You’re About to Get “Kasdaned!”

Lawrence Kasdan signing autographs at Austin Film Festival Conference 2011

Tonight is the second to the last night of The Austin Film Festival. The conference portion ran from Thursday through Sunday in the meeting rooms of the stunning Driskell Hotel, and the films are still playing.

I attended these seven panels:

  1. How to Work the Film Festival for Filmmakers
  2. Sustaining a Writing Career Outside of L.A.
  3. The Creative Career: What You Need to Know
  4. Agents and Managers
  5. The Heroine’s Journey: Writing and Selling the Female-Driven Screenplay
  6. On the Level (TV Writer Staffing)
  7. Producing Outside the Norm: A Conversation with Elizabeth Avellan
What a great experience. I took copious notes, and I plan to write them up here as much for myself as for others who want to imbibe some of the conference information and inspiration. Now that I blog, I can’t not take notes. I know when I get home and write about my experiences I’m going to wish I had direct quotes, and there were some GREAT ones. I’m going to want that list of comments that inspired me to take my next steps as a writer.
I was most excited to see and listen to Lawrence Kasdan. Take a gander at only his writing credits from
2003Dreamcatcher (screenplay)
1999Mumford (written by)
1996Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (Video Game) (story)
1994Wyatt Earp (written by)
1992The Bodyguard (written by)
1991Grand Canyon (written by)
1988The Accidental Tourist (screenplay)
1985Silverado (written by)
1983The Big Chill (written by)
1981Continental Divide (written by)
1981Body Heat (written by)
1981Raiders of the Lost Ark (screenplay)
Kasdan was on the panel, “The Creative Career: What You Need to Know,” along with Craig Mazin (SCARY MOVIE 3 & 4, THE HANGOEVR 2), Daniel Petrie, Jr. (THE BIG EASY, BEVERLY HILLS COP, SHOOT TO KILL, TURNER & HOOCH, TOY SOLDIERS, & others), Rhett Reese (EARTH VS. MOON, ZOMBIELAND 2, MONSTERS, INC.), and the moderator, Howard A. Rodman (screenwriter, novelist, educator, former WGAW VP), all delightful in distinctive ways.
They inspired me by giving examples from their own lives with energy, compassion, enthusiasm. They broke my heart with how much they love screenwriting and how much they want to help us folks hanging on their every word, leaning forward in the rows and rows of yellow chairs in the Driskell Hotel meeting rooms. It makes a difference to be there, to see them, hear their voices, see how damn smart they are, how funny, kind, loving.
Kasdan hijacked a question by the excellent and funny moderator, Howard A. Rodman, who spoke in so many metaphors, I’m still communicating with him telephathically. Rodman was doing a fine job asking our panelists about pitfalls in the business, as the program announced he would. Yet, Kasdan began an introduction to the reason why he was not going to answer the question. Craig Mazin piped up in sheer glee warning Rodman, “You’re getting Kasdaned right now!” Graciously, authentically, Kasdan explained he did not want to answer a question about how to deal with negative notes from studio executives, deeming it not relevant to the folks in the audience. He said we had different pitfalls than those of the panel, being at vastly different stages. Not missing a beat, Rodman said, “Good note,” then rephrased the question exactly as Kasdan suggested, using most of the same words. Kasdan said, “I’m glad you asked.” And on and on like that, witty, gracious, helpful, inspiring. All of them.
Someone asked a question about script consultants. “Who’s reputable? How much should one spend on it?” Mazin jumped at the chance to say, “Not one cent! And here’s why. It’s baloney. Screenwriting is free. Every single movie ever made has been disagreed about.” The same questioner obviously wanted someone to direct her to reputable script consultants and tried again. “Does anyone else on the panel have a different opinion?” Mazin replied, “They do not.” Everyone laughed. Perfect comic timing. And the truth is, no one else on the panel voiced a different opinion. We just moved on.
Someone wanted to know how long it takes the panel members to write a single script. They gave literal answers about their own process and others they’ve heard about. I always love those kind of answers for comparing. But I really loved what Lawrence Kasdan said:  “It takes as long as it takes to get to the end, and you can let someone read it without you being embarrassed. Could be a month or two years.”
Another audience member asked the question, “How do the panelists divide their time between the creative and the business sides of writing?” Hey, I thought it was interesting, and I definitely wanted to know how many hours a day Kasdan writes and how many hours he tweets and calls his agent (as if his world after so many years of success would resemble mine in any way). He sidestepped it, ever the one to keep the panel talking about things that can actually help us. I love what he said. “There’s very little work. There are very few meetings. There is very little cashing of checks. Concentrate on the creative, and all the business will present itself in a pleasing way.”
I think I just got Kasdaned!
In the next day or two in another post, I’m going to list a bunch of quotes from the panel that were particularly helpful to me. These will include quotes by Reese and Petrie, as well. What advice have you gotten that helped you take your next step?

Austin Film Festival Panelists Say “Keep Writing!”

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
Image via Wikipedia

The Austin Film Festival is still running, though the conference, which began last Thursday is now over. It’s going to take some time to process everything I experienced. For now I’m floating on the admonitions of many successful screenwriters who said in different ways, in various voices, illustrated by individual details, stories from the trenches, in bright funny tones and in serious dramatic ones to keep writing. I’m up on Monday morning blogging, working on my current script, my next script, my short story collection, and a treatment for my current script, even as I will work my regular job this afternoon. Each of these things and more, I’ve always done. But now I’ve heard many successful writers I admire, tell me in person, time and again at this conference, this is how it works. For a writer like me who works on everything at once, the conference made me know it’s okay to work that way. I often question the way I work, and wonder if I’ll ever get anywhere that way. The panelists said every writer works differently. Let your creativity lead you. Just keep writing.

Now I have a clearer picture of what to do today, what to do next. I feel I can do it, and I feel great about it. I’m reminded every writer, including Lawrence Kasdan who’s had his scripts made into some of the most successful movies in history, and Pamela Gray, who’s written one of my personal favorites, A WALK ON THE MOON, continue to struggle to write, to find the time, to keep writing. I learned from screenwriter, Monte Williams, former press secretary for Governor Ann Richards, to respect and keep your day job as long as you need it, maybe forever. I learned from every writer you can and should stay in your town and work your regular job and keep writing, and you have to go to L.A. sometimes, too. Yes, meet successful writers, managers, and agents attending this conference and talk to them directly. After all, this festival does not segregate the panelists from the attendees; you can meet your idols in the Driskell Hotel Lobby or have drinks with them at the bar, and have a life-changing chat. But several panelists advised us to connect with other writers at our own level who are here in the audiences, stay in touch, sleep on each other’s couches, and rise together.

I’m working on several more posts about the conference. The next one you see here will be, “You’re About To Get Kasdaned!” It’s my second favorite quote from the panel, “The Creative Career: What You Need to Know” with Lawrence Kasdan (THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL, WYATT EARP, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE BODYGUARD), Craig Mazin (SCARY MOVIE 3 & 4, THE HANGOVER 2), Daniel Petrie, Jr. (THE BIG EASY, BEVERLY HILLS COP, SHOOT TO KILL, TURNER & HOOCH, TOY SOLDIERS) and Rhett Reese (DEAD POOL, EARTH VS. MOON, ZOMBIELAND 2).

Please feel free to ask questions about the conference, and I will do my best to answer them in the next blogpost or the comments section. KEEP WRITING!

Being in the Same Room with Highly Creative People

Rodrigo García Barcha
Image via Wikipedia

I’m heading to the Austin Film Festival (AFF) tomorrow as a badge-holder, which means I get to go to some of the panels and listen to great, successful screenwriters discuss their experiences writing for film and TV. By many accounts, The Austin Film Festival is the best festival for writers, having been created for the purpose of nurturing and honoring them.

Last January I attended a warm, helpful, inspiring panel sponsored by AFF in which Noah Hawley, creator of THE UNUSUALS and MY GENERATION, and Kyle Killen, creator of TV series, AWAKE and LONE STAR, and screenwriter of the feature film, THE BEAVER, discussed writing and being showrunners for TV. Hawley and Killen were gracious, interesting, funny, smart. I loved being in the same room with them. Enjoying music, books, painting, sculpture, movies, TV shows, beautiful buildings, dance, plays are all great ways of communing with the artist. We all do it when we enjoy the arts. We can have direct experience of the creative mind when we view art. But listening to them discuss their creative process in the same room, days in a row, and going to films at night (or at least next week as the festival continues), I imagine will be even more rarefied.

During the conference and festival, which run tonight through next Thursday, I plan to write shorter blogposts more often about my experiences there. I hope to hit most of these panels:

  1. Opening Remarks
  2. How to Work the Conference: For Writers
  3. Sustaining a Writing Career Outside of L.A.
  4. Roundtable: The Business Side
  5. Based on a True Story
  6. The Creative Career: What You Need to Know
  7. Agents and Managers
  8. A Conversation with 2011 Outstanding Television Writer Awardee Hart Hanson
  9. The Heroine’s Journey: Writing and Selling the Female Driven Screenplay
  10. A Conversation With Jay and Mark Duplass
  11. In the TV Writers’ Room
  12. A Conversation with 2011 Distinguished Screenwriter Awardee Caroline Thompson
  13. Showrunners
  14. On the Level Staffing TV
  15. The Art of Storytelling with the 2011 Awardees
  16. Producing Outside the Norm: A Conversation with Elizabeth Avellan
I’ll have to choose between a couple of these as they occur at the same time. There are many more panels, too, some aimed at filmmakers rather than writers. I’d like to go to some of those just to see what they’re like. There are also films, luncheons, awards. I haven’t even looked at the film schedule; yet, I know the new film by the Duplass Brothers called JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME will be screened, and I plan to see it. I first heard about them when they were living here in Austin, and I just love their movies. Rodrigo Garcia who wrote NINE LIVES and many other movies I love will be part of the Showrunners panel. I always enjoy what he has to say about the creative process. I’ve heard him speak in a moving way of his love and respect for the creativity of the artists he works with.

I’ll keep you posted. Are you going to the Austin Film Festival? Want to meet up at any of the panels? Do you want me to ask anything in particular of the panelists?

Logline – The Shortest Pitch

Cover of "Selling Your Story in 60 Second...
Cover via Amazon

In screenwriting a “logline” or the “one-line” is the one- or two-line synopsis of your story. It’s the shortest pitch you use to try to get someone to read your script. It’s your hook.

Alex Epstein says in his book, Crafty Screewriting: Writing Movies That Get Made, “Think of it as the sentence that would describe it in The TV Guide.”

Culling from books and articles, I’ve learned the logline should tell WHO the story is about (by describing not naming him/her, unless he/she is famous), what TROUBLE this character gets into, and it should indicate (not give away) the outcome, ie, the TRANSFORMATION of the main character.

Example of a great logline in Michael Hauge‘s book, Selling Your Story in 60 Secondsfrom Julianne Friedman, a literary agent and editor for Scriptwriter Magazine:

“A mother realizes that her teenage son has probably killed someone.”

This one’s great because it tells WHO and what TROUBLE. It may not say exactly what CHANGES happen, but those are inherent. We simply know this mother’s world will change.

Click here to find more examples in this article by Jonathan Treisman on the Writers Store website. You’ll see Treisman has no qualms about giving away the ending in the logline. Folks in the know have differing views on this. Obviously, TV Guide wouldn’t give away the ending, but if you feel you need to give it away to sell your script, then some folks say go ahead. Others say no way; indicate but don’t reveal the ending. It makes your listener want to read your script.

I’m about to head to The Austin Film Festival this month. I have a screenplay, a drama, I’d love to pitch and sell there if all the planets align just so! I’d love your feedback. Here are possible loglines. Which one do you like best? Which one makes you want to see the movie?

  1. A What if/And then Logline: “What if a birth mother and the daughter she gave up become co-workers? And the adoptive parents thwart the budding relationship – again?”
  2. A Setting & Tone Logline: “A struggling isolated prep cook in a marina restaurant gets a second chance to mother the daughter she left in infancy, until the adoptive parents interfere, opening old wounds.”
  3. A Logline Indicating Plot Twists: “A birth mother and the daughter she gave up become co-workers, friends, and rivals. What happens when the details of their history unravel?”
Which title makes you want to see the movie?
  1. Departure Point, Texas
  2. Come Back Blues
  3. Little Pink Cap
What logline or movie poster hook got you to go to a movie?
If you’re so inclined, put your own script, novel, or short story logline in the comments section for feedback from readers of this blog.

Structure and Being in TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson

About halfway through the novella, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, I was inspired to stop reading long enough to draw a picture of the structure of the story. Across the page I drew a straight line representing world history and American history on a continuum of about 100 years. Through that line I drew a curvy line representing the personal history of the main character, Robert Grainier, a man hired by various railroad companies in the western United States for the hard labor of building and repairing tracks and bridges. Where the straight historical line crossed the curvy line of Grainier’s life, I drew X’s. The X’s represented events of natural and regional history of the American northwest and the personal histories of Grainier, his acquaintances, friends, and family. The center point is where the story begins, 1917, when Grainier is thirty-five and has a wife and young daughter.

Reading this beautiful and vivid book and making the diagram inspired me to start my own novella by doing the following: choose what I feel is the most compelling invention, technology, movement, or event in American or world history, and use it as the midpoint or prime of my main character’s life. Extend my research fifty years in either direction for context and setting. Set the story in the regions of Texas I’ve lived, or else in a region in the United States to which I feel connected and about which I want to know more. Make a list of several industries, jobs, and careers in the region. Read first-hand accounts of life, work, family, politics, culture. Keep a running list of the stories I can’t get out of my heart. Let those blend and percolate with the stories I’ve lived, witnessed, heard, read. Let the main character bubble up from the magic creative cauldron and start speaking to me.

I felt Johnson must have done all these things in the writing process.

Yet, as I continued reading the story, Johnson’s imagery spoke to me about those lines I had drawn. Both the straight line and the curvy line reminded me of train tracks. I started feeling the underlying image in the novella, trains, or more specifically, I felt the impact of the first train image affecting the main character, essentially an orphan train that brought Grainier from his birthplace to the home of his uncle at an age before which he can remember nothing. It may be missing from his memory, but it’s the connection to the underlying event shaping his entire life. I’ve heard it said that every myth is actually about what’s missing. The hero or heroine will spend the story finding that which is lost. Train Dreams follows Grainier through a life where he walks along charred pathways, past open windows, and into forest clearings searching for himself by searching for the family that’s missing. The sheer amount of loss this character suffers in the story proper is matched only by his initial forgotten losses. His ability to commune with nature in its elemental vastness and its individual representatives, allows him to find in some form everything that was ever lost to him.

I wondered if Johnson’s inspiration for the story was the poignant reality in our history of orphaned children riding trains toward uncertain futures from 1854 to 1929. If not, I’m convinced it was something equally heartbreaking. Any of the life and death events in Train Dreams could have been the initial inspiration. I’m reminded to undertake writing stories arising from feeling and not just from ideas of structure or research. Structure and research will help me shape the writing process, as long as I’m taking the first step from the heart, because I simply have to. Johnson’s book feels like a foregone conclusion, a myth we’ve all heard told, an experience we’ve all had.

It’s clear why “train” is in the title. In the first paragraph we get a description of the train bridge Grainier and others are repairing. Train imagery fuels the story’s outer events and inner impulses. I wasn’t as clear at first about the “dreams,” but now I know. Two weeks after reading Train Dreams, I recall the story through my own vision, as if remembering my own dream. In the dream I’m Robert Grainier, a laborer, a husband, a father. I’m seeing through the eyes of the human being who lived that life, created those memories, suffered those tragedies. I can feel the pain in my arthritic joints from long years of hard labor. I can see the fluttering wrappers from the chocolates and the fluttering pages of the Holy Bible I imagined my wife holding as long as she could in an attempt to save something while escaping a raging wildfire. And I see the specter of my daughter inside my cabin, or at least my fractured heart, returning to me after I thought she was lost forever. I see all this from my own mind’s eye, as if I’m recalling my own dream. I’m not sure how Johnson managed that. I’ll have to reread the book to find out.

Have you read anything by Denis Johnson? What’s your favorite? What’s your favorite myth and why (movies, books, anything)? If you’re a writer, how do your story ideas come to you?

Oh Yes, It Feels Like A Brand New Day

A Waitress taking a breakfast order at Kahala ...
Image via Wikipedia

As fall seduces us with temperatures in the nineties instead of triple digits, I notice I change my clothes less often.

All summer I’ve worn my old handkerchief linen shirts and khaki pants and shorts. It turns out regular weight cotton clothing was too hot this year. At the height of the summer, coming inside after a brief chat with a neighbor, I’d change into a very lightweight whirling dervish skirt and papery thin sleeveless maternity tank-top. These clothes are the new normal. They sit on my frame, weightless, barely touching my skin. I bet if you’re in Texas, you’re in your undies or something like it as soon as you’re inside. Am I right? Or am I right?

I bought some rockin’, clunky, ice blue round-toed seventies-style shoes on sale at Instep on my birthday one of the years of the current drought and couldn’t figure out why I’d never worn them. Then it hit me. I’m changed. After the first in series of summers with high heat and drought, I simply wouldn’t commit to regular shoes (non-sandals) even when it started to cool down. A seven-month-long summer might trigger a hot flash in anyone at anytime. I get flashbacks. What if I get stuck in traffic and can’t get my shoes off? There I am in a hot car with no A/C, moving a little too fast to get those suckers off, but just slow enough so there’s no breeze. Day ruined. I found when winter came, all I could manage were Keen sandals with Smartwool or Thorlo socks. (“Winter” is defined as the two weeks either in January or February or the week of spring break, when it gets cold, sometimes really cold, ice storm cold, during which you may as well stay home; it’ll be over soon).

When writing I wear the worst outfits imaginable. I have on at this moment the aforementioned thin skirt, a big blue print elastic-waist cotton number and a pink, ribbed cotton “Life is Good” tank top. Underwear. No bra. Not cute. But life actually is good. Nothing beats writing, except maybe writing in comfy clothes.

I love the movie Wonder Boys starring Michael Douglas. It’s fun, funny, poignant, well-written, beautifully-acted. Michael Douglas plays a writer who wears a woman’s soft pink robe whenever he writes. The robe makes me believe the main character really is a writer by being a visual symbol connoting a combination of physical comfort, emotional support, and creative talisman. It takes me to my own writing, the way a movie character smoking makes a smoker or a former smoke want a cigarette, or a waitress serving coffee in a cafe scene makes coffee lovers want a cuppa joe even if it’s ten PM. Seeing wonder boy Michael Douglas in a pink robe makes me turn off the DVD  and go sit down to write.

Usually I dress like a waitress, because, let’s face it, waitress clothing is functional. They’re plain and don’t attract attention (unless you’re waiting tables at Hooter’s, and even then you could argue they serve a purpose, albeit attracting attention. I wonder what the uniforms would look like at my sister’s idea for a chain of pool halls called Big Sticks and Balls). Waitress clothes still look good after food gets on them, and they dry fast if you get a big wet blob from the dish area. You can find back-ups at Goodwill, because they’re basic:  black pants & white shirt, khaki pants and blue shirt, jeans and polo-style shirt of various colors. And an apron.

Dressing like a waitress may simply reflect my inability to move on from a previous phase. After all, I worked in restaurants for thirteen years. Before that I was an athlete from the age of four (gymnastics) to nineteen (first and only year playing college volleyball at Texas State).  That’s a long time to wear sports clothes – in heat – sometimes drought – inside gymnasiums that remain about 99.99 percent humidity year round. I lived through the Great Female Sports Clothing Revolution. I started out wearing boys and men’s work-out clothes that fit badly in all the wrong places, yet were strong, cool, and properly fibered. Later, we began the march toward the sexy pole-dancing style sports outfits seen on the women of today. Guess what. You cannot find them in natural fibers. At least there is such an item as a sports bra. Thank the clothing gods for that.

For years following my athletic career I simply wore a version of work-out clothes everywhere:  T-shirts, comfortable pants, sports bra, and cotton underwear you could play a volleyball tournament in. Or, jeans (variation on the comfy warm-up pants), t-shirt, and gym bag – I mean purse.

What’s it going to be next? Am I destined to wear Licensed Massage Therapist clothes for ten years after I’ve left the field? This is not as glamourous as it seems. While some therapists wear their non-natural fiber sexy lady-sport clothing (which appears to work great for them in this active job), and others wear beautiful hemp tunics and gemstone chokers, I never actually wore clothes like that to practice massage. I’ve worn jeans or shorts and t-shirts the entire time. After all, I chose massage therapy as a career in part, because I could wear a tie-dye t-shirt and go barefoot every day to work. Predictably, this urge reflected the fabric arts period that preceded it. After a brief stint as a school teacher (teacher clothes were my least favorite, because they were not jeans or shorts), I returned to restaurants full time to figure out my next move. I had spent tons of money on tuition, books, equipment, and new teacher wardrobe. I had gone to class, done my student teaching, and continued waiting tables full time, all at the same time, all for a career path that turned out to be all wrong for me. During my time at Tia’s restaurant in Plano, Texas, the place I worked before, during and after being a professional teacher, I made beautiful tie-dye shirts, scarves, towels, jeans, and shorts for my colleagues, family, friends, and even restaurant customers. Who knew there was such a market for tie-dye in Plano?

Those days right after I quit teaching were a beautiful year-long meditation. I made myself wait a year before choosing a new career path. For the first time since early childhood I was experiencing the simple joys of daily living. I spent the days before my night shifts at Tia’s, cooking, cleaning, walking my dog, practicing fabric arts, listening to music, reading any book I chose whenever I wanted, which, amazingly I’d never had time to do before. As I lived and walked in the neighborhood, old ways of thinking were dissolving inside me: the internal hammering against my psyche of the relentless notions of achievement, making something of myself, and the vague, elusive idea of  “success.” I was just living. I wrote down and posted this quote on my door, reminding me of the simplicity of happiness each time I left the apartment:  “Before enlightenment, wait tables. After enlightenment, wait tables,” a variation on the original “Chop wood; carry water.”

One morning after staying up all night dyeing clothing, letting them “cook,” rinsing them out, hanging them to dry on the curtains, walls, and supply shelves of my tiny apartment, I experienced the meaning of Van Morrison‘s song, “Brand New Day,” while listening to it and watching the sunrise. Here’s the first verse:

“When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes right in on time
Well it shines so bright and it gives so much light
And it comes from the sky above
Makes me feel so free makes me feel like me
And lights my life with love.” – Van Morrison

I felt he must have written the song during or after a difficult time, pulling some kind of all-nighter, maybe sleepless from worry. Particularly the end of the song where he repeats “here it comes” over and over as if he’s watching each brighter moment of the sunrise and being blown away by it, I felt he simply let go, watched the sun, and felt its healing power. Life is big and we are small, and so are some problems. We must always work. That never changes. What changes is consciousness. “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

I notice the various stages of my clothing choices, boy sport clothes, waitress outfits (not the iconic 50’s kind, but the sensible kind that go with the word, “foodserver”), hippie massage therapist duds, writer/creator barely-there, not-for-public-viewing sheaths, are all variations on the same theme:  the absolute best thing I can wear for my actual life as it unfolds before me.

I can live with that.

This post brings new meaning to the question:  what are you wearing? Also, how has the weather changed you? What era of your life most affects your clothing choices?