Chasing Windmills (a.k.a. “know when to fold ’em)

I recently just gave up. No regrets.

At the start of the new season of the Playwright/Director Unit at the Actors Studio, we were given a writing assignment: create a 10-20 minute play based on a two-word phrase provided by the Unit moderators. The assignment was optional; those who chose to partake could then submit their scripts and have them read in early 2014, and then the best might be produced before the end of the season. I love a good artistic competition, and starting brainstorming ideas. Initially, I had nothing. Weeks went by. Months. Then finally, about a month ago, I had an idea. After letting it percolate for a few days I sat down and wrote a first draft. Took some time away, then revised it. Done!

Only one problem: it wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad; the jokes worked, and it moved along nicely, but the story was flawed. I knew it. My gateway reader (a.k.a. my wife) definitely knew it, and was easy to point it out to me. I pondered rewrites and couldn’t wrap my head around how to fix it. Then I got inspired for a totally new idea based on the initial phrase. I sat down to start again with the new idea, but after a page and a half I had a startling realization: I had already written this play before…as a comedy sketch several years ago. The initial sketch was great, having been produced and performed by two different comedy groups and two different theater companies. My “new” idea was a blatant rip off of that original piece.

So what to do? Rewrite the original piece and hope that the flawed story will be overlooked by the humor of the piece? Or finish the second script, knowing that I would be plagiarizing my 27-year-old self?

I chose door #3: abandon the project.

Hello, my name is Alex G., and I am a quitter.

Quitter

I initially resisted the idea of quitting. After all, the first script isn’t terrible, and with some hard work it might be salvageable. And the second script is a proven winner with four different productions, but no one in my group would know that. And if I do quit, won’t I be frustrated in a few months when I watch scripts by the other writers in my group? Sure, maybe. But is it worth the time? No, not will the other projects I am also currently writing…and in some cases, being paid to write. With a sigh of relief, I slowly backed away from the computer, opened a beer, and reflected on how awesome I was for being self-aware enough to call it a day.

This isn’t the first time I’ve quit a project. Some are just ideas that bubble up, but then vanish into the ether before a word is written. Some have been real time investments: I’ve walked away from multiple  screenplays after writing more than 30 pages, a completed sitcom pilot, and even collaborations with other writers that went on for months before the still incomplete scripts were abandoned.  Do I regret walking away from those projects? If anything, looking back I regret not walking away earlier. Almost all of us have had relationships where we regret not getting out earlier…but do we regret the entire relationship? Not necessarily, because those relationships were learning experiences that hopefully made us better people, and helped us make better choices down the road.

But this isn’t a relationship advice column, unless you want to follow the analogy that I am in a relationship with my script. If so, then fine…I dumped her. She was needy and wrong for me, and it was not a healthy reciprocal relationship. Plus, it was only a brief fling. Farewell, short script, you will not be missed. On to the other projects that deserve my effort and energy…especially the script inspiring the creation of this blog, of course.

On winning the race

I’ve made the analogy before (and will continue to do it ad infinitum until someone shuts me up) that a career in the arts is a marathon and not a sprint. Overnight successes are rare, and most of those are actually years in the making. That overnight sensation you saw in a movie recently actually shot that movie a year ago, or longer, and has other films already finished. The director who won an Oscar for his first film spent the last 20 years directing commercials, music videos, and web series. It takes a while.

Tortoise 1

I returned from the Thanksgiving week and, bright and early Monday morning, sat down at my computer to get to work. One of my Monday morning tasks is to check my old, defunct email address in case something important rolls in. Usually it’s just spam or crap from any place that requires an email address, but this time there was something actually addressed to me personally. I got an email from the Artistic Director of a Los Angeles theater company stating that they would like to produce one of my short plays in their upcoming series in March. Of course, I was delighted. But I didn’t remember submitting, although there were hints that it had been a while. For example, it was sent to my old email address. Also, the AD mentioned that even though I lived in New York, he hoped I could come out and see it.

I opened my submission database and began searching. After a few minutes I had tracked it down. Sure enough, I had submitted the script…in July of 2010. Three and a half years ago! So I submitted this script before even moving to L.A. Before I got married. Before so many things happened, just a submission along with a positive thought, and then forgotten.

This is a great reminder that there is no overnight success in show business…especially on the writing end. Just keep your head down and keep doing the work. And someday very far away, a finish line is in sight.

Tortoise 2

An update

Before departing for Turkeyland via Stuffing Heights, Potato Prairie, and Mt. Cranberry, I wanted to make a quick update. A few weeks ago I posted the entry Chasing Rejection where I dove into the sexy world of statistics regarding my submissions. Well, I’m happy to report that because of the reading series last week, my success percentage has jumped north of 14%, up from 13.79%.

So, in a week where little progress is happening with any of my scripts, I will take this small victory in stride and be thankful. Maybe by the end of the year I will be over 15%. As long as I keep submitting and keep writing, then I will be continually moving forward.

Enjoy the long weekend. I will remember to enjoy the time I spend away from work. We’ve all earned it.

Critiquing the Critique

This week there was a staged reading of my play America’s Brightest Star at Play Club West, a group of dedicated actors who meet once a week to read scripts out loud to an audience in a small theater in North Hollywood. They read well known plays, movie and TV scripts, but often try out unproven works. All of their readings are cold, without any advance rehearsal. This is the first time this script has been heard out loud since a full production at Railroad Playhouse in Newburgh, New York over a year ago. It was refreshing to hear it with a completely different group of actors, and being that it was a cold reading, there was no pressure to tweak the script or rehearse. Just pick it up and go.

10 brave actors and 1 satisfied writer

10 brave actors and 1 satisfied writer

The reading generally went well.  The small audience, as well as much of the cast, laughed throughout, which is good since it is a comedy. Some of the actors were not great, but there were some who were extremely talented and brought a lot of depth to a cold reading. Then, the post show discussion began.

Critique sessions can be very informative, especially once you are able to determine what is good feedback, and what is not. After a reading, people are entitled to offer their opinions. An outside eye is always good. It’s crucial; eventually all work is seen by outside eye exclusively. Critique sessions can be overwhelming, but over time I’ve learned how to immediately recognize what is helpful, and what is not. There are roughly three different types of feedback respondents.

Ignorant commenters, or those unable to see the forest for the trees. Readings can be dull, and certainly hard to visualize. It’s just people talking. Some script details can be easily overlooked. A good portion of feedback are in the form of questions that have already been answered in the text, or in stage direction, but ignored. For example, at this feedback session one person commented that the play needed a moment when the protagonist and her love interest reveal to the audience their desire for each other. In fact, that moment already exists. But it’s unspoken, and the person commenting couldn’t visual it from words on a page. But it most certainly was there, and audiences who saw the show last year had no doubt about the spark between the characters.

The rewriter. This person can be dangerous, unless you recognize it right away. They may like or dislike your script, but they wish it was slightly different and are not afraid to tell you what they would rather see. These people are basically saying “if this was my script, I’d…” Anything said after that point can be ignored…unless you really like where they are taking the script. In that case, have them sign a waiver saying they won’t sue you for a co-writer credit, and make the changes. But generally, those notes aren’t helpful. This isn’t their script. Their idea might be fine, but it’s not mine. One example: a commenter said that all characters other than the three leads should be eliminated. Why? Because that’s the play they would rather see. Well, they can go write that play. It’s not what I want to write.

The dramaturg. These people are why you do readings. Good script dramaturgs at readings can be actors, directors, designers, or…well, actual dramaturgs. Someone makes an insightful comment that makes you look at the script differently. These notes are the ones you need to take to heart when rewriting. A few people commented that the lead character was not invested in her town, the setting of the play. Right on. This is something that I ignored or couldn’t put a finger on throughout the entire production process last year, but to hear a person give this note in a particular way opened my eyes. They didn’t give me the solution and tell me what to write, only pointed out what was missing. Hearing notes like this one proves that the reading process works.

So thanks, Play Club West! You opened my eyes and improved my script. And that’s what this was all about.

A Terrifying and Inspiring Fact

Sitting down to revise my script Closure, and the usual demons creep up my back, perch on my shoulder, and whisper in my ear:

  • The script isn’t good enough.
  • Who would want to watch this?
  • Where are you going to get the money to make this movie?
  • If you get the money, are you ready for weeks and months of 14 to 16 hour days?
  • If you finish the movie, what if you get rejected from every film festival?
  • What if you don’t get a distributor?
  • Are you ready to let everyone down?

Yes, my demon’s speak to me in bullet points. They are very anal retentive and organized.

So to distract myself, I troll the internet and find an article on the new Jack Nicholson unauthorized biography. I’ve always been a fan of Jack Nicholson. We have a lot in common: we are both from the east coast, we share a birthday (albeit 35 years apart), and we’ve both had a torrid relationship with Anjelica Houston. Okay, only two of those things are true.

In the article I read about his big break, which was in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, a b-movie that inspired the musical Phantom of the Opera. Kidding! Anyway, the terrifying and inspiring fact was not that his very memorable scene was improvised, or that decades later he turned down Hannibal Lecter and Tom Cruise’s role in Rain Man, but this nugget about the shooting of Little Shop:

The entire film was shot in two days on a micro budget.

"Two days? That's crazy!"

“Two days? That’s crazy!”

Let that sink in. Two days. And one night. And apparently, a few reshoots weeks later. But still, that’s a weekend. That’s getting started Friday after work and wrapping in time for a leisurely dinner on Sunday evening. Sure, the movie is not great, and looks cheap. If you’ve seen the original Little Shop, you know that it does not rank on anyone’s top ten movie list. But imagine what one can do with better, cheaper technology and even a little more time.

I’m not advocating that I rush through and slap together a movie. But I need to heed a lesson from Roger Corman and many other low budget filmmakers, and those good folks at Nike: Just Do It. If I can spend two days watching a marathon of Louie episodes, I can spend at least two days making a movie.

Stop making excuses for why I shouldn’t bother. Just keep moving forward. One step at a time. Revise the script. Then have another reading. Then see where to go from there. Don’t worry about committing years of time. For now, focus on how to fill two days.

Demons, begone!

Chasing Rejection

It’s one thing to spew out words on the interwebs. Hold a mirror up to myself, navel gaze, and tell the world (the world being the dozens of you who still read this blog). It’s another thing to follow through.

But I did! Take that, haters. As discussed in my previous entry, I continued to pretend that I had pressing deadlines. In fact, I had another big submission to do and finished it earlier today. Now I have another big deadline next week. Even though my chances of getting accepted into these festivals or conferences or workshops are long shots, it still gives me immense satisfaction to finish the job. Putting the big envelope in the mail used to be such a cathartic moment; now, of course, hitting send on the online form almost gives the same feeling. I have kept a log of all my submissions for the past 9 years.  By “submissions,” I consider festivals, publishers, competitions, and theaters with open submissions. I don’t count film and TV scripts to producers and agents, as those submissions fall into a grey area. I also don’t count collaborations, jobs for which I am hired, or other freelance gigs that come from networking (which is a lot).

So how do I measure success? Not necessarily by victories alone. If I apply to a prestigious event, for example the O’Neill Playwrights Conference or the Nicholl Screenplay Fellowship, then I consider it a success if that script makes it to the semifinal level. Or if I make honorable mention or runner-up in a screenplay contest.

I keep these stats in a detailed spreadsheet so I can track and follow up on everything, minimizing what falls through the cracks. So what’s my success rate? Well, that’s private.

Unknown

Oh, who am I kidding, blogging is about revealing all your private details, right? I’m also wearing grey Hanes boxer-briefs right now, FYI. So what is my success rate?

14%.

Technically, 13.79%…but I’m an optimist.

For every 100 scripts I submit (and believe me, that number jumped north of 100 years ago) only 14 times am I successful, by my own definition of success.

That means that for every 100 times I sit down to prepare a submission, which takes anywhere from 15 minutes to days of prep work including writing support essays, getting recommendation letters, and last minute script revisions, I am rejected 86 times.

Got that? I AM REJECTED 86% OF THE TIME. A .140 batting average would not get me to the majors.  Making 14% of my free throws would get me cut from any basketball team in any league. Getting 14% of the vote would certainly not get me elected to any political office, not even Florida in 2000.

But in my world, 14% makes me a success.

Why? Am I delusional? Only my imaginary friend Wallace knows that for sure.  But I know there are many factors in why someone gets rejected, and often it’s luck. A few months ago I got a very nice rejection letter from an artistic director at a theater in Ireland who said they absolutely loved my play Broad Daylight, but already had a similar play slated for their upcoming festival written by a local writer, and they favor local writers. A rejection, right? But not really.

Because I’m putting it out there. I’m putting myself out there.

14% success is better than 0% success. Because only not trying is failing.

So now, with each deadline met, with each application out in the mail (or e-mail), I pat myself on the back FOR A SECOND and say, “what’s the next deadline?” And I start up again.

And that’s how it’s going to go. There is always another festival or competition to enter. There is always another draft to finish. There is always another script to begin.

I have to finish this blog entry now. I have many more rejections to chase.

Sprinting through Sorkinland

I want to live in an Aaron Sorkin world.

Not pictured: me

Not pictured: me

Not any particular world. I was a fan of Sports Night and The West Wing. I enjoy The Newsroom. And I firmly believe that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a television show.

But I don’t want to live in any of these particular worlds. I don’t want to produce sports television, cable news television, or run the world from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I don’t need all my conversations to be filled with witty banter or confusing sexual innuendo.

But what I love about those worlds is the urgency. Things are always happening and things need to get done right now and if these things don’t get done right now then the world will either stop spinning or explode into dust or wait did you kiss me what does that mean and I don’t know if I feel that way about you but Congress is about to shut down and this network is about to shut us down and she’s about to quit and he’s going to get fired and we need to keep this scandal buried and we need to expose this scandal and it all needs to happen before noon or 8pm or tomorrow or RIGHT NOW.

People either thrive in this environment or they run away, screaming. If my personal life was filled each day with the DRAMA those characters endure, I’d long ago have jumped off a bridge or moved to a fishing boat in Central America. However, as a freelance writer it is difficult to maintain the urgency. If you are working on a network TV show, then certainly there are deadlines always looming. But for those of us who are not (at the moment, of course) it is difficult to stay on track without the clock constantly ticking overhead. Projects get sidetracked by other projects, by life, by errands and chores, or by a West Wing marathon on TV. I can fool myself and say that watching and deleting 20% of my DVR catalog is being productive, but we all know it isn’t the truth.

In the two weeks leading up to the table read of my script Closure, I worked harder on the script than I had in months. The final three days were frenetic…I had to get it done. There was a deadline. And this deadline was arbitrary; no one was making me finish the script. After all, this particular project is one I want to do myself. But because I had given myself a deadline and invited people to take part in it, there was now a need for urgency. I got it done. It may not have been 100% exactly what I wanted, but it was definitely progress.

In the days following the reading I could feel myself sliding back into laziness. I spent less time at the computer and more time in front of the TV. I knew that to nip that slide in the bud, I had to take a page from the Book of Sorkin: deadlines. Right Now.

So I did. I noticed that the deadline for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference was in a week, and I had wanted to submit Little Black Boxes, the play I presented at The Actors Studio this summer. But I hadn’t done the rewrites, even though I knew sort of what I wanted to accomplish. So now was the time. Deadline! And it helped. I dove back into the script, completed revisions, and filled out the application online and submitted. In a Sorkin sense, I failed: I filed the application with nearly 48 hours left until the deadline. In Sorkin’s world Dana Whitaker or Mac would be screaming “5 seconds” as I ran down the hall with the paperwork, sweating and swearing under my breath. And again, this deadline is arbitrary. The world would not stop spinning if I didn’t submit. The laws of percentages say I won’t get accepted. But still, I took my script to a new level, and that alone is victory.

And now I’m addicted to the adrenaline high. I don’t want to slide back into a DVR-induced coma. I need another deadline. So here’s my newest goal: in addition to the other writing work I have to do (because Sorkin characters can multitask) I will finish the outline of another play I’ve been working on (and sat on for months), do the revisions on the first act, and complete the new draft. Then the next week I will send it to a director who expressed interest. The time is now.

Reading Recap

Two days prior to the reading, and I am all about revisions. I would happily delay work on the script and procrastinate (look, more baseball on TV!) but I wanted to get the script to the cast at least a day in advance so they could have the option of reading it in advance. Plus, to be green, those who had e-readers needed to get it on their devices. So I worked late into Thursday evening, and Friday before and after work I continued my paper edit. By 5pm I had completed paper edits and sat in front of the computer to input all the changes. By 6pm Catia had returned from her commercial shoot, and since it was her birthday, we opened a bottle of bubbly to celebrate, then I continued with my paper edits. That is one stereotype I do not fit, the writer who drinks through the process. Fortunately I was almost done and I nursed my glass. Around 7pm I finished, saved the script, and sent a pdf to the cast. No proofreading here, gonna fly by the seat of my pants.

Saturday a quick trip to the local copy store to print out copies for the e-readerless (double sided, you’re welcome Mother Earth) and before I knew it, time was up. Let’s begin.

The last time I heard a script read out loud was my debacle with The Actors Studio in July. I was not concerned this time; after all, it’s a closed reading, just a handful of talented actors who all happen to be friends. A few other respected listeners. A positive room.

Reading 10-12-13 1

Talented actors hard at work.

And it went well. The pace moved quickly. There were more laughs than I anticipated. The actors connected with each other. Sure, the flaws were glaring when the dialogue was heard out loud. It didn’t go far enough with some of the protagonist’s obstacles, and some moments weren’t believable, but all in all it was a success. The script works.  With a little reworking and revision, this could be something. I am satisfied.

After the reading I opted not to have a group discussion, which sort of threw the cast for a loop. Ordinarily following a reading everyone would sit around and discuss, but since we started a bit late and since the reading was turning into a birthday party for my wife with other guests about to arrive, I decided to abandon the usual critique session and talk to people individually or in smaller groups, throughout the evening. This worked out surprisingly well as people could speak freely without considering the opinions of others. Plus, this allowed me to hear similar opinions without worrying about bandwagon opinions, which are those from people who might agree with something that they wouldn’t have considered on their own. There was some general consensus, though:

* The script is too procedural. Much is revealed in conversation, which isn’t active. And similarly:

* Be more visual and less married to text. A common problem for us playwrights who switch to film. Not insurmountable, my scripts are getting more visual the more I write, but something to always consider. Talk in images when possible. One great note I received from a writer friend who watched the reading is to consider approach each scene as a dance.

Now I will take a few days away from the script to stew it over, but I am encouraged and excited to take this to the next step.

Eight Days until reading

Eight days until the reading.

countdown

Luckily, most of the actors I contacted are available at the same time, a rarity when people are volunteering their valuable time. All I have to do now is do another script revision and we’re good to go. Easy, right?

Well, when it rains, it pours. Another round of revisions are due on Broad Daylight, the short film that is scheduled to be shot in the coming months. And another round of revisions are due immediately on It is Done, as we are getting closer to production and obviously, a completed and excellent script is kind of important at this stage of the game. Three deadlines within days of each other. It’s the perfect storm of deadlines, only without the threat of drowning or getting harpooned like John C. Reilly.

In addition, my wife and I are going out of town for a weekend in wine country, like one does in Southern California in the fall.

So what to do? First, like anyone with a lengthy to do list, it feels good to cross something off right away, so I tackled the Broad Daylight revisions. There wasn’t a ton to do, so it was a quick job. Finished. Emailed to director. Crossed off list. Moving on.

But how to handle two scripts with deadlines at the same time? The younger me would cancel my weekend trip, hunker down with my drafts, caffeine, and carbs, and shut the blinds. Is the older (ahem, current) me a slacker? Am I lazier than my younger self? Less hungry?

Possibly. But I’m going to say I’m a better, more confident writer now. I can make decisions quicker and formulate solutions more efficiently. I don’t have to write something down and then spend hours wringing my hands, wondering if it’s the right decision. It either is the right decision or it isn’t, and those who are reading the drafts will be forgiving if the decisions are wrong. It’s not going directly from my computer to your movie screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not satisfied with half-assed work. I just no longer aim for perfection.

Because perfection is unattainable.

So off we go to wine country. And in 48 hours I will get back to work. And I will get the job done.

Progress…and a deadline

So I jumped off the diving board.

Not pictured: me Pictured: someone on fire

Not pictured: me
Pictured: someone else on fire

Too dramatic? I’ll tone it down in the next edit. The point is that I leapt. It’s time to move things forward with my script, and there is no turning back.

First: picked my actors. A tougher job than I thought, considering I wrote the script with specific actors who I personally know  in mind. The hard part was deciding who gets in at this early stage. There are easily a dozen actors I have in mind for roles that I did not consider for this reading because I don’t benefit for a large room at this time. For now, just a core group of people with the more substantial parts.

Second: picked three possible dates for a reading. A generous friend donated his apartment; cleared the dates with him.

Third: composed the email: “Can you do the reading? Are you interested? Do any of these dates work for you? Do you know who I am?” Send.

Fourth: held my breath. Didn’t take long. Half of the actors wrote back within an hour, giving their preferred dates. Hopefully the rest will get back in touch over the weekend. All tentative dates are less than two weeks away.

Fifth: Now that there is a deadline, it’s time to start the script revision. Go!