Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tone, Forums, and of course, Fear.

Today I went to one of the VIFF Forums on Drama writing for television. The panelists included Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik of "Durham County", Molly Newman of "Brothers & Sisters" and Dahvi Waller of "Mad Men". I made it out of the day job in Burnaby at 1:17 PM (thanks to my fabulous co-workers, who took on a bunch of my work) and was paying for my pass into the session in downtown Vancouver at 1:42 PM with 3 minutes to spare. Also, thanks to my buddy Erin (@nopantsisland on Twitter), we had great seats!

What I took away form the forum is still a little jumbled in my head, as I try to sort it out, I will talk about the difference between television writing in the US, and television writing in Canada. From what I understand, in the US you get on as a writer's assistant, after getting coffee, copying outlines, and researching you may or may not be one of the lucky few to get a staff writing position on a show. From there, if you keep your head down and your ideas sharp, you may move on in your career and get to the point of actually writing an episode or seven. Once you ascend to another dimension, you may achieve Jane Espenson status (@CapricaSeven on twitter) though this is unlikely for most.

In Canada, you have an idea. If you know the right people in the right market, you may get some cash to develop that idea. If you have a great agent, you write a pilot for that idea, and someone makes it (I'm still unclear on the *someone* bit). Then, after you've tread the deep end for longer than you thought humanly possible, and your pilot gets picked up, they may (likely will) bring in a veteran to help you, and you become one of the coveted story-breaking, outline-creating, writers room attendees. Though from what I understand, you can be booted from this process at any moment, depending on the nature of your contract.

These overviews are pieced together from the bits I've been gathering by asking cheeky questions, appealing to more experienced friends, and researching what I can on my own. It seems to me both systems have their good points, and both have gaping flaws. The US system definitely puts the emphasis on mentoring young writers, and honing their skills into people who can eventually stand on their scribe-stilts. This system does not leave much open for the inexperienced writer with the big concept. If you want it, you have to earn it, pay your dues, and work your ass off for it. The Canadian system, however, leaves the door open for new ideas, even from inexperienced writers. You get a few names, you can most likely pitch to someone, even if they shoot you down. The problem is that once you experience a morsel of success, the stress and loneliness that follows from the solitary nature of that success can threaten to envelop you. I'm not sure which system is better, or if there is a clear winner, but I do know that they both scare the living crap out of me.

Is that normal?

Perhaps its because I haven't actually pitched anything besides a short film. Perhaps its because every time something doesn't come easily to me I question my skills. Perhaps I just need some chocolate. If I ever make a dent in either system, I will edit this post with an opinion. For now, I'm going to bask in the knowledge of the late, great Blake Snyder and read "Save The Cat". At least its something I can take to the bank.

OK I didn't mention Tone once. I got tired, and this was already too long.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lessons from the Seven Day Rental Section

I was going to wait until we had finished six movies to write this post, but a barrage of gaming and project writing has taken over our waking consciousness at the Langer house, and I figured I'd better write while I still remember the four movies I want to write about. A while back, I asked Derek to go to the video store and rent a movie, without consulting me. I have a love-hate relationship with the video store. I adore the accessibility of new media, and the wonderful and less than wonderful movies I have watched, but I hate choosing. I hate walking around the store without the faintest clue of what I'm in the mood for, then trying to match that to the vague idea that Derek may have about what he's in the mood for. If I could get back all of the hours I've spent walking around the video store, I'd have written the Great Canadian Novel by now. But this isn't a movie store rant. When Derek home with six movies, I was pleasantly surprised. They were all movies that it would be unforgivable never to watch, from the seven day rental section. I decided to take mental notes on some of Hollywood's MVPs in cinema and see what lessons I could take away as a writer. I'm assuming I'm the last person on earth to see these films, so if I'm wrong and you are the last, do not read on, as spoilers will ensue.

(Let's put our distaste for Roman Polanski's personal fails aside for a moment while we revel in the genius of this film.)

Immediately after seeing this film, I placed it in my top ten. I had heard many things about Chinatown, but nobody mentioned that I would fall head over heels for Jack Nicholson. That aside, Chinatown taught me some very valuable lessons. First, you can expand on the typical set up, and take it a step further than is necessary which will surprise a smart viewer. While watching Chinatown, I was convinced that Faye Dunnaway's character was the villain, especially after Jack slept with her. It was a classic set up. Boy meets girl, falls for girl, sleeps with girl, is betrayed by girl. What I was pleasantly surprised to see is that she was and wasn't connected with the underhanded goings on that Jack was investigating. Though she was keeping her sordid past from Jack, she wasn't the bad guy. This challenged my unsophisticated palate, and showed me that I've gotten too comfortable with the easy set ups and quick fixes of the current age. I'm also a big fan of a real ending, not a gift wrapped happy heart warmer, though sometimes my emotions play tricks on me and tell me that I'm upset by a less than happy ending instead of impressed by it.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Only served to solidify my new love for a less wrinkly Jack. This is a masterpiece. Not only was a pleasantly surprised to see Louise Fletcher AKA Kai Wynn (yes, I'm a Star Trek geek) as Nurse Ratched, a meaningful role, but I loved the dynamic between Ratched and Nicholson's character. I love the ethical shift that takes place when we automatically side with the criminal and despise those who oppose him, whereas if this were a story on the nightly news, we would undoubtedly bestow our allegiance on Nurse Ratched. The acting in this movie is brilliant. There was a scene where the camera stayed on Nicholson for upwards of forty seconds, and I couldn't look away. It makes me wonder how much of that dynamic comes from the actual script, and how much it is due to great directing, acting, and editing. I have not read the novel, but I heartily believe that the weightiness of the original work transferred to the screenplay, and in turn filtered into every part of the project.


OK, this was an unexpected win for me. Generally political comedy isn't my bag unless its in the form of a 3-8 minute SNL short. Part of this is due to my lack of knowledge regarding the finer points of the American political system, and the other part is due to me being a drama & sci-fi snob. Not to say I don't enjoy a good comedy, but I really pick and choose. Bulworth, however, taught me that comedy can be bold and dark, even when you're expecting it to be wussy and campy. I was surprised by the level of ridiculousness that showed up in the film, and even more surprised that it worked. When the senator is busting out an ill-timed rap, dropping the f-bomb, and wearing a tuque (beanie for non-Canucks) but I still truely want him to succeed, something magical has happened. The thing about Bulworth is that I still haven't figured out how they won me over. In part it was due to a solid concept, and a genuine belief that someone in a similar situation could act out in such a way, but why the complete success? I am still at a loss.

The Firm

Epic. I was skeptical because of my love for A Few Good Men. It seemed to me that lightening couldn't strike twice for Tom Cruise in a lawyer movie. I was wrong. The Firm was fantastic because of the dramatic tension that permeated the whole movie. I loved that the writers were able to knock the average thriller time line out of the park, and I didn't get bored once. Something The Firm taught me, was how low you can sink a character before you redeem him. Sometimes threatening a lead with losing everything isn't enough. The character really needs to believe they have lost everything and still carry on their in quest, that is really when you, as a viewer, can begin to believe as well. The Firm still incorporated the typical thriller formula, but went above and beyond the bare minimum and expanded on the typical requirements to create a masterful, tense and exciting film.

So that is a window into what I've learned though some of these heavy hitters. It was refreshing to watch some films that weren't afraid to break some rules, and perhaps have written some new ones. The other two that we have yet to watch are Annie Hall, and Ed Wood. If we get to those before the video store has us arrested for our abuse of their "No Late Fees" policy, then I will write some more.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Creative Pain

I've been thinking a lot lately about the link between art and pain. A lot of the artists, writers, musicians I know have experienced a great deal of personal pain in their lives. They are often able to use the fear, sadness, and anger in their work. Or perhaps it is the other way around and their work is an outlet - a way for them to deal with the pain. Either way, I am not a person who has experienced a great deal of loss or tragedy in my life (I feel as though I'm walking on eggshells, giving fate the finger as I write this. I am by no means inviting pain into my life). I was musing on whether this affects my ability to create on a relate-able level. I'm not immune to pain, obviously, and have experienced several moments of defined emotional agony in my twenty-six years, it just isn't a frequent circumstance (yet?).

One thing I do know, I feel the pain of others, deeply. I have a reputation for being fairly blunt. "Honest" is the euphemism I'm usually handed, followed by a quick "but that's a good thing!" to ease any embarrassment they may feel for outing such an obvious quality. Usually people seem to think that bluntness is coupled by a lack of sympathy, or empathy, given the situation. Though this may be true for some, for me this isn't the case. I feel so deeply for those in my life experiencing pain. I can see it in their eyes when they fake a smile, slip into a mask, and its all they can do to carry on. I see it in the eyes of strangers as they walk down the street in a daze, and I want to know their story, to make them better even just for a moment. Maybe being an artist simply means opening your mind to the sadness, or on the flip side the joy, that others around you are experiencing. People always say to write what you know, but I know people and that leaves the door of possibility wide open.

Is good art conditional on pain? Perhaps, but I don't think it needs to be your own.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Miracle Laurie (@miraclelaurie) Changed My Life

How Miracle Laurie changed my life.

As you may or may not know, I've been an avid fan of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse on FOX. Despite critic's impressions of the show, the Whedon crew has built up enough street cred to grant them my viewing fealty for the rest of my TV watching days, so Dollhouse will continue to be watched in my house.

This post, however, is about one actress, Miracle Laurie, who plays Mellie/November and newly Madeline on the series. Though Eliza Dushku is a stand-up lead, for some reason when Laurie is on screen, I cannot take my eyes off of her. She brings a refreshing vigor and openness to each character the writers toss her way. I also love that she doesn't fit the typical profile for today's actress (read: M. Fox) she doesn't have waist length extensions curled into Gossip Girl waves, you can't see her ribs through her skank tanks, and her eyes don't have that haunted Hollywood glaze, rather she uses them for her role. Laurie oozes sex appeal in Dollhouse, but in an a-typical girl next door kind of way. She complements both Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman, and lends a vulnerability to the callousness that sometimes accompanies a show where 'suspension of disbelief' is heavily required (not that I'm complaining, I live to suspend). Today on twitter Laurie posted a picture of herself driving her car home from the set. It was refreshing to see her behind the wheel of a sedan, like 99% of the people who watch Dollhouse, smiling and enjoying her Friday.

Miracle Laurie is my poster child for the theory that there is still hope for Hollywood. Perhaps that is too big of a mantle to place on one person, whom I've never met and really know nothing about, but this is where I've chosen to place my idealistic nature for the time being, and Miracle, I'm sorry but you must now bear the weight of my admiration.

OK, so perhaps not every aspect of my life is altered for all eternity, but anyone who can make a cynical leopard swap a couple spots merits a blog post, or twelve. Keep smiling Hollywood.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happenings x4

Several things have happened over the past eight days, resulting in a lack of posting. Soon enough I will write a bigger, better, juicier post.

1. I finished my first draft of my script (you already know this) and breathed a huge sigh of relief, which has lasted all week. This sigh of relief included me taking some time sit back, think about my projects, and evaluate. I've been re-reading the script, though not editing it quite yet, aside from some grammatical issues.

2. I had several evening engagements. I worked one evening, and had a friend come in from out of town another evening. We went here and listened to this guy. It was great.

3. I came up with what turned out to be the best short film idea I've had in a long time. Derek and I have been tossing around ideas and scripts to shoot this fall. Our goal is to have something shot by the end of the year. We had several possibilities, but no clear winner. One morning last week Derek sent me a message from his day job that said something to the effect of "Loglines: Go". The first one I sent I was sure would be met with something akin to pity, however, he loved it. It is going to be a fun project, so I've been researching and working on that as well.

4. We've been playing video games and watching movies. Lots of movies. Great movies that I cannot believe I've never seen, all from the Seven Day Favourite section of our local Roger's plus store. There were six rented in this little catchup marathon and four have been watched. Once we make it through the other two, I have a blog post planned on what can be learned from watching movies that aren't the new-hip-thang. On a side note we also watched the documentary Overnight, which I would highly recommend if you can handle the language.

More from this way soon enough. Buy me a pumpkin spice late and it may be sooner rather than later.