Exploding House

Monday a house exploded in my neighborhood, on my street, catty-corner and one over from me. For a news story on the event, click here. My post is a personal account of a few of my neighbors who were involved, shocked, and saddened.

From my corner.
Jack being interviewed.

It was 8:23 AM according to neighbor Buster, who was working at home and looked up at the clock right when it happened. Neighbor Dale, driving home after taking his daughter to school, was directly in front of the house when it blew. The force moved his car. The roof of the house went up one story high and landed in the front yard. Debris began to fall over a larger area, and electric lines began sparking and exploding. He knew no one inside would have survived a blast like that and turned his attention to the house next door, moved off its foundation, windows blown out. Once inside he saw sheetrock blown off the walls, debris and possessions everywhere including boards and nails. The resident who had been blown out of bed by the force of the explosion wanted to stay and look for his dog, but Dale kept him moving out. The dog has since been found.

Dale

Neighbor Jack, next door to the blast on the other side, was just about to take cute Harley the pit bull on a run (Jack on bike) when the house exploded. Jack, too, first went toward the blast, and found immediately there was no way he could go in. He could hear continued explosions, and see flames already engulfing the house. He, too, turned his attention to others, nearby, his wife and granddaughter. He ran back inside his own house and yelled, “Get out of the house. Now!” I spoke with him again earlier today. He said that after taking his granddaughter to another neighbor’s place, “Apparently I told Candy to get in the car with the dogs and just drive. I don’t remember that,” he said.

Jack and Harley

My new neighbor next door, I heard from Dale, must have run out of his house exactly as the blast sounded, because he was barefoot and wore only shorts and t-shirt. It was cold and rainy. He ran behind the house to see if he could get in, and there met yet another neighbor, a teenager, trying to see if he could help. The entire back of the house had blown off, so they could see where the rooms used to be. Many neighbors ran from one street over in their pajamas to watch the tragedy unfold.

When I talked to Jack minutes after the blast, his mind was squarely on his next-door neighbor, Renald. He lamented the fact that Renald’s car was in the driveway. He lamented the fact that the blast occurred during the time Renald sometimes would have already left for work. He gave thanks Renald’s son was likely not there with him. The boy lives in Houston, and though he was there sometimes visiting his father, Jack didn’t think he was there now. We now know he wasn’t. Jack asked more than once of neighbors standing around, “The car was in the driveway, right?” Right. He stopped talking. His nine-year-old granddaughter, Alicia, was watching closely. She asked, “Is he dead?” Jack said, “I don’t know, honey. Maybe so.” Alicia ran off to the neighbor’s house to be with her grandmother.

View from my front yard.
Battalion Chief interviewed.

I keep thinking about these neighbors who dropped everything and ran toward a huge explosion, a rooftop flying up into the air and raining down, flames shooting out in seconds, engulfing a house in mere minutes. Then, they had the presence of mind to drop the first impulse to run into the fire, knowing the cause was lost, and turn immediately to the next most important concern, the people nearby who might still be in danger.

I keep thinking about our lost neighbor. I didn’t know him, but had said hello passing his place while walking the dogs. He was almost finished with the remodel and looked forward to his son moving in with him, says a KVUE report this evening.

Dale describes the blast (another neighbor Shirley speaks first, then Dale). Click here. (This is a report from Monday).

As the facts of the story come to light and the investigation moves forward, I’m finding out other places in the neighborhood are leaking gas. Even last night I heard another story from a neighbor I met walking his dog. He’s experienced the strong smell of gas off and on for some time on his property. He expressed frustration with the gas company’s response and especially the ongoing nature of the problem. But now crews are on the scene day and night monitoring our street. Today I checked on the neighbor who mentioned those problems, and the gas at his place is turned off and the line is plugged. I’m glad.

View from my front window.

Despite this tragic event and the ongoing worries, I feel grateful to live here with these neighbors, and grateful for life. I’m moved by the heroism and calm of the neighbors who ran to help. I’m grateful for the firefighters, gas workers, and investigators. And I’m so sorry Renald won’t be able to live here among us anymore.

Screenwriting by the Numbers

Cover of "The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps ...
Cover via Amazon

1/1/12. Happy New Year! Getting things organized. I’ve wondered which projects to pursue and how.

A Few Personal Words on TV Writing and Process 
I’ve had several meetings with Michelle from my writers group to kick around ideas for TV writing. Last Friday we met at the beautiful Twin Oaks Library and discussed it further. We’d been heading in that direction for a little while: we admire each other’s work; TV is collaborative; she and I bring varying talents and interests to the table which we felt would compliment each other during the process; and, we both have our own TV projects going. We discussed working together on both of those projects, and we made a list of current produced shows for which we’d like to try writing an episode together. Great discussion and interesting process.
Trouble with Murder
I learned I can’t brainstorm a way to kill a victim in the opening of an episode of CASTLE! Not one. Mind went blank. You pretty much need that skill if you’re going to write a murder mystery. Embarrassed! I’ve heard my own self say far too many times, “I have a hundred new ideas before breakfast.” Ha! Not that day. Well, we discovered we each want to continue our own projects separately, but what a shot in the arm to discuss the possibilities! The experience helped me rededicate writing time to my TV drama. We’re going to keep meeting to support each other in the creative process. You cannot believe the show she’s creating. I’m amazed, and you’re going to love it! After she registers her show with the WGA (Writers Guild of America), and if she says it’s okay, I’ll say more about it in this blog.
Ellen Sandler Encourages Writers to Be God! (She writes comedy).
The numbers below are mostly just a fun way for me to mention and describe my favorite teachers. I was inspired to try TV writing by Ellen Sandler of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND fame, after reading her article, “The Writer as God,” on The Writers Store website. I grabbed my pen and started right then. She’s clear, humble, talented, funny, inspiring. And this article sealed the deal. She teaches classes in person about writing original TV drama at the Writers Store in Burbank, CA, but has not yet offered the class online. I’m keeping my eyes out for that. Her book, The TV Writer’s Workbook, helps you learn how to write for existing shows.
TV, Feature, Business, Blog in 2012
As for writing in 2012, I’ve narrowed it down to:
  1. $elling completed feature script (DEPARTURE POINT, TEXAS)
  2. Finishing and $elling 1 new feature script (AGE OF AQUARIUS)
  3. Finishing and $elling 1 original 1-hour TV drama pilot & several more episodes (ART AND COMMERCE)
  4. Writing 1 blogpost every week (on this here blog, LIFE & WRITING)
In honor of the time of year, the day of the year, I resolve to write 1 to 2 hours per day on each of the above – a little less on the blog, a little more on the feature script. If I do, I will finish these projects this year and start making some money! 2012, the year of writing for pay!
To welcome the new year, I’ve found it’s wise to say goodbye to the old, so I’d like to pay homage to the teachers who have created materials that help me learn and practice screenwriting. The zig-zag path of creativity is leading me into screenwriting as I put fiction and creative nonfiction in the file cabinets for now. The following concepts are seared in my brain and integrated into my creative process. If you’re on the screenwriting path, I hope this list of numbers (concepts, inspiration, and links to resources) helps you as much as they continue to help me.
Screenwriting by the Numbers
  1. One Logline
  2. Two Halves
  3. Three Act Structure
  4. Four Actual Acts
  5. Five Moments
  6. Six Things That Need Fixing
  7. Seven Elements of Story
  8. Eight Sequence Method
  9. Nine ?? (If anyone can think of one here, please let me know).
  10. Ten Minute Sessions
21 Days

22 Steps

40 cards

80 scenes

100 pages

  1. The Logline (or 1-line or Oneline) –  The one line that encapsulates your story. You must have one later on to sell your script, and you better have one early on, so you know where you’re headed as you write. Look for this and more in Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made by Alex Epstein – Fun. Easy read. Great tips on everything from creating to business. You can put these ideas into practice immediately. Epstein has a great blog, too:  Complications Ensue. And he has a great book on TV writing called, you guessed it, Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box.
  2. 2 Halves – Makes me remember to make the midpoint of my script a false high for the main character if the story is a traditional comedy, as in, it ends happily, and to make it the actual high point if the story ends in tragedy.
  3. 3 Act Structure – This one’s about rhythm.  It’s a reminder that the whole story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every sequence has scenes of preparation, scenes of conflict, and scenes of resolution. Every scene has a set-up, an action, and a resolution.
  4. 4 Actual Acts – When you learn 8-Sequence Structure you find out that Act 2 is NOT one long rambling act of mish-mash that’s twice as long as each of the other two. Act 2 is really two separate acts that behave in an orderly fashion even as the story runs along in a surprising manner to the audience.
  5. 5 Moments – The ideas about your movie you can’t get out of your head. They’re the ideas that made you want to write the movie in the first place. They may be stunning visuals, lines of dialogue, the dramatic ending, the self-revelation. Keep close to your inspiration, even if you rewrite those scenes beyond recognition or cut them out completely. I can’t remember who said this. If you know, please let me know. It may be anyone referenced in this post, or quite possibly David Milch, creator of DEADWOOD, who not only quotes everyone who ever had anything to say about writing and language, but also says his own awesome quotes on life and writing pretty much all day long I bet. For proof, check out the DVD extras in DEADWOOD, and prepare to be blown away.
  6. 6 Things That Need Fixing – This is from Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He says in the first act, you have to introduce all the quirks and problems you’ll spend the rest of the movie working out. He has a fun and entertaining way of teaching 8-Sequence Structure. Worked great for me as a review, having already studied The 8 in a more intense way mentioned in #8 below.
  7. 7 Elements of Story. It’s always a good idea to brush up on the basics of story: 1.)Character; 2.)Plot; 3.)Setting; 4.)Theme 5.)Point of View; 6.)Symbol/Image; and 7.)Tone/Language/Style. I think Truby, mentioned below in #22, helps integrate all the elements organically while helping you develop your story. In fact, I’ve always felt most information on the 7 elements (some teachers point to only 4 or 5 main elements, but still discuss the 7 listed here) do a good job defining them and giving examples, but they do not do so well actually helping you integrate that knowledge into the practice of writing. Discover Truby.
  8. 8 Sequences – Every great movie is made up of 8 sequences of equal length, 12 and a half pages each (or 15 or 10 depending on the length of your script). Each sequence functions in certain ways no matter what movie. Learn these to help you outline your story or guide you in rewriting. From Screenwriting, The Sequence Approach:  The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays by Paul Joseph Gulino. I’ll discuss the 8 sequences in future posts.
  9. 9 – I’ll add a 9 in a future post if y’all give me some ideas! Thanks.
  10. 10-Minute SessionsPilar Alessandra’s book, The Coffeebreak Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time, delivers on the title’s promise, getting you started no matter how you work or where you begin your process. Quick lessons followed immediately by exercises help you practice what you just learned. You may use the book piecemeal, or run straight through it. No writers block while you’re doing these exercises. I’ve got one of her classes on DVD and I took her 6-week email class on rewriting which was extremely helpful without being overwhelming.
  • 21 DaysWriting a Movie in 21 Days by Vickie King – Easy read. Helps you see your movie in your mind’s eye, which is great if you haven’t done that yet. After all, movies are visual. Great introduction to sequencing. Vickie King claims you can write your movie in 21 days. While that may or my not be true (more likely not), you can visualize the entire story and outline it and get started in a big way if you need help with structure and visual thinking. While there are numerous arguments about whether or not learning structure helps or hurts a writer, as with anything, use what you need and leave the rest on the side of the road. I always feel it’s good to know the rules you’re breaking.
  • 22 Steps…John Truby understands and clearly communicates what story actually is and how you do it. His book is THE word for me right now. The Anatomy of Story:  22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby – Slow read. Complex. Helps you organize your story without imposing false structure on it. Truby leads you organically through the story you want to tell. Every sentence in the book reveals a secret you already knew at a feeling level. This book helps me organize all the countless notes I make when I first put my story ideas down on paper. It’s what you do anyway, but he tells you what it is you’re doing, where to start, what’s related to what, how to proceed. I can tell it’s going to save me tons of time. I tend to write down everything way too many times. Truby’s ideas and methods help me recognize what goes where almost immediately. Clear exercises at the end of series of related chapters take you along the 22 steps at your own pace. I do the steps as I read about them, but you can wait for the clearly-marked exercises.
  • 40 Cards… At least 40 index cards as an outline on your floor, wall, bulletin board, or white board, will guide you well, especially if you include on each card the protagonist of the scene, the conflict, and the emotional change that occurs says Blake Snyder in Cat.
  • 80 Scenes… Write 80 scenes and you have a feature screenplay. More or less. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.
  • 100 Pages… Shoot for 100 pages on your feature. The limit used to be 120, but nowadays it’s 100.

Other fun books on screenwriting:

What are your favorite books or best classes on screenwriting, writing, or story? What are your writing goals? Creative, business, process, anything? Do you know of any screenwriting or story instruction I can fill in for  #9?

Happy New Year! Happy Writing!

It’s a Wonderful Christmas Carol of Wrath

Ignorance and Want, woodcut — from A Christmas...

Feel-Good Movies, A-B

“Tis the season for Christmas movies. I’ve already vegged out on two of my favorite B movies being played incessantly on Lifetime starting on Thanksgiving and running who knows how long, 12 MEN OF CHRISTMAS starring Kristin Chenoweth and COMFORT AND JOY starring Nancy McKeon. They’re fun. Maybe you like zombies. I like schmaltz.

But this post is about the power and glory emanating from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I can’t wait to see them again. I’m throwing in THE GRAPES OF WRATH as another powerhouse emotional message movie along the lines of the other two. It lacks a Christmas setting but voices a similar message.

Countless people across the decades love these movies. At one level, they’re simply great storytelling. They have good structure; a great villain; a compelling main character at the end of his rope who goes on a journey, endures dangers and complications, makes great personal sacrifice trying to get what he wants and realizes along the way he wants something else; the main character undergoes deep personal transformation that effects the lives of others in a positive way.

After watching them we feel better. They reflect us at all our levels: body, mind, and spirit. They delineate our meanness, yet indicate we have the capacity for boundless compassion. They tell us which path we should take. They ask us to rise to our potential, which is spiritual in nature. I believe all three movies ask us to choose to be our better angels. Writers know any attempt to render such a story may get preachy fast. But they’re the the best stories when they’re done as artfully and beautifully as these.

They want us to wake up already and actually serve family, humanity, and God and not just say it. They connect our everyday dealings with our spiritual selves.

The writers of these three movies (and the writers of the stories they’re based on) wanted to affect deep change in humanity. Not just George Bailey or Tom Joad or Scrooge. All of us. We, too, are the hero who is down, who must sacrifice or make a choice. Either buckle under the pressure and escape, or take a stand for what’s right, which usually has something to do with realizing our connection to others, not just personal or family, but everyone.

Ripped From the Headlines

On the other hand we’re also Potter in LIFE, the camp bosses in GRAPES, and Scrooge in CAROL before his dark night of the soul.

Who is Potter but today’s “1 percent” who own everything but care only for the bottom line? Corprations are people, but people, somehow are just stinky, lazy, whiny protesters. How dare they speak up!

Instead of Potterville, we have Wall Street. And we have a bunch of Cratchits and Joads, George Bailey’s and Dust Bowl emigrants, who work or look for work, care for their families, AND go down to protest against economic injustice, peacefully, as is their right. I’ve been amazed at the Potter-y, Scrooge-y attitudes my fellow Americans spew on facebook on a daily basis, deriding the protesters as lazy people unwilling to work. And then use stories of their own struggles to somehow “proove” the validity of their prejudice. I don’t get it. Why make such a leap? Why assume a group protesting injustice is lazy? On the contrary, they work hard AND they stand up for what’s right. They do more. Risk more. And they get smeared for their trouble. And pepper-sprayed and beaten.

No one sees himself or herself as Scrooge or Potter or the camp bosses that oppress the Joads. But we side with those forces when we deride our struggling fellow Americans. I invite everyone who regards the protesters thus, to watch any one of these three movies this season and ask yourself which forces you’re empowering? Why love the beleaguered main characters of movies and not your fellow citizens performing the same role?

Throw Open the Window and See the Light!

Though it’s difficult to see in life the suffering caused by such derision and prejudice, in the movies we know the downtrodden main character is the hero, journeying from miserable and misunderstood to fully realized human being, individual expression of God, the light, the whole. We feel that cold crisp beautiful bright morning when, after a long night of deep self-reflection, Scrooge throws open the window on Christmas Day. We jump for joy with the renewed, ebullient George Bailey who sees the light of his own being and its effect on others, and rededicates himself to serving the whole community and not just his personal ambitions. We float along the back roads and river bottoms with an uplifted Tom Joad as he assures his worried mother he’ll be there in spirit whenever anyone is beaten or denied or cast out or oppressed by economic injustice, prejudice, and fear.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE calls us to value ourselves, take a stand against inhumane circumstances, and put our money in small community banks that actually serve us as human beings.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH asks us to change the kinds of systems that made all the members of the Joad family loose their livelyhood and their home. Join together. Don’t look away from the truth. Don’t look away in prejudice and fear and say, “Oakie, go home.” Or, “Protester, get a job!”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL asks us to examine our hearts, cast out the part that devalues real work, human emotion, and life itself. Today is the day to feel and express compassion for everyone, the sick, the injured, and those who work hard but are not valued or rewarded.  

Corporations Are NOT People! Come On People Now…

I think all three movies ask us to look at the way we devalue and objectify human beings, with dollars, currency. There’s confusion between what is human and what is not. When people are separated from their own humanity, their feelings of compassion, friendship, and love, then hatred flows toward the very ones who suffer and dare to stand up, speak out, and make change.

May we watch this season and not only be entertained by the images but moved and transformed by their messages. John Steinbeck and director, John Ford and screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson for THE GRAPES OF WRATH; director and screenwriter, Frank Capra and the long list of contributing screenwriters for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE; Charles Dickens and the many directors and writers of various versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, probably wanted us to enjoy the stories, but also be moved by them. Be better. Let them inspire love for our fellows. We are mean and selfish, or we are compassionate and aware of our connections to others. We hide behind holiday expressions, or we live their true meaning.

I included this music video in the preceding post. Here it is again, Bruce’s take on the Tom Joad “I’ll be there” speech for modern times. Like Tom Joad, Bruce is there for the souls who suffer. Let’s all be there.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

The Ghost of Tom Joad (song)
Image via Wikipedia

I’m writing a new post about the Christmas movies, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS CAROL, as well as THE GRAPES OF WRATH, the movie. I’ll have it out in the wee hours or sometime tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy Bruce Springsteen‘s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as a little precursor to mood and theme. “Bruce!”

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Language Lovers, Check Out George Carlin

Signature of George Carlin.
Image via Wikipedia

I just watched George Carlin:  The Mark Twain Prize (2008 winner) on PBS. Check out three minutes forty-eight seconds of his genius rhythmic language. Here’s to George, an inspiration to many who care about freedom, expression, and language.

And my personal favorite: “Stuff.”

Click here for Carlin’s site.

RIP George.

When They Say There Are No Parts For Women…

Cover of "A Walk on the Moon"
Cover of A Walk on the Moon

“When they say there are no parts for women…They’re in my garage, and probably in yours.” – Pamela Gray at the Austin Film Festival Conference panel entitled “The Heroine’s Journey:  Writing and Selling the Female-Driven Screenplay.”

Screenwriter Pamela Gray is best known for MUSIC OF THE HEART and one of my personal favorites, A WALK ON THE MOON, starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortenson.

She was referring to all the scripts she’s written that haven’t been made into movies yet. One studio executive told her, “We had a woman movie, and it didn’t make it financially.” A single movie. Eek! Gray pointed out no one stops making movies about men when one fails.

Gray, along with Elizabeth Hunter (Director of Development at Universal Pictures for APOLLO 13, CLOCKERS, CROOKLYN, TWELVE MONKEYS, and others and screenwriter of JUMPING THE BROOM, THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS, and BEAUTY SHOP) gave a fun, lively, informative panel on writing movies whose lead characters are women. The room was filled with woman and men screenwriters and wannabes.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Was the panel led by women about women writers writing female leads different from other panels? Yes and no. While both male and female driven panels were open, interesting, helpful, compassionate, and a little bawdy, I noticed the men made fewer references to sex than the women, not for lack of trying. In one panel, one male screenwriter made a porn joke that fell flat. He made tons of other quips and jokes that landed, just not that one. In the Heroine’s Journey panel, Pamela Gray did not joke about porn. In a light-hearted manner she openly discussed writing about orgasms. Her lead character in A WALK ON THE MOON, wanted to have one, for the first time, after marriage and childbirth. After those comments the entire room felt comfortable talking about sex. No doubt about it, this movie and this panel were from a woman’s point of view.

I think that serves everyone. After all, everyone’s interested in sex. I think it’s more interesting to put sex in the movie rather than leave it out. But I’d rather see it connected in meaningful ways to the character’s journey at all levels, not just the physical, and not just the emotional, and not just the spiritual, but all of these. Any writer, male or female, who does this for any character, gets my interest and movie dollars. And it’s what I write.

The Times They Are A Changin’

The panelists writing about and then openly discussing sex as integral to the character’s journey allowed the rest of us in the room to discuss character more deeply. One audience member asked questions about how to portray sex on-screen, really show it, without cheapening it. He expressed his worry that accurately portraying a woman character’s sexuality gave him some trepidation. He portrayed the male characters’ sexuality without worry, because, he said, he knew people simply would accept it. He feared people would judge his women characters just for being sexual. I thought, wow, what a great expression of how it feels sometimes, just being a woman. And here’s this young male writer worried about his female character being judged for being sexual. Here’s a writer with real empathy for his character’s problems even if he doesn’t realize it. I wanted to say, “Maybe that’s how the character feels, too. Maybe the character, being a woman, really would have to deal with judgment from others and from herself.” I don’t know of course; it’s his character. Elizabeth Hunter said the fact that he even asked that question made her happy. We were all noticing the positive changes in the way writers and the culture at large think about women and how to portray their complex lives. Both she and Gray encouraged the questioner to stay close to the character and ask himself questions about her, and to stay close to the story, and do whatever he needed to do in his story even if others judge. Hunter said, “You’re an emerging voice.” Write it the way you write it.

Granted, no other panel specifically tackled the subject of sex or gender, and shouldn’t have been expected to do so. It’s typical that a panel like this one comes from the need to shine a light on the invisibility of real women and therefore women characters, their stories, the writers who portray them, and the people who do or do not produce them. But, seeing the mix of sexes, ages, and ethnicities in the room, it appears the subject interests everyone.

The Zig-Zag Path

Gray said right up front she wanted to make sure she and the room didn’t veer off into negativity and only discuss sexism. True to her intention, we mostly discussed character and story the way other writing panels do. The panelists said any question, even questions regarding sexism, usually boil down to making sure you know who your character is and what your story is about, and staying true to that. You may have to deal with sexism if your character does. Hunter said, “Tell the story from the point of view of whose story it is.” I know from experience how hard that is. I often start the story from a male character’s point of view, then switch to another male, then switch to a younger female character. Finally I realize the story belongs to the adult woman on the edges of my psyche leading me on a zig-zag path, the creative process that reflects my own journey.

The Heroine’s Journey

While Gray uses the heroic journey to structure her stories, she does give the female lead character, not one, but two chances to decide to take the journey. She thinks this reflects the reality of many women’s lives. There’s no support at first for them going on a journey of transformation. There is more heat, more resistance, inside the closest relationships women have, and therefore they take a little longer to get the journey going. Other than that, same. I thought that was interesting, and noticed it’s true in my own work. My female leads decide they want to take the journey, but that does not necessarily lead to taking the journey, or even seeing it as an option. In fact, I create three or four moments of indecision before the moment of decision. Gray says, it seems more authentic. It does to me, too.

There are differences and similarities when writing a woman lead. Hunter said you still have to make the story complex, the journey universal. You still have to create authentic moments and structure your story well. At first you have to be cerebral and structure your story. Then you have to be emotional to tell a good story. And she reminded us, “Actors want emotion.”

Both Gray and Hunter advised us to write characters that actors want to play. One of the few differences mentioned for female-driven stories:  while every story needs a “likeable” main character, the definition of “likeable” can be different for male and female leads. As several writers on other panels advised regarding notes from executives, Hunter and Gray said try to understand the spirit of the note even if it’s delivered in sexist language. Gray said sometimes there is information underneath such notes that helps her make a change she, too, feels is important. Both Hunter and Gray said to listen to the note, but fix it your own way.

Writing Influences

When asked about their writing influences, Hunter nodded to Toni Morrison, Callie Khouri, and Susannah Grant. Gray nodded to poetry, George Eliot, especially Middlemarch, Jane Austen, Wendy Wasserstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Nora Ephron, THELMA AND LOUISE,  and CAGNEY AND LACEY for the deep level of character work.

I look forward to including more gems from Hunter and Gray in future posts about The Austin Film Festival screenwriting conference.

What’s your favorite woman character from movies, TV, or other stories?

As a kid, I loved both Cagney and Lacey, Constance from Constance, Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House BooksI love Rebecca Davitch in Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups, and Emily in Tyler’s Morgan’s Passing. I love Chief Brenda Lee Johnson on THE CLOSER, Joan Allen’s characters in THE CONTENDER and THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, Drew Barrymore’s in RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS. Emma, Anne, Lizzie, and Elinor in Jane Austen’s books and the movies based on them, EMMA, PERSUASION, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. And so many more!

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 imdb.com:
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?