Vacation. Leave a message at the beep…

When I was a younger, struggling artist I scoffed at vacations.

Vacation 3
My logic was that if I wasn’t making a living at what I wanted to do, then I was not worthy of a vacation. After all, temporary side jobs are a “vacation” so to speak from what I wanted to be doing, so I didn’t deserve any further time away.

As I became a slightly older and hopefully wiser struggling artist I realize that EVERYONE is entitled to a vacation, be it struggling artists like me, those who make minimum wage, those who are overpaid, and even those Kardashians, whos vacations are barely a blip of difference from their real lives.

That’s because vacations are a change for the mind to reboot. To take a break from the routine, no matter the routine. To stare mindlessly at scenery instead of staring mindlessly at the TV in the living room. Everyone deserves to run like a maniac into the ocean, to overeat to the point of vomiting on a cruise ship, and to walk very slowly and stare up at buildings. After all, most of us haven’t reached our goals in life yet, and waiting until that happens means no one would ever leave home.

This is a lengthy roundabout way of saying that I am on vacation. Two days ago I turned in new drafts of the two different scripts I was working on to the two directors who will be turning them into movies. Then I logged out of my computer (and even shut it off!) and my wife and I hit the road. I am currently blogging from the office in my parent’s apartment, thousands of miles away from my living room. Tomorrow we leave here and head back to New York City, a.k.a. the mothership to those who spent time there. Dinners, a wedding, a party…a change of scenery.

Okay, it’s not a total vacation. I am checking and even answering some emails. I have scheduled a meeting with my manager in New York and would consider other meetings if they came up. I’m writing this blog from my parent’s office instead of mindlessly staring at the scenery. I inherited that from my father, who used to bring files of boxes to the week we’d spend at a beach house every summer when I was a kid. However,  for the most part for the next six weeks I’m relaxing, laughing, eating, drinking, exercising, and breathing different air. We should all be so lucky.

Vacation

See you in September.

Notes…and more notes

“There are three primal urges in human beings: food, sex, and rewriting somebody else’s play.” Romulus Linney

I enjoy rewrites. I enjoy taking the puzzle apart and putting it back together to make a different and hopefully better image. At this stage of the game it’s good to get another perspective, or in my case, multiple perspectives. Scripts percolate so long in my own brain that I have learned to ignore flaws (all babies are beautiful, especially mine) and take leaps in logic that might not read to an outsider. Or every outsider.

This week I turned in one script, and like a revolving door in a farce, notes came in regarding my other script that I completed last week. These notes came from trustworthy sources: generally when I finish a script, there are usually a handful of people who I trust to give feedback at this early stage. Also, and possibly of more importance, these are people who I don’t feel are bothered by reading an early draft. They don’t feel put upon, and they are also close enough to tell me that they can’t get to it right now. You need honesty. But kind, gentle honesty.

So, after sending the script to the director for his notes, I also sent it to three people for feedback: one is an actor, one is a director/writer, and the other is an editor/director. A good balance, each with a different perspective on how they look at scripts. They took their time reading it, and each sat down with me, either in person or on the phone, and spent 30 precious minutes out of their own lives going over their thoughts. I am grateful for their feedback. Much of it was very helpful. Well, it was ALL helpful, but I will not utilize all of the notes.

But how to choose what works and what doesn’t? Due to my improv background, I’m a very “yes and” person. Someone takes the time to read my work, I want to assume their suggestions will make the piece better. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the feedback comes in the form of a suggestion that stems from the reader’s own artistic sensibility and skill set. These notes can be rewritten so they can start with “if this was my script, I’d…” Recognize these notes, and file them away.

Here is the best advice I received on taking notes: if one person offers a note, it is a suggestion. If three people give the same note, then something needs to change. This is why I seek the counsel of three or more people. Sure enough, there were a slew of notes that each reader had in common. And so I listened. And now I rewrite.

Of course, none of this has to do with the notes of the director. If he wants a change, and it fits with the world of the story, then he shall have it. Because unless I am directing the script myself (and hopefully this blog will detail that process down the road) at some point I have to give up this baby and let someone else raise it.

Queue to Cue

My wife and I currently have 79 movies in our Netflix DVD queue. At the rate we watch DVDs, provided we do not add any more movies to the list, we will not get around to watching the last movie on the list (Kon Tiki) until July…2016. Please, no one spoil the movie for me (or spoil who the presidential nominees are likely to be).

Of course, like any normal person, the queue is filled with movies that I have very little intention of seeing. When I first got Netflix, back in 2006-ish, I added movies that were recently out that I might want to see. One of those was Lord of War, a Nicholas Cage thriller about illegal arms dealing. Sounded interesting to me. I like the director, Andrew Niccol. Put it on the list. In the six-ish years I’ve been a Netflix subscriber, that movie has never been in my top 20. It is currently nestled at number 53 on my list, just behind The Changeling and just ahead of Spartacus.  Of course, like any normal account, when something new or intriguing is released, it magically jumps to the top of the list. Nic Cage and Angelina are going to live in purgatory for a while. After further review, Spartacus will move up the list; it deserves  a spot in the top 40.

Don't be sad, Nic Cage! Many others will watch your movies.

Don’t be sad, Nic Cage! Many others will watch your movies.

I thought of the Netflix queue when assessing my own writing career. I am very fortunate in that some people believe I have the skills to create a worthy script. Since landing in Los Angeles I have been very busy, and getting busier each month.  It is exciting to be considered for varied and interesting creative projects, and I am hesitant to say no to anyone at this point of my career. Knowing I can only work two scripts at a time without my brain imploding, other projects are now lining up in a to-do queue. However, not all the jobs presented to me are equal. Projects have to be prioritized, and here is how I decide where on my queue projects will land:

1) Money jobs. That’s easy. If you are paying me to write, then you move to the top of my list. The two current projects at the top of my list are paying gigs.  A no brainer. Daddy needs to keep caviar and lobster on the table.

2) Passion projects. Ideas that I have had, for film and theater, that I want to see realized completely and, at least in the writing phase, without collaboration. The reason for this blog, for example. Plus, there are two plays that I am working on, one needing revisions, the other needing a second act. While I may not direct or produce these plays myself, they are important to me and need to get out of my head and into the world.

3) Scripts with a mission. Not a political or social mission, but the person bringing the project to me has to be on a mission. It could be a director I respect who is looking for a new project. Or a producer who has the means to get a project made. Or a slightly famous actor looking for the right vehicle.  Or a co-writer who can get the script read by important people. I’m sure there are dozens more examples that will fit into this category, and I look forward to discovering them.

4) So your cousin’s best friend’s wife’s nephew has a great idea for a script and he’s looking to break into Hollywood.  His grammar is terrible, and he has never held down a job, but can you help him write it? Maybe. Never say never…but here’s my warning: it might get Nic Caged.

I’m not being passive or taking on projects and then giving them the runaround. I am open and honest with the people who want me to write for them. They know my priorities, and they know that when their project comes up in the queue, I will be ready to give it my full attention and create the best script that I can…

This script ain't gonna write itself.

This script ain’t gonna write itself.

…and Nic willing, I’ll keep getting great opportunities to write great scripts.

Stay on target…

It has been a busy few months with multiple script deadlines.  The August 1st deadline for It is Done was met, and the August 15th deadline for my next script will be met on time. I should enjoy this temporary oasis. I have a meeting next week to get going on rewrites for It is Done, and a few other meetings on potentially new projects. All this aside, the script I am writing to make myself, the reason for the creation of this blog, sits there, staring at me.

And it should; I’ve neglected it. I keep coming up with excuses to avoid working on it. They are legitimate excuses, as I have other paying projects, family visiting, etc., but at the end of the day they are just that: excuses.

So it’s time for another self-imposed deadline: in September I will hear this script read aloud.

A scary prospect. So far only one person has read it, and there needs to be some major rewrites before I can unleash it on others, but there is no point in waiting. I need to dive back in and damn the consequences, which will likely be extra work on top of my workload.

But being ambitious shouldn’t scare me. I learned a valuable lesson on multitasking during the first semester of my senior year at Skidmore College. That semester I took on a large course load, plus I co-directed a musical in the theater department. Plus I executive produced the National College Comedy Festival, which would take place early in the second semester. Plus I worked a part time job as a campus tour guide. Plus I had my first serious girlfriend. Plus I spent plenty of time partying like the average college senior (take that however you like). Clearly I had a LOT on my plate. But here’s the interesting twist:

That semester was the ONLY semester in college that I made the Dean’s List.

Multitasking isn’t technically correct, as it is not really possible to do two major activities at the same time (I’m not talking walking and chewing gum, folks). Instead, when I had a lot to do, I became hyper-focused. If I only had 30 minutes to study that night, then that 30 minutes was used fully and efficiently. There is no time to waste time.

I’m not advocating overextending myself, but I can certainly push myself harder. Sure I have multiple projects going at the same time, and hopefully even more on the horizon, but that’s no reason to stop working on the reason for this blog.

It’s not like I have to study for any midterms or finals.

Taboo to You

I am a terrible Taboo player.

You know the game, where you try and make your teammate guess a word by describing it, but without using key trigger words or phrases. For example, describing Tom Cruise without using the following words or phrases: Actor, Katie Holmes, Nicole Kidman, Top Gun or Scientology. It’s fun, but I’m not the best at it. Sure, I can do it, but I get fixated on certain words and if my partner can’t figure out my often illogical thinking, then time runs out after only getting a few words. Frustration abounds for everyone.

However, I had a recent revelation that Taboo is an excellent exercise for writers. What can be better than telling a story without being obvious? I am a big Ben Folds fan, and was recently listening to the excellent album Whatever and Ever, Amen. On that album was his band’s one big hit, Brick. It’s a quirky song from a quirky band, a three person band named Ben Folds Five. It’s an unusual hit which tells a story that contains subject matter not found in pop hits. For a brief time the song and video played everywhere. Quirky fact: because of the first line of the song, it holds the odd notoriety of being the only video ever played simultaneously on MTV, MTV2, and VH1 (back in the day when those channels played music videos).

Read (or listen) for yourself:

——-

6am, day after Christmas
I throw some clothes on in the dark
The smell of cold
Car seat is freezing
The world is sleeping
I am numb

Up the stairs, to her apartment
She is balled up on the couch
Her mom and dad went down to Charlotte
They’re not home to find us out

And we drive
Now that I have found someone
I’m feeling more alone
Than I ever have before

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m heading nowhere
She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

They call her name at 7:30
I pace around the parking lot
Then I walk down, to buy her flowers
And sell some gifts that I got

Can’t you see
It’s not me you’re dying for
Now she’s feeling more alone
Than she ever has before

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m heading nowhere
She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

As weeks went by
It showed that she was not fine
They told me “Son, it’s time
To tell the truth”
And she broke down
And I broke down
Cause I was tired of lying

Driving back to her apartment
For the moment we’re alone
She’s alone
I’m alone
Now I know it

She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m heading nowhere
She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

——-

The subject of the song is abortion. Nothing delicate about it.

But what makes the songwriting excel is not necessarily the subject matter, but what the band avoids saying in the song. The word abortion is never heard. Neither are these common trigger words: doctor, girlfriend, pregnant, baby, choice, decision.  This song is about abortion, with a lower case “a”, not a capital “A”. It’s not political. It doesn’t choose sides. It just tells the story, and leaves us as the listener or reader to draw our own conclusions on everything except how the couple was feeling at specific moments. And that is great storytelling that I try to emulate: even if the issues are grand and important, how does this affect the individual? How does the protagonist live his or her specific life under very important circumstances?

And now, thanks to Taboo and Ben Folds Five, when I look back on a recently completed scene or script, I wonder if I’m giving the audience too much information, or if I’m appropriately leaving out the key words. We writers need to let the audience connect the dots.