Archive for the ‘The Craft & Trade’ Category


Friday, April 27th, 2007

Like everyone else near a keyboard, I've grown accustomed to Wikipedia.

I should probably wean myself.

Every now and again I'll check the IMDB discussion boards on movies I'm working on. It's pretty fascinating, if only as a study in the global game of Telephone that is the internet. My favorite debates are the ones where someone insists loudly and arrogantly and with supreme confidence that "This movie will be Rated R! I know someone at the stuido!"…even though the movie was never going to be R.

And yes, spellings like "stuido" are part of the fun.

So today, when I skimmed the boards for Superhero!, I was excited to see that someone was trumping the debate by citing the ultimate internet authority. Off I went to see the movie's entry on Wikipedia.


Let's go through it…

Superhero! is an action/comedy written by Craig Mazin and directed by David Zucker, and produced by Robert K. Weiss. The movie will spoof famous superhero films. It is distributed by The Weinstein Company. It is uncertain what the release date will be. Some sites confirmed that it will be released on March 21, 2008.

Boy, only thirteen words in, and they've already blown it. I'm directing, not David. I've always been directing. I've never not been directing. I'm also producing with Weiss and Zucker. We've shifted positions a little bit, but the same basic team behind SM3 and SM4 is still in place.

I do believe we are on the schedule for March 21, 2008, though, so good on them.

Now, here's the "purported plot."

Fabtopolis' greatest supervillain, a magician who goes by the pseudonym The Great Jim (Chris Elliot), has just kidnapped the city's mayor (Leslie Nielsen) and his wife (Anna Faris). Four of the world's most spectacular superheroes are called to the rescue: Beakman (Greg Giraldo) - the leader of the group, Squak (Eric Christian Olsen) - the wannabee, Cleara (Carla Gugino) - the see-through hero, and The Stoner (Ben Harr) - a loser who becomes a large stone monster when he gets high. The Great Jim is building a device that will allow him to sound like anybody in the world and this group of superheroes must stop him and save the mayor or the entire city will be destroyed.

As they race against time to defeat Jim, they team up with many other superheroes to try and take down Jim and his allies, including the dreaded Dock Cock (Kevin Mcdonald) and Mephistopheles (Adam Arkin).

Not bad. The only things they got wrong were everything. Every single thing. Insane.


Anna Faris married to Leslie Nielsen?

Dock COCK?

Folks, I know I've disappointed some audiences in the past. Maybe myself too. But if I ever write anything that even remotely resembles the above, I'm eating a gun. Okay? Here's a hint…we never do "funny names." Ever.

Then they move on to a list of the movies we will be spoofing.

Superman film series
Batman film series
Fantastic Four film seriers
The Hulk (film)
Spider-Man film series
The Prestige
Daredevil (film)
Ghost Rider (film)

We're not really specifically spoofing anything. We're taking on the entire genre. However, I can assure you that the vast majority of the movies mentioned above aren't even getting casually referenced.

The Prestige???

Here's my favorite part. "History." This is the part that sounds like actual information!

It is currently unknown whether David Zucker or Craig Mazin will direct. According to some sites, the film was supposed to be originally released on February 7, 2007. However the film's real release date has been reported to be delayed to March 21, 2008.

It was confirmed on March 2, 2007, that Adam Campbell will reprise his Superman role from Epic Movie.

Many cast changes were announced on March 13, 2007. Big name actors such as Josh Lucas, Laura Kightlinger, and Joshua Jackson turned out to be actors "considered" for the roles, but not actually cast.

The producers have decided to go with actors that are more familiar to this type of film. They've gone with Anna Faris, Kevin McDonald, and Chris Elliot to replace the others.

It's currently known. I'm directing. It was "confirmed" about wha-huh now about Adam Campbell? I've never even met the guy. He's not in our movie, and he's not going to be in our movie. Nothing against him, but he belongs to a different brand of…well…whatever genre Epic Movie is. Yeah, I was totally considering "big name actors" like….Laura Kightlinger??? I actually think she's very funny…but "big name actress?"

No, none of the actors mentioned in the paragraph above have been considered for anything in this movie (YET…because we haven't really gotten into casting yet…that's coming up in just a few weeks). But why should that stop anyone? Here's the "cast of characters!"

Greg Giraldo - Theo Payne / Beakman
Carla Gugino - Cleara
Leslie Nielsen - Mayor Jogen
Anna Faris - Mrs. Jogen
Eric Christian Olsen - Mark Ockle / Squak
Ben Harr - The Stoner
Chris Elliot - The Great Jim
Fred Willard - Alfred
Adam Campbell - Superman
Kevin McDonald - Dock Cock
Lil' Kim - Betty Sue
Jonathon Martes - Spider-Man
Penny Ulrich - Lindsey
Lochlyn Munro - Daredevil
Shannon Elizabeth - Elektra
Adam Arkin - Mephistopheles
Xavier Reboir - Lex Lover

I'll go in order, giving you a "yes" or "no". Presume that a "no" is both to the actor and the character. A "yes" is a yes to both.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no and no.

Other than that, it's a really accurate entry.

The End…Fade In:

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

Time for rebirth…
Today is my 36th birthday. It’s also Jesus’ rebirthday. No, I’m not comparing myself to Jesus. And yes, I chose the picture because it’s so ridiculous.

I just love the idea of MEGAJESUS, looming over Earth like a hypoglycemic Galactus, pissed off at our stupidity and failure. He’s so angry, the back of his head has exploded outward, forming some awesome new nebula. The moon is this painting’s version of Jackie O., and it’s getting drenched in MegaJ’s cosmic brain splatter.

The tear rolling down The Boss’ cheek? That’s his burgeoning sense of retribution, the volume and pressure of which is so great it has begun leaking in liquid form from his improbably blue Jewish eye.

Just look at his brow. It’s telling you the entire story. That’s the brow of a man who is about to take a bite out of a planet.

But I digress…

I want to talk about endings and beginnings. Those of us who write are plagued and blessed at once by an overexposure to cycles. No, I don’t believe in reincarnation or the divinity of Jesus or some of the hippier notions about how we’re all one with Gaia, etc. I do, however, believe that all human experiences begin, then progress, and then end.

I’m a writer. I’m soaking in that. And because I write, I find myself constantly beginning stories, places, ideas, people, moments…then experiencing them progress…and then watching them end.

And when they end…they end as finally as anything can. I do not know what Keyser Soze did after he got into the car with his lawyer at the end of The Usual Suspects, and I’m pretty sure I never will.

Just like that….(poof)…he’s gone.

All this beginning and ending stuff can start playing with your head. Like mathematicians who started noticing small recursive fractals as compositional blocks of larger recursive fractals, you begin to see the cycles in your own life on multiple levels. There’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then there are multiyear arcs, like movements of a symphony.

Maybe you don’t see this, but I do.

Curiously, my cycles seem to take on four year spans.

I won’t bore you with childhood, but high school was an interesting four years. College…four years. After college, I spent four years trying to make my way toward something I could do as a career…a search for permanency, perhaps.

And I found it.

I spent the next four years establishing myself as a working screenwriter as well as a husband.

I spent the next four years establishing myself as a solo working screenwriter, as well as a father.

And I’ve spent these last four years establishing myself as a…for lack of a better phrase…successful screenwriter.

Ding! Four years are up.

And now?

Last week, I had lunch with a friend. Another writer. I look up to him in a very pure way; there’s no creepy jealousy or competitiveness or resentment to infect my relationship with him. I’m not particularly prone to those things, but I’m not inhuman either—I’m lucky that circumstances are such that I can admire someone as cleanly as I admire this guy.

By the way, he doesn’t blog or comment in here, so don’t bother guessing.

Hint…it’s not Josh Olson.

So anyway, we sat at lunch and this guy lectured me. He actually said, “I want to lecture you about something.” And then he did.




In fact, it was such a good lecture, it sent me hurtling toward my therapist, but in a good way. What this guy said to me was something I really needed to hear, and I really needed to hear it from him. It was the best compliment I’ve ever received, and almost certainly the scariest too. Good for him. His lecture may very well be the thing that sets the table and defines my next four year cycle.

What I’m saying is that I think I just typed FADE IN: on myself yet again.

“Okay,” you’re saying. “Enough preamble. What was the lecture??????”


…would you mind terribly if I didn’t tell you?

Cuz I’m not.

It’s not for you. It’s for me. It wouldn’t apply to you, and that’s true if you’re a hundred times more successful than I or a 15 year-old desperate for some guidance. This stuff was custom advice (although if you really want a hint…I’ll say this…I doubt I’ll use the language I used to describe the last few cycles when it’s time to describe the next one…)

What I can tell you is that you’re in a cycle right now, whether you like it or not.

Did you know? Do you understand it? Is there a rhythm to it?

Are you at the beginning?

Lost in the desert of your own 2nd act?

Nearing the end (that’s the scary one)?

Do you care?

You don’t have to. Honestly. Most characters are blissfully unaware that they’re in the stories we write, so why should we torture ourselves by getting recursive with the narrative of our own lives? I only dabble with the recursion myself. I’m sure Pirandello would think of me as a self-oblivious dolt.

Still, birthdays tend to do this to me.

And so, I’ll think I’ll give some of you a gift.

This gift is for the struggling. Particularly, it’s for the struggling young. This gift is for the people who have begun the “set out on my own” cycle. Maybe you’re in a new city. You’re trying to make it in a new business. You have no experience. You have no connections.

That was me…beginning of Cycle 3.

I don’t archive much of my life, but there’s one piece of paper I’ve saved all these years. I finally scanned it and laminated it, because it’s so important to me. When I arrived in Los Angeles in July of 1992, all I knew is that before anything good could happen to me, I needed to get a job.

I stood out on the corner of La Cienega and Pico, leafed through a payphone yellowpages (ahhhh, the pre-cell, pre-net days), and started cold-calling temp agencies.

I had a pen, which ran out of ink…and a pencil.

Today, I’m a rich guy with a hot wife and two great kids and a nice house and I do what I love for a living.

But fifteen years ago…

….I was this piece of paper.


Note the boxed note in the top middle. The one where I set a meeting with Louise at The Friedman Agency for 2:30 on Wednesday, July 29, 1992. That’s the meeting that gets me my first couple of temp jobs, one of which becomes a permanent job, which becomes a writing job, which gets me a marketing job at Disney, which leads to my career as a screenwriter.

I’m particularly fond of the question mark floating above it. I have no idea why it’s there, but I love that it’s there.

This paper is not some trophy or something. It’s my reverse Ozymandias. Know what I mean?

Look upon my Beginning, Ye Mighty, and smile!

I’m not saying you’re going to be rich and happy and famous. Honestly. I don’t know what you’re going to be. Drug-addicted hobo isn’t out of the question.

What I’m saying is…treasure your beginnings. That’s where all the fun is. That’s what I’m doing right now. Because I’m beginning a new cycle.

Let’s see where it goes.

We’re Getting Too Old For This Shit

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Ah, Golden Years! So full of life!
We’ve never felt bett—arrghhh, my hip…!
I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or cyclical, but every few months, I decide to piss people off. Mind you, it’s not because I care about pissing people off, but I know that if I just offer my unvarnished opinion, there’s gonna be some blowback. The most famous example of this is probably my essay entitled Passing On The Diversity Pass, which not only annoyed some of my own readers, but was sent around the internet by outraged readers. I occasionally track back to the incoming reference links.

As a result, I know that a good amount of people out there think I’m a racist douchemonger (although I did learn one interesting thing…a number of black people are apparently horrified that white people do not wash raw meat before cooking it…a cultural divide I didn’t know existed). So it goes.

Hey…old folks?

It’s your turn.

Last week, letters were mailed out to nearly seventy thousand Americans who have worked in one form or another as a professional television or screen writer. Those letters were a notice that, as a result of a class action lawsuit, lawyers were going to be getting their hands on the files kept by our health insurance fund.

We were given the option of requesting that our private data remain private.

I availed myself.

The class action lawsuit is an ageism lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that the companies that comprise what we call “Hollywood” systematically and wrongfully discriminate against people over the age of 40, and they’re looking for payback.

One plaintiff, a man I know well and respect, has suggested that restitution take the form of financial compensation plus a new employment system in which all writing jobs be monitored and allotted across age groups.

I reject both the premise and the proposed solution with every ounce of my being.

First, let me get the obvious question out of the way.

I’m not over 40.

In 11 days, I’ll be 36.

On the other hand, if someone found out that DuPont had exposed all Americans to a chemical that makes your feet rot off the second you hit 40, I’d back a class action suit, giving that I only had four short years left to enjoy my toes.

I’ll be in the “protected class” of over-40 writers in four years, and I still say, “No.”


Because I think the problem isn’t about discrimination.

To me, discrimination in unemployment is the irrational deprivation of employment opportunities on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, creed or sexual orientation. That’s it.

An imbalance in the distribution of employment doesn’t necessarily signify discrimination. If it did, why is the Gray Brigade going after Hollywood first? When was the last time you saw a 50 year-old working at The Gap, or behind the concession stand at a movie theater, or at a video game store, or bouncing in front of a club?

There are two non-discriminatory reasons large groups can be underserved by employment opportunities.

First, those groups aren’t interested in taking the jobs.

Second, those groups don’t fit the requirements for the jobs.

It’s the second category that gets tricky, but it’s certainly a reality. Some jobs require heavy lifting. Some jobs require physical beauty. Such is life.

In the case of writing, it’s true that the large bulk of writing is done by people between the ages of 25 and 50. After 50, the numbers start to dwindle. After 60, they really start to shrink, and once you get into the 70’s and 80’s, you’re talking about a very select (and hardy) group.


Why would Hollywood discriminate against 50-somethings and senior citizens?

Is it because they just hate old people? No. They hire directors and actors over the age of 50 all the time. Is it because Hollywood is run by the young, and young people hate old people? No, Hollywood is run entirely by men and women in their 50’s and over. Is it because older people are “bad in a room”? Nah, we write scripts, and scripts don’t have faces.

Is it because there’s something intrinsic to the work done by older writers that has a discouraging effect on their ability to get hired?

Uh oh….

What if the answer to that question is (gasp) “yes”?

A few years ago, I spoke to a group of recent Princeton graduates who had just arrived in L.A., fresh-faced and ready to being their careers as writers. I looked out at the room full of 21 to 25 year-olds, and I said:

Here’s the bad news. No matter how talented you are right now, I’m better than you. I’m better than you, because I’ve been doing it for a while, and that experience is invaluable. Ah, but here’s the good news. You have more energy than I do. You don’t have a spouse, or children. You’re not bored. You’re not frustrated. You’re not tired of all the crap I’ve been dealing with for years. Use that. That’s how you’re going to take me down.

It’s true.

Writing novels can be a leisurely endeavor. Writing for television or movies can’t. At the end of the day, we’re employees on deadlines. Whether it’s the trenches of weekly television or the crucible of production rewrites on the movie set, professional screenwriting is a heartless taskmaster of a vocation.

Who succeeds?

Talent trumps everything, but here’s a short list of attributes that tend to help: humility, drive, energy, ambition, work-for-reasonable-pay, low expectations, hunger, fearlessness, no kids, no wife, no mortgage, no life, no need for self-examination, no depression, no bad hip, no doctor’s appointments, no self-respect, no pride, no arrogance, no reminiscing, no condescension, no sense of entitlement, no better days to compare the present to and no victimhood to get in the way of the work.

Not all of those things are what you’d call “good for you” (no life is a bad thing, but hey, if you’re working staff on a sitcom, it’s pretty much s.o.p.). Still, they’re things that tend to help one achieve success in a demanding business, and they’re also things that tend to be associated with life in one’s 20’s and 30’s.

Less so in one’s 40’s and beyond.

Look, I wish I lived in a world where a sense of personal dignity helped you get work in Hollywood, but the desperate and the shameless seem to be lapping those of us who maintain a sense of pride.

There’s another possible explanation (and one of Ted’s observations).

Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy, but that’s partly not Hollywood’s fault. Writing isn’t something one can do as qualitatively consistent as, say, plumbing. In other words, not every script is going to be great.

You may start your career with a couple of great scripts, maybe better than what your average script quality is over the course of your lifetime.

The longer you work, the more evident and predictive your batting average becomes.

Makes sense, right? Sure, Darin Erstad hit .355 in 2000, but he never even broke .300 before or since.

And so, as you make your way into your 40’s, if your overall average is lower than your early average, you’re going to get culled. It’s just a function of being around long enough for people to decide that they don’t really want you after all.

There’s another possible theory, and this is the one that really annoys people when I bring it up.

Maybe our skills start to diminish as we age.

It’s certainly not something that’s inevitable or absolute. There are screenwriters in their 70’s who are better right now than I’ll ever be.

But are they better than they were in their 40’s?

Losing heat off the fastball seems like it’s almost a must-happen. Maybe I think that because I do not and have never bought into the baby-boomer fantasy of “the golden years are the best years of our lives”. This notion that growing old somehow frees us to have fun and live life to its fullest and be the best we’ve ever been is mostly promoted by drug companies selling medicines to old people whose hearts, livers, pancreases, kidneys and penises have stopped working properly.

I believe this is a basic truth of life.

Getting old is NOT fun. It’s not the best years of your life. It’s not golden. As far as I can tell, it’s wrinkly, dry, painful and depressing (particularly when the rash of weddings and baby showers of your youth are replaced by the funerals of your departed friends). The only thing that can save you as you grow old, I suspect, is a fond willingness to embrace the downward spiral in which you find yourself.

To quote George Harrison, “As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging…”

…well, that’s me and you. I’m growing older with every passing second. My life is finite. My best physical years are already behind me. My brain is likely starting to slide. The very existence of my children—my replacements—signals my inevitable obsolescence.

I believe I’m still getting better as a writer. Experience is the boon of age, counteracting the effects of time. At some point, though, the lines on the graph cross. The net gain begins to slide into deficit.

Why is this so awful to contemplate, much less admit?

One day, I just won’t have it the way I used to. I will write, and no one will want it. That will be a sad day. That day will no doubt be as sad as the day I need bifocals, or the day my knees start to ache permanently, or the day I fall and snap a wrist, or the day the doctor finally gives me the “I’m going to tell you that you’re going to die” look, and then tells me I’m going to die.

Lawsuits are just another way to scream at mortality and pretend we have control.

We do not.

When my time comes, when I’m knocked off my perch, when all the doors finally close in my face, I’m gonna pack up the laptop and retire. I will embrace the verdict of my fellow man, as brutal as it is, because it is as it must be.

The world is for the young…

…said the man who shall be old.

One Step Closer To Writopia?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

John Wells
A while back, I wrote about a magical studio called Writopia, where writers were treated the way they ought to be, and their lives were better, the movies were better, and dogs and cats played happily together in the sun.

Leave it to the incomparable John Wells to try and actually make it happen.

Yesterday, the Writers Co-Op was announced, and it includes eighteen writers: Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Henry Bean (“Internal Affairs”), David Benioff (“Troy”), Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”), Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat”), Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”), Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”), Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”), Stephen Schiff (“The Deep End of the Ocean”), Schulman (“Dead Poets Society”), Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), Dana Stevens (“For Love of the Game”), Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), Michael Tolkin (“The Player”), Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless”), and the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“City Slickers”).

When I read this, I thought, “Great. Ted Elliott and I had the same damn idea a year ago, and we never did anything about it.” Then I read that it took Wells and Co. took several years to figure this all out, so I guess I’m not that lazy.

The way it works seems pretty simple. Each of the 18 must write one original script for Warner Brothers within the next four years. The Co-Op will act as the producer of the script. The writer will not be rewritten without their approval, which is obviously a revolutionary idea, and the writer will be meaningfully included in the development and production processes from start to finish.

The enticement for the studio is this: if they want to buy the scripts, they will cost in the low mid-six figures. This is an enormously advantageous term for Warner Brothers, as most if not all of the participating writers typically sell specs for no less than a million dollars, and sometimes upwards of three million or more.

So are these writers trading creative rights for money they should be rightfully earning?

Quite the contrary.

I’ve spoken to someone on the business side of things who worked on this deal, and while I’m not going to be so gauche as to spell it all out, I can tell you that if any of these guys get movies made under this Co-Op, they will be rewarded under terms better than I think any writer has ever received.

If Warner Brothers agrees to produce the films, the first thing that happens is that the writer is “made whole” on his quote. In other words, if he or she normally writes an original for $1.5 million but sells a script under this program for $300K, when the script is greenlit, the writer gets the remaining $1.2 million and then additional money as their credit bonus allows.

Beyond that, the writer gets a significant first-dollar gross position.

For those who don’t know what first-dollar gross is, it works like this. If you have, say, 2.5% of first dollar gross, then once the studio meets certain agreed-upon conditions, the studio then gives you two and half cents out of every dollar it earns on the film via theatrical, broadcast, pay-per-view, home video, etc.

What are those conditions? They vary, and I don’t know what they are here, but generally speaking, they’re better than “first we have to recoup our entire investment.” If you have first dollar gross, you’re very likely going to see some real profit out of the back end of the film.

However, most first dollar gross deals state that the upfront money is “against” the back end money. In other words, if you earn $1.5M up front and you have 2.5% fdg on the back end, the studio doesn’t have to pay out profits to you until the amount you’ve earned through your 2.5% exceeds the $1.5M they’ve already paid you.

That’s why first dollar deals sometimes seem better than they actually are. If you make a lot up front, the movie has to do very, very well for you to make significantly more on top of that.

Not so in this case. In this case, I’m hearing that the upfront money for the Co-Op writers is not applicable against the back end, which is a fantastic term for the writers, even considering that part of the profits are kicked back to the Co-Op to help offset operation expenses.

Of course, balanced against all of that reward is a substantial risk: they’re agreeing to sell their scripts at a steep discount of anywhere from 70-90%.

What’s fascinating about this particular group is that it bucks a number of trends. I don’t think any of the writers (save Benioff) is under 40. Quite a few are in their 50’s. Most write challenging fare. If we’re to believe the conventional wisdom, studios are frightened to death of older, high-priced intellectual scribes.

Turns out they’re not, and that’s good news for any of us in the business who plan on aging or being serious (I’m one for two on that account).

In addition, many of these writers are pretty well-known as WGA guild activists. Through one sort of Guild thing or another, I’ve come to know John, Scott, Robin, Phil, Tom, Ron and Stephen. I don’t know if long-time Guild activists (including some people a lot of us think as “militant”) getting in bed with Warner Brothers is a good thing or a bad thing, but since I believe in labor detente, I’m going to say it’s a good thing.

It’s possible that nothing will come of this, the way the much-heralded Sony program fizzled out years ago (that was a deal where writers who met certain criteria could access back end profits on their movies, but the definitions weren’t that spectacular and Sony didn’t really seem to want to make any of those writers’ movies at the time).

Personally, I think this will matter. The business is changing. Whether writers take the reigns through partnerships with financiers or by creating mini-unions like the Writers Co-Op, one thing is clear. The old ways are starting to fade. I fully expect other A-listers to attempt to follow suit. As for me, all I can say is that Ted and I were on the phone for a long time yesterday…

Naturally, a lot of non A-list writers want to know how this affects them.

There’s good news and there’s bad news.

I think if this kind of idea spreads, it puts a downward economic pressure on spec prices, and an upward economic pressure on production prices. In other words, it’s a lot harder to get a million bucks for a spec when studios are suddenly accustomed to paying much less than that to world-class writers.

On the other hand, the barn doors that hid the real prize from us—true back end participation—have finally been flung open. The floor has been lowered a bit, but the ceiling has been raised a lot. Furthermore, studios will become more accustomed to partnering with writers, rather than marginalizing them.

To sum up: if you think the best years of your career are ahead of you, this is great news.

If you think you peaked a while ago, this ain’t gonna make things any easier.

I tend to be an optimist. I don’t know if what Wells and Co. did here is necessarily a good thing for writers per se, but it’s a great thing for the profession of writing, and for that, I applaud them.

Letting The Sound In

Friday, March 9th, 2007

Everyone has their idiosyncracies when writing. I’m not too fussy, but I know what I like. I like a room with no windows. I like a split keyboard. I like a big monitor, I like a bulletin board with my index cards up with clear thumbtacks, I like a baseball within arm’s reach (a nice soft training one because I toss it up and down and if it gets away from me, it’s nice to limit the damage).

What I have never liked is listening to music while writing.

I’ve always been a quiet worker. I find music distracting when I work, to the point where I feel frustrated…like a neurological patient who suddenly can’t find words he knows but can’t quite get out.

This isn’t because I hate music. It’s because I love music. I love it so much, it tends to grab my attention completely, and suddenly I’m adrift.

I’ve been playing music pretty much my whole life. My first instrument was the piano, of course, because I grew up in a middle-class Jewish home, and that’s what middle-class Jewish kids played. I wish I could say I enjoyed the piano. I didn’t really. I had some aptitude for it, and I remember doing pretty well at a recital, but I didn’t love it. For me, piano sounded great but felt forced. It never flowed for me.

My next instrument was the clarinet. Why? See Jewish home, middle-class.

I was actually quite good at the clarinet, and as a 10 year-old, I played in the Staten Island Borough-Wide Intermediate orchestra (which drew from the best of the orchestral players in the middle schools on Staten Island). The only problem with the clarinet was that it was a freakin’ clarinet. Don’t get me wrong. I loved being part of an orchestra. I really did. It’s just that…I mean…is it too much to ask for an instrument that doesn’t remind everyone of fellatio?

By the time I entered high school, I had left the piano and woodcock…sorry, clarinet…behind. I started concentrating on my singing, which I enjoyed far more, and which also got me girls. This was a far better pursuit, and I still love to sing.

But singin’ ain’t playing an instrument. You can’t lose yourself while singing, because you’re singing.

And then, one day………I met the drums.

Hallelujah. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my instrument. I had a natural feel and improvisational ability with the drums that I never had with the piano or the penisflute, and I threw myself happily into lessons.

I became obsessed with drums, drum gear, drummers…all of it. I bought myself a sweet kit made by Spaun Drums, a custom maker here in Southern California who does terrific work on par with DW and the other high-end bigshots. I bought Zildjians, Sabians, DW double-brace hardware, Pearl Eliminator double kick pedals, Remo heads for my snares and toms, an Evans EMAD for my kick…

…I could go on for hours about all this. But I won’t.

Because five and half years ago, I had my first child, and the drumming sort of stopped there.

It’s not my kid’s fault. I just have this thing about not drumming and waking up a sleeping baby. And then we had another kid. And the last five years have also been the busiest of my career.

Drumming had to take a back seat. So, what filled the gap?

What else?

Guitar, like the drums, is one of those instruments I just have a feel for, although without the benefit of lessons, I’m just a happy strummer. If you’re going to buy an electric guitar, and you’re going to buy one electric guitar, you’ll be buying the American Fender Stratocaster (Deluxe, if you can), and that’s that.

Unless you buy the Telecaster. That’s acceptable.

Nothing wrong with buying other guitars. Some great ones out there. But you have to have a Strat or a Tele before you go any further. Pair it up with a nice amp (tube amp only, please…we must be civilized, no?), find a fun multieffects pedal, and you can rock the brains out yer skull…and yes, quietly enough that the kids don’t wake up.

Still, electric guitars are for fun. Acoustic guitars are what make me happy. I’m self-taught. I can’t solo really, my technique is probably quite dodgy, and I have an annoying habit of playing without a pick, because I like the feel better than way. Still, I know a goodly sum of chords, and my fingers have gotten pretty strong over the years.

So yesterday, I treated myself to a reeeeeeally nice acoustic guitar. The latest addition to the Mazin instrument family is this bad boy.

It’s a Martin HD-28VE. Just a gorgeous guitar. I played some Taylors and a Takamine and a few other Martins, but this one just sounded so great to me. Such a joy to play.

But this article isn’t just about me and my love of music and my latest gear obsessions.

It’s about a major shift that’s occurred in my writing routine.

For the last few weeks, and for the first time ever in my career, I’m writing to music. I’m working on Superhero!, and even though spoof requires plenty of joke construction, this genre just feels so part-and-parcel with music. I can’t hum many film scores, but I know the score to Superman, I know the score to Burton’s Batman, and I can even hum parts of Spiderman.

So I decided to give it a shot. I downloaded Elfman’s Batman, Zimmer & Howard’s Batman Begins and Elfman’s Spiderman. I found pieces that fit the tone of the scenes I was writing (because in spoof, we never ever ever do “funny” music…I hate “funny” music…the music works as a serious counterpoint to the comedy, perhaps never better than with Elmer Bernstein’s original score for Airplane!), and then I just put them on repeat play.

I loved it.

It’s a pretty big breakthrough for me, because after ten years of a routine, any change seems like a breakthrough. The music doesn’t necessarily make the dialogue sharper or the jokes funnier. What it does is help me shape the feeling and purpose and pace of the scene as I write.

It also motivates me to think about which scenes require music and which don’t. The scenes that seem to work best without score are the snappy patter dialogue scenes, and this is really a “duh” sort of observation, because when it’s time to score our movies, those are the scenes we don’t score.

And yet, when you’re writing everything for the first time, all these cues help.

I don’t know if I’ll think of every movie this way, but something tells me I should. I know enough about my own creative process to know that I know very little about my creative process. Anything that helps me stumble to a scene that feels right is worth using.

Funny…I’ve always visualized the scenes. Saw the costumes, saw the faces, imagined the space, determined the angles, heard the sound effects…

…but never the music. Until now. For a guy who loves music so much, it seems like a strange bias to have had.

I blame the dickhorn!

It Ain’t Spoof, So What Is It?

Monday, February 19th, 2007

You can’t spoof
a comedy…
A number of people have written asking me what I think of Date Movie and Epic Movie…both of which, I must again point out, I had nothing to do with.

The films’ marketing campaigns make fair use of the fact that Date and Epic Movie were created by two of the six writers of the first Scary Movie. You know, the one from seven years ago.

Anyway, I’ve now seen both Date Movie and Epic Movie. I’ll refrain from discussing whether or not I liked the films, because I think they present something far more interesting to unravel.

What the hell are they?

I’m not being facetious. In many ways, Friedberg & Seltzer, the guys behind Date and Epic Movie, have created a new comic genre.

First off, I have to say…these are not spoof films. To understand what a spoof film is, consider the spoof par excellence: Airplane!

Airplane! is, in fact, a comedic version of an overly serious film called “Zero Hour!” And that’s really all spoof is. It’s a comedic version of an overly serious film. Spoofs are not satires (a fact over which Jim Abrahams and I first bonded). Airplane! has no larger point, no insight to offer, no criticism to make. It merely offers us a familiar drama, but stocks the drama with characters who are curiously moronic (so moronic, they can barely tell that each other is a moron). Spoofs use parody, absurdity, wordplay and broad physical comedy to repackage something that was pompous and purposeful into something that is aggressively pointless.

Over the years, the spoof evolved somewhat. The Naked Gun spoofed a genre of television show, rather than a specific movie. Hot Shots! started the trend of spoofing multiple films that are linked by genre, and the Scary Movies are obviously children of that film, although they’ve been pushing the boundaries of spoof. Superhero!, the film I’m working on right now, is, well…I’m not allowed to say anything about that, but I can say its spoof style will be less Scary Movie and more…well, I can’t say.

What I can say is that Date Movie and Epic Movie are not at all spoofs. They feature some spoofesque humor, but they break a few cardinal rules of spoofing.

They do comic takes on comic films. They go after not just one or two or even five movies, but upwards of ten or twenty. And ultimately, they’re not so much movies as collections of sketches in which the lead actors change costumes constantly, become different characters as they need be, and work within the ever-changing dictates of whatever the next sketch is.

Also, they don’t spoof genres, despite their titles. What they seem to spoof is pretty much every notable film that came out in the year or two prior to their release.

Finally, and most importantly, much of what they do is reference a film without actually parodying the film. For example, in Date Movie, Allison Hannigan’s character has a nightmare in which she discovers she’s about to marry Napoleon Dynamite. The Friedberg & Seltzer version of Napoleon Dynamite says the exact same things that the actual Napoleon Dynamite character said, and nothing more. Similarly, at the end of Epic Movie, a Borat look-alike shows up to say, “Is nice!”, but that’s it.

In musical terms, their genre is more like a mashup, whereas spoof is more like a cover or a new song with samples from another song.

So they’re not pure sketch movies like Kentucky Fried Movie, but they’re not spoofs of a film (Airplane!) or a genre (Scary Movie).

They’re actually a genre unto their own. That’s pretty wild. It’s like finding a new species of dog or something.

So what do we call this stuff (easy now…)?

My buddy Scott Tomlinson, who knows a bit about sketch comedy, has the best name for the genre so far: comic film re-enactment.

Got a better name?

Granted, you may need more than two films before you can really christen something a “genre,” and I don’t know how many more of these Friedberg & Seltzer are going to do. All I can say is, as a devotee and disciple and ordained Jedi knight of the ZAZ religion…

…it’s definitely something else entirely.

If You’re Not In The Forum…You’re Missing The Turman

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

Turman smash!
These days, we’re clocking nearly 30,000 unique visitors a month at The Artful Writer. That’s great, but a lot of you are missing out on one of the best parts of this site: the Forum. Registering is free and easy, and the forum features one of our more popular offerings—the Ask A Pro section.

Right now, John Turman is our Pro, and he’s doling out advice and answers far more valuable than the stuff people pay for…be it in books or conventions or script analysts.

You can join the Forum and check it out for yourself, but for those who are lazy, here’s some of John’s insights and advice…

  • …it’s important to respect genre. Genre is just another word for audience expectations. You can cross them, mash them up, violate the expectations, but do it judiciously and know what you’re doing when you break “rules.”

  • Seriously, the only thing that gives you an edge is writing. Finishing marketable material. If you’re writing, you should produce 3-4 projects a year, finished works. For pay, or on spec if you’re not paid. These are the closest a writer comes to having a work force. They go out and circulate and maybe come back with money or a job.

  • Storyboard work helps a bit when you’re mapping action. Legal background hurts when you’re starting out. Any lack of ignorance hurts when you’re starting out. You should be naive and enthusiastic and wildly productive but if you know a bit of what actually goes on in the business, it’s easy to self-censor and that’s bad.

  • Protect your process. Whatever your process is, whatever you need to do to organize your life so that you can finish 3 projects a year. I was speaking at USC and sharing the session with an agent, who went on about how a writer needs to protect his process — the things he needs to do and organize his life and routine to make writing as regular and primary as possible. A great speech. I wish early on that I had an agent who told me those things.

  • I recommend that you don’t go out with your script for feedback, to agents, to the market, until you’ve at least begun your next project. An outline, notes, the actual script. This is protecting your process. It’s easier to take negativity, rejection, or even smoke blown up your ass when you’re engaged in another creative work. It keeps the focus on what matters - the work. If someone trashes your script, that’s okay, because the one you’re working on now… that’s the brilliant one. It helps you survive.

  • Writing is not about waiting until you’re inspired to create magic. The people who think that aren’t professional writers. They teach candle-making at the Bodhi Tree bookstore. Inspiration comes to the prepared mind. Sit down and work. We all need to write a lot of bad pages to get to the good ones.

  • There are useful storytelling theories. You can come up with some yourself. But the paradigms and graphs and charts of rising action… that stuff is mostly crap and has probably overcomplicated the process for more writers than they have ever helped. I have plenty of theories of various sorts and problem-solving tools, that I’ve found for myself, but there’s not the time here for that. Read those books, they can inspire and give an idea or two, but don’t follow them. Most of them are written by failed or lousy screenwriters. See movies, read scripts. Just tell a story and make sure it’s in the right format.

  • What we usually miss when we talk about films is the sense of newness and innocence through which we viewed films 10 or 20 years ago, more than the films themselves.

  • That’s why an obsession with convention, with how the big writers write certain scenes or handle certain situations, will hold you back. Study them, learn technique and craft, but you had better have something unique of your own to say with that genre and a unique way to say it.

  • I don’t believe in the concept of writer’s block. This can make for some awkward times when I’m not getting done. I think it’s all less mysterious and mystical than that. I just think it’s an indulgent concept. And even if it does exist, it serves no good purpose to believe in it. I don’t buy into ‘Demons”. Issues and psychological motivational problems maybe. A decent book on the “problem” of procrastination is THE WAR OF ART by Stephen Pressfield. Treat it like a real job, not magic. Same as living a moral life. Religion is superstition, in writing as in anything. It may give added ‘meaning’ but it creates magical thinking which is ultimately pretty disempowering.

  • Conflict is the method of drama. It arises from character. Going back to Aristotle (read ‘Poetics) and before (Plato, Socrates), the Greek philosophical model seeks to resolve conflict through discourse. This is dramatic story-telling in essence. This dialectic is an exchange of propositions. The thesis is the first proposition. It can be a question or plan or idea/value the character holds. The antithesis is the counter proposition or obstacle, an opposing force. The synthesis is what results or resolves, transforming the material and the conflict between the thesis and antithesis into something new. This is where the idea of 3 act structure comes from. I use ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ as philosophical short-hand for the basic structure of drama. As Syd Field would say, get your character up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down. Going up the tree is the thesis, it’s the character’s solution to some problem. In the tree he has rocks thrown at him (antithesis), complicating the action. The synthesis is how and why he finds a way down from the tree. It’s the under structure of the play or movie, as well as being repeated internally as the basic structure of the smaller units contained within, the scene.

Pretty good stuff, I think, and you don’t even have to buy a pricey ticket to the Screenwriting Expo or anything. I hope to see you there.