Thursday, June 29, 2006

Crawling Through The Words

I don’t know what made me smile more: when my son crawled for the first time last Saturday, or when my wife started bawling when he did.

It was one of those perfect, real, beautiful moments that can knock you on your emotional ass. So simple, so normal –- and yet powerful beyond description.

The kind of thing that makes you glad to be alive, no matter how fucked up the Bush administration is making the world. (Oops, politics crawled in there…)

(Crawled. Get it?)

Anyway, it's the kind of thing that, if it were a scene in a movie, could either be remarkably cheesy or the moment that makes you finally believe those actors up there are real people. And once you believe that, the movie can take you anywhere (even to a hotel being blown apart by FBI SWAT and North Korean gangsters [Right Greg?]).

This is where the director and actors are much more important than the writer. The writer needs to know when, where and even if to put in that scene. But then the director and actors are in charge of making it work. Or making it fail miserably.

I think this is why I tend to over-write in my early drafts. I know I need to keep everything lean. But there’s something inside me that thinks at first that this…


DECLAN spies a toy just out of reach, plops onto his stomach and crawls to it. AMY turns to DAVID and breaks down in tears.

…as a scene might be misinterpreted as a throwaway, hackneyed nothingscene, and people reading the script might think I’m a throwaway, hackneyed nothingwriter.

So in early drafts I tend to write it out much more descriptively so anyone reading could see what I was intending.

And then Greg yells at me for being too wordy. “It’s not a novel, you fucking hack!” he screams, throwing Jell-o at me (which, sent flying by his mighty hands, nails itself to the wall).

So I trim it back.

It’s a good lesson to learn: trust the reader.

But don’t trust the North Korean gangsters.

And crawl before you walk, I guess is another good lesson.

Thanks Decs. Thanks Ames.

And thanks Greg. Though you don't have to be so cruel.

And Ryan, more Dismal news soon...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dismal. The Story Of Dismal. How Dismal Got Started.

I realize I’ve never really told the Story if Dismal here.

I might have to do it in a few installments – but I promise to keep it lean and not go into all the gory (boring?) details.

For years now I’ve been working with Ray and Jeff at a small but successful television production studio. I was producing and writing, Ray was working production in various roles, Jeff seemed to have a dozen roles in pre-production and production.

We made a lot of shows that were well received, and that was cool, but after a while you tend to feel a little bit in a rut.

One day in January 2005, Jeff and I were talking.

Jeff: How’s it going?
Me: All right. You?
Jeff: All right.

Long silence.

Jeff: I’m bored.
Me: Me too.
Jeff: Let’s make a movie. A short. You write the script, I’ll raise a few grand, we’ll make a movie, send it to Sundance. You know, make a movie.

(Jeff has a tendency to say things three times…)

Me: Good idea. Cool locations, but only a few, simple story, small cast.
Jeff: Let’s do it.
Me: Done.

The next day, Jeff called me into his office.

Jeff: Talked to Ray. He’s been thinking the same thing. He’ll direct, but he wants to do a full-length feature.
Me: Even better.
Jeff: He’s been thinking of a story for a while. He’ll have an outline Monday. Ready Monday. Man's gonna have it Monday.

On Monday, there was Ray’s outline on my desk with a note: “David, can you make this into a script?”

And so I got to work.

Right away we knew we had a good team put together. It’s a good dynamic, each of us bringing something different in terms of skill set and mind set (and complimentary yet non-overlapping psychiatric disorders), and no one bringing too much ego that THIS THING IS MINE. Hate to sound like one of those inspirational posters that feature soft-focus photos of a group of ants lifting a loaf of bread together, but we know we need each other to get this done, and we know the project is more than any one of us.

Once we had a good draft in place, we started sending it out to people in the industry we know and have worked with. Some folks with good, hands-on, real-world (if anything in Hollywood can be considered real) experience.

Scary, really.

But the response was overwhelmingly good. We got some notes, some of which were very, very helpful, some not so much. Because I’m so smart it was the helpful notes I worked into the next revision. Clever, huh?

Then there was getting the money. Jeff’s job.

First we planned to do it on weekends for $14,000. Open Water-style.

But our contacts said to go larger –- no need to kill yourself trying to make it for 14K.

So then we upped it to come in under the SAG ultra-low budget deal. $200K to get it in the can, up to $500K more deferred.

And so Jeff made a list of ten potential investors. Not long thereafter, Jeff called me.

Me: Hello?
Jeff: Didn’t get past the first one. First one gave us almost all of it. First one.

At that point we thought we should bump it up to $2 million –- it had been so easy to raise money so far (sorry, I know other independent moviemakers will hate me for saying that, but it was). Went back and forth on this a lot and finally settled on the ultra-low budget budget. For that we could make a really strong movie that could hopefully lead to bigger ones later.

The crew was fairly easy to get. A lot of talented people around here, all of them itching to do something new that’s put together well.

Casting was a little tougher, but we soon met a fantastic actor for the lead. Went to LA to meet him, knew right away he was the one. Then one by one we cast the rest. The three main dudes are from LA and North Carolina-via-LA, the rest are regional. (I think I’ll be able to name names soon, once the paperwork’s signed.)

And maybe actors always say this, but everyone was saying how excited they were about being on the project – that it was a good, tight script, that we obviously had our shit together, that they knew it was gonna turn out well.

Know what? I think it will.

More later. Later. I’ll tell the rest later.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Nailing Jell-o To The Wall

As I keep trying to figure out the new angle for the Harlem movie, I start to get a little focus on the story arc or a character's back story -- and then I start plotting out a new script entirely.

Where's the focus, David?

Is this me telling me that I should just scrap Harlem and move on? Or is it just because I'm a scatterbrained knucklehead and I just need to force myself to focus more on the one project?

When I put it up to a vote with myself, the stick-with-Harlem side usually wins by a hanging chad.

Just feels like there’s something there. Or I’m too emotionally attached to it to just drop it. Either way, I think I should keep clawing at the thing until my nails finally sink in and take hold.

It would help, then, if I would stop biting my nails.

Getting a full grasp on the whole of the new project is (to borrow a phrase my wife used in a conversation a few days ago) like nailing Jell-o to the wall.

But it feels like I need to keep trying.

Of course, that also means devoting more time to actually TRYING. Jell-o doesn’t come already nailed to the wall, after all.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Honestly Offensive

Driving to work today I was listening to an interview with John Updike (thanks Joe), and he mentioned that being a good writer meant being courageous and ruthless enough to be honest.

True dat.

I find myself struggling with that a lot in my writing.

I don’t mean being truthful with real events. I’ve never been much of a liar -– what’s the use, really? And I’m certainly no Million Little Pieces fraud trying to impress the world with my memoirs.

What I mean is being honest with a character, a story.

Maybe it was my white-bread upbringing, but I think I subconsciously worry about hurting people all the time. I’ll be writing a scene, and highlight a character’s flaws, and my first instinct many times is to soften the flaw or resolve it right away.

But reality, and people, and relationships, and life, and love -– all the good stuff that’s interesting in the world and worth writing about –- it’s all dirty and messy and weird and flawed like a motherfucker.

So why hide it or sugarcoat? Am I such a dork that I worry about insulting a character? Or even a viewer/reader who might identify with the character?

Sometimes I find myself worrying that someone I love might think something is based on them and then take offense, so I pull it back. And often it is. Based on them, I mean, or on a situation we shared. But it’s just BASED on them -– the real person or event gave me the jumping-off point, and then I made it something else.

It’s like in Biloxi Blues when Eugene’s bunkmates find his journal and read it aloud. It mentions them, even by name, and he paints no one in a flattering light. He tells them it’s all bullshit, just stuff he makes up, fiction he weaves from reality threads, but they don’t believe him.

And so I tend to chicken out in first drafts. I worry my wife might think a certain character is her, or my daughter might read meaning into a situation that I don’t mean to be a reflection of or comment on our real life.

I’m getting better, though. I’m trying anyway. Often I can catch myself and stop being so damn polite. And that’s when things can get interesting.

Because good writing has to be honest, and honesty is ruthless, and life is ruthless, and good writing is life.

I mean, you've seen Six Feet Under, right? That's some unbelieveably good writing -- the best on TV in my opinion -- and fucked up as anything... like life.

By the way, sorry Mr. James Frey. Didn’t mean to offend.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Zen And The (Depressing) Art of (Not) Cycling

Went for a bike ride today.


Three things, specifically, were depressing.

1. I realized that my cycling computer's clock was the right time. This meant I did not have to change it back to adjust for the end of daylight savings time. Which means I haven't ridden between falling back and springing forward. Oh, Time, you relentless bitch with your nasty sorcery!

2. When I got home and undressed to take a shower (eww, I know -- bad image, sorry) I noticed that I no longer carried that clearly dorky (but, I’ll admit it, ego-boosting) mark of the cyclist: the cycling tan lines: sharp lines separating shocking white from not-so-white toward the bottom of the thigh and halfway up the biceps made from being out in the sun wearing those ridiculous tight poly-something shorts and jersey that mortify my daughter. I am all shocking white. Shocking, I’m not kidding.

3. Standing in the shower (I know, I know, I'm sorry -- but I'm almost finished) I had that fantastic muscles-so-drained-I-feel-so-goddamn-alive-I-could-kick-Churck-Norris’s-ass feeling. And then I couldn't remember when I last felt that.

So I need to ride more. Yes, for the health and all that, but also for my writing.

When I'm out there -- and I mean when I'm out there and get to the point that I'm no longer distracted by rednecks in pickups calling me Lance Queerstrong while they chuck half-empty cans of Bud Ice at me -- there's a meditative nature to the thing that really helps work through writing issues. Well, actually, it's not meditative like when I meditate (another thing I haven't done in embarrassingly long) because then the goal is to have no thought. But there’s something about the rhythm, the gliding, the physical exertion, the solitude that always encourages something to click in the imaginative leap department.

So I need to ride more. To write better.

Okay, set goals and then work to achieve them. Start easy, with saying once a week? Let’s see if I can pull it off.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tubby Little Cubby

Our set producer's flying in tonight from LA, and we have a location scout tomorrow -- hopefully the close-to-final scout. We have the basic areas identified; need to specify now. Gotta get that schedule locked down. Just over a month away from principal photography on Dismal.

So we get to spend the day in the swamp. Did I tell you about the last day I spent in the swamp? Couple weekends ago my wife and I took our son for a bike ride there.

And had to stop for a bear.

Not a beer.


Pretty good sized black bear, about four feet at the shoulder I'd guess, standing in the middle of the path we were on.

That's the kind of thing we need to get on film. (Jeff tells me there's talk of jaguars out there, too.)

When we're out with the full crew, of course, we'll be lucky to see a squirrel. All those people stomping around, the lights, the ATVs -- likely the only wildlife we'll see will be mosquitoes. And ticks. And chiggers. Leeches. But we have a few days of second unit stuff scheduled before principal, so hopefully we'll get out wildlife inserts then.

By the way, the preliminary website is up:

It’s just the first of three stages the web people are doing. This one is just the basic placeholder. The next one will have more info, more links, etc. The final one will add the flash animation and sound and music. (We have the website content sketched out, but because it's still fluid, suggestions are welcome. For example, I'm still not a big fan of the main logo and have been talking to an artist about it...)

Little by little, it’s coming together.

Ready Piglet? Let’s go see Pooh.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Brokeback Rewrite

I thought I broke the story for the rewrite of the Harlem movie.

I thought I broke the story during our trip to Cedar Rapids. My brain had some downtime while we were there. No surprise really: the retirement home, while lovely, was not exactly a hotbed of buzzing energy, and Cedar Rapids itself -- well, it does have a Starbucks but not much else.

So what I'm trying to say is that I thought I broke the story.

I repeat: I THOUGHT I broke the story.

Now that I've had some time to think about it, back here in the madness of everyday life, I realize that story just doesn't hold up as is.

So I did not break the story, yet it is broken.

Maybe it means I can't think clearly when there's nothing else to think about.

Maybe now I'll go try to learn German in a weekend. Maybe then I'll figure this damn thing out.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

El Bastardo, At Your Service

So the assisted living place we stayed in while visiting grandma in Cedar Rapids didn't have web access, so you all missed out on some especially witty posts I was planning.

Ah well. Your loss.

Interesting news on Dismal. A guy who's no huge movie star but is certainly well-known to most watchers of popular American TV -– especially the female version of said watchers -– got a hold of the script and wants to be in the movie. Cool, huh? Now, the dilemma.

We don’t have a place for him.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We do have a place for him. Thing is, that role has already been cast.

No contract or anything, but over the phone the other guy was basically told he’s in.

I imagine we wouldn’t be breaking any new ground if we recast, but it is an awkward position. But the guy we originally cast is an independent filmmaker himself. So he should understand. Hell, he should even applaud us.

Right? Hello?

The original guy has some obvious chops -– but this new guy has chops, too. Plus he’s a fairly big name. And he's hot. Girls like that kind of thing.

And anyone working on an independent feature knows that, in terms of distribution, financial success and all that madness, the name on the box usually means more than any clever writing the screenwriter happens to do.

So should we recast? No hard feelings?

Are we bastards?