[IN THE TRENCHES] Tech vs. Spec

Motorola Bravo Pager
Cutting edge… circa 1991

In the never-ending war of tech vs. spec, tech wins almost every time.

Not too long ago, a production company liked a script Rhonda Smiley and I wrote, but the scale was a little too small for them. They asked if we had anything else that might fit their mandate, so we quickly pitched an older spec.

They liked what they heard.

Which – surprisingly – is where the trouble started.

When we took a look at the script (for the first time in a while), we realized that the years had thrown us a curveball.

So much of the tech written about in the script was completely outdated. Not to mention… was Occupy Wall Street even a thing anymore?

As it was, I had previously done a pass to get rid of characters plugging into a wall for the internet, but progress had undermined us once more.

There was a mad scramble to update, and we were lucky to turn it around before the company lost interest.

This is a cautionary tale.

AT&T Public Phone.  By Brownings - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1069794
Today, these fit in your pocket

At some point soon, you might find out a production company or studio is looking for a certain kind of project, and you think the spec you wrote a few years back nails it.

Let me stop you right there.

You need to check for damage first.

That script may have been perfect when you finished it, but you’re almost definitely gonna need to revise it anyway. Time has taken a toll.

The easiest fix is updating cultural references. Make sure nobody is using the Yellow Pages, is excited to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, or yearns to become a celebrity couple like Brangelina.

Simple, but necessary.

The more complex problems are likely to be technological sabotage to your intricately woven pages. Tech is always changing and now even faster than ever before. Don’t let an old script show its age.

In the movie, The Firm, a huge tension-filled plot point revolves around a fax that could doom Tom Cruise. At the time, faxes were printed on specialized paper that tended to curl up after printing. This particular one fell on the ground, rolled underneath the machine, and out of view.

The Firm (1993).  Hidden fax printout.
Not gonna happen in 2020.

As a result, it wasn’t immediately found by the bad guys, leaving Tom more time to save the day… or make a deal with the mob… or something. I’m not quite sure. It was a little confusing at the end there.

What I know for sure is you couldn’t use that plot device today. Info now comes by email, text, or social media, and it comes instantaneously. Often to multiple recipients.

In fact, delays of transmitting information or difficulties getting in touch with people are probably the most significant issues for old scripts. If that kind of beat is in your spec, you’d better figure out a way to replace it.

Some contemporary substitutions are lost phones, dead batteries, and “no bars.” If none of those can fix your issue, you might have to rethink entire sequences.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology making a script dated.

In 2020, characters doing research rarely require scrolling through microfiche at the local library… Documents don’t need to be stolen for evidence, when a 4K picture can be taken by a smartphone… Speaking of photos, no longer do characters have to wait for film to be developed or worry about it being exposed to light and destroyed… And a broken-down ride can be resolved with a mere click or two.

Uber and Lyft stickers on car windshield.
No car? No problem.

If you’re overwhelmed by the changes required in your script, you might be tempted to salvage what you already have by making it a “period piece.”

But if there really isn’t a thematic or story motivation for it, it’s just gonna feel wrong.

Let the shortcut go and do the work required instead. The result will be worth it.

In the end, when it comes to digging into that spec library you’ve created over the years, make sure to always do your due diligence. And amend before you send.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] The End of the Road

The End of the Road
Fading out?

Writing is hard. Making a living writing, is almost impossible.

So, have you imagined a time when you’d stop? Stop writing. Stop trying to get discovered. Stop trying to get hired, produced, or published.

Have you imagined a scenario where you’d actually move on?

Some people even start their pursuit with a potential end in mind. “If I haven’t sold something by 40, I’m calling it quits!”

Is it 40 for you? 50? 60?

The entertainment industry is rough. Crazy competitive. Even if you’re an amazing writer, it still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to find a place and thrive. It helps, of course, but it’s no guarantee.

When I first graduated from film school, I moved across the country to L.A. to try and make it in the biz as a screenwriter. A lot of fellow alumni did the same.

Surrender Dorothy
Sadly, the industry is more Wicked Witch than Glinda.

A lot of them didn’t last.

Some left after only a few years. Some took a decade or so before switching careers. One of my friends came for a couple of years, then left, then came back again, and then finally left for good.

My understanding is that he’s currently living a happy life in the Pacific Northwest, far away from the madness. Good for him.

It’s hard to keep going when you’re not getting the response you’re looking for. Even if you’ve been a working screenwriter for years, sometimes things slow to a standstill. Contacts retire, story editors have more writers than they have assignments, burnout sets in.

You can really being to wonder.

Am I done? Is this the end? Do I actually want this to be the end?

Obviously it’s a personal choice. There’s no right or wrong way to chart your course.

So, if you think that going back to school to become a therapist, or getting your real estate license, or opening a coffee shop is the way to go… Then that’s the way to go.

Never give up. Never surrender.
Never give up. Unless you want to, of course. Do you.

We only get one life (as I understand things so far). Do what works. What pays the bills. Ideally, what makes you happy.

So if that means continuing to channel your creativity into words, and stories, and scripts, despite a current lack of “success,” then age and bank accounts be damned.

Toni Morrison was 40 when she had her first novel published. Courtney Hunt‘s screenwriting debut earned her an Oscar nomination at 44. Angela’s Ashes was published when Frank McCourt was 66.

Not that these are common scenarios, of course, but it’s proof of what can be done at almost any age.

Ultimately we should all do what’s best for us.

For me, I don’t think I’ll ever be done trying to make things happen with my writing. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I’m also still excited for all the things I’m going to do. As long as I’m living, I think I’ll continue striving to do more, better, bigger.

At least until I don’t.

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[ETCETERA] Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon… and Me

At this point, I’d say that we’ve pretty much all heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea being that almost every actor can be connected to Kevin Bacon via his co-stars in six steps or less. Despite an extremely limited acting resume, even I can pull this off.

In fact, according to The Oracle of Bacon website, I have a Bacon number of three. Regardless, I don’t really count those particular connections as they start with me as a voice in an animated project. Not a solid foundation.

Instead, I’ve upped the degree of difficulty slightly, by only using live-action movies and connected actors who actually shared screen-time.

The end result is my Bacon number of five…

Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men"
Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”
Tom Cruise and Frank Whaley in "Born on the Fourth of July"
Tom Cruise and Frank Whaley in “Born on the Fourth of July”
Frank Whaley and John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction"
Frank Whaley and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in "Grease"
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in “Grease”
Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck in "Xanadu"
Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck in “Xanadu”
Michael Beck and James Hereth in "Jungle Book: Lost Treasure"
Michael Beck and James Hereth in “Jungle Book: Lost Treasure”

I assume they’ll lead with this in my obituary one day. Have a Happy New Year.

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[THREE CENTS] Thanks for “Nothing”

Woodstock and Snoopy split a Thanksgiving meal.
Woodstock being happy he isn’t a turkey

Pursuing a career as a working screenwriter is challenging at best. And maintaining an existing one is no walk in the park either. More like a walk through broken glass (while also eating it).

There can be days – years even – when it seems like my professional writing is on life support.

At this point I’m all too aware of what burnout feels like.

So how do you find hope or optimism in your writing journey during the dark days? How do you feel thankful when you’re pretty damn sure there’s nothing to be thankful for?

Back in the day, before he was creepy (other than the standard self-help-guru hucksterism weirdness), Tony Robbins had an exercise in his Personal Power tape series that addressed this.

Stack of Blowback Graphic Novels
Looks good vertically and horizontally

(yes, after enthusiastic recommendations from my roommates at the time, I actually ordered a set of tapes off late night television and found them about 80% helpful and only 20% nonsense).

In this exercise, Robbins instructed the listener to look around the room they were in and find and remember everything that was brown. Then he asked us to close our eyes and name everything in the room that was red (a tricky redirect as you might imagine).

After that, he had listeners open their eyes and actively look for everything red. Naturally, this time around, significantly more red objects were found.

The idea being that you tend to only see the things you’re looking for, leaving you blind to the things outside that adopted point of view.

Whatever you focus on is what you’ll see.

2019 Award Screeners
The annual swag pile. Still growing…

So that’s the essence here, really. If you only dwell on the things that make you miserable, that’s all you’re pretty much going to think is there.

On the other hand, if you devote some time and energy to direct your attention to the more positive things in your life – and career – you’ll tend to find them.

The seasonal point, of course, is to stop focusing on the brown parts of your career, and focus on the red instead. Metaphorically speaking.

What are you thankful for this year, screenwriting warriors? Here’s my list (with another month still to come)…

  • Did a small “test run” of Rhonda and my graphic novel, Blowback, while searching for a publisher Looks awesome (we even sold a few).
  • Got a script read by a production company thanks to the WGA submission portal (created as a result of their Agency Campaign). It ended up not being a fit for their mandate, but they liked the writing and it generated a new industry relationship.

So while – no – I didn’t get any award nominations myself, or sell a million dollar spec, I still had things to be upbeat about. And today, that’s what I’ll focus on.

Now please pass the stuffing.

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[ETCETERA] The Wilhelm Scream

Wilhelm Scream in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).
Wilhelm, rebooted

Most audiences are onto the fact that much of the sound they hear in movies and television isn’t made on set while the cameras are rolling.

The gunshot wasn’t actually recorded live. The song at the High School dance wasn’t coming through the on-screen speakers. Even something as straightforward as the footsteps of people walking down a hallway wasn’t likely captured at the actors’ feet.

Instead, most sounds are carefully selected from a sound effects library or recorded on a foley stage and then painstakingly placed by a SFX Editor during post production.

This is the world of make-believe, after all.

The sonic smoke and mirrors are even more prevalent in animation, where every bit of audio you hear, from dialogue to fist fights, to birds chirping in the distance is chosen and assembled on an edit system or audio software timeline.

The first Wilhelm Scream in Distant Drums (1951)
1951’s “Distant Drums.” Before Wilhelm was Wilhelm.

With that in mind, the question is: can a stock sound effect become legendary?

It can. It has.

Through the decades, a particular sound effect – a scream, to be specific – has come to find its way into an endless series of films.

This effect, known as The Wilhelm Scream, has been in even more shows and movies than Michael Caine!

Hard to believe.

According to Wikipedia, The Wilhelm Scream first appeared in the 1951 movie, Distant Drums. Oddly enough, it wasn’t screamed by the character Wilhelm until the Western, The Charge at Feather River, a couple of years later.

Life is complicated.

From there, Wilhelm’s scream has gone on to show up in over 425 more productions, from Reservoir Dogs to Toy Story to Terminator: Dark Fate.

Although a viable (though perhaps melodramatic) sound effect, its popularity is not quite by happenstance. At least, not at this point.

The first Wilhelm Scream by Wilhelm himself in The Charge at Feather River (1953).
An arrow to the thigh. A small price for fame, Wilhelm.

Iconic sound designer, Ben Burtt, first used it in the original Star Wars, and went on to popularize it throughout his career.

In short, it’s now become a bit of an “inside joke” among filmmakers. Though today, with everyone knowing the ins and outs of all things pop culture, it’s not nearly the secret it once was.

One of the things about this that fascinates me most, is that the actor behind this cinematic gem – reportedly Sheb Wooley – is still “alive” and well and performing in new movies all the time, despite being dead since 2003.

That’s no mean feat.

In short, I raise a glass to the immortal Wilhelm. Few have experienced more frequent and varied suffering on the silver screen merely for our entertainment.

If you weren’t already, be sure to keep an ear out and see if you can find it in the next movie you watch. Granted, if it’s a story about collecting butterflies, it’s probably not going to pop up. But anything a with a little action, and you’re likely to strike gold.


It should really get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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[IN THE TRENCHES] That First Gig

That Familiar Flying Logo

I think the primary question for most impending college graduates is: What now?

That was in the forefront of my mind as a senior in the film and television department at NYU.

I had a couple of thoughts.

There was a student I knew whose aunt coordinated parking for film shoots in the New York area. Maybe I’d start my professional career as a parking P.A. A few of my friends had done it over the previous summer break and ended up on Goodfellas. Not too shabby.

I’d also acted in a PSA during high school for a small production company on Long Island, and thought I might be able to get a job there. Maybe an internship. Something industry-related until I could sell my million dollar spec.

The Vault of Weird Goodness

Thankfully, there were then (and still are today) lots of entry-level industry positions to be had if you’re already in a city with media and entertainment companies.

Places like New York and Los Angeles are the obvious epicenters. But there are plenty of others throughout the country, to varying degrees. You just have to do some research on what’s in your particular area (or the area you’re going to. Particularly).

The types of industry jobs available just out of school are a bit of a smorgasbord as well, as my NYU peers illustrated quite nicely.

One friend started out as an assistant at a production company. Another friend, a camera operator on low-budget features. Still another started by doing script coverage for a producer. Beyond that there are P.A.s, personal assistants, receptionists, and coordinators, to name a few more. None of those jobs are going to get you a Tesla right out of the gate, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.

Before I pursued any of the local jobs I was thinking of, I got an offer from my friend, Tim, who had left school after the previous semester. He was in Los Angeles, working in development at a company called Franklin/Waterman Entertainment and there was a job to be had on one of their shows.

Back in the day, this was High Tech. Maybe Medium Tech.

(Note to everyone in every industry: Your friends are your network, and you are theirs).

The show was Night Flight, a weekly two-hour block of music videos, film shorts, and other odd odds and ends. It had originally been an overnight block on the USA Network, but this version aired nationally in late-night syndication.

My job was as a Segment Producer, which sounds mighty highfalutin for a kid fresh from college. What it really meant, though, was that I wasn’t on salary. Instead, it was my job to conceive of and pitch segments. With the approved ones, it would be up to me to edit them for airing on the show. Then I got to invoice.

Most of my segments were cobbled together from music videos, electronic press kits, public domain movies, and assorted other video weirdness from the show’s vast tape library.

My favorite piece was a dance montage called Hip Hop ‘Til Ya Drop, set to (and including) MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This, which was painstakingly stitched together to the beat from more than 25 music videos on a linear editing system. Please hold your applause until the end…

Night Flight graphics also Medium Tech.

When Night Flight finally invested in a professional grade Hi8 camera, I got to shoot bumpers, band interviews (The Sisters of Mercy, The Godfathers), and eventually even a short “film” of my own for the show (to be entailed in a future post).

In short, it was a great start for me – A reason to move to L.A., a landing place with an “endorsement, ” and a gig on a “brand name” series.

Granted, it’s been a roller coaster ever since, but it was a welcome entry point

The main thing to remember, is that you shouldn’t think of your first job as a life-and-death decision that will define the rest of your career. Not that you should take just anything. But primarily, it’s a place to start working, develop your network, and then figure out the best path to your ultimate goal.

Mine is to be cartoonishly wealthy and get anything I dream of produced.

I’m still working on it.

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[SPOTLIGHT] Stinkier & Dirtier

The Stinky & Dirty show Title Card
Stinky (left) & Dirty (right)

If you thought this post was going be R rated, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it will be very much a G, since it’s about the preschool series, The Stinky & Dirty Show.

This happens to actually be my third post about this pair of animated trucks (there was this one, and that was followed up by this one). But it’s relevant once more, since August 23rd marked the latest drop of episodes on Amazon Prime.

Tom Kenny
Not Andy Dick.

The two episodes I wrote with Rhonda Smiley in this batch feature another pair of notable performers (I know it really shouldn’t matter, but I do love writing for performers of note).

In “Monster Breakthrough,” Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants, 3 Below: Tales of Arcadia) plays the fun-loving, but easily-frightened, Monster Truck.

In “A Case of the Sputters,” Andy Richter (Conan, Madagascar) voices the heroic Fire Engine, Brave.

The truth is, in addition to the thrill of having performers I admire actually speaking dialogue I’ve written, it’s helpful in self-promotion. While it might feel a little weird… maybe vain… probably narcissistic… self-promotion has become an essential part of the modern writer’s toolbox.

Andy Richter
Not an actual fire truck

Don’t shy away from it, if possible. Highlight your work, your network, and especially any recognizable names involved.

Employers and fans alike should be able to easily find these things online. For prospective employers, the more impressive things they see, the more appealing a candidate you become (good writing is the primary attribute, of course, but everything helps. Everything. It’s a competitive field).

Speaking of things to promote, I also just found out that Stinky & Dirty won a 2018 Parents’ Choice Gold Award from the Parents’ Choice Foundation.

“Good lessons about perseverance pervade the series. Stinky and Dirty also highlight the fact that communication is important and that solving problems successfully can be very rewarding.”

Very rewarding indeed. I guess they’re doing something right. I’m glad I get to play a small part.

…and then talk about it online.

The Stinky & Dirty Show Credit Block
The receipts

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[ETCETERA] The Dog Days of Spring

I didn’t write a post last month and was on the verge of missing my June deadline too.

It’s so easy to get buried by life sometimes.

For me it was a flurry of little things. Not all of them negative, but still… Enough of them and it can really take a toll on your schedule.

There was the push to get a publisher for Blowback, my day-job fluctuation, possible interest in a script, a friend’s injury, the death of a refrigerator, surgery on my dog’s paw, a Sisyphean attempt to clean the garage, and – of course – a trip to Batuu.

Time was definitely not on my side.

So this month, instead of my usual witty (yes, witty) musings, I give you a picture of my dog, Jojo, after he came home from his aforementioned procedure.

(He’s still rehabbing now, but feeling much better, thanks)

Sometimes life can get away from you. The dog days of spring as illustrated by Westie and Cairn Mix Terrier, Jojo.
An adorably dazed Jojo (photo courtesy of his mommy, Rhonda Smiley)

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Tortured Running Analogies

James Hereth - 2019 Los Angeles Marathon
This photo is also a screenwriting analogy

As the oft-repeated saying goes, a career is a Marathon, not a sprint.

But really, pretty much everything – other than a sprint – isn’t a sprint.

In the same vein, the most obvious marathon is an actual 26.2 mile marathon itself, no analogy needed.

Well, 20 years after my previous actual marathon, I once again “ran” (read: traveled by foot) the Los Angeles Marathon at the end of last month.

It may take another 20 years to recover, but I did cross the finish line under my own power. It was hard. It was stressful. It was long. But more than anything, determination and perseverance are what got me through.

Similarly, I’ve been running my screenwriting career marathon for quite a few years now. As with the literal version, determination and perseverance are the primary forces getting me through.

So lets milk these metaphors dry.

To have a chance of building your own screenwriting career, you need to push past the exhaustion of working a day job while still putting in the hours for your creative work. Writers have to write.

You have to block out the pain of dry spells when paying gigs are nowhere to be be found. Be prepared when the opportunities arise.

You must embrace every bit of encouragement from the sidelines to soldier on in the face of impossible odds. No kind word is too insignificant, no motivation too small.

You need to lance the blisters of rejection to… er… well…

Ah, hell, you get the idea.

If you just keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually get to the metaphorical finish line.

Which, in this analogy, is success. Start stretching.

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[SPOTLIGHT] The (Award Winning) Stinky & Dirty Show

Onscreen credits never get old

March 22nd marked the drop of the latest episodes of Amazon Prime’s Emmy-Nominated, The Stinky & Dirty Show.

Now, I’ve talked about this show a bit before, so what makes this drop so special?

Simple: Me!

Well, me and Rhonda Smiley, to be more specific.

This particular release includes “The Neverending Race,” which is the first of three episodes Rhonda and I wrote for the series.

Although it’s always great to get an assignment for a show, it’s even cooler when you find out that the words you type will ultimately come out of the mouths of some amazing actors. “Name-brands,” even!

Featured performers in our episode include Joan Cusack (Shameless, Toy Story 2, 3, & 4) as Red, and Academy Award Winner, Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost, Sister Act) as Meg.

Stinky. Red. Dirty.

The moment we got the offer from longtime friend, Guy Toubes (Executive Producer on the show), we jumped at the opportunity. To begin with, we never turn down legitimate writing work. We’re not crazy (not that kind of crazy, anyway). But beyond that, it was our first chance to work on a show produced specifically for a streaming service.

The future is now, yo.

Unlike a lot of freelance writing work, where pitches and notes are primarily done via email, Stinky & Dirty also involved a meeting with real human beings in a brick and mortar structure known as an “office.”

This particular office was a conference room at Amazon Studios in Santa Monica. A word about Amazon Studios. Several, actually. They don’t kid around over there with security. It felt somewhat reminiscent of trying to break into – or perhaps out of – a high-security military facility in a sci-fi movie.

It’s all a bit of a blur at this point, but I think it might’ve involved a DNA sample, retina scan… possibly a body cavity search. On the other hand, we got breakfast. So that’s a net positive.

Once safely inside, we broke the story with Guy and Story Editor, Rick Suvalle, along with the help of assistant (and writer) Zac. Also, a whiteboard.

As a group, coming up with ideas on the spot allows you to feed off all the creative minds in the room. You can build on each other’s pitches, finding the best solutions to problems that crop up. It’s also kinda fun.

On top of all that, they even paid us for it. Good times.

So if you’ve got any preschool kids who love them some talking trucks, you know where to turn… The Stinky & Dirty Show!

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