Screenplay with annotations
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Adventures in Screenwriting

I’ve started writing movie scripts. My first one is basically complete, and currently undergoing edits. I’m in that special “gratification” phase between “I’ll never finish” and “everything I wrote is crap and I don’t know why I’m doing this”. Needless to say, I’m enjoying the gratification while it lasts.

But, as a novelist, I have to say I enjoyed writing a full length story in a month. Novels are long, laborious works of love and sweat and pain and joy. But the screenplay thing is quick in comparison, and an exciting process from beginning to end. I am 100% sure that this is because I’ve spent so many years crafting stories in long form. Somebody just starting out in screenwriting would probably find it very challenging. It’s all relative.

For me, screenplays are an outlet for the stories I’ve had in my head for years, but they weren’t quite right for a book. Sometimes I think of stories that are rich in visuals, audio, and sight gags…and it’s quite difficult to pull those off in prose. But with the screenplay I can paint with images, and that’s creatively liberating.

Ida
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Movie Review: Ida

One of the Oscar categories that Americans routinely do not “get” is the Foreign Language film. Mainstream audiences typically hate subtitles, and they really hate stories they can’t relate to. The cinema sensibilities of Europe, South America, and Asia don’t always cleanly translate to those of us used to Hollywood structure, and Ida is sadly just the latest film fitting the trend. Ida is black and white, slow, takes place in Poland, and has very little music. For all those reasons, it was destined to be a movie not many people saw. But it is a beautiful film nonetheless, and one worth watching mainly because of its cinematography.

To be honest, I found it a little hard to watch Ida all the way through. At one hour and 22 minutes run-time it’s not even a long movie, but its slow pace makes it feel like it’s dragging along. Much of that is due to the film’s remarkable lack of sound. There’s little dialogue, and hardly any music. But this is not the kind of movie you watch for thrills and excitement.

Where Ida really shines is in its visual storytelling, but it doesn’t use expensive CGI or rich colorful landscapes. Director Pawel Pawlikowski pulls off the amazing feat of making the ordinary look stunning. He takes simple, drab settings that most of us would not pay any attention to and he puts them in a different perspective that finds astonishing beauty in mundane surroundings.

Ida GIF

I like directors who try to make their movies so beautiful that each shot is a work of art, and Ida is that kind of movie. From beginning to end, you can take a random moment in the film, print it, stick on the wall of an art exhibit, and pass it off as the work of a master photographer. That’s what makes this film truly special. The story isn’t much, and it’s certainly not going to leave you with any good feelings when the end credits roll, but you will definitely remember the images which tell a story far behind the sparse words in the script.

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This post is part of my Oscars 2015 series, where I review/discuss movies up for that coveted golden trophy. Check out the first post in the series, my review of Birdman

Writers, appreciate all things art

I’m an author, so I’m an artist by default. But I’m a very specific type of artist; not a painter or a sculptor or a singer or a poet. My creativity is expressed through sentences stitched together to make paragraphs which make chapters which make novels. Words are my tools. But that doesn’t mean I can only look to other authors to enhance my art.

I say this because I’ve noticed many artists tend to lean on art from their own “sphere” of creativity. I am finding this to be especially true among young authors just staring out; they tend to just read the works of their favorites and the “greats” to surround themselves with the spirit of creativity. Reading is great, of course, but it’s not the only way to get your muse going. As authors, we tell stories of life, and life itself is an art composed of many other arts. To write, you must live, and to live well you must experience much.

So if you’re a writer, go to a museum. Take a course on painting. Play a musical instrument. Sing, dance, sculpt. It doesn’t matter if you don’t end up good at these things; the important thing is to come to fully understand and appreciate them. Enjoy the art of life. Imbue your life with art of all forms, and your work will be better for it.

Birdman screencap
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Movie Review: Birdman

I finally somehow created the time to see Birdman at an odd time on a weekday. I can see why it’s getting so much recent award love. The first hour gave me a revealing and intimate perspective on the craft of acting that I haven’t seen before. The second hour focuses on flawed people trying to deal with reality; an ironic tale of what’s it like to try to have a real life when you’re a professional pretender. I can see why some critics wouldn’t be great fans of it, but I can also see why people in “the biz” love it. To really understand why the movie is suddenly gaining Oscar momentum for the coveted Best Picture award, you have to understand the interesting, insular town where all this voting is done.

I recently moved from the west side of LA to Hollywood, just a couple blocks away from the Dolby Theater where the Oscars will be held. Even before I made the move, there was a feeling that you just can’t escape the movie business here. It permeates everything. Several true stories from my time here in LA:

  • Ran into Jamie Lee Curtis at the grocery store
  • Went to my mom’s place and there was a film crew setting up shop outside
  • Overhead the manager at the Chipotle off Hollywood and Vine saying he actually went to (and finished) film school
  • Was walking home and a guy was on his cell phone encouraging the person on the other end of the line that yes, they really did have what it takes to be a showrunner

The last 3 items happened just in the past three days. This city breathes and bleeds the performing arts, and the basic building blocks of film and theater are the actors/actresses who make it all look like magic when it’s actually often incredibly difficult and draining.

Although Birdman is set in New York’s theater scene, the story has many Hollywood connections (the lead character is a former Hollywood star trying his hand at “important” work in theater, and trying to get other Hollywood actors on board but they’re too busy). Actors are actors whether they’re on a stage or a set. And the people who live and work with the actors are just as much a part of the process even though you never see them. Birdman is a genuine look at not only the process of professional make believe, but also the people who get ground up in the gears of the acting machine either directly or indirectly. Those voters at the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild and “The Academy” are all in “the biz”. When they see this movie they probably see a part of their own lives, and sometimes it’s in an unflattering light but it’s always genuine.

Of course, Birdman has many other things going for it. The actors are fantastic. The script is punchy and surprising. The direction is outstanding and incredibly detailed. The approach of doing the film all in one big “single shot” sequence also makes the film seem simultaneously real and also surreal. And the driving drum beat in the background of the major scenes, while jarring at first, keeps the viewer alert and in the moment.

It is a skillfully crafted film, but its greatest strength in this award season is that it is a skillfully crafted film about the craft that all the voters have committed their lives to supporting in one way or another.

A Latent Dark - Book Cover
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Book Review: A Latent Dark

I like it when writers blend fantasy and science into work that crosses genres. It’s a theme I incorporate in many of my own books. The premise of A Latent Dark had me ready to love the book, and initially I was intrigued by its vaguely future world where the Catholic Church has established dominance across much of the globe. I liked the steampunk-ish elements of the story too. But there were a few elements that disappointed me.

Firstly, the early pacing of the book didn’t quite grab me. I primarily read this book on subway rides where I had free time and no Internet connection, and didn’t find myself compelled to pick it up at other points in the day. I won’t say the first third of the book is boring because there’s plenty of stuff that happens, but I was always left with a sense that the things that were happening weren’t that intriguing. One of the greatest compliments a book can get is “unputdownable”, but I found myself laying this one to the side often without feeling like I was missing anything.

Then there’s our main villain, the Reverend Inspector Lyle Summers. He’s sufficiently evil in sufficiently creepy ways, but he’s also one-dimensional and a bit too cliche for my tastes. He does serve as a good example of religious extremism and pious hypocrisy, but beyond that he’s not going to be winning any villain Hall of Fame votes.

Finally, I didn’t like the final 20% of the book. As I said, I like it when fantasy and science combine, but there’s a plot twist near the end that totally jumped the shark for me and the story descended into metaphysical mumbo jumbo. I do appreciate the creativity here because it is a unique idea, but it didn’t work for me.

With all that said, reading a book isn’t necessarily about having a thrilling journey to an exciting destination. It can be a nice leisurely walk to a dead end too. I still did enjoy many of the side characters and the setting is fantastically developed. If you want something with new ideas on magic, the afterlife, and a good amount of real science thrown in for flavor, the book is definitely worth checking out at least.

2014: The Year in Stories
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2014: The year in storytelling

I’m a writer. I tell stories. So, much of my perspective of the world is through a lens focused on how we mere human beings reach for the divine through our fiction, the stories we tell of what might be instead of what is. While a popular thing to do this week is lament all the political and social strife that have left their mark on our minds and hearts, I want to take a moment to be a bit contrarian and talk about how 2014 was a great year for the art of storytelling.

Movies fell in love with science, and scientists

Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game sold audiences on hard science and engineering, and the very human stories behind the people who make it all happen. In a time when so many people feel that America is falling into an age of anti-intellectualism, this was a huge and welcome trend.

Comic book stories on the big and small screens aren’t as much about superheroes; un-super heroes shone too

The comic book industry has long provided a treasure trove for the movie industry, but this year so a little departure from focus on the guys with crazy powers and focused on the heroes who can’t fly, don’t have super strength, and don’t have healing factors. Gotham took Batman out of the Batman story and mostly focused on the crazy but fascinating crime drama of Gotham city, sticking to a simple formula of cops vs. robbers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 2 mostly did away with the superhero stories from season 1 and focused on the human team and how they had to use tech, smarts, and guts to win the day. And the blockbuster comic movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, stars a guy who is pretty much your average bro (despite being half alien).

The book industry didn’t change much, which is maybe a good thing

Although we did see some big battles among publishers over digital distribution, and there were some experiments that may change the future of how people pay for books and how authors get paid, for the most part the year in fiction books was pretty similar to previous years, with young adult stories selling well but also big names like King, Grisham, and Murakami topping the charts. And we also saw the continuation of a trend that should surprise no one: movies sell books more than anything else.

As Variety notes:

Nine of the 10 top selling books of the year were tied into a film adaptation or film franchise of some kind, with various publications of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” first published in 2012, occupying three of the 10 slots. The success of Green’s novel and its film adaptation, which earned more than $300 million in global box office this year, propelled his 2007 title “Looking for Alaska” into the tenth spot, marking the only standalone, non-film-related novel on the book list.

2014 saw some changes in the storytelling industry, and trends are starting to shift. But most important of all is the recognition that we DO still have a thriving storytelling industry that uses fiction to help us gain perspective on reality.

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The hero with no face

A while ago I stumbled upon an excellent excerpt/article from Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read (Vintage Original). It talks about how the best novels are often very vague about physical descriptions of their characters, leaving the reader’s imagination to subconcsiously fill in the blanks.

From the excerpt:

Good books incite us to imagine — to fill in an author’s suggestions. Without this personalized, co-creative act, you are simply told: This is your Anna.

It really got me thinking about how I describe my own physical characters. I often leave a lot to the imagination and just drop a teeny hint about their appearance every now and then, but I have to say in my current book I was a little more cognizant of how readers “fill in the blanks” after I read this piece.

Read the article on Slate here