Road to Joy (with apologies to Inside Out)

Ugh, you call that a plot point?

360 days out of 365 I hate writing. Okay, you got me: that’s a writer’s hyperbole. But honestly, these days, between producing the movie and pounding the day job, the time to sit and write has been rare and what has come out, a sad, dull trickle.

It hasn’t mattered much, apart from adding to the mounting dread that when someone says what’s coming next, there’ll be no amazing script to whip out and send. And that I’ll never make another movie.

Turns out shepherding the current movie to the screen is work enough. And the demands of the day tend to sabotage creative pursuits. The bills come first. The kids come first. No one needs your writing. No one needs your new script. (The irony of having a script produced is you realize how much the nameless “they” really do need you writing, but it’s when you’re on set trying to solve a last minute problem so a whole cast and crew don’t just stand around.) It’s a lot different when you’re in the spec stage staring at the blank page, when it’s just an idea, no money, no talent, there’s nothing pressing about it. So it can always be put on pause.

But I remember this writer one time on one of these panels that used to be weekly gifted to us as grad students talking about how miserable he would be when he didn’t write. Like he’d be fighting with his girlfriend and hate his job and his food wouldn’t taste right and after about a week or two he’d realize what it was…it was the not writing. And he’d fix it. And he’d feel better.

So I did the drastic thing to force me to feel better, to have to write. I signed up to a formal workshop. Yep. Turns out I need something more regular than my tribe. Something I pay for that I have to show up to every week…and I have more or less, apart from the one time I couldn’t get a sitter.

Getting back into writing in a workshop setting has been like setting the time machine back to when I first moved to New York. I’ve gotten to relive that rush of entering a room full of strangers with their stories and voices that you’ll come to know, maybe for a lifetime, maybe for a couple of weeks. The only downside, it’s been pretty rusty cranking up the old machine…though it is a relief that the gears still work. And although it’s been satisfying, it’s been joyless. I’ve been getting it done but not loving it. I’ve been writing to avoid the malaise that comes with the not writing. A bit like how you hit the gym, put in your minimum time on the treadmill and tick it off the to-do list.

And then, last night, joy returned. I totally wasn’t expecting it. The “ama” of the amateur. At this point it’s hard for me to write without thinking like a producer or thinking of the production, being cognizant of the gears and mechanics. But after having survived the ten to twelve pages of a serviceable set-up, I got into a scene and it just clicked. The characters, the rhythm, the story…and ooh, look, a shiny new character trait for me to have fun with for the next eighty pages!!! And I remember how good it can feel to write. To laugh and delight and to think and to get lost. Quite impossibly, once again, I love this screenwriting life.

Yipee. I get to write!

All The World’s a Stage & All the Men and Women Merely Players

On August 6, 2015 Jon Stewart signed off from the Daily Show for the final time. The end of Jon’s 16-year stint at the desk was universally covered as a “moment” in our cultural history, prompting a one-hour special from the Rachel Maddow show, and several effusive superlatives that TV would never be the same.

I’ve never watched a full episode of the Daily Show, the occasional clip here and there, including Jon’s bravura turn parodying Glenn Beck in 2011 for a full 15 minutes…but I have appreciated how he’s groomed many of comedy’s top contemporaries (John Oliver, Steve Carrell, Ed Helms) and I was a devotee of alumnus Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report”. Delightfully for me, it was my beloved Colbert that provided the most touching moment of Jon Stewart’s send-off episode.

Stephen Colbert moves Jon Stewart to tears on the final Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Stephen Colbert moves Jon Stewart to tears on the final Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

In it Stephen Colbert manages the delicate balance of sentiment and comedy, cornering his boss and then launching a gratitude bomb at him that he can’t evade. (I sympathized with Jon here. I feel the same ickiness Jon demonstrated trying to wheel his chair back and fro, willing the ordeal to end). Stephen’s thank you is the only moment of the episode I watched and so I missed the “bullshit” speech Stewart gave. I feel no compulsion to watch it though, given that it seems a reiteration of the ethos of the show. Also, given that so many cable news shows now feature segments that cast a comic eye on the clown car that passes for politics it seems almost superfluous. It might be better for us to be diligent about looking for content, so miniscule is that rare nugget.

It was while browsing feedback on the Stewart speech I never watched that I came across a post urging folks to view a better send-off in their opinion, Conan O’Brien.  Oh Conan.  As much as I love Colbert, Conan was my first comedy love. As an undergrad at college it was the show I had to watch. I loved his dorky humor, the freshness and edginess of the bits. Everything else on late-night seemed tame. I still laugh when I think about the glory days of Masturbating Bear and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. One of the highlights of grad school at NYU was the session we had with one of Conan’s writers–through hazy memory I think it was Jon Glaser– for a sketch comedy class. He was self-deprecating, laid back, funny, everything you’d expect a comedy writer to be.

Conan’s bitter NBC bow is a haze to me now, despite all the fury I felt at the time. (I bought into the Leno as evil puppeteer but in retrospect Conan’s humor was never suited to the milquetoast Late Night audience, an environment that the benevolent, inoffensive Jimmy Fallon has thrived in.)

There have been other forced goodbyes at the hands of Machiavellian NBC talent (looking at you Matt Lauer) and you might think Conan’s goodbye would be along the lines of Ann Curry’s tearful sayonara–she sat a woman wedged uncomfortably next to  Matt Lauer who has an arm around her where he’s likely removing the knife from a job successfully done.

Ann Curry's last Today show made for an uncomfortable goodbye

Ann Curry’s last Today show made for an uncomfortable goodbye.

Ann was rueful about not being able to be the groundbreaker she wanted to be.  Conan, by contrast, has no remorse, underlines his good fortune, jokes about going wherever the work is– even making a joke about playing a parking lot which he instantly regrets. But the coup de grace, the part that gets to you because of its truth is what he says at the end…

Speech starts at 0:35.

The money part of the speech…

“I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality.
It doesn’t lead anywhere.
Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.
But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you. Amazing things will happen.”

From me, amazing things happening soon. The film (that I’ve often talked about as Crazy Bollywood musical) gets its festival premiere next month. That’s why I had to change my about page. No more trying to make a movie. I made one. Now with Conan’s words in mind,  I’m going to set sights on project two and with kindness (it’s really the shout-out to kindness that I think makes this quote so special)  get back out there in the universe, optimism still bubbling right over.

Seven Stereotypes About Women Screenwriters

I expend a fair amount of blog energy on how things are tougher for women screenwriters, and the studies that back me up.

And I thought it would be fun to compile stereotypes about women screenwriters that can get in our way.

They’re below. (Feel free to help me get to ten, folks.)

More recently however I’ve been rethinking how I feel about all this. More of that in a separate post….Promise.

Adorable funny gals, clockwise from top: Morgan Murphy, Leslye Headland, Maggie Carey, Lauren Anne Miller, Kay Cannon

Adorable funny gals, clockwise from top: Morgan Murphy, Leslye Headland, Maggie Carey, Lauren Anne Miller, Kay Cannon


For now:

The Stereotypes

1. They apologize before they pitch. (“This is just an idea I had…just my first draft…something that needs work…”)
2. They’re cute and spunky.
3. They write  romantic comedies or dramas.
4. They’re bad investments cause they’ll give up on writing when they start a family.
5. They are less fun to hang with than their male counterparts.
6. They aren’t in touch with the market and what sells.
7. They write “soft” stories and suck at structure.

How many of these are you? How many did I miss?

New Work: Documentary Short for the New York Times on Hollywood’s Biggest Backlot, Brooklyn

flollywood-videoSixteenByNine310In the Brooklyn neighborhood where I’ve lived for the last three years, every few day’s there’s a new notice for a film or TV shoot (“Girls”, “The Americans”, “The Black Box”, “Boardwalk Empire” “Person of Interest” “Orange is the New Black”, etc.).

It’s something Manhattanites have been familiar with for a long time but Brooklyn’s become an increasingly significant part of the action.

My partner and I made a documentary short for the New York Times on what it’s like to live in a quiet residential neighborhood which is also one of the most filmed places in the city. Check it out here.

Don’t Try This At Home: Good Will Hunting

Now I'll draw a picture of a poodle.

Now I’ll close with my picture of a poodle.

Sometimes a screenplay or movie will come along and catch fire to such an extent it inspires a slew of writers to try the same high-wire act. Usually that’s fine. We see movies to be inspired and to learn. We read scripts, read scripts, and then read scripts.  But there is such a thing as trying to copy from the wrong movie and too often that’s what we try to do.

Take Good Will Hunting, Oscar-winning screenplay 2007. It’s a movie of  fast-talking, monologue-heavy, cry-screaming, melodrama, complete with unlikely ironies like a brilliant  young janitor who can solve equations that leave the rich kids he cleans behind and their brilliant professors stumped. God the movie is so talky…and so irresistible. So many times we’re taught that we have to steer clear of cliche and melodrama but done right it satisfies this primal itch better than anything else. (Maybe there’s an argument to write towards cliche?) Check out the New York Times synopsis below.

A rebellious 20-year-old MIT janitor Will Hunting (Damon), gifted with a photographic memory, hangs out with his South Boston bar buddies, his best friend Chuckie (Affleck), and his affluent British girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver). After MIT professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) stumps students with a challenging math formula on a hallway blackboard, Will anonymously leaves the correct solution, prompting Lambeau to track the elusive young genius. As Will’s problems with the police escalate, Lambeau offers an out, but with two conditions — visits to a therapist and weekly math sessions. Will agrees to the latter but refuses to cooperate with a succession of therapists. Lambeau then contacts his former classmate, therapist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), an instructor at Bunker Hill Community College. Both are equally stubborn, but Will is finally forced to deal with both his past and his future.

So many things could go wrong here. The allegorical name: Will Hunting. Photographic memory. Seen it a zillion times, right? The genius kid janitor. Well, maybe we haven’t specifically seen a janitor but the unlikely victor’s pretty familiar. The therapy visits….ooh yeah, the promise of pages and pages of dialogue about our poor abandoned hero and what mom and dad did. But there is the promise of drama in the closing phrase: The therapist and Will are equally stubborn (conflict) with Will finally forced to deal with both his past and future.

Twenty-six years later I’ll admit there are some things I find a little ham-fisted about Good Will Hunting. Perhaps it is how sentimental and precious it seems in a harsher, hook-up, navel-gazing, hashtag world. And some of the motivation and psycho-analsysis seems so obvious. And while the dialogue is 99 percent sensational, sometimes it is on the nose, overwritten and saved only by those performances.

Exhibit A: This super-talky scene between Sean (Robin Williams) and Lambeau (Stellan Skaarsgard).


               Lambeau stands across from Sean, seething.

                         This is a disaster! I brought you in 
                         here to help me with this boy, not 
                         to run him out--

                         Now wait a minute--

                         --And confuse him--


                         And here I am for the second week in 
                         a row with my professional reputation 
                         at stake--

                         Hold on!

                         Ready to falsify documents because 
                         you've given him license to walk 
                         away from this.

                         I know what I'm doing and I know why 
                         I'm here!

                         Look Sean, I don't care if you have 
                         a rapport with the boy -- I don't 
                         care if you have a few laughs -- 
                         even at my expense! But don't you 
                         dare undermine what I'm trying to do 


                         He has a gift and with that gift 
                         comes responsibility. And you don't 
                         understand that he's at a fragile 

                         He is at a fragile point. He's got 

                         What problems does he have, Sean, 
                         that he is better off as a janitor 
                         or in jail or hanging around with--

                         Why do you think he does that, Gerry?

                         He can handle the work, he can handle 
                         the pressure and he's obviously 
                         handled you.

                         Why is he hiding? Why is he a janitor?
                         Why doesn't he trust anybody? Because 
                         the first thing that happened to him 
                         was that he was abandoned by the 
                         people who were supposed to love him 
                         the most!

                         Oh, come on, Sean--

                         And why does he hang out with his 
                         friends? Because any one of those 
                         kids would come in here and take a 
                         bat to your head if he asked them 
                         to. It's called loyalty!

                         Oh, that's nice--

                         And who do you think he's handling?  
                         He pushes people away before they 
                         have a chance to leave him. And for 
                         20 years he's been alone because of 
                         that. And if you try to push him 
                         into this, it's going to be the same 
                         thing all over again. And I'm not 
                         going to let that happen to him!

                         Now don't do that. Don't you do that!
                         Don't infect him with the idea that 
                         it's okay to quit. That it's okay to 
                         be a failure, because it's not okay! 
                         If you're angry at me for being 
                         successful, for being what you could 
                         have been--

                         --I'm not angry at you--

                         Yes you are, Sean. You resent me. 
                         And I'm not going to apologize for 
                         any success that I've had.

                         --I don't have any anger at you--

                         Yes you do. You're angry at me for 
                         doing what you could have done. Ask 
                         yourself if you want Will to feel 
                         that way for the rest of his life, 
                         to feel like a failure.

                         That's it. That's why I don't come 
                         to the goddamn reunions!  Because I 
                         can't stand the look in your eye 
                         when you see me! You think I'm a 
                         failure! I know who I am. I'm proud 
                         of who I am. And all of you, you 
                         think I'm some kind of pity case! 
                         You with your sycophant students 
                         following you around. And your Goddamn 

                         Is that what this is about, Sean? 
                         The Field's Medal? Do you want me to 
                         go home and get it for you? Then 
                         will you let the boy--

                         I don't want your trophy and I don't 
                         give a shit about it! 'Cause I knew 
                         you when!! You and Jack and Tom 
                         Sanders. I knew you when you were 
                         homesick and pimply-faced and didn't 
                         know what side of the bed to piss 

                         That's right!  You were smarter than 
                         us then and you're smarter than us 
                         now! So don't blame me for how your 
                         life turned out. It's not my fault.

                         I don't blame you! It's not about 
                         that!  It's about the boy! 'Cause 
                         he's a good kid! And I won't see 
                         this happen to him- won't see you 
                         make him feel like a failure too!

                         He won't be a failure!

                         If you push him into something, if 
                         you ride him--

                         You're wrong, Sean. I'm where I am 
                         today because I was pushed. And 
                         because I learned to push myself!

                         He's not you!

I apologize. Truly. And I’m sparing you, cause the scene goes on and honestly, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a script editor that wouldn’t delight in taking a red pen to this stuff. It’s not as bad on screen…it’s fast and it moves but God help me I think it could use some pruning.

How does Good Will Hunting get away with this? It creates such a sympathetic character that you root for in the underdog Will, the Boston the story takes place in is so specific and infuses the dialogue so deliciously, and the two angels battling for Will’s soul, Sean and Lambeau are both so fully-drawn elsewhere that they are allowed to let anger and frustration lead them into this on-the-nose shouting match. In other words, if you create a deeply satisfying story and characters, scenes like this will slide by.

But if you fail to do the groundwork– and I saw my share of these scenes as a reader (and write my share of them too as a writer)– it will be awful.

The John Ridley-Steve McQueen Beef

stevemcqueenIn the midst of all the celebrating for Best Picture winner “12 Years A Slave” we had John Ridley (screenwriter) throwing shade at director Steve McQueen as he walked to the stage to collect his Oscar and Steve McQueen with the above sorta sarcastic looking hand-clapping.

Folks immediately tried to downplay it by saying maybe Ridley was really focusing on his acceptance speech or could be those British people clap funny, but it was more than passing strange when the movie won best picture and McQueen (and Brad Pitt for that matter) neglected to thank the now Oscar-winning John Ridley script from Solomon Northup’s 1853 book.

According to rumors at Deadline Hollywood the tiff is over the screenplay credit. Presumably McQueen thinks he ought to get one. And elsewhere folks made a point that the cast seemed to line up behind McQueen, most memorably onstage after the big win when Ridley hung back towards the wings, away from the ecstatic actors and producers. Interesting too that Lupita N’yongo didn’t acknowledge Ridley’s adapting the book and that so much emphasis, perhaps understandably, has been on Northup’s 1853 account.

But back to the Schmucks with Underwoods idea…

“They were like football kickers, specialists — they didn’t pitch in, didn’t get tackled, they weren’t part of the movie company, the gang that went on the floor and bashed the damn thing out; they finished their work before the company gathered and were gone when it began.”

As such, whether in the right or wrong, the solitary writer will always be vulnerable.

Who are These Schmucks with Underwoods?

Get thee to writing thy screenplay, thou hack.

Get thee to writing thy screenplay, thou hack.

2013 was an annus horibilus in terms of my filmmaking life, a year in which I’d look aspirationally at this blog’s tagline “laughing off the slings and arrows” and doubt whether I’d get to a place to be able to do that again.

But I did learn a lot about the process of putting together a film and there was this weird thing that I kept bumping up against with the script for the project. “Did you write this thing? All of it? How? Did you write it with your husband, your friends, anyone else?”

There is always a level of angst about who wrote the script, the ownership, the intellectual property. I’ve gotten it from investors and lawyers who may have had bad experiences of folks coming out of the woodwork to attack the most obvious target…the source material that the film is based on, but while I was eager to talk about moving forward, the prep, the picture, the money, there was always this backward glance. I couldn’t figure it out. Having been with the script for years, I couldn’t see it from their perspective and couldn’t understand their skepticism, until the excellent book I’m reading “What Happens Next”, Marc Norman’s History of American Screenwriting put me in their shoes for a moment.

Here’s Marc Norman (screenwriter “Shakespeare in Love”) writing about Hollywood in the ’20s, which is a pretty apt summary of what I came up against.

“Stars and directors did their work in plain view– a mogul could visit a set and understand what he was paying for, the heart-stopping performance, the magisterial leadership.  In fact, none of them were quite sure what a screenwriter did or even how he did it. Certainly he delivered an artifact, a screenplay that worked or didn’t, but where did it come from? […]
Did it take them a year to write a screenplay, or only one day and then they waited a year to hand it in? There was no telling because no one could see the work occur; the screenwriter functioned in private, secluded, unwatchable. […] They were like football kickers, specialists — they didn’t pitch in, didn’t get tackled, they weren’t part of the movie company, the gang that went on the floor and bashed the damn thing out; they finished their work before the company gathered and were gone when it began.”

Schmucks With Underwoods as Jack Warner, the Warner Brothers studio head, famously called his writers around this time… but it’s no longer relevant.
Now we’re Schmucks With Laptops scrimmaging for desks and plug points  at the coffee shop.