Category Archives: Information

Moving on Up:

The short version of this post: I am moving to, please update bookmarks accordingly.

After two plus years, I’m breaking up with There are a couple of things that rankle me, but highest on my list are the ads they recently introduced on my site. Sure, I don’t mind harmless commerce, I even understand why it is necessary, but if it’s my name and my site, I want a cut. Plus, let’s face it, they’re kind of annoying. Little adsense blips are one thing, but these take up too much room.

I love writing each week, and even more so, I love the community of writers, screenwriters, and friends I have discovered through the site. There are few better feelings than checking my Blackberry on an otherwise drab and depressing Monday and reading through a new comment. It’s the internet equivalent of a shot in the arm.

I am still working on the site this week, and I have a few friends who have already offered advice. If you have any tips on the crossover, they would be much appreciated. The new website has all of this blog’s content already, but I am still working on the design.

So please bookmark:

And expect updates…

Pershing Square: A Ringside Seat at the Circus

It’s Wednesday, and my blog post is late. I’m sorry about that. I have been pretty busy with different writing things, including my first published restaurant review: The Saffron and Rose Ice Cream shop in Westwood. Here is the link. I have stayed away from dining articles because I never considered myself a foodie, but I made an exception for ice cream.

I also took part in LAist’s Park a Day series. My park, Pershing Square, carried with it a very personal meaning. I worked downtown for a year and change and would walk to the park during my breaks or after I left for the day. While the USC Geography Department describes the park as an “urban desert” on this website, I disagree. For me it was an oasis. There was always a shady spot to sit. In the winter there was ice skating and in the summer concerts. And there were always people, whether confused suburbanites, transients, or workers on their lunch breaks, to provide entertainment.

I agree that it is designed poorly, and with all of the concrete and security guards, in many ways it resembles a prison. But it also has a garden, statues commemorating fallen soldiers, and a fountain—an ugly fountain, but nevertheless a fountain. Like Los Angeles, it is not one thing, but many things to many different people.

There is a quote about Pershing Square that I keep returning to in my thoughts. Not only is journalist Carey McWilliams decrying Los Angeles in this passage, he is also celebrating the city and its imperfect parks—and people. Nothing feels more fitting than that his half-tribute to the park engraved on the southern wall.

Thanks to the good people at USC for transcribing it.

In the center of the park, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, I stopped to watch a typical Pershing Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.

-Carey McWilliams

On Going It Alone

And collaboration, which is not necessarily a compromise, may be the very thing, if properly encouraged, that allows film to speak in the most developed way to the largest number of people. Every person who works on a film brings his or her own perspective to bear on the subject. And if these perspectives are properly orchestrated by the director, the result will be a multi-faceted and yet integrated complexity that will have the greatest chance of catching and sustaining the interest of the audience, which is itself a multi-faceted entity in search of integration.

-Walter Murch

Walter Murch

I love this paragraph from Walter Murch’s seminal In the Blink of an Eye. Murch, editor of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and other untouchable classics, had one of those miracle Hollywood careers; his book is really is a must for anyone interested in filmmaking (editing or not). This passage in particular sums up his philosophy: film is collaboration. It takes talented editors, producers, writers, carpenters, production assistants, production coordinators, and a host of others to really make an amazing movie. Don’t trust those DIY filmmakers who say they did everything themselves. No one exists in a vacuum, and the moment you get help as a director, is the moment you make a film.

Collaboration is a difficult concept for me, because I am one of those DIY filmmakers. I don’t even like when other people touch the camera while I’m directing. It’s not that I’m some Laszlo Kovacs or James Wong Howe, it’s just I’m so used to doing it my own way, I have trouble ceding control. I trained as a writer on my own: very few classes, no film school, and I have never really worked on a large-scale, collaborative set.

But that reticence is something I have been trying to change. No one lives in a bubble, nor can someone write or direct in a bubble. I could spend the rest of my life making my own videos. With today’s technology, that’s very possible. Yet I’ll never grow as a filmmaker. That growth takes hard work, the kind that involves other people. Ironically, sometimes letting go of the film is the first step to actually making one.

What’s your filmmaking experience? How do you balance being an indie auteur with being a “ringmaster of a circus that is constantly reinventing itself” in Francis Ford Coppola’s words? Are those two things mutually exclusive?

The Latest News…

Sorry I have been out of the loop this week. I have been hard at work on my first video piece for! I have never produced anything “hard news” before, so it is a little rough, but I think it turned out OK.

I am getting more interested in documentary film making, so I am starting to consider this a first step. From here, who knows, right? And the workshop is pretty cool, too. If you are in LA, and are a filmmaker, you should check it out.

Here’s the article itself.

Tell me what you think in the comments.

Short Stories

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short”
-Henry David Thoreau

It is one thing to write a novel of a screenplay, but it really is something else to write a short. I am writing “Broadway Sketches,” a series of vignettes, to hopefully direct and produce sometime this year. So far, there are about eight story lines and only nineteen pages. Every line of dialogue has to count. Every action should have a thought behind it—and all of these elements have to be concise.

I take a great deal of inspiration from some of the story-songs from older popular music forms, like blues, rhythm and blues, and country. Merle Haggard is a master story teller, so are Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker. Whatever you feel about country, there is a lot to be learned about telling detail from a three-minute song.

Here’s Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

I aint seen the sun shine since I don’t know when.
His character is stuck in prison, probably solitary.

I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
This guy is an unrepentant killer, probably insane.

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car…those people keep a’moving and that’s what tortures me.
Understanding that escape is a fantasy, the man’s final resort is his imagination, which ultimately does him no good.

All of this can be gleaned from a two and a half minute song. Not bad for brevity.

I’ll end this post with a song from blues singer Ted Hawkins, “Sorry You’re Sick,” featured on this Sunday’s This American Life and inspiring me to write this post. In the space of a couple of minutes we learn that the narrator’s lover is sick, that the sickness could be terminal, that the man is in love, too, and that, tragically, his attempts to help her are futile. Or in the words of Jesse Kornbluth on Head Butler, “Something tells me that the patient in this song is in no danger of getting better — and that Hawkins is getting the right medicine for her.” Take a listen—that mournful refrain speaks volumes more than any long explanation.

Are Directors Jerks?

The crew walked out on me. One of my first experiences as a director, and all five techs for my show staged a walk out. In the midst of trying to get everything ready for the first (and only) showing of the play I wrote and directed and worked over for months and months my senior year of high school, I acted like a monster to the crew. I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of lighting, so I yelled at them to figure it out for me.

I eventually apologized and they returned to the rafters but I never quite forgot the experience. Since then, working on sets as a PA, and seeing the stage from the other side of the curtain, I know this behavior isn’t unique to me. It may best be exemplified in this outrageous tirade from David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees:

Russell couldn’t get a satisfactory line reading from Lily Tomlin so instead of working with her, he resorts to yelling “I’m tryna help you!” To be fair, Lily was giving him attitude. The way he handled it speaks to the frustrating dilemma directors are in—if they don’t get a line reading right on set, they’re never going to get the movie they want in the end. It’s a frustrating, drag out, time crunch, filled with long days, long nights, and little time to get something right. It’s justified he would feel this way.

But good directors don’t give into that pressure. Filmmaking is a collaborative process; good films take many people to get right. While the director is ultimately responsible for the finished product, she or he is at the cast and crew’s mercy.

The best directors understand this, and quickly get them on their side. Clint Eastwood works with the same crew every picture not only because they’re the best, but because they know his style and they follow his method. There’s a quiet persistence in knowing what you want and going out and getting it—not immaturely, but through leading by example.

I get David O. Russell’s motivation to yell at Lily Tomlin. You have to be authoritative. But you also have to know how to work with a group. And you don’t have to be such a baby about it either.

Would love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments.

and all five techs for the show staged a walk out.

Telling Details

Jafar from Aladdin

When I read screenplays the first thing I look for is a story. Sure, I love descriptions of flowers, trees, etc., but let’s face it, how much fun is a still life? Next I look for well-sketched characters, the kind who seem human, you know, with flaws, nervous tics, back stories, that kind of thing. If you have an interesting setting, that’s a plus, too. Don’t just set your story in Philadelphia, make it funky South Philly, or the still quite colonial Old Town, or the preppy University City. Do something, just don’t risk making it generic.

But what really makes me love a movie are the telling details. These are pieces of dialogue, scraps of description that tell me the author has worked hard at creating the story-world of the screenplay. In a tossed-off sentence the writer reveals more about the story than a page of text.

My favorite example of telling detail comes from Disney’s Aladdin, which features one of the best Disney villains, Jafar. Just as Aladdin finishes his grand entrance to Agrabah, the rechristened Prince Ali approaches the royal advisor who begins to question him.

Jafar: Where did you say you were from?

Aladdin: Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

Jafar: Try me.

In this single second we see two sides of Jafar, the curious diplomat and well-seasoned traveler, as well as the sinister jerk who is trying to suss out this newcomer. He has been everywhere, but we don’t learn why, either. He is mysterious; but the audience can tell that hidden behind this idle curiosity is a Faustian desire to know things only for selfish reasons. I think at this point Jafar begins to realize Prince Ali’s true identity.

OK, time for a less villainous example. This comes from the last line of Goodfellas, another classic that is required viewing. These are the final words of the movie. Sorry to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Henry gets placed in Witness Protection after ratting out his fellow goodfellas in a plea bargain.

Henry Hill: Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

What I love about the last line is the part about the spaghetti. It seems to sum up all of Henry’s life as a gangster. He has tried so hard for an authentic experience only to be left with “egg noodles and ketchup.” It’s an earthy letdown but one that reveals his human side. No matter what he tries, where he goes, he can never live up to “spaghetti with marinara” and he is “an average nobody.” If this doesn’t get to the heart of his character’s flaw, I don’t know what else could—a modern day Cain stricken with not a mark on the forehead but crummy pasta on the plate.

Finally, this telling detail comes from my first screenplay, My Father the Agent, which continues to go unsold. Agents, I am warning you, this script heats up by the day—please take it off my hands before it burns down the apartment.

Joking aside, this line comes from the final act. Danny has worked his entire life to not be his conman father, and then after a summer with him in San Francisco, he realizes he is becoming him. This line comes from his aunt Carol to her son Adam; both have been tricked into believing Danny is making a movie. Just as Danny is filming an appearance with a local talk show host, the fraud comes out.

Carol: What did you expect with the dad he has?

This is the moment Danny realizes how far he has come from his old dad-denying self. Now he must reconcile those two versions of himself and find who he truly is. For the last fifteen years he has been denying he is his father’s son, but now he realizes he is—if only because he is thoroughly disliked by the rest of the family. And he has to accept that. I won’t give away the movie, but this leads to a climactic last scene.

These details do not have to be anything profound, don’t get me wrong. Some just add to the overall picture of the character. In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is missing a bike, not an SUV, Hummer, or Honda. This tells us a lot about his character, mainly his almost creepy love of all things childish.

What are some telling details you like? Why? Which ones come readily to mind?

When Screenwriters Talk…

Of all the players in the film industry, the screenwriter is meted the least respect. He or she fights for agents and meetings with executives, is forced to rewrite at least seven or eight times, and often is underpaid for the effort. Then when a director does come on board, the existing document is rewritten to fit completely new specs. There is never really a time when the screenwriter can truly speak up and be heard.

Unless, of course, that screenwriter is giving a lecture. Because so many people want to be screenwriters, and so few actually are, the seven or eight who have something produced are in high demand. These lowly, nerdy specimens get to stand on the other side of the podium and for once in their lives, be looked up to. Some screenwriters abuse this power. Others are so oblivious they give boring talks. Still others are so self-obsessed they have little patience with an audience.

So here are some simple guidelines for the screenwriter asked to speak. This comes from much experience watching screenwriters; I haven’t been asked to give a talk, yet. If you have other points, or have had an equally bad experience at a lecture, please let me know in the comments.

1. Be on time. There is nothing that tests my patience more than a late speaker. Whatever your excuse, if you are being paid to lecture, then please, leave your previous appointment early.

2. How? How did you get into screenwriting? If it was your famous father, tell us that. Do not give us some crazy story about your script reaching the eyes of some producer who immediately went “Eureka” and gave your movie a green light. The ways people reach the top in this industry may be passé to you, but to us, it’s the verbal equivalent of catnip. We need to know.

3. Tell Us What Works for You. I am not entirely interested in advice, but I am interested in routines. When do you write? Do you outline your scenes or do you just write whatever comes to mind? What classes, textbooks do you recommend? Which writers give you inspiration? How do you approach adapting an original story? What are the most difficult moments for you? How do you overcome writer’s block? When do you know a draft is finished? These are all questions I want answered. If you need to phrase it as advice, fine, but try not to be too preachy, OK?

4. No attitude, please. No matter how famous you are or how far you have come, you must know what it is like to be a struggling screenwriter. Treat us with respect, we already have to deal with so much rejection. And remember, us screenwriters are always the first to buy your DVDs, read your celebrity blog, and stalk you at conferences. It’s a good idea to pander to the fan base.

5. Meet and Greet. I cannot stress this enough. However interesting your lecture, with the invention of podcasting, the internet, and personal recording devices, it’s a synch to download it the morning after. The reason I would plunk down fifteen dollars or more would be to meet you after the speech. If you rush out of the auditorium on another “assignment” you have essentially wasted my money.

Directors Lab at Film Independent

Here’s a cool opportunity for all you directors out there in the LA area. Film Independent is a great organization (I volunteered for their LA film festival last year) and if you are selected for the lab, you will have an opportunity to really develop your work.

If you have a reel, a screenplay, and the funds to pay the fee, why not? Let me know if you do apply. This blog could be your stepping stone!

And when you’re famous, remember our quaint little blog… 🙂

Deadline is October 5.

Directors Lab | Film Independent

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Some More Info from the Site:

“Designed to help directors who are prepping their feature films, the Directors Lab is an intensive eight-week program running in Los Angeles each winter. The primary focus of the Lab is on learning to work with actors and the rehearsal process. Under the guidance of the lab instructor, Directors Lab Fellows select short scenes from their scripts to workshop. Additionally, Fellows go through a mini-production, learning how to break down a script into a shot list, collaborate with cinematographers, and construct a scene in the editing process. Film Independent provides the Lab participants with camera and sound packages to shoot their scenes. All scenes will be shot on digital video and critiqued by the Lab Instructor as well as the other Lab participants.

A secondary goal of the program is to help advance the careers of the Lab Fellows by introducing them to film professionals who can advise them on both the craft and business of directing. Lab Fellows have one-on-one meetings with established directors and other industry professionals who act as advisors on the participant’s projects.”

Information about the Interview

For us writers, we’re still in a recession, employers are difficult, jobs in the industry are disappearing as I type, and the Beanie Babies we invested in are now practically worthless on eBay. So, it’s tough times. And what makes it worse, again, for writers, is that no one in the business really wants to read your stuff unless your father runs the Los Angeles Times, and even then the attraction is wholly based on self-interest.
But there are the odd moments when a friend comes through or the planets do an odd dance, and you do get a “meeting” with an industry professional. Obviously, this will probably be billed as an “informational interview” and not a job, but it’s a first step, so take it.

As an old pro at these things, I’m going to tell you some things to do at these interviews. Hopefully this advice is helpful, obviously it comes from much experience.

1. Show up on time. As Woody Allen once said, “90% of life is just showing up,” and believe you me, if you get there late that percentage takes its toll on your overall average. So, showing up late is like failing a final, you may still pass that class, but barely. Because there are so many other variables to a successful meeting, getting that 90% can be the insurance points that lead to another meeting. Fine, anything can go wrong in the face-to-face, but making the meeting saves some sweat. You will even feel better, strolling to a meeting on time, and trust me, the nervousness of being late can ruin your confidence and make the meeting a total dud.

2. Come prepared. Bring questions, a resume, and a foreknowledge of who this person is and what he or she does. The preparation will show you are on top of things, not a flake, and ready for a serious conversation. Plus, a sheet of good questions will give you something to talk about when the conversation drags. A clear, crisp resume, just in case the professional asks for it, is invaluable. Again, treat it like a class. Would you come into English 301 without the homework? If you answered yes, then you should seriously rethink your career choice.

3. Have a positive attitude. Nothing can end a meeting faster than a downer. This is human psychology, people. Anyone can dismiss a drag and feel no remorse, but being mean to a really happy, enthusiastic person will make the interviewee feel like a cynical jerk. So, you may get five more minutes of face time just because he or she doesn’t want to “let you down.” Note: I know many people get nervous at these sorts of things and act strangely and that’s normal. My best advice is not to sweat it, remember, the better prepared you are, the more questions you will have to ask, and the less time you will have to fret (Rule 2).

4. Remember, informational interview means you are doing the interviewing. Don’t just talk on and on about your life, ask your interviewee about his or hers. The best way to get anyone interested is to move the topic to that person. Sure, their lives could be truly boring, but more often than not, if they have made it this far, they’ve probably had a few detours, setbacks, and flat tires. Ask them about those. Don’t be shy. And talk. This may be your only opportunity to ever get in that door again.

5. Always network. The assistants, other interns, and office staff are all in this industry because they want to work in entertainment and all of them have the same goals and aspirations as you do (except they are a bit ahead of the curve). So, get their contacts and make sure to write nice thank you notes to them too. They may be more accessible, easier to talk to, and honestly, better resources, for they too have embarked on a career recently and know some of the ropes.

6. My final rule, don’t promote your own stuff too readily. There is no quicker way to end a meeting than to start hawking your wares. It’s crude, sounds like soliciting, and probably not useful to them anyway. Let them guide you along that path if they are interested but don’t bring it up all willy nilly. This will land you in their “Do Not Contact Bin” faster than a dud sitcom on a network.
Oh, and write a thank you note! Why not, right? If you never hear back from the interviewee again, don’t fret either. It’s all about having the chutzpah to make the interview in the first place that will get you to where you need to be. Remember that Woody Allen quote? It works. Or, rather, I hope it works.

One more note: please be careful. If the “industry professional” asks you to meet at his or her home, it could be dangerous and I would recommend against it. However connected or famous, this person is still a stranger. Instead, suggest a public place, like a café. You want to meet people, but you also want to do your best to stay safe.
Comments from others who have been through the process are appreciated.

Woody Allen Explaining the 90% Rule. (This does not apply to physics, only entertainment.)

Woody Allen Explaining the 90% Rule. (This does not apply to physics, only entertainment.)