2016: it’s movie time.

Everyone has seen iconic photos of Mt. Everest:

That's a big hill.

That’s a big hill.

Majestic. Grandiose. Huge. (Picture Donald Trump saying that word).

Yes, I’m making the analogy that making a movie is like ascending Mt. Everest. In truth, there are many similarities. For example, not everyone can do it. Also, it ain’t cheap. Also, more people think they can do it than actually can. In addition, like climbing Everest, the only time to safely make a movie is during three weeks in May when the weather is perfect.

Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch.

But here’s a HUGE (okay, enough with the Donald Trump) similarity: don’t climb without sherpas. A team of people who know the hill better than you. That’s an important aspect, they know the hill “better than you.” They bring skill sets that you can’t pretend to know. They know the safest spot to place the ladders to straddle ice cliffs. They know when you are acclimated to thin air enough to proceed to the next camp site. They know which lens you should use when capturing natural light indoors. They know which angle to shoot reaction shots to highlight specific moods.

Let me put it another way: if you are the most experienced, most skilled person on a project, maybe it’s time for a more challenging project.

I have spent a good part of the 2015 training for my ascent, i.e. revising the script. Sure, this blog has only seen one post in the second half of the year, but that doesn’t mean prep for the climb wasn’t happening. I was hard at work in the second half of the year revising the script…

…and it’s done! Next stop: shooting a movie!

Well, not quite. Yes, I finished a draft of the script before the shades were drawn on 2015. But, one can’t go directly from Kathmandu Airport to the summit. Yes, the second draft of the script is complete. No, it is not production ready… but it is closer. Tomorrow I meet with the producer I have been developing this project with (more on him soon, I promise) and get his notes, and we will proceed from there. There are more revisions, budgeting, and then meeting with more producers and investors. We are on the move, and things are happening…

…and we are planning our ascent.

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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.

So there’s that…

In my last post, I wrote about burying the lede, and in fact buried a big lede in the end of that story: I’m going to become a father. No one responded, which means one of four things:

1) No one noticed.

2) All those who noticed already knew the news, so why comment.

3)The internet is broken.

4) No one reads this blog anymore.

Ah whatever, I’m not going to harp on this issue. “Take your impending fatherhood and shove it up your butt, Alex. And get back to what this blog is about.”

Precisely.

This blog is about making an independent movie, Closure. Since this blog began (over a year ago) I have come up with the concept, written a first draft of the script, and had a table reading. All of this in my spare time, between jobs and other projects (hear that? It’s my own horn a’tootin’.)  Now, more than ever, with a big “project” starting soon, I have to remain focused.

But I do have time. After all, my muse, the lead actress in this movie, my wife, is currently…how shall I put this delicately…PREGNANT…and it is not the time for her to be starring in this particular movie.  But that doesn’t let me off the hook from continuing to work on it.

So I haven’t! These past few weeks I’ve budgeted my time well, and done revisions on the first 35 pages. Then, the script is starting to veer off down a different avenue, and that will take more work. But I know where it’s going (somewhat) and I’m ready to do the work.

But there’s the baby coming and much furniture to assemble…and there are a few trips…and there is a LOT of work coming down the pike (more on that in a later post)…and I’m just not finding the hours to make progress.

So I’m making time.

I’m making damn sure that THIS baby gets some attention each week, before THAT baby comes along and gets (deservedly) more attention.

It’s all about scheduling and prioritizing.

And so far it’s working…

…but I’m going to put away my tootin’ horn until I finish the second draft.

 

And even more distractions

Still chugging along on revisions to Closure. And by chugging along, I mean the engine on this jalopy shuddered as I barely pulled it over to the side of the road in time. I got some good editing done,  and started writing an outline for the new second and third acts, when I entered Distraction Land. It’s a beautiful place, Distraction Land. There is much to do and so much time to do it in. It’s like a turducken of locales, as if Las Vegas was stuffed inside New York City, which was then stuffed inside Hawaii. I could live here forever! It would be so much fun to wake up at 70 and say “wow, I didn’t accomplish anything, but I had a lot of fun. A LOT of fun.”

distraction

But that wouldn’t be a good idea.  I have a friend who is living this life. He is in his 40s. He worked for years at a company in which he had an ownership stake. The company was sold. So…he sort of retired. IN HIS 40s! Now he travels, goes to events, and does whatever the hell he wants. Because he can.

But I can’t do that. And not just because I don’t have the money. I have the burning desire to write, and while I’ve ignored it for large chunks of my life, it’s been there almost my entire life. I wrote my first play when I was in third grade:

It’s called August: Osage County.

But seriously, I was pretty proud of my 2-page masterpiece. And I am writing now more than ever, for both jobs that pay and jobs that do not pay (yet).

But there will always be distractions. Some are good and healthy, others are just distractions. I’m not going to beat myself up over it, but by assessing how I am spending my time, I can budget my time better. So why haven’t I been working on Closure in over a week?

* Was hired to revise and punch up a screenplay (good distraction)
* Watched the super bowl with friends (once a year distraction)
* Went to a concert (fun distraction)
* Watched a few of the Oscar nominated documentaries on Netflix (bad distraction…I should prioritize)
* Started a new script collaboration (good distraction, but find the balance)
* Binge watched Family Feud on GSN (BAD distraction, don’t judge me)
* Writing this blog entry (necessary distraction)

Time to leave the cozy confines of Distraction Land. Today I have cleared my calendar. Nothing, not even exciting Olympic coverage, will take me away from doing some solid work on the script. It’s back to work.

Diving back in…

I recently completed a draft of a brand new play. While I am prepping to stage a reading of the first act at The Actors Studio, I now have time to get back into the script Closure. You know, the reason I am writing this blog. So now that the play draft is complete, the dishes are done, the floors vacuumed, the junk mail opened, the DVR emptied…

You get the point. It’s a cliche that a writer’s room is immaculate before we sit down to write, as if we’d rather do anything than write. And part of that is true, the act of sitting down and beginning a new draft is not very different from starting a project from scratch. Especially this project. After the table read and feedback months ago, I had a good idea of how I wanted to proceed. Then I sat down for drinks with a trusted writer friend who offered his thoughts on the script. While generally positive, he felt that I didn’t go far enough with one aspect of the plot. He suggested a shocking plot twist, and this suggestion was a eureka moment. The lead character would certainly act in the way he was describing, it was consistent in that regard. I became excited about the story again, and was salivating at the thought of diving back in and taking this script to a whole new level. There was only problem: this twist happens 30 minutes into the script. Which will then change everything after this point.

So it’s almost like writing a brand new script.

And this is why, in the month since this revelatory meeting, I have avoided work on this script. Radically rewriting the second and third act of the script will take a lot of work. Entire scenes and characters may be cut. I will also need to outline the second and third act, and I usually do not enjoy the outlining process. But it’s exciting, and it will make it a better film. It takes hard work at every step, I guess.

So recently I dove back in, and while I was working I did not find it tedious. In fact, when I stepped away from work for dinner I was still thinking about it, and eager to sit back down again. This is a good sign.

So it may take a while. I’m giving myself a deadline of February 17th, a month from now, to finish the next draft, and that includes the outline. So here we go…

Diving

Making Arbitrary Deadlines Real

Back on August 9th I promised my future self I would have a reading of the new script before the end of September.

It’s now September 21st. I have nine days left to fulfill my promise to my now present self from my past self, or pack it all in and live in a cavern of regret, where shame slowly but regularly drips on my head for eternity.

This is the first image that pops up when you Google image search "Cavern of Regret." Keep rockin', Jordan Knight.

This is the first image that pops up when you Google image search “Cavern of Regret.” Keep rockin’, Jordan Knight.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. I’ll get a break from eternity to watch the finale of Breaking Bad.

But why wait? I go on about other projects, and I have a lot on my plate right now, but I can certainly squeeze in a reading. I finally allowed a second set of eyes on the script, a trusted and talented actor and writer who also will have a role in the script. He digested the draft, and then got back to me with some very interesting notes. He likes the story, but agrees that it needs work.
“So I should do another rewrite before I have a reading,” I said.
“Oh no. Put it out there now,” he sternly replied.
And that was a surprise. I keep forgetting that writing is a process and there will be no perfection, so no need to hold out for that perfect moment. I should just go ahead and have the reading.

So that is what I will do. Pick a few people to read it for me. Pick a date. And proceed. Stop talking about doing things. Do things. Let me say that again.

Stop talking about doing things.

Do things.

Here goes…