at you and saying mean things with a lot of feeling. Or, in the case of filmmaking, where Murphy’s Law was actually written and beta tested before its release to the general public. Imagine planning three weddings every day for a week—for $50 each—and you’ll start to understand the joys of indie filmmaking.

 Fast Food Romeo—2006.
High school science geek Joe Morris makes the most of his strengths and talks to the girl of his dreams on his own terms—by hacking her drive-up window headset at the fast food joint where she works.

Ah, but it is joyful, and none of that other stuff matters much—when you’ve got a story to tell that is burning holes in your eyelids. But, of course, that describes a lot of people. The trick is knowing how to tell it well. Notice I did not say that the trick is knowing how to sell it well. It is way too easy to forget that we are storytellers, after all. Storytellers do far more than string clever words together like cheap beads for sale on blankets at the flea market. We create worlds and populate them with people who look to us like Greek gods to make their lives mean something, for pity’s sake! “Why have you forsaken us in Act Two? Is there any hope that will come back for us before The End?” It is an awesome responsibility.

Okay, three lessons I’ve learned about writing in general by daring to write screenplays and then make the movies myself, saying to Hollywood, “Be gone! I don’t believe in you!” Never fear. If you have no intention of ever doing any such thing, these tidbits might help you along with whatever form of writing is burning holes in your eyelids.

1. Write what you can actually shoot. I had to chuckle at the advice Mark and Kym received from their film industry friend, something like: “Are you crazy? You set your story on a Texas beach during a hurricane with five hundred oil rigs burning offshore?” Could be one hell of a yarn, but…only Bruce Willis could sell it. I am paying (literally) for this mistake myself next weekend when we will shoot the “bar scene” in “The Edge” which calls for 20 extras on top of the rest of the cast. Sounded great until I remembered that I have to feed them all lunch.

But here’s the point: When you sit down to write, remember that life is rarely lived on an epic scale. Once in a while you happen to be sitting on the beach when a tsunami strikes, but mostly we live in small, ordinary moments that don’t look like much, but which reveal who we are, what we want, and what obstacles we are willing to overcome to get it. In other words, the locations and situations close to home are where the stories are.
   I Once Ate a Pepper—2012
A super-fun animated short about the perils of eating a pepper “right off the vine.” Be sure to watch to the very end.

2. Screenplays aren’t finished art—movies are. When is the last time you saw a screenplay on the NYT bestseller list? On the front table at Barnes and Noble? For that matter, when’s the last time you actually read one? Anyone? Now, when’s the last time you saw a great movie?

Hot tip: The words in a screenplay are there for one reason—as a blueprint to help filmmakers paint with light and bring the story to life. That’s why formatting and convention matter so much; mostly to help the writer get out of the way and let the imagery and dialogue speak for itself. Hot tip corollary: All words, in any written medium, are there to create magic images in the mind of the reader. Too much cleverness, too much of the sound of your own voice is a bad thing.

3. Write dialogue that real actors actually want to say. Poets must read their words out loud. Ditto novelists once in a while at book signings. But as a screenwriter making my own movies, I must endure the “read through”—a real come-to-Jesus moment when other people embody my characters and say out loud the words I gave them—in a medium that will last a long time. Nothing will reveal the trite, the wooden, the unmotivated, the petty, the crass, the just plain bad any faster. Here’s how to avoid that: Write with love, deep, deep love for your characters—even the bastards who, after all, are only doing what they think they must to survive. Treat them with dignity, honor, integrity, and above all, compassion—like they are children rescued from a shipwreck. Do that and they will never embarrass you.

You want to write a screenplay? Read the how-to books, take a seminar, get lots of advice. But never forget your story—and storytelling—in the process. Finally, once you’ve written it—pick up a camera and just make the damn thing!

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Thanks, Alan, for sharing your creative spirit with us! 
Also be sure to check out Alan's music:
 Avalon Road
A Denver acoustic band playing Alan’s original music. Members: Alan Wartes, Issa Forrest, Eric Moon, Lia Davis, and Monika Vischer.
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How (Not) to Write a Screenplay

Hollywood’s expectation for spec writers is straight forward – if you’re walking backwards. What studio folks want to hear is a fresh and original story idea that sounds like something they’ve already heard.

We found that out the hard way.

After we’d written the first book in our paranormal adventure-comedy series, the Silverville Saga, lots of readers told us it should be a movie, and we believed them. So we tried writing our very own screen adaptation.

Mistake No. 1 – We didn’t know what we were doing.

We took our novel and chopped out all the exposition and reformatted the remaining dialog with a bit of action to contextualize what characters – er, we mean, actors – would say. Our script was more of a stage play with no stage, and it was awful.

A couple of screenwriting friends advised us to attend a few workshops (we attended), buy a few books on the subject (we bought), and try again (yep, we tried).

Mistake No. 2 – We didn’t buy Save the Cat.

This time we had a couple of Indy directors and a fairly big producer look us over. But no meetings – at least, none that led to movie deals. One good friend and mentor, a longtime Hollywood stuntman and stunt double for the likes of Clark Gable, John Wayne and, well, you name it and he stood in –  so, this friend read our script and told us we still didn’t know what we were doing. He tapped page fifteen and pointed to a description we’d included, telling us, “That one little sentence is going to cost $10,000 in production values. Any script reader would see that and tell the producer to pass on your property. Go back and do your homework.”

Mistake No. 3 – We bought the right book, but we didn’t follow the advice.

Yes, Snyder’s advice is formulaic, and yes it’s restrictive. But it works. It’s what moviemakers want; it’s also what moviegoers expect. Like any seasoned writing professional knows, you have to write to the medium. Screenplays are a specialized medium, and you’ve got to craft the words to play to the strengths. Formula and tight structure are two of those strengths.

Even though this new approach to writing hurtled our words down a narrow corridor that felt like a giant water slide, the payoff was getting to focus on the important scenes (let prose writers chop through the dense foliage of exposition). It was fun, and it made us rethink our novels as well. Shouldn't all our scenes be important? Do we really want ferns and vines obscuring so much of the straight shot through our water slides? Okay, different medium, but there was a valuable take-away from Snyder's advice, regardless of medium. After all, the name of the game is still storytelling.

Snyder’s book explains all that and more, plus he also gives value-added advice that opens windows into the weird world of movie making and movie deals. It’s not enough to have a good story – maybe not enough to have a good script. 

Just like good dialog in any medium, it’s all about the subtext. Snyder provides that subtext, explaining to aspiring screenwriters how the process works both on and off the page, both in front of the camera and around the boardroom, both within the studio system as well as throughout the whole, weird tinsel-twisted town.

In the end, we took away three things from our screenwriting experience: 
  1. We love writing that focuses all the attention on scenes that matter. 
  2. Screenwriting strategies can make any story tighter and, frankly, better because it’s good craft that makes good stories come to life. 
  3. We’re not yet competent screenwriters.

Mistake No. 4 – 
We’re still waiting to make that one. We don’t know what it is or when it’s coming; of course, we’re sure the answer on how to avoid it lies somewhere in the pages of Save the Cat. And we’re sure someone will point out the passage as soon as we make inevitable Mistake No. 4.

The process almost feels reassuring, kind of like walking straight forward. 

Only backwards

-- Kym-n-Mark

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Progressive Book Club: A meeting of the minds, open each month to those who wish to read and discuss the current book with their peers. Join in on the titles you like, pass on those you don’t. It’s that simple.

Now it's time to join the next PBC blog discussion on Save the Cat:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wormhole Blog Hop

(Lieber Albert, Fröliches Geburtstag!)

Our wormhole plugs into the many-worlds multiverse, where any variation on a world you can imagine exists somewhere out there.

When we learned to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (nerd alert), we became fascinated with that time period, but we’d visit a version with three improvements. Our wormed version of that world would have
  1.  indoor plumbing
  2. air conditioning
  3. chocolate
Plus Kym wants to wear the skimpy clothes, Mark wants to drive a chariot, and both of us want the chance to smite our enemies.

 (Notice we avoided the paranormal adventure-comedy world of our own Silverville Saga series – we already live there.)

This is a Blog Hop! Proceed to the next wormhole from the list below: