The Film Squad

Hi y’all!

This week I thought I’d do something a bit different and share the news that The Film Squad is back!  The Film Squad is comprised of an international group of pals (Dom, Moritz, Putri and me).  Once upon a time, we used to review movies on a short lived podcast during our film school days.  We decided to get the band back together and we are now reviewing film trailers and have posted them on YouTube,

Please feel free to visit us, add some comments and don’t forget to subscribe!

Knowledge & Writing With Passion

Ok, I’m secure enough to admit this, I don’t know everything.  Utterly shocking, I know.  I feel that the older I get the less I know, which you would think would be the opposite.  What I may lack in knowledge I think I make up with passion.  I don’t think I have to know everything to be a writer.  I think knowing everything takes the fun out of research (uh huh, you read that right I’m one of those geeks).  Discovering what it would be like to be a motivational speaker, a kid with weight issues or a stripper is part of development for my scripts/novel.  And, yeah, research is fun especially when you’re surrounded by strippers.

So, we’ve established that I don’t know everything, but that I have passion.  And how far does passion get you?  Well, I have written a lot of scripts, had a lot of short films produced, and I’m rewriting my second book, so I guess passion fuels my work.  But when does passion fail?  I think passion fails when you don’t do the legwork and refuse to gain knowledge (research, interviews, etc.).  I’ve found that when I was a T.A. in grad school and, later, as a Reader for a production company that a lot of the scripts that I read failed due to a lack of knowledge and lazy research.

The thing is that the reverse can happen, too.  I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve thrown down on paper only to realize that I may have accrued the knowledge, but that I didn’t have passion to continue the story beyond an idea.  And that’s okay.  Personally, I learn more with my failures than my successes.


Find A Pack: Writers Groups

I have to say that sometimes I consider myself a lone wolf, especially when I’m writing.  I tend to disconnect to those around me and focus on writing.  (Believe it or not, I even turn off my WiFi when I work and sometimes I purposely forget my phone at home.). Naturally, this characteristic is in direct contrast to how I normally interact with people, which some have described as “outgoing”.  I like to think that not only do my characters have layers, but I do, too, and often they are contradictory.

Writing is not a collective activity.  We are very much alone when we decide on a genre, create our characters, and there is no one to run along side of us as we venture through the creative forest.  And I relish that feeling.  It’s freeing to create and live in a world that no one knows exists.

The drawback to being a lone wolf is that you’re constantly in your head.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but my thoughts are very loud, very annoying, and are sometimes, to put it mildly, a fucking troublemaker, which is why I think even a lone wolf needs a pack.

In a previous post on my writing process, I mentioned a local writers group.  We just picked up this past weekend after our 4th of July hiatus.  I have to say I was elated that we got back together.  As much as I enjoy running through the forest on my own I was happy to have us back together.  You see I need our little pack.  Not only do I need their feedback, but I like them as individuals, which is hit or miss with writers groups.  I got lucky.   I dig hanging out with them, hearing about how they’re doing, reading their work and sharing feedback with one another.  And I think every writer needs a pack.  Yes, you can be the lone wolf, but it helps to join a pack every now and then to remind yourself that you’re not running around in the forest all alone.

Second Time Around: Writing the Sequel

Writing the follow up novel, a sequel to a film or even that second knock-knock joke is a lot to live up to, isn’t it?  It can be a burden.  A very heavy and daunting burden or at least this is what I was feeling when I knew that my novel was going to be a trilogy.  I mean there’s no other way to say it, I was crapping my pants.  Honestly, I didn’t know it when I started the first book.  Okay, that’s kind of a lie, I had an inkling after I finished the bare bones outline that I wasn’t going to wrap up the story in one book, which is one of those scary-good things.  I was excited and I knew it would be a real challenge for me.  Currently, I’m hammering out the rewrites on the first book, while I’m also prepping for the second.

The great thing about writing the sequel is that you know the characters and you know the voices.  There are a lot of answers you already have when you approach the sequel.  For instance, you know the core characters, genre, the world and the atmosphere.  That’s a lot.  It’s liberating to have that information right off the bat and I think it makes writing a sequel a lot easier, in some ways, than the first novel or screenplay.  Sure, I had a panic attack.  It went away after I blew off some steam with a couple cocktails.  Fine.  Four.  It took four Bloody Mary’s for my freak out to subside.

I think I have more questions developing the second novel than I did the first, which is great.  Writing has a learning curve, I’m discovering that I’m lucky to be in a unique position to adjust my first book as I move into the second.  And I’m learning that writing down notes for the sequel has helped me flush out some plotholes in the first book.

It’s All About Location, Location, Location: Settings in Screenwriting

Selecting a location or setting your script in a particular place doesn’t necessarily mean that your creation will be shot in that city, state or country.   Location can influence your characters, scenes and overall plot.

I’m writing about location because I had a discussion with a friend of mine regarding  where Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is filmed.  I was adamant that it was shot in LA.  Yeah.  Seriously.  I’ve watched every episode and rewatched the first season a couple times, so I couldn’t remember.  Naturally, we consulted IMDB and that’s when I realized that my head was totally up my ass.  I think I confused myself because of the bright art direction, set design and high key lights.  It never looks like New York to me.

Anyway, getting back to my point.  In my screenplay, The Hunter, the setting is rural Wisconsin.  But when a producer friend of mine read the script he suggested Texas.  Naturally, I had a hard time visualizing the script being set in any other state.  At the time I hadn’t spent much time in the Great State of Texas, which is what contributed to my hemming and hawing on the idea.  And now that I live here I can see his point.  The lush green trees and the vast landscape would be ideal for shooting and be a benefit for our budget.  But what kind of effect would this location have on my character?  And what about the winter scenes?  What about the snow?  I discovered that the greatest impact would be on a secondary character and with a few adjustments it could work out.  The scenes with the snow could be shot elsewhere.

In my experience, if the setting is integral to the story, such as Wild or 127 Hours, it would be much more difficult to bend on where the film is shot.  It all depends upon the type of story you are telling and how the environment ties into the plot.

I have friends coming into town from California and I can only assume that we will be getting into oodles of trouble, so there will not be a post next week.  To those celebrating – have a happy and safe 4th of July!

Kick the Chair to the Curb: Break Unhealthy Writing Habits

As a writer we tend to sit behind our laptops for many hours during the day and we forget to move around and pay attention to our health.  With summer on the horizon I felt compelled to create a post focusing on writing and health.

A few years ago I decided that I wanted a standing desk.  I made this decision because I wanted to kick the sedentary lifestyle while writing.  I even went so far as to nickname my chair death and eventually whenever I looked at it all I could think was that thing is going to be the death of me.  Granted, I have never been married to one position while writing.  During grad school, I wrote while sitting in bed and I did my share of writing from the floor.  Both of these writing positions are horrible for your posture and health.

standing desk
My messy standing desk. In the background you can see a snippet of my yoga mat.

In a previous post I wrote about dieting and writing with an advisement against combining the two, but that was not an endorsement to overeat, consume processed food items nor to skip exercising.  I think it’s important to have a balance between healthy writing habits and exercise to maintain a healthy mind and body.  I believe that if you create an active lifestyle then your writing improves, too.

5 Ways to Change Your Unhealthy Writing Habits:

  1. Give your buns a rest: ditch the chair for a standing desk.
  2. Get out an play an hour a day: take a walk, go for a swim or duck out for a game of tetherball.
  3. Go old school: pick up a pen, pad of paper and go for a hike.
  4. Shake it off: alternate stretching for a half hour with writing for a half hour and repeat for a couple hours.
  5. Hydrate: ditch the caffeine (soda, coffee, etc.) for water or herbal tea.

Everybody is Kung Fu Fighting: Writing Action

What is it about action that scares writers?  When I think of action I get very excited.   I like giving my characters things to do – it gives them dimension.  This may have something to do with the fact that I like being busy and to me that’s what humans are, engaged.  This may have something to do with my upbringing.  My family is not known for being idle creatures, it’s not in our DNA.  We are a family of doers.  In the Wisconsin winters we would chop wood, pile wood and do it all over again.  On the weekends we would clean (being tidy is a big deal for my family) the house from top to bottom.  When summer finally rolled around we would seed, fertilize and tend to the garden, which took up a large portion of our backyard as we also utilized my sandbox to grow melons and squash.  And I have to say that I love that I was raised to put the pedal to the metal and go and do and never settle.

On film, I love watching stunts, explosions and seeing the characters move on the screen just as I much love writing and reading it on the page.  I think I struggle with action as much as the next writer, but I like it so much that it doesn’t seem like work.  It’s enjoyable.  Giving your characters something to do doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be in a car chase.  Action can be as simple as reading a book, texting a friend, or watching the waves of the ocean.  The key to action is figuring out why that particular action is important to show the audience who that character is or will be in the film.

One of my favorite television shows was Alias and, in my opinion, the first page of the pilot, written by J.J. Abrams, was very tight writing, introducing us to the protagonist and dropping the character into a high stakes situation was brilliant and intense.  I highly suggest reading the first page and a half.  Actually, read the whole script.  It’s worth it.  Naturally, this is vastly different action writing compared to Manchester By the Sea, which I also recommend reading, where the action is build around an everyday man/woman.

Setting genre aside, action is important to writing even when it’s a small moment.  These small moments are very telling for the audience and integral to moving the story forward.  Don’t fear action, embrace it, practice it and relish in the benefits of action.

The Path to Grammar Gold

Recently I had a writer ask me, “how do you bounce between tenses when you’re writing a treatment?”  Let me preface this sentence with the fact that he had just read an excerpt from my novel and was curious how writing screenplays vs a novel worked for me, slipping between various tenses depending upon what I’m writing.

I’m not perfect.  I make a lot of mistakes (HUGE understatement) and, grammar wise, I’m a mess when writing a first draft.  I will throw it all down on the page and sometimes I will hop between the past, present and the future tenses.  As writers we just have to realize that it’s okay to f*&% up before we clean it up.  I think the most important thing is to get the words out and onto the page.  YES, all of it.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  It’s not easy.  In grad school, I had to give myself permission and taught myself to just go for it.  Granted, it’s still a struggle to not edit while writing, but I try.

Here’s what I know:
Throw the rules out the window.
Get out of your head.

If it’s a screenplay or a novel you will have plenty of time to rewrite and revise the hot mess that you created, so go ahead and flip flop between tenses, make spelling errors and just have fun.  I know I will.

Creating Characters

Have you ever heard someone say, “he/she’s quite the character?”  That’s when you know you’re on to something, although creating a character doesn’t happen overnight.

Creating a memorable and effective character takes work.  I like to think of my character as a puzzle to assemble.  I have several character checklists that I use and, recently, one of the members of my writers group shared a character chart ( for fiction writers, which is similar to what I use.  It’s a chart that takes the writer through a timeline of sorts, tracking from birth and sometimes into death.

On my most recent script I started with a logline and from there I knew that my protagonist was going to be female.  I like the uncertainty and not designating the sex of my protagonist and antagonist when I first begin to develop the idea.  Generally, I know deep down who the hero is, but I don’t like to put limitations on the process.  I kick around the logline, play with variations and then I sit down and begin to create my hero.  I always begin with the hero of my story – there is an exception to this little habit of mine.  When I began my process of creating characters for my screenplay, In the Dark, I began with the villain.  He was such a unique character in my mind that I couldn’t wait to dive into and build his backstory.  His rich background helped me understand this character on a familiar level.  I liked him even though he was the “bad guy”, which isn’t an easy thing to do.  He was this intelligent three dimensional character who you wouldn’t suspect was a villain.  He didn’t have a Snidely Whiplash mustache nor an evil laugh like Mumbly (yes, Laff-A-Lympics reference).  This villain was human, which is what made him so dark, so terrifying.

Some characters just pour out of me, such as, the protagonist in my recent novel.  I felt like she was sitting across from me and telling me her story.  Granted, it wasn’t a quick process.  I started to develop the idea for the book while I was living in California and I was mulling it over and over.  Once I had the protagonist flushed out I started on all of the other characters.

Creating a character is a process.  In my opinion, creating a character is fun and often surprising that sometimes happens quickly and other times can be time consuming.  What I can say about creating a character is that if you’re organized it makes the process easier as you take that next step in building your story.

Create A Body of Work

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentence uttered: “I have a screenplay and I just finished a second draft, how do I go about getting representation?”  Earlier in my writing career, I would chuckle after I’d hear a new screenwriter make this statement, but now I tend to glare at them with death rays.  Is this too harsh?  Mmm, no.  It’s not.

I have over ten completed screenplays, two completed novels (one that found a home in the circular bin), and another script that I’m developing.  Plus, all of those scripts have gone through countless rewrites.  I wish I still had the naivety of a first time screenwriter.  I don’t remember what it’s like anymore to have written a first draft of my first screenplay – it happened a long time ago.  Actually, I don’t even have that script anymore – lost forever in cyber wasteland.  Although, I do remember my first short film that was produced, which happened when I was in undergrad (yup, a million years ago).  I think I remember that short more vividly, because it was a simple three character short.  And it was selected to be shot by a group of my peers.  My point is, if you write one script, great, fantastic, but in Hollywood if you want to have a career you need to create a body of work.

What is a body of work?  A body of work is more than one script, a body of work is about more than one rewrite, a body of work takes time and dedication to build.  And I understand that we, in our technologically advanced time, want instant gratification, but if you’re looking to become a screenwriter it won’t happen over night.  I think the hardest thing about being a writer is being patient.  I’ve been patient for a few years, but I’m also trying to build a career and not just a one and done screenplay deal.

As you can tell in this post I’m a tad passionate about screenwriting…  And to those giddy first time writers, don’t give up, keep writing.  But don’t put all your eggs in one basket either.