Friday, September 30, 2005


Not that I'm in the same league, sport, country, continent, planet, or star system as Charlie Kaufman, but a couple of weeks ago I saw his play "Hope Leaves the Theater" at Royce Hall, performed by Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage, and Meryl Streep. I can't remember it, alas, but about halfway through there was a line that made me crack up, and virtually no one else laughed.

It occurred to me at the time that Kaufman probably thought it was hilarious too, and yet somehow I was one of, like, four people who thought it was funny. Like it was an in-joke that only screenwriters would get. Wait, I'm a screenwriter? Since when?

On a Sunday in March 2004 I was pacing on the front steps of a house in the hills north of Salinas. My wife and I had driven up that morning to attend her best friend's wedding shower. I, knowing virtually no one there, eventually retreated to the porch. Then my cellphone rang. My cousin Richard, the aspiring actor, who moved back to L.A. from his teenage years in exile in Grass Valley. He wanted to know about writing. He and two friends had decided that waiting around for people to cast you basically sucks, and wanted to take matters into their own hands.

I gave him some advice about writing -- what little I knew at the time, not that I know much now -- and eventually agreed to write something myself. A short film, about ten pages. I ended up directing it.

Then I wrote another one. One of the other guys directed it. He also directed the next one I wrote. Richard directed the fourth one.

So I technically have four produced screenplays. However none of them is longer than about ten minutes. My grand total of things written is four short films and five feature screenplays. Charlie Kaufman probably comes up with and discards more pages of material during any given urination.

But that's okay; everyone has to start somewhere. Now that I've had at least one "screenplay" made into a "movie" that probably about 50 people have seen, am I a screenwriter? Everyone's told me how much they like it. I assume they're all lying politely, because who wants to tell someone to their face that their work sucks?

I'll agree that I've written a good screenplay when someone pays me money for it. Not until. From one point of view, whether or not you are a good screenwriter, or you've written a good screenplay, is an irrelevant game of semantics. All that matters is whether they will pay me money for it or not... right?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Metaphor Cannon earns its stripes

I was waffling about this topic, since I thought the Metaphor Cannon might not be up rapid-firing large-bore slugs, but we'll give it a shot and see what happens.

Today's metaphor is... the Unbent Paperclip.

Writing a bad screenplay is easy; you just pound out pages of whatever comes to mind. Worst-case, you're not following any kind of plan; just-as-bad-case, you've got a very basic plan, but it hasn't been refined at all, so you're making up all the details on the spot, and the overall plan may be misshapen anyway.

Writing a great screenplay, well... Even a writer as arrogant and inept as I can't give you an exact specification of what would make up a great screenplay. What I have figured out is that all great screenplays will have one thing in common, and that thing is really a meta-thing:

All great screenplays have every single element worked out in excruciating detail, and every element relates perfectly1 to every other element.

The inverse corollary is not true: A screenplay whose every stroke has been worked out, both broad and fine, will not necessarily be great.

And now, the Metaphor Cannon. *FOOMP*

Take a paperclip. Unbend it until it's more or less a straight line. Now try to work out the last few kinks: bend this segment just so. Well crap, now the segment above it is straight, but the one above that, which was straight before, is out of line. Now you have to bend just THAT segment, and hope it doesn't scotch your previous work. After a few minutes, you have a straight-line -- analogous to, say, one page of a screenplay.

Now imagine that your paperclip is ninety feet long, six inches thick, weighs thirty tons, and has six hundred kinked segments. That's a feature screenplay. And you have to bend it into a straight line. Using only your tonsils. And you had your tonsils removed last week.

I'm not sure how that dentistry reference got into the Metaphor Cannon, but the point remains: If you change a single element anywhere in your screenplay, there is a significant chance that you will need to change something else. Most likely, you'll have to change more than one other thing. And guess what happens when you change those other two things?

Four more things need changing. Wait, I see where this is going. Hm... what's two to the six hundredth power?

Oh, shit.

No wonder it's so hard to write a great screenplay.

1 Perfection not guaranteed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"...workmanlike dialogue..."

Ugh. "Workmanlike." I hate this criticism. Not that I get it a lot, but I hate it when I see it, even referring to other writers, mostly because I think it's an ambiguous reference to the real problem: This is dialogue that moves the plot forward, or explains what the characters are doing or why, but isn't funny, insightful, interesting, or otherwise deserving of a +1. "Workmanlike" tells you that you need to use different words to say the same thing, but the real problem is frequently that the dialogue focuses on the wrong aspect of what the characters are up to. To wit:

Last night I wrote a scene where two characters improvise a plan to rescue their companion from the bad guys. When I started, they said things like, "Hand me that [object]," and "Okay, here's the plan," and so forth. Lucky for me, I realized that this was stupid and boring and most of all, lazy.

So instead I left the description of what they were doing in the descriptive text, and kept it short. "Frank throws a wrench to Joe," that kind of thing. I rewrote the dialogue into (presumably) witty banter that was only obliquely related to what they were physically doing. As I recall they argued about whether or not they were doomed. Fun!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

To begin with...

Like all good screenwriters, I need a way to prevent myself from writing. Writing leads to madness, and so instead I have created a writing blog.

I've written five complete (which is Italian for bad) screenplays. The fifth is currently undergoing a complete, ground-up, atomic-level rewrite, that will hopefully make it less, er, complete, and more sellable (Italian for home ownership). However it is not so much currently undergoing a rewrite as it is sitting on the back burner while I work on an entirely different script. About a space pirate.

On the advice of a long-time screenwriter (Italian: house north of Montana) who is a friend of the family, I took a screenwriting class at UCLA Extension. I resisted the idea at first, seeing as how I've read every screenwriting book in creation, including -- put down the pitchforks -- Story, and figured that I'm probably past the point where book-learnin' would do me any good. (Italian: I am naïve.)

The class at first had a dozen people, all with varying levels of talent, writing experience, and involvement with the industry. By the end of the class, it was down to five or six die-hards. I speculate that the reason for this was that the class, the supposedly Basic Fundamental Introduction to Beginner Screenwriting 101, was 98% workshop and 2% book-learnin'.

The instructor was a screenwriter, in the neighborhood of 70, who cut his teeth on TV in the '60s. He professes that the best way to write is to just write. There was a lot of hemming and hawing over the details, but it boils down that your story is better when you know your characters well, and you can't really know your characters until you write them doing something. This of course hearks back to the standard outlining-versus-uh, not-outlining debate that flares up semimonthly on sites like Wordplayer, and are summed up by Terry Rossio's inimitable pith:
As we've discovered on this topic before, everybody outlines. Even people who say they don't outline, outline. Those writers who just sit down and bang out a first draft have simply found an incredibly slow and work-intensive way to outline.
Hard to argue with. Terry and Ted Elliott wrote Pirates of the Caribbean (and its impending sequels), which contain one of the most memorable and distinctive characters in cinematic history -- and they outline. However... just let me pull back this sheet... *whiff*

This is the Metaphor Cannon. It is a device designed to pound an idea into your skull until your ears bleed. This time, the Metaphor Cannon will be launching the idea of the writer's toolbox. I did not invent this idea, but I find it a useful tool -- a meta-metaphor, if you will, and if you won't, ALT-F4 -- for thinking about the writing process.

All writers have tools they use to write. I don't mean Final Draft on a Mac or a Mont Blanc on a legal pad; I mean mechanisms and techniques. And it seems to me that evangelizing the undeniable glory of outlining may, may, cause some writers to forgo another tool which is remarkably useful: A character exploration draft.

Big words! Hulk smash! Raar! I have a problem when I write in that my characters tend to be extremely realistic, which is Italian for boring. Real people do not run about tossing off witticisms à la Jack Sparrow. So as my first, largest step in writing a screenplay is laying out the story in excruciating detail, my characters tend to be boring. They do not do interesting, distinctive things. They do what the plot needs done; the plot drives them, not the other way 'round.

So once I work out the general bones of the story, I write some pages, usually from the beginning, trying to give these non-dimensional characters some depth and life. And after a while, I have some better idea of what the characters are "really" like, and how they'd respond to the situations in the story.

Then I go back to the story and start over, knowing that I've got Lively Characters A, B, and C who can now help drive the story by their lively, lovely actions.

Then I repeat this process until I go insane.

If you got this far, you are a special, special person. (Italian: Special Olympics.) The title of this blog refers to the third Snakes on a Plane film, which will be directed by someone who is currently directing Gap ads but will make a big splash next year with a kung-fu movie starring a rapper and an athlete. Said director will become sought-after by the studios despite his complete inability to tell a story, and Snakes on a Plane 3: Velociraptors on the Space Shuttle will feature only one of the original cast members, the one who wanted too much money to be in the sequel, but has since starred in several flopped romantic comedies/serial-killer detective dramas, and has learned how to properly season their crow. It will also star Steven Dorff and/or Skeet Ulrich.