Apr 7, 2011

In the Year 2000

The first MP3 that I remember downloading was Julian Lennon's "Too Late for Goodbyes." My gray NEC laptop could play it, sure, almost always without skipping, but it could do nothing else at the same time. The 1GB hard-drive eventually squeezed almost 25 other songs onto it, and that was about all it could hold.

Since I'm in the middle of moving from Van Nuys to Los Angeles, while simultaneously meeting with two different producers and writing two different screenplays, Keely stepped up and wrote a blog post about me for me. (She did not actually do that for me at all). And now I'm going to violate her copyright and use it as my own blog for this week.

click here

Mar 24, 2011

Contrivances and Rom-Coms

When you're writing a story, it's important to fulfill the promise of your premise. You need to fully explore your concept, you need to make every event spring from that central idea and enhance that concept. You can't get distracted or side-tracked. To maintain unity, you should always stick to your premise.

Except of course when you shouldn't.
The Ultralight
Some of the best comedies succeed by using a very light-weight, very natural premise. With very little plot to follow, it makes comic digressions and set-pieces easy to integrate. Nothing feels like a side-track if there's no main path. This freedom lets the characters lead the way, lets the comedy spring from common human thoughts and experiences.

A simple premise keeps the comedy grounded.

Christmas Vacation
Some successful examples might include The Hangover, Grown Upsor Christmas Vacation. There's also When Harry Met Sally. It has almost no plot whatsoever, but rather, a question - can men and women ever be friends? Bridget Jones's Diary is essentially about a woman living her life and keeping a diary (which cleverly puts that diary at the center of the story's resolution). The Odd Couple is about two divorced men who move in together.

These movies aren't universally good, but they all allow the story to focus on the characters and their relationships, instead of complicated plot mechanics.
The Jumbo Jet
But Hollywood loves a hook. Hollywood loves contrivance. Perhaps it started with Pretty Woman. Perhaps it goes all the way back to It Happened One Night. Hell, perhaps it goes back to Taming of the Shrew.

Particularly in romantic comedies, the stories too often spring from unlikely situations that pile on arbitrary rules to build artificial barriers and provide external goals for the players, all so the story needn't focus on those darn characters, their difficult-to-express internal lives, and their confusing relationships.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is about a bet - an intersecting pair of bets! Leap Year is about an obscure Irish tradition and an unlucky plane landing. Never Been Kissed is about a woman going undercover in high-school.

The Apartment
Don't get me wrong. There are movies with great hooks, with great contrivances, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, about a procedure that removes a memory, like the painful memory of an ex-lover. Or The Apartment, which is about a low-level office-worker who loans his apartment keys to his bosses so they have a place to take their floozies without their wives finding out. You might be surprised that I also admire 50 First Dates.

What makes these movies work is that by focusing on those unusual or even outlandish premises, somehow, naturally, universal truths emerge. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about how people take on a life of their own in our memories, about the way we play out the same roles in our relationships. The Apartment asks whether we are defined by our jobs or by the people we love, and what it means to be a mench, a human being. 50 First Dates is not only about the euphoria of falling in love for the first time, and what makes it happen, but about mental illness and chronic disease and the way that love and family can survive them.

But that's not always possible. It has to come when you cook the meat. Every offbeat premise doesn't necessarily have truth to offer, and you can't force it. That's the territory of blood and not getting it from stones.

Good Luck Chuck is about a repulsive guy who, if a woman sleeps with him, the next man she dates will ask her to marry him. The only "truth" exposed by focusing on that gimmick is the rotten chestnut that women will do anything to get married, and men will do anything to get laid. Does that feel like a surprising truth? Does that even feel true?

And not to pick on Dane Cook unfairly, but to pick on Dane Cook quite fairly - how about My Best Friend's Girl? It's about a repulsive guy who sells a service: he'll date your ex-girlfriend for you, and when she sees how awful Dane Cook is, she'll come running back to you. Is this how people work? If so, where? And why haven't we bombed that place?

Seriously, the best part.
How about Failure to Launch? It's about a woman who sells a service: she'll date your immature son who refuses to get his own place, and with her sexuality, she'll push him to leave the nest.

The more you focus on these premises, the further you get from relatable human behavior. They're good sketch premises, sure. But they're too elaborate to feel real when you crank them up to 90 minutes long.
The Bait and Switch
Hollywood recently offered us Just Go With It, a remake of a much better movie, Cactus Flower, which was based on a play, and featured a screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond, the writer of Some Like It Hot. Both Cactus Flower and Some Like It Hot have pretty elaborate, offbeat premises. In one, a dentist recruits his assistant to pretend to be his estranged wife, so he can divorce her and reassure his girlfriend of his honesty and moral-standing. In the other, two guys witness a mob murder and have to go into hiding as women in a band to avoid the mob.

Somehow, they work and Just Go With It does not. Why?

less sex, yet sexier
For one thing, I think Just GoWith It took a premise that was carefully contained in Cactus Flower, a premise that was kept low-key and modulated with care, and EXPLODED IT into HUGE HOLLYWOOD ZANNINESS. Cactus Flower works because it's small and fights hard to be plausible and human whenever possible - awkward dinners, difficult conversations. The characters are flawed but well-meaning. Meanwhile, Just Go With It is broad and big and silly. 

But that's not the only reason.

I think, more importantly, Just Go With It is too interested in the sham, and not interested enough in the people perpetrating the sham. Cactus Flower is about his assistant's sadness, and the dentist's blind fixation on this ditzy, well-meaning girlfriend of his. Just Go With It is interested in all the ways it can make this charade difficult and kooky. It's too much about its premise. And it didn't have to be.

An example? The Proposal is an imperfect but enjoyable movie. It works. Sure, it's full of contrivance. It has a hook that makes it easy to sell, a concept with a clear structure. The surface conflict is easy to explain. But how many people have agreed to marry their boss for a promotion, so she can stay in the country? How does The Proposal succeed where Just Go With It failed? It does it by bait and switch.

It starts off being about the deal the characters make, about the charade... but it becomes about the characters who are perpetrating the charade. It becomes about the boss's visit to her fake-fiance's family home.

I wish this were the real plot.
Stories that work despite their absurd premises do so by not focusing on the premise. The ones that work use the premise to hook the audience in, to give the audience a beginning and a sense of an ending that they're heading toward - but then those stories become about something relatable. The Proposal is about someone who feels proud and independent and strong who goes home to meet her boyfriend's parents and feels inferior and vulnerable and small. That's something most people feel at some time in their lives. That's something everyone can relate to on some level.

So, if your premise is contrived, if your hook is implausible - maybe it's best if you don't fulfill the promise of your premise...

Mar 14, 2011


Here's my story. I moved to Los Angeles in 2005.

On January 6th, 2005, I was in Las Vegas, taking down Christmas decorations from Caesar's Palace hallways and cypress trees (business, not pleasure). I took the Santa hat off of the mini statue of David's head.

Just as we were finishing up, I was offered a three-month internship at a small LA management company. (Let's give them the codename Dryad Management.) All I knew about the company was the address, and that's more than I knew about LA.

Dog in Rag TopDump was in Rhode Island. She and I had been waiting for this news. I got back to New Jersey on the night of the 10th and packed. Dump arrived in New Jersey on the 12th. And we started cross-country bright and early on the 13th, a caravan composed of my car and one U-Haul, with my parents, my brother, Dump, and my dog Baker.

After a few hundred miles, Baker crawled inside the lining of my convertible's top and only stuck his head out. This is how he opted to travel the bulk of the three day journey. (pictured) He has no regrets.

My roommate Dump had collected from online several potential apartments. We had a list to visit upon our Saturday arrival, but as it turns out, it wasn't much of a day.  We walked into our first appointment, and that was the last. That was the the same apartment where I'm presently writing these words. We never bothered to look at another. It was 5 miles from my internship, and like something out of  a dream.

It has a washer and dryer in the unit. It has a balcony, a big one. It has a fireplace. It has central heat and air-conditioning. It has two-car subterranean parking. Compared to my previous pre-War building in Harlem, which barely maintained electricity and which cost exactly the same per month, this was paradise. I had never lived so high on the hog. I was pretty much on the tippy-top of the hog.  THE WHOLE HOG. ME ON TOP.

Six years later, I'm still reluctant to leave it. But I have this dang job on the other side of the hill...

The thing about LA

Here's the thing about Los Angeles. If you want to live in Van Nuys or North Hollywood, on average, you'll need to get a job in Burbank or Sherman Oaks to afford it. If you want to live in Burbank or Sherman Oaks, you'll probably need to get a job in Santa Monica, Century City, or Culver City. Of course, if you want to live in Santa Monica, Century City, or Culver City, you'll need to get a job in Beverly Hills or Malibu. And if you want to live in Beverly Hills or Malibu, you'll need to be one of those people who don't need  a job.

This is why traffic sucks in Los Angeles. Almost no one can live anywhere near where they work.

Embarrassment of American Luxuries

mystreetAll the same, I'm trying to make this happen. I'm trying to move to Culver City, or Palms, or Century City, or even Santa Monica or West LA. They make a big U around my place of employment, which would  cut my commute time down from an hour or more each way to twenty minutes or less.

But here's what I know: there's absolutely no way I can afford a washer and dryer in the unit, with a balcony, and a fireplace, and central heat and air, and two-car subterranean parking, in a building that costs anywhere near what I paid in Harlem, which is what I've been paying in Van Nuys.

I mean, I recently got a raise. Not a huge one, but by shifting my budget around, and by reducing the amount I put in savings, and by adding the entirety of that raise to the pot, I'm increasing my housing budget by 80% per month. Yet, somehow, it's still a struggle to find anything anywhere near the business that pays me anywhere near as nice as my current pad.

Seems like a bad system, doesn't it? As a society, I mean?

But, it's time for a new start. It's time for fresh surroundings. It's time to break the routine and reinvigorate my brain. It's time to live with Beezie and her kitties. It's time to have an office. It's time to have friends over to a place that's ours, as a couple. That may mean vastly curtailing my savings for a few years. That may me sacrificing central air, or easy parking, or living space, or who knows what else.

But it's time. And when it's time, you better act.

Mar 8, 2011

Misleading Entertainment

Character Misleads. I want more.

I heard a great story on This American Life. A small-time Lawyer is trying to free an Innocent Man from prison. The Lawyer invites a paroled, convicted Murderer into his office (actually, his meager apartment home), so he can interview the Murderer and maybe learn something that might help exonerate the Innocent Man. You see, the Innocent Man is in prison for the same killing that the Murderer committed.

gangsta-suitWhen the Murderer arrives, he's dressed like a hip-hop star or perhaps a successful drug dealer, wearing in an extravagant suit, hair perfect, fingering a firearm, driving a Mercedes. He comes shouting up the stairs an hour early, "Yo! Where's the lawyer!" When interviewed, he boldly tells his tale, acting-out how he shot the man in the back of the head, using his pointer-finger on the back of the Lawyer's neck to demonstrate the way it was done.

But then -- when the Lawyer asks the Murderer why he let the Innocent Man do time for his crime, the Murderer begins, "I was only 15..." and a dam of regret and remorse busts open. The Murderer openly weeps. He is ashamed of what he did to the Innocent man. It eats him up inside. The Lawyer hugs him.

Out of nowhere, we're blind-sided with the Murderer's  humanity. We'd been lead down the garden path, made to believe that he was a crass, self-involved jerk. And sure, he very well may be a crass, self-involved jerk. But he's also a human being.

This is a great scene. I want this.

Paxton-Whitehead_10519This is something that Aaron Sorkin does frequently, particularly in The West Wing. He introduces characters, and then he leads us to dislike them, before finally pulling away the sheet and revealing a vulnerable human being. For example, the White House art curator Bernard Thatch is shown to be a snob. He mocks the President's taste in a work of art he selected for display, and even belittles CJ's clothing.

But then, when he later  meets the rightful owner of the same painting that he mocked, the daughter of a Holocaust victim, he is kind. He offers to continue hanging the painting at the White House -- to increase its value for her. He is shown to be good and selfless. And the fact that his true nature only showed itself in a meaningful situation makes the fact that he is good and selfless meaningful.

This switch makes it stick with us. Makes it resonate. Had he been polite from the start, there would be no depth, no sense of discovery. We'd quickly forget this stale, two-dimensional nice-guy. But we don't forget him, because he surprised us.

The question is: do we enjoy the reverse just as much? Do we enjoy seeing a charming person shown for their shallowness, selfishness,  and cruelty?

Are bad surprises just as engaging as good ones?

Mar 2, 2011

Paralyzed : Short Film

About six months ago, my pal (who will remain without-codename for this post) had an idea for a horror movie. He bounced ideas off me about how it might work as a short, and then he wrote a version. It was roughly 15 pages. I took it, gutted it, and made it 7 pages. 

Shortly thereafter, my Misplaced Planet pals came along and they filmed it. They'll also remain without-codenames for the moment, except Dump and Beezie, who were tragically cut from the final version.

This little short film faced some challenges, but in the end, it worked out pretty well. I can say, with a straight face and my head held high, all the good stuff is not mine.

Anyway. Enough ado. Here it is.

In other words -- Happy Halloween 2010 to you, month of March 2011.

Feb 28, 2011

More Codenames!

Giving my screenplays and associates codenames was so much fun, I've decided to continue assigning codenames to everyone in the blog. At this point, it's no longer to protect the innocent (In this case, I would be the innocent, and the protection would be from litigation).  Rather, it's just for fun.

This is my friend and current roommate Dump. We met in college, lived together briefly in Harlem, and then moved to Van Nuys in 2005. She is a partner in Misplaced Planet and is presently a Production Coordinator on a new TV pilot for Fox.

This is my girlfriend Beezie. We've been dating for about two years, and we're trying to move in togethere. We also met in college, but we weren't close at the time, and then we didn't see each other for about six years. Finally, we met up again out here in Los Angeles, I gave her a small role in Zaniness Ensues, and she continued to avoid me.

This is my dog Baker. He's a Fox Terrier. He was born on January 10th, 2003, which means he is 49 years old. His whole life, he has never held down a steady job. One night, circa 2003, I drove home from Princeton, having been unexpectedly dumped. Upon waking the next morning, I was greeted with a rejection letter from NYU. In response, I got a dog. He was the only terrier present, and he chewed on my mother's ring. So, I named him after a fictional dog in one of my screenplays, and now he's lying on the foot of my bed, needing a bath rather badly.

That will be all for now. More as needed.

Feb 25, 2011

I'm Half Naked Over Here

man_in_bathing_suitI've opened the window, and I'm making love to the world.

So to speak.

It's bikini season, boys, and though it took a lot of hard work and tedious preparation, I'm proud to say, I'm finally in shape. I'm going out shirtless.

Keep in mind, now, I'm not entirely naked.

Some of my best assets are hidden. I've assigned codenames to all my most attractive screenplays. Older and abandoned screenplays remain exposed, but if they get too much industry attention, too many ogling eyes, I'll cover those up too.

I've given pseudonyms to most of my good business associates, and removed references to most of my bad business associates. Real names are never used, except in the case of friends, family, and people that I own.

Similarly, I've taken down all the intimate details and scenes that I'd previously posted from my writing projects. In the future, I will probably continue to post details and draft scenes from new and ongoing projects, but I'll take those down too if the project ever goes to market.

As a result of this policy, some posts on this blog will have a short and unpredictable lifespan. Here's a tip: if it's a scene or a detailed discussion of a particular plot point, save it to your Zip brand storage drive. Otherwise, you might lose it forever. Like everything I ever saved on a Zip brand storage drive.

So what's left on the site?

I've keep a lot of deleted and abandoned scenes from my recent screenplays. I like them, they just didn't fit. And I'm going to keep sharing that sort of thing. In fact, I'm going to make a habit of digging up and posting an old or deleted scene on a regular basis. So there will be new, exclusive, fun stuff.

I also intend to take down my old website.  It hasn't been updated since 2003, so I don't expect too much public outcry.  I'm going to point that old wilderworks.com domain to this blog, instead. And, just for giggles, I'm going to post some of the more unusual items from that forgotten website (and other forgotten web treasures from my past) right here.

Starting with...