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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Movie Week

Most of my time is spent on movie-related activities in general, but this week even more so. A brief catch-up.

This week, in addition to my regular reading work, I am finishing my first-draft treatment for what I'm currently calling the Untitled Safari Picture. I kind of like the anachronistic feel of referring to it as a "picture," imagining myself meeting the needs of some cigar-chomping 1950s producer who is looking to fill a niche in his schedule, alongside the wrestling picture and the war picture. And by using the "Untitled" in the working title, I also feel like those prolific pros who crank out material. I've always loved the way the trades talk about the Woody Allen Fall 2007 Project or whatever. (That, and I've still not come up with a title that I'm satisfied with.)

Regarding the treatment itself, I'm relatively pleased, but also finding that I really have my work cut out for me. While I've done a lot of research, I still don't feel quite comfortable with the logistics of the world (which is also the impetus for the planned research trip to Botswana). And I also think I might have been trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. So while I'm awaiting notes back from the producer on the treatment, I'm planning to continue working on it on my own, simplifying, clarifying, fixing, etc. Though I still don't feel like it's going to be really great until after my research trip.

On another note, I had a nice lunch yesterday with "Scoopy" from Hollywood Fun Camp. To protect Scoopy's well-practiced anonymity, I will give no specifics about him/her. But I always enjoy meeting other members of the Scribosphere and "talking shop." The community-building aspects of having a blog has always been one of my favorite unexpected pleasures of this little endeavor. Scoopy and I discussed the ins and outs of the business (including the specifics of the person and company that s/he works for), the ups and downs of struggling to write screenplays while also trying to make a living, and the benefits/drawbacks to life in LA (outside of the screenwriting-specific) compared with some other cities. Nice.

But what is really making this into a "Movie Week" for me is that I'm watching more movies in the theater than I can remember in any single week in a long time.

Started yesterday evening with a CS preview screening of the new Ethan Hawke movie, The Hottest State. He wrote the novel, and then adapted it into a screenplay and directed the film. he also has a small but somewhat important role in the film. Now this is not the type of movie I'd typically go see -- a small, character-driven, indie relationship drama. But I just have to say that I really liked this movie. Lots of great realistic moments, interesting and believable characters, solid acting, good attention to theme (which is sometimes lacking in a less plot-driven film), and enough of a plot to make it not a purely character movie. I definitely recommend it, especially if you are someone who likes this sort of movie in general. But even if not.

From that screening, I jetted over to Century City to see the midnight screening of Live Free or Die Hard. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. All the great (albeit somewhat cartoonish) action we expect from such films, at least two or three applause-worthy awesome cheer-at-the-screen moments, a fun plot, and good acting (for this genre). Timothy Olyphant was great as the villain, and had a few true acting moments in addition to all the traditional bad-guy posturing. And though a few of the setpiece scenes are so unbelievable as to have strayed a bit far from the original Die Hard's roots, they work perfectly fine in this movie where McClane has become something bordering on a superhero. Plus, there was something special about virtually passing under the shadow of Nakatomi Plaza while on my way to the movie.

The movie-watching continues tonight with another free CS screening, this time of the new Australian comedy Introducing the Dwights. I have a +1 still available on that one, so if anyone is interested in joining, email me.

Then finally, tomorrow night I'm hoping to head over to the new Landmark theater at Westside Pavilion. Back in the fall, I met Jeremy Kasten at the HDFest, where we were both judges. Back then we had a brief but entertaining conversation about horror films in general, and about his recent remake of the 1970 Herschell Gordon Lewis "classic" The Wizard of Gore. Well, Jeremy's remake will be having a screening on Thursday night. If anyone feels like coming to that as well, let me know!

So yeah, four movies in three nights, and only two that I have to pay to see. Good stuff!

(Update: Too much work to do, so I don't think I'll be attending the Dwights screening tonight. Still, lots of good movies this week, even without it.)

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

How's Our Service?

Okay, so this short is apparently a few years old (2005 according to IMDB), but I just came across it now, and I think it is hilarious. 5 minutes long, a good concept, real act structure, good genre blending, and solid comedy. This is how you write a short, ladies and gentlemen! Well done, Jeremy Saville!

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Hear Your Script

Okay, so Alex beat me to it on this one, but what else would you expect from someone who posts 2-3 times a day on average!

Anyway, there's a new service out there called iScript. Interesting. For $175 they will have a professional voiceover actor read your screenplay, record it professionally, and send you an MP3. And as part of a launch promo, you can also get a CD of the file or a flash drive with it preloaded. They just offered me a sample to try it out.

I sent them the first draft of Hell on Wheels, even though it is only a first draft. I'm a big fan of hearing a screenplay read as a tool to help identify flaws or weaknesses. Sure, Final Draft has a built in feature, but that electronic voice gets annoying quickly, and doesn't really get the proper inflections. I think the best option, of course, is to have a staged reading with a number of actors, preferably reading it cold (i.e. seeing the script for the first time). And you can record this if you like.

But the iScript option is still a very good one. First of all, let me specify that it is not the same as a staged reading. You don't get multiple readers for different characters. There isn't even a lot of acting out the emotions, though there is definitely some of that. Think of it more as a book-on-tape version (though of course, those things are rarely on tape anymore). One reader (your choice of male or female) reading the script, including slug lines and action descriptions.

I chose a male voice, and he did a pretty good job. I definitely got some good ideas just listening to the full reading, that I hadn't had before, just by reading it through myself. And he did alter his voice somewhat for different characters, which helped.

On the "room for improvement" side, there were some errors in the reading. A few mispronounced words, and some parts which were read a bit too fast, and faster than the rest, making it feel rushed. But I think these things could improve with a slightly longer turnaround time. Currently, they promise a 2-business-day turnaround time. I think the product could be better with more of a 4-5 business day turnaround. Most writers shouldn't mind the extra few days, and if so, they can offer the 2-day rush at a premium.

Another option for a "premium" addition might be to have 2 or more readers. Perhaps just one male and one female. But I don't think this is the end of the world. However, in a romantic comedy type of script, for example, the single reader could be more of an issue. Hard to show the chemistry.

Okay, so what about the price? $175 ain't cheap, is it? And you might say, well I could just do it myself with a recorder. Well, on that I'll say that it is a lot of money, but I think it is worth it overall. Yes, you could do it yourself, but it would likely be less instructive and of lower quality in most people's cases. Furthermore, I think the price is fair. I know professional voiceover artists, and based on hourly rates, you are getting a lot for your money.

The iScript folks suggest you can use the recording to submit to producers. I'll say that while that's not impossible, I doubt this will be a major use of the recordings. But I wouldn't rule it out entirely. Instead, I'd see this as another step in developing a script. Earlier drafts might be worth paying someone for feedback (like me, if you like). And once you're close to a final draft, iScript might be a good way to work out some of the final kinks.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Shouting Back

The lovely Kira gave me a shout out upon my becoming a professional at this game, and it is time for me to return the favor.

Show Kira the same spike in traffic that I got on my similar announcement. She too has become a pro screenwriter!

Congrats! We in the Scribosphere love to support our own.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Two Hilarious Lines

A rare (as of recently) second post in one day, but just a brief one.

On HBO tonight, a season premiere, a series premiere, one great writer cameo, and two hilarious lines. I just had to quote them for posterity...

Slight Spoilers Follow

First, from Entourage, we have the boys hiring Gaghan to rewrite the ending of Medellin. But then the director rewrites it himself. E says, "[The script] is great, and Stephen Gaghan was kind enough to read it and agree before he headed back home." Gaghan's kicker follows:

I've had people read my work and not like it, but I've never had anybody pay me not to work!
Great stuff. Then, on the awesome new musical comedy Flight of the Conchords, Sally breaks up with Jemaine, and he launches into song. Listen to this fabulous line. Funny as well as a play on cliches:

But if you're trying to break my heart, your plan is flawed from the start. You can't break my heart -- it's liquid. It melted when I met you.
Ah, yeah. Good stuff baby!

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On Writing for Someone Else

One of the more unique aspects of this screenwriting assignment, for me, is that I'm writing a script based on someone else's ideas. Almost always when I write, I am the sole creative mind from conception through completion. Only once before have I really written something based on someone else's concept, and that was for a yet-to-be-published magazine article. They came to me and asked if I would write an article on a topic they had. I found the idea rather interesting, did some research to make sure there was enough source material, accepted the assignment and wrote the article.

Other than that, the closest I've come has been writing within guidelines (e.g. sample passages for a test preparation guide), but where the subject matter was generally open to my choosing. But again, I had a lot of leeway.

So now I find myself in what is, for me, new territory. The producers of this film gave me a rough outline of their idea and asked me to run with it. Though there are none of their specific details that I must include, the film remains my interpretation of their concept. I am here to bring their concept to life and fruition.

This presents both challenges and benefits.

One of the biggest challenges I face is that there is a built in excitement to writing a screenplay based on my own ideas. Here, however, I've had to find that excitement. At first, when I had a different conception of what they were looking for, I was somewhat less enthused. When I realized a different style, and that that was more in keeping with their ideas, I became somewhat more interested, recognizing the potential in the script.

A positive is that by feeling less personally invested, and less ownership overall, the detachment can make it easier to sharpen the concept. Whereas, as Faulkner (purportedly) warned us that we must kill our darlings when we write, it becomes easier to do so when the concept is not one's own to begin with. If I see that an element of the concept doesn't work for the story, it is a lot easier for me to trim it, because I feel less ownership in it being there to begin with.

The most interesting difference, at least to my mind, is the process through which I've gone about developing this concept into a full treatment. With each successive screenplay that I've written, I've outlined more and more. My outlines have grown more lengthy and in-depth. And this one promises to be even more so. But I've almost always started from the story concept and built outwards from there.

This is logical, since what usually grabs me about a film idea is the story. There are many wonderful character-driven movies. A favorite of mine, for example, is Taxi Driver. They just aren't the types of films that I typically write. I also have a lot of respect for films that are drenched in theme. You may recall my abundant praise for this aspect of Unforgiven.

Still, since my scripts typically begin from plot, they do tend to fall somewhat short(er) on those highly important areas -- characterization and theme. With this screenplay, however, I didn't dwell first on the plot, letting it gestate and develop for a while, and then launching into a fuller development mode. Here I got a lot of information at the same time -- both plot and character -- and had a shorter amount of time for the concept's gestation.

And this had an effect on the process by which I'm developing this treatment. For this film, I started with its theme. Essentially, I looked at the producers' idea and asked, what about it attracts them to this concept? And what about it would make it a film that others might want to watch? Once I had identified that, I was ready to move on to the characters. I developed characters that were outgrowths of the theme, representing various aspects of that theme. Each primary character grew cleanly out of a a specific aspect.

Once I had those aspects down, I was able to better think about how they fit into the story overall. I did have their starting point for the story structure, but I knew there were a lot of changes and adjustments I'd need to make (and that they wanted me to make). And once I knew the characters (and their perspectives) better, I had a much better conception of who would be doing what when.

Recognizing this, I hope that I will be able to bring some of these techniques into future projects as well. I still expect that most of my future spec screenplay ideas will stem from story. But I also hope I'll recognize the benefits of this method and spend even more time than I already have been previously to develop a stronger and more articulated theme, and characters that cleanly relate to that theme.

When I told a friend of mine -- a pro screenwriter -- about this assignment, he said that one of the good things about writing on assignment is that you're getting paid to create another writing sample. This is of course true. But what I'm finding is that I'm also getting paid to learn more about screenwriting and further develop my craft.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Formatting in Character Names

A brief post here.

I recently noticed a Google search that landed someone on my blog at a page that didn't answer their question. The search was for "screenplay formatting character nicknames" and since the same issue recently came up in another script I read for a friend, I decided to address it here. This is not to say that it is the "standard" method of formatting in this case, since I don't think there is a standard, per se. But here is how I've always done it, and what seems to make the most sense.

Suppose you have a character whose name is Carlos Jimenez, but he is commonly known as C.J. Let's also assume there is a reason to list his full name, and not simply refer to him as C.J. and nothing else. Because if everyone in the entire film refers to him as C.J., and the audience will never learn his real name, there is no real reason to ensure that the reader knows it.

In the above situation, I would introduce him as CARLOS "C.J." JIMENEZ (early 40s). I think it reads better and more clearly than writing "CARLOS JIMENEZ, C.J.," "CARLOS JIMENEZ, or C.J.," "CARLOS JIMENEZ, aka C.J.," or "CARLOS JIMENEZ, better known as C.J." I've seen variations like this many times, and I think my version is best.

I also included the (early 40s) because I wanted to talk again about character ages. I did post about it once before, but I just wanted to reiterate it here. Also, it would be preferable if you aimed for some consistency in how you write the character ages. Personally, I prefer the age in parentheses immediately following the introduced characters name, as above. I don't mind if you do it CARLOS "C.J." JIMENEZ, early 40s. I am slightly less fond of when the age is buried in description, as in, "CARLOS 'C.J.' JIMENEZ, a hulking presence dressed in worn leather, drags his forty-year old body across the room."

But however you choose to describe your character's ages, you should aim to do it in the same style for each of your characters. For the same reason that you put the character ages (making things easier for the reader), consistency in this area is also something to aim for.

This has been a public service announcement from your friendly neighborhood script reader. Thank you!

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Eight Things About Fun Joel

The no-longer-limited-to-playwriting Joshua James tagged me with this meme, in which I am to tell you 8 random things about me.

I typically find it difficult to respond to most memes with which I am tagged, since I endeavor to keep this blog pretty much exclusively film and screenwriting related. Hence the reason I started my Scribosphere Meme, way back when. Well, I don't like always playing by the rules, which is why I figured I could answer this one with 8 non-random facts about me, things that are related to my screenwriting, etc.

I also will ignore the "rule" to repost the rules, since you all should be able to figure out what this about, and how it is to be executed. Use your brains (and the links if need be), people! So, on to the meme...

1. The first paid script reading gig I had was reading and rating screenplays for the Nantucket Film Festival's screenwriting competition. I think I got paid about $15 per script, and didn't have to do a full coverage. Just read each script, rate it on a grid, and write one or two lines about it.

2. Before I was a script reader, I did a decent amount of freelance production work, typically as a Production Assistant. The first film I worked on was a no-budget indie called Cassian's Kids. It was originally released under the less imaginative title Lethal Justice. The second feature I worked on was called Snapshots from a .500 Season. This film had the added benefit of associating me with my friend Brooks, who started the writing group that I am now a member of.

3. As a P.A., I did work on one film with established actors who you should recognize. It was originally titled Captive, but was released under the more-"provocative" title Sex and the Other Man. It starred Stanley Tucci, about whom I have nothing but wonderful things to say, Ron Eldard, whom you might recognize from his stints on E.R. or Men Behaving Badly, and Kari Wuhrer, whom my older readers will remember from Remote Control and my younger readers might recognize from Anaconda or Eight Legged Freaks.

It was also through this movie that I am both two and three degrees (different routes) from Kevin Bacon, if you count the fact that I worked on this movie, but didn't act in it. Big up to anyone who figures the connections out!

4. I worked for a year and a half as a professional day trader, trading stocks for a clients account (as opposed to my own money). How is this film/screenwriting related? It gave me the subject matter for my very first feature-length screenplay, which I never fully completed, entitled Word on the Street. It was a satire about Wall Street, following one week in the life of a day trader. I dropped it, because I felt that its time of relevance had passed before I finished writing it. And though it of course suffers from many of the novice writer mistakes, I still feel as if there are some good parts to that script.

5. In graduate school, I wrote and directed two short films, neither of which have ever been completed. (Notice a trend here? Well, I've broken out of that cycle of starting things and not finishing them over the last few years!) The biggest problem was that I started the second one before I finished the first, and then subsequently ran out of money for both. The first was a non-sync spoof of film noir detective films, though I did "fake sync" some dialogue. It was called Night and the Superstore. With the second film, I wanted to try something new and stretch my muscles a bit. So it was a drama, the only one I've written to date. It was shot in color (the first was B/W), had sync sound, and a bit more sophisticated shooting schedule, crew, budget, etc. It was tentatively entitled Rings.

Both films were shot on 16mm film and edited on flatbeds, not on a non-linear system such as an Avid. The first film was fully edited and I just needed to pay for a sound mix, negative cut, and print. Maybe some day I'll figure out how to do something with this, and it will see the light of day in some form. The second film never will, because I didn't even finish shooting it. It was about 50% edited, and maybe 85% shot. So that's pretty much a wash.

6. I live fairly close to the Herrick Library, though I have not yet been there. Still, I'm hoping to go there tomorrow to continue my research for this current film project. It is a beautiful building from the outside, and I hear wonderful things about the library inside, too. Some time ago (1-2 years ago), I sent a resume over there to see about possibly working for them. I got the standard "we're not hiring at the current time, but will keep your resume on file" response. All good.

7. General topics about which I have ideas for possible future screenplays include cigar making and Cuba, modern piracy, rap/hip-hop music and murder, weddings, accounting and rock music (yeah, try to figure that one out!), and global redemption (sort of). Genres include action, mystery, period romance, and of course comedy.

8. My favorite beers are Chimay and Guinness. Favorite scotches include Dalwhinnie and Scapa. Cigar-wise, I love CAOs and Excaliburs, preferably a good maduro. What does this all have to do with screenwriting? They are a few of the pleasures that add to my relaxation time, during which my mind is free to wander and ideas can gestate and develop. They don't need to be alcohol or tobacco related, but you should definitely find an activity that can take your mind off of daily life, and free it to wander for set periods of time. At least that's my opinion, anyway!

I'm not going to tag anyone in particular (another broken rule). If you want to answer this, consider yourself tagged! That makes it more truly meme-like anyway!

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

You Know I Aim to Please

First of all, I wanted to thank all of you for your kind wishes due to my announcement yesterday. I really appreciate the support. Now I've got my work cut out for me! :-)

Also, I wanted to welcome all of you who are arriving here for the first time, due to links from other sites. There seem to be a particularly large number of you coming from Alex' page, so a special welcome to you all! I hope you will all come back for more visits!

Now, those of you who are regular readers know that I aim to please here. For example, you'll remember my long quest to meet the needs of those who came to my blog in search of information on a certain producer.

Well, I've noticed another common search bringing people here (and no it isn't all of you looking for the joke that ends with the punchline "Better Nate than lever" -- that joke is too bad and punny, and is not screenwriting-related). But in fact, this time I am able to be of assistance, without a tremendous amount of effort.

I keep getting people landing on my blog in search of the Brick screenplay. I have even had people email for it, once they found out I had read it. But the truth is, I already have posted the information these people were seeking, back in December. Still, it was a little buried in that post.

So, here it is. If you are looking for a copy of Rian Johnson's masterful screenplay for Brick, click on this link. It is on Rian's website, and is entitled the "Hey, Rian's giving the Brick script out for free!" page.

I encourage you regular readers to examine it also. I loved the script, and you'll also find some good and informative extras on there. The script has some annotations, and there is also a copy of the original novella that Rian wrote before embarking on the screenwriting process. It features new illustrations as well. You can learn a lot from this wonderful free resource. And thank Rian when you're there as well!

So that's how it works around here, see? You ask (or seek), and I'll deliver -- if I can, and if it is screenwriting-related.

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I Is a Professional Screenwriter

Okay, so time for me to spread the good news I mentioned at the end of this post.

In short, I signed a contract last night to write a screenplay on assignment for an independent production company. Well below WGA minimums, but still a professional screenwriting job. And I'm quite pleased and excited about this big step forward.

The somewhat longer version:
Some time ago, a friend put me in touch with a producer he had met. My friend is not a writer, so he was happy to mention my name and talk me up when he found out these people were looking for a less experienced writer.

I got in touch and they asked me to send them a sample. I was actually a bit hesitant to send them anything, primarily because the best sample I had to send (the D2DVD horror script I wrote) was unlike the types of stuff they were looking for, and because I still planned to give it a full revision. Still, I eventually sent it to them and explained the reasons for my hesitance, essentially asking them to keep those things in mind when they read it.

They did, and asked to meet. When we met, they described a project to me, and asked if I would be interested. I said I was, and they asked me how much I would ask for the job. I was a bit overwhelmed by this, and took a few days to think it over, as well as to ask people for advice. That advice came from many people I knew, both in and out of the Scribosphere. Let me now give thanks to some of those people.

Thanks go especially to Stephen Susco, Bill Cunningham, Alex Epstein, Chris Soth, and Bill Martell within the Scribosphere, and also my buddies Rock Shaink, Jay Tan, Jonathan "Rack" Rackman and my writing group outside it. I also consulted heavily with an entertainment attorney I know.

Anyway, we met again, and had a lot of back-and-forth discussions, negotiating my fee and the like. In the end, I am quite happy with the deal we struck. I'll be getting paid decently well, and will have a nice-sized back-end, should the film go into production. I'm also looking forward to receiving a produced film credit to add to my resume! Furthermore, since the film is an action adventure set on safari in Botswana, the company will be taking me on a research trip to said safari. So come August (probably), I'll be off to that great continent of the Southern Hemisphere!

Now interestingly, this life development transpired around the same time as another one. I was recently laid off from my job, due to an unexpected (by the employees) downsizing. There is a belief that God creates the cure before he creates the disease, and I feel that this is another example of that. The potential for the screenwriting assignment came to me before the layoff, and both were completely unexpected to me.

I was originally planning to write the film around my other job, but now I am back to freelancing full time, and will be writing the screenplay around that. The screenplay itself will not pay me enough to do that alone, but I am liking the return to the freelance lifestyle, and greater attention to dedicate to this project. Of course, my financial situation will still be taking a step backwards overall, meaning I will need to keep working, but I will also have the chance to focus on this script a bit more.

Unfortunately, I can't say much more about the project, at the company's wishes. But I'll just say that I'm excited about this screenplay, and am already continuing with research and development of the treatment.

So, that's what's going on in my life. I hope I'll be able to pull some insights out of the process to give you guys some more good posts down the road!

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