[ETCETERA] It’s Just a Fantasy (oh-oh-oh-oh)

Like most people, I have a good amount of friends who are all but consumed by Fantasy Football or Baseball.  I’ve even been invited to join them a few times, but I had to pass.

It’s all just too much.

Too much time.  Too much effort.  Too much information.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m unhealthily fanatical about my own teams (Go Mets!  Go Knicks!  To a lesser extent, go Bears), but I certainly don’t know all the players on the rest of the teams, or what their capabilities are.  Not to mention whether they’ve disappeared, been suspended, or lost an arm since their last game.

I never want to be that good with spreadsheets.

Fantasy Casting League - Home Alone 2017

Not Down to Earth or About Last Night.  Better, hopefully.

However, when a few friends from work came up with a different kind of league – tailor made for people like me – I finally realized I could be a part of the mania.  Well, mania adjacent.

During a lunchtime conversation – probably between solving world hunger and creating an engine that runs on seawater –  the collective minds of Rob, Jaena, Alex, Elmer, and Matt conceived of  The Fantasy Casting League™.

In the current entertainment world of wall-to-wall reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings, it just couldn’t be more timely

The concept is simple.  Pick a movie (preferably one that’s at least five years old), and recast it.

More specifically, recast it as if you were gonna start shooting tomorrow.  No dead actors, fictional characters, or “Robert De Niro when he was 20″s.

You don’t recast the whole thing, of course.  No one’s got time to choose the perfect new Cop #4 or Dinner Guest #12.  Basically just 8-10 main or memorable characters.

Sure it might be a struggle to find that many with some movies, and a struggle to trim to down to that number in others, but you get the idea.

For us, the first week’s movie was Home Alone.

Rob put together the forms (complete with synopsis, original actors, character names, and pix), and we had a week to fill them out.  Then the founders, along with me and fellow ‘Leaguers, Josh and Sarah, met up and reviewed (mocked/applauded/got confused by) everyone’s choices together.  There were no drinks, but that should probably change.

In the inaugural run, the winner was chosen by vote (written on pieces of paper and tossed into a hat for a dramatic tallying by Rob in true Survivor style).  And no, you couldn’t vote for yourself.

In the end, I outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed.  Also; won.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one who went with a race-swap remake, but I did spend some extra time curating and cropping photos to match the originals.  That and an adult Kieran Culkin are what probably put me over the top.

Fantasy Casting League - The Breakfast Club 2017

All we need is Imagine Dragons to cover Simple Minds.

It’s the little things that make a difference.

After crowning the victor, we each threw an idea for the next round’s movie into the hat, which was randomly chosen as…  The Breakfast Club (are you sensing a trend here?)

Despite all evidence to the contrary, if you’re trying this at your home, dorm, or place of business, I highly recommend mixing it up.

Avoid one romantic comedy after the other or two action flicks in a row, as a lot of those casts will probably end up being un-enjoyably redundant.

In the second round, we also tried a new scoring system, so that one poor choice didn’t completely derail someone’s chance at victory (although a Louis C.K. selection still felt a little like self-sabotage).

A bad pick got no points, a good pick got one, great pick two, and no pick at all got a negative two (so it’s always best to throw someone in there…  anyone).

A work in progress, perhaps

Naturally, the judging is very subjective.  If you’ve never even heard of someone’s choice, it’s hard to vote for it, even if it’s theoretically perfect.  But you still don’t want your lack of media savvy to knock out a contender.  It’s best to take the temperature of the room during the evaluation to see if everyone agrees on someone you’re not familiar with.  Then maybe they get the benefit of the doubt.

After everyone marked up their score sheets, they were all passed over to Rob (who’s clearly taking on too much responsibility in this racket) to add up the results.

Not to brag (he says just moments before bragging), but…  I was at the top again once the dust settled.

We’ll see if I can keep going strong in week three.  Thankfully, this post will go up while I’m still undefeated.

But who knows?  With a little (a lot of) luck, that might never change!

 

Some final thoughts from League Management

Alex wanted to mention that “Josh sucks at understanding great casting calls” (feels like there’s a history behind that one).

Jaena wanted to stress that the League is still in beta, and that we aren’t trying to exclude people (not sure who feels excluded and why, but in all likelihood, I never liked them anyway).

And Elmer wants to point out that he’s placed second for two weeks straight.  Oh, and that he’s coming for me (bring it).

 

Any casting ideas you’d have chosen over mine?  Any suggestions for future movies to redo?  Be sure to mention in the comments below…

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[THREE CENTS] But Does It Hold Up?

Hereth Banzai

Wherever I go…

Back in college, I started compiling a list of my favorite movies.  I was in film school, so watching, studying, and (over) analyzing movies was a considerably large part of my life.

I’ve been much less active in filling out that list during recent years, but it’s still there in a file on my computer, clicked periodically to life.

All of this is leading up to ponder the question of “favorites” and their potentially limited lifespan.  If you’re putting together a list of favorite movies as you go through life, how are you going to feel later on about some of those entries you added twenty years earlier?

Will they still be worthy of that list to the present-day you?

I saw E.T. for the first time as a kid.  Loved it, as many others did (I think it made money). When I watched it again during college, I found that I still loved it.  That’s a pretty solid shelf life, if you will.  It definitely “holds up.”

But do they all?

Buckaroo Banzai Poster

A special kind of weird.

During high school, my friends and I discovered The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension and treasured it.  It was cool, quirky, funny, and eminently quotable.

To the point, my senior quote in the high school yearbook was “Wherever you go, there you are” from Buckaroo himself (true, the wording might have been slightly off, but the intention was dead on).

So it was devastating to hear my friend Mike Rovner (fellow Blue Blaze Irregular back in the day) mention that he saw it recently and it wasn’t easy to get through.

What?  No.  How dare you!

Could this be true?

To find out for sure, I’d have to see it again myself.  But, of course, I couldn’t do that.  The notion had now become terrifying.  I mean, I might not agree with Mike, but what if I did?

Would I have to take it off the list then?  Or would it still qualify from the initial viewing?

Conundrum.

If you look at something that you used to love and discover it’s actually bad, then it’s bad, right?  Like those bell bottoms, or acid-washed denim, or that mullet.  They just don’t work anymore (I’m joking about the mullet, of course.  Spectacular then.  Spectacular always).

Maybe that’s true sometimes.  Maybe it’s true a lot.  You have a different perspective at 40 than you did at 20.  Certainly at 10.  Movie-making styles, technology, VFX, all change or improve.  Things can get dated.

I don’t want to live in a world where this isn’t as awesome as I remember.

Stories that were once unique and special are eventually done over and over.  At some point you’ve “seen it all” and surprises are taken out of the equation.

It can’t possibly all hold up.  And when it doesn’t, it has to come off the list, right?

Hell, no.

Ultimately, I say if you loved it when you saw it for the very first time, it stays where it is.  You can add some sort of qualifiers later if you have to.  Maybe.  But that feeling, that initial impression, counts. And doesn’t ever stop counting.

That magic, when you were transported to another place to live though a story that impacted you somehow – even if it was just to laugh for two hours straight – that means more than anything.  That lives on and can never be taken away.

That’s forever.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Rhonda Smiley: Novel Screenwriter

_Rhonda Smiley Asper Novel Cover

You can judge this book by its cover.  Magical.

My frequent collaborator, Rhonda Smiley, has been a working screenwriter for years, both as a solo scribe and in partnerships.

As one of the many little-known, but prolific, creatives in the business, she’s written dozen of hours of television, including shows like High TideNinja Turtles: The Next Mutation, Totally Spies!Kuu Kuu Harajuku, and the independent sci-fi feature, Race.

Earlier this year, she published her first novel, Asper, a dark YA fantasy.

Like a lot of writers, I dream of one day publishing a novel myself, so I thought it would be helpful to get some insight into the process from a fellow screenwriter’s point of view.

She didn’t disappoint…

What’s the first thing you remember writing that wasn’t a school assignment?

It was probably a feature spec but I’m not sure which one. If I had to guess, I’d say it was something I co-wrote called, Executive Rush, and I think the feedback we got was that it was “ambitious.”

And yes, it’s about a young courier who gets embroiled in the corrupt world of high finance.

After years as a professional screenwriter, what was the impetus or inspiration to start writing a novel now? 

Writing specs that don’t get produced is hugely unsatisfying. I wanted people to see what I was writing, so a book was the next logical step. I also thought it’d be nice to do something I didn’t have to rewrite to suit others until it became unrecognizable. Screenwriting is very collaborative and you’d be surprised how much your story can be developed away from its original concept.

Turns out writing books isn’t that much different. Not quite as collaborative, but throw in beta readers, editors, and if you’re lucky, managers, agents or publishers, and your story definitely evolves.

(photo not current)

What have you found to be the most significant difference between writing screenplays and writing novels?

Everything. The only thing I find the same is dialog.

When I write a script, I see it in my head as a movie or an episode. I automatically think in filmic conventions, not literary ones. For instance, I can match-cut to something to make a distinct connection in a script, but that type of link is tricky to do in a novel.

Another obvious difference is that you have to paint a picture with words if you want your reader to truly envision your world because you don’t have a set designer or costumer to come in and add the finer details. In a script, I can slug a location on the east African savanna and be done with it (unless there are particulars to the story that need to be noted), but in a book, I’d better say more about it because I don’t have a director showing you what that looks like.

And then there’s the fashion of narration. Ugh. The bane of my first novel. These days it seems readers are more partial to a single or limited point of view. In a show, more often than not, the audience is a fly on the wall, which is more like an omniscient narrator.

For instance, in a script, you can have Bob dreamily eye Carol at the water cooler when she’s not looking, and when she turns and Bob is no longer looking at her, she can dreamily eye him. I know, exciting. But the point is that Carol doesn’t know she’s being eyed, and Bob doesn’t know he is either. You do that sort of thing all the time in scripts. In a book, however, you’d most-likely choose one or the other’s point of view for that scene. Meaning, if it was Bob’s point of view, you’d show him eyeing Carol without her knowing, but you wouldn’t show her eyeing him without him knowing because that’s no longer his point of view.

Section breaks in novels aren’t only topic or location changes, often they’re switching from one character’s point of view to another’s.

That said, lots of writers break the ‘rules.’

Race Animated Feature

Written AND produced by Rhonda Smiley. No biggie.

Did you ever get intimidated by the typical length of a novel, or have trouble tracking story elements across that many pages?

I was never intimidated by length, but after a few rewrites, tracking definitely became difficult.

With so many things going on in the story, it was a challenge to remember where I was at times so that I didn’t inadvertently write about something as if it happened already when it hadn’t. Or vice versa. You can remember the general story linearly, but specifics, like a pertinent piece of dialog, become hard to track.

Do you work from an outline or do you just let the story take you wherever it goes?

I always work from an outline. I used to freeform when I first started writing, but when I got professional jobs, outlines were required, and I quickly realized how helpful they were. There’s a sense of freedom, ironically, when you know where you’re going. It’s sort of like dancing. If you know the choreography, you’re free to dance and you don’t have to “think” about the steps. That’s how I feel about outlines.

What kind of research – if any – did you do on novel writing before you started?  Did you take a class, read instructional books, or just immerse yourself in others’ novels?

Well, for my first pass on Asper, which was years ago, I didn’t do any research per se. I read novels like anyone else, and I was a working screenwriter, so I thought I could do a decent job. A manager became interested in the manuscript and had some notes, and I did a few more passes. Then she left the industry and my book behind. (No, I don’t take it personally, why do you ask?)

Years later, when I picked it up again, I decided to approach it differently. That’s when I made the mistake of doing research. The problem is that there are a lot of different opinions, and a lot of people who think their opinions are facts. It can get very confusing very fast, and you can lose your storytelling style (your voice) trying to get it right.

I’d strongly recommend reading books in the genre that you’re writing, and pay attention to what works and even what doesn’t for you. It’s really hard to do, by the way, to pay attention to the craft when you get into a good book, but it’s tremendously helpful.

High Tide

Rick Springfield, George Segal and Yannick Bisson keep the surf safe in “High Tide”

As a reader, do you have any favorite authors or genres?

Some favorites are John Irving, Nelson DeMille, Clive Cussler, and James Rollins. Sometimes I like to get really deep into characters and human drama, and sometimes I just want to enjoy an exciting adventure.

Having one completed book under your belt, are you working on another, or are you taking a break from that format?

I am working on another book (well, two if you count the Blowback graphic novel). This new one is for middle grade. My plan was to do a sequel to Asper and I wrote the outline for it, but every time I started working on the book, I got exhausted. In high fantasy, you’re creating lands, creatures, magic, etc., that don’t exist in real life, and they all have to make sense and work cohesively so that the world you create is credible. It takes a lot of energy, for me anyway. So I jumped over to a fun, less dark project first. But it does have a monster in it. Only one, though.

In any of your projects, does the title come to you as you conceive of the story, or does it reveal itself during the actual writing process?

I’m terrible with titles. I worked for a showrunner (maybe it was Mike McGreevey, maybe it wasn’t) who used to tease me about my titles. He wasn’t wrong. So I labor over them. I write lists. I look for reasons why.

Not just partially spies

What advice would you give to other screenwriters who are considering trying their hand at writing a book?

Start early. (Unless you’re an A-lister; I love these sites that say enter our contests and like Jim Carrey, you too, can get great exposure for your book).

It takes years and many books to build an audience. It doesn’t usually happen with your first, so you want to collect readers along the way. It’s a process.

Similar to screenwriting advice I’d gotten, it’s probably best if you stick to a genre. Build your brand since that’s how you build your audience. You keep them coming back for more of what you do.

Full disclosure – I have not followed that advice, but I see the value in it. (Hence, the extensive outline to a sequel to Asper.)

 

SHORT ATTENTION SPAN ROUND

How do you like your eggs?

Cooked. Any which way. Scrambled, over-easy, poached, in a cake. I like eggs.

CGI or Traditional 2d Animation?

CGI (hashtag Hyper Image)

Electric Toothbrush or Manual?

Electric upstairs, manual downstairs. Wait, that sounded dirty. I have both, so it depends what part of the house I’m in.

Astaire or Kelly?

Astaire.

Sock style?

Ankle socks done right, meaning they don’t slip when you walk and end up spooled under your arch.

Taco Bell or Dell Taco?

How is that even a question? Taco Bell.

 

If you’d like to know even more about Rhonda and her work, you can check out her official website – rhondasmiley.com.

She also won’t complain if you buy a copy of her book (or six), which is available in paperback and digital formats at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.  After all, the holidays are just a few months away…

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[THE MAKING OF] San Diego Comic-Con 2017

Armed with freshly updated promotional swag

As I roamed the crowded aisles of the San Diego Comic-Con, handing out Blowback bookmarks to the distracted and confused, the electricity in the air was both alluring and intimidating.

The ultimate goal is to be here in our very own booth with our very own book next year, but schedules are tricky (and costs can be intimidating).

Time will tell…

Regardless, it was great to check out all the amazing creators promoting and selling their projects.  Many are already household names, while others are working hard to get their names in the minds of fans for the very first time (and their books in fans’ hands even more so).

Cyborg checks out the crowd as Wonder Woman checks her Twitter feed

And, of course, there are the big studios and stars for panels and presentations, along with the accompanying lines.

If you’ve never been to a con before, this one is quite the production.  The mothership, if you will.

Just walking along, minding my own business, I stumbled into an appearance by Justice League stars, including Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, and Gal Gadot, who waved to the crowd below from their cozy DC loft space overlooking the floor.

The event also serves as a de facto “family” reunion and meeting place.  If you have friends who share your interests, both personal and professional, you’re more than likely to find them here.

Impromptu reunion

I was inside the convention center for no more than ten minutes when I ran into Charlie Unger (@Ungerfilms), a filmmaker friend and director of the indie movies, Come Together, and the upcoming, My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving.

Charlie was there with his daughter, who had arrived a day earlier to guarantee her entry into the Teen Wolf panel (multi-generational groups are a common sighting, our geek apples not falling far from our geek trees).

From there, I saw several more people I knew or had met previously, while tracking others on social media lurking somewhere nearby.

Comparing wares with Greg Rankin

In addition to those in the aisles, you’re apt to find familiar faces on the other side of the tables as well.

Not too long after bumping into Charlie, I stumbled onto the booth for yet another colleague, Greg Rankin (@VonRankinstein), animation director for DreamWorks’ Dragons: Race to the Edge, and artist extraordinaire.

There, I picked up a deck of his Steampunk Poker cards and talked a little while about his project (including the manufacturing process for his “chips”).

And, or course, what con experience would be complete without a connection to Blowback’s artist, Kev Hopgood?  Along with a parade of other amazing cosplay, that weekend for me included a guy dressed as Iron Man, clad in a version of his Hulkbuster Armor, which was originally designed by Kev himself.

Shadowed by a Tony Stark Turducken

Small world.

 

(This post first appeared in the News and Notes section of the Blowback Website)

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[IN THE TRENCHES] I.P. Or Do I?

Not Uncomfortable at All.

What the hell is I.P., you may ask?

Well, to start with, there’s no need for that kind of salty language.  There are kids all over the internet.

Intellectual Property is the literal meaning behind it, but in essence, it’s made-up stuff that someone owns the rights to.

It can be written.  To some degree, a spec script is intellectual property.  But that’s not generally what people are talking about when they use the term.

Most people in the business are referring to something that’s already been produced in some capacity.  A book, a comic, a web series.  Maybe a board game or viral video.

But even then, I.P. doesn’t really become anything of value until it’s a known entity to the public.  Preferably known and liked.  Though sometimes just known is good enough.

Old television series and movies are popular forms of I.P. right now.  Those have a lot of value as they can be recreated many different ways, complete with a built-in hook.

These days it seems to be a popular concept to freshen up old I.P. by changing its format, rebooting series into movies (Mission: Impossible21 Jump Street, CHiPs) and movies into series (Bates Motel, Lethal WeaponWestworld).

Not your Father’s Jumanji. Possibly Not Yours, Either.

Not that there aren’t also plenty of examples of movies being remade as movies (Planet of the Apes, The Mummy, Jumanji) and series being remade as series (Hawaii Five-0, One Day at a Time, Fuller House).

Really, as long as you have a title people have heard of, you’ve got “brand awareness” and something to sell that buyers will be interested in.

There are no guarantees for sure.  There have been examples of hugely successful media properties born out of I.P., as well as utter disappointments.  Regardless, the appeal always remains to financiers, as those properties and titles are considered pre-sold to audiences.  People have heard of them, so the marketing is already underway before anyone even spends a penny on the newest version.

Granted, most of us don’t own the rights to old series or movies, unfortunately.  Though a way to sort of achieve a similar result is to research recognizable properties that are in the public domain and invent a new take on those (Robin Hood and his Undead Men or Treasure Island Resort maybe?  I dunno.  Just spit-balling.  Check with your lawyer).

But With Zombies!

Obviously, it would be ideal to create something entirely new that comes to have value in the marketplace and can eventually translate to an entertainment property.  Not at all a simple task, of course.

Nor should it really just be a means to an end. Ideally, you should make something you love and then figure out how to get it into the world and known.  Maybe a play.  An album. Trading cards.

Be realistic, though.  And smart.  Always be aware of the marketplace and try to tailor your projects for it.  But if you’re going to do the hard work of creating, make sure to find an idea that you have a passion for, because getting to a place where your I.P. is the kind that Hollywood will come knocking for is going to require a hell of a lot of dedication.

Start brainstorming.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Merch

Young Einstein Mug

My name is Jim Hereth, and I have a problem.

We all love merch.  Stuff.  It’s hard to leave a concert or game without picking up a t-shirt or cap, maybe a giant foam finger.

How else will everyone know you were there?

We’re even compelled to bring home water bottles and keychains from radio station promotions and frozen yogurt shop grand openings despite knowing we’ll probably never use them.

More stuff!  And free!

It’s the American way to consume and collect, and what better than something that illustrates your special connection to a movie, musician, team, or cartoon mouse.

So where do screenwriting and merch come together?

Well, for one, entertainment and commerce have pretty much been linked from the start. Even more so in the era of buzzwords like branding and vertical integration.  They feed and fund one another in a never-ending loop.  After all, it is show business.

Some merchandising makes its way to the marketplace after a movie or series has proven itself a hit.  More commonly, they’re developed and produced simultaneously.

Garbage Pail Kids Movie

You’re not hallucinating.  This really happened.

The more peculiar phenomenon (and yet, quickly growing in popularity, it seems) is the somewhat artistically questionable entertainment property that’s specifically put into production to piggyback off the success and/or name-recognition of a preexisting product, toy, or even theme park ride.

I’m looking at you, Battleship and Pirates of the Caribbean.  And where do you think you’re going, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie?

Over the years, the projects I’ve worked on have generated a fair amount of merchandise (some also generated from it).  There have been toys, clothes, DVDs, and all manner of molded plastic Happy Meal choking hazards.

I’ve done my civic duty and collected my share.  Some I’ve had to buy myself, while others were distributed free as a job perk (Rhonda was given an impressive set of Rescue Heroes figures when she was the story editor on that series.  After the project wrapped, though, it was my nephews who were the real winners).

Years later, my show souvenirs generally still populate my desk or an office shelf, acting as a sort of career museum and three-dimensional resume.

Gormiti Action figures

Do they have to battle?  Can’t they just chat over cappuccinos instead?

Perhaps one day they’ll all collapse on top of me and I’ll become a permanent exhibit in the museum as well.

For my own personal projects, however, the idea behind creating merchandise is promotion.

Today, with virtually no financial investment, a person can create all sorts of customized swag through sites like Cafe Press and Zazzle.  T-shirts and glassware seem like the most popular items, but there are even seemingly random things like pacifiers and iPhone cases.

It’s kind of crazy, really.

So crazy that anyone can do it.  Which means you can too.

Before you get too excited, though, you should know that this is really not a moneymaking venture in and of itself.  The advantage of not paying any up-front money with a print-on-demand platform leads to an infinitesimally small royalty when something gets bought (a $14.95 mug generates a .60 royalty on Zazzle for example, and upping your royalty percentage can quickly lead to product prices that no one in their right mind will pay).

But making money selling merchandise isn’t your primary goal anyway.  If you’re a writer, your primary goal should be to get awareness of your project out into the world, ideally paired with a URL for the project’s website (if you don’t have a website for your project, you should probably start your marketing plan with that).

Here’s an example and simultaneous plug (speaking of promotion)…

Rhonda and my graphic novel, Blowback, isn’t going to be published until Spring of 2018, but fans can already get their hands on several different mug designs right this very minute.

And if someone buys one and uses it for coffee at their office, maybe someone else will see it and maybe check out our site… and maybe subscribe to our newsletter… and maybe actually buy a copy of the book when it comes out.  Sure, that’s a lot of maybes, but without putting it out there, that’s a guaranteed non-sale.

[TEXTSMITH] Mug

An actual, virtual [TEXTSMITH] mug. 

Since you’re here and we’re already on the subject, you should know that even a [TEXTSMITH] mug can be purchased by the most zealous of this blog’s twelve readers (don’t do it, mom).

As with this example, you don’t even need graphics…  or a likely market, I suppose.

But the point is that this bit of merch is out there.  Available.  And even if that hypothetical person at the office who has a mug of your project is you, that’s still more opportunities to build your project’s audience than if it had a picture of Garfield or SpongeBob.

And if all else fails, you may not have made a movie yet, but at least you made a mug.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Two Heads

Not to be Confused with the French Sculptor

Collaboration.  Not an easy thing to accomplish effectively, but the entire entertainment business is built around the concept, so it’s better to embrace the notion than to fight it.

Seriously, you can’t fight it.  I’ve tried.

Sure, some other art forms may allow you to control your project from conception to finished product, but this isn’t sculpture and you’re not Rodin.

As a screenwriter, one of the simplest forms of collaboration is working with a partner.  But simplest and simple are two very different words (actually they’re not that different – just two letters, to be specific.  Their meanings, however, can be).

THE PROS

Shared responsibility and twice as much imagination to solve problems, think up great scenarios, and brainstorm ideas.

THE CONS

Two different writing styles can sometimes be hard to merge, and opinions as to how to proceed, or what line works best in a particular instance can grind projects to a halt and damage friendships.  Also, lead to violence and the occasional restraining order.

And even if you do get along swimmingly, you still have to split the spoils.

When Smith Met Corona…

But let’s say you’ve embraced the risks and decided to throw your lot in with a writing partner.  Before you take your vows, what should you be looking for to get the most out of this creative marriage?

Ideally, partners should have different strengths that complement each other.  One is great at character, while the other excels at plot…  One is deft with dialogue, and the other writes the crap out of action scenes…  One is good at ordering the food, while the other really knows how to handle the delivery guy at the door…  You get the idea.

Not to say you can’t be productive with a writing partner who shares your strengths, you’ll just get more out of it if you both bring something unique to the table.

I can say most of this from experience, as I’ve been a part of many different types of writing collaborations throughout my career, and most of the projects I’ve worked on recently have been with Rhonda Smiley, who’s also my collaborator in life.

That specific subset of professional relationship – which is simultaneously personal – can come with its own special obstacles.

In cases like ours, struggles to come to a consensus on lines, sequences, or schedules can easily seep beyond the professional boundaries and lead to tense dinners and terse conversations.  Provided there are conversations at all.  Still, we’ve made it work so far.

WRITING PARTNER STYLES

The Dream Team.  And Mel.

▪The classic version is what I refer to as The Dick Van Dyke Method – One person sits in front of the computer (for Sally Rogers, it was a typewriter) and types out the script on the spot as they and their collaborators come up with lines and scenes out loud.

▪The Hereth/Smiley Method (Rhonda would probably call it the Smiley/Hereth Method, but this is my blog) – Ideally over a meal (the specific meal isn’t important, as long as there’s food and/or drink and the table has enough real estate for two plates and a notepad), we break an outline together.

For television scripts, one of us will then take the first pass and subsequently hand it off to the other, and back and forth until we’ve filled in all the gaps and are happy with the results (or can’t stomach the idea of reading it again for the twentieth time).

For features, we’ll break the outline into four sections and then each tackle two.  After that, we combine, do notes, and then trade off rewrites.

The Other Method – I swear I’ve heard of partners each writing their own versions of scripts and then combining the best parts.  That, however, is insane.

Regardless of your method (and it should be whatever works best for your particular team), what you learn over time is that you have to give in a little – like with every collaboration or partnership.  You can’t try to dominate the relationship or you’re going to stifle or push away your partner.

Maybe some things aren’t going to end up the way you would do them if you were writing them by yourself.  That’s okay, you’re not writing them by yourself.

Sure, sometimes there are going to be things you want to fight for.  Just pick your battles.  Maybe trade lines or beats.  I really want this here, you wanted something else over there.  If I can have this, I can let you have that.  Compromise.

Oh, and although it may sound like an awkward thing to broach, you really should consider putting together some sort of collaboration agreement before you start.  I know it seems a little formal, but if anything goes wrong (or one of you just becomes unavailable or uninterested), there’s an understanding in place as to how to proceed from that point.

Here’s a template from the WGA, though you can also inquire of the Google.

By the way, I’m not a lawyer (I only own one suit, after all), so I’ll just say to please use some common sense when you put one of these together, and no matter what happens… Don’t sue me (I think that’s a standard disclaimer I should put on every post).

Just Weird, Right?

Ultimately, if you’re a lone wolf or an absolute control freak, then a partnership is probably not for you.  But if not – two heads, as they say, might be better than one.  Well, except if they’re on the same body.

Then it’s just weird.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Great Minds

I was at a pitching event a few years back, and at one of the tables the pitch for my script was met with enthusiasm…  and then quickly followed by a caveat that made that positive experience turn dark, gray, and kinda runny.

Unfortunately, it sounds a bit too similar to Transformers, not to mention GoBots, which is in development right now.”

Okay, well, maybe twins can occasionally be a bad thing.

Well, that took the wind out of my sails pretty damned quick.  I’d spent a hell of a lot of time and energy crafting what I thought was a great script, only to be told that regardless of how awesome it might be (and it was awesome, of course), it had already been done.

As far as this development executive (or assistant, probably, given the setting) was concerned, it was no longer a viable project.

Now, I didn’t personally agree with that assessment.  The stories and concepts bore precious little resemblance to one another.  It’s like suggesting that there was no need to produce American Sniper, since Lone Survivor was already released the year before and they were both about soldiers.

Just because two movies cover the same subject matter doesn’t mean they’re the same movie, or somehow redundant.  And even when they are kinda redundant, it doesn’t mean they can’t both still be successful.

In fact, there’s a long and well-documented history of competing studios coming out with oddly similar projects very close in time to one another.

I noticed it for the first time during the body-switching craze of the late 80’s.  Within a span of 14 months, Like Father, Like SonVice Versa, 18 Again!, Big, and Dream a Little Dream all hit the multiplex.

Apparently, seeing double is one of the more common side effects to being in the entertainment business.

A more recent occurrence was 2011’s  romantic comedy twins, No Strings Attached, with Ashton Kutcher, and Friends with Benefits, starring Mila Kunis.

Which was weird on several levels (was this some strange part of their mating ritual we were all forced to a take part in?).

And, of course, there were the even more jarring mirror images, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down  in 2013.

There’s actually an awesome Wikipedia entry on this phenomenon, so you know it’s true.

Yet these filmic doppelgangers – sometimes caused by zeitgeistic™ happenstance, other times arising from generally acknowledged audience trends – don’t necessarily undermine each other.  Tom Hanks’ Big was fourth to the theaters, but that didn’t stop audiences from coming in droves and making that movie the biggest hit of the bunch by far.

So what should you do if your idea is pretty similar to one that’s out in the theaters or on the verge of being released?  Well, you never know what might happen, but if you’re still in the idea stage, and you’ve got several different stories that you’d like to write, then it’s probably a good idea to pursue one of the more unique ones instead.

With all the excuses there are for turning down a script (legitimate or otherwise), there’s no need to give a reader an additional reason to pass.

You know… The same, but different.

On the other hand, even if you’ve already crafted an awesome screenplay that a released movie makes feel superfluous, all is not lost.  A writing career is a marathon.  Put that one on the virtual shelf and come back to it later, when the concept doesn’t feel so secondhand in the buyers’ minds.

Of course – contradicting all that – there are also instances where executives will be clamoring for their own version of the hit movie that just came out from a rival studio. “The same but different” mandate is something you’ll hear bandied about a lot.  In that case, you might just discover that you’ve caught lightning in a bottle.

No matter what, always make sure to look at the bright side of the situation, despite how crappy it may appear at first.  Clearly, you have your finger on the pulse of the industry…

Minus nine months or so.

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[THREE CENTS] The Most Important Thing

A few weeks ago I found out that a guy I went to high school with had taken his own life.  Needless to say, it’s horrible.  I feel terrible for him, his family, everyone in his life.

I wasn’t friends with him back at school, but I knew who he was.  I had a fairly small class, so you pretty much knew who everyone was.

As far as I was aware at the time, he was just a kid like me.  He went to class, he played on the soccer team, he danced at the prom.  But he might’ve been struggling even back then.

Everyone knows that life can be hard.  And for people who suffer with mental or emotional problems; depression, maybe addiction…  It’s a hell of a lot harder.  Sometime more than people can take.

What does this have to do with writing?

I don’t know exactly.  But it certainly makes me stop and give some serious thought as to what it’s all about.

For some people, writing can be an outlet for their emotional turmoil.  A way to express their sometimes complicated thoughts, and maybe release some of that stress in their lives.

On the flip side, trying to make a go of it in the entertainment business can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.  It’s also highly competitive and filled with more than a few toxic individuals.  It can be difficult for even the most zen of personalities.

So if you struggle with the aforementioned emotional problems, depression, or addiction, it might not be the healthiest pursuit.  And being healthy and happy is more important than selling a script.  I know, there are days when it doesn’t feel that way, but you know it’s true.

So if you’re working in the business and it’s getting to you, really think long and hard about whether there’s something else out there that will bring more satisfaction to your life.  More peace.  More contentment.  Hopefully even joy.

And that message obviously covers all industries and all people.

As far as I know for sure, we only get this one life, so the most important thing to pursue is that happiness.

If you’re reading this and you’re struggling too, know that you’re not alone.  Don’t suffer in silence.  Find someone to help.  A friend.  A mentor.  A support group.  Anyone.

Just reach out.

And if you don’t know where to turn, someone who cares is only just a call or a click away. Don’t give up…

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

https://twitter.com/800273TALK

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[THE MAKING OF] Sight & Sound Film and “Nightmare Mosaic”

That’s either me or Steven Seagal.  Possibly Sting.  I’ll let the reader figure it out.

Ah, film school.  I imagine it’s a lot different today than when I went through it.  For one – we shot and edited with actual film. Not quite chiseling on stone tablets, thankfully, but an entirely different experience than capturing on digital files and cutting (non-linear no less) on a computer.

At NYU at the time, the first major production class was called “Sight & Sound Film” during sophomore year.

For most of us, this was the first time we got to advance beyond consumer level Super 8 and onto “professional” 16mm equipment.

It was go time.

My professor for that class was Christine Choy, who was not only an educator, but also a successful filmmaker.  As if to punctuate that distinction, we arrived at class one morning to learn that her documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” had just been nominated for an Academy Award.  If she didn’t have our full attention before, that pretty much sealed it.

Before you could make a 4K feature with your cellphone, there was this beautiful baby.

Over the course of the semester, each student in the class conceived, directed, and edited four or five short films, usually based on an assigned concept.

The stock we were supplied with was black and white and there was no sync sound…  But we were still the auteurs of our own little masterpieces.

And for college credit to boot.

There was a definite lean toward being “artsy” at NYU.  A lot of very serious kids wandered around the building at 721 Broadway sporting jet black hair and matching Doc Martins.  Black and white film can lead you in that direction pretty quick, I guess.

As my partner Rhonda (who shared a pretty similar film school experience at Concordia in Montreal) points out, if there was anything you could rely on in a student film class, it would be a lot of movies featuring people walking through graveyards and looking at themselves in the mirror.  I suspect my fellow students at Tisch felt it was of paramount importance to create the opposite of what they imagined was being generated on the sunny – and shallow – campuses of USC and UCLA.

On second thought, maybe you should pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Serious and artsy were never my thing, however.  My vision has always been of the more popcorn variety.  And the same went for my student films.  I did a gunfight parody centered around a game of Quarters, a Psycho spoof, and a mock (and mocking) movie trailer for an imaginary Steven Seagal action movie.

By the time our last assignment rolled around, I had seen a lot of serious, heavy, arty madness in class, and they felt ripe for the picking.  On.

Not that everyone was pretentious.  There were a lot of students in that class that shared at least some of my sensibilities and who I’m still friends with to this day, including prolific A.D. Maura McKeown Redmond, screenwriter and blog mentor Austin Hodgens, and filmmaker/documentarian Mark Smith.

Nevertheless, I decided that my final film would be a parody of all the movies I had seen by my fellow students (obviously, I didn’t give a lot of thought as to how that might affect my favorability ratings going forward).

Of course my ideas and my execution didn’t always merge as handily as I’d like.  Even though I was at college to study something I was excited about, my high school tendencies toward doing things at the last second of the last minute had not quite been overcome yet.

A list of things to parody and a storyboard full of ways to do it.  A dream dashed.

I think you can pick up on the foreshadowing.

Anyway, despite cutting it close, I still showed up at the school’s basement equipment room to pick up some helpful gear (like a camera and light meter), a whole ten minutes before closing time.

But it was already too late.  The filmmaking gods had chosen to flip me the bird and close the check-out early for the weekend. Curse you, Fridays!

Now I was screwed.  This film was supposed to be the culmination of everything I had learned in class, including incorporating audio.  But I wasn’t even going to be able to make one at all.  I’d simply run out of time.

I don’t remember what the hell went on between not being able to get the equipment and the class where we were supposed to screen the results, but the night before, I finally got to work.

Desperate times…

On the floor of my dorm room, I set up a rudimentary edit system, consisting of a glass mini fridge shelf set on top of a milk crate, with a desk lamp shining up and through it.  Then I taped a small piece of film on the glass as a guide, and used a razor blade to make cuts by hand.

But if I didn’t get an opportunity to shoot anything, what the hell was I cutting?

All the outtakes to my previous films for class, of course.  My magnum opus would ironically consist solely of footage I’d determined wasn’t good enough for anything I’d done up to that point.  I knew it wasn’t likely to win an Academy Award (probably not even a Razzie), but it felt like it was better than showing up empty-handed.

Man, what I would’ve given for this piece of cutting-edge technology.

The most substantial piece in that grab bag of discards was one long take of a P.O.V. walking up my dorm’s stairs and through the hall.  Soft focus (also known as blurry) and shaky, its duration alone nevertheless made it a no-brainer to use as the spine of the piece.

Into that, I cut assorted outtakes and trimmed clips from my other films, culminating in a shot of a screaming face.

It was not great.  Hell, it wan’t even good.  But it was something.  I called it “Nightmare Mosaic” in the hopes of making it sound more creative, and perhaps even intentional.

When the lights came up after screening it in class, reactions from teacher and students alike were less than enthusiastic.  Likely more puzzled than anything.  This was not going to reflect well in my final grade.  Nevertheless, my time was mercifully over, and we were moving on to the next student’s film.

At least until the aforementioned Mark Smith (who was also one of my roommates) laughingly blurted out that I had cut my film together in our dorm room the night before.

I was pissed.  And busted.  I couldn’t believe he’d rat me out like that for a laugh, seemingly undermining any chance I’d have to “get away with it.”

“Nightmare Mosaic”  This blurry still frame pretty much says it all.

Only it turned out to miraculously be my saving grace.

Suddenly Professor Choy wanted to know more.  We weren’t going to move on, we were going to dig in. How the hell did I cut a film in my dorm room?

I detailed the milk crate faux Steenbeck, combing through outtakes for an idea, even the attempt to quicken the pace as the film reached its climax by literally editing film by length, a la Eisenstein for “Battleship Potemkin” (finally, something I learned in film theory class I could actually apply).

And just like that, my Frankensteined celluloid monument to great ideas dashed by procrastination transformed into an impressive primer on guerrilla filmmaking, improvisation, and self determination.

Not quite enough for an “A,” of course.  Professor Choy wasn’t crazy.  But it was enough to prevent torpedoing my GPA.

My accompanying paperwork.  Clearly a tacit admission of guilt.

What’s the lesson here?

Not sure, really.  Don’t put yourself in terrible situations?  Probably. But more importantly – to me anyway – is never give up.

We all find ourselves in crappy circumstances, sometimes by our own doing, and sometimes through fate.  It’s normal to feel defeated and lament all the things that went wrong.

But only for a little while.  Then it’s time to get back up and make some lemonade.

Metaphorically delicious.

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