Archive for June 2010

Screenwriting Contest Results

June 30, 2010

And so it begins. Some of the bigger screenwriting competitions have sent emails announcing first round results, and more contests will soon be notifying nervous entrants on whether they advanced or not to the next level of judging.

The Page Awards received over 4,000 scripts in various categories. I entered three screenplays (drama, action, family). Two were in the top 25 percent that made the first cut — STUNT MEN and LEGENDS OF THE MENEHUNE. Yet my drama/suspense script, THE DOLL, which has been a finalist in a bunch of contests is already out of the running. So if your script is still alive, congrats! If it didn’t, don’t despair. Sometimes it just comes down to a single reader’s subjective tastes or mood the day they picked up your screenplay.

To me, what’s more important is what you do with the results, good or bad. Since all three of the above scripts have been finalists or just missed the cut in major contests such as the Nicholl Fellowships, I have some experience in that area.

When THE DOLL did well in smaller comps, I got to talk to judges and the people in charge of the contests to get feedback from them. Of course, I was trying to make connections since the judges included producers such as Andy Fickman (made ANACONDA, then went on to direct and write movies such as SHE’S THE MAN, THE GAME PLAN and RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN). The doll script was more of an indie film, so I didn’t think Andy would have any interest in it. Instead, I tried to pitch him a more “commercial” idea I was working on. He pointed his finger at me and said, “I like THAT script about the doll! It was wicked-weird! Call me when I get back to L.A.”

I did call — several times. He never got back to me because he had just signed a deal to write and direct another movie, which led to more projects. Now he has something like 11 movies in development. However, I kept entering THE DOLL in other contests, and two other producers contacted me. Alas, both times other factors prevented them from moving forward on it.

THE DOLL did better in contests when it made the finals and got read by working professionals, who weren’t necessarily looking for the same things early round readers are checking off on their lists. It was written in a no-frills, minimalist style because I had a pretty bizarre plot and I didn’t want to get in the way of the story. I think many wanna-be screenwriters who do coverage or get paid to judge first early rounds, are sometimes more impressed with style over substance.

In fact, I think a lot of agents and managers fall into that same trap. They say they’re looking for a unique “voice” — one that sounds like another Tarantino or Charlie Kaufman, or whoever the flavor of the month is. Script consultants who also judge these things also like to see writerly descriptions in the narrative and zingy Juno-ish dialog, which I like to read too. But is it a movie you’d pay to see? More importantly, is it a movie a producer can visualize in his or her head that is feasible in terms of cost.

This brings me back to my other two scripts, STUNT MEN and MENEHUNES. Both are big budget pictures that would cost over $100 million to make. Early round readers probably liked the action and visual stuff I put up on the screen, but real producers and managers would say it’s not likely they could do anything with those scripts since I have no track record for writing huge tent-pole movies. Still, I figured it was worth taking a shot at going big.

When those two scripts just missed the Nicholl quarterfinals, I sought feedback from produced writers and aspiring writers I network with. It turned out both professional and wannabe screenwriters had similar criticisms about tone and dialog, so I took another pass at them before entering STUNT MEN and MENEHUNES in this year’s contests. We’ll see if it pays off.

BTW, one of the pros who gave me notes on MENEHUNES and my STUNT MEN premise, was Charles Leavitt. He wrote BLOOD DIAMOND, THE EXPRESS, K-PAX and a very good, underrated movie called THE MIGHTY. This is where networking and doing good deeds comes into play…

A bankruptcy lawyer I met in a screenwriting workshop here in Honolulu, asked me to read his work in progress. Being a little more experienced than him, I was happy to share what I’ve learned. We became friends and I tried as best I could to give him constructive criticism on other scripts of his. He wanted to pay me for my time, but I said no thanks — I do it because it helps me be a better writer myself.

Long story short, through the lawyer’s family connections, Chuck Leavitt generously offered to take a look at his script. My friend asked Chuck if he would read my MENEHUNES screenplay too, as a favor to me. The gist of his comments was that I had a solid concept and knew how to tell a story visually (no small thing, he said ) but it needed substantial work in the character and dialog departments.

It wasn’t the “I love it and gotta show it to my agent!” response I hoped for. But it was honest, constructive advice from a working pro, which I took to heart. Now it’s up to the contests judges to see if I delivered the goods.

Fathers in Film

June 15, 2010

I’m not sure if it’s because many writers have rocky relationships with their parents, but it seems like a lot of books and movies involve a father figure who is a negative character — distant, aloof, mean-spirited — or a villain like Darth Vadar.

Even when they are the hero, they are usually flawed. Since Father’s Day is coming up, I thought this would be a good week to mention a hodge podge of movies I’ve seen recently that present different views of dads that lie somewhere between good guy and authoritarian soul-crushers.

An animated feature I really liked was FANTASTIC MR. FOX, adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Voiced by George Clooney, the father fox is a great character because of his internal and external conflicts. In this fantasy, animals are quite civilized for the most part (they do chow down like ravenous beasts, however). His day job is newspaper columnist. But his real passion is stealing and killing chickens. Why? Because he’s a fox, dammit!

Yet his foxy wife wants him to be a good role model for their son, who lacks the smarts and natural athletic skills of his cousin. Dad can’t resist the lure of breaking into the neighboring farms to kill some chickens though, which sets off an unfortunate chain of events for all the animals. He tries to rally the animals and keep the family together while admitting his faults. It’s really more for adults than kids and will appeal to those with a droll sense of humor. Worth adding to your Netflix queue!

A very different take on dads in a foreign culture is offered in TOKYO SONATA. Yet there are similarities to MR. FOX too. In this Japanese film, the father loses his job — which is his identity, even though he’s little more than a drone or a replaceable cog in the company. Instead of telling his family, he continues to get dressed for work and leaves for the office each day, pretending nothing is wrong. At home, he clashes with his sons when they rebel against his conformist values. The older boy joins the military to fight alongside Americans in Iraq instead of going to college. The younger son wants to take up music, which dad thinks is a waste of time and money.

TOKYO SONATA is a sad portrayal of fathers in any culture, who perceive work as life. Take away their job, you take away their sense of purpose and reason for being. How many American dads seem lost once they get laid off or retire from the workforce? Not sure I’d recommend this movie though, unless you’re into dysfunctional family dramas and have an interest in modern day Japan. I have enough dysfunction in my own family to deal with.

The antithesis of authoritarian fathers would be the MIA dads, such as the one in PIRATE RADIO. Based somewhat on the true story of renegade rock DJs who broadcast from a ship anchored off the coast of England in the 60s, the story centers on a teenage boy sent to the boat by his mom after he gets kicked out of school. Turns out that one of the DJs (his mum won’t say who) is actually the father he never got to know while growing up. Much silliness ensues and the two are eventually reunited in a ridiculous climax that has unfortunate echoes of the Titanic sinking. But the music is great, so it’s a half thumbs up for me.

Lastly, we have the reality category with the documentary, WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE: A FILM ABOUT THE DOORS. It’s mostly about lead singer, alcoholic poet Jim Morrison, and if you like the Doors, it’s worth watching. What I found fascinating though was Jim’s relationship with his father — a Navy admiral. Talk about rigid role models to rebel against! In the film, Johnny Depp (the narrator) reads a letter to Jim from his dad in which he tells his son that he should quit music because he has no talent and will never amount to anything…

For every artist, musician and writer who has heard the same thing from their father or mother at some point in their life — myself included — those words sting and cut to the bone. Isn’t parental approval something we all want, even after we’ve grown up and made our own lives? On the other hand, would many of us even be writers or artists if we grew up in loving, supportive families? I don’t know the answer to that. If I was a happy, well-adjusted person, I’d probably have less desire or need to write… I wouldn’t need an audience.

The Doors documentary does end with Depp saying after Jim died, his father issued a statement about his unique talent. Too bad he didn’t say that while his son was still alive.

When To Give Up

June 4, 2010

This is one of those posts where I have three different things — sports, AA, risk-taking in the business world — oh, and writing… make that four things I want to talk about that are related to a common theme: the fear of failure. So bear with me if I jump around or digress.

As I write this, the big news here in the islands is the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine softball team, which is playing it its first NCAA Women’s College World Series. Since we have no pro teams, UH sports is the biggest unifying interest we have for locals. However, women’s softball has never been a major draw and until the past two weeks, it even took a backseat to off-season news about UH football and basketball.

My wife and I have spent thousands on tickets for other UH sports, but have never been to a Wahine softball game (which are free). Yet when they appeared on ESPN in nationally-televised games against mainland powerhouse, Alabama, we were glued to our flatscreen TV. To advance to the World Series, they had to beat the number one team in the country on the Crimson Tide’s home turf, in a best of three games series.

The ESPN announcers didn’t give the Wahine much of a chance, despite the fact they had set a college record for home runs in a single season. Basically, the “experts” said those homers came against lesser competition in ballparks with short fences or at high altitude schools where the air was thinner. When Alabama crushed the lady Bows in the first game, it appeared the announcers were right…

But the wonderful thing about sports is you get to play again after you lose. You can fail miserably, then come back to win or even be the hero, regardless of how badly you screwed up earlier. It’s all in your mindset… and in your heart.

The Wahine changed their uniforms, switched dugouts and charged out to a 7-2 lead in the second game. They did it by hitting the long ball. But ‘Bama came back to tie it, and my hopes sank like a rock. I saw the Wahine’s dream slipping away as momentum ebbed in the Tide’s favor. Yet the UH team managed to score one more run and held on to force a deciding Game 3.

And what a game it was! UH took the early lead on another homer. Alabama again came back and had a one run lead going into the final inning. The Wahine’s first batter got a walk. Conventional baseball wisdom says if you’re batting in the bottom of the last inning, you play for the tie. Most coaches would have the next hitter bunt the runner over to second base to improve the chances of that player scoring on a base hit. The downside is the bunt usually results in an out at first base — hence the term “sacrifice” bunt.

The UH coach did not put the bunt on. I was surprised. The ESPN announcers were surprised. Then the next hitter made an out, and the runner was still at first base. Third Wahine takes her cuts and makes the second out. They are down to their last out and I’m thinking, THE COACH BLEW IT — they should have bunted that runner over! And before I could say that out loud, the next Wahine belted the first pitch out of the park. Game over! The ESPN announcers were stunned. The ‘Bama faithful — about 3,000 in the stadium — were stunned. I was stunned.

They got there by playing long ball and taking their swings. If they were going to lose, the coach decided they would go down taking their best cuts. They weren’t going to bunt or play it safe. They weren’t going to change their game because they were playing mighty Alabama. The Rainbow Wahine won because they stayed true to their team’s character.

Yesterday, in the first game of the World Series, Hawaii did it again in the final inning, coming from behind with a dramatic home run. Once again, they chose not to bunt the runner over to set up a a chance for a tying run. The UH coach lets them swing for the fences because he believes in their abilities and isn’t afraid of taking the heat if they come up short.

Although that strategy has been working so far, I’m hoping at some point today or in their next game, the UH coach surprises the opposing team by doing the unexpected: bunt when everyone is playing back. Because that’s the other thing winners do — they save something for the moment they need it. The trick play, the small adjustment that exploits a weakness in the other team, the psych-out move that rattles your opponent.

That’s what I love about sports and why I bring it up so often in reference to the business world or writing. On one hand, it’s largely about numbers — playing the percentages. Real sports fanatics know their favorite players’ statistics inside and out. Yet sports is also about the intangibles: what’s in your heart and head. It’s learning how to win the mind games we play with ourselves.

When I saw that home run in the third game against Alabama, I got pretty choked up. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think the Wahine were going to win. The other pitcher was too good. I was feeling pretty pessimistic, largely because it had been a rough week for me and things haven’t been working out as I had hoped with my writing career. Life can be a real bitch. Life isn’t fair — you work hard, do the right things, and you still fail… I should just give up.

And when I saw them celebrating at home plate, suddenly I had hope. They didn’t give up when they lost their lead or fell behind. They did not stop swinging for the fences, or back down from the challenge. Why should I give up on myself? As long as I can type, I still have an at bat left — a chance to knock one out of the park.

If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging… or typing. Whatever. Anyhow, I didn’t make it to the second, third, or fourth thing I planned on writing about today. But I’ll get to it. Meanwhile, I’m going to watch the Wahine and root for the young women who are representing Hawaii in Oklahoma City today.

Never give up.

GO ‘BOWS!