Category Archives: Information

Moving on Up: www.alternatewrites.com

The short version of this post: I am moving to http://www.alternatewrites.com, please update bookmarks accordingly.

After two plus years, I’m breaking up with wordpress.com. 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:

www.alternatewrites.com

And expect updates…

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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 LAist.com! 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?