Monday, June 21, 2010

No, but I read the...

How do I know that I am back from vacation?
1) It was about 90 degrees in Philly today.
2) I didn’t take any naps.
3) When I look out my front window, I don’t see any water.
4) I didn’t read 200 pages of fiction today.

I could probably go on and on but that would be depressing so I am going to focus, for awhile anyway, on #4 but re-phrase it. How do I know when I am on vacation? I average about 200 pages of fiction or creative non-fiction a day. Yes, I read about 800 pages last week. Of course, that number is nothing for big readers or “real” readers. I do enjoy reading, I just don’t do enough of it when I am not in Maine for a week. I read. Of course, I read. It is a big, big, big part of my job to read. In the heat of the school year, I can read as many as fifty student screenplays in a week and, if that sounds like a lot, it is but it is not the same as 800 pages of fiction.

Screenwriting, as I teach it, is almost the antithesis of conventional prose writing and it takes me awhile to adjust to reading books. Screenwriting is closer to music composition than it is to prose. A film, like a symphony, is meant to be experienced in a single, uninterrupted sitting. Would you leave an orchestra’s performance of your favorite Beethoven piece mid-way through and then return the next night to hear the rest of it? Have you ever driven around longer than necessary or stayed in the driveway after your arrival because your favorite song was on the radio? Screenwriters and filmmakers strive to create a piece of visceral, visual music, something that draws you in, sweeps you up in it’s drama and carries you away. Do not hit the pause button!

So, I read a lot of fiction while I was away: “A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby and “The Corrections” by Jonathan Frazen. Wow. I am so glad that I am a screenwriter because I could never be a novelist. As a writer, I love to read books that would be ill-suited to cinematic adaptations. I love reading a book and thinking, “This could never be a movie!” Partially, I think that movies and fiction are completely (okay, largely) different art forms and lately, I feel like I have been coming across a number of books that are really thinly veiled movie-bait. All due respect to her, but it is pretty hard to not imagine Rowling sitting there, writing Harry Potter and thinking “This would be a great movie!”

I remember reading “Shopgirl”, the harrowing, hilarious novella about clinical depression by Steve Martin, truly one of my idols and such a major influence on me. “Wow,” I thought, “this could never be made into a film, how wonderful.” Later, on NPR, I heard Martin talking about how he thought that the book could never be made into a film --- and then changing his mind about it. Needless to say, I was disappointed with the film version (for the record, I haven’t liked most of his films), disappointed that Martin had second guessed his first instinct about the book and even more disappointed that he had miscast himself in a crucial part. We’re cool now, he made it up to me with his memoir, “Born Standing Up.”

Of course, I had to go ahead and dare myself, I couldn’t just let things lie, could I? What’s the point anyway, I would have found out soon enough. With great trepidation, a gnawing in my gut, I made a quick trip to IMDb and found that adaptations of both “A Long Way Down” and “The Corrections” are on the boards for 2011 and 2012. I guess that’s the way it goes. Maybe I’ll just read the dictionary on vacation next year. Maybe I’ll just work on screenplays while I’m away --- I would have gotten so much more work done this year if I had not brought so many really good books with me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Vacation: Had To Get Away

Yes, in case you're wondering, I did hear the old Go-Go's chestnut "Vacation" on the radio today as I was scurrying around, taking care of last minute stuff before heading off on our annual jaunt to the coast of Maine tomorrow.

Everyone is really looking forward to being away. A look into the future (aka the five day forecast) shows chilly temperatures and rain for our first few days and we don’t care. Being away is about chilling, it is about what we don't do as much as it is about the activities we have planned. We plan to sit and read and sit and read and sit and read -- with regular long, long walks on the beach that lies just beyond our yard. I can’t rule out the possibility of a board game or two entering the equation.

Beyond reading and walking however, I plan to write. With the blessing of little to no internet access to distract me, last year, I wrote two screenplays in about four days. Granted the legwork had been done well in advance, I had treatments and notes ready to go so, when it came time to write, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

So, I am going for it again, I have screenplay to rewrite or re-imagine for someone, a director who already has one feature to his credit and feels that this old script could be his next project but that it needs to be taken to a new place. Even though I sort of like it as is, I am under orders to add some Alfred Hitchcock, some David Lynch, some John Ford, some Salvador Dali and a little Fellini. Fun. Picture "Twin Peaks" meets "Touch Of Evil" with a dash of "The Exorcist."

Next, to lighten the mood, another Philly director has asked me write a short comedy about a model becoming an actor. I am looking forward to this project too because it is a world that I look forward to playing in and also because I rarely get to flex my comedy muscles on the page.

Oddly, I think I am a pretty funny guy in real life. I am not someone who suffers from an over abundance of self-confidence in many areas but I do think I have one healthy sense of humor. Sometimes I genuinely feel that my mission in life is to make people laugh and, okay, if it's not my mission, it's something I have been pretty good at since I was little and it seems to make people like me. Nothing too odd about that. What is a little odd, or maybe not, is that when I sit down to write, what comes out is rarely funny (go ahead, start singing “Tears Of A Clown”), instead it is my dark, sometimes very dark, nasty, misanthropic side gets to come out here and there. I guess it's all about balance.

Finally, if I get through these two projects and I don’t get another paying gig, I might actually have time to work on something of my own, something that, of all things, balances dark and light, humor and horror, just like me, just like life, right? That’s what I like.

AN UPDATE on various projects:
The Mumbai trip seems to have been a bust. Nobody was interested in the projects that my director friend was pitching. Too bad, actually a bit of a surprise but I guess that’s the way it goes.

The family film is now in crisis. The investor just backed out so it is unlikely to shoot this summer. Of all things, a former student who is now working in L.A. contacted me to see if I knew anyone who might be interested in working on some family films. I have put him in touch with the director of the film that just lost its backers and.... who knows?

However, if I do my job well and finish the “Twin Peaks” meets “Touch Of Evil” screenplay, it could shoot later this summer.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Oui. Non. Oui. Non.

I should be looking for some work now because, as of this past Tuesday, I have taught my last class and I am basically unemployed until September.

I should not be looking for screenwriting work.

I should not be entertaining new screenwriting jobs, especially jobs that might only sort of "pay" somewhere down the line but, once again, this is where I find myself.

I have projects. I am doing a radical overhaul on a creepy, supernatural/religious thriller, making more "Twin Peaks" meets "Touch Of Evil." It is a good screenplay to begin with and making it better has been a lot of fun, it's like adding more icing to the icing on the cake.

There are the Indian projects that I am waiting to hear about: two films, one is an original story and the other is an adaptation of a novel. The director is in Mumbai pitching them right now.

So, why did I respond to an ad for a writer? I guess I thought I might get paid.

They got a lot of responses from writers, narrowed it down to me and a few others and picked me. Nice.

Details emerged. The film is a foreign production set in the U.S. but with an international flair. That is, these guys have a lot that they want to tackle in this film, big issues that make the news every day, topics that involve the U.S., other countries and the relationship to the U.S. and these other countries -- not to mention the cultural/ethnic element.

They are unhappy with the screenplay that they have and they want me to fix it. They sent it to me, I didn't like it, found it heavy-handed and, even worse, not compelling and I told them so. I passed on the job. End of story. Or so I thought.

So impressed with my perceptions about the screenplay and my brutal honesty, they asked me if I would write a radically new version of the screenplay, incorporating their agenda and "whatever it needs" to make me as a writer interested in writing it. I agreed.

Then I got their agenda.

Notice that I have not mentioned what issues they want to deal with?

Sure, I have political views and thoughts about society but I have never been one to wear them on my sleeve per se. Yes, you can tell that I am an earthy crunchy liberal democratic Jew just by looking at me, you really can.

I appreciate the need to be vocal about issues and push the agenda but I not the one to do it and the producer and director of this film have a lot of things to express in no uncertain terms and I am not 100% comfortable giving my voice to them. I agree with some things, disagree with other things but, no matter how I feel about their message, I do not think that I am the one to deliver it for them, certainly not as emphatically as they want to have it expressed. I backed out of the project, told them that I am not up to the challenge --- and politics or not, it was a challenging project (no female characters allowed???) and really more than I think I can handle at this point. Give me a good haunted church any day and I'll be happy.

They have responded with another e-mail, this time appealing to me as an artist who should stretch, who should challenge myself with this project. I haven't responded to the e-mail.

They have already called twice today. I let the machine get it.