Sunday, September 09, 2007


There is so much tedious and annoying stuff you need to do in order to write a good screenplay.

I think when most people think about it, they think about sitting down at a computer and somehow cranking out 100 pages of dialogue and cuts and fades and people opening doors.

But this is L.A., where people are more informed about the ins and outs of movie-related endeavors. So when most of them think about screenwriting, they probably think about writing an outline or a treatment or whatever you want to call it and then turning that into 100 pages of dialogue and cuts and fades and people opening doors.

Yeah, all that stuff is pretty easy. Comparatively, anyway. Which is why practically every screenwriting class or book on earth will only teach you about those two things -- writing an outline, and turning that outline into a script. It makes sense: those are the things you can teach. And really, you can teach both of them in a total of around ten minutes.

Here's a list of things about writing that I really don't think you can't teach.
  • Making up an interesting story that also makes sense and will fill a movie; and
  • Making up interesting characters who will change over the course of the story and whose words and actions will be believable based on what you know (or will later learn) about them.
It's not a very long list. It's only two things, actually. Except it's kind of, well, everything. If you can't do these things there's pretty much zero point in going any further. And yet, tons of people who really can't do them go ahead and write their screenplays, and then they show them to you and want to know what suggestions you have. I've been reading a lot of scripts recently on (a co-op site for aspiring screenwriters) and I can sum up my notes on practically everything I've read so far thusly: Clearly you don't know what the fuck you're doing, so throw out everything and start over and make up something better.

It's hard to say that politely, so I end up doing one of two things: ignoring the script and moving on; or poking enough holes in every aspect of it for the writer to (hopefully) get the point that he/she just needs to start over and really think about it next time. Most of them probably don't take this advice, because all they wanted to hear was that the scene on page 67 needed some work, and then they could fix it and have a perfect script. I don't blame them; that used to be me. When I finished my first screenplay and handed it in to the teacher of my college writing course, the notes I got back were that the story and characters were basically unworkable and I should really think about changing the whole thing entirely. My reaction was to furiously assert (to myself) that he didn't know what he was talking about and it just needed a little work here and there to be great. Which of us was right? Well, since I've had zero temptation to even touch the script since then, I'm thinking it wasn't me.

But I digress. Those two things I bullet-pointed up there? Yes, they're applicable to pretty much any storytelling medium, from short stories to naughty finger puppet shows. It's just that they really, really, really matter in a screenplay, because there is absolutely nothing else to hide behind. Which is way ironic, because in a movie there are like a zillion things to hide behind. 20th Century Fox logo! Fancy credits! Pretty actress! Explosion! Helicopter shot over New York City! Sex! That new Fall Out Boy song! The End! A movie doesn't need to be good to be good; it just needs to be watchable.

On the other hand, a screenplay can't even be readable unless it's freaking great. This is because standard screenplay format --to which any first-time writer must adhere-- is like a giant Roomba that glides over your story and sucks up every last bit of surface-y cleverness and wit, leaving behind nothing but the most basic elements of plot and character. Take it from me, a person who has read a ton of scripts in his short-ass life: screenplays are not fun to read. There is no subtlety to them, no room for personal touches, absolutely nothing to make you forget that you are reading instructions for shooting a movie. Instead of explaining this more, I'm just going to go ahead and link you to the screenplay for Jaws. Go ahead, read it for a little while. Try not to get bored, even though it's one of the most exciting movies ever made. Or here's Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So. A screenplay is horribly difficult to write and not all that fun to read. But if you love movies, if you think you have an idea for a better than average one, if you're secure enough in your talent to believe that you could put that idea down on paper in a compelling way, if your quixotic nature lets you dare to hope that one day that paper might be bought and eventually filmed... then you really. Have. No. Other. Choice.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean L.A. isn't out to get vegetarians

Up until recently I would have staunchly defended L.A. as one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities on the planet. Sure, it would have finished slightly below your Berkeleys or your New Delhis, but it would have been right up there. I might even have gone so far to say that vegetarians are finally starting to hold some of the high cards in the giant Texas Hold'Em game of the foodie culture.

Well, not so much anymore. If we had, say, pocket jacks a few years ago, right now we're down to maybe a queen-three. Meanwhile, our carnivorous brethren are getting Ace-King after Ace-King.

What's the deal? And why did I feel the need to keep that poker metaphor going for so long? I really don't know the answer to either of these questions. I just know that it feels to me like vegetarians are slowly being shown the door by the gourmet community. Maybe they've figured out that they can still pack the house without catering to us, or maybe meatless is no longer chic in their circle. Whatever the reason, it sucks.

Let's get specific. Providence and Craft. Two of the hippest, hottest, hardest-to-get-into restaurants in L.A. right now; both opened within the past year or so. Both of them also feature exactly zero vegetarian dishes. Not a single one. Not even a token angel hair pasta with diced tomato and basil (the fancy restaurateur's equivalent to the undercooked Gardenburger). Neither of these places is a steakhouse or sushi bar; they're both in the category of New American cuisine, and from my perspective the New America has a reasonable number of deep-pocketed vegetarians, but I guess the chefs disagree. Fraiche, not quite as scene-y but nonetheless a cornerstone of the Culver City Gentrification Project, squeaks by with one pasta dish (ravioli with English pea and mint). Ketchup, the fun new place for us kids to drop a ton of dough, has every kind of fancy-ass burger except the veggie kind. But perhaps the greatest insult comes from Abode, the hot new "green" restaurant that trumpets its devotion to "sustainable artisanal cuisine" but offers only a single vegetarian appetizer (eggplant chorizo) and no entrees. Am I missing something, Abode? You could grow all the ingredients to make a kick-ass veggie dish on my balcony; isn't that slightly more sustainable than your cured meats and foie gras and oysters?

I like to think that I don't have unreasonable expectations. Sure, it would be nice to see a meatless establishment attract the same kind of scene and press as Cut or Katsuya, but I'm enough of a pragmatist to understand that you need a certain amount of meat and fish to bring in the masses. What I don't understand is why it's too much trouble for someone who calls him or herself a world-class chef to come up with just one or two veggie dishes that are as mindblowingly original and delicious as the rest of the omnivorous stuff on the menu.

Last fall Alexis and I had an awesome dinner at Saddle Peak Lodge. Not a ton of choices for us, obviously, but we still had excellent salads and great pasta dishes. Now, when a place with deer heads and antique rifles on the walls caters to vegetarians better than the latest and greatest place on Melrose, I think it's fair to say that something's a little amiss.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Carbon footprint, nitrogen finger smear, boron chalk body outline

Here are ten things I'm doing to save the environment this summer.

And by "save," I mean "destroy less quickly."
  1. Bringing own bags to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Okay, I've only done this once so far. But it felt good! If I'm not doing this on a regular basis by the end of the summer you all have license to tease me relentlessly. Also: not using individual plastic bags for produce at Whole Foods. Who cares if the tomatoes touch the fennel bulbs or peppers or whatever?
  2. Buying wind power credits from Native Energy. The wind power doesn't come to you, of course; it goes to someone in a wind power-capable area who otherwise would have used conventional energy sources. So it's kind of like in the Civil War when you could avoid being in the Union army by finding someone else willing to take your place. Anyway, it only costs about $6 a month to theoretically negate all your fossil fuel consumption. Why not? Windmills are cool. Without them they couldn't have had that awesome helicopter chase through the wind farm in the beginning of Mission: Impossible 3.
  3. Balcony herb garden, courtesy of Rossanna. One step toward agricultural self-sufficiency! Mainly we're hoping to grow enough mint to power a summer's worth of mojitos.
  4. Trying really hard not to use the A/C in the car on normal trips (i.e., to/from work). I've managed to get 30-50 extra miles out of a tank this way, and I get more fresh air.
  5. Shutting everything off in the apartment that I'm not using. Kitchen light, DVD player, monitor, computer speakers, and so on and so on and so on. Using fewer lights also helps the apartment stay cooler.
  6. Turning off work computer at the end of the day. No, seriously. I used to just log off so I wouldn't have to wait as long to boot up in the morning. I suspect I'm not the only one.
  7. (Alexis came up with this one) Not using the apartment elevator to go up/down one floor.
  8. Driving less, walking more. I'm hoping to expand this to taking the bus to work at least 2 days a week, starting in August. Again, if I don't, please make fun of me.
  9. Buying less stuff. Clothes, consumer goods, random non-recyclable crap. Since Alexis moved in we've gotten rid of enough stuff to fill another apartment. None of it was stuff we remotely needed or wanted, yet most of it was stuff we (mostly I) bought within the last 5 years. Some things are worth having; some things aren't. I'm making a real effort to restrict my purchases to the first category.
  10. (Also learned from Alexis) Reusing paper instead of recycling it. You don't need a fresh sheet of paper to print a crossword when the back of an old one will do. I've expanded this practice to taking home non-sensitive papers from work and popping them in the printer, thus also saving me money and trips to OfficeMax.
So I'm hardly a model citizen when it comes to ecological awareness, but I'm trying to pull my weight here. Happy summer!

Monday, July 02, 2007


(I'm going to just go ahead and write something without any meta-commentary about how long it's been since I last blogged, so bear with me, okay?)

While Alexis and I were staying in my parents' house last week in what used to be my bedroom, I scanned the bookcase and noticed the impressive-bordering-on-embarrassing collection of screenwriting books that occupied most of a shelf. Well, actually, more like embarrassing-bordering-on-incredibly-embarrassing. It wouldn't be so bad if the books had been acquired over a decade or so, during which time I had diligently churned out a succession of scripts and, on occasion, felt the need to turn to an outside source for guidance. But that's neither the timetable nor the circumstance in which they were purchased. In reality -- hilariously enough -- they were all purchased before I turned twenty-one, and (with one exception) before I'd actually written a single screenplay.

Let's go through some of them, shall we? The Screenwriter's Problem Solver? What screenwriting problems did I need to solve, exactly? I suppose "not having written anything yet" could be considered a problem, but offhand it strikes me as a relatively solvable one.

How to Write a Selling Screenplay. I think that's the first one I bought. The author has no screenplay credits on IMDb. He probably just hasn't read his own book yet.

Like many books of its ilk, about 200 pages on why Chinatown is the best screenplay ever written and all you need to do to write a good script is duplicate it word for word. (Also written by the Screenwriter's Problem Solver guy.)

The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. This one's a fucking page-turner, let me tell you. As I recall, there's at least one chapter on margins and probably two or three on font choices. Might have been slightly useful if I wasn't already, at the time, enrolled in a two-semester screenwriting class that devoted about 70% of class time to margin and font sizes.

The Screenwriter's Workbook. Subtitle: "Exercises and Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating a Successful Screenplay." The Chinatown worshiper, again. I hear his next book is a concise guide to being elected president. Sadly, Bill Richardson has already ordered an advance copy.

Making a Good Script Great.
The author knows whereof she speaks: she was a script consultant on Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter. I'm dubious, though... I have a feeling that script was already pretty great before she got her hands on it. I purchased this book immediately upon completion of the first draft of my first screenplay. Taking the first mature step in my writing career, I thought about it for a year or so and then chose never to work on it or think about it ever again. Yes, it was that bad. No, you may not read it.

And now we come to the granddaddy of them all. Story, by Robert McKee. General consensus posits this as the definitive book on screenwriting, if by "definitive" you mean "most pretentious" and by "pretentious" you mean "you can't read it without involuntarily putting on a fake British accent." This book and its accompanying seminars achieved true immortality when they were brilliantly spoofed in Adaptation, the one good Nicolas Cage movie in the past five years ten years all time; and since I was already a little embarrassed to own the book before that film came out, I certainly wasn't going to go anywhere near it afterwards. I was a young adolescent in terms of my screenwriting development, and young adolescents do not want to get caught hanging out with the nerdy kid. Going back and seriously reading the book after its public lampooning would have been like hanging out with the nerdy kid after he'd pooped his pants in gym. And so that book (along with all its brethren) sat unloved on the shelf in my parents' house for another several years. Until last week, when (on a vacation-imposed break from working on /struggling with my current screenplay) I decided, what the hell, let's pick it up and skim a few pages.

Quite a different experience, I must say, to be reading them from the perspective of "let's see if this guy can tell me anything I don't already know" as opposed to, like, "Hey, this book will show me how to write screenplays!" I have to admit, it's at least somewhat useful. Instead of spouting out crazy quasi-mystical stuff about the inciting event that needs to plot-pointize the culminating protagonist on the bottom third of page 29, he just talks about things you need to keep in mind while you're writing... like if you set up X, then people are going to expect Y, and so forth. And it all pretty much makes sense, pretentious or not.

I have no real conclusion to this series of thoughts, so there you go.