Friday, August 14, 2009

Writing with my family, bashing "Memento", remembering Blake Snyder

In the past 3 years, four of my students have been finalists in the Set In Philadelphia Screenwriting Competition. Last year, one student was the winner of the Parisi Award for a screenplay by a writer under the age of 25. This year, another student won both the SIP grand prize and the Regional Award, another prize given to a screenplay that promotes the Philadelphia area. Normally, I am not big on screenwriting contests. They can be expensive to enter and, for the most part, I can think of few – if any – screenplays that were produced as a result of winning a screenplay contest. Philadelphia, however, offers one of the biggest paydays in the screenplay contest world – not to mention a trip to L.A. for meetings with some legitimate industry heavyweights -- and these factors were enough to convince my wife to convince me that, rather than coaching my students to glory, maybe I should be aiming for some of that glory myself.

Easier said than done. I sold my screenplay “Aftermath” in January, got hired to re-write it and worked until early July on a draft that pleased the producer. Along the way, I wrote two other screenplays start-to-finish. The bottom line is that I think I blew my wad creatively earlier this summer. I have shards of other screenplays floating around in various stages of development and I have not been able to make progress on any of them, things just aren’t clicking.

So, how am I supposed to write an SIP winning-screenplay?

With the help of my wife and my twelve-year-old daughter. I said, “Sure, I’ll write a screenplay if someone comes up with a story” and that is what is happening, we are brainstorming, developing a distinctly Philly story, something that could only happen here. While my wife and daughter are no slouches in the creative energy department, this process has been a great opportunity for them to see what David/Daddy does: teach screenwriting.

Speaking of screenwriting teachers, the opportunity to develop a screenplay with my family, has sent me running back to “Save The Cat: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” by Blake Snyder. Sadly, Blake passed away suddenly on August 4th.
I didn’t know him personally but I read his books, we had a couple of e-mail exchanges in the past two years and I could tell that he was a really great guy, in addition to writing what will become, if it has not already become, one of the essential books on screenwriting. I know that I recommend it any aspiring screenwriter I meet. I wrote to Blake raving about how much I loved STC and he told me that I had made his day. Wow, I made his day?

In the book, he goes on and on about how much he disliked the film “Memento” – a film which I really disliked. No, lie, I sat there in the theater, 25 minutes into the film, looked at my watch and thought to myself, “Okay, great, he lost his memory, everything is happening backwards but is there going to be a story? Is there going to be a character I care about?” Ultimately, would “Memento” be as remarkable as fans of it feel that it is if it unfolded in chronological order?

How about all of those phone calls, where Guy Pearce sits around and explains the story to someone (we never find out who) on the other line? Huh? When a character has to verbally spell things out that otherwise would not be gleaned from the context of the narrative, it is called “exposition” and exposition is a no-no. Blake hated “Memento”, with good reason but the issue of exposition in it was one that he missed and was grateful to me for pointing out.

“Confessions Of A Shop-A-Holic” screenwriter Tracey Johnson knew Blake since nursery school and her recent blog posts have been fascinating personal and professional recollections of each other and friends and colleagues --- the account of Snyder and Johnson meeting with Howard Stern to work on a “Fartman” screenplay is a must read for aspiring screenwriters and die-hard Stern fans. I am a small fish in a big pond but I decided to join the countless others who posted comments on Tracey’s blog, relating my experience with Blake, our dislike of “Memento” etc. and, about an hour later, I got an e-mail from Tracey, saying, among other things, that my comment was the only one she had responded to, that she, too, hated “Memento” and that was missing Blake Snyder very much.

So, I still have shards of screenplays flying around and more are coming at me since I signed an agreement to be represented by a small agency but I am trying to focus on writing with my family (who are good writers to begin with), teaching them a little about writing for the screen and it’s been nice, a great way for me to revisit “Save The Cat” as well as nice guy and great screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder.