[IN THE TRENCHES] When Art Requires Craft

Lightning strikes the clock tower in "Back to the Future" (1985)
Change is good. Sometimes great.

There’s an aspect – the glamourous aspect – of writing that’s all about the magical alchemy of creation. Tapping into your muse and dreaming up rich characters, dynamic relationships, and deep dramatic conflict.

Sure that’s part of it. But there’s another side of professional writing that’s less about the art, and more about the craft. The nuts and bolts. The – to quote Tim Gunn – “make it work” moments.

This is when you have to use logic and critical thinking to effectively (and deftly) sew back up a script that’s been torn apart, while still keeping all the good bits intact.

Notes are frequently a trigger for these times. But there are a host of other causes too. Budget constraints, bad weather, prop failure. Even retconning. This skill set is especially crucial mid-production, when locations may already be reserved, actors cast, and even scenes shot.

Ian Rickett, a writer on 3Below: Tales of Arcadia and Wizards mentioned once that he actually enjoyed solving these kinds of problems. Working in the room to fuse pages, scenes, and plots can be quite a challenge. But if done well, the results can be even better than the original.

This came to mind last week while watching the Back to the Future episode of The Movies That Made Us on Netflix.

Storyboard showing the originally-scripted atomic test that would power Marty's return home in "Back to the Future" (1985)
I don’t think anyone is missing the nuclear explosion

Thanks in part to the addition of three DeLoreans, the budget for the movie had ballooned to over 18 million dollars, and the studio decided that savings had to be found before production could begin.

The easiest answer was to cut the expensive atomic bomb test that had originally provided nuclear energy for the jump back though time.

But what would happen in its place? With mere weeks to go before cameras started rolling, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had to come up with an answer. Checking out the Hill Valley set at Universal Studios, inspiration struck.

Maybe, if they added a clock to the top of the courthouse, they could have it hit by lightning and know exactly the time the DeLorean could get a charge of that critical 1.21 gigawatts.

Not only was that idea incorporated at that key moment in the film, it was also carefully woven into the entire story, all the way back to the beginning and that seemingly innocuous flyer about saving the broken clock tower. That’s the craft of writing in full effect. Perfection.

When I was working on the syndicated series, Born Free, there was an episode that ran long in post production. To help it hit the required runtime, the B story was edited out.

Artwork for the syndicated series, "Born Free" (1998)
Every moment is precious… to the budget

Ever thrifty, though, the production company didn’t want to just throw those precious scenes away.

Instead, to save both schedule and budget, I was tasked with incorporating that unused footage into the subsequent episode I was writing.

To do so effectively, I had to do more than just randomly drop those scenes into a new script. I needed to account for the existing attitudes, energy, and – most importantly of all – the dialogue and story as I folded it into mine.

In the end, it was as if it was designed to be there the whole time. Seamless.

Not too long before that, during production on Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book, we had an actor not return after a day of shooting an episode.

Again, thanks to super tight schedules and budgets, we weren’t in a position to merely reshoot those same scenes with a new actor. Instead, we had to scramble to rewrite the parts of the episode not yet filmed to explain his absence and give their remaining role in the story to an entirely different character.

Stressful, no doubt. But the kind of creative adversity that provides a real sense of achievement when you finally triumph over it.

If you find yourself working on a production – maybe even your own – expect to use all aspects of your creative skills, both artful and practical. Problems are unavoidable, but an open mind and the ability to keep your eyes on the big picture can help you navigate every kind of script obstacle.

Maybe, like Ian, you’ll even look forward to the challenge.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[ETCETERA] Not All There

The always obscured Wilson from "Home Improvement"
Patented Wilson Wisdom

Watching television over the years, you begin to notice things. Familiar storylines, tropes, set ups and payoffs.

But the one thing that’s fascinated me as both a writer and viewer is the characters who aren’t there. And not just occasionally.

They’re not there a lot.

I’m talking about significant recurring characters on shows who are rarely – if ever – seen on screen. A lot of times, not even heard.

It’s definitely a gimmick, but an interesting one at that.

Here’s my personal take on a Field Guide

REFERENCED

Norm and his wife, Vera, on "Cheers"
I’d recognize Vera anywhere

These are characters that are talked about frequently, but never show up on screen.

On Frasier, Nile’s first wife, Maris, was often the subject of conversation. None of it flattering.

But as vivid as the descriptions of her were, she never made an appearance.

This is the pure version.

A hybrid offshoot comes courtesy of Cheers, the show Frasier spun off from. There it was Norm’s wife, Vera, who Norm talked about regularly but (almost) never showed up.

Researching this post, I learned that Vera was heard offscreen on a handful of episodes and made one “appearance” with her face covered by pie (when more than a reference, she was played by George Wendt‘s real-life wife, Bernadette Birkett).

HEARD

Charlie, from "Charlie's Angels"
Good morning, Angels

Back on the original Charlie’s Angels series, the show’s namesake primarily made his presence known courtesy of a speaker phone.

(If you wanted to see the actor himself on your TV screen every week, you had to wait until the season after this show wrapped, when John Forsythe, landed the role of Dynasty patriarch, Blake Carrington.)

A more recent example of this audio-only character was on The Big Bang Theory. There, Howard’s mom, Debbie Wolowitz, made a strong impression via Howard’s stories, as well as her booming offscreen voice.

But other than a couple of fleeting glimpses behind a partially closed door and a birds eye view on a nighttime rooftop, that’s the most you’d ever see.

On Home Improvement, neighbor, Wilson, was always heard, but never fully seen. He gave all his reliable advice partially obscured by a fence or some other artfully placed obstacle.

EVOLVING

Jenny Piccolo and Joanie Cunningham on "Happy Days"
Piccolo in persono

Back in the early seasons of Happy Days, Joanie Cunningham would frequently tell stories about her boy-crazy friend, Jenny Piccolo.

It wasn’t until season eight, when much of the original cast had left, that a flesh and blood Jenny Piccolo finally showed up.

I find this particular case to be a brilliant way of replacing cast members on a show. Jenny’s first onscreen appearance played out to a certain degree as someone audiences had been following for years.

Well done.

Twin Peaks: The Return did something similar with Dale Cooper’s assistant, Diane. But the less said about that, the better.

Carlton from the animated "Carlton Your Doorman"
Looks better as an intercom

A few decades earlier, on the show, Rhoda, there was Carlton the Doorman, who would only be heard via the intercom in her apartment (and once in a gorilla mask).

After the end of Rhoda’s run, Carlton briefly returned to television via his own animated special. And as more than just a voice.

In Carlton Your Doorman, he finally had a corporeal form… albeit hand drawn in two dimensions.

DOES NOT APPLY

KITT, the talking car on Knight Rider gives the impression of an example here, but isn’t actually. You can see him perfectly fine. He’s just a car.

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It seems like a fun writing challenge to create a memorable recurring character that never steps on screen. Someone to join this iconic list. I’ll have to get on that.

This inventory is obviously incomplete, though, as I haven’t watched all the shows that exist. Are there characters you can think of that I missed? I’d love to hear in the comments.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Get it Down

Barton Fink struggles to write his script in "Barton Fink" (1991).
Don’t let it make you crazy

I have a million ideas. Most writers do. But unless you’re already a sought-after creator with a track record of success, an idea itself isn’t going to get you very far.

In other words, you can’t sell a spec that doesn’t exist.

You need to get those ideas written down for them to get you anywhere. That’s not easy, of course, but nevertheless mandatory.

I get it, I really do. It can be intimidating to think about what it’ll take to crank out an entire script. Paralyzing, even.

So, for god’s sake, don’t think about that.

Much like a literal marathon, the journey here begins with the first step. Focus on page one and let page one-hundred-and-one come when it comes.

For me, I’ve struggled with getting my ideas down because I’d try to make every sentence be the final polished version of that sentence before I wrote the next one. I needed every line of dialogue to be absolutely perfect before I wrote the absolutely perfect response.

The less-than-stellar results of Jack Torrance's novel writing efforts in "The Shining" (1980).
Seriously, don’t let it make you crazy

This is a recipe for never finishing. Or avoiding starting in the first place. Perfection is actually the enemy of this stage of writing.

Relax on the self criticism for now and focus on being prolific and judgement-free instead. At least judgement-light.

If you’ve got an outline in hand (you do, don’t you?), you’ve already done the hard work of crafting your story. Now it’s time to execute it. Plow through those pages without overthinking, and without getting hung up.

Screenwriter and novelist, Rhonda Smiley, calls this initial pass, Words on Paper. It’s the perfect description. You’re not going to win an Academy Award with your first draft. Just get it down.

If you notice yourself loitering around a scene, going over it again and again, changing an “a” to a “the” and then back again, it’s time to stop for a moment and regroup.

Recognize the delay, and push forward once more. Rinse and repeat. Before you know it, you’ll have reached your “Fade Out” after all. Triumph.

You might end up with scenes that are on-the-nose. You might end up with dialogue that sounds unnatural.

Novelist, Paul Sheldon, endures mental and physical torture when forced to write a novel in "Misery" (1990).
Writing is not for the faint of heart

There might even be bits that don’t go anywhere or jokes that don’t land.

Nothing wrong with that. No writer is going to submit their first draft to a buyer anyway (seriously, don’t do that).

The key here is that you have a first draft, and that’s a huge achievement. This is a step in the process and an essential one. You don’t get to a polished gem without getting here first.

Most importantly, a really rough draft beats a perfect script that’s only in your head. Every time.

Now take a break and then come back with fresh eyes. The real work begins with the rewrite…

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Shameless Self-Promotion

James Hereth - Writer/Editor - jameshereth.com
Don’t forget the Promotional Photo.

As a writer, self promotion didn’t used to be important.

Most writers are more of the self-doubting introvert types as it is. Who would we promote ourselves to? The dog?

Well, things have changed. A lot.

Thanks in a large part to social media, promoting yourself and your work is now a generally unavoidable aspect of the writing business.

So, although the writing itself will always be the prime task and where most of your time is devoted, you should still set aside a little to let the world know you’re around.

PROMOTE YOURSELF

For the most part that translates to an online presence, so that potential buyers, employers, collaborators, or fans can find out more about you. At the bare minimum, this can be done on most social media sites, which are generally free. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn.

Ideally, though, you should create a personal website, to serve as a digital resume and showcase. Although you might have produced credits listed on IMDb, your own website is where you can add details, images, work for non-traditional venues, and even unproduced projects or works-in-progress.

The site should also serve as the central location for any other things you have out there on the internet – links to your social media accounts, official websites for projects you were/are involved in, possibly even sites for friends and collaborators.

You probably shouldn’t put your email address on there for everyone to spam, but a contact form is helpful if people don’t know how else to reach you. It would suck to miss out on an opportunity due to lack of access.

Finally, there should be a section or page where you can post news – press, a job, an award, a newly finished spec, or produced project. Even a work-in-progress if the progress might be interesting to followers.

I don’t know much about SEO (Search Engine Optimization), but making the most of it can help drive people to the website you’ve worked so hard on. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive, check out this article from Indie Comix Dispatch. It’s tailored for comic creators, but most of it can be applied to creatives across the board.

All that said, don’t be overwhelmed by this list. You don’t have to do it all at once. Or all ever. You can just pick and choose the bits that work for you.

PROMOTE YOUR PROJECT

SFP NOW graphic for the podcast featuring James Hereth and Kev Hopgood talking about graphic novel, Blowback.
Why write when you can podcast?

When you have a freshly finished project – from a short to a feature, a webisode to a series episode, a book, short story, or graphic novel – make sure you shout about it from the highest digital rooftop.

Obviously, you highlight it on your site and socials, but also beyond…

Consider the genre and audience that might be interested. Then seek out the sites that cater to the same types of material.

Many sites have contact information or forms you can fill out. Pitch your project and see if they’d be open to doing a story or announcement. Maybe a review. Maybe an interview.

Sometimes, websites actively seek out contributors. See if you can find an angle that allows you to write about your project in a way that would be entertaining or informative to their audience.

Beyond the sites that match your project, think about the places that match you. Is the paper that covers where you grew up open to doing a piece on the local done good? How about the neighborhood paper where you live now?

Schools like to highlight alumni that are working in the field they studied. Pitch them a feature story about what makes your journey or project special or interesting to students or prospective students. At the bare minimum, you can usually post a short bit about what you’re up to on the school’s website.

There are also an infinite number of podcasts out there. Seek out one that matches your project and determine if they have guests. Contact them to explain why you’d be an amazing addition to their show.

It’s a numbers game and you need to know going in that far more venues will ignore you than agree to cover your project. Don’t let it get you down. Just keep going until you run out of places to pitch. Form relationships and then promote their coverage of you.

Sell, sell, sell!

PROMOTING MYSELF

With my current project, Blowback, I’m doing as many of these things as I can right now.

So far, Blowback has gotten reviews or coverage on Soda and Telepaths, SciFi Pulse, Pipedream Comics, First Comics News, Comics Crusaders, downthetubes, Comic Book Posers, and Indie Comix Dispatch.

We’ve guested on the SFP-NOW Podcast, as well as the Fanbase Weekly Podcast.

I’ve even been fortunate enough to get an interview on the VoyageLA digital magazine.

So I know it can be done.

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Sometimes, when you’re self-promoting – no, most of the time – it’ll feel like you’re shouting into the abyss. No one’s listening, no one cares. Other times, you might find your shout is being drowned out by all the other shouts from your fellow creators. It’s just a whole lot of white noise.

Maybe, maybe not.

Regardless, you still need to put in the effort and stake a claim on a little bit of that internet real estate. In the new millennium, it’s part of the writers’ job. Don’t fight it.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[THREE CENTS] Desert Island Discs

Tower Records Pulse! Magazine Cover Public Enemy - June, 1990
Literally saved from my dorm room wall

Back when I was in college, last century or so ago, Tower Records, well… they still existed to start with.

And while existing, they also put out a free monthly music magazine called Pulse! In addition to the interesting words inside, it was a good place to procure cool covers of your favorite bands for your dorm room wall.

One of their regular features was called Desert Island Discs.

Basically, it posed the question: if you were stranded on a desert island, and you could have only ten albums to listen to (possibly forever), what would they be?

It’s tough. How do you narrow down all the music you love to just ten discs? I choose to add the additional layer of difficulty that you can’t include “greatest hits” albums or box sets. Let’s keep it pure, people.

Much like I mentioned in my favorite movies list, I suspect most people’s album faves center around the music they listened to in their high school and college years.

That’s extremely true for me, as – other than one exception – all my choices are from a mere six year period. Although… that’s also a bit deceiving.

One of the realizations I’ve had here is that I’ve consumed a lot of music over the years in small increments. 45s, mix tapes, and – more recently – downloads and playlists. In the case of a lot of bands that I love, I’ve never even owned any of their complete albums. Singles and greatest hits, sure, but never a full LP.

As a result, artists like Queen, Eric Clapton, and even Hall & Oates are sadly never going to join me on my desert island.

But who will?

Answers below in no particular order….

Licensed to Ill (1986) – Beastie Boys

Licensed to Ill Album Cover (1986) - Beastie Boys
It started way back in history

I was already a lover of the rap / rock hybrid thanks to RUN-D.M.C., and this album just absolutely put it over the top. It was perpetually playing from the moment I got it.

The Boys were keeping it classy in those days with the mirrored “EAT ME” next to the Def Jam logo on the cover. Saw them live at the Universal Amphitheatre on their 1992 Check Your Head tour. Think they had sort of grown beyond any affection for most of this album at that point, but I was (and still am) all-in.

Appetite for Destruction (1987) – Guns N’ Roses

Appetite for Destruction Album Cover (1987) - Guns N' Roses
If the Sunset Strip was music

Hard, gritty, driving music by a volatile bunch of guys that have yet to come close to duplicating this album’s seedy alchemy. Sure, G N’ R Lies and Use Your Illusion I (and II) had high points, but there’s not a dud to be found here. A virtual Greatest Hits.

I spent a good chunk of time throwing up in a Great Western Forum bathroom during a show of theirs in 1991. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have pre-gamed so hard in the parking lot beforehand. Know your limits, people!

Vivid (1988) – Living Colour

Vivid Album Cover (1988) - Living Colour
What’s your favorite color, baby?

Vernon Reid‘s virtuoso guitar and Corey Glover‘s soaring vocals are a one-two punch that lift this debut to dizzying heights. With a grab bag of styles that go from hard rock to hip hop, there’s no chance of losing interest. Cult of Personality and Glamour Boys are the cream of the crop for me (though the entire crop is pretty creamy from start to finish).

A Living Colour show at a NYC club called The Academy was the first and only time I’ve ever crowd surfed. It didn’t end well, but was pretty wild while it lasted.

Van Halen (1978) – Van Halen

Van Halen Album Cover (1978) - Van Halen
You really got me. You really, really do.

My god, what a debut. A classic introducing a genre-defining talent. Eddie Van Halen reinvented how an electric guitar could be played, and the resulting songs remain as tight and rocking all these years later. A flamboyant front man might be problematic for band chemistry, but it’s gold for an audience.

Lucky to have seen the entire original line-up live… albeit split across two shows and three decades.

Kick (1987) – INXS

Kick Album Cover (1987) - INXS
Need you… for the foreseeable future.

They’re quoted as wanting to make “an album where all the songs were possibly singles,” and they absolutely delivered. Another endless string of hooky hit music.

Their next album, X, wasn’t nearly as consistent, in my opinion, but it continued the musical direction established here and generated several more memorable tracks.

Flood (1990) – They Might Be Giants

Flood Album Cover (1990) - They Might Be Giants
Not Constantinople

While building sets for a student film at NYU, I was introduced to this album playing in the workshop. So weird and wonderful. There aren’t a lot of successful alternative bands with an accordion as a centerpiece, but there’s not a lot of bands like They Might Be Giants.

It was touch and go between Flood and follow-up, Apollo 18, but this is ultimately the right choice. I’ve seen TMBG live three times and once on film, in their documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns).

Fear (1991) – Toad the Wet Sprocket

Fear Album Cover (1991) - Toad the Wet Sprocket
Not to be taken for granted

Beautiful. Haunting. Rich. Plus, a band name spawned from a Monty Python sketch (“Rock Notes“). What’s not to love? Walk on the Ocean is the standout for me.

Surprisingly for a group from Santa Barbara with such an offbeat name, their lyrics lean kind of melancholy. Cheer up, guys, you’re rock stars.

Hysteria (1987) – Def Leppard

Hysteria Album Cover (1987) - Def Leppard
Rocket baby, c’mon

After a prolonged delay owing to drummer Rick Allen‘s recovery from losing his left arm after a car accident, Def Leppard came back strong. Like, crazy strong. Dense soundscapes and vocal melodies, all on top of super slick guitars and crashing drums make this album shine.

Pour Some Sugar on Me was apparently inspired by RUN-D.M.C. and Aerosmith‘s Walk This Way collaboration. It’s like it was custom made just for me.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) – Public Enemy

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Album Cover (1988) - Public Enemy
Louder than a bomb

I don’t remember what initially turned me onto Public Enemy, but I suspect it was hearing Fight the Power in Spike Lee‘s incendiary Do the Right Thing. Whatever the impetus, I’m glad it led me here. Thundering samples and beats with a message to boot. Angry, thoughtful, and relentless.

For me, this album just narrowly beats out Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, which also includes Bring the Noise, but as a collaboration with Anthrax.

You Boyz Make Big Noize (1987) – Slade

You Boyz Make Big Noize Album Cover (1987) - Slade
Swan songs

Slade is definitely not well known in the States, beside their late-career hit, Run Runaway, a few years prior. Nevertheless my friends got their hands on this album and it became the soundtrack to our summer.

I understand Slade purists aren’t really fond of this one, but I just love it all. Sadly it was the final studio album by the band. They had a good run.

Beyond the Beach

Honorable mentions go to Raising Hell (1986) – RUN-D.M.C., Chess [Concept Album] (1984), Destroyer (1976) – Kiss, Pump (1989) – Aerosmith, Dookie (1994) – Green Day, and almost any later Billy Joel album. The Bridge (1986) maybe? Storm Front (1989)? How about River of Dreams (1993)?

You know what? Surprise me.

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How about you? Can you limit your picks to just ten? Do you even know what an album is?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and lists in the comments.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[THREE CENTS] Reboots, Remakes, and Sequels, Oh My

ReBoot (1994)
Looks familiar

People like to criticize Hollywood for a lack of creativity, but Reboots, Remakes, and Sequels have been around as long as stories themselves.

Hell, even the ancient Romans remade Aphrodite as Venus.

So to suggest that they’re inherently bad is painting with too broad of a brush.

After all, West Side Story, winner of ten Academy Awards, is a reboot of Romeo and Juliet. The beloved Clueless is an update of Jane Austen‘s Emma.

The Godfather Part II is both a sequel and a prequel and still won Best Picture. Star Wars follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, is widely considered the best of the entire franchise.

That being said, they aren’t generally the model of originality, and are mostly motivated by capitalizing on the financial success of an earlier movie. Which is not unreasonable. Studios are big businesses, after all, and originality is inherently risky.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Movie Poster
Part Two or Five, depending how you look at it

Familiar actors, familiar franchises, and even just familiar concepts are safer bets for returning on investments. It’s good business. And most of these companies still fund and produce original ideas as well. One could argue that the profit from “retreads” is what allows companies to take more risks on new ideas. Maybe on a smaller scale, but still.

From an audience standpoint, sequels allow us to see characters we’ve come to know and love in new stories, new settings, and new adventures.

Certainly right now, with all the new streaming services cropping up like weeds, familiar names making a comeback seem to be an essential ingredient for attempts at success. It’s possible we’ve passed the saturation point.

So, what’s the difference between them all? Here’s my personal take on a Field Guide

REBOOTS

According to Wikipedia – the source of all potentially true information – a Reboot is a new start to an established fictional universe.

This would apply to successive generations of James Bond, Robin Hood, and nearly every superhero franchise.

While researching some information for this post, I learned that the 1994 computer animated series ReBoot, was actually rebooted in 2018 as ReBoot: The Guardian Code, for maximum meta magic.

SEQUELS AND PREQUELS

These pretty much speak for themselves. Another chapter in an ongoing franchise. They primarily take place after the events of the preceding chapter, but they can also take place before.

In some cases, prequels can be seen as soft reboots, depending on how far back they go. If the new time period requires an entirely different cast, I’d personally lean toward calling that a reboot.

Although… If they remain true to the events and history in the source movie, I might still be willing to label that a prequel. X-Men: First Class sort of follows that line of thinking by including Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine, while 2009’s Star Trek does the same by incorporating Leonard Nimoy‘s Spock.

REMAKES

The Longest Yard (1974)
Do you prefer football

These are more one-off stories, rather than franchises that have widespread developed universes.

Frequently they’re a country’s version of a foreign film. Point of No Return from La Femme Nikita, The Upside from The Intouchables.

Other times, it’s an update of a classic, like You’ve Got Mail was for The Shop Around the Corner.

Some Remakes like to change things up, sliding into “Reimagining” territory. In the original Overboard, the spoiled rich lead was Goldie Hawn. The genders were swapped in the 2018 update, however, casting Eugenio Derbez as the upper class jerk.

Mean Machine (2001)
…or football?

Then there’s The Longest Yard, the movie that sort of does it all. Burt Reynolds‘ 1974 original was remade as Adam Sandler‘s 2005 version, but also reimagined a few years earlier with the British Mean Machine, where soccer took the place of football.

Talk about a Hollywood hyphenate!

SPINOFFS

Although these are more commonly associated with television series, movie also like to spread the wealth when they can. Bruce Almighty generated a spinoff when Steve Carrell‘s star rose to the point that his supporting character could take center stage for Evan Almighty.

The Rock got his first lead role in The Mummy spinoff, The Scorpion King (also a prequel of sorts). Nearly twenty years later, he did it again, when The Fast and Furious juggernaut spun off the equally lucrative Hobbs and Shaw.

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Obviously, I’m generally pro all these iterations. I typically lean toward more commercial fare as both a writer and viewer, and reboots, remakes, and sequels are most definitely that.

Given a choice, I would mostly take a sequel over a reboot. Even if the sequel has none of the previous actors (or characters), I can still appreciate it if the new version acknowledges those character as canon.

Ghostbusters (2016) Cast
This cast deserved a much better script

That was my issue with the Melissa McCarthy Ghostbusters. It didn’t matter that the leads were women. What I didn’t like was that it was an entirely new origin story.

I would’ve enjoyed it much more if they just existed in the same universe as Venkman, Spengler, Stanz and Zeddemore.

Oh, and if it was funny, that would’ve helped too.

To each, their own, of course. A lot of audiences are attached to the version they discovered originally. It’s the risk you take when you veer onto a different path.

What are your thoughts on these things? Are you pro? Anti? Does it even cross your mind? Pass the popcorn and let me know in the comments.

________________________________________________________

Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Noted

If you hope to work professionally as a screenwriter, you’re going to become very familiar with notes. I was very familiar very early on and I was not a fan.

As we went through the notes process for the first scripts on Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book, fellow writer/creators, Tim Bogart, Guy Toubes, and I, would drive across town to the Fox Kids offices for feedback and discussion.

Jeffrey Jones in "Amadeus" (1984) complaining about the amount of notes.
Simply too many notes.

Back then, I had an unhealthy attachment to what had already been written, and bristled at requested changes. Especially when those changes seemed arbitrary or recklessly tore at the foundation we had so carefully built on throughout the episode.

And for what?

Some writers have a sneaking suspicion that executives feel they’re required to give notes, otherwise, why do they even have a job? The result is that even great scripts are bombarded with needless changes, suggestions, and opinions.

Perhaps that’s just paranoia. Perhaps not. But it can make you second guess how much effort you should put into making everything perfect in the first place, when it’s inevitably going to be ripped apart.

Back to the story

I didn’t get along well with one of the Fox executives. I didn’t like them, and they didn’t seem too fond of me either. One time, Tim, Guy, and I arrived for a notes meeting and that executive had us sit in the waiting room for around a half hour beyond the meeting time.

My theory is that it was because they hadn’t read the script beforehand, and instead did so while we stood by. Unconfirmed, but you can see where I was coming from, right?

Movie Poster for "The Green Hornet" (2011).
This is what happens when you shoot a first draft

Regardless, when the actual notes meetings inevitably went on, I didn’t have the best poker face and would silently, but clearly, reveal what I thought about the feedback. Understandably, my collaborators were less than thrilled that I was cultivating a hostile relationship with the studio that was financing our show.

For obvious reasons, there was much rejoicing later on when schedules required doing notes via conference call instead. I was able to gesticulate as much as I wanted and we were still able to keep our jobs.

So, is it possible that notes are always superfluous and pointless?

If you’ve seen Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet, you realize that not only can script notes be good and helpful, every so often… not enough are given.

IN A PROFESSIONAL SETTING

Despite the preceding story, I don’t think notes are the enemy. Even if it feels like they are a lot of the time.

And even when it comes to notes I don’t agree with, I’ve managed to mellow over the years to a more productive recipient.

Here’s my core advice: Do the notes and do them well. That script you wrote isn’t just yours anymore. It’s part of a production now and even people whose opinions you might not share, are still trying to facilitate a great result.

Not that that means they necessarily convey them well. Some people are great at giving notes, while others are – for lack of a better word – a**holes.

I find for the most part, that notes from story editors (who are also writers) tend to have an understanding tone of what it took to get where you got. And also an understanding of what it will take to incorporate that note. When they’re passing along executive notes, they also acknowledge when something doesn’t make sense. You feel like you’re in this together.

Notes meeting from the series "Episodes" (2011-2017).
The whole inciting incident of “Episodes” is basically notes gone wrong.

The second category gives notes (even thoughtful ones) like an attack. Similar to the stereotype, they talk down to the writer with derision or disgust about anything they don’t like.

The thing is, even if a script is lacking, development executives should be trying to get it to where it shines. They don’t have to walk on eggshells, but insulting the person they want to follow their notes isn’t especially productive or collaborative.

That being said, you still have to do the insulting notes. You can vent to your writing partner if you have one, your life partner if you have one, or even a friend (I’ll assume you have one). But once the venting’s done, it’s time to get to work.

When you’re in that next draft, be conscious of how that change affects the pages that led up to it and the pages that follow. As mentioned earlier, a lot of note-givers don’t consider the collateral damage, so it’s up to you to properly execute. Don’t just shoehorn that change in. Seamlessly integrate it like it was part of the story’s DNA all along.

And for those writers who talk about standing their ground and not making changes? That will more than likely cost you your next job, if not the one you’ve already got. No producer or studio or network wants to work with a “difficult” writer. And nobody wants to work with a writer who can’t or won’t execute notes.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions. Sometimes deciphering a note that doesn’t seem to make sense might take a little analysis and follow-up. This might lead to an understanding that the problem they thought was in one place, actually needs to be fixed somewhere else.

IN A CASUAL SETTING

Notes that come from a fellow writer or maybe a writing group are handled a little different.

Several piles of screenplay drafts.
Why write one draft when – with notes – you can write eighteen?

Here, everything is voluntary. And how you respond to those notes is entirely up to you.

To start with, though, you should listen with an open mind. Do the notes make sense to you? Do you agree with them? Will addressing them make your script better, or just different?

Sometimes people give notes to steer the script toward the movie or show they’d like to see, but possibly not the one you’re trying to write. Don’t let feedback make you lose track of the story you want to tell.

Even if you don’t like or agree with a specific note, though, if you find yourself getting that same one multiple times from multiple people, you might want to take a closer look. Something’s probably not working somewhere and needs your attention.

_______

Obviously the writer I was early on needed to learn how to play well with others. It’s always good advice. As I’m sure you’ve heard a million times before, this business is primarily a collaborative one.

Work as a team and the results will be something you can all be proud of.

________________________________________________________

Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[SPOTLIGHT] Blowback, a Debut Graphic Novel

Back cover illustration of graphic novel, Blowback, by James Hereth, Rhonda Smiley, Kev Hopgood, and Charlie Kirchoff.
A team through time

On the otherwise uneventful January 6th, Rhonda Smiley and I released our first graphic novel, Blowback.

While this isn’t technically my first published comic, it is the first one available worldwide. And the first one that’s professional grade.

It’s a big deal for Rhonda and me, and the culmination of a very, very long journey.

The book first started life as a screenplay. Of the big-budget blockbuster variety.

Although it did win an award for best Sci Fi screenplay under its previous title, Revolution Redux, and garner some industry interest, it didn’t result in a sale.

200 million dollar budgets might be a bit of a deterrent for buyers when it comes to lesser-known scribes.

So, for the chance to see this story come to life, Rhonda and I turned to a different medium. A medium where we’d be the ones with creative control. Where studio executives wouldn’t be sending over notes upon notes upon notes. Where the writers, not the director, would be crafting the final cut.

That last one’s a bit of a mixed metaphor, since we were sort of the directors and writers of Blowback. But I think you get the gist.

Front cover of graphic novel, Blowback, by James Hereth, Rhonda Smiley, Kev Hopgood, and Charlie Kirchoff.
A cover that’s good enough to judge the book by

Becoming familiar with both the format and style of comics was a big first step.

Although we’d periodically read some of the more iconic books that came out over the years, it had been a long time since either of us were regular consumers. But we wanted to do this right.

Adapting wasn’t simple. Scenes had to be reimagined to take advantage of layout and page turns. Dialogue had to be streamlined to not overwhelm the art. I even felt compelled to do rough sketches of panels just to see if the action we wrote could clearly play out on the page.

But bit by bit, it started coming together.

Once we finally had a draft we liked, we set out to find an artist to bring aboard.

Through a friend who worked both in animation and comics, we were able to connect with Kev Hopgood, an artist who’s style we felt was perfect for the project.

Kev had worked on quite a few titles, but was most well known for co-creating War Machine and the Hulkbuster Armor during his run on Iron Man.

Once Kev had signed on, he recommended colorist, Charlie Kirchoff, who also had an impressive list of credits to his name. From there, the two of them got to work, converting our black and white words to full color images. Giving them life and depth and magic.

A screenplay isn’t really a finished project. It’s essentially a blueprint for a potential film or show.

On the other hand, this graphic novel – any graphic novel – is audience-ready entertainment. I’m thrilled to finally have a direct line between my words and a reader’s eyes, emotions, and imagination.

In Blowback, a present-day U.S. Marine and his unit disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, only to find themselves in the year 1776. There, they battle to maintain the course of history as they face off against a stranded World War Two era Destroyer turned ruthless pirate ship.

To find out more, you can click on over to comiXology or Amazon and check it out for yourself.

I’m not saying that you have to buy a copy, but if you do, it will make you smarter, younger, and better looking*.

Interior panel of graphic novel, Blowback, by James Hereth, Rhonda Smiley, Kev Hopgood, and Charlie Kirchoff.

*Not really. Well, probably not. Who knows?

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Adapt or Die

No, not that.

During an email discussion a few weeks ago, regarding some form of chaos or another, my mom remarked about her and my dad that, “We adapt.”

In a year where nothing is the same as it was before, this ability feels like both a necessity and a badge of courage.

Truth is, everything’s always changing, pandemic or not. Sometimes slowly, sometimes overnight. Although I may have instinctual reluctance, I nevertheless know it’s best to be aware and try to adapt to change.

As much as this is true in the real world, it’s also true in the business of writing.

The industry can be hyper conscious of what’s in and what’s out. Do your best to make sure you don’t ever appear out of touch or – god forbid – old.

I’ve talked before about making sure advances in technology don’t undermine your old specs. But your new ones shouldn’t show their age either.

Satellite radio is great for throwing back to the music you were listening to when you were growing up. But you don’t want to put references to Whitesnake or Limp Bizkit in your contemporary stories.

That’s not it, either

Make a point of listening to new music every once in a while, if you don’t already (they keep making it all the time). Then, if you need to mention an artist or song in your work, you’ll have an easier time coming up with one who isn’t in the AARP.

The same goes for shows, movies, and even actors.

If you happen to get a meeting – virtual or otherwise – a producer or agent might ask who you visualize playing the lead in your project. Be aware of who’s out there making movies and shows today that are either well-reviewed, well-attended, or at least part of the cultural zeitgeist.

You should know that Brad Pitt won’t get cast as your 20-something rebel. Dakota Fanning is no longer viable as an edgy teen. Check the trades regularly. Watch new shows, or at least read about them. Don’t fall behind.

Even screenplay formatting can reveal if you’re out-of-touch. Ten years ago (and all the years before that), you put two spaces after a period. Now it’s one. I’m not a fan, but I don’t make the rules. Still, I do try to follow them.

There are websites out there that regularly make recent screenplays available for download. Find some and see how the formatting looks. You might be surprised.

Obviously, you want to make sure your story is what’s drawing the reader’s attention – the twists and turns of the plot, the crackle of the dialogue, not the distracting formatting or outdated pop culture references.

You know what? Never mind.

Stay current.

For aspiring television writers, the rule used to be that you had to write a spec of an existing show, that was similar to the one you were trying to get staffed on, but was definitely not a script for that show itself (while simultaneously hoping the series you wrote the episode of didn’t get cancelled before you had a chance to circulate it).

Now, original pilots are all the rage for writing samples.

At least they were. You should check and see if that’s changed as well. Maybe they’re just looking for interpretive TikTok dance videos these days.

I think you’ve probably picked up on the theme by now. If you want to stay viable, you have to adapt and surrender to change.

The calendar is willing, able, and about to do the same. Follow suit.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] False Endings

Christian Bale in "Empire of the Sun," the poster child of False Endings.
Wrap it up, kid.

False endings come in many shapes and sizes.

They’re in songs, like Helter Skelter, All by Myself, and Sabotage.

They’re in movies – mostly horror – often to elicit a last-minute jump scare.

Although they can provide a bit of a dramatic punch, they can also come off as gimmicky.

Whether it was intentional or not, when I saw Empire of the Sun back at college, it felt like it ended at least three times. And that was two times more than I would’ve preferred.

The false endings I’m thinking about aren’t quite as literal, though. They’re the multiple times you “finish” a creative project.

There’s that saying that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. To me, even the projects that aren’t abandoned seem to never finish finishing. In fact, if they weren’t forced to deliver their work for deadlines, a lot of artists would keep tweaking them forever.

George Lucas might be the poster boy for this kind of false ending, as he perpetually modifies, expands, and “upgrades” the original Star Wars trilogy.

The point is, doing creative work is a long process. And finishing is something you do again and again while you navigate that path.

A screenplay is a good example.

You may type “The End” on your first draft. But you’re going to have to do it again for the rewrite. And the ten rewrites after that. And those are just the versions you write for yourself.

If you’re writing for a series, you’re usually contracted for a first draft, a second draft and a polish. And – as above- you’ve already done multiple versions on your own before the story editor ever gets sent that “initial” pass.

Finish line. One of many for creative endeavors.
Relish it while you can. Another one’s coming.

Fellow writer, Rhonda Smiley, has recently been dealing with the multiple endings faced by novelists.

There, you finish your internal drafts, then finish addressing an editor’s notes. And then maybe more new drafts after beta readers’ comments or a proofreader’s notes.

And this is just to prepare for querying book agents, never mind what it takes to reach the consumer.

Currently, I’m struggling with my own false endings, as I format the pages of our graphic novel, Blowback, for the millionth time. They were originally created by our artist, Kev Hopgood, at the aspect ratio we anticipated delivering.

However, the company who offered to publish the book printed at a different aspect ratio. After we had already started reformatting for them, we determined that this particular publisher wasn’t a good fit. Which then led to a plan to self-publish at a print-on-demand company with yet another aspect ratio.

But when our proof came back for that, it was faded and washed out. So now we’re onto a different POD company that will finally bring our reformatting to an end.

I hope.

While perseverance is clearly the key to a successful creative life, appreciating every single one of those endings is also vital. There should be satisfaction. Pride. Accomplishment.

Let the next pass come when the next pass comes. If you don’t let yourself enjoy these victorious endings – modest as they might be – you’ll never survive.

Or at least never be happy about it.

In a more chronological sense of finish lines, we’re mere moments away from December. And if ever a year needed to come to a close, it’s this one. Thankfully, I don’t think 2020 will have any false endings.

Metaphorically speaking, the sun will soon rise again, and we’ll all benefit from its warm metaphorical rays.

Hang in there, everybody. I think we’re gonna make it.

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