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?

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).

   INT. SEAN'S OFFICE -- DAY

               Lambeau stands across from Sean, seething.

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

                                     SEAN
                         Now wait a minute--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         --And confuse him--

                                     SEAN
                         --Gerry--

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

                                     SEAN
                         Hold on!

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

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

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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 
                         here.

                                     SEAN
                         "Undermine?"

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

                                     SEAN
                         He is at a fragile point. He's got 
                         problems--

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

                                     SEAN
                         Why do you think he does that, Gerry?

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

                                     SEAN
                         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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         Oh, come on, Sean--

                                     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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         Oh, that's nice--

                                     SEAN
                         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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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--

                                     SEAN
                         --I'm not angry at you--

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

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

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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.

                                     SEAN
                         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 
                         Medal!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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--

                                     SEAN
                         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 
                         on!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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.

                                     SEAN
                         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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         He won't be a failure!

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

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

                                     SEAN
                         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.

The Point of Plot

Image

My first script-reading job in New York, a producer taught me the term “story point.”

“What’s the story point of the scene?” he’d ask about a particularly cool action set piece or four pages of rom-com banter. It was a rude awakening that dialogue and character can only camouflage so much. It sometimes seems ruthless but at the end of every scene you should ask: How does this drive my story forward? What is the essential information conveyed that the audience needs to retain in order to appreciate the story as it unfolds? How can I deliver that in a succinct, uncluttered way?

Plot is the mechanism by which you engage an audience in what happens to your character by creating a situation where stakes gradually rise to put your character in an unbearable decision, forcing him or her to make a decision that ultimately reveals who he or she is. A lot of times as writers we get caught up in character, and that’s good. You want a rich, fully dimensional character but sometimes your very intimate knowledge of a character can slow you down, can make you bring every single detail about this character you’ve built into a scene, and that’s a mistake…because not every single detail about your character is important unless it affects the storyline.

And here’s a dirty truth…if you’re a really talented writer and the character you set up is exceptional, specific, hasn’t been seen before and we fall in love, the mechanics of plot aren’t that important. But you’re stacking the deck against yourself and you’re counting on being lucky, on snagging the right cast, the right performance, or on tapping into the zeitgeist at the right time.

Take “Lost in Translation” for example, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 breakout hit.

220px-Lost_in_Translation_poster

Here’s a review from About.com.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a fading, middle-aged movie star who comes to Tokyo to make whiskey commercials for a ridiculously high fee. Temporarily running away from his life and the constant demands of his wife (who remains a nagging voice on the telephone), Harris is a lonely man. He is disconcerted by the absolute foreignness of Japan. Lost in a strange country, he is unable to sleep. His disappointment in himself is palpable. Coppola wrote the role especially for Bill Murray and courted him, knowing that she would not make the film without him. Given Murray’s warm and nuanced performance, it is impossible to imagine any other actor who could have pulled off such an unaffected combination of humor and tenderness. Bob Harris is reminiscent of Murray’s Herman Blume in “Rushmore”–funny and wry and wanting.

“Lost In Translation” works because there’s such an interesting specific character that we’ve never seen before caught up in a modern situation (fading actors making money from their fame in remote places) and because the filmmaker is able to so accurately translate the mood of sleepwalking through Tokyo as a metaphor for how we sleepwalk through life. There’s a character and a “want” and two terrific performances and it works.

But it’s not easy…even if it looks like it is.  As a result, Lost in Translation makes a whole lot of lesser writers write a whole lot of talky scenes that go nowhere, in the same way Pulp Fiction did before it.

What is it about us as writers that makes us look at a four legged chair and say, no, I’m bored with that…I’m going to make mine with three?

My theory is that we shy away from plot because it can feel mechanical. I also think it’s harder to make a movie that’s all plot resonate compared to a movie that’s all character. But plot matters in so much as it’s a way to shed light on character. Without it a story wanders, lacks tension and that character we were so interested in at the outset, struggles to keep us engaged.

It’s Not About Selling: Pitching Like a Human Being

Last week I went to a pitch party.  I hate pitching. Pitching runs counter to every part of my being– I’m from a former British colony where you don’t “blow your own horn”– but I made the exception and trekked to this pitch event since it was organized by an old teacher I hadn’t seen in forever and  I hoped to run into a few old writing class colleagues. It also didn’t hurt that the event was in a cool-looking bar on the Lower East Side.

What pitching feels like to me.

What pitching feels like to me.

Linking up with the class colleagues part was a bust. The one who wrote these great zombie movies moved to San Francisco, another one who was writing this hilarious and ingenious period comedy wasn’t there, presumably giving the shill-a-thon a miss, and and I saw only a few vaguely remembered faces. Still it was a fun night out, a sort of cocktail party pitch session, very different from the last sweaty-palmed thing I attended where three writers were set loose dry-mouthed in a room with five minutes to spend at each weary executive’s chair-desk.

The executives last week might have been just as weary but at least they had the benefit of alcohol to get them through the night. And the event underlined the importance of reaching not for the “bag of gold spec sale” but a genuine relationship with a human being that could be built on going forward. You’re talking to a person, Teach said…take a moment and acknowledge that.

And Teach laid out one other pearl that will help me rethink how I look at pitching. Many writers feel self-conscious being their own hype machines, rattling off achievements and pithy zingers of the “It’s Aliens meets Wedding Crashers” variety we hope will make the production company or executive or agent see dollar signs but if there’s one thing about writers,  we love to help. We’re comfortable helping. What if instead of looking at pitching as selling, we looked at it as helping?

What pitching could be (with the exec as cuddly teddy bear)

What pitching could be (with the exec as cuddly teddy bear)

Go on. Try it. Look at the whole pitch game from the point of view of the executive…Do you have something that can help them fill a gap in their slate? Do you have a skillset that might be helpful to them on a project they already have? If you don’t write the genre or the type of script they’re looking for, don’t try to change their mind or foist your project on them regardless, help them out by leading them to a fellow writer who does.

And the final way to help? Write a good script. Readers and execs are always complaining about how many bad scripts there are out there. (One producer I met estimated in the last six months he’d read 80 bad scripts.) The people who need content to do their jobs are hungry to read something good. That’s where we come in because it begins with us. It starts on on the page.