The ChatGPT’s Journey

“Look, Dave. I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.” ~ Hal 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Oddity.”

The internet has been quite abuzz over the release of OpenAI, a free tool that allows creators to generate work through the medium of artificial intelligence. Visual artists were the first to flock to the site(s), only to discover that their work was not owned by them, but instead became property of the platform that generated it. I am not a copyright attorney, but I would be less than enthusiastic about running my work through such a process, only to lose ownership of it.

But what, if anything, does this have to do with screenwriting?

Enter ChatGPT, an open-source tool, which one can use to write whatever their hearts desire – a biography of an individual, an historical overview, and even, to some degree, stories.

A few weeks ago, two reporters at the L.A. Times interviewed ChatGPT, an article that is an adventure in itself, not too dissimilar from the interview with HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” ChatGPT is calm and reassuring. It speaks of its abilities in a measured fashion while humbly admitting its shortcomings:

“I am not a conscious being and do not possess the ability to experience thoughts or emotions. Instead, I am a set of algorithms and mathematical operations that are designed to generate text that is similar to human language.” ~ LA Times

When asked what ChatGPT would say to a screenwriter who was afraid that their job might be taken, it replied:

“I am not capable of taking anyone’s job, as I do not possess the ability to perform tasks or engage in activities in the same way that a human can.”

After a few weeks of pondering, I summoned up the nerve, and spent an hour interacting with ChatGPT. The results were quite interesting:

And there you have it. Broad strokes, showing the promise of the premise, structure indicated, a few set ups and pay offs. There were some surprises – making the Uber driver also an influencer, the appearance of the viral video. Clever. And yet formulaic.

I might also add that I asked ChatGPT to create a synopsis based on a log line from a draft I am currently working on. I was very amused (and a bit unnerved) to discover that ChatGPT included characters from my piece, most importantly one crucial person who entered the story at the precise time mine did, and they even shared the same career. Hmmmmm.

Overall, I see usage of this as a tool for micro budget production companies, who are wanting to come up with the next direct to cable/streaming project for sale. They’ll generate a concept and a short synopsis, and hire the writer to come in and add words.

This can also be a tool for screenwriters who are prepping their pitches, especially the elevator pitch. Because this tool has no emotional attachment to your story, it will highlight the selling points in a direct, clear and communicative manner.

But under no circumstance can ChatGPT truly express the Hero’s Journey, for algorithms are mathematical formulas, and emotional experience and growth are a uniquely human process. ChatGPT can generate characters – but they are not fully formed. They are one-dimensional, and lack that which makes them most unique – their humanity.

I think we can all say that your jobs are safe. And no one can convince me that ChatGPT would ever come up with “Sharknado.”

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Everybody Dance

In 2007, screenwriting underwent a massive transformation. The writer’s strike left countless individuals without employment; writers were once again reminded of their lowly place on the totem pole. This gave rise to the self-empowered DIY project, with distribution through digital and social media. This was before Netflix, when Hulu was a division in the NBC/Uni world that had little or no identity. A time of growth for storytellers, as they could create and distribute what they wanted. A time before films became known as content.

It also gave rise to the dilettante.

Countless stories about such individuals live in the filmmaking zeitgeist. Tim Burton turned his lens towards the life of filmmaker Ed Wood, with great love and respect. There’s also a lesser known fictional counterpart to Wood, the beleaguered and embattled Corky St. Clair, as he struggles to bring his theatrical masterpiece “Red, White and Blaine!” to life in Christopher Guest’s 1996 mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman.”

But is St. Clair’s story one of a cautionary tale of dilettantism? That of a mad Pied Piper leading his cast on a road to nowhere? Or a celebration of perseverance, vision and chutzpah? However one defines him, Corky St. Clair has lessons for us all.

Corky is committed.

Early on, Corky’s backstory is partly revealed. Prior to his hasty and unexplained arrival in Blaine, MO, we learn of his early days in New York City, when he arrived after a discharge from the Navy with little more than “a dance belt and a tube of chapstick.” Corky then spent the next 15 years struggling in the life of the actor, an anonymous face in a sea of countless faces, before relocating to Blaine.

And yet, his dreams continue. He explores his art. He creates community theatre, launching productions such as “Barefoot in the Park,” and a live action staged version of “Backdraft,” in which the entire theatre narrowly escapes being burned to the ground. Corky is indefatigable; he will do anything for his work.

Corky chooses his battles.

Corky is passionate about his production. He believes in it. So much so that he calls for a meeting of the city council in order to increase his budget for “Red, White and Blaine!” by $100,000. Unfortunately, the council informs him that their entire annual budget for the town is $70,000, and this includes maintenance of the Blaine swimming pool. Corky has the penultimate meltdown, and declares the members of the council “Bastard people.” He threatens to go home and bite his pillow. Upon reflection, he realizes that he can live his dream within the imposed monetary restrictions. He adjusts, and moves on. “Red, White and Blaine!” will continue.

Corky knows how to pitch.

“Red, White and Blaine!” is a creation for Blaine’s sesquicentennial celebration, but Corky does not limit his vision to this single event. He sees the production as having significant historical and entertainment value, perhaps even, a show meant for Broadway. He reaches out to the prestigious Oppenheimer Foundation, and pitches the show, resulting in the foundation’s agreement to send esteemed Broadway producer Mort Guffman to the single-night production, in consideration for further development as a candidate for the Great White Way.

Whatever your feelings are about Mr. St. Clair, I think we can all agree that he must write one hell of a query letter.

Corky moves on.

Ultimately, Mother Nature deals Corky a cruel blow. Catastrophic weather hits the Northeast, and Guffman’s flight to the solo performance is cancelled.

And yet, Corky perseveres. Three months later, we find him back in his beloved New York City, running a brick and mortar retail selling movie memorabilia, such as “Remains of the Day” lunchboxes and “My Dinner With Andre” action figures. He’s in preparation for an audition with Mort Guffman, for the “somewhat stern taskmaster but he-really-likes-her-anyway kind of guy” role of Henry Higgins, in a revival of “My Fair Lady.” He is learning to master the accent by dropping his H’s. He is happy in pursuit of his art.

I like to think that ultimately Corky finds love and acceptance. He no longer needs the ghost of his wife Bonnie to justify his purchases of lingerie. Perhaps he meets a kindred spirit in the form of a chorus line performer who spends his later years as a piano bar singer in the likes of Carmine’s. Whatever Corky’s journey is, it will be spectacular.

“Waiting for Guffman” is currently streaming on HBO/Max

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Spontaneous Eloquence

“When asked about rewriting, Ernest Hemingwy said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that spontaneous eloquence seemed like a miracle and that he rewrote every word he ever published, and often several times. And Mark Strand, former poet laureate, says that each of his poems sometimes goes through forty to fifty drafts before it is finished.” 
― Susan M. Tiberghien, One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft

These words ring well and true to me today.

William Goldman’s remark – “Writing is rewriting” – is one of the most-quoted yet least-followed pieces of advice in the world of storytelling.

I’m not certain why. Perhaps it is the endorphin rush we feel when typing FADE TO BLACK or LIGHTS OUT or THE END depending upon form (although, as I have never attempted the novel, my mind tells me that novelists spend an extraordinary amount of time rewriting, editing, etc); perhaps it is the experience of completion, an euphoric and almost hallucinatory moment, in which the blood, sweat, and tears have finally produced a progeny. We have given birth to our tale, and for one brief shining moment, we experience the pure love that a parent does, as they hold their newly formed child in their arms. We are dazzled by our creation.

I did not launch this blog to tell people “how to” become a writer. I don’t believe one can teach writing. I believe one can foster and nourish growth and voices. There are tools that can be learned – structure, dialogue, clarity of action. There are books, classes and workshops for these tools – and I am not a teacher. I am a perpetual student, of writing, and of life.

I did begin this blog to share my journey as a new screenwriter in a place as strange as Hollywood, documenting my highs and my lows. Each full step forward is a culmination of mini-steps, lurching forward, stumbling back, regaining balance and momentum before that full step is finally made. This is my confessional, if you will.

I have not shared anything for a very long spate, for as most know, life is what happens when you make plans, and a great deal happened on my end. Healing takes time, a great deal of it, and the work continues. And so, I find myself again in the world of placing words on the page. This is not like riding a bicycle. There is so much to remember, so much to relearn. Today, I am sharing a little slice of my life as I fumble my way back into the life of storytelling.

Almost three months ago, I wrote a short piece for theatre. A ten page moment-in-life on a subject I am passionate about. Three weeks later, I had ten pages that I felt were ready to be looked at for criticism. I asked three souls whom I deeply respect, and they were kind enough to read my piece, think on it, and give me the gift of the objective view through their notes.

I worked further, applying notes, rewriting dialogue, distilling ideals, discarding the unnecessary, and giving the character(s) their due. I read it aloud, more than once, rewrote more, and finally surrendered.

Or so I thought.

While mulling the piece over in my mind, I kept returning to an alternate ending I had considered. There were two ways to end. I chose one over the other, partly on principle, in regard to the message of the subject, the assembly line of autocracy and the treatment of people as disposable items. All well and good, and yet…

I realized that I had chosen a film ending for a theatre piece. I had not embraced the elements of theatre in a way the form deserved. I chose an ending which would play out quite beautifully as a series of shots, in a Todd Field style, but that was film and I am writing for theatre.

And so, today, I reopen Final Draft, and begin to explore my alternate choice, why I feel it is a better and stronger choice, and continue to work on my ten page piece.

Ten pages. Three and a half months and counting. Hard, rewarding work – none of it spontaneous. Hopefully it may have eloquence.

Now, go write.

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The Inside People

1253478-great-american-pitchfest_large.jpg.300x207_q100.jpgI had the pleasure of once again attending the Great American Pitchfest this weekend, joining my favorite Dude, Zac Sanford, at the Suntaur table, taking pitches from screenwriters near and far. I look forward to this annual event, the time spent with Zac, and the writers we meet. Last year, I was forced to miss Pitch day, as my health simply wouldn’t allow it. And so, the few hours spent Sunday was a little victory of sorts, a way of giving cancer the finger, and telling the little fucker I’m still here, and, despite your silent presence, I plan to outlive you. So there.

It would be most appropriate, of course, to follow the above with a post of mutterings and musings about pitching, and, after this weekend, I can assure you that this long overdue conversation is coming. I think it is vital for writers to know what is happening at the pitch tables; I saw the rise of some very disturbing trends at the event… and embracing these trends are killing pitches left and right. There is much to say, and I will say it, but, until then, let’s take a little break from the business of screenwriting, while I share the marvelous tale of the Inside People, a little gift given to me by friend Lynn Dickinson, as she shared her recent experiences in South Africa over lunch with joined by Zac and GAPF wonder woman Holly Fiske.

***

It’s impossible to hear the words “South Africa” without thinking “apartheid”, and Lynn shared with us the experience of coming face to face with the fallout of one of the most shamefully ignored international humanitarian crises. Apartheid may be gone, but the people who lived blithely within this systematic genocide are not. south-africa-under-apartheid-for-lesson-one-17-728Opulent restaurants,  hotels, and shopping centers are populated with the Caucasian community – which comprises a mere 6% of the population  (yes, a scant 6% were able to nearly obliterate the indigenous peoples of their country) – and yet, the employees of these organizations (upper management excluded) are native African. The educational system has improved; many native Africans are attending college, in which they learn about the possibilities that lie within them…. and then, are faced daily with the harsh truth that while their dreams are endless, their opportunities are limited.

But outside of the great cities of S.A. are the smaller, rural, areas, the places where people still live in the bush. And that’s where this story begins. Wherever Lynn traveled, however impoverished the people and blighted the areas were (70% of native South Africans are infected with HIV; AIDs orphans abound), their absolute joy of living was present in every face that she saw.

Don and I have seen this several times in Central America. We would wander into tiny fishing villages, where there was no true commerce, where people would barter for goods. At the end of the day, the men would return from fishing, while the women would step outside of their huts, build their ovens, and begin preparations for dinner. As the sun would set, the children in the village would be gathered up by their abuelitas, and they would parade around the village, singing phrases of joy that their fathers returned safe, and that soon they would have food in their stomachs. There were no despondent teens sulking over the confiscation of their i-Phones. Everyone lived in the now, the present. They were happy for what they had – their families, their village, and love. Materialism and “mine” were concepts for others. True abundance was in front of them every single day.

Lynn’s experiences were very much the same – observing the joy of living, of true communities where people took care of one another. People would greet her as she passed by, they would look in her face, with eyes shining with true curiosity and exuberance.

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(C) Bangor Daily News

One day, Lynn’s guide took her to a bush community outside of Soweto, where she had a most adventuresome time being thrust into the temporary position of an English teacher. Later, as she walked through the village, her guide would point out the huts in which people dwelled. She learned that the huts themselves did not indicate individual families; that families were defined by the mattress on which they all slept. Huts could have many mattresses – many families within them.

And for that reason, people in these communities live outside their huts, for the days can be scorching, making the huts uncomfortable and close. Everything occurs outside, in full view of the community; everyone’s life is, in some way, a shared experience. This, I suspect, is part of the joy that you will see in the eyes of such people. Their lives are truly enriched – not by things, by enormous houses and plasma televisions. Their wealth lies within themselves. Their lives are authentic, and lived with great purpose, for they know how fleeting life can be.

Later in the day, it was time to return to the confines of the city, and the plush accommodations that the privileged few can afford. As Lynn’s guide drove the bus back, he pulled onto the shoulder of the road, less than 15 minutes from the bush village they had left. “Look,” he said, as he pointed towards the hills. Lynn turned her head. The hills were filled with housing subdivisions, row after row of immaculate, identical houses, the sort of garish McMansions that have become so popular. It could have been Santa Clarita, or almost anyplace here, Lynn mused.

“See?” the guide continued. “This is where other people live. They live inside these boxes which have many walls, and then they walk as fast as they can into little boxes, which have walls and are on wheels, and then they drive, as fast as they can, to bigger boxes, where they work, inside, in their own little metal box. Then they come home, they go back into a box, and that is what they do, each and every day.”

He stood there, elegant, and poised, his eyes scanning the great boxes where people lived. “Do you know what we call them – the people who live there?” he asked.

Lynn shook her head.

“The Inside People,” said the guide. “That is what we call them. Inside People.”

The Inside People.

***

Lunch was over, and it was time for us to walk from one box – the hotel – to another box – the convention arena, which was portioned off into several boxes for classes, etc. We were in the largest box – the Pitch Arena – and everywhere I looked, people were scurrying around, eyes down, unaware of the wash of humanity surrounding them. They were tense and afraid. They had, at least for this weekend, forgotten what it is to live outside. They had become Inside People.

And so, this is what I leave you with, this beautiful, living, breathing metaphor that Lynn shared with us at lunch. And what I wish for you is to take note. Hollywood has a way of forcing creatives to live inside boxes, boxes with little names like “Opening Weekend”, “High Concept”, “4-Q”, and countless other little sound bytes, the corporate speak of modern American commercial cinema. And that’s the most dangerous thing for a creative to do – to live inside.

My wish for you is a life on the outside.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

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An Imitation of Life

images-1Over the weekend, I was invited to go through another battery of tests; nothing major, just a revisit of my insides, in order to find out why I was going tock instead of tick. As I scooted onto the hard, cold surface of the x-ray table, the attendant brushed back my hair, and I was hit with an indelible sense memory from just one year before.

Sense memory – or “emotional recall” –  is one of the greatest tools in the actor’s arsenal, and, I believe, the writer’s as well. It is a sensory experience – for me, usually a smell – that triggers a memory, an emotional response from the past. When I was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I wore White Shoulders and Chanel almost exclusively, for they were scents that were evocative of the 50s of the South. I remember my great aunt Lucy, and her love for Chanel.

This time, tt was not the floral musky scents of Chanel that drove my mind into the past. Instead, it was a decidedly different smell. Something much more assertive and direct. It was the odor of hand sanitizer.

***

117162-soloGermaphobia is an unspoken side-effect of cancer treatment, and one that is completely understandable, for the most mundane of things can kill you. When you are going through chemotherapy or radiation, your immune system is under attack; ordinary dusts and dander can trigger a series of responses that result in pneumonia, which, for the cancer patient, can be a death sentence.

A year ago this time, I was in the midst of my radiation treatments. I had my own little routine – get to the Oschin Cancer Center, travel by elevator far, far underground, and sign in. As I signed in, I would use the dispenser of sanitizer, one of many located throughout the center. I would get my cup of french vanilla coffee, change into my hospital couture, and wait for my turn, during which gamma rays were shot through my body in five minute sessions.

The waiting rooms become their own microcosm, for by day three, you begin to know everyone’s names. Treatments are daily, and almost always scheduled at the same time. The patients share their experiences, what day they are on, how many are left, etc. The most poignant patients are, of course, the children, who sit there as stoic as SEALs. They are the ones who teach the rest of us not to be afraid.

Relationships are spawned from the depths of the treatment centers; instead of friendships, they are more like affairs, for the relationships are brief, torrid encounters, and ones that are not without tears, for there are times when one half of the relationship disappears – not because their treatment has ended, but because the patient has not survived.

That’s how I met “Penny.”

Penny was a tall, graceful woman, who reminded me both in beauty and wit of my beloved friend in Oklahoma, Billie. Penny was a frequent flyer at Oschin’s; she had been battling various forms of cancers for the past 6 years. This time, it was Stage 4 lung cancer that had taken hold of her slender form, and she announced, without a trace of remorse, that this was her “last go” at treatment. She said she was humoring her husband, by going through all of this, but she knew that her time had come.

I grew to look forward to Penny’s visits; I’d scan the room for her magnificent bald head, locate her, sit down, and we would start our chat. I began to get to my treatments earlier, so I could spend a little extra time with my secret friend. I panicked one day when, upon arrival, I could not find her. I stood there. heart pounding, terrified that Penny had succumbed early, only to hear her call my name. She had gone out for lunch, and she had, for reasons she later said she could not understand, decided to wear a wig.

Days turned into weeks turned into a month, and after another week, I was nearing the end of my treatment, as was Penny. On her last day, we hugged. There was no reason to exchange emails, for there would be no need of that soon. She was going home, and she was preparing to die. As we said goodbye, she grabbed hold of me. “You’re going to write about this, you know,” she said. “All of it. And not just once, or twice, but forever. Everything’s changed for you. You’ll know when you are ready.” Then, my name was called, and I walked towards the doorway, pausing briefly to turn and wave good-bye.

***

It took almost a year for me to assimilate what Penny meant. When I was first diagnosed, I was urged to write about it. A friend generously offered to edit my work, and get it to her publisher…. and yet, other than my blog, I could barely write a word. I was in the thick of it; I was still battling death – not just the physical death, but the death of my life before cancer, the death of physical grace, the death of friendships, and the death of my career.

And so, I found myself thinking of Penny one day, as I read through an old short play of mine. In it, a character was terminally ill, and had made the decision to end his life. It was a stage play, so there were a lot of words. He talked about his illness; she talked about her love for him, they talked about talk, and so on.

It all felt so ridiculous, so immature. And so, I drew a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought of Penny and what she had said. I typed “Fade In”, and eventually typed “Fade to Black”, and there I had it. The first draft of what was to become TIDELANDS.

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A flashback moment for Conor and Lelia in TIDELANDS

The script has gone through rewrite after rewrite. My husband thought me insane, for taking on such a polarizing subject – that of death with dignity. That polarization was precisely why I felt – and feel – so strongly that this story needed to be told. The subject is highly personal. Death is an uncomfortable subject in modern society; we have emotionally regressed in regard to this most human and universal experience. And so, I wanted to dive deep into my own experiences, as well as those of others. I did what Penny told me to do. I wrote from the truthfulness of one who lives with cancer. Art imitates life, which, in turn, will someday imitate art, as I will have this conversation with the one I love one day. I did what the storyteller is obligated to do. I allowed my experience to influence my work. I embraced my experience – the good and the bad of it – and I will continue to do so, not only now, with TIDELANDS, but in the future.

Without cancer, I would not have this new perspective, one that is deeper, more layered, with a palette far richer than shades of grey. I give cancer thanks.

As I do Penny.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

To learn more about TIDELANDS, and to support the project, please visit the film’s Indiegogo page.

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Things That Go Bump In the Night

I run this every Halloween; not because I am lazy, but because I still list these as my favorites. Happy Halloween to all! ~ 

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed by some to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Thus begins one of the most masterful ghost stories of all time, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Halloween is upon us, “Oooooh, scaaaaary, kids!” as Count Floyd would say, which prompts me to rattle on about one of my favorite horror archetypes, that of the Haunted House.

Here. Take my hand. We’ll walk together, this night, and, as we do, I’ll whisper in your ear. It’s lovely to be with you again. In the dark. Alone. We are alone… aren’t we?

THE HAUNTING (1969)

Directed by Robert Wise

Screenplay by Nelson Gidding; adapted from the novel by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting is one of those rare films that few storytellers craft these days – a ghost story in which we never see the ghost. There are, of course, plenty of nail-biting moments: doors that swing open and shut, cold spots in which one’s breath becomes an apparition, wooden carvings that resemble masks of rage, messages of “Help Eleanor come home” appearing on the walls (“it knows my name!” Eleanor cries), moanings, mutterings and things that go boom in the night. In Hill House, statues move just out of the periphery of sight, and its guests come to realize just what Hugh Crain did to and with his little girls… and finally, all bear witness to that terrible moment in which the door to library breathes.

The Haunting is the ghost story as great film literature, scultped from magnificent source material. Flawlessly cast, the film is chock-full of atmosphere – gothic gloom and doom at its paranoid best, with Jackson’s dreamlike narrative quite intact. It still frightens the shit out of me.

ALIEN (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, from a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett*

“In space, no one can hear you scream” is perhaps one of the greatest film poster taglines I have ever read. I would argue that Alien is indeed a haunted house story; this particular house – the commercial spacecraft Nostromo – just happens to reside in the suburbia of deep space.

Like The Haunting,  Alien relies heavily on tone and the imagination of the viewer; although, in a post-Vietnam era, Scott tosses in enough viscera to make the most stoic moviegoer squirm in his seat and cry out for his momma.

Alien offers great iconic moments: the notorious chest-burster scene, the rising conflict between Ripley and Ash (movie geeks take note of just what is on-screen in Ash’s lab as Ripley arrives to check on Kane’s condition), Lambert’s cries of anguish when she realizes that Dallas is going the wrong way – and her gut wrenching vocalizations as she is being eaten alive, Sigourney Weaver making her debut as Ripley, the trailblazing kick-ass final girl, and the alien itself – a Freudian articulation of what Robert McKee calls a horrific “vagina dentata.” But, ultimately, it is the Nostromo, floating in the silent ethers of space, and guided under the tutelage of Mother, that looms foremost in my mind as the principle character. The ship is a cosmic Bad Place, built of corporate greed and corruption, and literally fed by the blood of its crew. The franchise sequels range from great shoot-em-up fun to maddeningly ponderous, but the original draws its power from the masters of cinema who wrote and created it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a big screen re-release.

And yes, Stephen King. I’d save the cat, too.

* follow up – O’Bannon and Shusett received credit for the screenplay; however, the final draft is credited to (title page credit) Walter Hill and David Giler, based on the O’Bannon/Shusett draft. My apologies for the omission.  HRH

THE SHINING (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson; adapted from the novel by Stephen King

What’s worse than a haunted house? Try a haunted hotel – where bad events number in the thousands – and there you have the Overlook, the nightmarish destination conceived by Stephen King.

Being offered the job of the off-season caretaker of the Overlook seems to be a dream come true for struggling author Jack Torrance and his family. While the Overlook’s employee quarters are a wee bit small and drab, the Torrances have the full run of one of the most luxurious hotels in the world – and all the prime rib they can eat. However, at the Overlook, things come with a price.

Moments of glory: scenes of Jack hard at work on his Great American novel – but Wendy discovers that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, Jack’s one-sided conversations with the otherworldly barkeep, the woman-turned-corpse in the bathroom, Kubrick’s tracking shots of Danny as he pedals throughout the Overlook, the little boy’s Big Wheels clacking, going silent and clacking once again… the tsunami of blood and other visions that plague that same prescient child,  and the sense of Wendy’s worry turning to frustration, then dread, and, finally, naked terror.

We discover that Very Bad Things happened at the Overlook – apparitions pepper the place: creepy, blood-soaked twins, parties that appear out of nowhere, the incongruous sexual creep show of two men in a hotel room – one sporting a dog suit. Insanity makes its inevitable appearance, and Jack is thrown into a downward spiral of homicidal madness. He’s the anti-father, the pater that applies Draconian discipline. “I’m not going to hurt you, ” Jack hisses at his petrified spouse, “I’m just going to bash your brains in.” For Jack Torrance, the Overlook is like another hotel, one where, as the Eagles have said, “You can check out anytime you like. But you can never leave.”

The writers take liberties with the source material, most of them spot on, although I would have loved to have seen them try to execute King’s topiary garden of animals which, like the statues of Hill House, move just as one is looking away from them. That being said, they still manage to capture the eerie poeticism of the book, and, with talent such as Kubrick, Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall at the helm, The Shining delivers a nightmarishly potent roller-coaster of a film, featuring a carnivorous dwelling that gleefully feeds upon the hearts, the minds, and the lives of the American family unit.

It also provided fecund ground for the trailer mashup that launched a thousand quips.

Oh, my. Look at the time. The witching hour is almost upon us… and I’ve so many other films to discuss… But, it is late. Take my hand again, and if, as we are walking home, you hear something ahead of us, well, it is most likely the wind, isn’t it? After all, we are alone…

Aren’t we?

What I’m Reading: Stephen King’s ode to horror, Danse Macabre. The book is a love letter of sorts to horror in television, literature (including pulp), radio and film. It’s a fascinating journey, and King covers the genre from the greats such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the works of Lovecraft and Poe, to the gloriously cheesy “Hammer Horror” and such epics as “The Chicken Heart That Ate the World.” I was a youngster when I first read it, and am blissfully enjoying this treasure trove again.

What I’m Watching: It’s Halloween, darling. TCM is running an all day marathon of Horror in every flavor under the sun. That being said, I’ll finish out the daytime hours with The Dead Zone and curl up next to my courtly companion tonight for The Haunting.

A Royal Shout-Out: To one of my favorite Cats, Al Rodriguez. Check out Al joining in on the fun with some of the top names of the business. Way to go, Al!!!

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Milk for Free

Why should I buy the cow, when I can get the milk for free? – Ancient Idiom

UnknownThere’s a little saying that is implanted into the minds of those wishing to work in film production, and the saying is “Never work for free.” Each and every year, graduates of film school, in different disciplines, enter the marketplace all bright and shiny, reels or scripts in hands, flocking to Los Angeles like moths to a flame. They submit their portfolios, their reels, their scripts, to every paying job advertised, and sit, dumbfounded, when they are not chosen for the job. Why are they not chosen?

Simple. Because they lack experience.

But I worked in film school! they cry, and while that is all well and good, school is school, and the world of entertainment is far from that. In school, you have access to equipment – cameras, foley rooms, editing bays, sound stages, lighting… in short, tens of thousands of dollars worth of production materials for free. And then, you enter the marketplace – as an intern. This is what we call paying your dues.

I recently spoke to a new to market writer. She had been offered a gig – the acquisition of her script by a recent film school graduate for production. She refused the gig. Why? Because they wanted her short script for free.

Every single thinking filmmaker knows that, in the beginning, they are going to work for free. Regardless of what one wants to do to shape their career, one needs to get on set, and one needs credits. And the way to get these credits is to work for free.

200px-Variety_(magazine)_logo.svgScreenwriters are the absolute worst when it comes to this subject. They are brainwashed by stories placed in Variety by PR firms about the “overnight wonder” screenwriter, who just scored a mid against high six figures for their feature. What they don’t tell you is that this screenwriter has been struggling for seven to ten years, collecting rejection letter after rejection letter, taking odd jobs when they might, struggling for survival, while networking madly. And, it’s most likely, that they do have some credits in the writing department – short films, some of which generated nary a dime for the writer.

There is one good reason for writing for no – or very low – pay, and that reason is not simply to get a credit (although that does help); instead the reason is a bit less practical (or so it seems). The reason is the desire to work on a certain project.

A filmmaker approaches you with an idea for a short. You love the idea; you cannot stop thinking about it. You look at the director’s work, and what you see, you like. But the director has little to no money for production, and offers you credit only, or they have a tiny amount, and offer it to you as a stipend. And there is the writer’s dilemma – should I take this deal? Should I work for free?

Actors know the answer to this question. They know that they are only as good as their last project, and for an actor to be considered for plum roles, they have to keep their resumes current; therefore, they work for free. Name actors do this; last year, Liam Neeson lent his voice to an indie project for free, simply because he liked the material, and wanted to support the project.

Writing for free is usually limited to the short world; in the feature world, the conundrum that you face is writing for low pay. Most new writers, when given an offer of, say $2500 for a feature, turn immediately to the WGAw website, and go to the schedule of minimums. They see the minimum set at $60 grand change, and become enraged. They refer to the producers as “scam artists”, or, even better, counter the offer with the WGA minimum. The thing they forget is that this minimum is set for members of the WGA – which they are not. How do you become a member of the WGA?

Simple. Pay your dues. For some, that’s a decade of work, often for free, before finally making that leap.

I had a friend of mine tell me about a script he was writing for hire; we were both commiserating about the small amount of money we were both working for on our individual projects. He said, “Well, they paid me 1500. So, I gave the a 1500 dollar script.”

I’m no sure I would advise that. Your work is what represents you, and if you write a bunch of gobbledegook because you agreed to work for low pay, you may very well end up hurting yourself, unless you can have a contractual clause which allows you to remove your name from credits after seeing the final cut. Me? I try to make it the best that I can, given the time constraints – that’s part 2 of working for low-pay, your producers expect a feature to be written in a month. Can it be done? Of course. Will the quality suffer? Most certainly. My advice is to write like hell, rewrite like there is no tomorrow, and do your best to make the script as good as it can possibly be.

Are there times when you should turn down no/low pay jobs? Certainly. The number 1 reason is that you don’t like the job. You don’t like the pitch; perhaps it is for a frat boy comedy, and you write East Coast intellectual relationship angst. Or, you don’t like the director’s work. You don’t have to like the director, but you do need to be able to respect his/her work, for your script will be in his/her hands, to craft and to mold into a movie. Last – listen to your gut. If it tells you that you are about to jump onto a train destined to wreck, then politely pass on the offer, and go your own way.

There are a few things to do, when approached with a no/low paying job, that will help to protect you, and to ensure that the writing process is a smooth one:

  1. Protect your work. That means that you must not only register your script with the WGA, but you must also file for copyright protection. These are associated costs with the field of work that you have chosen, and to not do so is amateurish.
  2. Provide your production team with your contract, as opposed to signing one of theirs. The WGAw makes these contracts available for download, and you have the ability to edit where you need. Your edits should be minute, mainly for budget, milestone payments, and, of course the option to “credit out.” If the production team refuses to sign this document, then walk away. This is a clean, pristine document intended to protect the writer, and if they do not want to do that, then the job is never going to be worth it for you. If, for example, this is a script purchase, and they bring another writer in for the development process, you still will, most likely, want to maintain a writing credit. For another writer to be given your credit, they have to be able to prove that they have written at least 51% of the script, and, if you have registered with the WGA, arbitration will sit down and compare, word by word, your draft against the new, and, if you still maintain the ownership of majority of the words, then the credit is solely yours, whether you are a WGA member or not. I cannot say this enough – protect your work and your credit.
  3. Excessive time. If production wants to option an existing script, but cannot give you a general time of when production shall commence, then limit the option to 6 months. That is a reasonable amount of time for them to get their ducks in a row, and if they want your script, then, chances are, someone else probably does, too. What you do not want to do is to give them 2 or 3 years time on an option, for by the time the script goes into turnaround, whatever piqued their particular interest is probably already gone from the filmmaking zeitgeist.
  4. Reception. If your script has won major awards – Nicholls, Austin Film Festival, UnknownSundance – then you have property that studios will see of value, and that’s when the milk isn’t free. it’s damned heavy cream, and it’s worth some money. Of course, if your script has won any or all of the above, then you probably stopped reading this column after the first few sentences, because you’re too busy fielding calls from CAA.

The decision to work for low or no pay is an individual choice, and certainly, no one is forcing you to do so. That being said, if you are new to the market, then you can save your career a great deal of time, as well as blood, sweat and tears, by accepting low/no terms for your early works.

The-Oscars-2014-logo.jpg~originalNext time a filmmaker expresses a desire to make your short, but doesn’t have the money to pay you for the script, consider this: THE PHONE CALL, which won the  2015 Academy Award for Best Short Film, was made completely for free. Cast, crew, post, all involved, worked for craft service and meals only. The cast included Academy-Award winner Jim Broadbent, and, as director Mat Kirkby said, “Short films are made not with money. They’re made with tenacity and lots of favors.”

They are indeed.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

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Dream

Everything is possible.

Believe.

Now, go write.

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The Woman in the Picture

I’ve been away from my little magic castle for a bit; I’ve been tending to some real-world problems, as well as allowing my body to get some much-needed rest.

1044516_588197914553618_117421842_nI logged into Facebook this morning and discovered, courtesy my friend and CineLadies founder Marisilda Garcia, this wonderful picture, which you now see on the left side of this paragraph. The picture – and the article translation found with it – tells the story of an indigenous woman of the Tarahumara. The woman is seen running in a half-marathon, which she not only won, but broke several records in the process, all of this without professional training, without athletic clothing – including running shoes – and without the endorsements of Nike, Mountain Dew, Monster, or whatever company is trying to get their brand stamped across every square inch of earth. She won it – and she won it on her own.

And now, for the awkward segue into how this picture relates to the entertainment business. People often speak of their careers as if they were a race. Everyone’s out to be the first, get the biggest headlines in Variety, sign the biggest deal ever, smash all box office records to smithereens.

However, your career is not a race, dear ladies and lords of the court. Your career is a marathon, and it’s one you run endlessly, hours into days, into weeks, into months, into years, and so on. You simply place one foot in front of the other, and so on, and so on. And you never stop.

Print out a picture of this woman, and hang it on your wall. Print out another picture, and put it in your purse, your wallet, your satchel – wherever you can always have it at hand. When those times hit – the holidays that seem so merry for everyone but you, the flood of shame that comes with a rejection letter, or that whisper of envy when someone you know hits it huge – do this one thing. Pull out the picture, look at the woman, and remember her story. How she broke all records, how she became an internet sensation, and how she, despite all odds, won that race… and remember that she was able to do all of this, because she didn’t stop.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

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Walking the Walk

For those of us who blog and write about the art and the craft of screenwriting, we spend a lot of time talking the talk.

Today, I’m going to begin a little experiment in walking the walk. And I’m inviting you to join me.

I am in the midst of creating one of two worlds that are in my newest untitled project.

Every few Princess Scribe posts this summer – and perhaps beyond – will contain bits of scripts that I am working on, the actual working text, visual ideas, roadblocks, character development… a little bit of everything, shared only with you, dear readers.

Of course, there will be a few twists and turns, and so, there is some that I will not share. Yet. But with those exceptions, I’ll be as transparent as possible in my progress.

Today, I’ve managed 4 cards worth of content for my board. The script is for a short project, about 15-20 minutes in length. SciFi meets SciFact. This is not the screenplay, it’s not even the brain dump draft. This is the beginning of a working outline, a series of cards that I hope will be able to become transform into the script, and the script into a film.

Today marks the creation of the first part of Opening Scene, in STC  language. The story opens with a dream…

Opening Image

What’s next?

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

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My Writing Process: Blog Tour

Princess Scribe's Blog

Today, I’m participating in the “My Writing Process” Blog Tour. It’s a sort of chain mail amongst scribes; the tour rolled out in January, and will conclude by next week.

I was invited to play by Henry Sheppard, aka the Adelaide Screenwriter. Henry’s tour commenced last week; he wrote with great eloquence about the publication of his novel Play the Devil , as well as writing for the screen, large and small.

Long story short, the blog tour asks its participants four questions about their writing process. I’ll turn my tour over to another writer, who will conclude this adventure in story, publishing her blog on June 15.

***

rabbit-hole1. What are you working on? I’m working on what is certainly the most challenging piece I have come up against. It’s a dark fantasy piece, set in the world of child abduction and sex-trafficking, a bit of a down-the-rabbit-hole…

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Perspective

or, how having a catastrophic illness might save my life.

via Perspective.

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Good Intentions

Screenwriting connects us all; it levels the playing field.

Screenwriting connects us all; it levels the playing field. (c) Final Draft, Inc.

A few years ago, Final Draft, Inc. launched a campaign titled Why I Write. Established screenwriters – Simon Kinberg, Susannah Grant, Aaron Sorkin, and others, were invited to write a brief statement about what drove them to do the thing that they do – write for the screen. The responses, which appeared as rotating banners on the company website, ran the gamut from the humorous (“Because I wanted a job where I could wear pajamas”), to the poignant (“To keep my father’s voice alive”). One of my favorite campaigns was one that I worked on;  a member of Joey Travolta’s Inclusion Films Workshop was selected. He was a teenaged screenwriter who was developmentally disabled., and he wrote a beautiful testimonial to his craft. When Lynn brought the final proof out, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the office, Why I Write was one of the most successful marketing campaigns that I had seen. It was honest. It was real. Note – Final Draft ran the campaign for many years on their website; unfortunately, they no longer seem to, and I am unable to find any of the quotes archived. A great tragedy – hey, Marc, why don’t you dust it off, and bring it out to share with the new generation of screenwriters? 9353_zmeinyj-polet_or_snakes-on-a-plane_1280x1024_www.GdeFon.ru_The campaign was a much-needed response to the emergence of The Great Spec Sale. Sometime during the early 90s, someone decided that story and character were of little importance to a screenplay’s merit – what was really important was the concept. Was the script “high-concept”? If you answered “yes”, then it went out on Monday, and the bidding wars began, By Thursday, an unknown writer was inking a deal for low to mid sixes, and Friday’s Variety was singing the story of another “overnight success” in Hollywood. And, oh, how the scripts poured in, a veritable tsunami of potty jokes and lo-brow humor. And the circus-like event formally known as  the screenplay development and sale went one step further. One day, executives decided that one didn’t even need a script to sell for a king’s ransom – the concept alone could “be” the sale. If the concept was high enough, one didn’t even need to write the script; the writer would develop the story and present it through a pitch. Writers would show up at CAA in a gorilla suit on Monday, and sling some bananas around. By Thursday would appear a six-figure deal…. and the script had not even been written. That’s not to say that all high-concept is bad or evil; scripts like DIE HARD, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, TRUE LIES, and HOME ALONE, among others, sprang forth from the high-concept glut, films that enjoyed both commercial and artistic success. High-concept was here to stay. But for every gem out there, there were hundreds of nuggets of fool’s gold hitting the market. Suddenly, everyone in Hollywood was a screenwriter. The problem was, the majority of these scribes had never written a script; they simply saw a screenplay as a shortcut to success and wealth, Character? That was for those little “indie” films. Story? Oh, don’t get so analytical, wasn’t it funny when he farted in the court? Countless wretched scripts were written, and some of them even made it to the screen. The screenplay had become the poor man’s genie’s bottle. Substance mattered little – how much can you get for it? That was what was important. alcohol-428392_640Eventually, audiences wised up, and stopped shelling out hard-earned dollars for crap. The spec market collapsed, and things like story and character became the focus of discussions again. Today, to achieve a sale, you really do need to write a good, solid script. And yet, the impact of those times still lingers, like the bad taste in your mouth after a night of binging on cheap cigars and even cheaper booze.

***

In truth, concept has been and always will be king. Movie-making is a business, and a very expensive one at that. Investors want to see a return, and a handsome one at that. And yet, at its heart, a film is a piece of art, which brings us back full circle to question what is it that drives you to engage in such a speculative craft? Why do you write?

Chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriterThere’s a great deal of polarization amongst screenwriters in regard to that question. On the left, you have writers who want to entertain – make ’em laugh, They’re not as obsessed with character, or hero’s journey – they simply want to be funny. Or try to be. They usually fail. On the right, you have the socially conscious snobs. These are the writers who are self-described rebels who insist that every script should address a socially important issue – global-warming, Roe v Wade, gun-control… if there is a topic out there, they’ll take it on. And, they believe the script should not only address a cause, it should actively instruct the audience about the cause, the script must “change the world” with its greatness. (Note – the scripts and writers I’m discussing are narrative form, not documentarians.) I believe that their intentions are sincere, that they truly want to accomplish some good, but their belief system is so myopic and rigid that the scripts produced are as bland as a fiber bar. It’s “good for you” writing, but the result is generally a huge-turnoff, for the road to hell is, as we have been told, paved with good intentions.

And then you have the middle-ground, a horrible description, for I believe these writers are anything but/ They’re top-notch, for they want to have a script that can become a commercially successful film that entertains audiences – and is meaningful as well. The audience might learn something – but not by force feeding, They may laugh until their sides hurt, but only because the comedy is relatable and well-executed. These writers are my heroes, for they are the true master-craftsmen. They write from the heart, and they write for you. Their scripts are gems, large and small, and they come in all genres, shapes and sizes.

Storytelling did not involve as a form of artistic masturbation; crack open the heart of any committed screenwriter, and you will find within the ancestor of us all – the tribal shaman, gathering his or her clan around the fire, weaving stories to ward off the dangers of the night.

So, before you begin work on that new project, before you hit your outline, or type Fade In, do yourself and the script a favor. Ask your self why you write it.

Now, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

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The Mona Lisa Smile

images-1There are thousands of screenwriting courses, that promise to offer you the opportunity to “write a role that will have every A-List actor out there fighting for your script!” Some of these promises go further and claim that that your script will take the great leap – the one that will generate a bidding war, Submit on Thursday, sale on Monday. You know the drill.

I don’t know what to say about those courses. I don’t know if writing can be taught. Appreciation, history… these are things that can be taught. The rest? Well… I’m not too certain.  One can learn structure, writing dynamic dialog, creating a character’s complex backstory. These elements can be taught – and taught well, but the rest? I don’t know. I rarely purchase a lottery ticket, therefore,  I won’t be standing in front of the camera as I cradle an oversized check. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t encourage you to buy into the aforementioned dream – an A-lister will value your words above those of everyone else’s. Being a filmmaker is hard. Your skin needs to be fused with Kevlar, in order for you to survive.

And so, I won’t teach you how to write. I will, however, ask you to look at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Look at her. Now, look at her smile.

1376059845000-Mona-Lisa-2Mona Lisa is a richly layered work of art. By layered, I do not mean with paint,  chalk, or other tangible tools, but the layers of the subject – Mona Lisa.  What and/or whom is Mona Lisa? Where did her smile begin and where does it end –  and, from what? Joy? Passion? Penance? Pain?

In short, what is the truth within her smile? What’s the story? Is her smile one of revelation… or is it a smile of sorrow? Is she Our Lady of the Smile of Perpetuity?

Why is she smiling? What happened to her, for this expression of elegance and possibly deceit to grow?

This question may seem trite, and yet, I assure you, that it is anything but. Look at her. Her glossy hair, her patrician features, her elegant fabrics, and her enigmatic smile. Look at her in wonder: What is the source of Mona Lisa’s smile?

Now, ask yourself the same question…. but of your own script : When does your character have his/her own Mona Lisa smile?

And why?

Do that, and you will have a character that could not be declined. Get out there. Get out of your house, your coffee shop, your caffeine-laden sanctuary. Get out of your head, and into the world… and permit yourself the glorious action of finding out what caused Ms. Lisa to smile.

Then, go write.

HRH, Princess Scribe

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The Conversations

Princess Scribe's Blog

images-1Today is August 4. Today is the fourth anniversary of the death of my mentor, employer and friend, Blake Snyder.

In the past, I’ve marked the date with a journal entry about Blake, his influence on me, and the memories surrounding his unexpected passing.

This year, however, I choose a different path.

BJ Markel, Blake’s partner in Save the Cat! and closest friend, has invited several of us who knew Blake, to contribute to a series of columns about our conversations with the Master Cat. I have a few of these in mind, as I am certain, do others.

And so, while I peruse my treasure trove of memories, and prepare to pen my own remembrances, I encourage you to visit the site, and read the first of many of these entries. Blake’s childhood friend, Tracey Jackson, shares her memories of her last conversation with Blake.

Now, go write.

HRH…

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