Category Archives: ScreenWriting

The Black Panthers and the Second Amendment

“Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.”Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

Not quite my farm life in rural Wisconsin

Not quite my farm life in rural Wisconsin

As a writer, I find myself delving into all sorts of things I never imagined I would as a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. There were about 12,251 people in my hometown and not a single one of them was black. Not one. I don’t remember any brown people, either. While there were a few Asians (doctors and their families), the people of color were primarily Native American. And they were generally discussed derisively. Growing up gay in the upper Midwest was (and still is) challenging. It made me sensitive to what it means to be the other, the outsider.

The Civil Rights Movement, The AIDs Movement and the Women’s Movement were a big deal to me. I sang the Desiderata and Abraham, Martin and John at the top of my lungs. I marched. I chanted. I volunteered. I burned for the Apartheid Movement. As a child, I believed we were making the world a better place for everyone. So, it will probably be no surprise that the events in Ferguson and plethora of postings about the current state of the Civil Rights Blackslide has me distressed.

I’ve spent the last three years researching the Symbionese Liberation Army and the women at the heart of that tragic movement. During that research, I discovered that the Gun Rights Movement and Second Amendment Insanity is firmly rooted in the Black Panther Movement of the 1960’s. The Black Panthers on the Capitol StepsOn May 2, 1967, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale led 24 men and six (6) women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45 caliber pistols to the state capitol in Sacramento. Citing an obscure state statute which made it legal to carry loaded weapons if the were not concealed, Seale said, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.” Decades of abuse at the hands of unchecked police brutality, the Panthers decided to take up arms.

The Pathers’ efforts provoked an immediate backlash. Republicans in California eagerly supported increased gun control. Big-Man-Elbert-Howard-Black-Panther-Party-founding-member-oakland-1968 Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” California passed the Mulford Act prohibiting carrying loaded weapons but the spark had be ignited.

Founded on November 17, 1871, The National Rifle Association was primarily an organization for sportsmen and hunters until the Black Panther actions of the 60’s and early 70’s. In 1977, Wayne LaPierre joined the NRA and, over the next two decades, lobbied and catalyzed it into the overwhelmingly powerful organization that it is today.

Sally Hayfron Mugabe

I have spent the last two years of my life learning, thinking and writing about SALLY HAYFRON MUGABE. I have absolutely fallen in love with this woman. It all started when we were in Zambia in 2006 working on BAD TIMING. We went up to Victoria Falls and everyone was cautioning us not to cross over to the Zimbabwean side. They told us the economic and political situation was desperate; the people were dangerous. Staying at TAITA FALCON LODGE, the owner and his wife told us about how Robert Mugabe, the President of Zim, had changed after his wife died. “The death of Sally Hayfron was the death of Zimbabwe,” they said.

The romantic in me latched onto that story and wouldn’t let go. Imagine that. A love so powerful, an entire nation knew when it was gone. It took a couple of years before we could really start looking into the story. My writing partner and I were busy on the Zambia projects and then THE LAND OF REFUGE (about the Mormon Colonies in Mexico). We had to finish those before we could delve into the story about Sally. Being the dyed-in-the-wool romantic, I have always believed that “more is possible” when you find the “right person.” Would this story be an example of the real power of love?

After two years (and 120 pages), I can honestly say this story is even more amazing than I had imagined. Born in Ghana in 1931, SALLY HAYFRON was a teen when her homeland was gaining its freedom from the colonial British empire. A bright, inspiring, compassionate woman, Sally fell in love with Robert Mugabe, a visiting professor from what was then known as Southern Rhodesia. At that time, about 5 million blacks were governed by 270,000 whites. They were not allowed to vote. They were restricted in where they could live and work. They had virtually no schools. And, they were not allowed to own land designated for “whites only,” which comprised over 45% of the nation (about 90% of the best land).

Sally willingly went to live in this land, to help the citizens gain their freedom. Robert soon rose to prominence in Rhodesia’s National Democratic Party. As civil unrest grew, whites retaliated by electing Ian Smith as Prime Minister. Smith promptly declared independence from Britain and jailed all opposition leaders, including Robert Mugabe, who spent 11 years in prison. As Sally traveled the globe seeking support for his freedom, a bloody civil war consumed the country. Finally, in 1980, Southern Rhodesia was able to hold its first free election and Robert Mugabe won it in a landslide.

Sally was a tireless champion of the common people. Over the next decade, she encouraged the construction of schools and hospitals (many in places they’d never been before). The more I learned about Sally, the more amazed I was with all she had accomplished. Especially when I learned she had suffered from kidney problems most of her adult life and spent the last EIGHT YEARS of her life on dialysis. She traveled the world with a medical assistant in tow to manage her health care. Sally died on January 27, 1992 at the age of 60. Ironically, she was born in the first African country to gain independence from Britain and died in the last.

To this day, people in Zimbabwe write songs about AMAI SALLY (Mother Sally) and how they wish she were still alive and caring for her people. So do I.

(Photo above: Robert and Sally Mugabe depart from Andrews Air Force Base, 26 September 1983)

We HUNG with Colette Burson & Dmitry Lipkin

POWER Couples

 

HUNG creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin graciously shared their insider insights on screenwriting, series development, and SUCCESSFUL network pitching at a POWER UP workshop. They were profoundly inspiring in their passion for their craft and the joy (and challenge) of bringing their work to an audience.

To be honest, it was startling when they first walked into the room. I thought Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes were making a surprise visit. Seriously, Burson & Lipkin really resemble Winslet & Mendes! Throughout the evening, I kept having the sense that we were seeing the American version of that very creative and powerful British POWER COUPLE.

Burson and Lipkin were originally scheduled to appear at the POWER UP 2Day TV Writer/Producer Intensive workshop in September but were unable to attend. Being the committed, supportive artists that they are, they rescheduled and presented the evening of 22 October at the Production Office of Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) and Alex Kondracke (the L word). Their production office was very dramatic — lots of brick, high ceilings, amazing wood accents — trés urban chic. Robinson and Kondracke are previous POWER UP grantees. Being in their space provided additional subtext to an already exciting event. There was a feeling of “great-POWER-UP-connections-equals-great-success” wafting through the autumn air.

burson_coletteBurson and Lipkin spoke about their bumpy road to success. Appropriately, Burson commented that success in the film and TV business is NOT like the male orgasm. “It’s not that you write the perfect script, meet the right person and suddenly your career shoots straight ahead,” said Burson miming something we might see on HUNG. She squinted her eyes slightly and began feeling the area all around her. Then, she grinned and said, “You try this, you write that, you talk to these people, you rewrite again and take another meeting. A career in this business is a lot more like the female orgasm!” Everyone in the room laughed in agreement and understanding.

lipkin_dmitryRussian-born Lipkin was a successful New York playwright who decided to move to LA to launch a career writing for television and film. To get started, he took a class through the UCLA extension to motivate himself to complete a spec script. He shared how he used that script to get an agent at CAA and how that agent got him meetings with producers. After a couple of frustrating YEARS, they asked him to write something original. He did. Happily. Not too long after that, he came up with the idea for THE RICHES. Then, a serendipitous meeting with a new executive at Maverick Studios and a cigarette break with Eddie Izzard led the creation of his first series … which was derailed by the writer’s strike after the first season. See, there it is, the female orgasm. Never a straight shot. (Variety has a nice summary of the path to HUNG for Tennessee Wolf Pack Productions — the Burson/Lipkin brand.) In their downtime during the strike, Burson and Lipkin came up with the idea for HUNG, a half-hour comedy that Lipkin said he was looking particularly excited about because longer shows can become a bit “Balkanized.” So Eastern European, so erudite.

During their presentation, husband and wife shared about the ways they balance their family life (two children) and their work life. Burson also talked about her love of writing about a specific milieu. She gave an example of the changing milieu around the “politics of water.” bursonLipkin Burson observed that over the years, the wealthy have begun to acquire all of the land around water … around oceans, lakes, rivers and streams … making it difficult for the average family to have access to water. They used this in the development of HUNG. Burson and Lipkin decided that main character, Ray, would have waterfront property because it had been handed down by his family, but he would be surrounded by McMansions and condescending, surly neighbors. This increased the dramatic tension for Ray and allowed Burson/Lipkin to explore this shifting “water milieu.”

Similarly, Lipkin explored the milieu of the American Gypsy in THE RICHES, a story about a character born into a family of thieves and con artist who wants to go straight. It was fascinating listening the them discuss story creation and character development.

Burson & Lipkin’s Writing Recommendations:
  • Life is long and your writing will evolve. You want your writing psyche to be fierce as possible to work in this business.
  • Young writers often think they have a writing “style.” This is often just a writing rut. Strengthen your writing by working on new things.
  • Always be thinking: What does the character want that they cannot have and what is he/she doing to move toward it?
  • Know the Dramatic Question for the series, the Major Character Arcs and the Thematic Question for the individual show. Episodes that connect to all three will be more satisfying for the audience.
  • Currency is this town is ideas, we sell ideas, not scripts or shows.
Burson & Lipkin’s Pitching Recommendations:
  • Pitching is a tool for you. It helps you find what is dramatic, exciting and engaging as you speak it to others.
  • You pitch a series thematically. You pitch the story engine and the structure of the typical episode.
  • Practice your pitch. Role play it.
  • Be yourself in the pitch room. They want to know you’re sharp, have a wide range of interests, are well-versed in numerous topics AND you are going to be easy to work with.
  • One way to begin a pitch is to mention well-known incident related to your story to engage the listener (remember a few years ago when a woman was slapping her child in a parking lot and it was discovered she was a “Traveller” … an American Gypsy?) If they recall, continue with facts to deepen your connection to the story, then reveal your characters and milieu.
Burson & Lipkin’s Networking Recommendations:
  • Network, network, network. Luck comes from unexpected avenues from surprising people.
  • As relative newcomers, they spoke to the difficulty in breaking into the industry and, while they want to give people an opportunity, it can be difficult because of the inherent risk of an unknown quantity. They praised HBO, (“God Bless HBO,” they intoned over and over again) for their support for HUNG.
  • People remember. They told an amusing story about a writer they tracked for over TWELVE YEARS because they liked his work.
  • While doing a short film for POWER UP (after she’d already done a feature), Burson joked that there were days she thought it should be called Power Down but went on to say she learned a lot and was grateful for the break.

This completion to the already inspiring POWER UP Workshop was fabulous! I’m looking forward to seeing the couple at the Power Premiere on November 1 … it should be an excellent opportunity to hear more about what they’re up to! Besides, I’m anxious to hear more about their son, Wolfe, a young man with a passion for self-direction already! Couldn’t happen to a nicer couple!

Other posts of interest:
Don’t Read the POWER Up Summaries
Workshop Day Two
Workshop Day One
POWER Up Changed Alec’s Life (and mine, too)

Your Script Can Get You a Meeting w/ Liz Sarnoff

183If you have a GREAT script that you’re ready to get in front of someone who can make a difference in your career, you now have one of the best chances in the world!

The 501(c)3 non-profit organization POWER UP recently held a 2Day TV Writer/Producer Intensive and, as part of that workshop, participants and other interested screenwriters have been offered the opportunity submit a script for review. The top FIVE screenwriters will get a 30-minute, face-to-face, one-on-one with LOST Executive Producer Elizabeth Sarnoff. Thirty minutes to discuss your writing and your career with a professional writer/producer who has written for NYPD BLUE, DEADWOOD, and LOST.

And, as contests go, the odds on this contest are pretty good. There were only about 50 writers in the workshop. If your script is good, your chances have never been better.

To put these odds into perspective, a record 6,380 scripts are in contention for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 24th annual Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting competition. They will award FIVE fellowships in November. That’s right, five (5) out of 6,380 will win. Of the thousands who submit to the Sundance Screenwriting Fellowships, four (4) are chosen.

So, if your script is ready … if you are ready … the POWER UP Screenwriting Entry is online. Deadline is 15 October 2009. Submit your PDF online.

Why You Should NOT Read the POWER UP Summaries

I am now two days post POWER-UP workshop (not postal, just POST, you know after) and I am still going like a house on fire. I am so glad I did this workshop and, I am realizing, that reading about the workshops so pales in comparison to actually attending the workshop. It’s the difference between having a thimble full of water versus a gallon of water when you’re trying to cross the desert. It’s the illusion of survival versus actually thriving. If you are really committed to being successful, you need to get your butt into the chair, your name onto the list, your face into the crowd. It’s just what’s so.

Don’t get me wrong, the event was FLIPPIN’ FANTASTIC. I took 21 pages of notes. That’s right, twenty one pages of notes. And I didn’t capture everything but I sure as heck tried. (I wish the event had been recorded but that’s another story). I’ve summarized a lot of the key points in the previous posts but, as you can imagine, it isn’t close to 21 pages of content. I just don’t want to type that long and I don’t think most of you will really read it.

BUT, even if I did write it all, even if I wrote everything I thought I heard or remembered, it wouldn’t be the same as you being there. You just can’t network in abstentia. You have to get into the room. Prior to the workshop, I sent POWER-UP co-founder stacylisaStacy Codikow an email asking if this workshop was going to give us “real information AND real access.” She was polite in her reply (I might have ripped me a new one). “You’ll get out of it what you put into it, she said, “It’s up to you.” And she pushed everyone all weekend to get to know not only the presenters but the other people in the room.

Stacy was funny. Half mother hen and half drill sergeant, pushing, prodding, driving us on. She was also the “closed captioning for the new-to-the-industry-impaired.” The presenters would be talking about a pivotal moment in their career and Stacy would point to the important (and often obscure underpinnings) of the interaction. We learned how to handle a general meeting, a pitch meeting and a dinner party (never, ever pitch at a party). She also had the delicate job of pulling a couple of “guard dog” attendees off everyone. There were a few folks that, I swear, attacked any potential connection with such ferocity that they were destroying every chance they might have to succeed. Stacy delicately tried to rein them in, help them succeed in spite of themselves.

I was so delighted to hear Stacy had worked on CAGNEY AND LACEY. I so loved that show and writer Barbara Avedon was one of the first screenwriters to ever read my scripts seriously and help me along. Not only that, when Heather was pregnant with Alec, we were watching Cagney and Lacey when the contractions started. It’s always near and dear to our hearts. And I loved PROFILER and D.E.B.S. (I actually paid $50 for a ticket at Sundance to go to the premiere AND Alec got the final DEBS trading card from director Angela Robinson on a shuttle bus for me.) Weird little touchpoints.

During the course of the seminar, a woman kept standing up to comment on copyright and legal issues. I thought, who is this buzz saw in the back corner? Turns out that POWER-UP co-founder Lisa Thrasher used to work for FOX (as I recall) in the legal department. This chick knows her stuff. Apparently she does a producing workshop that focuses on making sure you get your film made and avoid as many legal pitfalls as possible. I’ll probably go to that and you are sure welcome to read about it but, if you’re smart and committed to your success, you really should get your butt in the chair. I’ll post when I know the dates.

So, now that you’ve probably read THREE blog posts on the POWER-UP event, why am I telling you NOT to do it? Because you’ll get a heck of a lot more out of it if you attend them personally instead.

POWER UP Workshop – Day Two

After an amazing first day, the question was, could the second day of the POWER UP 2Day Writer/Producer Intensive be as good as the first. The day was starting with someone I’d never heard of BUT, to be honest, she knocked my socks off. Day Two totally rocked!

laurenLAUREN IUNGERICH (pronounced YOU-KNOW-RICK) came in all bouncy with her blonde hair and her luscious vanilla-scented lotion that wafted through the room (did I mention I hadn’t had time for breakfast?) and she set the room on fire! There were the questions about her college years and internships and all that. It got really interesting when she started talking about a spoof movie she had done called SKäNK. The film was about several Scandinavian supermodel lesbians who had become directors. The models-cum-directors were named Inga, Molle, Hanna and Inga 2. They had SKäNK hats made that they distributed, posters they put up and a website … that studio officials were calling after the festival to get more information and hire these supermodels … I mean directors. Funny, irreverent, bawdy, subversive and totally hooked in to what is appealing to the market, Lauren schooled us in how to generate pilot ideas, create powerful tag lines, and how to handle yourself in a pitch meeting. Like the presenters from the previous day, Lauren affirmed that you need to connect with your material on a personal level to make it work.

Of greatest value to me was how Lauren revealed how the process works from beginning to end. First, someone reads your work and appreciates the ORIGINAL VOICE; voice is everything. Then, you’re referred to and invited in for a “General Meeting” … a get to know you soiree where everyone takes a look at what it would be like to work together (because there are long hours in television). If that goes well, a “Pitch Meeting” will follow. If one of your ideas is appealing, you will be PAID for the idea and be asked to write a pilot. Then, most likely, the idea will go no further and you’ll be out pitching another pilot idea. But, hey, you’re getting paid along the way.

Lauren’s list :

  • One of the most important elements of the pitch is how you connect with it personally.
  • NEVER leave anything behind at a pitch meeting. Your presentation should leave an indelible image in their mind and make them want more.
  • When creating your pilot, join the story in motion. Show the audience who the characters are and what they’re struggling with in their current circumstances.
  • Never rely on others. Rely on yourself. Work with effective producers.
  • In television, they buy your story and they’re buying you, too.

CarolWriter/comedian CAROL LEIFER not only wrote for SEINFELD, we hear she is the inspiration for the character of “Elaine.” While in college, Leifer was dating (then unknown) actor Paul Reiser which brought her into a milieu populated by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Leifer loved both performing stand-up comedy and comedy writing. She shared that David and Seinfeld thought the funniest things happen in real life. Any Seinfeld story based on real events was preferred. In fact, we discovered that the “Marble Rye” episode had happened to Leifer. She went to a dinner party in which the host forgot to serve the bread and the guests snuck it home with them. Leifer also affirmed that this business is all RELATIONSHIPS, you must be a pleasant person who is easy to work with. And, you must network assiduously. With a deadpan seriousness, Leifer said she still had every phone number she’d ever been given.

Carol’s suggestions :

  • You must be your own biggest fan. Always.
  • Mine the moments of your life.
  • Writers write. No one can stop you. Tell your stories.
  • Don’t hide from what you are … when you lie about your age (or whatever) the terrorists win.

lizI was so excited about the final presenter at the POWER UP event … the executive producer of my favorite show, LOST. The weekend was winding down but our enthusiasm was mounting by the minute. ELIZABETH SARNOFF started her presentation by saying she totally disagreed with what screenwriter Josh Olson had said in The Village Voice about being unwilling to read screenplays. Sarnoff said she loves original work! She said that when hiring writers for a show (like LOST), the skills AND personality of the writer come into play because you have to choose “people you want to spend 9 hours per day with, involved in a steel cage death match.” I think she was kidding. A little. Sarnoff shared a writing exercise she got from David Milch. While working with Milch, she learned to write for no less than 20 minutes, no more than 50 minutes, a scene with two characters and no setting. Just two humans deeply involved in human connection. Then, we were told to put it away for six months, come back later and discover what stories are at our heart and core. I tried the exercise and found it very useful. To be honest, I didn’t last six months. I maybe waited six hours before I read it again. And I liked it.

Liz’s tips :

  • Don’t think about writing when you’re not writing. Thinking about writing is totally ego-centric. Writing is like prayer; ego disappears.
  • Actors, when stripped of preparation, become generous, adaptive creatures.
  • More people crumble under success than failure. Success is complicated.

With POWER UP, success is still complicated but it gets a helping hand.

For more information on this event, you can look at JD Disalvatore’s blog. For more information on POWER UP, visit PowerUpFilms.org.

POWER UP Workshop – Day One

I’ve been looking forward to this workshop for weeks and, holy cow, was it worth the wait. The POWER UP 2Day TV Writer/Producer Intensive Seminar/Workshop (could they have made the title of this workshop any longer?!) was FANTASTIC. I’ve only been through one day and it’s already been worth it (and it wasn’t cheap).

ellensELLEN SANDLER, the co-executive producer of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was the first speaker of the day. A Jewish woman from Sioux City, Iowa (there’s a sitcom right there), Sandler went to New York to work in the theatre. Working as a READER for the legendary Joe Papp, Sandler learned how to write concise summaries with explanations of her opinion on the particular piece she was reading. After she moved to LA, she wrote a one-act play that starred Rhea Perlman (who was dating a lovely fellow named Danny DeVito who was working on a show called TAXI). Danny brought all of the TAXI folks to Rhea’s play. Afterwards, writer/producer James L. Brooks approached Sandler about writing on his show. And, as they say, the rest is history. POWER UP founder Stacy Codikow made a point that Sandler’s play was one of several that evening but she was the only one who “had the goods” when Brooks was present. She had the combination of a strong piece and the serendipitous good fortune of having Rhea Perlman in her play.

Sandler’s tips :

  • Remember that the industry is a FEUDAL SYSTEM and everyone serves the Lord. Forget it and you’ll be unemployed.
  • Get your words into the mouths of actors who have friends.
  • You’ve got to have some personal connection to the material to make it work.

janAfter lunch, JAN OXENBERG the co-exec producer of COLD CASE, consulting producer on PARENTHOOD, and writer of MY DARK PLACES and LONG ISLAND CONFIDENTIAL, shared her experience entering the industry. She was wearing awesome yellow and white tennis shoes with pale blue and white striped socks. I was lost in her shoes for a while. I’d wanted to meet Jan for a very long time. She’d worked on a lot of shows I really liked and she’d worked with Michael Mann and Ami Caanan Mann. Jan talked about how every episode of COLD CASE was a period piece and also an effort to raise social consciousness. She talked about how it is more common for producers to read an original piece of material (feature script or stage play) to get a sense of your writing ability than a series spec script. Most of all, she said everyone wants something original with a unique point of view and a strong character that just “pops.”

Oxenberg’s advice:

  • Many of the most successful TV writers have never had a show produced.
  • Television is a writer’s medium. Meredith Stiehm came from the “John Wells” school of filmmaking which means writers are taught to be producers, they have the authority and they are responsible for getting that episode made.
  • Being successful is a combination of opportunity, skill and relationship.

claudiaShowrunner CLAUDIA LONOW had the challenge of bringing up the end of the day. We were all excited but weary. Claudia came in and she was hysterical. She has an acerbic wit, dry delivery and moderately shocking observations that perked the whole room up quite quickly. I wasn’t surprised to discover that her stepdad owned The Improv and that she’d spent her entire life around comedy and comedians. I was surprised to learn she had been on KNOT’S LANDING in her teen years. After that, she fell out circulation for a while. Years later, she pitched a television series based loosely on her life. RUDE AWAKENINGS was purchased and Lonow returned as a showrunner. Lonow spoke a lot about the resilience necessary to survive in this business. Her new series (for which she is, again, the showrunner [aka top dog]) is ACCIDENTALLY ON PURPOSE and stars Jenna Elfman.

Lonow’s list:

  • Get humor in your pitch. Don’t bore them with the story. Give them the premise, the characters, the story line.
  • Get Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT and study it.
  • When you’re looking for an agent, make sure you find one that is a FAN of your work and that you know some of the same people.

Tomorrow, I’m really excited that LOST exec producer ELIZABETH SARNOFF will be one of the guest speakers. Also, CAROL LEIFER (the inspiration for ‘Elaine’ on SEINFELD) and someone I’ve never heard of before … LAUREN IUNGERICH, a woman who has sold eight pilots! I can hardly wait.

Short Filmmakers BEST Shot at Success

Short filmmakers who are committed to being successful and catapulting their film career into motion have an amazing resource available to them. Roberta Munroe, Short Film ExpertFormer Sundance programmer Roberta Munroe has written a book entitled HOW NOT TO MAKE A SHORT FILM. During her five-year stint at Sundance, Roberta watched THOUSANDS of short films. She’s seen every mistake, every cliche, every bad choice beginning filmmakers make. And, she’s seen the films that shine, that stand out from the crowd, the films that launch careers.

If you’re thinking about making a short film, RUN (don’t walk) to the nearest bookstore. The book is a bible for short filmmakers. Among the things Roberta covers: How Not To Make A Short Filmhow to keep your story fresh, getting your story to the right length, finding and keeping a great producer, finding the money, getting the talent, getting into an A-tier festival and using your film to launch your career. It is simply excellent. There’s even a cliche list of things to avoid. It is painful to find something you wrote on the list but infinitely better than losing a shot at a festival because you didn’t know every lame short has that cliche in it. Get the book. Read the book.

There’s even a better option for short filmmakers. Roberta offers a one-on-one consulting service. She’ll review your script, let you know if it’s worth your time and effort to make and, if it is, offer notes and detailed advice on how to strengthen it for the A-tier film circuit. If you’re working on a feature, she can help you with that as well.

I sent her a short script I’d been loving for a couple of years and the guys were wanting to shoot. Before we committed the time to do it (because we have so many other projects going on), I wanted to get her thoughts on it. She was direct and thorough in her analysis of the characters and the story. She offered concrete suggestions (without rewriting it or making it her story) to bring it up a notch. She cut to the chase and now I’m more enthused than ever about doing it. More importantly, the film will be stronger because of her input.

So, if you’re a short filmmaker, read the book and consider having Roberta read your material. It may make the difference between a tepid response and a rapid rise in the festival circuit.

Emily, Oh Emily

On my Facebook account, I’ve been updating my status frequently with the comments about my work on “the Emily and Susan” story. I’m always a bit obtuse about it because, like all writers, I have this basic fear that someone else will see the story and decide to do something similar. And I think this is a really good, really amazing story.

A bit more than two years ago, I was “in a poetry phase.” I’d recently re-watched SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and was enamored of the written word. I started messing around with sonnets … again … almost with the same enthusiasm as when I was in college. Soon, the rigor of the form dampened creativity and the sonnet lost its appeal. So I started playing with free verse and, for inspiration, I spent time re-reading my favorite poets. only known image of emily dickinsonI stumbled back into Emily Dickinson. Her biography was well-known to me. Unmarried, probably agoraphobic, woman dies with only ten (10!) poems published. Following her death, over 1700 (that’s one thousand, seven hundred) poems are discovered in her home in bound books she called “fasicles.” One thousand, seven hundred.

I started writing a poem a day using Dickinson as my standard bearer. I loved her imagery, her cadence, her style.

Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a “Diver”–
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home–
I–a Sparrow–built there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

I started noticing the tenderness and longing and eroticism in her writing. So, how does a reputed agoraphobe have these sorts of thoughts? Did she have relationships in her adolescence of which I was unaware? So, I started reading more. More on her biography and more of her poetry.

WILD nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Susan Gilbert Dickinson
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,—
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Who the heck is she mooring in? Wild nights with whom? Whose breasts? Doesn’t sound much like a (male) editor that she’s pining for, does it? And then I find information on Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her sister-in-law. A woman she knew from school, a woman who married her brother, Austin, and lived next door to family home for Emily’s entire adult life. About half of Emily’s correspondence was to Susan and many poems were written TO her or ABOUT her (in spite of efforts by others to obliterate Susan from Emily’s writings.

Mutilation

Scholar Martha Nell Smith‘s wonderful books OPEN ME CAREFULLY and ROWING IN EDEN offered a more complete, richer biography of Emily. Using the poetry and correspondence of both Emily and Susan, Professor Smith brought an entirely new understanding of Emily Dickinson and her work.

Tomorrow, more about the mistress of Austin Dickinson and the writings of Susan Dickinson. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m working on a screenplay about the Dickinsons.

10 Great Mistakes Screenwriters & Filmmakers Make

Script Doctor John Truby offers the following ten mistakes that screenwriters make:

Great Mistake 1: The story idea isn’t original.

Great Mistake 2: Writers often use the wrong genre to develop the idea, or they impose the pre-determined genre beats onto the idea instead of finding events that are original to the idea.

Great Mistake 3: They think a hit movie script is all about finding the high concept premise. But they don’t know how to extend the premise, from the two or three scenes suggested by the high concept to a 110-page script.

Great Mistake 4: They don’t know how to hang the story on the seven major story structure steps, so the plot fails to come out of character and the main character does not change.

Great Mistake 5: They think of the hero as a separate individual with a list of superficial character traits instead of as part of a web of characters, each character structurally different from the others.

Great Mistake 6: They try to create their plot using the three-act structure, which doesn’t work and causes a weak middle, instead of using the 22 building blocks of every great story that builds the plot steadily from beginning to end.

Great Mistake 7: They fail to give their hero a moral as well as an emotional weakness at the beginning of the story.

Great Mistake 8: They don’t know how to create the story world or how to connect it to the hero.

Great Mistake 9: They think the story is carried in the dialogue, or they force the dialogue to do the work that structure should do.

Great Mistake 10: They don’t know that rewriting is a set of skills, just like plot and character. So they rewrite in the wrong order, and their second draft is worse than their first.

If you’re a filmmaker and want to improve your films, you should get Truby’s Great Screenwriting: The Foundation Course … even if you DON’T want to write, you will understand the story structure sooooo much better and build a better film. Go check out the website and see what you think. There are some media links you can check out.

Interviews with John Truby about
The Anatomy of Story

 bookbug.jpg  Writer’s Digest Article
 audiobug.jpg  KCUR (NPR station in Kansas City)
 videobug.jpg  Part 1 and 2, Premise and Seven Steps
 videobug.jpg  Part 3, Plot
 videobug.jpg  Part 4, Opposition

Historically Speaking

I’ve been tutoring a young fellow for the last year. It’s been interesting to revisit all of the things we were taught in high school. Last week, I was drilling him for a history exam. The Great Depression was the topic of study. It was fascinating to read about FDR’s New Deal, his economic stimulus package, the statistics on unemployment during the great depression. I found myself wanting to read more to compare the challenge that Barack Obama is facing as the President-Elect of the New Great Depression! I am certain he studied history and knows what was done in the past.

In the review session, Alec was talking about how Frances Perkins became the first woman cabinet member. She was FDRs Secretary of Labor for his entire tenure. Of course, I always like when we hear about the “first woman” to whatever. trianglefiretruck.jpg

A few days later, I got to thinking about the big fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911. I had remembered learning about that when I was in high school. I recalled that around 150 women were killed because the factory doors were locked and that the ladders on the horse-drawn fire trucks only reached as high as the sixth floor … but the women were on the eighth floor. Many jumped to their deaths rather than dying in the fire. I recalled that it lead to stricter labor laws and sweeping factory reforms.

On the Cornell University website, there’s an excellent section on U.S. Labor laws and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While exploring their site I notice Frances Perkins had been a young woman in the city when the fire broke out. She had witnessed the women jumping from the windows and followed the prosecution of the factory owners. Perhaps that is why Perkins helped write legislation and supported such things as Unemployment Compensation, Disability Insurance and Social Security. If is often surprising to watch the ripple of each major event that occurs in history.

Boston Research Party

We’re in New England, researching our own “CHATTY PILGRIMS” story. I wanted to come research in the dead of winter to fell more clearly what the Puritans endured during the less hospitable season. alecboston.jpg Anne Hutchinson was tried in November of 1637. She was found guilty and put under house arrest until March of 1638. At that point, she and approximately 70 of her friends, supporters and relatives packed their carts and started walking to their exile in Rhode Island. The goal of this research trip was to “feel” the environment, the weather, the atmosphere of the geographical location that is Boston’s Shawmut Peninsula. Tomorrow, we are following the path the Hutchinson party walked. We will be passing through Quincy, Braintree, Brockton, Taunton and finally arriving at Portsmouth. Since they actually left in March, our cinematographic journey is likely going to be less temperate than their journey but, given we’re in a Dodge Charger, we won’t be suffering too much.

Today, we went to THE OLD MEETING HOUSE which is now a museum in central Boston. It is an old Puritan Church, built in 1720. It has the high lecturn and stiff benches. Across the street is the property that formerly belonged to Anne Hutchinson. According to the plaque on the building, a fire in 1711 destroyed their home and a brick building was erected in the same location. We spent a great deal of time at THE BOSTON COMMONS trying to decide where they hanged Mary Dyer. Based on the written accounts, I tend to think it is up near The Old State House (since it is near the end of Court Street). Then we went down to the wharf to feel the brutal breeze off the harbor. Finally, we went to The North End of Boston to check out Paul Revere’s house and The Old North Church. Revere’s house was built in 1680 (just 20 years after they hanged Mary Dyer) but you couldn’t get near the building and you could photograph or video anything in the area. It was quite disappointing. Alec was quite vocal in his frustration.

I Was Who You Are …

It’s a phrase that appears on many early gravestones in New England. A phrase made famous by Horace, one of the great lyric poets. aegina.jpg“Eram quod es; eris quod sum.” — “I was who you are — you will be what I am.” Last week’s episode of HEROES was entitled the last half of the quote — Eris Quod Sum — you will be what I am. One of the things that I love about comic books and television shows like LOST and HEROES is how they dip into mythology to deepen their stories. In the process of looking for the quote, I discovered a wonderful website devoted to amassing a digital collection of all classical works. You can discover some amazing things at Perseus Project at Tufts University.

Frustrated in Phoenix

I’m stuck in the sweat zone and I am grumpy. Really grumpy. I was supposed to be in Utah this week, researching the polygamy documentary but plans changed at the last minute. So, I’m getting reports about how things are going, about the images and journals that are being discovered, about the video being shot. My documentary is drifting into new realms without me. Where oh where did my project go? So, I’ve got a big grump on.

My birth mother died two weeks ago. It’s been a few weeks of endings. Disconnection. Loss. Disappointment. There have been a whole lot chaotic feelings lately. Sometimes, I feel like I’m walking on Jell-O … take one step and watch the ground shake. Difficult to see a clear path. What’s that thing that people always say, “If God closes a door, he opens a window.” So, I’ve been looking for the open windows and checking out the potential new views.

grumpy.jpgIndependence Day is almost here. I keep reflecting on that in light of everything that has been happening. Humans are such odd creatures. Why is it so hard for us to be free? We encumber ourselves with so many things. We make it impossible to be happy, to live joyfully, to express fully who we are and what we have to offer the world. We go through life like the little pigs, huddled inside our structures, trying to ignore the wolves at the door. What do we do to distract ourselves? We go to Disneyland! At least, that’s what I’m doing. I got an invite to spend the weekend at Disneyland with a friend while she celebrates her 50th birthday. At least I know which t-shirt to buy.

In His Name

The last few days, I’ve been blogging about religious freedom and the fundamentalist Mormon groups. I’ve been dwelling in this subject area since last October when we started a new screenplay about religious intolerance during Puritan times. It’s funny, when I’m working on a project, everything I read, see or do seems somehow linked to this story.

Everything about the war in Iraq seems related to the topic. You’ve got the entrenched intolerance that the Shiite and Sunni have for one another driving the centuries-old civil conflict. That is layered with the right-wing, righteous Christian drive to bring “freedom” to the region and obliterate a dictator. Everyone in the region is claiming the will of God as their inspiration and motivation. Just as the Puritans did when they beat, imprisoned and hanged the Quakers. Just as Joseph Smith and his followers did in their justification for marrying multiple women.

crusades.jpgI was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Whenever I’m talking about these other faiths and their controversial practices, someone invariably mentions the sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests and demands that I justify what they have done. Like my LDS friends, I hastily distance myself from “those” Catholics. There is, however, a big difference between the events. To the best of my knowledge, none of the priests ever claimed to have been commanded by God to commit those acts. None of them ever claimed to be doing God’s will.

The historically-astute may then point to The Crusades, the nearly 200-year conflict between Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East. Christians claimed that were trying to “liberate” Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Muslims said it was Christian greed that brought them to their lands. The roots of the Iran/Iraq problem with the U.S. were planted about nearly a millennium ago. Maybe that is the problem with doing “God’s work” — the conflict is eternal.

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