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Screenwriting Is Easy, and Other True Lies about Craft

Read a screenwriting book and you'll feel like the king of the writing universe.

Read a screenwriting book and you’ll feel like the king of the writing universe.

This post is going to be short so I can get back to my screenwriting. You read me right. My husband and I have started writing screenplays. I’m diving deep into my first one literally as I type this. (Ideas are always brewing, you know.) Somehow, by reading Save the Cat! and collaborating with my husband, I’m not only coming up with ideas quickly, but…wait for it…I’m having fun! I know. It’s too good to be true. But here are a handful of reasons I think this is happening:

  • Brainstorming works: We’ve been encouraged (by the screenwriting books we’ve been consuming like candy) to come up with as many ideas as we can and not worry about totally fleshing them out, so we’re freed from the hard stuff (at least at first) and able to revel in the glory of what we think are genius movie ideas.
  • Walking collaboration is magic: We talk details as we walk to the store, and it feels more like planning a slumber party than writing a story. We talk motivation, action, conflict, how to ramp up the conflict even more, and how to get to the climax gracefully. And when we get home, we’re so energized, that we have to just write it all out. And we do! The lesson of the walk-talk is that collaboration can make writing more fun. I suppose you have to have a good collaborator, though, so I’m lucky there. My dude’s full of good ideas.
  • Helpful guidance is a sage: The books we’ve been reading (besides Save the Cat! there’s also Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, which is as much fun to read as it is to follow) give some great practical advice, including outlines and examples that are easy to understand and follow.

This isn’t to say that as soon as we get past the outlining phase all the lust won’t have evaporated, but it is to say that I’ve never had such a good time writing in any other genre, and I wonder why…

Boyhood: The Power of Generalities in Storytelling

Boyhood

Watching a boy grow up on screen with his fictional family is genuinely moving.

Yes. This movie is as good as they say, and yes, you should go see it if you haven’t already. Here’s the thing to know before you go: It’s best to view this movie as an ethnography of the American childhood, specifically the childhood of this boy, Mason, who we get to watch grow up before our eyes from age six to eighteen, but also that of his older sister, Samantha (Richard Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) who is lovely and provides an important female counterweight to her brother in this family that is so American-generic that any of us can likely place ourselves within it.

This isn’t a romantic comedy or an action flick or a psychological thriller. It’s a straight forward coming-of-age story, and if you remember anything about growing up, you’ll remember that there’s a lot of small shit-happening-to-you kinds of events (school, weekends with dad) and a little of you-making-decisions-and-screwing-up stuff happening (not doing homework, lost virginity), but in general, most of the time, life for most people is pretty undramatic, and that’s the case in Boyhood, too. No one dies or gets cancer or goes on a great big adventure. No one has a disability or is abused or is a beautiful genius, shaping the character in extraordinary ways. But through the lack of drama, and I’d argue because of it, we’re delivered a “story” (albeit without the typical story arc) that is dramatically, emotionally honest and emblematic of what it feels like to discover ourselves incrementally as we do in real life. We also get to see the adults in this movie “come of age,” if you will. They, like most of us, are lost most of the time, and their lack of wisdom is refreshing.

I was most impressed by Linklater’s ability to provide us with moments that could be from any family in America, even though this family is indeed white and middle class, which obviously doesn’t represent all American families in a literal sense. However, most of us can relate to annoying siblings, neighborhood friends, divorce, road trips, homework, teachers who rat you out to your parents, teachers who badger you to be better, step-parents who fuck with your head, first loves, peer pressure, crappy food service jobs, heartbreak, imperfect parents, and a little marijuana smoking. In his low-key way, Linklater uses these moments to question (and kind of answer) the meaning of life. He takes these generalities, makes them just generic enough to fit your own life, and invites you in. This movie doesn’t wrap its characters’ lives up in neat packages, ending with a message of grace and understanding. No. This movie leaves everything a mess, as it should be, as it really is. For that reason, this movie is brilliant and beautiful.

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Begin Again, A Summer Retrospective

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

You go to see Begin Again at the cheap theater near your house with your husband to celebrate your second wedding anniversary. This after a six-day visit from your mother — who you’ve been emotionally preparing for since her last visit twelve months ago — and your fourteen-year-old niece who you haven’t seen since she was nine.

The whole trip becomes an act of juggling dull knives, a negotiation between reality and expectation. You pick your mom and niece up from the airport, breath measured, smile painted on. You see yourself in your family’s eyes, you see your faults. And you’re determined not to break or dive too far under the surface of their lives.

But then night falls and you find yourself tucking in your teenage niece at your house, listening to her wondering about your life, sharing hers, and you feel the immensity of her questions, her stories full of implication, clues as to who she’ll be in another year and another and you’re overwhelmed by the weight of it all, these lives crashing into yours.

You’ve always wanted to be a fixer but never knew which tools would do the job.

A week or so before your family arrives, you walk to the park for a picnic with friends. The scene is all urban bucolic: lawn for yards, climbable trees, a tennis court adjacent to the community garden. And then the vagrant guy walks up, kneels down, holds out a blue paper plate, asks for exactly two deviled eggs in a whisper. He has his delivery down to a science. He’s patient, Christlike. You think of that old admonition about treating the ragged and poor and deserted as if they’re Christ returned; you consider letting him in, giving him what you have to give. But before you consider this you grimace and scold him. Please don’t, you say. Your friend chimes in, This is a private party. As if your blankets are locked doors and he’s the wolf threatening to blow down your house.

You leave feeling a little sick at how easy it is to keep a hungry man hungry with piles of food at your disposal. You leave wondering who you really are.

Then you’re sitting by a pool with your mother, telling her all the reasons she’s wrong. About what, you don’t know exactly, but you know these words have to be said even though you see what’s happening in her eyes and you know, too, that you’ve chosen the wrong tools again. What if the right tools don’t exist in your reality, you wonder. What if some lives just stay broken?

Then you’re sitting, arm woven through the arm of your love, in a dark theater watching Mark Ruffalo spiral out and back into control of his life, watching him find the tools, be the fixer. You watch people lose each other and find themselves. You watch a girl fall in love with her father and understand what it means to be beautiful and wanted. You watch Keira Knightley make music artfully and choose not to sell out. You watch lives move like a dance and embrace in understanding. You tell your husband how glad you are that Mark and Keira don’t hook up, that it would ruin their romance. You’re in love with their kind of love: a tight rope, a life raft.

And you know that you’re not exactly sinking or flying and you know that you’re full of something that can be good when it’s not tired or frightened and you tell yourself to keep trying, that someday the tool might be there, just the one you’ve been looking for all these years.

Obesssions

I was that kid who could spend hours focused on one particular thing and it would usually take over my life. As an adult, I’ve learned to multitask, but sometimes I’m still caught up in something and consumed with one particular thing. It can be a new author and I have to read all books he or she has written. Or just a particular series and I read all books written in one sitting and then wait impatiently for the new one to come out. I love Netflix because the best way to watch any show–House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, for example–is to binge watch.

And then there is the internet. YouTube sucks me in like nothing else and I’m addicted to Kid President, Tiffany Persson (A weird video blog based on a Swedish comedy character), and any cute thing dogs do.  My most recent obsession is watching Bored Shorts TV’s Kid Snippets.

These are videos imagined by kids, but acted out by grownups. For some reason it tickles my funny bone so much that I can’t stop watching them. I’ve watched my favorites over and over again. Here are some of them.

The one with the penguin:

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The Division of Gravity

I marvel everyday at humanity’s capability for resilience. So often, difficulties and challenges feel insurmountable, heartbreak feels incurable, pain unending. In a perfect world, the people we love don’t hurt us, parents don’t separate, families aren’t ruined, and everyone has enough money to live decently. But perfection is also problematic, sometimes it is too weighty, sometimes it costs too much to sustain and gets lost in the fullness of itself.

However, it is entirely possible to survive every misery, from the trivial to the desecrating, no matter how many things were solid yesterday and today disappeared beneath a fault line. After a while, the dust settles. Ruin is swept away, rain becomes important again, and air, and the sea and the sun.

The Fault In Our Scars

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For the past year or so, I’ve kept hearing about “The Fault In Our Stars,” the tale of two teenagers who fall in love after meeting at a cancer support group. I’ve seen the rave reviews. Heck, there’s a movie version coming out in June, and I’ve seen the trailers. I’ve even gone into the bookstore, picked up the book, and debated buying it, all to put it back down again and wander over to another section.

The reason: I’m feeling a very specific brand of emotional cowardice right now. I don’t think I can handle All of the Feelings the book is sure to provoke. First love + terminal cancer = Lareign Curled Up in the Fetal Position, Weeping Softly.

There are times when I want a book or movie or song to make me cry, times when I cue up Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You” or Cat Power’s “Manhattan” because I’m convinced I have some sadness that needs to be released. At that point, it’s like blowing your nose: Kind of ugly, and you don’t want to do it with anybody else nearby, but you feel better once it’s over.

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I’m not sure the same is true of “The Fault In Our Stars,” at least at this point. I’ve become all too aware in the last couple of years of just how fleeting life is, of how quickly people we care about can leave us. It’s not that I can’t handle reading about bad things or sad things, either; I do that every day, whether it’s checking the news or reading a novel for class. I don’t go peering around corners looking for stray emotions that snuck out of the Feelings Zoo. It just seems like a bad idea to immerse myself in this particular combination of beautiful things (like love) and sad things (terminal cancer) right now.

The actors in the trailer seem to be hitting all the right notes, and author John Green seems to be happy with what Hollywood has done to his book, which is rare enough in itself. But I think I’m just going to have to wait, on both the book and the film.

Springtime in Spokane

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I come from Texas, a land where school is canceled and the news channels go to round-the-clock coverage if two inches of snow falls. When that happens, Snowpacalypse 2012 (or whatever year) is all anyone in town can talk about. The grocery store shelves are bare. Drivers are warned to stay home unless it’s an emergency. apocalypse

Then I moved to Spokane.

I knew winter would be rough, but I didn’t quite know just how rough it could get. It snowed, and no one seemed to blink, although a few people did say, “You think that’s bad?” and shake their head, almost as if they pitied me.

The plows did not come through, at least not on my street. I am told this is not unusual, but it was still jarring to walk outside and see what looked like an ice rink that spanned several blocks. The snow fell, and it did not melt. More snow fell on top of it, and that didn’t melt either.

By early February, I felt numb, both physically and emotionally. Nothing was alive, and it seemed like nothing would ever be alive again. Everything was cold and gray. Colors no longer existed.

I bought a SAD lamp, but it was hard to even muster up the energy to turn the blasted thing on. When I did turn it on the first time, I was dumb enough to look directly at the light. Being rendered temporarily blind did nothing to improve my mood. At my lowest moment, a Lana Del Rey song came on the radio and I started yelling: “SUMMERTIME SADNESS? IT’S 3 DEGREES OUT, YOU MORON!”

Gradually, something shifted. A few weeks ago, I switched from my  heavy coat to my lighter coat (the latter being the only coat I really needed back in Texas). The snow cover started melting, and sleet and rain started falling instead of big, thick snowflakes.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I started leaving my coat in the car when I ran errands. This was around the time the sun decided to start peaking out from  behind the clouds again, around the time the clocks sprang forward and the sun started setting at 7 p.m. instead of noon.

Nowadays, I walk outside my house in the morning and feel like Dorothy leaving her tornado-battered house and entering the world of Technicolor that is Oz. There’s an asphalt street instead of a yellow brick road, and there are screaming schoolchildren across the street rather than Munchkins, but that’s OK.

There’s also no sign of a benevolent blonde witch in a puffy pink dress, but hey, it’s only April.

 

 

door’s open – walkens welcome

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Hateship Loveship

The trailer is out for Hateship Loveship, the movie based on Alice Munro’s story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” The film stars Kristen Wiig, Nick Nolte, Guy Pearce, and others.

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things you should know about cnn’s “chicagoland”

chicagoland

tonight at 10/9c, cnn will air the first episode of their original series, “chicagoland.”  because my employer was involved with some of the filming for this 8-part documentary, this past tuesday night i was able to attend a special debut showing at the bank of america theater in chicago.  based on the first episode that i saw, i would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in an insider’s view to how a modern american city works (or, sometimes, doesn’t).

their crews were given access to intimate & uncensored moments we members of the public rarely get to see, if ever: with the mayor, with the principal of a school which needs metal detectors, with the police chief, with grieving families, and—in the episode’s most haunting moment—with 10-year-old students who are literally scared for their lives just walking to school.

but, as someone who loves this city dearly, i want to give all of you not from chicago a viewer’s guide to the things that the cameras didn’t capture, or were edited out, or just plain weren’t explained…

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