The Notebook

You will hear again and again that it’s not about the writing — it’s about the re-writing. And that is an endless process. It is never done. Ever. Because, even after you have received the feedback and returned the revision, you will still want to add to it, tweak it, make one more change. Or another person will come on board and will want changes. Or something will happen in the real world that requires a change in your fabricated realm. And so on. That is the nature of the beast known as the screenplay. And, as screenwriters, we have no choice but to embrace that…or hang up abruptly on this particular calling.

I’m a little strange in that I actually like getting notes. I like the long meetings of nit-picking scenes and structure, character quirks and dialogue. I like rearranging pieces of the puzzle and debating the logic of the universe created in that story. I like watching people vehemently argue over an imaginary world I created, defending their favorite bits with passion. It is, in a word, awesome.

However, there is an art to giving good notes. And I don’t mean that in a feather-soothing, ego-fluffing kind of way. If one is going to be a writer of any sort, a thick skin is a requirement…or you should invest in a season pass to the booby hatch. The criticism isn’t personal, even if it sounds like it is. And, after enough drafts, notes and discussions, you should be pretty much over it. Which is kind of a good place to be, because you will no longer be putting forth energy to save a scene or quirk you’ve fallen in love with. You’ll just want to move the story, and progress of the project, forward.

The problem with not-so-great notes-giving is that one note will complete contradict another. The How and Who and Where and When and Why in one scene affects every scene before and after it. Screenwriting is like knitting in that way. If you want to fix something in the middle, you typically have to unravel the beginning or end to do it. But some see it as quilting: Take out one swatch of cloth and replace it with another. A good story doesn’t work that way, though. And that’s not always easy to explain. No, I take that back. It is easy to explain, it’s just that sometimes other people don’t see it that way. Which is okay. Some people still think this whole internet thing will eventually pass. What can you do? Notes — good, bad or indifferent — are at the heart of screenwriting and, eventually, filmmaking. Which is why I have such affection for them.

Truth be told, I still like the feel of pen to paper, ink on pulp. My first screenplay was written longhand on legal pads during breaks on a low-budget film. It was part of my graduation project at CalArts. At night and Sundays (the one day off from the movie), I would type out the scenes, action and dialogue. I will admit, I sort of liked that process. I realized it wasn’t exactly efficient, but  it was somewhat romantic. And I sort of miss that.

To keep some of that romance alive, when I come upon an idea for a screenplay that I have to write, I take a steno pad (made from recycled paper, of course) down from the shelf.  On the cover of the pad, in black Sharpie, I write the title of the screenplay and the day’s date. I use this notebook to jot down ideas about the characters and plot points, sometimes scenes and action and dialogue when I’m out and about — and, later, notes from meetings.  Needless to say, I have assembled quite a collection. I like having one place to keep all of my random thoughts that may or may not work for the script, the suggestions of others involved in the project, and the ability to go through it and see the history and evolution of the work. These notebooks help me to sustain more than one project in my mind, each getting the attention they need without taking away the time from the one that must get done.

I’m about to pull one down from the shelf and reach for a Sharpie. This one will be for my first television series. I’m kind of excited about it. But, there are still people to kill in the thriller that we are nearly done with. With a desired start date fast approaching, that script will be the priority. And my series’ notebook will be close at hand for when the Muse speaks for it.

The Domino Effect

The moment I love most as a writer usually happens when I’m not actually writing. This moment typically occurs when I’m brushing my teeth or washing my hair, and the storyline that has been going through its terrible Act-Twos finally aligns. An idea clicks and rest of the story falls into place like dominoes. It’s is a glorious revelation, one that oddly seems to always involve water and/or nudity, but, whatever. When the Muse speaks, listen.

In that moment, when the story becomes clear and compliant, a weight lifts. The sullen cloud that had been hovering dissipates revealing a bright light at the end of the tunnel.  The dread of staring at the computer screen turns to anticipation. Now I can’t wait to write. But I must. Day job.

There’s a rush that comes with it. And it’s not just the near overdose of caffeine. Then a swell of optimism: Maybe I can even finish that little bugger tonight so I can actually enjoy the sunny Saturday the weather folks have promised.  We’ll see. The timing is both perfect and pooey. This happens to be deadline weekend, so I can’t screw off and play until this is done. Fade out. The end. Because I sort of screwed off last weekend. Who didn’t?  It was the (my) high holy holiday awards weekend. One must drink whilst watching the Spirit Awards and one must be reverent during the Oscars ceremony. Not a whole lot of writing gets done that last weekend in February. [Side note: I’m just thrilled that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won Best Original Score because 1) It was, and 2) How unbelievably cool it is that the man who wrote the greatest love song in the world, “Closer”, and told the recording industry to go screw won an Academy Award?!? That is the Oscar moment I live for every year. However, I do agree with a friend who said that it would have been utterly epic if Reznor went to the mic and said, “I want to thank you like an animal.” Maybe next time.]


I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t think that really exists. For me, anyway. Usually, if the flow is not going, it’s because there’s something wrong or missing in a previous scene. Or I just don’t love the story anymore. That happens, sometimes. Usually around the third rewrite. Or I love it too much, squeezing it so tightly it suffocates. But more often than not, I’m avoiding going into that deep abyss that the story can lead to. One that’s so overwhelming I can’t break free of it. Nor do I want to. In this case, however, it’s the constriction of budget and timeline the film will be under that has been limiting, murdering every grand idea and bludgeoning it down to the basics. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good lesson. It’s just less fun.

But, now that the missing link has been found, and the joy of the process has returned. The pieces have come together and are falling into place. I can finish this tale and move on to the next. That is my other favorite writer moment: Coming to The End before the next beginning.

Killing Time

I spend a lot of my time coming up with ways to kill people. Fictional people, mind you, in plausible, cinematic ways. It’s not as much fun as you’d think. Really.

First, it’s kind of creepy to get into that mindspace. Second, I’m on record with coroner’s departments in two counties, which can’t be a good thing. Pardon me, Mr./Ms. Pathologist. Can you please tell me if this poisoning is accurate? I expect, and really need, everyone around me to remain healthy and not die, especially in any sort of questionable or peculiar manner. Third, there’s a romantic comedy I’m supposed to be working on (I know, like the world needs another one of those…but how about a good one?). But no. None of that kind of creative writing is going on. I’ve got to kill people. This time, on a microbudget. And that takes a lot of the fun out of it.

Blood costs money, you know.

I’ve popped the clogs of my fair share of make-believe people. And I guess I’m kind of good at it. Which I don’t really see as complimentary. It’s sort of a job requirement. It’s also weird. Especially when someone asks what I did today. Oh, you know, the usual: murder, murder, lunch, murder. This can’t be good for my karma.

This killing time does give me a grand excuse to watch an inordinate amount of Hitchcock. I’ve always considered him something like a godfather, or kindly-but-unusual uncle. I used to watch his TV show religiously…alone…starting when I was only three years old. I suppose that explains things a little, doesn’t it? I quickly became an addict of suspense, viewing the screen through the slits of my fingers. Does anyone feel comfortable in a strange shower…especially one with a curtain? Not after seeing Psycho you don’t.

Hitch is indeed the master of suspense (do note the present tense), which is so much more seductive than the shock of gore and brutality that splashes across today’s screens. Even when he went for the gore and brutality in Psycho, there was something innocent about it. Perhaps because Marion Crane was at her most vulnerable. She was going to make right her wrong. She was naked, born again, in the midst of coming clean, a baptism, and then [insert Bernard Herrmann orchestration of piercing strings].  And, really, that could happen to any one of us — if we stayed at some crazy man’s motel. And, honestly, haven’t we all at one time or another? No one is safe in Hitchcock’s world. But, golly, are they well-dressed.

No one can match Hitchcock’s genius. Reading Hitchcock by François Truffaut, I am repeatedly reminded to keep it simple. Only put on the page what is necessary, cinematic. Nothing utilitarian. We don’t seem to have the luxury of the lengthy set up, like in Rear Window. Today, we need to hit it, Boom, boom, BOOM. But, in those opening, expository scenes, there’s not a word, glance or prop wasted. Not a bit of information that doesn’t relate to the plot. And, therein lies the brilliance. It’s a high bar to reach, but one must try.

And so, this evening, after a quick dinner out, I will return to the slaughter. Vertigo will play in the background as I decide who’s next. It’s rather isolating to play God. You’d think it would be much more fun. It’s not. And the guilt. Don’t get me started on the guilt. That’s what kills me the most.