Hiatus/Exile

Following the reading, I met with the producer over lunch to discuss how it went, including going over the feedback we received. We both felt pretty positive about the current state of the script. We discussed improvements and the next steps. I had applied to two different screenplay development labs, but we wouldn’t hear from either of them for six months or so. Outside of this project, he was about to embark on three months of various projects which would consume all of his time. I had deadlines with the screenplay I was hired to write, plus a collaboration on a TV pilot was nearing completion and taking up a lot of my time. We both decided to step away briefly, focus on our paying work, and reconvene in a few months and dive back in.

So that was three months ago.

Nothing has changed. The project is going forward. Sadly, the screenplay development lab submissions are no longer pending. But as for the script, literally nothing has changed. The script collects virtual dust in a folder on my hard drive (and a backup folder in the ether, I’m not totally careless). But it feels like a lifetime ago since I did any work on the script.

And in that lifetime doubt creeps in. Is this script any good? Does anyone care if this gets made? Will this actually make a difference in my career, or in the world? Will the production company that hired me to write those other screenplays be happy with the final product? Will my wife’s new TV show be good? Will our son continue to be a great sleeper at night? Will the Orioles make the playoffs? Will Bernie Sanders be a viable candidate?

See how easy it is to get derailed when there isn’t a deadline? And that’s how it goes, my focus is on other projects, and then this script pops into my head. I know I have revisions to do, I know I can do more hustling to get it read by more people. But I have to get through my other commitments and, like all of us, daily life, before I can fully attack the script again. I am the leader of the Closure army, and I am in exile.

Hello? Anyone there?

Hello? Anyone there?

So what can I do? Not much, unless I can find an additional five hours in the day. I know that this too shall pass, and soon enough I’ll be back into it, but with each day and week away I feel further adrift, as if it will never happen. So what can I do?

I can sharpen my skills. In my spare time (ha, what’s that!) I read the excellent screenplay writing guide Save the Cat. The book has been around for a decade, but it is often referenced by other writer friends of mine and by producers in meetings, so I figure it was about time I read it. It is incredibly helpful. In the more recent years of my career I’ve become increasingly aware of how important structure, outline, and planning are in the creation of an excellent script. The more I write, the more the structure of the story becomes easier to create, but sometimes I don’t outline or solve every piece before typing “FADE IN” on page one. I did not outline Closure before I wrote it; instead I had a number of plot points I wanted to hit and I made sure I hit them. Now, a few drafts later, the structural problems with my script are clear, and the book certainly helped recognize them. Are these problems in my script fixable? Absolutely. Would these problems in my script have existed if I outlined in more detail? Maybe.

So when my current projects end in the coming weeks, I will dive back in with the script. And I have already planned my attack. And somehow, planning an attack makes this hiatus feel less like an exile.

The results are in…

There are milestones in the development process. Finishing a first draft: check. Having a reading: check (I’ve now had two, if you are keeping track). And once you put the script out there in the world, the next step is getting feedback.

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As mentioned in my last post, after the reading I handed out a short questionnaire with targeted questions. Without structure, feedback can be very unhelpful. My least favorite type of feedback is when people try to get you to tell a different story. “What if the girl was a robot and she could fly?” That might be a great idea, but not for my script. Basically, if a note can start with the phrase “if this was my story, I’d…” I don’t want to hear it. If it’s your story, tell your story. This is my story, dammit.

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Some writers disagree with me. Some writers find those type of notes helpful. Those writers can hear all kinds of feedback and sift through the dirty water for the gold nuggets. Not me. There are times when I need help for specific scenes or story developments, but only when I solicit for it. Otherwise, I don’t have time to sift through the silt.

This is why I don’t necessarily like an open discussion. The questions I asked were crafted to this story, although some of the questions were based on questionnaires at many screenings and readings in the film industry, so I am certainly not breaking any new ground here.

Since you don’t know the story, some of the answers may not make sense. So without further ado, here are the results:

What was your favorite part of the script?
The scene between Nina and the Superior (40%)
Odd scenes (20%)
The rooftop attempt at Nina’s life (20%)
Other (20%)

What did you like least about the script?
(Everyone wrote a different answer)

Was anything confusing?
Nothing was confusing (40%)
Anything relating to the club (20%)
Ending (20%)
Other (20%)

Who was your favorite character other than Nina (the lead)?
Franklin (the gay cop) (50%)
Jack (the desperate writer upstairs) (40%)
Others (10%)

Does the script feel too expositional, like a Law and Order episode?
No (100%)

Was the amount you learned about Nina’s past too much, not enough, or just right?
Just right (80%)
Not enough (20%)

Would you see this movie if you didn’t know anyone involved in making it?
Yes (100%) (although one person said it would depend on the cost of the ticket)

A lot can be gleaned from this small sample size. I haven’t overwritten the exposition. I’m not putting in too much of Nina’s back story. There is nothing in particular that multiple people dislike, so I can ignore the results of that question since I can’t take every note.

Which brings up an excellent bit of advice given to me years ago about feedback. If one person gives you a note and you disagree with it, it’s only their opinion. However, if THREE people give you the exact same note, then you should give it some serious consideration.

There were other readers who could not make it to the reading itself, but volunteered to read the script and give me notes. I did not ask these people the above questions, but rather let them give any notes they want. Using the rule of three people, here are the notes that I am keeping:

* Since Nina is a stranger in a strange land, I can go further with the oddness and idiosyncrasies of all the supporting characters. Think more Coen Brothers and more David Lynch, but in my style, not theirs.

* Nina needs to be more active in finding out information about her sister. Much of the information is handed to her.

* Hugo should be a darker character.

There were other notes to consider, but since they were isolated notes I shouldn’t take them as seriously as the others. Not that they aren’t serious suggestions, but if I’m on the fence about a note, and I only hear that note from one person, I need to trust my instincts.

So now it’s time to dive back into the script. I am confident that what I heard in the reading and the insightful notes given by a variety of people will no doubt guide this script to a better and stronger place.

The Next Step: Reading

Now that we have a budget (which is still only an estimate at this time) it’s time to focus once again on the script. The producer wants to hear the script out loud. There was a casual table reading last year, but this will be a step up. Instead of in a friend’s apartment, we will have this reading in a more professional environment. This time, there will be an audience of sorts: potential producers, trusted writers and directors with script evaluation experience, and other potential collaborators.

So I booked a theater in the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank. The 49 seat space was perfect, feeling almost like a screening room. We assembled the cast, most from the previous reading joined by a few recommendations from the producer. We invited a select group for the audience, and about a dozen were able to attend. The reading went off without a hitch. My biggest mistake was not taking a photo of the reading for this blog. So instead, here’s a selfie of me and my drooling son:

This has nothing to do with the reading. I promise I won't forget to take pictures at other important times!

This child has nothing to do with the reading. Just a reminder to keep taking pictures of the process!

Some of the lines didn’t work, and some of the acting wasn’t right, but generally I was pretty pleased with the whole evening. The audience was engaged, laughing at (some of) the right times and, of most importance, paying attention throughout. No creaking of seats, stretching, or other rumblings.

We chose not to have a post-reading discussion. Instead, I had a half page questionnaire for the audience to fill out, with the following questions:

What was your favorite part of the script?
What did you like least about the script?
Was anything confusing?
Not counting Nina (the protagonist), who is your favorite character?
Do you feel the script is too expositional, like a Law and Order episode?
Was the amount you learned about Nina’s past too much, not enough, or just right?
Would you see this movie if you didn’t know anyone involved in making it?

While the audience filled out the form, we served wine to the cast and audience in the lobby, drinking and discussing for a few hours. On the whole, it was a positive experience. Every creative endeavor should end with a party.

Coming up next… the results from the questionnaire are in!

Chasing the Money

Funny story about $250,000

Dollar-bills-pile

Many years ago, back in New York City, my comic play I’m in Love with Your Wife premiered at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. It was a fast-paced, 80 minute modern sex farce and was a hit at the festival, in part aided by the casting of a very popular 1970s sitcom star.

The very affable and big soul Ron Palillo (R.I.P.)

R.I.P. Ron Palillo, a generous man with a huge heart.

We sold out every performance (which sounds more impressive if I don’t mention it was a 44-seat house) and then sold out the additional shows added. When the festival closed, we were nominated for six best of the fest awards, winning Best Supporting Actress and Outstanding Playwriting of a New Play. The good buzz and great reviews led to meetings with a few off-Broadway producers, who felt that this play could be a hit off Broadway.

One producer went further. He had his own 165-seat theater space, which more than qualifies it for off-Broadway, and agreed to budget the play. One afternoon we sat down and figured out what it would take to make it happen. After figuring in actors salaries (on the bare minimum union scale), salaries and fees for director and designers, plus set contraction, insurance, and a healthy chunk for marketing, he had a number that would keep the show open for two months. Presumably, good press, word of mouth and a 70% attendance rate would keep the show running indefinitely. And this producer told me that number: $250,000.

I was shocked. The budget to do the show off-off-Broadway, in the festival, was just under $10,000. And we hustled to get that money, holding a live fundraiser (this was before online crowdsourcing existed) and we cut corners where we could. Even after all that, a little money came out of my pocket, not counting the hundreds of hours I worked for free.

As we looked through the quarter mil budget, that number made sense and was clearly not arbitrary. But that’s a lot of money to raise for something not permanent. One of the joys of the art of theater is that it exists only in that moment in time that you witness it. Once the line is spoken, once the lights go down, the moment is over forever… until the next night. But eventually, the show will close. This becomes daunting when I realized I needed to spearhead a campaign to raise a quarter of a million dollars for something that might be all gone in a few months.

And as I walked out of that meeting, I had a thought:

“For $250,000, I should make a movie.”

This story does not go down the road of me abandoning theater to pursue film and TV. Hardly. I will always love theater. Since that experience I have had three more plays fully produced, a few more written, and numerous productions of full length and short plays across the country. But never for a budget remotely close to $250,000. And this thought always stayed in the back of my mind: should I spend a lot of time hustling and fundraising for something that could conceivably be gone in four months? Or should I put that energy towards something more permanent?

So imagine my surprise when the same number was not-so-casually presented as a budget for Closure. My ten-year younger self would be smiling at me (and possibly wondering what happened to my hair). It seems appropriate that the same number estimated to launch my off-Broadway career be the same to launch my first feature film endeavor as both writer and director. Makes me want to play the lottery.

That’s it! I’m going to take my savings and buy lottery tickets, and use the winnings to fund this movie.

Or maybe I’ll listen to what the producer suggests first. One step at a time.

COMING UP NEXT: Hearing the script again… but this time, in front of an audience.

The Next Chapter: Money

So how does one go about making a movie?

When I was younger, it was as easy as grabbing a camera, some friends, an idea, and a free afternoon. Back in high school my friends and I would check out the VHS (?) camera from the computer lab and create any number of projects. If there was a class assignment where it was possible to make a video instead of writing a report, we would always choose to become junior Spielbergs and DeMilles and Welles. By the time I graduated I had shot period pieces on Vietnam, cooking show parodies in Spanish, and many more.

College brought more opportunities to put stuff on video, be it sketch comedy ideas to artsy supplements for live theater pieces. While most people zoned out on the quad or “planned” for their “future”, I spent a good portion of my second semester senior year sitting in a VHS (?) edit bay, cutting together a live version of a musical I co-directed culled from three stationary cameras.

After college, the stakes got higher. I wrote and directed two short films (shot on FILM) on limited budgets I scraped together myself. I directed a feature film written by and starring some talented friends on an extremely limited budget (I believe the final cost was just north of $20,000). All of these projects were labors of love, where people participated without any guarantee of financial compensation. In all cases, the script comes first. Chronologically, the idea comes first, then the script. In fact, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have two scripts that I am considering. While very different, I feel both scripts are compelling and can be shot on a low budget. Do I have to decide today? No, but the time is coming soon. There is one element that must be considering before progressing too far in the process: Money.

I have experience in coming up with a budget, but for smaller projects it’s a lot easier. Film (or videotape). Equipment. Insurance. And, of course, craft service. The last cannot be underestimated. If you are not paying people what they deserve, then you better feed them. And feed them well. But this is a big undertaking. Shooting a feature film, even on the smallest scale, involves months of pre-production and at least a month of shooting. There’s payroll. And contracts. And rental facilities. And insurance. And locations. Even though these two scripts involve either limited or confined locations, they still have to be found. And it all starts with money. I will have to become an expert on the financial side, or at least find people who are experts on the financial side. Before I even think about raising money, I need to know how I’m going to wisely spend the money, and emerge on the other side with a finished product AND money left over to market the movie.

My manager has set me up to meet with an experienced indie film producer with dozens of films to his credit. He has years of experience as a producer, a post-production supervisor, and a line producer (who handles the money once production is under way). His movies have gone to Sundance. His TV shows have found homes on HBO and other networks. He will be a great resource in helping me determine exactly what it will take to make one of these scripts.

As it tends to be in the indie world, our first meeting was at a Starbucks in the San Fernando Valley. He is an energetic, passionate man who loves film; of course, that energy may be directly related to us being in a Starbucks. We sat for 90 minutes and discussed everything BUT my scripts: politics, books, current events, other movies. After 90 minutes he had to leave for an edit session, and while we did not actually get down to business, I felt it was a successful meeting. Part of networking is to connect. If we are going to consider working together (and I still have no idea at this time whether or not he is interested or just going to offer advice) we need to see if our personalities match, and we understand each other’s drive and passions. I have been on many sets where the energy was toxic due to vastly differing personalities.

We got along well enough to have a second meeting, and at that meeting we got down to the nitty gritty. Yes, he might be interested in getting involved. He had some questions about the script, which I was fortunately able to answer to his satisfaction. He says he wants to hear a reading of the script, but based on my desire to get it made on the cheap, and knowing that I wrote it deliberately with budget in mind, he feels it can be made for $250,000.

So there it is. Simple, right? All I need is a quarter of a million dollars. Easy! Tune in next time when I hopefully learn how to get $250,000. Maybe I left it in my other pants.

And the Award goes to…

It’s tradition to take a long break in Hollywood at the end of the year, usually from mid-December until after Sundance. A time to reflect. As we wrap up award season in Hollywood (a.k.a. that time when we get nothing done but slap ourselves on the back) I would like to reflect on the past year in movies and pop culture, and offer my own personal awards based on what I have seen, read and heard. Keep in mind, this is highly subjective. I am the only voter, which makes my awards have a voter pool only slightly smaller than the Golden Globes.

Favorite Movie of the Year: Birdman

Runners up: Boyhood, Whiplash

Nominees for outstanding movie of the year that I have NOT seen (but people all say I should see, and I hope to get around seeing soon): Guardians of the Galaxy, Selma, Snowpiercer, Force Majeure, Top Five, Dear White People, Ida, A Most Violent Year, Love is Strange. What should I see first?

Best New TV Show: Transparent
Runner up: MarriedDidn’t see it? This family dramedy that premiered on FXX this past summer is very similar to the new HBO show Togetherness. VERY similar. Both are great shows, but only one came out in 2014.

Best TV Show that’s been around for at least a few years: Mad Men
Runners up: Girls and The Mindy Project

Best TV Show that’s been around for 30 years: Jeopardy

Most overlooked actor this year for award consideration: Miles Teller in Whiplash. The man is in every scene, banging the shit out of those drums and bleeding from his soul (and his hands). And in the middle of it all, it’s astonishing to remember that he is not a drummer. He is an actor.

Most overlooked actress of her entire career for award consideration: Kaitlin Olson for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Hands down, the funniest physical comedic actor working on television today. The show is always overlooked at Emmy time, most likely because of it’s crass humor; at times it feels like a live South Park episode. In it’s 10 seasons on the air (that’s right, an entire decade) they have been nominated twice for outstanding stunt coordination. They are all deserving of awards, and Kaitlin Olson as Sweet Dee leads the pack. Whenever I need to laugh, it never fails to watch Sweet Dee attempt stand up comedy:

Movie that was much better that I thought it would be: Wild. I was expecting a lamer version of Into the Wild. I’m not going to say Wild was a better movie, but it certainly did have a more enjoyable plot.

Movie that was worse that I thought it would be: Foxcatcher. Not a bad movie, just boring.
Runners up: Magic in the Moonlight, Jersey Boys (and I had low expectations going in), The Judge (at least, the first 20 minutes. I did not watch any more.) Foxcatcher certainly wasn’t as bad as the runners up, but I had higher expectations for it. The other three movies I knew were going to be mediocre to terrible.

And a little about music:

Album of the year: Lazaretto – Jack White. Like the audio equivalent of an excellent Western.

Song of the year: You Go Down Smooth – Lake Street Dive. I don’t know why this isn’t everyone’s favorite song of the year. The clip below is great, but doesn’t do it full justice without the horn section.

My music choices were very a limited pool. Here is a complete list of every album I purchased or received as a gift that was released in 2014: Lazaretto – Jack White, Bad Self Portraits – Lake Street Dive, Black Messiah – D’Angelo, Turn Blue – The Black Keys, Anthem for Underdogs – Ben Wise, This is All Yours – Alt-J, and that U2 album that I never listened to but is on my iPhone somewhere. I purchased other music in 2014, but not from 2014. Clearly, I need more new music in my life.

What were your favorites of the year? What did I miss in movies, TV, and music?

It is now February 2nd. I am done reflecting on other people’s work. Now back creating my own work. The next blog post returns to my filmmaking mission, with actual updates and developments! Stay tuned…