Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Some day, we'll all be old

I'm perpetually unhappy about how hard it is to successfully write and make theatre.

Or anything good, for that matter.

This missive from friend and musician, Dave Tutin, makes me wonder if I'm a little overly self-concerned.

And glad, in theatre, my advanced age might work for me as opposed to the music business where anyone who hasn't made it before the age of 25 is rejected.

The excerpt comes out of his observations on an interview with John Cougar Mellencamp (whom Dave is not a particular fan of) that caught Dave's ear.

...But what {Mellencamp} had to say about Tom Petty was more illuminating. He described how a song on Petty's last album had blown him away and how he expected it to be a huge success, a bit of a comeback, for Tom. But silence. No radio plays, no video, nothing beyond the delight of those people wise enough to buy Tom's album. John claimed it was this fear of not being heard in today's market that led him to advertising. And a guaranteed, captive audience - despite the fact that even that is far smaller than TV used to deliver.

There's always been a youth music machine. But it was always just one more choice of music in a vast array of appreciated styles. So why is this no longer the case? In an age when just about everything ever recorded is available thanks to digital technology the success of new performers who are outside the machine is more doubtful than ever. It wasn't meant to be this way.

It's easy to criticize the digital kids and their naive expectations that music should be free. But the truth is, all those stolen downloads would hardly matter if the people who once believed music could change the world still believed it. And still bought it.

Right this way, old man.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Me and the Super Bowl

Advertising is the true poetry of America.

Does that seem a little sick?

I'm sure it's at least offensive to many of my playwright/theatre/art house friends. But if you really think about it, what this big stupid country is about, what people really vote with (pocketbooks), what they vote for (their own financial security - as they see it), how we state who we are to others (through our purchases of clothes and cars and tickets to entertainments), how our consumer culture actually works, well, it may just be possible that it's a bitter pill of truth that we all have to swallow.

Sunday, this poetry reaches its yearly zenith during one of the arguably most theatrical events in the world: The Super Bowl. (That's a trade marked name, by the way, which means if the NFL finds this blog, I may have to replace it with "the Big Game".)

And if you're a company who wants to take part in the iambic march to the cash register, well, you have to put out as much as 2.7 million bucks per 30 seconds.

Few of us will ever see that kind of money in a lifetime, let alone help someone spend a fraction of that. I, however, have been fortunate enough to work at an ad agency this past week that IS helping spend twice as much.

That's right. I've worked with a group of people who've put together a 60 second spot that will air sometime during the second quarter. Their client will shell out something over - or close to - 5 million dollars to tell people something they may not already know.

I did not come up with the spot. In fact, when I arrived, it was done.

But I liked it a lot when I saw it and was flattered to be asked to help create a little movie trailer teaser for the spot that could run on the Internet after Sunday - you know: Come see the epic at...

I'll let you know where to check it out on Monday. In the meantime, stock up on tortilla chips and get ready for a great game.

And the song of commerce that's going to be riffing away in the background.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Where we live - visual reference

A friend sent this to me just after we moved into the new place late last month.

His pointer actually goes to the Buddhist Temple just down the block from where we live (we're on the north side of that parking lot, if you can make it out).

His caption reads:

Is this your place?
I'll be watching you.
Kinda creepy, wouldn't ya say?
Happy New Year!

There's another pointer that asks: Hey, is this a Starbucks?

You can see the Chateau Marmont (where Belushi did himself in), the Mondrian (where that stupid Sky Bar is) and (sub) Standard just West of us on Sunset.

Elsewhere online, I found this little piece of trivia about our corner:

Lastly in Hollywood, there's a wistful spot at the southwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. If you remember Joni Mitchell singing "They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot" in the song "Big Yellow Taxi," then take note. It was written about a hotel that used to sit here. The Garden of Allah was Hollywood's famed apartment-hotel that welcomed transient show business guests from 1935-1955. Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, W.C. Fields, Humphrey Bogart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Marx Brothers, Orson Welles - they all lived here. Mitchell wrote the song about this place, as a supposed metaphor for the destruction of a cultural monument. (And yes, it is a parking lot today, for a bank that's here now.)

Now it's a parking lot for a McDonald's as well.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The TV Spec Script: 3 - Notes

Well, the notes on my first "Industry Standard" outline came back and generally I'm good to go to draft.

Apparently, I've got plenty of industry and lots of standard.

Which made me a little more cheerful about going to class.

Until I got there and realized I had to give notes to one of the other students.

I'm simply not good at this and then, the story outline I was charged with discussing was in such an embryonic state that to criticize it seemed unfair. And worse, from a certain point of view, part of me wanted to say to the writer: Start over.

Of course, this wouldn't be helpful. Instead, I asked the author where in the development of the story she was. This made it easier for me to be honest about how under-cooked it still was.

However, there were so many specific writing problems and so much to be worked out thematically, it was hard to tell if I was helpful at all.

It makes me wonder if I'll ever be able to give good notes. Unlike many, I simply cannot be cut and dried about what's wrong and what needs to change. 9 times out of 10, I end up in a conversation about character wants and desires and sounding wishy washy about how to follow and explore those wants and needs.

In grad school, Eduardo Machado was famous for giving notes that were hardly notes. You'd get things like "I think you should really figure out what she wants and then write it from her point of view" and "You should write the part that you're most afraid to write. I don't feel that you're afraid yet."

Some in the program hated this. They wanted literal direction about what exactly to write and cut.

For me, generally, I've found that when people do that, they often have some "idea" in their head about how it's supposed to be rather than allowing you to explore and make discoveries that might me more interesting than anyone could imagine. (I've been guilty of this by the way.)

With something like television, a very tight structure must be adhered to, so a concrete course of action - do this, do that - might be okay.

And yet, thinking through the whole idea is more important than ever because of this. You really have to know what you want to say - and use every draft as a sketch toward the finished painting.

Still - on the one hand - when something's not right, you can't tell if it's because the writing is not good (ie, vague) or if it's that way because the writer only knows that something has to be there, but don't know the story they're telling yet and thus don't know what to do.

It gives me sympathy for the advertising creative directors I've worked with in the past. I've walked into offices with ideas in all kinds of different states - some ready to be made, some hardly breathing at all. And I didn't always know the difference.

Yet, those people had to figure out not only what was wrong, but how to fix it - and more importantly, what to say to me that would help me solve the problem.

The best, of course, found ways to get me to solve it on my own. But under deadlines.... whew...

Notes. Ugh.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The TV Spec Script: 2 - Fish and water become separated but good

Care for a slushee?

When I've never done something before, I usually find it helpful to talk to someone who has.

I either ask them to walk me through it. Or ask them to point me towards someone who will walk me through it.

This may seem overly-cautious, but honestly, as much as I'd like to be able to produce new, perfect, whole forms the way Zeus was able to produce Athena, well, this is my road.

Which is why I enrolled in a UCLA extension class for writing the 1 Hour Drama.

Plus, I know that as solitary as writing can be, it's more collaborative than one might first think. For television, this is especially so.

I also calculated there would be other beneifts: I'd get to meet more writers; I'd have a bunch of deadlines to work against and be motivated by; I'd get regular critiques - good or bad - of my work, thus encouraging me to constantly re-evaluate my writing with an eye toward improvement.

But even those who recommended taking a UCLA extension course offered some warnings about what I'd also find there.

The biggest warning was about the focus of the students. Apparently, most of the students who take extension courses do so because they have a passing interest in the field they're trying to break into. Abby, a great writer and close friend who did some screenwriting work at UCLA night school, put it this way: "People just don't do the assignments. I don't get it. I mean, why would you pay all that money and not do it?"

Indeed, why?

In any case, my first class was two Thursdays ago on the 11th.

Immediately, I felt out of place becasue when I arrived I didn't find the usual sullen, lonley writer types exchanging anxious glances, but a roomful of 20-somethings deep in conversation about television shows. It was their familiarity not with the shows, but each other, that made me feel just a little alien.

The teacher, himself, remarked on how unusual it was to find a group starting out with such lively talk. "You must know each other," he commented.

Turned out half had had a class together previously.

They also all had an "Industry standard outline". Or, at least, when asked who didn't have one, I was the only one stupid enough to admit to not only not having it, but not even knowing what it was - or at least the "Industry standard" part of the idea.

The teacher immediately looked at me like I didn't belong. I started to worry about it, too.

Then he asked us to pitch our shows - the story ideas we had. I stopped worrying so much.

See, my story idea for my MEDIUM episode was considered good. Then when I heard the ideas from others, I wondered, how could all these people be so confident? I mean, few ideas were clear. And there were only two ideas that were even interesting enough to be memorable.

It didn't help that 5 out of 15 or so people were writing HOUSE episodes and hadn't really worked through the medical gobbledegook yet.

Even more weirdly, several people were writing for 24 and HEROES. Both great shows, but tough to spec since the shows are not self-contained stories. Characters have arcs that just go forever. (Ken Levine does a nice send-up of the 24 spec here.)

I felt the same way about those people trying their hand at LOST (there were 2 of them).

(This is one reason I'm not trying to write a FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS - Where do you start? How do you end? What the hell?)

Anyway, the guy teaching the class made some suggestions to all and then asked us to come back with our outlines next week.

I finished mine up and sent it in Friday.

I'll let you know what he thought when I get his notes back.

This should be interesting. Especially starting as someone no-one in the class seems to feel should be there.

Friday, January 19, 2007

And now a word from...

I'm working at an ad agency next week and getting my ass kicked. So, here's one of my favorite ads.

Theatre people take note - the people behind the ad took a weakness and made it reason to buy something.... (ie, If "liveness" is a reason people hate to sit in a theatre, what can you do to make that a reason to go?)

Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) directed.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The weakness last night

In the previous post, I talked about writing for MEDIUM.

However, if you tuned into the show last night (about a boy in a well and the sex crimes of a high political official), you might wonder if I was talking about a different show.

For the record, last night's program was weak. Actually, bad.

This would be another reason to write for the show: To fix that.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The TV Spec Script: 1

When you arrive in LA, the general assumption is that - if you're a writer - you are interested in only two things.

Movies - and - Television.

Of course, I'm interested in more - like theatre and advertising (am I schitzo or what?) - but, I still get the look from anyone and everyone who is just meeting me, or considering me for a job. It's a look that says, I know why you're really here - you want to be a famous well-paid writer of good movies and interesting tv shows.

The silent conversation between the eyeballs continues:

My eyes say: Um, well, yes, of course, who wouldn't?
Their eyes say: Yeah, yeah, you think you're a hot shot, don't you?
My eyes say: Not exactly, I'm just you know trying to learn.
Their eyes say: You're just like a million other people. And chances are you'll disappear just like them.
And my eyes say: You know, I'm just trying here. I'm really not copping an attitude. I just...

And so on.

Eventually actual words are spoken and those words are: Do you have a spec script?

My answer is: I have three movie scripts and no TV scripts.

There are several very logical reasons for this lopsideness.

The first is, I LOVE MOVIES. I mean, really, there is just nothing better than making a date of disappearing into a chair in the darkness with a few hundred other souls and giving it up for sound and light arranged to passionately tell a story.

The second is, when you write a spec movie script you might have to follow some formulas and formats but the characters and story are all yours: You're not beholden to anything before you in that way.

Not so for TV. Here the spec needs to demonstrate an understanding and mastery of the rules, a knowledge of all that's gone before, plus your own flair for writing.

The third is, I have never watched much TV.

Simply put, I've been a very active boy and really never made time for it. Why should I have? Frankly speaking, the television shows of my generation (DALLAS, MAGNUM PI, CHARLIES ANGELS, LOVE BOAT, CANNON, COLUMBO), well, they were never truthful about anything. Just contrived and fake, fake, fake all the way through. Consequently, they sucked. There were exceptions - I liked Star Trek for it's wooden directness, for instance. And the Roseanne Show. But I simply don't get the love people carry like a credential for most of the television programming of the 70s and 80s. Even the sitcoms I hated for their over-written-ness and their slavish schtickyness. Every once in a while Newhart had something - but it was in the pause, not the words. And then, the laugh tracks. Don't get me started...

It was not until the 90s that televsion began to look like anything interesting to me. I still recall seeing Law & Order for the first time and being fascinated with riding a story through the justice system's digestive track. I couldn't get enough.

My attraction to TV got another bump with The Sopranos, Deadwood and 6 Feet Under - and finally The Shield, The Wire and now Rome and Friday Night Lights (the best and most truthful drama on a network).

And so, being tired of saying that I don't have a TV spec - and knowing that TV by far employs more writers than movies do - I have decided to throw my hat into the ring.

To that end I have done two things. The first started when I got here: Regular visits to the WGA to read TV scripts.

And I have to say, I've been greatly relieved to find I LIKE READING THESE STUPID THINGS.

In fact, I only wish I'd started earlier. You see, a good TV script flies by like a good pulp novel. It's direct and informal at once. Always economical and has a tremendous sense of pacing.

My particular favorites have been episodes of HOUSE and MEDIUM. Both have very simple A/B story structures and crystal clear lead characters.

HOUSE is great and I've got a lot respect for its writers. I believe you actually have to know medicine to write it. To me, anyway, no episode has ever read as if the technical crap was just dressing. To the contrary, knowledge of it drives the action as much or more than the soap opera relationships happening around events.

MEDIUM, however, is a show I prefer because it is actually a show about the social change that has occured in the two income household throughout America. Allison Dubois has all the responsibilities usually associated with the male's role in the house. She has the star job. She protects her family. She provides leadership.

While her husband, a rocket scientist, is almost always a step behind. If not more.

Yet no one is dumb. And more to the point, despite the absurdity of the hook, the show balances the right amount of skepticism and evidence to be something you can swallow. (Most of the time.)

So which one am I going to try my hand at first?

MEDIUM, of course.

Plus Arquette looks eerie.

And eerie is always good.

NEXT: I take a UCLA extension course for Dramatic Writing and start an outline. OOOF.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

In case you didn't know

You can't make a living as a playwright. You can barely scrape by.
- Sam Shepard

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Me-me 5 times

You know the meme. 5 things no-one knows about you.

(Thanks to Laura for the tag.)
1. I was born in a pink hospital on the island Oahu.

2. I once woke up in a garbage dump at the end of an airport runway with no idea where on the planet I was. It took over half a day to to discover that I was in the Canary Islands.

3. I seriously considered a career as a compititive horse show jumper until I discovered writing at the age of 17.

4. David Mamet has my copy of Homage to Catalonia in his library and he doesn't know it (probably).

5. I helped apprehend a knife wielding man in broad daylight on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

I tag Fred - when he gets back from surgery - 2 times. (That's 10 things we don't know, Fred.) I tag Dave once.

This is NOT a picture of me. (And I have no idea who it is.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Breathe. Sleep. Write.

Hemingway wrote 'til his pencils weren't sharp.

Collette picked fleas from her cat.

Kerouac and Bacon started on their knees.

Whatever it is, most writers have something. And I'm no different.

And getting back to it is one of the big upsides to having a permanent address and a sense of home.

My routine is pretty simple:

Get up around 7.
Make coffee.
Start writing.
Stop around 10 or 11.

I write long hand when I'm stuck or starting something new. When things are really fucked up, I "clean" the house and get a fresh sheet of paper.

I use Maria Irene Fornes sense memory exercises to get the world out of my head if it's in there.

I've found that turning on the TV, listening to music, checking email or reading the blog world generally destroys everything. So I try to avoid all that crap.

I'm generally no good for anything but talking in the afternoon, so unless I have business, I stay away from the phone.

There are a few other routines that are important - Tennis with H at mid-day, every other day. Plus, three AA meetings a week - a meeting to share at on Mondays, a crazy cross talk men's meeting (populated by rock'n roll and correctional facility refugees) on Tuesdays and a step study meeting on Friday.

I do book study on Wednesdays in Santa Monica with my sponsor.

There's meditation and prayer too, but I'm not worth shit when it comes to either one.

Here's an article on the importance of routine to a few young writers.

Please take out a pencil and a sheet of paper.

You got a routine? Let's hear about it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Shakespeare's Sonnett 116: Bill H

It's an imperfect project, but Bill was very interesting.

He also cans peaches from the tree in his backyard and brings 'em over.

Ain't the world grand?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Get me an axe, I see a door

Somebody told me recently that Johnny Cash used to cut doors in the walls of the hotels he stayed at when on tour. He used a fire axe to do it.

According to this perhaps apocryphal story, Cash'd stare at a wall and think, "There's a fucking door on this wall, I know it."

When he got tired of reaching for the knob that wasn't there, he'd just go out to the hallway, get the damn axe out of the glass case next to the elevator and go to work.

Eventually, everyone could see the damn door he was talking about.

And that he was crazy.

So often, however, we're all standing in front of a wall and think, "Hey, there's a fucking door here."

Once we're done with the play or poem or whatever it is, we step back and say to anyone nearby, "See. There's the door. I told you."

Depending on how good you are with an axe, they see it.

And maybe that you're crazy. Which you are.

A little while ago, Isaac Butler asked me to show him a door that I'd made with an axe in the wall of the little hotel room up behind my forehead.

He wanted to see: Dressing the Girl.

The play's been workshopped at the 78th Street Theatre Lab and the Soho Think Tank with Matthew Arbour, and worked on with Michael Kenyon when he was still at the Public. It's also had some readings at places like the Magic in SF. (Please take note, anti-development people.)

It's not an easy play - particularly as a read since the second act is quite visual.

I got an email from Isaac about the play after he read it. He liked it. But he also cited it in an interesting and worthwhile conversation with George Hunka about the kind of theatre that's being made today. He used it as an example of the kind of play that George might like to see more of (or a play anyway that might be worth watching eventhough it was written by someone with an MFA in playwriting - apparently a dirty credit for half the blogosphere - though George hasn't read the play so who knows what he'd think, MFA or no).

For me, it's nice to know when someone not only sees the door you made, but goes through it to the room you have beyond.

And that you're not crazy.

Except that I am.

Check it out at: Parabasis

Here's a brief synopsis of the play. If you're interested in reading it, just shoot me an email. I'll pdf a doorknob to you.


Anne and Ian, once romantically involved, still emotionally and intellectually entangled, try to pick up where they left off. Unfortunately, Anne hates sex and Ian’s recent decision to quit drinking has left him thirsty for just about any diversion he can find. Searching for a way into Anne, he starts buying her the same dress over and over again even though it doesn’t fit. His relentless pursuit eventually pushes him into the arms of a dress shop girl who shows him just how dangerous a dress can be.

1 male, 2 female

In the meantime, I'll be in the next room making a lot of noise.

Sweet dreams.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The accountant's truth vs. Optimism - round 2

Money, get away.
Get a good job with good pay and you're okay.
Money, it's a gas.
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

The purpose of this blog is to follow the story of what it takes to be a writer - in particular an unknown writer - in America, today.

As in, NOW.

The move to Los Angeles from New York is a sort of spine to wrap the story around, but it's more than merely an excuse for narrative. I really do believe that if you look at the sources of cultural influence in America since WWI, you see a real shift from East to West. A shift, that is obviously more pronounced in the television age, and more accelerated in the cable age.

Of course, that's just my opinion, but it's been a long time since I've heard people talk about truly good books without the help of Oprah or a movie adaptation to guide them.

All of which is to say that there's been a money shift in the arts from language based forms of entertainment (theatre, books) to visually based forms of entertainment (movies, TV, graphic novels).

Not exactly news, I know, but what this has meant for Heather and I is a move to the capital of all that - LA - and THAT move has cost us something very dear in the American way of thinking: Money.

It's one of the critical aspects of the story I'm trying to be honest about.

And I'm not going to shy away from it. Especially since I've already talked about what it cost us to move. (The Bill From Caesar.)

So, what will it cost us to stay?

(If ever there were an arguement for going into law or medicine, here it comes.)

First off, we're both products of bigtime arts institutions (which neither of us regrets, by the way) and our total bill for servicing our debt from Columbia and NYU is: approx. $1400.00/mo

Our health insurance: about $1800/year

Our cable/utilites/phone/internet: about $100/mo

Our car payment: about $200/mo

Our cel phones: about $120/mo

Our server space (where my website is stored plus my .mac site): about $300/year

Our groceries: about $250/mo

Our rent is $1400/mo

Other insurances: $1500/year

We were both working this year and we were able to save quite a bit of $$$. So, while we're generally good, we also are about half way through what we've saved.

That means we have about 4-6 more months of funds until we have to hit a retirement plan - which is something we are deeply loathe to do.

You can do the math. But it should be obvious even without a calculator that a life in the arts is a risky proposition.

And for Heather and I the stakes are high. And getting higher. (More about this later.)

However, we have some good things going for us, too. Those educations were good for us, and, they've helped us get in doors that were closed before. Plus, I had a pretty good career in advertising before coming out here. And I still like advertising quite a bit. It is how I expect to pay for all that stuff up there.

And then we have one more secret weapon: we both thrive on adversity. Not misery. Adversity. In fact, I don't think either one of us has had it easy in our respective industries but we've each done well. Heather was once told she was uncastable and yet she's worked at the Guthris, OSF, The Public, Arena and many other great places. I was told you could never do good work at most of the ad agencies I've put time into and while I haven't gotten in the One Show or CA, I have work in MOMA archives and swept the NY Addy's last year over Ogilvy and powehouse BBDO.

In other words, we have assets that don't show up on a ledger, but are there.

It should be a pretty interesting year.

(See what I meant about medicine and law?)

Optimism vs. Real World - outcome to be determined
The $77,000 movie
Love opens with a closing.
1 Day. 2 Miracles. Maybe even 3.

So you wanna write TV?

An excellent little post from Emmy-winning writer Ken Levine about the cycle that is TV.

The Stare