Thursday, August 30, 2007

Learning my place (until they pay me like a writer)

I am not a writer. I am a writers' assistant. Have to keep reminding myself of that.

One of the weird things about being a writer and working in a room with writers when you haven't been hired as a writer (can I say writer one more time in this sentence? yes I can...but I won't) is that it's hard to know what your place is.

And I don't mean that in a bad way. Not really. The guys I work for have been great. They're young, they're cool with having me in the room and just shooting the shit, and they seem open to (or at least not completely annoyed by) me blurting out ideas once in a while. I don't think I could ask for a better situation. That, in an odd way, brings its own problems.

Case in point: I had a great half-hour last Friday with one of the writers. R, the writer my bosses bring in to work with them, wasn't in at all that day. P left early because of personal stuff going on. It was just C and I.

I walked into the room after lunch to learn that P had left and just talked with C for a while. Eventually, I said something like, "Well, I'll let you get back to it unless you need me for something," and stood up to leave.

C started talking about a place in the script where they had been stuck and made changes. He wanted to see what I thought.

Awesome, I thought, as he gave me the new story beats. I told him I had issues with a few things, but overall liked the changes much better. We started getting deeper into the story and talking things out and it really seemed like we were going somewhere.

Then, naturally, his cell rang and I checked my voicemail while he was talking and blah blah blah, we had conflicting meetings...and then the day was basically over.

But it felt like I was actually a real writer working on something that was going to get made and made me want to do a little happy dance except that of course I would never do something like that because that's just silly. Right.

So I had happy feelings all weekend, and then Monday started slow with me at my desk most of the day. When I finally did get into the room, all of the wonderful changes (there were one or two, really) that C and I had made were gone. They'd gone back to the earlier beats and dropped everything we altered.

Ridiculously, I felt somehow betrayed. No one had asked my opinion before changing anything. And hadn't we both agreed that the other beats worked better?

I also felt stupid. He'd asked my opinion, I'd said that the other beats were far better, and now they'd gone back to the original ones. Would they think I was dumb? A bad writer? I'd backed the wrong horse and now would be a lowly failure, doomed to never get a writing job because I'd momentarily thought "Fine, fuck it" main character was better than "Try even harder" main character.

Eventually I regained my senses and came to a realization: they are not paying me to write, they are paying me to keep their schedule, keep the beat cards organized, take notes and look pretty. Probably with less emphasis on the last one. A lot less.

That does not mean that they don't value my opinion and/or want me to stop speaking up. All it means is that I probably should learn not to be as invested in whatever little ideas I come up with for this script, because--newsflash!--it's not my movie.

Awesome or Easy? I choose both.

Either Jul and I rock and are awesome or we entered a relatively easy (and cheap!) contest.

Both of our specs at least made their semi-finals:

CAPTURE FOOTBALL by John Digman - TV Series Premise
CRIMINAL MINDS: MOTHER, DEAREST by Lori Queirolo - Teleplay
CULINARY TRAVELS by Mariss Mickel - TV Series Premise
GEEKS: A LOVE STORY by Andrew Fisk - Screenplay
GILMORE GIRLS: THE TRIALS OF SISTERHOOD by Juliana Weiss & Josh Roessler - Teleplay
GOOD GENES by Ramona Taylor - Screenplay
NCIS: .892 MILES by Juliana Weiss & Josh Roessler - Teleplay
ONE PERFECT DAY by Andrew Fisk - Screenplay
SALES FORCE by Don Riemer - Screenplay
SHADES RUN: IN THE BEGINNING by Anthony Medina - Teleplay
SHE WHO WALKS WITH SPIRITS by Charro Wongittilin - Drawing
SHUFFLE UP AND DEAL by David Brummel - TV Series Premise
SLEEPING WATER by Gabiann Marin - Screenplay
STONE'S COMPASS by Ramona Taylor - Screenplay
SUICIDE PEAK by Rick Suttle - Novel
THE JACKAL LANTERN by Kenneth Kent - TV Series Premise
THE KNUCKLEBALLER by Mike Murphy - Screenplay
THE LIGHTHOUSE by Karen Power - Screenplay
TRUE DETECTIVE by Andrew Fisk - Screenplay
TWO EMPIRES by Harold Garner - Drawing
TWO EMPIRES by Harold Garner - Graphic Novel
WHITE LIGHT CAB CO. by Gabiann Marin - TV Series Premise
WHITE LIGHT CAB CO. PILOT by Gabiann Marin - Teleplay
WHY MEN LIE by Steve Harper & Ed Manfre - Screenplay

I added Jul's name here because they only allow you to use one name in their registration.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Animation Writing

My friend John posted a comment/question on my post from a few days ago about the "writers' room" where I spend far too little of my work day.

Here's my rehashed halfway version of his question because I'm too lazy to copy and paste it: "Most features don't have writing rooms. Are animation features written differently?"

Very good question, John/Josh. Please, please, please, do not take my word as gospel on this, and in fact I'd love to hear from someone who has more direct experience than I do...but in my very narrow and specific experience, yes and no. From what I've seen, animation features do have a credited writer or writers, same as live action features. Sometimes scripts come into our office "complete." Sometimes, an executive really latches onto a concept and will hire a writer to pen a draft. Either way, before any kind of production begins, there is a "finished" script.

Where animation differs, from what I've seen, is that there is a Story Department with Story Artists who sort of pitch ideas and "write" with the credited writers. I imagine this process as somewhat similar to a TV writing room. It's a bunch of people who are all thinking about the story and pitching ideas to make the movie structure work. These people in Story are not credited as writers and have no WGA rights or protection. They are not paid as writers. They receive no residuals. What they have instead, the studio argument goes, are benefits and job security. Credited writers, in contrast, are freelancers who work under a contract for a specific time period and agreed upon monetary compensation.

(As a side note, and feel free to check me on this, it's a bit pointless to say that people in Story aren't protected by the WGA, because from everything I've been told, animation itself is not covered by the WGA. If you write The Lion King or Shrek or Dora the Explorer, the Guild could give a rat's ass.)

Once the credited writer and the Story Department come up with something that's to everyone's liking, it goes to Storyboard Artists. In theory they're just creating panels for the already-completed story/script, but I'm sure that things change and evolve while the storyboards are being made. While this is going on, often dialogue is being recorded at the same time. Once again, I'm positive that when this happens, things get "rewritten." Now, some of this isn't so different from live action features, as I'm sure actors always put their own spin on lines and in the process of creating the movie, better (sometimes) ideas emerge that alter the original script. The difference is that in animation it's happening every step of the way.

Once there's a finished boarded version of the movie, it screens for executives. If they don't like it, the story is rewritten. But lets pretend they do like it. The movie then moves on to the actual animation stages where hundreds of individual artists model characters and locations and begin to animate actual sequences. Again (say it with me, now), while being animated, rewriting happens. Jokes are added and taken away. Certain things that worked on paper don't seem to work when animated. And so on and so forth.

(Note: At least so far, the production I work on seems to be a bit different, as the writers are writer/directors. They have brought in a writer friend to work with them to shape the story, and at times I've heard that they bring in other writer friends and pitch story ideas and jokes to each other, much like a TV sitcom room. They have not, however, had any people from Story in on the actual writing or plotting of the script.)

Anyway, that's the way it works as I've seen it, but like I said, I'd love to hear from anyone who has more direct experience than I do.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Pilot Reboot (and/or the return of the Dexter spec)

Months ago when Jul and I entered our pilot in PAGE, we paid the extra money for a few pages of notes. A while back we learned that we made the quarterfinals, then did not make the semifinals, and since then I'd kind of forgotten about the notes and PAGE in general. Which is basically a lot of set up to tell you that we finally got those few pages of notes emailed to us this weekend.

Notes are very interesting things. As a writer you always say you want them, and you sort of kind of do, because at the very least that means they read your work - or it makes it a lot easier to tell if they didn't read it. And notes during the first few drafts are extremely valuable. I would never recommend that a writer submit a script to a contest or (even worse) a professional contact until it's been read by several trusted people and revised.

But. To state the obvious, notes are never to be taken blindly. We were once given notes by a professional development guy who told us to shorten our one-hour pilot script from around 60 pages to 40-45. And though I'm sure most of you are already laughing or pulling at your hair and screeching, "What?!" I'll make this crystal clear for everyone else: No one-hour show, with the minutest of exceptions, would ever be 40-45 pages. Maybe, for some action-heavy shows, you might hover around 50, but that's pretty much the lowest I would ever attempt. Most shows are around 60 pages, and some super-talky shows are routinely around 70 (think Gilmore Girls). Our fairly talky dramatic-comedy clocked in at what I consider a respectable 65. So, to recap: Know your stuff before you implement any notes you're given.

The opposite happens as well. Some people have a knack for only really good notes. Sometimes they're big, sometimes small, but everything they say makes you wonder why the hell you didn't think of that. Over a year ago, Jul and I pretty much shelved an Earl spec because someone gave us an incredibly valid note that seemed too taxing to implement. I'd say we're lazy except that's really only half the reason; since then we've only written one-hour scripts, so going back and doing a sitcom when we really have no intention of writing for a sitcom seemed like a waste of time.

Then there are the in-between notes, which I think aptly describes what we received from PAGE. The person who wrote the notes didn't say this straight out, but pretty much seemed to be digging the script and loving the dialogue and characters...right up until they reached a point in our script where a controversial subject rears its head. This is a subject that immediately causes strong reactions, and I think that it made our reader shut down.

It probably sounds pretty presumptuous guessing at the reader's mindset, but the tone of the review completely changes after this subject comes up. Early on, our main character is described as uber-dorky, but also extremely likable. The dialogue and character interaction is praised. The mood and tone really hold things together. Etc, etc. Then, after the controversial subject comes up, not only does the plot fall apart, according to the reader, but apparently our main character is now too dorky from the get-go and our once-great secondary characters with great interaction and all, are not developed enough and so on and so forth. I'm not saying I couldn't be wrong, and I'm definitely acting protective of our script, but it really does seem like this one subject tore the whole structure down.

Not that I don't understand. I might have even done it myself, had someone else given me this script to read. And partially, that's why we used this controversial subject; without question, it is what has gotten the biggest reaction from everyone who has read the script, whether they loved it or had issues with it. In other words: It caught people's attention. Something that I think is pretty important since the show itself is pretty low concept and mostly character-driven. But still...

What the review has given us is food for thought: Now that several people have had a negative reaction to this one element, is it worth keeping it in to get attention?

I think it is. We've worked out a way to make the resolution a little clearer (I think), which will hopefully make it more palatable for those who take issue with the topic itself. Even better, I think we've found a way to keep the bite of the controversial subject in the story while just making the ending a tiny bit more conventional. I hope.

Interestingly, what the review did make us think is that maybe this story isn't what the first episode should be about. For now, we're just going to tweak it and keep it as-is, but we realized that we set up this conflict in the very beginning between three characters and then completely move away from that conflict because of the other plotlines. Boo! So now we're going to explore that conflict. Yay! Except that we don't yet have a plotline ready where the conflict can settle neatly onto it. Boo!

Rewrites make kittens cry (not to mention possibly kill trees, if you have to edit on actual paper).

So for now we're making the small change and moving back to our Dexter spec. We found a way to connect the two Dexter ideas we'd been playing around with a few months ago, and I'm a little more confident that it may actually go somewhere this time.

Fingers crossed.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Into the Room...sort of...

My job as a writers'/directors' assistant officially began this week. Huzzah and kudos.

And though the production I'm on is a feature and my writing partner and I are FAR more interested in television, one of many cool things about working with my bosses is that they come from TV--sitcoms, to be specific--and their writing room here works more like a TV writing room than most feature writing rooms. At least, I imagine it does. Do most features even have writing rooms? I have no idea.

Anyway, besides the obvious of bouncing ideas off of each other (yay for writing teams), they've seemed fine with me piping up with ideas every once in a while, and even have other TV writers who come in and work with them. Only one that I've actually interacted with so far, but I've heard tell of others popping in from time to time. The three main peeps I'll be working with for awhile are C, P and R, an acronym which I've sadly just discovered.

So it feels very much the way (once again) I IMAGINE a TV writing room feels while breaking the story. Awesome. Even sitting in the room is kind of cool even though I'm still kind of trying to figure out a balance between sitting quietly and taking notes, and obnoxiously interjecting ideas. Minus the obnoxious. Hopefully.

Mildly amusing anecdote: The first day in the room I sat and just typed as much as I could. I wasn't quite transcribing everything, but did try to get down all of the main points and ideas. After 15 minutes or so, R basically stopped me and told me I should just try to write down "The really good lines that we all seem to like and laugh at." I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. So I pretty much stopped typing. The lines and ideas they were tossing out kept changing and evolving, so it didn't seem like anything was permanent. Then, after maybe an hour (and after I'd written probably two or three more lines in total), R turned to me, mimed typing and said, "Write all of this down."

Buh-wha? But he said not to! Was I supposed to be writing everything? Were they going to be furious when they discovered that, instead of twelve pages of notes, I had roughly half a page?

So I wrote down what they were saying right then and read it back to make sure I'd gotten it correctly. And it was fine.

Hopefully.... They haven't asked for the notes yet....

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tagged...part deux

Yesterday I wrote 5 out of the 10 things about me that are Required by Blogging Law, as well as unrealistically tagging three people that I doubt will ever answer. Here are the other five things, followed by two more tags of people who maybe just might answer. Maybe.

Enjoy.

6. I can't ride a bike. Finally, a short and simple one. Tried it, didn't inhale, didn't like it.

7. R.I.P. working out. Growing up I always kind of toyed and teased myself with working out. I had a weight bench, a trampoline, once made myself a little high-stepping running course out on the balcony of my mom's apartment (you know, one of those things you always see foot(not fut)ball players running on in training camp, where they high-step into little rope squares?). But I never really kept up with it or got myself "in shape." In college I started running more and found I enjoyed it, and one summer I spent almost exclusively at the gym of our YMCA, but I never kept up with it and and HATED the gym. Until I lived in LA for a little over a year. I'd been working at my first true 9-5, Mon-Fri job (which in actuality I made into a 6a-2p job) and I was bored shitless. I wasn't writing. I only had two or three people I'd really call friends living here. In desperation, I joined a gym. And much to my surprise, I started going for two hours every day...and loving it. Not to mention looking so good that people came up to me asking if I was in movies and telling me I should be when I told them no. (Okay, actually it was one person and he was a middle-aged security guard at the Galleria, but it still felt good.)

This lasted for about three months, until I strained a muscle in my back. I waited two days, until it felt better, then returned to the gym. Stupid. Hurt myself further. So I waited again, and this time decided that I would do no lifting, only running. Okay, common sense is not my strong point, I admit it. By then end of the second day of running, my back was a huge, Jello-like mass of pain. So I stopped working out pretty much altogether. Eventually my back seemed better, but then I noticed a different problem: my back muscles were really, really tight. So tight that when I did try to do something like running, lifting or, you know, walking fast, there was pain. And because I'd now hurt myself so many times, there was also fear. Sigh. Over the past two years I've seen a regular doctor, a masseuse, a few physical therapists, an acupuncturist, and had an MRI done (twice, technically, because the first time they screwed up and MRI'd the wrong part of my back). They all tell me it's stress and tension, that I have to relax, which isn't so helpful with the actual relaxing part.

8. I think I could live without music. Don't get me wrong, I love music. For most of college my winamp was constantly playing in the background. I sang in school choirs from grade school through college. I once was embarrassed by a girlfriend when I sang to her over the phone and she put me on speakerphone for all of her coworkers. She was a keeper. And it was more embarrassing because I'm pretty sure it was a song from Aladdin, and probably not the one you're thinking of.

But I don't love music the way other people I know love it. I typically can't name bands and don't know song titles when I hear songs playing. I don't go to concerts and don't really have much interest in them (seriously, I can think of two that I've been to in my life). My car right now has a radio and a tape deck, and all I listen to since my ipod was stolen is NPR. And I'm okay with that. Tangent: anyone else actually like listening to the membership drives on KCRW? I find them oddly addictive. Plus, there's so much cool stuff I could be overpaying for. (Note: I am an intermittent KCRW member, and it's not really overpaying when you're donating. Duh.)

9. I'm seriously addicted to hot wings. It's sad, and I blame college, especially my last year and a half. Even now I just started thinking about the sauce and I swear my mouth began watering. So deliciously evil....mmmmm. One day I will die of hardened arteries and Jul will kill me.

10. The tone of my writing changes with the medium. At least that's my theory. And I'm not sure that "medium" is exactly what I mean, but... In prose (short stories, etc) I tend to write stories and characters and explore themes that are dark and depressing. In scripts (TV, film, plays) the stories tend to end more happily, the characters are sillier, geekier and make more jokes and in general things are just lighter. It makes me think of a throwaway note, Dave, my favorite college professor, gave me when I completely rewrote a story to change my two main characters from a heterosexual couple to a gay couple: "There's still nothing distinctive about the relationship, but now that they're a gay couple and have longer names I kind of like that about it." I'm paraphrasing, but that was the general idea. I had actually changed the names from something like Pete and Sam (lets pretend that's for Samantha) to Peter and Samuel. Because clearly, all gay men use their full names. It just made me realize that I had done a mental shift without even realizing it...kind of the way I think I do when shifting from prose to script writing. Weird, but then, so am I.

Yay. I successfully squeezed two entries out of this. Noice.

And now I'm calling you out:

4. Michael Sullivan.
5. Emmett Furey.


As a bonus, I know that one or both of you probably have the contact information for at least one of the people I tagged yesterday who doesn't know I exist, so if you could get a response from him :)

Tagged...Sigh

Well, it's happened. I've been personally tagged. And while I am normally the type of person who would shy away from this challenge, the simple truth is that I haven't had much to write about lately, so, why not.

Apparently somewhere along the line 7 Things became 10 Things. Who am I to argue?

This list, because it became longer than I expected, will just be the first 5. You'll have to wait in eager anticipation for 6-10 tomorrow.

1. I was too afraid to light a match until I was 9 or 10. But after I lit that first one, I became something of a firebug for awhile. I soaked things in alcohol, lit them and closed them in jars (learning a lesson in the process--glass shatters when it reaches a certain temperature); I poured colognes and perfumes onto our cement floor and created little trails of flame; and I even did the whole fireball thing using cologne/deodorant sprays. I was quite bored and lonely.

2. My mom was burned pretty badly in a fire when I was 4, which explains the whole not-able-to-light-matches thing. This one isn't exactly a secret (I've willingly told plenty of people, but it's not like I open conversations with it), and it isn't technically about me (other than the fact that I ran in and saw her burning and had to get the neighbors to call for help), but I think it counts. Go on, try to argue with the little kid who saw his mom burning. I dare you.

3. I made myself vomit before it was cool to do so. When I was younger, I lied and tricked my way out of a lot of days of school, and one of my tricks was the old finger down the throat. I know I'm not unique in doing this, but when I say a lot I mean a lot. Up until my senior year of high school, it was pretty typical for me to miss 20 days every year (20 days being the absolute highest number of sick absences you could have without failing). And, duh, of course I don't really think bulimia is cool. Bulimia was only cool back in Rome when the vomitoriums were in.

4. If my writing partner and I ever part ways, I fully expect her to make it...but I won't. Aww, I'm so warm and fuzzy. But not really. I've always been a good writer, but crafting a story? Not so much. I worked on drafts of a pilot for 3 years before Juliana came along and actually helped me create a plot. I'm shitacular at it. Getting a little better, but still shitacular. Also, in those 3 years I was writing and rewriting my pilot, guess how many specs I wrote. Zero. All I had were a couple of extremely sketchy ideas for Lost and The Simpsons. Yes, I seriously thought about speccing an 18-year-old show.

Don't get me wrong. I'm damn good, and I've definitely made Jul better and improved work that she's done. But by far she is smarter, more driven and has more marketable ideas. And, mostly, I can far too easily see myself giving up and just sitting on my ass in depressed, lazy complacency. I can't ever imagine her doing that.

5. I hate losing and am a big baby when I do. Seriously. I know it's completely immature and a good excuse not to do anything, but, well, it's probably a big part of why I just don't do a lot. Riding a bike: probably got pissed that I kept falling and stopped trying. Sports: same deal. I vividly remember playing Four Square when I was 8 or 9 and viciously spiking the ball into the face of one of my friends when I lost. Naturally I tried to play it off as a joke, but... Yeah, I'm a baby. Jul sometimes doesn't want to play games with me because I'm such a bitch when I'm losing that she says it isn't fun. I don't mean to get pissed, I just ... don't like losing. Sigh. It's something I'm working on.

The last 5 things will come tomorrow. Until then, I'm creating an unrealistic tag list. These are the people I'd love to see respond, but can't really imagine they'll do it, partially because they probably won't even know I've tagged them.

My unrealistic tags:

1. Dave Kajganich - because 5 classes just wasn't enough. This one will make more sense tomorrow, when I post my bottom 5, and thus probably isn't fair to put here, but it's my list, dammit.
2. Brian K. Vaughan - because he's always interesting and amusing and kind of a god. Kind of.
3. Tao Lin - because I had never heard of him until I was hiding from my family last week in a book store and just happened to pick up one of his books because he's next to Jeff Lindsay (Dexter novel writer) on the shelf. Oh, and he's sort of disturbingly awesome.

I'm holding back on the last two because they're people I know who may actually respond, and this is supposed to be an unrealistic list.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Random Dispatches

Just some bits of randomness to fill a few minutes of your day and mine...

David Anders will be playing Kensei in Heroes this fall. What? Maybe they'll go the offensive route like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.




Anyone else starting to wonder if Mad Men's front and center "look-we're-in-the-'50s" sexual politics are going to start adding up to something thematically interesting? (i.e. more than just window dressing) I'm drawn to the show and find it quite interesting, but so far it seems like they're continually drawing our attention to how openly awful women were treated without actually saying anything about it. And, yes, I know the show takes place in 1960, but for all intents and purposes it's still very '50s.

Is it me or does Burn Notice just get better every week? I wasn't completely sold on the pilot, but since then the show seems to have found its rhythm and I'm really liking it. One request: More Chin!

Since it seems like the first season of Damages will deal with how Ellen is ultimately betrayed by Patty and/or Arthur, I'm actually more interested to see what the second season will be about than I am to unravel the current mystery. Then again, this is a show that prides itself on constantly twisting and retwisting audience expectations, methinks, so I could very well be wrong about the big first season conflict.

How's Greek? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Oh, and I have to link to this. Who needs CGI?