Virtual Life

Posted January 19, 2015 by richfigel
Categories: depression, failure, motivation, movies, reality tv shows, screenwriting, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

The holidays are over, and although we’re only halfway through the first month of 2015 I feel like I’m already falling behind. Each year I vow to get off to a stronger start on my writing and life goals, but I get distracted by college football bowl games, then the NFL playoffs, while systematically emptying the kitchen cabinet of accumulated Christmas gift cookies and candies. I often find myself in a funk too after spending time with my parents and siblings, temporarily reunited for a week or so at the end of each passing year.

It’s been tougher of late because my mother has been losing her short term memory as a result of Alzheimer’s. I first noticed signs of delusion years ago, but my father insisted nothing was wrong with her and doctors kept prescribing more and more drugs to treat whatever aches or pains she complained of. Meanwhile, he was taking more meds himself to sleep and deal with his own depression. I kept sending them articles and links to scientific studies that showed how important it was for older people to exercise and do physical activities to stave off common aging problems such as memory loss. That only angered my father even more. “You don’t know what it’s like getting old!” or he’d snidely cut me off with, “Oh, when did you become a doctor?”

The latter was probably a not-so-subtle jab at me for choosing to become a writer instead of a lawyer or some better paying profession they approved of. So I stopped offering any advice or help a long time ago, since they made it clear they weren’t interested in changing a damn thing about the way they were going to live out their remaining years. They have no hobbies, interests or desires to do anything other than sit in their living room and watch television. My mother used to read a lot, but a few years ago I recognized something was seriously wrong when we were talking about a book I knew she liked and she couldn’t recall whether she read it or not. That was the last time I bought her any books for Christmas or her birthdays.

Despite my differences with my parents, at least I used to be able to talk about books with Mom. She appreciated my intelligence and interest in writing more than my father, whose reading preferences  were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. She also used that mutual interest in books as an excuse to call and complain about being mistreated by my dad. Those conversations often ended with her in tears or becoming hysterical to the point that my father would pick up the extension and start yelling at her for twisting the truth. The sad irony is now she cannot recall all those arguments and accusations, and he must endure hearing her repeat the same questions over and over, day after day, week after week, while having to watch her all the time. It must be hell for both of them.

Yet when we get together for the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas dinners, everyone smiles, acts like things are fine, and Mom even makes jokes… repeatedly, while we all pretend she’s normal. Dad doesn’t say much. I can’t tell if it’s the meds or if he simply doesn’t feel like he has anything worth sharing. We sometimes break out old pictures and ask them to talk about those times, but neither seems to trust their fading memories.

Anyhow, I’m writing this because I saw a movie review for “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore. I’m not sure I want to see it since it hits so close to home. However, I read the book, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast, and have to say, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time.  Here’s the Amazon link. It’s a comic book that is funny, honest, humbling, observant, sad and truthful about the disease of being human. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, please get this book. I only wished I could have shared it with my mother.

As for my sibs, we’re all so busy with life and work, we don’t have much time to read all the books we know are supposed to be really good (I’ve got a stack from last Christmas I’m still trying to get through) so we try to talk about recent movies and TV shows we like. They’re always surprised at just how much TV my wife and I watch, but it’s not that hard to cram 6-7 hours of TV shows into 4 hours each evening if you DVR everything and fast forward through all the commercials, credits and redundant stuff. The fact is television can be a wonderful tool for entertainment, education and escapism. It can be a form of virtual life in itself.

Which brings me back to my folks and their chosen lifestyle of sitting in a dark room, blinds closed to keep the sunlight and outside world blocked out, eyes focused on the television. Okay, I can accept that. But why not make it the best experience possible then? I’ve suggested they get a better TV and offered to pay for high definition, got them a gift subscription to Netflix, and sent them recommendations on good movies I thought they would enjoy. Instead, they’re watching Fox News or CNN and banal junk.

I guess my point is, whatever you choose to do with your life, go all the way. In the end, when our memories flicker like dimming pixels on a screen, the only thing we will have are the transcendent moments when we felt we achieved something grand… be it real or not.


Posts from Christmas Past

Posted December 24, 2014 by richfigel
Categories: addiction, motivation, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Note: Of all the articles, screenplays, blogs and other stuff I’ve written over the years, this piece I wrote for the old Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s 2008 Christmas Day print edition best sums up the story of my life… and why I feel so grateful to be where I am today. BTW, OC16 is running a Christmas show marathon on channel 12/high def 1012 that will include a special Career Changers TV compilation of stories from past episodes. For daily viewing times of our regularly-scheduled show, visit www.CareerChangers.TV. Mele Kalikimaka!


A Wrong Turn Leads to the Right Place by Rich Figel

Like many people, my wife and I collect Christmas ornaments as souvenirs from places we’ve traveled to. My favorite is a delicate piece from Venice made of green, white and red glass shaped into candles. It’s missing one candle though. That’s why it holds special meaning for me.

In recovery, we’re taught to live in the present because we can’t undo the past. I try not to dwell on the wrong turns I made. But I can’t minimize the wreckage alcohol and drugs caused in my life either. My flame could have been snuffed out by two drunk driving accidents I had when I was a reporter in New Jersey, fresh out of college. I was lucky. No one was injured by my reckless disregard for others. Instead of giving up drinking, however, I gave up driving and moved to New York.

All of that was a distant memory when Isabel and I took our first trip to Italy in the summer of 1999. This was a reward of sorts for living sober. To make the most of it, we studied guidebooks, listened to Italian language tapes in the car and carefully planned our itinerary months in advance. Nothing was left to chance — or so we thought.

After nearly 24 hours of flying economy class and long layovers in Newark and London, we arrived in Venice. Our luggage did not. Wearing smelly clothes, we checked into our hotel on the Lido, a small island across the lagoon. International movie stars flock here for the annual Venice film festival. But when we opened the door to our room, my wife’s face dropped. It looked dingy and rundown, nothing like the charming photographs on the website. The trip of a lifetime was off to a disappointing start.

Things began to look better the next morning. The hotel’s breakfast room had a a glorious view of San Marco, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are located. We hopped on the vaporetto, an unglamorous water bus, and as we cruised down the Grand Canal, I became oblivious to the stifling heat and the B.O. of tourists crowded around us. I only saw the fading grandeur of this dream of a city.

Venice on foot is a different matter. The guidebooks are useful as long as you stay close to the major tourist sites. Venture into the heart of the city, and you soon discover that streets often go by two names, smaller canals and bridges don’t correspond with maps, and many passageways are dead ends. We got completely lost, which can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. But we were like those couples on “The Amazing Race” TV show, who blame each other for every mishap. When we returned to the hotel and saw our luggage had been delivered, I thought we had turned the corner.

Wrong again. The next day was even hotter. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden in Italy’s centuries-old churches, so we had to dress appropriately and sweat it out in line with hundreds of others who were waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. You’ve probably seen pictures of it: the Byzantine domes in the background while lovers embrace amid flocks of pigeons. Since we were quarreling, the grubby birds were merely a nuisance to us. We came to see the church treasures — not for romance.

A group of German tourists were ahead of us. They seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them. Awed by the marble geometric designs under our feet and the ornate ceilings above, I missed the entrance sign for the museum where the church relics are displayed. Before we knew it, Isabel and I were back outside the Basilica. Despite my pleas of ignorance, a guard told us we had to stand in line again if we wanted to reenter.

Screw it, I said. We decided to move on to a less famous church. According to our map, Santi Giovanni was a short walk from there. But I made a wrong turn somewhere. What should have been a 10-minute stroll became another frustrating excursion that stretched into an hour of wandering around in a steamy maze.

Finally, we found Santi Giovanni. It is huge. Inside, the soaring vaulted arches resembled the bow of a gigantic wooden ship turned upside down. The stained glass windows and altars were works of art. Yet it felt strangely empty to me. We walked over to another section that was like a small chapel. As we were leaving, a priest walked past us with a beatific smile on his face.

Back in the main area we saw the German tourists again, standing in the center of the church. The men had cameras around their necks and their heads were bowed. They stood in a circle, holding hands, and began to sing a hymn in perfect harmony. Their voices filled the church. It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

Tears streamed down my face. Perhaps it was their devotion, or the acoustics … or maybe it was the collective effects of being weary and flustered, but the church that seemed cold and dead to me was brought to life by their singing. I looked at Isabel and she was crying too. Neither of us is religious, but I felt blessed to be there with her. Had we not gotten lost and taken so many wrong turns, we would not have been here to witness this moment. I held my wife’s hand and listened in rapt wonder.

When the men finished, they simply smiled at each other — the same smile I saw on the priest’s face as he walked past us. Then the Germans quietly left and we never saw them again.

That was in 1999. Two years later, after the devastation of 9/11, we went through the ritual of decorating our Christmas tree. It was a somber time. Isabel’s business, which depended on tourists visiting Hawaii, was struggling. I worried about the future, and stopped writing. What was the point? Nothing made sense.

A couple of days later, the tree toppled over. It was a mess. The strands of lights were tangled and twisted. Ornaments were strewn about. A glass candle from the Venice piece had broken off. Isabel was at work, so I asked a neighbor to help me stand the tree back up. I restrung the lights and was able to glue together some of the broken ornaments, but the glass candle wouldn’t hold. I couldn’t fix that one.

While I was washing my hands and thinking to myself that the tree didn’t look quite as nice as it did before, I heard a commercial on TV. It said it was all right to grieve for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but the best way to respond to terrorism is to live.

I broke down and cried. There I was, fretting and cursing earlier because our tree fell over and some ornaments broke. It was nothing compared to what happened three months before. I thought about the church in Venice, and how lost I felt at different times in my life. I can’t say if it was chance or fate that I survived the car wrecks and alcoholism, to wind up here with Isabel in Hawaii. I can only wonder, and be grateful for what I have.

So each year when I unwrap that ornament, I remember how fragile life is. I think about the missing candle, and it puts everything in perspective.

Time Flies

Posted November 12, 2014 by richfigel
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Hard to believe this year is almost over! So many things I wanted to write about here in this blog, not to mention script and book projects that I haven’t had time to finish due to other priorities. I don’t like making excuses for not writing, but as I get older there’s just so much I can do in a day… and I have to be realistic about what I can achieve before time runs out.

In fact, the theme of time and aging pervades most of my life now — what I choose to do or not do, how I respond to movies, books or TV shows, who I hang out with or avoid. For instance, it’s tough listening to a much younger person talk about their success in the movie business after writing just one or two screenplays while you’ve been working at it for years. You wonder, why them and not you?

Rather than suck on sour grapes though, I actually try to learn from those younger success stories — up close and personal when possible. Last month, I took a weekend workshop with Nicholl Fellowship winner, Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote and directed SHORT TERM 12, a highly-regarded indie film that landed on some Top 10 Movies lists last year. ST12 began life as a 21-minute short that made it into Sundance, and was based on his experiences as a staff worker in a group home for troubled foster kids who were aging out of the system.

Destin is a very humble, soft-spoken guy from Maui, with a very clear idea of who he is and what kind of films he wants to make. The University of Hawaii workshop was supposed to be about going from making shorts to features, which makes sense if you think about it. Yet that doesn’t seem to have been a conscious strategy on his part. In film school, he made some shorts on real film that got into some film festivals. The ones I saw were, well, what you might expect of a college student. Quirky, imaginative, obviously trying to make a statement about not succumbing to expectations or being like everyone else… and that’s his attitude towards life, I think.

The ST12 short is a big step up and much more mature in theme and technique. It’s easy to see why it did well at Sundance. He said he hadn’t thought about turning it into a feature script until after the short was done. That screenplay won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2010. I asked if he got a lot of meetings out of that. Surprisingly, he said no. Perhaps, it was because ST12 is a coming of age drama and didn’t fit the high concept mold that agents, managers and producers prefer.

However, that fellowship money allowed him to write and produce his first indie feature, I AM NOT A HIPSTER (available on Netflix instant streaming) which he says was the real turning point. And he made it for a grand total of $65,000! Because he had enlisted talented people who believed in his vision and project, they agreed to work for practically nothing. The payback came later for them when he was able to hire them for other projects. So that’s the first lesson I learned: find like-minded people with talent who are willing to work with you because they believe in what you’re doing as much as you do.

HIPSTER got him an agent at WME — I know, you don’t think of the most powerful talent agency in the world as being indie-friendly. Yet Destin says the WME agent he signed with understood him and hasn’t pressured him to take projects he wasn’t really interested in. That said, he did meet with people like J.J. Abrams at Bad Robot, and eventually landed a deal to write/direct THE GLASS CASTLE starring Jennifer Lawrence (after telling the producer what he felt was wrong with the script they had — and them passing on him initially). He also met with Matthew McConaughey, and described it as a somewhat surreal experience.

The biggest takeaway though is the simplest: find a way to make your own film. Start with a short, or a very short short if that’s all you can afford. My biggest regret as a writer is I didn’t pursue that angle from the beginning. I’ve got a lot of well-written scripts that will never see the light of the day… unless I try to make them myself. Now that digital cameras and editing software are available to anyone who wants to make movies, it’s much more doable even if you haven’t gone to film school or have little technical know-how. Heck, make your own movie trailers to show your vision and bait producers or agents into asking to see more!

Getting back to this blog theme, two recent movies I recommend — and one I don’t — all involve time and aging. I liked CHEF because it’s about a middle-aged guy who rediscovers his passion for cooking by leaving the restaurant biz behind and going on the road in a food truck with his son and a buddy. It’s a bit different too in that it doesn’t follow the usual 3-act/Save the Cat beats structure. And the ending is a little too tidy. Still, it was refreshing to watch something that was heartfelt and didn’t involve anyone shooting or killing each other for a change.

The other movie I really enjoyed was BEGIN AGAIN, which is similar to CHEF: Aging “has-been” record producer rediscovers his passion for indie music and bonds with his daughter in the process. Oh yeah, like CHEF too he gets back together with his ex-wife at the end… which isn’t very realistic, but gives you the warm and fuzzies. There’s a scene in the beginning that I loved: the drunk producer has been fired, stumbles into a bar where a young women is performing on stage solo. She’s shy, her voice is fragile… vulnerable. The crowd tunes her out —

But he sees something, hears something in her voice and words that no one else does… and we see what is going on in his head as instruments on stage start to play themselves in his mental song arrangement. The quiet little tune becomes a potential hit right before our eyes. That’s what a movie or music producer does. That’s what we do as writers/directors too. We see things and hear things in our head that no one else does. That’s what art is.

As for the movie I hated, it was that big budget high concept sci-fi aliens war movie, EDGE OF TOMORROW. I’ve written here before why I hate time travel movies/stories so I won’t rehash that rant. Suffice it to say, watching EDGE was like being stuck in a boring video game that makes you replay the same scenes over and over until you get to the next stage. If your main characters keep “dying” every couple of minutes, who cares when or if they really die at the end? Hell, I’m getting to an age where real death — aging relatives, friends, mentors — happens with more frequency each passing year, making what time I have left more precious. I don’t want to waste it on things that have no meaning to me.

Blacklisted: Blood Moon Revenge!

Posted October 8, 2014 by richfigel
Categories: addiction, Franklin Leonard's Black List, motivation, screenwriting, screenwriting contests

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

To paraphrase Heidi Klum on Project Runway: One week you’re down, the next week you’re up when you are a writer. In my last post, I expressed my disappointment that the spec script I wrote for the Industry Insider contest (Sheldon Turner round) didn’t win the whole shebang or seem to garner any attention when results were announced. But in my heart, I felt it was good work — so I took another shot at the Black List. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can click here for background info.

Aside from the Nicholl Fellowships competition, the Black List is one of the best ways for unrepped or unproduced screenwriters to get their scripts read by legit industry professionals — managers, agents, producers, development execs. However, on their 1-10 rating scale, you need at least one evaluation score of 8 or higher from their paid readers to really get noticed. Two paid evaluations at $50 apiece can put you on their Top Lists page if the average score is over 7. Of course, a dynamite logline and catchy title can generate downloads by professionals even before you get your paid reader’s scores.

I had submitted other scripts before, and the best I did were 7’s across the board for my coming-of-age dramedy, LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET, which made the Nicholl quarterfinals in 2013. (I bring that up because I attended a University of Hawaii weekend workshop with the writer/director of SHORT TERM 12, who won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2010 — which inspired me to resurrect that old LOST script because of his success. More on that workshop in my next post!)

To be honest, I was half-dreading what the Black List readers would grade it because I had just gotten an e-newsletter from a screenwriting “consultant” who proclaimed that you should never have flashbacks, visions or dream sequences for any characters in your script other than the protagonist. In this consultant’s view, it would “confuse” the reader and shift the focus from the hero. But what if the hero isn’t really a “hero” in the usual sense, and perhaps the secondary characters’ backstories are equally essential to the story?

That was the case in my BLOOD MOON draft. One of the big takeways I got from working with a Writers Store story specialist as part of the Insider contest was the need to develop my characters more fully. Normally, I don’t like using voiceovers, flashbacks or dream sequences. To me, those are kind of cop outs. Yet more and more, I’ve noticed in good TV series and many films that those techniques are being used to tell non-linear story lines that eventually merge together in the present and can deliver a powerful payoff when used right. Admittedly, it was a bit risky to give my supporting characters equal flashback/dream sequence time in the script since I was challenging the reader to see the parallel plot lines between the protagonist and antagonist(s).

My first Black List evaluation came back with the 8 score that had eluded me all this time. The second reader’s comments were in some ways even more positive and could be seen as a “consider” or “recommend” (excerpts from both below) but came in at a 7. Those two scores put it on the Top Scripts page for awhile, which has gotten me about a dozen pro downloads in the past week. No contacts though, so maybe nothing will come of it. However, it does illustrate how subjective this business is. Even the Black List evaluations can be puzzling when the reader’s scores don’t seem to match their comments.

For example, here’s quotes from the “Strengths” and “Prospects” comments by both. Guess which was the 8 and which was the 7 rating — and remember, 8 is a reader saying they recommend industry pros take a look at it…

Strengths: With its neo-noir setting, flashes of deadpan wit, and spring-loaded plot, this is a terrific script with lots of potential. Above all, its characters are excellent. Michael McVay, an opiate-addicted detective in perpetual withdrawal throughout the story, makes for an excellent hard-boiled-style protagonist, one whose cynical demeanor masks his underlying decency. The other characters – Jack, Willow, Benjamin Mori – are equally good. Benjamin Mori makes for a complex villain whose motivations are not so cut-and-dry as to be entirely unsympathetic… Prospects: The prospects for this script should be quite good. Although it may be old-fashioned in certain ways (for one, it isn’t spectacularly over-the-top in its gore or its premise), it never feels irrelevant or outdated, but merely modest in its ambitions… It would be quite cheap to produce, and with the right cast and director something extremely good could come of it. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement, this is a terrific script that deserves to be given a close look.

Strengths: This script pens an evocative modern Film Noir. Its strong characters and moody world tie an equally strong premise, plot and dialogue into the tight and requisite story rope that makes for a very compelling film outing. Yet MICHAEL’S goal to solve the Yakuza-cursed murders simultaneously unfolds as a personal road of redemption; both his gritty past and tragic losses finding a spiritual rebirth in his fulfilling the Blood Moon curse…albeit through death. The material also does a masterful job of creating an intricate tableau of humanity where good guys turn out to be bad and perceived villains leave one breathless with a surprising good turn. Prospects: As penned, this script connects and executives/producers alike will be drawn to its story locale and cultural interplay. Additionally, this script stands as an excellent writing sample. If an outright spec sale does not materialize, a writing assignment may emerge. This material comes across solid on both fronts and collaborators can revel in this accomplishment while moving onto another project, knowing that they have their “calling card” script already in the bank…

Both readers pointed out weaknesses and made some good suggestions — which also contradicted each other. To me though, that’s a positive since they both saw the potential to go in different directions. And keep in mind, I wrote over 50 pages of the first draft in one week in order to meet the contest deadline. Anyway, the first comments were from the 7 rating and the second one gave me the 8.

They both focused on the characters more than the plot or hook, and I have to credit my story coach from the Writers Store for hammering that into my head during our weekly phone sessions. Which just goes to show that even old dogs like me can learn new tricks if they keep an open mind. Speaking of which, in my next post I’ll share some things I picked up this past weekend from Destin Daniel Cretton, the Nicholl Fellowship winner and writer/director of I AM NOT A HIPSTER as well as SHORT TERM 12. It may change the way you approach screenwriting.

Flogging the Blog

Posted September 22, 2014 by richfigel
Categories: failure, motivation, screenwriting, screenwriting contests, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Did you miss me? Probably not. With the incessant barrage of Tweets, Facebook posts, Linked In messages, etc., blogs like this one are slowly fading away. I used to bookmark lots of bloggers, while maintaining three separate blogs of my own (one for the daily newspaper in Hawaii to promote my Career Changers TV show and another about public beach access issues in the islands). But I have little time these days to dash off pithy dispatches to feed the social media machine, or follow blogs that continue to churn out stuff worth reading.  So why bother, you ask?

When I first started Squashed Gecko about four years ago, the intent was to share my personal stories of frustration and failure in screenwriting as a motivational tool for myself. It was like the Alcoholics Anonymous approach to self-help: you get better by sharing your experiences with others. Paradoxically, the more you give, the more you get in return. Call it karma. And some of the online connections I’ve made here, have indeed helped me keep writing through those rough patches where you want to give up.

Yet there’s another reason I have recounted stories of semi-success and near misses: self-promotion. Once in awhile, you hear about an unknown writer like Diablo Cody or the woman who wrote the book “Julie & Julia” (which became a Nora Ephron movie starring Meryl Streep) being discovered through their blogs… and you think, hmm, why not give it a shot? Drop some names, find an angle, maybe Google will be your magic link to the Big Time.

Well, it almost happened for me. I alluded to being contacted by a famous producer some time ago through Facebook, but withheld the name since I didn’t want to jeopardize any potential deal. That contact never panned out, so I have nothing to lose by naming names now. It was Don Murphy — yeah, THAT Don Murphy (produced TRANSFORMERS, REAL STEEL), whose first major credit was NATURAL BORN KILLERS after he and his producer partner picked up one of Quentin Tarantino’s first scripts out of a pile that was lying around the house.

My connection is I was repped by QT’s original manager, Cathryn Jaymes, after he ditched her and signed with WMA. Long story short, Don admired CJ and wrote a nice eulogy to her when she passed away. I wrote my own piece about her and linked it to his blog… which is how I think Don found my post. He was probably Googling reactions to Cathryn’s death or his own blog. My post was about how CJ first contacted me to request a script I wrote about the mythical little people of Hawaii called the Menehune (I used an equery service that sent my pitch to thousands of agents, managers and prodcos). She loved it and asked to see more of my scripts.

So Don was curious I guess, and via Facebook sent me a personal message: “May I read your Menehune script?” That was it, along with his email address. Ironically, I was working on a script at the time that was similar to REAL STEEL with a couple of twists, for a friend who was working as Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant… and I’m thinking, holy crap, what if Don likes the Menehunes script? Maybe I can slip him the girl/mech fighters twist on REAL STEEL too!

I tried to play it cool though, and sent the Menehunes pdf with a short email saying I liked what he wrote about CJ in his blog. No response. Waited a couple of weeks… still, nada. Sent a short follow-up email asking if he had received the script. Nothing. I understand he’s a busy man, but the least he could do was simply acknowledge he got it, read it, passed or whatever. It takes what, five seconds to do that? When these people who request your script won’t respond, it winds up being even more of a time waster for everyone. Believe me, I don’t want to pester people with follow-ups — but I’ve also encountered situations where someone said they didn’t get an email or script, and asked me to resend it after a follow-up.

Anyhow, I presumed his passive-aggressive lack of response was a “soft pass” and figured I’d take another shot just to see if he was checking that email account. I sent a short email saying: Amish horror. Easter. “The Blair Witch” meets “The Village”… you know you want to read this. Attached was my SNALLYGASTER creature feature script (btw, that spec was a Top 50 Amazon Studios contest semifinalist — twice).

A few minutes later, I get his reply: Do I know you? Where did you get this email from?

Before I could even explain that he had contacted me first about the Menehunes script, he sent another email: Never mind. I figured it out and fixed it.

By which he meant he had blocked me from sending him any more emails, I surmise, and un-friending me on Facebook. Oh, well. At least I know he was getting his emails. Still, he could have just said the Menehunes script was a pass and I would have let it go at that. I can laugh about that Unsocial Media exchange now, but it just goes to show you never know who may be lurking on your blog or other blog sites you visit.



I also blog to help myself get over the latest rejection or near miss. As it happens, I did not win the Sheldon Turner round of the Industry Insider contest (see last two posts for background and details). It was a great experience, however, and the Writers Store story specialist/script coach really did give me valuable tips that will make me a better writer. From the first phone session until the last, he reminded me how tough screenwriting is and said I should consider making the Top 10 finalists a win in itself since I was getting the weekly notes/feedback for free. He also noted that some of the prior winners did not score major Hollywood deals, so winning was no guarantee of a breakthrough either.

This one hurt though. I put everything I had into this script, and thought I had come up with unique twists that Sheldon himself would be impressed with… if he got a chance to read it. I tend to do better with produced screenwriters as judges than consultants or paid readers because I think pros look for unusual concepts or big ideas, and don’t get so caught up in the technical details that readers/consultants like to dwell on.

My only criticism of the contest was that we didn’t get any feedback on our final drafts. Just a short condolence email saying we were not the winner. For our first draft, they gave us coverage style notes with an interesting chart that showed the reader’s “emotional response” throughout the script. The reader gave my rough draft a “consider” despite pointing out major flaws in the plot. I spent the next two weeks rewriting to address the notes, and felt it was much stronger. However, the Writers Store didn’t tell us who read the Top 10 finalist scripts or give us any indication of how we ranked in the end analysis. Not that it matters much in winner-takes-all type contests.

I’ve been a Top 10 finalist in over a dozen different contests, and came in second or third in four of those, but never grabbed the top prize. I suppose there’s some consolation in knowing that each time, there were nine of us who felt the same way — close, but no victory cigar. It’s bittersweet. All you can do is keep writing, keep trying, keep hoping that the next time you’ll come out on top. But it gets harder and harder to even make the finals cut because the competition keeps improving too.

The Writers Store announced that in the next Industry Insider round, which offers three loglines to choose from, all ten finalist scripts will be read by execs from 15 different companies — some of them being major players. If only that had been the case for me in their last contest!  Here’s the link to that contest, which I highly recommend… even though I lost. Again.

Holding Pattern

Posted August 7, 2014 by richfigel
Categories: motivation, screenwriting, screenwriting contests, Uncategorized

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As I write this, here in Hawaii we’re hunkered down and waiting for a hurricane to hit — followed possibly by a second hurricane right behind it. We’ve been lucky the past twenty years, with most of the hurricanes weakening to tropical storms or fizzling out before they reached landfall. But when you see the TV news reports showing the projected path of these monsters heading straight for those little specks in the ocean — the islands we call home — it does remind you how much of our daily existence is left to chance. People were rushing out to stores and stocking up on water, toilet paper, food, filling their gas tanks, apparently worried that catastrophic destruction is eminent, thanks largely to over-hyped “breaking news” alerts that began a week ago.

Anyhow, a lot’s gone down since my last blog post over a month ago when I wrote about being a finalist in the Industry Insider contest. That’s the one where entrants take a premise supplied by an established screenwriter (Sheldon Turner in this round), submit the first 15 pages only, and then the finalists work with Writers Store story specialists to produce a completed draft in about two month’s time. The goal was to turn in 10 new pages each week, which we’d then go over with the “story coaches” during our hour-long phone sessions. And I have to say the writer-coach they assigned to me did a great job of kicking my ass into a higher gear.

If you put any credence in screenwriting contests, I could say with some confidence that I’m a pretty good writer based on past results. But I also know something must be lacking in my scripts since the closest I’ve come to getting a deal is a couple of options and a few calls or emails from producers. What I found during my phone sessions was the story coach didn’t fall for my writing… I couldn’t baffle him with bullshit or dazzle him with clever dialogue if it did not directly serve the theme or what the script was really about. Some of that was due to the fact that I wasn’t sure myself what that was, since I was working from a loose outline under weekly deadlines to crank out pages.

On top of that, I was dealing with my day job of producing a local TV show that has its own deadlines. Plus, I had scheduled a week of vacation time in Kona last month, figuring I was going to need a break to recharge my batteries during this period (the time off did help). What happened though was I kept having to backtrack and make revisions to address script problems that my coach pinpointed. The first act was getting stronger, but I started falling behind on my weekly page quota.

With one week left before our deadline to turn in a rough draft, I was at page 55 — about mid-point — and knew I’d have to crank out 50-60 pages or more, figuring I’d cut or delete a number of scenes that didn’t work. By nature, I am NOT a fast writer. I like to think things out, ponder, jot notes, then rough out scenes before actually writing in script format. In this case, normal routines were jettisoned, and I just had to keep pushing out pages even when I wasn’t sure where the story was going. One of the magical things that happens when you work on something daily for extended periods of time is the subconscious starts to kick in and the characters really do seem to be telling you what they want or need.

The only problem with that is it could turn out to be much different than what you thought your story was about when you first typed FADE IN. Which is why my first draft was something of a mess, structurally speaking. I did succeed in finishing the rough draft on schedule (104 pages) and a week later, the Industry Insider folks sent back coverage style notes from another reader/script analyst. That reader felt it had a lot of potential, but like my coach, noted there were a number of problems I needed to go back and fix before it could reach the next level.

So now I have another week to make revisions before the final draft is due on Aug.23. Today I reviewed the reader’s notes with my coach. I had been in a holding pattern since getting back the coverage on Monday — not because I disagreed with the reader’s suggestions, but because I thought they made sense… yet I wasn’t sure how to implement those changes on the page.

What my coach did was make me focus on my ending (which the reader felt was unsatisfying) as my thesis or theme: What is it I really want to say through this script? When I told him, I saw where my current ending made sense to me, yet in the bigger picture, probably wouldn’t connect with others because the story that preceded it was all over the place. He told me to go back to the start and use the theme of my ending to filter out all the other digressions and subplots or sub-themes, so that when the reader got to the end, the storyline would be clear and focused.

Moreover, the protagonist has to be in opposition to that theme at the start, because it’s all about the transformational arc that takes place in the Hero’s Journey… the hero must do something at the end that he or she wasn’t capable of doing at the beginning.

However, had I not written a bunch of crappy or so-so pages in that mad dash to the finish line, I wouldn’t have found the real meat of the story. Now, when I look at the notes and think about the theme that evolved during the sessions with my story coach, it’s like seeing those TV news weather maps: I can see the path of the hurricane, like God looking down on His creation, knowing who will be destroyed or spared, not by a writer’s whim, but because it is fate. The story had to turn out that way.


Speaking of contests, I whiffed on the Nicholl Fellowships this year. Last year’s QF script only got a “top 20 percent” dink note. The other two, which had scored well in past contests didn’t do anything — in that contest, anyway. One of those made the quarterfinals cut in both the Page Awards and Scriptapalooza, and is still in contention for those two competitions.  Like I have always said, do not be too distressed by contest results or get too excited about placing. My story coach keeps reminding me that what I should be most concerned about is digging deeper as a writer to create characters and stories that will move people.


Posted June 12, 2014 by richfigel
Categories: motivation, movies, screenwriting, screenwriting contests, Uncategorized

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Grow, evolve, or die.

In essence, that’s perhaps the most important thing I learned from my first three Industry Insider story coach phone sessions (see prior post), in relation to writing better screenplays. But as I was reading a book my consultant had highly recommended — “Inside Story” by Dara Marks — I realized her observations of what makes for a compelling movie character, also applies to ourselves on a personal and professional level. Without getting into all the technical and esoteric details, it boils down to this: when people are in “stasis,” they stop growing. Once you stop growing, you are in a state of decay. Dying.

That goes for everything — love, relationships, work, hobbies, writing or art. It’s why we so often hit a wall when outwardly things appear pretty good, or at least normal, while inside there’s a gnawing dissatisfaction with the state of our life, career or significant other. Sometimes it’s the other person in a relationship who feels that way toward us, and we can’t understand why because we think: well, I haven’t changed, so what’s the problem? Of course, that’s the problem — maybe we haven’t continued to evolve and grow as a person or artist. Subconsciously, we detect that state of decay and it scares us to think we’re hanging on to something that is dying.

Which is why an affair or doing something risky, no matter how stupid or dangerous, makes us feel more alive for awhile. When we stop taking risks and “stasis” becomes the norm, we’re really avoiding the things that test who we are — the challenges that make us stronger even when we fail. It’s what make us heroes in our own personal stories. Sure, each of us has our flaws. But rising above those flaws is what gives us a sense of self-respect and makes others respect or love us.

Coincidentally (or not if you subscribe to Jung’s theories), I just saw the movie HER by Spike Jonze and the documentary TIM’S VERMEER this week courtesy of Netflix, while reading “Inside Story” and felt inspired by both, even though they are completely different in terms of story, medium, characters, and goals. Then again, perhaps not so different in some ways. In the end analysis, both are about the illusion of what is real and what is artifice.

In HER, a sensitive guy who dictates “beautifully handwritten letters” for other people is in stasis because his wife has left him, and he can’t seem to connect with anyone… until he falls in love with his new computer Operating System (OS). Scarlett Johansson is wonderful as the disembodied voice that blurs the lines between artificial intelligence and what seems like genuine human emotion. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific too in portraying a man who overcomes his fear of attachment because of being abandoned by his wife, and risks being branded a fool for professing his love for a computer OS.  But he is brought back to life by Samantha because she’s excited about seeing what it is to be alive through his eyes — or lens of his smart phone, to be more precise. Isn’t that what we love about being in love during the early stages of romance?

Anyhow, as much as I’d love to discuss HER more, I want you to get “Inside Story” and read that as a companion piece. Doesn’t matter what kind of stuff you write, it will make you a better, more thoughtful artist — and person. A lot of it will seem familiar at first, because she’s talking about basic elements of story-telling and why we connect to certain characters and their fates. And when you compare some of her statements to lines in HER about learning to “trust” in relation to love, you’ll swear Spike Jonze must have read the Dara Marks book. The further you get into her book, the more you’ll see how to integrate the “inner” character with the outer goals in your stories.

As for TIM’S VERMEER, it’s about a successful inventor’s quest to figure out how the great artist, Vermeer, may have painted his photo-realistic, richly detailed paintings. The idiosyncratic entrepreneur, Tim Jenison, made lots of money from creating video hardware — not exactly computer engineering stuff, but close enough for my HER comparisons. Others before him, such as artist David Hockney, speculated that Vermeer may have used some version of a camera obscura to recreate scenes on canvas… except there are logistical problems in matching colors. Tim had an idea that using a mirror in conjunction with the camera obscura could solve the problem. And it worked. He was able to recreate a Vermeer masterpiece, using this painstaking, time consuming process he came up with, even though he had never painted anything in his life and didn’t profess to have any artistic talent whatsoever.

Yet, just because he could duplicate the masterpiece, does Tim’s painting deserve to be called a work of art too? I don’t think so. Vermeer composed the scene, chose the models, the props, positioned them just so to get the desired lighting effect. That takes a true artist’s eye. I mean, Warhol wasn’t exactly creating his art from scratch either, and employed things like photography and silk screening. It’s not the “how” necessarily that makes something art, or the technique. It’s the effect that’s achieved through the thoughtful arrangement of elements to elicit a feeling… an emotion in the viewer, which makes it real. Even if it is all artifice and slight of hand, or the work of a hundred computer software engineers.