What I’ve Learned This Year

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On the second of September, it will be one year since I’ve had employment. This was planned to be the year that I wrote six to ten screenplays before setting off to work and save up for a move to Los Angeles.

There was a change in plans shortly after my job came to an end. My parents, who I’ve been living with, informed my brother and sister that they had decided to move to North Carolina, and we were all invited to come with.

This news came as quite a shock, and naturally, I was pissed. This changed everything. How would I live? Where would I work? Why the fuck bother? I hated the notion, and hoped to move straight to the west coast. Following some examination of living costs out there, I recanted. My brother asking aloud, “Did you come to your senses, then?” He’s kind of a shit at times, but he’s family, so what can you do?

Following a couple months of wallowing in self pity, and being quite direction-less, I finally managed to get my act together and get some ideas down.

First was the month-long research period for “Soldiers of Fortune.” I spent days on the internet trying to learn all I could about the weight and size and classes of 16th century ships. Around Thanksgiving, my library facilitated me with a book on Columbus’ ships that proved most helpful.

One of the critical parts of planning this story was figuring out the time frame of it all. As it was an Action/Adventure film, there was naturally globetrotting. What I had trouble with was finding out the travel times between destinations, the time difference and how long each of the events in each location would last. It was necessary to create an actual time line for the project, and it came in quite handy.

Before I wrote, I outlined, with a simple rubric I plan to touch on at a later date. Any problems with a scene about to be written were further outlined on my trusty 4×6 notecards. When completed, there were at least 100 cards related to this particular project. Each of them handwritten.

The writing was rather fast, two weeks, I believe. I had it at 100 pages. And I saw that it was good.

A month later, I wrote my second script. “While This Offer Lasts.” A rewrite of a script I had done the year before. This project is what I refer to as the “Manic Draft.” Named that for when I told my doctor at a checkup and he said, “Good God, are you manic?” He was taken aback by the particulars of the project: 113 pages written in eight days.

The project itself took all of ten days total. The first day was the beat sheet. The second was outlining. On the third, I started. I used notecards in the same capacity as the previous project. And like it, I used over 100 cards.

Shortly after finishing the second script, I sent in the first to Scriptshadow’s Amateur Offerings. Around that time, I started really delving into the articles on the site. It was there that I found the article discussing cheating the margins. Putting the script into Final Draft, I realized I had been doing things wrong.

Once I took care of the formatting, I read more of the articles. It soon became apparent to me that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. On one hand, it was terrible. There went the last two months of work I’ve done, all the while thinking it was good. On the other, it was exciting. There, on the web was an example of something similar to what I’d written, what was wrong with it, WHY it was wrong, and a suggestion or two about how to correct it.

In the past year, I have bookmarked hundreds of articles on one site alone. (A great thing about the bookmarking feature in my browser is that I can re-name each bookmark, and say why I bookmarked it, instead of going to the page and having to re-read it.

Another helpful aspect was the reading of two books: “Scriptshadow Secrets,” which, as I’ve stated, is the best screenwriting book I’d read to date. That remains true. The second one I haven’t finished yet. It’s called “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein. This book, I would venture to say, would be tied for the title of the best screenwriting book you can buy. I’m dead serious. This book was written by a former studio suit who knows what the hell he’s talking about. For instance, in the first chapter, he says that you have to hook the reader by the third sentence in a query letter. I’ve NEVER heard that. Not in all of the books that Writer’s Digest peddles, or anywhere else.

I’ve also joined a screenwriting forum. It was probably the best decision I’d made all year. On there, I think I’ve really found a place I belong. And if this site is any indication of what networking with other screenwriters is like, I can’t wait! I’ve met a ton of really great people on there who I just love chatting and exchanging ideas with.

An example of this is how for a long time, I was having trouble with loglines. Through this site, as well as a book or two (see above), I’ve managed to help a couple writers better fine-tune their stories. It was all from the realization that if the information in your logline does not directly have an effect on the story, lose it. IE, if your story takes place in the early 19th century, but it’s about a construction worker being blackmailed, the time really doesn’t play into the pitch, since it’s all about the construction worker.

But by far the two biggest things that I’ve pounded into my head are building a concise character description, and understanding the economy of the page. A side note for the latter being more diverse with descriptive verbage. These two subjects became the biggest focuses over the later part of the year.

I will admit, however, I feel a little guilty, not having written a single page since January. This was really when I discovered I was doing it wrong. The good news is that I’m still technically writing everyday. I always have my phone, a notebook, or notecards handy to jot down an idea when I get it.

Another reason for my sloth-like behavior was the fact that my family is moving to North Carolina, and we sold our house back in April. It was fast. I mean, REALLY fast. We put it on the market on a Wednesday, and we closed the sale the following Wednesday. Yes, ONE WEEK.

So it was really hard to do much writing with all of my noted being packed in moving boxes. Then, we moved to an apartment in Madison until we were set to move South in the fall. Currently, we have a month left here, so my notes are going BACK into storage for the next move. Where, I’m told, we’re going to be at another apartment for an initial three months before possibly looking for a new place to rent. It’s kind of harrowing.

Once I get settled in, I plan on seeking full time employment. After I get into the swing of things, that’s when I’ll get into writing again.

In the meantime, I plan on creating a sort of handbook for screenwriting that breaks down the aspects of screenwriting. (Excerpts from articles all having to do with writing a concise character description would all appear under the same category, for example.) This may take some time to put together, but I feel it will be well worth it in the long run.

I’m also really hoping that the public library system down there holds a candle to mine here in Wisconsin. The resources have just been phenomenal.

All in all, this has been a pretty well-utilized year. I’m still far from where I’d wanted to be a year ago, but with all that I’ve learned, I’m okay with that. I’d rather try writing one great script after a year of learning how to improve, rather than having six projects that I would have to agonize over rewriting. I’m just as sure now more than ever, that this is the only career path that I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!


I Got to See “Nebraska”

I love the UW Cinematheque. I mean, I LOVE the UW Cinematheque. These guys are awesome! Over the years, I’ve gotten to see some A-Class films. Usually on 35mm, too. Oh, and did I mention… for free!! How cool is that? I’m not trying to brag or anything, I’m just really happy I found out about this when I did. Among the films I’ve gotten to see: “The Third Man,” “The Bicycle Thief,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Rope,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho.” But this isn’t about those. No, this is about an event I attended earlier this month. A special presentation of Alexander Payne’s latest film, “Nebraska.” On 35mm. For free. Oh, and Alexander Payne himself IN ATTENDANCE!

I got to see this film with who I consider to be one of my two best friends. It was this friend, who just so happened to introduce me to the works of Alexander Payne. The exact title is up in the air, but discussion after the screening prompted us to believe it was “Election” that we both saw first. We have both been fans for the better part of a decade now, and Alexander Payne is one of the few directors who, in our opinions, has never made a bad film and who retains a perfect track record with us. As another bit of coincidence would have it, this friend and I saw his last film, “The Descendants” on my birthday of that year. Possibly on 35mm, I’m not certain.

The day they made the announcement, you couldn’t imagine just how stoked I was. The movie was one thing. But to have the man himself there? That was better than my birthday and Christmas combined!

The buildup to the event was enormous. The event itself was big. A huge turnout. I would imagine it was a packed house. They asked several times for people with open seats next to them to put their hand up. Then, after mad anticipation, Alexander Payne came out and introduced the film, thanking everyone for the huge turnout, and letting us know that since this was the first film he’d shot digitally, this was the first time outside of the lab that he was going to see a film print of it. Then the lights dimmed.

“Nebraska” was a terrific film. Like all of Payne’s works, it was witty, dramatic, and most importantly, heartfelt. The summary is quite simple. An elderly man (Bruce Dern’s Woody), aided by his son (Will Forte’s David), tries to claim a one million dollar sweepstakes he received in the mail.

It was a terrific romp. Bruce Dern, who briefly appeared in 2012’s “Django Unchained” stole damn near every scene he was in. Will Forte, formerly of Saturday Night Live, gives a great performance as well. I’m hoping he’ll be able to land a few roles akin to this in the future.

The film itself was fantastic. My only quips were a few scenes in the beginning that felt a little too on-the-nose and expositional. But thankfully, those are just in the first five or so minutes. From that point on, it becomes a journey trying to answer the question brought up in “Back to the Future”: How well do I know my own parents? Here, Forte’s David goes about his father’s boyhood town and learns about his dad’s past, both interesting and sometimes a little more than he needed to know. A truly great scene is near the end when the family visits Woody’s family’s home, which he remarks, his dad built himself. The scene is silent with members of the family exploring the now weathered remains. This is an example of nostalgia done right. The entire film is a case study in how you can create distinct and memorable characters.

Following the screening, Alexander came out and there was a short Q&A. It was only able to be a few minutes since there was a screening of another film afterward. He stated that he was glad the film played as well as it did as he was in high spirits. He much more energetic in person than one might expect from past interviews.

As luck would have it, I was one of the lucky few to ask a question. After the Q&A, my friend and I got to shake hands with him and thank him for coming. My friend’s friend who accompanied us to the event even got an autograph. I had hoped we might get a photo with him, but alas, time did not allow for it. We all left the event in high spirits and agreed that this was the highlight of the year.

Once again, Mr. Payne did not disappoint, adding yet another perfect title to his repertoire. The man’s record remains untarnished in my eyes. I cannot recommend the film enough. It’s a masterpiece worth watching over and over again. Like all of Mr. Payne’s films, it should be used as a learning tool for figuring out how to craft your own voice.

I cannot begin to thank the UW Cinematheque enough for this momentous event. I hope they are able to do more like this, but if not, this was a smashing success that I guarantee will live long in the memories of all those in attendance. With regard to Mr. Payne, I eagerly await his next undertaking.

Not pictured: a satisfied audience.