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?

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.