Why hello, Oscar

Another week, another few pages. 55 pages into the rough draft, and so far I’m happy with where it’s going. I don’t worry about page length with the first draft, but I’d guess I’m about halfway finished.

It’s that time of the year again, the Super Bowl of the entertainment industry. The Oscars aired a few days ago, and like always I look forward to it, then a few hours in get bored and wonder what I was anticipating. My wife and I attended a party. Good food, good friends, and like all good sporting events, there was a betting pool. Last year, despite my extensive knowledge of movies and the business, I came in 17th place. ┬áThere weren’t even 17 people at the party, which means I lost to people who literally phoned it in. This year I did a little more research and vowed to do better.

Oscar Statuette

Say what you will about the silliness of everything, with who’s wearing what and what jokes tanked and who got ripped off and who shouldn’t have been nominated (and which 9-year-old got called the c-word!), not to mention the whole concept that one can beat other people for an award for something as abstract as artistic accomplishment is tough to fathom, but it is still exciting to watch people at this place in their journey, both with their careers and with a particular project. That said, I would be lying if winning an Academy Award didn’t cross my mind on occasion when writing a script.

Honestly though, visions of tuxedos, red carpets and front row Jack Nicholsons have not been swimming through my head while writing this script. Not that I wouldn’t want to touch that gold ring, but at this point in the script I don’t care. I’m writing this script because I want to make this movie. Plain and simple. I want to make it for me, for fellow artists and collaborators who are underworked, and hopefully for an audience that will appreciate the story I want to tell. To me, winning is getting the movie made. Winning is completing the script. Winning is writing this blog entry.

I’m a writer, and I’m doing what I should be doing. The more I write, the better I get. And the same goes with Oscar prognostication: this year I came in 4th place.

Lesson learned: never underestimate Ang Lee.

Stay on the tracks

So far I have written 40 pages of the first draft. Screenplays tend to have three acts, and I have already completed the first act. I’m happy with the progress, but now it’s time to fight all my instincts and press forward.

The hardest part of my job as conductor of this script train is to stay on the tracks and keep aiming for the station, which is roughly 50-70 pages away. It’s a hard job because more than anything I want to go back. Now that I’m this far in, I know so much more about my lead character and I want to enhance the details. My supporting characters are barely sketched out now, and I know what they desire and need. Locations now have detailed items in them. Some scenes can be shorter. Other need to be longer. I want to go back and fix these things.

But I won’t. I can’t speak for every writer, but I know from experience now that if I go back and fix things I will fall behind, and will unlikely catch up. Once I get into tweaking things, that process will never stop. Little tweaks beget little tweaks, and before I know it I’ll have an extremely tight and brilliant 20 pages, and I’ll be 85-years-old and straining from reading my script on my iPhone 37G.

It’s not too dramatic to say if I stop the train and it’s momentum, I will not get it going again and I will never reach the station. Also, like most trains and modes of travel, there is an arrival time. Writing a script should be no different. I’m going to say that the First Draft Express is due to arrive at Completion Station on March 15th. Arbitrary? Sure. But an arbitrary deadline is much better than no deadline.

Lottery Tickets

I just returned from a 48-hour quickie vacation in Las Vegas with my wife and her parents. They were there for the World of Concrete convention. We helped them take down their display after the convention, shared a few wonderful meals, and my father-in-law and I both made cameo appearances in the Cirque du Soleil show O.

Outside of one sports bet, I didn’t do any gambling.

I like those odds

I like those odds

Nothing against gambling; I enjoy losing hours at the Blackjack table. However, at the time of this trip finances are tighter and I can’t justify throwing away $100+ when I’m not making as much money as I would like right now.

Besides, my entire career is based on gambling. Any career in the arts is a gamble, a lifetime of freelancing where if all goes extremely well you can find security for 12 to 18 months with a long touring gig, a TV writing assignment, an arc on a sitcom, or a variety of other highly rewarding jobs that at their best, will give you a financial cushion down the road when you are back looking for jobs. If you are not Pat Sajak or a cast member of Sesame Street, then you are likely looking for work now or in the near future.

This is why I refer to my scripts as lottery tickets. Whenever I write a script, I try to not think of the endgame…the success, the accolades, the long life of each project, but it’s hard to not imagine what would happen with a touch of success. The odds are long, which is why more tickets mean more chances. I’m not advocating spending time and resources to create a bunch of mediocre lottery tickets, but now when I have an idea, I start putting it into action, and damn the consequences.

When I was a younger writer, I toiled on a screenplay that I knew would be my big break. I spent the better part of two years writing, rewriting, having table reads, re-editing, re-imagining, and doing everything I could to make this script elevate my career. Despite favorable responses in the industry, I realized that one script does not a career make. Very few people had their first script launch them into the stratosphere. More often, the first script to become successful is built on the backs of other scripts and projects. Usually, when someone in the entertainment industry reads a script they ask “what else do you have” regardless of whether they enjoyed the script or not. People want to know that you have an arsenal. People want to know that you are in it for the long haul.

Some of my lottery tickets have paid off. Not on the Powerball level, but I am happy to say that most have come up a winner, and many of them continue to pay off. This new film script is another lottery ticket. It’s not my only ticket. It’s not even the only script I’m working on at this moment. But one of these tickets is going to pay off big.

Outlines

I hate outlines. They are wonderfully useful, and an important part of the creative process, but the method itself is very uncreative. I come from an improvisational background, and I love writing a script and discovering things through the characters. Spending two weeks or a month meticulously planning that world is sometimes like a bland torture.

Blackboard

Outlines are instrumental in developing a script, whether it’s for TV, film or theater. It’s widely acknowledged that the more detailed your outline, the better your script will be. Certainly, the more detailed your outline the easier your script will be to write. If you have a thorough outline it’s impossible to have writer’s block. You always know what the scene is about and you know what comes next.

When I started my writing career I rarely outlined anything…on paper. Ideas would formulate in my head and then a brain stew would simmer, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. Once ideas started to boil over, I’d start to write. There are exceptions: my play It is Done was inspired by a dream. Within 12 hours of waking up from that dream, I had written the first third of the play, roughly 27 pages. It helped that I knew exactly how the play was going to end. To make an analogy, I knew where the slalom poles were on the mountain; I just needed to get from pole to pole.

This script has no outline. However, it’s not a free for all; I’ve though about characters, the story, some twist moments, and some very specific images. The idea first came to me seven or eight months ago. I did not write anything down in advance, when I felt I was ready I just opened my screenwriting software and started writing. So far I’m 25 pages in. I’ve hit a few points I wanted to hit, and I’ve made some wonderful discoveries along the way.

Experience tells me that without an outline, revising the script will be harder. If I get frustrated during the revision process, remind me that I brought it on myself.

The Story

Monkey-typing

When it comes to my writing, I have only one superstition: I won’t talk about the script until a first draft is finished. Like Fight Club and the C.I.A., I operate on radio silence until the words “The End” or “Fade to Black” are typed. There is no real justification for my superstition, like my idea will get stolen or armageddon will strike. I just feel that if I talk about something before it’s complete, I may analyze it in the wrong way. The angry monkey named Self-Doubt that sits on our shoulder during the writing process may stretch his legs and dance around if I open my mouth. So I keep it quiet.

This makes it hard to blog. No one wants to read a blog where nothing happens, no new information is revealed. So I have to open up a little bit. So here’s a little tidbit about the script I am writing, the genesis of the idea that sparked the story:

A woman goes to L.A. to find her sister, who has been out of contact for a long time.

That’s it! I did it. And the monkey is still snoozing on my shoulder. Everyone keep quiet and maybe he’ll stay asleep for another month so I can finish the draft.

The first step…

This blog will follow a film project from near inception to release…and everything in between.

My name is Alex, and I am a playwright/screenwriter/filmmaker/theater producer and many other slashes. My wife Catia and I recently moved to Los Angeles after a long time in New York. We hated to leave the wonderful city that has been home to both of us since the last millennium, but we were eager to explore the options and possibilities available to us on the other coast. In early 2012 we came out for a trial period, and during those seven months we produced a successful run of my play It is Done, she booked a few commercials, I signed a movie development deal…all clear indications that we were on the right track. We knew we were going to stay. We went back to New York and over a frantic seven weeks we opened my new play America’s Brightest Star, sold all our furniture to friends and on Craigslist, survived Superstorm Sandy and the subsequent nor’easter a week later, said goodbye to friends, and moved out of our fifth floor 700 square foot two-bedroom walkup on 103rd Street in Manhattan and drove across country…for the third time in a year. No turning back.

My brief time in L.A. so far has been wonderful. We have a lovely apartment with more modern amenities than our Mad Men era appliances in New York (yes, in 2012 we were still defrosting the freezer every three months). There is more room here. The weather is sublime and cannot be overrated. My play from our trial period was named a top production of the year by The Huffington Post. I have a script in development. I have a talented, hard-working and supportive manager who is hustling to get me work, on top of the hustling I do to get work. Things are promising.

But something is missing. And that is something I’ve discussed with other actor, writer and director friends. We work for years to hone our craft, and then if we are truly successful, we spend most of our time trying to get a job than actually doing what we love. So while I’m hustling for a job, I want to actually be working on something concrete. A project. A product.

For months I’ve been talking about making a movie, something small, something I can do with limited financial resources, incorporating the talents of other underworked artists. Make a movie. Create something that I can look back on when the day is over and say “there, I made that.”

So I’m making that. This blog, my droplet of water in the Internet Ocean, will chronicle the journey from conception of an idea to a finished project. What it takes. And all the wonderful people who will join this project along the journey. The first step.