Another Script Registered with the WGA

I finished writing another feature-length screenplay this week. I think this is my fifteenth to date, although only about ten of them are any good. At least five in there are what I like to think of as practice scripts. Genres that I have written include: broad comedy, historical comedy, historical biopic, animated/family, sci-fi/action, crime drama, psychological thriller, and romantic comedy. This latest screenplay marks my first foray into comedy-horror. It was fun to write.

When I first outlined this project, I had imagined it to be more of a horror-comedy, but then I kept adding more jokes while toning down the horror elements. In the past, I've spent anywhere from three weeks to a year and a half on a screenplay. This one took just under three weeks, including revisions. I think that's a new record.

This latest screenplay is called Dummy, and it's about an evil ventriloquist dummy who seeks to take over the world. I've even got a title for the sequel if it ever makes it that far. It shall be called Dummy 2: Even Dummer. Taking this premise one movie further, Dummy 3 could be called Dummstruck. Then Dummy 4: Dumm Most Harderest. The fifth installment could be the gritty reboot where they actually take the material seriously and treat it as a straight-up horror flick. 

I wrote this screenplay with the idea that it could be done on a minimal budget and that I could potentially direct it myself. Almost the entire story takes place inside one house. I think there are only about ten short scenes that do not occur either inside or outside of this location. It also involves a creepy ventriloquist dummy that gets destroyed over and over, and if audiences are anything like me, I think that they'll take a certain degree of satisfaction in witnessing this.  

Another idea that I'm presently outlining follows a similar design, but right now, I'm imagining it as somewhat of a spy drama. We'll see if I can exercise enough willpower to not turn it into a comedy. This, too, is intended to be done on a minimal budget and is something that I could potentially direct. It also takes place almost entirely inside one house. In my "idea garden," this is one of many works-in-progress.

Over the past several months, I've also gone back over a lot of my older work. Since writing tends to be one of those things that you get better at the more you do it, by that rationale, I become an incrementally better writer with each subsequent work. Therefore when I revisit my old work with an updated skillset, I think that I've been able to polish up these things considerably. 

The thing is, that's true with music, too. I could almost certainly re-record all of my albums now and they would sound better just because of what I learned in the process of recording them. I can also play and sing them all better now than I could when they were fresh, which is more or less when all of my songs have been recorded. The only remedy to this is to keep writing music, and keep making the existing songs sound better when I play them live--not that I have performed since the pandemic began, unless you count sitting outside with an acoustic. 

I have been recording a ton of guitar and piano riffs lately. I think I'm up to eighty-some recordings on my phone. This is usually the first step in the coalescence of an album. If so, I'll be sure to post regular updates on my music page. I have so many articles on there that I just ended up reposting a lot of them. It's been a while since I've written much of anything publicly, as I've been deeply engaged in other matters. 


Blind Viewing

Usually when I watch a film, I try to know as little as possible going into it. With that in mind, here are some movies I watched for the first time recently that you might want to check out, presented here with minimal spoilers of any kind (updated as I see more films that I think are worth watching):

1. They Came Together (2014) - by the same people who made Wet Hot American Summer (2001), except whereas that is an absurd parody of 80s teen movies, this pretty much does the same with cheesy romantic comedies. 

2. The Lobster (2015) - a dry comedy that focuses on societal norms about loneliness and coupling, taken to extremes. This one's not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. 

3. Greed (2010) - a satire about wealth inequality and the fashion industry, featuring many of the regulars from Channel 4 (UK) comedy shows. 

4. The Climb (2020) - a low-budget, character-driven story about male friendship, shot with lots of long takes.

5. I Used To Go Here (2020) - about getting older and learning to reconcile the person you used to be with the person you are now. 

6. An American Pickle (2020) - a fish-out-of-water story about how much American society has changed over the past hundred years, for better or worse. 

7. Vacation Friends (2020) - a broad comedy with some clever strokes. Had I known anything about this one, I might not have watched it, but by the time it was over, I was glad that I did. 

8. A Ghost Story (2017) - a moving film about grief and acceptance, the first non-comedy on this list. This movie features a dialogue-free scene with a woman eating pie that is a beautiful showpiece of incredible acting and directing. Seriously.   

9. The Worst Person in the World (2021) - a Norwegian film about a woman figuring out who she is as she navigates a particularly messy phase of her life. I highly recommend it.  

10. Extra Ordinary (2019) - a witty, fast-paced Irish comedy about a driving instructor with supernatural abilities. A former SNL cast member plays a satan-worshipping soft-rock musician. Hijinks ensue. 

11. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) - a lot more intergenerational kung-fu than I expected. I stopped writing a particular TV pilot because I thought the premise was too similar to this movie, but it turns out that my project is not like this at all, so I'll probably pick it back up. Overall, this film is worth checking out, but for some reason, I thought it would be better.  

12. Inside You (2017) - a Freaky Friday-esque scenario where a couple swaps bodies. Funnier and more adult than most other films of this subgenre, I thought it was a good low-budget movie. 

13. Long Shot (2019) - two old friends whose lives have taken very different paths reconnect as an unexpected romance between them takes shape.  

14. Windfall (2022) - a desperate man takes a rich couple hostage in their own home, highlighting the stark disparities in their respective lives. 

...........................

As someone who has seen a tremendous amount of movies in my life, I find that this really is the best way to watch them, as our preconceived expectations may color our interpretations of the film itself. The less known beforehand, the better. 

Just watch it. Skip the trailer, don't read any reviews, and let the appearances of any familiar faces come as a surprise. Immerse yourself in the medium, just like the filmmakers intended. Everything you need to understand and appreciate it will be provided in due course. All you need to do is give it your undivided attention. 

Besides, if the movie ends up being terrible, you'll probably know within ten minutes, and there's nothing to stop you from watching something else instead or finding some other way to entertain yourself.   

 

Sleight of Hand

About twelve years ago, I lived in the Republic of Moldova as part of an international exchange program. I had initially applied to go to Romania, but when they announced that they were not sending any Fulbright Scholars to Romania that year, I was asked if I might want to go to Moldova instead. While I knew very little about the country at the time, I learned quite a bit during the ten months that I lived there. 



I was ostensibily there to make a documentary video project, but since the proposal that I had written was specific to Romania, I had to find an entirely different story to tell once I got to Moldova. In support of this, I shot a lot of footage, but the more I learned, the clearer it became that the stories that most intrigued me were precisely those that might work against the whole reason that I was there in the first place. After all, the central mission of the Fulbright program is to promote cross-cultural understanding between nations, and I worried that much of what I learned in my time living abroad might not paint my host country in a favorable light. 




Don't get me wrong. I genuinely loved my time in Moldova and found it to be a very warm and welcoming culture. However, I was not there to make a tourism video. As a writer, filmmaker and person with a keen interest in foreign policy, the stories that most fascinated me included things like their "mail-order bride" industry, as well as the cultural divide between Russian speakers and Romanian speakers. Most of all, though, I was interested in learning more about the breakaway republic of Transnistria, where I was advised not to travel out of fear of getting my passport and video camera confiscated by the local authorities. 




I never did go to Transnistria, but the recent developments in Ukraine have brought this region back to the forefront of my mind. If you look at a map of NATO countries, you may notice that they only extend as far east as Romania. Many of the reasons that Moldova is not a member have a lot to do with Russia. You see, ever since 1991, Russia has maintained a standing army of about 2,000 troops in the Transnistrian region, and they are the only country to officially recognize it as an independent state. Even thought the Moldovan government claims it as their own, the largely Russian-speaking citizens of this easternmost part of the country have their own government, complete with its own flag, capital and currency. This intranational dissonance, along with rampant systemic corruption, much of which is also tied to Russia, is at the heart of why Moldova lacks any clear path to NATO membership.




I mention all of this because there are obvious parallels here to what is happening right now in the Donbas region of Ukraine. If Putin's ultimate aim is to prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO, then it makes sense that he is following essentially the same playbook as Russia has been using in Moldova for the past thirty years. In supporting these breakaway, Russian-aligned states, this effectively prevents them from being able to join NATO, thus preserving Putin's geographic buffer between Russia and the West. By moving these vast numbers of troops and performing military exercises just across the border, it allows Russia to flex its muscles on the world stage. At the same time, by occupying instead of attacking, it achieves the same policy objective--assuming that it is in fact to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, as opposed to a full-scale military invasion and annexation. If, however, Putin does try to take over Ukraine, it's not entirely clear what he could hope to achieve, as he would no doubt face extreme resistance on all fronts. After all, even if Russia manages to occupy all of Ukraine, the fight will almost certainly continue for as long as they are there. This is what happens when one occupies by force (see Afghanistan for details).




On the other hand, now that Putin has the world's attention, perhaps he seeks to get certain sanctions eased by backing down instead of launching an all-out attack, like some kind of mass hostage situation. By then leaving large numbers of troops behind in the Donbas region as a "peacekeeping" force, Putin essentially achieves what he set out to do. If most of the Russian forces eventually withdraw, then it is seen by the West as a win, but all it takes is a small fraction of the estimated 190,000 soldiers to stay in these regions to lead to long-term instability for Ukraine. One need not look any further than Moldova for proof of this assertion. 


UPDATE: All bets are now off, and personally, I think that Putin may have overplayed his hand. My heart goes out to the brave people of Ukraine. May you find the strength and international support to repel this unwarranted Russian aggression. 


Shameless Self-Promotion

I just noticed that the hardcover edition of my book happens to be on sale right now. If you ever thought about checking it out, this is the cheapest I've ever seen it go for. 

Please note that I have absolutely no control over any of that stuff, nor do I earn much from the sale. I just want people to read my work. 

Judge-Mentality

For the past several weeks, I have been reading scripts for a well-known international film festival. For the sake of non-disclosure, I'll leave it at that. So far, I have read 117 scripts, most of which were feature-length screenplays, along with a few dozen TV pilots and a handful of stage plays. While I cannot speak of the scripts themselves in specific terms, I can generalize. 

It is encouraging to know that there are a lot of really good writers out there. I laughed, I cried, I was moved by quite a few of them, even if that just meant wanting to turn the page to see what happens next. Others had more room for improvement. Some had good ideas that didn't quite play out. That's how it goes.  

Judging scripts is a lot like grading papers, which I have learned to do objectively. That is to say that my own tastes are not a factor in my judging criteria. When reading these scripts, I tried to focus on what works while offering constructive feedback on what does not. Having entered a lot of screenwriting contests myself over the years, it was an interesting experience to be on this side of the judging process. I tried to provide the kinds of notes that I might find useful as a writer. 

Many of these writers were obviously still in the early stages of learning the craft, while others had it down to a science. Good stories came from throughout the spectrum. As a general rule, the best writing--and this is true in pretty much any form--is the kind that says more with less. Editing is a good place to remove all of the stuff that doesn't need to be in there.  

Some of these scripts were overwritten; many offered descriptions that could neither be seen nor heard. These elements might work in a novel, but not in a script. Other scripts were simply too small for the big screen (no matter what size the screen actually is). By that, I mean that slices-of-life stories need to have some bigger idea behind them that people can connect with. The common advice of 'writing what you know' is reasonable when it comes to a first script, but after that, I recommend leaning on your imagination a bit more. 

I say this as someone whose first feature-length screenplay was in fact a melodramatic slice-of-life turd that was loosely based on people I knew and true stories that I had accumulated over the years. It would not have made a good movie. I can see that now. However, in the process of writing it, I became a better writer. With these scripts that I recently read, most if not all of these writers have since gone on to become better writers as well. It's just kind of the nature of doing anything. The more you do it, the better you tend to get. Your worst work can provide the most learning opportunities.

While I did read all of these scripts (which works out to something like ten thousand pages, as my weary eyeballs can attest), in most cases, it was pretty obvious by about ten to twenty pages in if it was getting a yes vote or a no. I read all of them with an open mind, but most of the time, this was how it went. There is a clear difference between writers who have mastered the craft and those who have not, just as there was a clear difference between scripts that told an engaging story versus those that did not. Only rarely did a script do both of these things exceptionally well, and that skill was typically on display throughout. 

I read a lot of well-researched biopics of historical figures where the story sometimes got lost in the details or in the mythology of that character. I read a number of coming out stories that were moving and real but which lacked a distinct voice or perspective. I read comedy pilots that no doubt seemed funnier in the heads of the people who wrote them, but they weren't quite able to capture that on the page. I read scripts that were good but which I also believed that the writer seemed capable of taking further. And then were the great scripts... 

These were the scripts where the writer demonstrated mastery of both the craft of writing and the art of storytelling. They were like good songs where the musicians play their instruments well. Along those same lines, my advice to aspiring writers is to hone your craft through practice and exercise your artistry by telling the stories that don't yet exist but should. Make them your own and say something, but don't be afraid to step outside of your own ego in order to do so.

As a bonus tip: revise your work, even if it means trampling upon said ego in the process. There is a clear distinction between a polished script and a first draft. To that end, I recommend that you take out anything that doesn't add anything new and remove as many adverbs as possible. Distill the narrative to its essence and rebuild as necessary from there. With enough work, many of the scripts that did not advance to the next round could in fact be winners another year. 

It was a joy to screen these movies, shows and plays in my imagination, almost like my own personal film festival, the opportunity for which I am thankful.