Script Notes

As a script contest reader, I see the whole gamut from utter crap to sparks of brilliance. There are some writers I want to grab by the collar and say “please, delete your copy of Final Draft and do the world a favor by never writing again.” There are others whose hands I’d like to shake and marvel “how are you not already a major writer?” Most are somewhere in the middle, trying their best, doing a fair to middling job, and could do better.

As many how-to books and screenwriting gurus will tell you, there is a science to the art of screenwriting. There are rules, there are best practices, there are structures. This should make judging screenwriting a fairly scientific and objective process. And yet. I’ve fallen in love with scripts that had original premises, well-crafted humor and strong protagonists only to find a fellow judge gave the same script a barely passing score. I’ve read for producers who’ve gleefully handed me their latest gem and been astonished anyone could find a filmable story in the haphazard pages. Most pointedly, a veteran writer friend recently shared that she got her big break when she won a prestigious contest. On the same day, she heard from another contest that the very same script was not advancing past the first round.

So who is right? Everyone and no one. As scientific as we make our rubrics, a good script is still all about striking a chord with an audience. In this case a reader, then hopefully an executive and with any luck an actual, theater-going audience (and maybe with the Academy for those rare few).

My point is this: do your best to learn everything you can about the science of screenwriting (for it is a science before it is an art). Surround yourself with trusted readers (or enter contests) where you will get brutally honest critiques as they are the only ones worth anything. Be brutally honest with yourself on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Work on developing your craft. Rewrite and, for the love of god, proofread the heck out of your script. And then, if you’ve done all of this, know that any scores your work garners, good or bad, are purely subjective and from people who’ve worked as hard (if not harder) than you to be in a position to say so. The key is getting it in front of the right eyes, taking the notes and trying again tomorrow. If you’ve put in the work and the script really is as good as you think it is, it’s just a matter of finding the right reader.

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In Production

For the first time in our short production company’s life, we’ve been working on larger projects that are under someone else’s auspices. It’s both thrilling and frustrating.

We’ve shot some of the best footage we’ve ever done with incredible sets, locations and actors. We’ve upped our production game playing with new lighting styles and more advanced camera equipment with beautiful results. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with this client. And because it’s a bigger client, we’re part of a production team that is shooting components in the UK and Miami as well as here in LA. This means we don’t simply get to finish our edit and share it with the world when the artist signs off. We must wait until each team member does their part and we feed into the larger whole. I can’t wait to share this project and our part in it with you!

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Music For The Masses

As a surly outcast teen, I hated everyone and everything that wasn’t “my music.” In those pre-Nirvana days before alternative went mainstream, we defined ourselves by our music taste. We self-selected into tribes based on favorite bands. A serious topic of discussion was whether or not you could consider dating or even being friends with members of another tribe. Depeche Mode, The Grateful Dead and Bobby Brown did NOT mix. Nor did their fans eat at the same lunch tables.

This belief system was reinforced during my college radio DJ days when we pitted ourselves against the big station behemoths like KROQ who played “the hottest new song” sometimes a year after we’d been spinning it. We considered ourselves the vanguard, the tastemakers, the music cognoscenti. Woe to he who cited a major corporate rock band as his favorite for much eye-rolling derision would follow. He’d never get it. He’d never be one of us, the poor sap.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve relaxed and even learned to embrace the music I once would have decried as derivative corporate pabulum. In fact my Christmas card these days consists of a CD-and-witty-liner-notes compendium of what I consider to be the best cheesy pop of the year and why. (All these years later, I’m still making mix tapes. My music snobbery may have relaxed and matured but the framework is still there.)

In my new life as a music video director I’ve had the good fortune to get to know many wonderful and talented musicians. As the authors of the creations to which we were so devoted, I had long assumed musicians would be even more “my tribe and your tribe don’t mix” than regular music snobs. Instead, I’ve found myself humbled by their openness. Sure, they value craftsmanship and taste. But they are first and foremost lovers of Music with a capital M.

After a recent magical day shooting in the Mojave with a new client, we settled in for the long drive home to LA. I should mention these guys are Progressive Rock artists, a genre I’ve long been intimidated by with its creators who are often highly trained and musically educated. We took turns DJing for each other off our iPhone playlists. The guitarist would play something which would remind me of something which would remind the singer of something and so we’d go. I was tentative at first, afraid my selections would be beneath them. I started with some indie rock, moved into Brit pop and finally ventured into an a cappella Malaysian siren song. They loved it. They commented on specific aspects of the songs, asked me if I knew the drummer to a friend’s track, bounced and nodded excitedly when a track really clicked for them. It was not about the genre. It was simply about good music. All those carefully cultivated and defended tribal lines of my youth have simply vanished; no longer of service. It was freeing, unifying. It was grown-up. I hid my sad whiff of nostalgia for indulging in a little music fan holier-than-thou-ness.

“You’ve got great music taste,” the singer remarked as we neared the engulfing lights of LA.  Well, yes, I agreed, thrilled by the compliment. Music genres and their fans may have all blurred into one tribe:  sometimes pop-filled, sometimes artist-driven, but defined by quality musicianship, writing or production (hopefully all three). And I may have become a kinder, gentler, more inclusively-minded music fan thanks to my musician friends. But my surly-teen music-snob heart finds solace in the fact that there is one music fan subset I can still deride: the tasteless. And with the wonderful subjectivity that is all art, I get to decide who they are.

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Meanwhile, On Another Channel

Our fourth video in our year-end shoot marathon could not have been more different in every way; theme, setting, equipment, approach.  Where our Rocket Scientist videos are structured and meticulously laid out (see my Reel tab), our shoots for Ted Wulfers reflects the laid back, beachy nature of his latest album. Not to say there is not plenty of structure behind the scenes. We had come up with the concept for Ted’s latest song two months ahead of time and I had been steadily gathering props, costumes and supplies, testing paints for effects and coming up with a look in collaboration with our model, the radiant Stacy Sellers.

Naturally, the optimal shoot day for Ted and crew was the day after the Rocket Scientist three video marathon weekend. But because I’d done so much prep and I knew the day would be easy going because that’s how Ted is. I was able to relax and enjoy (read: not totally panic).

We drove out to a Malibu beach to catch the golden light of a mid-winter afternoon and things came together better than I could have imagined. My partner had pared his equipment down to a mobile single backpack so we were very unobtrusive on the beach. The model turned on her special inner light and we filmed her frolicking on the beach. As whales spouted and pelicans swooped behind her, it was all more beautiful than we could have imagined.

Then we shot Ted playing, grinning and strumming in the waves. In the footage you can see that he genuinely wants you to enjoy that beautiful day as much as we did. It helps so much to have a client who is willing to trust our vision and be open to play. Despite the December sea, Ted was willing to throw himself, fully clothed, into the waves as the sun set.

The hardest thing about this edit will be narrowing down all the lovely footage we got. And I’m still sure there will be stuff we wish we had shot. There’s always another day, another beach, another song.

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Putting Your Writing First

In case you haven’t seen, PageCraft has posted many 2015 screenwriting retreats and workshops. The first one is a “Break Your Story” weekend focused on screenplay structure. Personally, structure is the biggest stumbling block for me so I’m always thrilled to have input in getting a solid story outline together. I highly recommend this retreat weekend in Malibu (Jan 30, 31, Feb 1) lead by UCLA instructor Nicholas Griffin (Matchstick Men) and featuring guest speaker Neil Landau (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap). Enrollment closes on the 15th of January so don’t wait too long. Having a solid start to a new story is a great way to begin a new year!

Got a meeting coming up? There is a “Pitch Your Story” workshop in February led by Nerdist Writers Panel: Comics Edition podcast host Heath Corson (Justice League: War, Batman: Assault on Arkham) geared toward helping you craft a pitch that will get your story sold the next time you get into a room.

Then of course there are the big ones: the retreats in Italy. This is why we do this. Time to write. Away from real life. I always mean to get so much done all the time but it never really happens until I get to Orvieto every summer. One year, I was so on that I finished a draft of a novel and outlined and wrote a 1-hour drama pilot there. This is the best gift you can give yourself as a writer. There is the two-week workshop in the hill town of Orvieto led by Heath Corson, or a less structured one-week writers residency in a country villa led by Nanou Matteson (Sparklight Films). Do this for yourself and your pages.

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While I’ve Been Away (and Why)

If I’m going to have a gap in blog posting, I suppose incessant production is a good reason to have one. My partner and I had been speaking with several of our favorite band clients on several video projects for a while. It just so happened they all came together at the same time.

In December, we shot four videos over three days for two bands. We took one day off which I spent sleeping and largely unconscious and then sprang into an edit so the client could meet an industry deadline they were gunning for. It was a ton of work – but fun work – and the only thing that saved me was the weeks of planning and thinking through various scenarios that I’d done. I was well prepared.

For the Rocket Scientists we’ve already shot a video for their track “She’s Getting Hysterical.” I’m proud of that one. They came to me with a song that could sound like it had a “bitches be crazy” theme. In fact it’s about a beloved dog who becomes agitated as she dies. I decided to flip the first perception on its head and make the video story about a girl who thinks she’s in a great relationship with a controlling, angry man. Her sisters know better and when she learns she’s worth more and dumps the guy (who kept accusing her of getting hysterical while she was perfectly calm) the girls all celebrate with a good old fashioned ‘hot girls dance with the band’ interlude. After all, I can only take video feminism so far!

For this video, “It’s Over,” the song is about a father’s frustration in lack of connection with his teen daughter thanks to smart phones and social media. As the video came together and pushed forward unexpectedly, I found myself house-sitting in a friend’s gorgeous Hollywood bungalow outfitted in her signature flowers-and-lace granny style. In true indie filmmaker style, I made the most of the resources at hand. I got my friend’s permission to shoot (see also: my short Hugo which was shot in her previous house) and told the guys the video story was this: Granny has died and her son, a father himself, brings his teen daughter with him to help mourn Granny’s passing and connect with her. The kid’s absorbed in her phone and they fight but what he doesn’t see until later is that she is mourning in her own way: posting about all the great stuff she’s learning about her grandma.

We knocked out the performance parts of the song early (full band, two shots, close ups of each member, cutaways) so that when the actress playing the daughter (my beautiful and talented friend, Niki Black) arrived, we could jump straight into the story between her and the singer/dad. That was the song we edited after a day of rest and have posted. Thanks to generous and hard-working friends, the whole thing was as smooth as possible. And I learned the lesson that always is there to be learned: there is no such thing as too much coverage. And my other favorite lesson: if you’re flexible and creative, you can come up with an alternate edit when a story point that’s too close to home needs to be changed. Flexibility and Creativity are definitely the two oars of the indie filmmaker’s boat.

We spent the rest of the weekend shooting the performance sections of two more videos. One set-up featured band members in the Spanish archways of my friend’s front yard. The second featured the band in the lush setting of the back yard garden filled with ornate lanterns. We’ll be shooting the story part of that one this weekend and I look forward to sharing it with you!

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Taking Notes

One of the trickiest parts of being a writer is taking notes–not as in writing down a speaker’s words, as in absorbing and processing critiques. Notes are often not what we want to hear, and, depending on the source, can be downright insulting. The thing is ALL notes have value to your writing.

While it’s important for our sanity to be able to mentally dismiss notes from clueless sources, the thing to realize is: they’re bumping on that point for a reason. Maybe their suggestion of changing the main character to a monkey is misguided, but it means there is something about the main character that they’re struggling with. As vindicating as it can be to discard such notes at the ravings of an ignorant idiot–believe me, you will want to–the value is in looking for the note behind the note.

Monkeys may not be the best solution–or they might be awesome–but to turn that annoying note into a valuable note, look for why this person thought monkeys were a good idea. What might be missing in your main character’s dialog, way of being, actions, choices that made him think “what this needs is monkeys.” Because I guarantee you: if this person bumped on it, others will too.

Without bringing too much “they just don’t understand me” judgment to notes, it’s important to consider the source–and find sources you respect. But also learn to respect notes from sources you wouldn’t choose but have to accept…like the exec who might be able to forward your idea to her boss.

As much as notes can be hard to hear, we have to learn to listen. We recently worked with a writer who had experienced a fair measure of success in other writing fields and came to screenwriting with a cavalier “how hard can this be?” attitude. The answer: much harder than you think. This writer dug their heels in and became unwilling to accept any notes other than “it’s great” despite the fact that the protagonist’s motivations made no sense and goals were non-existent. As writing coaches, we only ever give notes to help. I think most people do. We don’t gain anything by making you feel bad. It may be hard to hear but if you can develop a facility for hearing the harshest notes, you will only grow as a writer. This requires setting the ego aside and that can be a big challenge…especially for those who think they should be great at this on the first try. Personally, I spent a decade getting humbled before I felt confident of my pages and even now the humbling never stops.

Of course, there are times rejecting the note is truly best. I was once working on a story that had a redemption arc in it for the main character and her best friend. We got notes from a reader that we should cut that storyline all together; they hated it and didn’t want to read it in the pages. It turned out that it reminded them of a very personal experience from their childhood and had nothing to do with the quality of the storyline. We chose to keep that because it was pivotal and revealing for the characters. When possible, exploring and clarifying a note with a reader can be invaluable.

You must develop a nose for separating the wheat from chaff…as well as appreciating the chaff without having to eat it. Most of the writers I know who’ve been doing this for a while have learned to crave the tear-down. Your mom will tell you it’s great. That doesn’t forward your work. Look for colleagues and trusted readers who will find the holes in plot, character motivation, and dialog and tear them apart. And learn to embrace the destruction. Ultimately it will make your plot, your characters and your story stronger. And stronger sells.

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New and Improved

Since 2008, my husband and I have been taking writers to Italy with amazingly accomplished instructors to get away from our daily distractions and focus on some serious writing. It went so well that first year that we realized we could make a business out of it. We set up yearly retreats in a family friend’s Tuscan villa – Villa Michelangelo – and called ourselves Michelangelo Screenwriting in tribute to that bucolic setting. As a kid who dreamed of living an Italian ex-pat life but loves California too much to leave, it was the perfect solution.

Over the years, we expanded and outgrew our beloved villa. We moved to a convent in the spectacular hill town of Orvieto. Then, for 2015, we launched domestic offerings. Recognizing that not everyone can afford to jaunt to Italy for two weeks, we thought giving bite-sized pieces of our larger workshop in convenient LA settings was the next thing to do.

With each step further from the villa, the name Michelangelo Screenwriting made less and less sense. To those who didn’t know our origin story, it sounded pretentious and overreaching even though it was not meant as a reference to the Renaissance artist. Or ninja turtle. Also, it was also a mouthful.

After much deliberation we’re proud to launch PageCraft offering screenwriting retreats, workshops, and script consultations. One of the unexpected joys of all this is the community of writers we’ve slowly grown. Now that we can reach Angelinos at home, I’m looking forward to growing our community even more… starting with a Break Your Story weekend this January in Malibu.

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The saying goes something like: find what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s been an incredible summer of love then. Since June my various creative partners and I have:

  • Wrapped, edited and released our first music video
  • Finished our second which is days away from release
  • Wrapped our third for which we are between rough assembly and first draft edit
  • Completed three drafts each on two features for a production company
  • Shot and edited two episodes of a reality show
  • Run a creativity-packed writing retreat in Italy
  • Planned 2015’s writing retreats and classes
  • Nearly completed a branding relaunch for said class offerings

I’m not trying to swagger about all this. Rather I’m delighted and thankful I’ve had the freedom to do it. As the seasons shift and most have a back-to-school, back-to-work mindset, I feel like a kid running down the dock at a lake house. What’s next for my creative game? The only thing to do is leap out over the green water and see.

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The I in Team

No one does this alone. The importance of creating a great team, surrounding yourself with trustworthy, talented, dedicated people cannot be overstated. And it’s not easy. Anyone will tell you Hollywood is full of BS artists, liars and opportunists. Good people are here too. Finding the gems takes some digging and in some cases, blasting through mountains with dynamite. After a few false starts and heartbreaks, I feel I’m getting there.

I have a wonderful, hard-working, unflappable creative partner who serves as the camera op, editor and counterbalance to my planned-yet-seat-of-my-pants shoot style. I have an amazing writing partner whose laser focus with story and structure bolsters my ear for dialog and emotional content. I have an incredibly prolific writer friend who keeps me accountable and writing on a schedule while providing a sounding board for life in general and keeping me grounded. I have music people whose work I admire, creative souls who trust their amorphous babies to me for shaping and execution, and (sadly?) of equal or greater importance, a lawyer I trust implicitly.

I would be nowhere without their amazing help and support.

The lessons I have learned in my Tinseltown Team Building is:

  • Trust slowly, don’t give your creative heart because someone is willing to work with you.
  • There are a million (fill-in the blank)s in this town, if this one doesn’t work out, you’ll find a more talented/more trustworthy one next week – let go!
  • Sometimes the quality of the human matters more than the quality of their work – you can get there together.
  • Be your word. Show up when you said you would, do what you said you’d do. Don’t be another LA flake.
  • Be in communication about what you said you’d do. Everyone is so busy, lots gets lost. Even if you think you’ve said it, even if you think they heard it, say it again, be clear.
  • Look for the fun. My sets are fun places to be and work. They are open spaces for creativity and collaboration. There’s no point to this if it’s not fun.
  • No one gets anywhere alone. You got helped. Help someone else up. There is not a scarcity of awesomeness for us to share. Don’t be a dick. Help.
  • Embrace that you’ll always have more to learn. You’ll never know it all so don’t act like you do or feel like a failure if you don’t. Come to projects with a spirit of curiosity, learning and a willingness to take feedback and constructive criticism.

 As a chronic I-can-do-it-myself-er, team building has been a challenge and a worthy one. I’m reminded everyday that sort of like the Velveteen Rabbit, team makes you real.  

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