Monday, November 17, 2014

Me and Richard Linklater and Me and "Me and Orson Welles"

 First, because you'll want to know: sound, music and color-correction on Stomping Ground is in full-swing. I expect the film to be finished by the end of the year and that we'll hit some festivals in 2015. Official website and trailer will be coming soon.

"140 Characters or Less," the short film I directed in August premiered at a festival in October and has been submitted to several more. I got hired to write another short film, "Dad Star." I am pretty happy with it and the producer is wildly enthusiastic about it. The director, however, is backing out of it for some reason and I might be stepping in. I am also adapting an old feature treatment of mine, "Luncheonette" into a series bible for a TV show. It's going very well and I already have some contacts who will be able to get it seen in L.A.

My editor from Paste Magazine, where I contribute film reviews, just directed a documentary about Richard Linklater. To accompany the release, I was assigned to write personal essays about "Before Sunset" and "Me and Orson Welles." In my enthusiasm, I accidentally banged out a 1500 word essay on "Before Sunrise" and my relationship with the film so, because it didn't run in Paste, I am posting it here. A link to the "...Welles" is included at the bottom. Robert Kaplow, author of the novel "Me and Orson Welles" contacted me to say how much he loved the essay and asked if he could post it on his website. Enjoy!

At the start, I really had it in for Richard Linklater. In 1989, I was a few years out of film school, had been on the crew of a couple of features but, mostly, I worked in a video store in Philadelphia. A friend of a friend had gotten some really great equipment and was looking to make a film. I banged out a screenplay, “The True Meaning Of Cool.”  The film was going to be a loving but harsh mockumentary about this newly minted demographic, my generation, Generation X, specifically, the frequently offbeat dressed in black would-be filmmakers, artists, musicians, chain-smoking, coffee chugging cool people that I had gone to film school with. The frequently dressed in black would-be filmmaker with the really great equipment was not impressed, not amused and not interested in my screenplay.  I sent it around. Nothing happened. I decided to somehow scrape my resources together and try to make the film myself.

Cut to 1991, I am working at a documentary production company, still dreaming of making my film when I heard about this film “Slacker” that was generating buzz. My film! Someone must have gotten ahold of my screenplay, gotten it to this guy and he ripped it off to make his own film. I tracked down — pre-internet!!! — all of the inside scoop on the evolution, development and production of this film and came to the humbling decision that someone had beaten me to the punch. I did, eventually, make a short version of “The True Meaning of Cool,” it got an award from the American Film Institute, and, ultimately it has occasionally opened some doors for me. While definitely covering similar ground, “Cool” could not be more different from “Slacker.” Okay, Linklater didn’t steal my idea but, clearly, I had to keep my eyes on the guy.

Keeping my eyes on the guy — as well as all of the other indie filmmakers who were coming out of nowhere in the late 80’s and early ‘90s — I rushed to see his next-film, the considerably bigger budget “Dazed and Confused.” It was “American Graffiti” set in the ’70’s, where I’d spent a substantial ten years of my youth, what could go wrong? Only, in my eyes, “Dazed…” did go wrong because, unlike “Graffiti…”, I really didn’t care about any of the badly developed characters or the flimsiest contrivance of a plot. Yes, I love movies about teenagers driving around, drinking, smoking, checking each other out and cranking up the tunes — especially when they are tunes I grew up with — but “Dazed…” left me cold. I know that the film has achieved a degree of cult status but I submit that many of those who revere it are those who actually lived a version of the scenario depicted or they are stoners who love to watch movies about people getting high.

Nothing could have prepared me for what Linklater did next. Back to 1989. Linklater, passing through Philly, met a young woman, Amy Lehrhaupt, in a toy store and the two spent the night walking around town, talking to each other, sharing their lives, opening their hearts, kissing and possibly more. Linklater and Amy tried to maintain contact with each other but eventually fell out of touch. In 1994, he shot “Before Sunrise”, co-written by him and Kim Krizan, inspired by the all-nighter with Amy. For years, he fantasized about Amy showing up to a screening of the film she inspired. In 2010, Linklater learned that Amy had been killed in a motorcycle accident just before he started shooting the film. Linklater dedicated “Before Midnight”, the second sequel to “Sunrise,” to Amy.

“Before Sunrise” hit me on so many levels. From a technical point of view, I have always loved the idea that someone can still have the audacity to make a movie about two people talking. How do you pitch that? What studio is going to hear that idea and say “Sounds like a winner.” I am a screenwriter who specializes in micro-budget films and I know writing screenplays that rely heavily on dialogue and character rather than set pieces and big action to fall back on is hard.

In 1995, when the film came out, I was trying to write a screenplay that I could produce myself for little money because it was basically six people talking in one location for 95% of the time.  How Linklater made two people talking, walking around Vienna all night captivating and compelling was inspiring to me.

More than that, however, I just fell in love with the film. While, in general, I did not have much in common with Jesse and Celine, the main characters, I completely related to them, wanted to get to know them, understand them and see them succeed both as individuals and as a couple. Sure, I had been a teenager and gone through high school but not in the 70’s, not in Texas and I was not a stoner so, on many levels, I never really related to “Dazed And Confused.” Yes, Jesse and Celine are few years younger than me but still my generation and if I didn’t know anyone exactly like them in real life, I wanted to know them, felt like we could have been friends. I was invested.  

Movies work very well when when they make the audience think to themselves “What if that was me?” as they watch the action onscreen unfold. In 1986, I spent a semester in London and, after classes ended, I backpacked alone throughout the continent. I had so much time to spend with myself, take stock of 21 year old life up to that point and I really did have a lot on my mind. As I planned my itinerary, I decided that I wanted to go “where fairy tales take place” and pinpointed Germany’s Black Forrest. I took a train from Munich to Tübingen, a smaller university town. From there, I got a bus out to a remote youth hostel where, it turns out, there were no vacancies. There were no more buses back to town so I started walked, ultimately being picked up by a nice couple who gave me a ride. I got back to Tübingen where I missed the last train, the station then closed and I spent the night walking around the town, licking my wounds, feeling lost and vulnerable. Meeting a cute European girl and walking around with her would have been really nice. Of course, real life rarely works out the way it works out in the movies. Real life has a way of playing out like real life.

In 2013, 24 years after making an attempt at indie film glory with the screenplay for "The True Meaning of Cool”, I directed my feature, “Stomping Ground”, which I’d also written. While the plot of my film bares no resemblance to “Before Sunrise,” it is about young, vulnerable characters grappling with strong emotional issues in one location over the course of several hours.  Okay, yes, of course, Linklater did not steal the idea for “The True Meaning Of Cool” but I kept my eyes on him and I glad that I did because, without him and “Before Sunrise,” my dreams of making my own talky, intelligent film, might never have come true. Of course, meeting a girl and walking around Tübingen with her on that night in 1986 would have been nice, too.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Answers To Questions About Writing

Can I blog or what? Don’t answer that. When I am not working on screenplays, preparing a lecture, grading student screenplays, making a film or fielding requests from colleagues or sometimes even strangers asking me read their work, blogging is not the first that comes to mind if I have some idle time.

That said, I occasionally find myself writing really long answers to questions from students who e-mail me. Sometimes I think to myself, “Hey, that’s decent advice, maybe I should share it.” I have published questions from students along with my answers in the past and it looks like it is high time for another round:

Do You Have Major In Screenwriting to Become A Screenwriter?:
E.C.: I am currently a journalism major. I want to write stories that impact others. Do you think a person needs to major in screenwriting in order to write movies? You mentioned a few unconventional writers in class.

I love to read, and would really like to write fiction someday. How much do you have to love movies to write them? Isn't it more important to simply love great stories?

D.G.: Good writing is good writing. Knowing what makes a good story a good story is crucial and the standards are pretty much the same whether you are writing a news story, a novel or a film. Where it changes is when you apply your storytelling skills to writing a movie, you really need to be aware of the conventional structure that 95% of all mainstream movies have and, as mentioned in class several times, even if you are going to be part of the 5% that does not use Syd Field's paradigm, you still have to know it inside out.

You can make the point that Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" screenplay was really about three act structure and his own struggles to break free of it. I mentioned my own film in almost every class, a screenplay that does not have a conventional inciting incident (it happens before the movie begins and, at the risk of giving too much away, it is not exactly "not of the character's own volition", not something that happens to him), there are no conventional act breaks, nobody really grows or changes in the conventional sense and, in my opinion, it is still a compelling, moving story.

A number of novelists and writers from other styles ("Showtime" starring Eddie Murphy and Robert DeNiro around 10 years ago, was written by a newspaper editor who dreamed of being a screenwriter but never sold another script) have successfully written screenplays while others have struggled -- and vice-versa. National Public Radio personality Peter Sagal dabbled in playwriting and wrote a screenplay about the Cuban revolution that was purchased by a studio, radically re-written and eventually produced as "Dirty Dancing 2." Woody Allen, one of the most revered screenwriters, playwrights, TV writers, essayist and short story writer out there, shelved his recent first attempt at a novel because, after sending it to some of his high-profile friends in the literary world, the consensus was that, even though he could publish it and make a lot of money based on his name alone, it was merely an "okay" book.

So, the short answer is "No, you do not have to be a screenwriting major to learn how to write screenplays but you really do need to know the form." The movie "Where The Wild Things Are" was written by two guys who had no screenwriting credits. Dave Eggers is a novelist, essayist, editor and non-fiction writer. Spike Jonze was a music video director who made some great films -- "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." I thought the screenplay for "Where..." was terrible. Of course, Jonze just won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for "Her", which was not such a great screenplay.

Screenwriting Competitions

J.M.: What do you think of screenplay competitions?

D.G:There is a whole sub-industry based on milking money out of would-be screenwriters by offering contests etc. Getting a screenplay produced is close to impossible. I seriously believe that it would be easier to climb Mt. Everest.  Every year, 15,000 screenplays by hopeful writers are sent into various Hollywood studios and production companies. Last year, only 99 of those screenplays were actually purchased.

As a screenwriter, a screenwriting teacher and a frequent judge of screenplay competitions, I can be pretty skeptical of them. It depends on the balance of the pros and cons, costs and benefits.

Someone once suggested that I enter a competition (run by a friend of mine no less) and I joked that the entry fee was probably $85 and first prize was $100 but soon found out that it was no joke, I was actually right!

Short Wars, the competition that I just judged had no entry fee and the winning short will be produced. I think that winning a screenplay competition means very little unless the end result is getting that script produced. Bottom-line, if there is no entry fee and the winner gets money and a chance at seeing their work produced, I think the contest sounds really good.

About a student treatment and whether he can miss my class in order to attend a lecture by a figure in the arts he admires:

DG: The purpose of writing a treatment is to map out the story clearly enough so that, when you go to write the screenplay, you have a clear road map for where you want to go.

Your teleplay is very good, very well-written ---- almost too well-written. Remember, a screenplay is an instruction manual for a film so, while we want the prose to be elegant and evocative, we want it to be economical and efficient.

In other words, you are a good writer but, when writing a screenplay, that can be a liability because good writers often write too much. I can't really tell if this is an actual script or the outline so I want make sure that we are on the same page. Ultimately, what you will turn in as your final project will be two 12-14 page acts that end on dramatic high notes. I think that you are in excellent position to do a good job on the assignment. For now, focus on writing the script, work on trimming down your language and be very conscious of making sure that your protagonist's goal is clear as well as the obstacles she encounters on her quest. Also, be conscious of you act breaks.

Second, I always tell students that they should not wait until graduation to start their career. If there is any kind of opportunity that could benefit you creatively or professionally when you are supposed to be in my class, I encourage you to take advantage of it.

On whether or not to pursue writing and if I still enjoy writing:

E.M.: All I've wanted to do professionally is to tell stories visually. But I haven't made much progress on the visual part, despite all this time, school, and money. I still want to tell stories but now I don't really know how to accomplish that. One part of me really wants to be a writer, but I've heard so many dissenting voices about writing, and I have my own doubts as to whether or not I could make a living from writing.

I don't want to be a total dweeb and ask you something too personal, so don't hesitate to tell me it's none of my business, but do you still find writing fulfilling? If you had to do everything over again, knowing everything you know now, would you still be writing?

I hope I'm not being too much of a pain, but if I am, let me know! And thanks again for all the advice and feedback you've given me so far, it's a lot more then most teachers would have given me.

D.G.: First, not to diminish your feelings, the struggle you are going through but you are young. It is a lot to ask of yourself to know exactly what you want to do at this point. If telling stories is in your blood, they will come out in some form, at some point. Of course, we all have to eat and pay bills so a job, at some point comes in handy. If anyone is lucky, they earn a living by doing something they love. Of course, if everyone's dreams came true, there would be nobody to take out the trash; everyone would be a professional athlete, a rock star or a movie star.

I would say that you should take stock of what you enjoy most and do best but don't limit yourself.
So, about your question: I do love writing and still get a lot of satisfaction from it but, like all art, it is a job at times. Not all writers are like this but I actually enjoy the pain, really like beating myself up to do what I need to do. There is a great quote from the writer Dorothy Parker, "I hate writing, I love haven written."

For me, writing is really one of the only things that I do well and, even then, like many artists, I doubt myself, think I suck and that I am fooling myself. Also, I barely make a living at it but I have not given up on it.

I just saw an animation by a guy I know. He is 25, my ex-wife's cousin and, as far as I know, he didn't go to film school or have any formal training. This film blew me away because it was so well done and had a lot of content, was "about" a lot. On top of all that, he is a great musician.

Take a breath and just create something, anything. Take your time and think about what you want to say to the world, what's on your mind and then decide on the way you want express it. Of course, human beings relate to stories  -- family stories that our parents tell us about relatives, funny stories that our friends tell us about something crazy that happened to them. The Bible is just a bunch of stories that are grouped together to deliver a message. Of course, a song can be a story, a symphony can be a story, a painting can tell a story and on and on...

Don't put pressure on yourself. I know that it is your last year of college and that it cost a lot of money but I think you should just let it happen. I always say that too many people go to college to get a job, not an education. Going to college should be about expanding your mind, doing lots of different projects, meeting lots of people, having discussions, arguments, failures and successes that, maybe a few years down the line, will feed into whoever or whatever you become.

Stories and writing; can someone be taught to be a good writer?

D.G.  It's a good question and I will do my best to answer. There are stories and there is writing. Coming up with stories is really hard for me. Writing has always come pretty easily to me. I think that, to tell stories, you have to be an observer and an interpreter of the world around you. Writers have a burning need to express their worldview through fiction. I sense that you can do that.

I am not sure if people can be taught to write. They can be taught to write better. I think that, in order to write, you have to read and find out what styles appeal to you. I don't know if emulating the style of a favorite writer is good advice or not. I would think that people have a natural, organic style.

It's sort of like music. You might like a particular musician, learn how to play the same instrument but sound completely different -- or you can study that style, learn it inside out and then create your own work based on that foundation.

As I write to you, I think about my own path, reading the writers who influenced me and analyzing what it is that I like about them and how it manifests in my own writing. There are any number of books about writing. In terms of screenwriting, I like "Save The Cat" by Blake Snyder but I also hear that Stephen King's book on writing is really good.

Of course, as I said many times in class, it doesn't matter what form you are working in, if you do not have a compelling story to tell, it is almost pointless to make the film or animation.

From a correspondence with my Father, a writer:

D.G.: I agree with you about talent creativity. You are born with it but sometimes it takes awhile to nurture. I often use Michael Jordan, the basketball player as an example. He has been called "God's gift to basketball" and yet he still spent countless hours practicing in the gym.
In my classes, I show a very realistic painting by Picasso, ask the students if they can identify the artist and they can't. Then I show one of his more recognizable cubist pieces and everyone knows who did it.

My point is that he mastered the basics, knew the rules inside out, upside down, backwards and forwards before he revolutionized the form.

I say the same thing about The Beatles, who played cover versions of two minute long American rock and roll songs for 8 hours a night, six or seven days a week for two years. It's safe to say that they were pretty comfortable with the form before creating their own material.

I always say that the day I call myself "a good writer" is the day that I should stop writing. At this point, I really know a lot about screenwriting but, for me, every time I sit down to write, it is a journey into the unknown. I know that I have the tools but I never know how I am going to use them, what combinations of techniques and styles will be right for a particular story. I feel like I am at my best when I am working hardest to make a story work, figuring out the best way to craft a moment. It's a puzzle and it's different every time, every screenplay, every scene but it keeps me going --- the discipline.

Years ago, when we were preparing for Lena's bat mitzvah, we were in a group of adults with the rabbi. She asked us to describe prayer. I said that that I don't think prayer is something you do, it is a state that you achieve. She really liked that. To me, it's similar to athletes --- sometimes a pitcher is totally in the zone, totally at the top of his game and other times, he can't find the plate to save his life.

For me, writing is something I can just sit down and do but I do it so much better when I get into that state, the zone and I ready to create.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014