Thursday, March 17, 2011

Screenwriter, don’t be a sourpuss party-pooper.

Right after the Oscars, cyberspace was buzzing with tweets from screenwriters ragging on Natalie Portman for not thanking the writer during her speech. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: screenwriters need to get over themselves. No one cares about a screenwriter’s feelings and their precious words but screenwriters. Sometimes. I’ve never heard of an editor bitching and complaining about not being thanked in an acceptance speech. And you know what? Editors are the ones that should be thanked by actors. The magic happens in the editing room.

When you decide to hand over your screenplay to the people that will make it a movie, you must know that you are giving up all rights to your creation. Isn’t that what you want? For those 120 pieces of paper to become a movie? You cannot know what kind of movie your script will become and you have no say in it. For you the writer, that’s the end of the road unless get called in for rewrites.

I can say this without any concern for what other screenwriters might think of me because I’ve been there. I used to be attached to my precious words and sentences. When it comes to screenwriting, this attitude is quite delusional, idiotic and amateurish. (Hate me if you must, but it’s the truth you will learn soon enough.) If you understand and are familiar with every aspect of filmmaking, you know that a script is just words on paper. A film is a combination of lot of things. A lot of things. A director’s greatest fear is that one misstep or bad decision can ruin her movie. You don’t know what fear is until you’ve directed a movie. More specifically, until you’ve been through the casting process. The most traumatic thing to a writer/director is making the journey from her imagination to committing to an actor. You are constantly asking yourself “Can this person be that character and can I trust them to make this film the best it can be?”

With the exception of Shadows, John Cassavetes’ films were heavily scripted. However, he often started filming without having a complete script; sometimes even with just a few pages. He’d work out the story during rehearsals and filming and he would stay up all night writing the next day’s scenes. Like Mike Leigh and a handful of other directors that work in a similar way, Cassavetes understood what is required to get at the truth and make the best film possible.

I’ve been attending the John Cassavetes retrospective this month at Cinefamily and earlier this week I saw Minnie & Moskowitz. I had seen it once before years ago and it wasn’t the film I remembered. I can honestly say that I didn’t get it then but I sure did this time. It is in Cassavete's films that you can see clearly how all the work and dedication to the final product pays off; from story inception, to allowing actors freedom, to getting the best out of every performance in the editing room. What follows illustrates this beautifully.

One particular sequence that shook me to the core is at the beginning of the film when we first meet Minnie (Gena Rowlands). The sequence is below and it runs to about 5:50.

I’m in awe of this sequence. It’s as if Minnie is speaking to me and through me, especially when she says “you know, quotes feminine.” I wondered how Cassavetes knew something only a woman could know. My admiration for him grew even more. The next day I consulted the shooting script, particularly the first 30 pages. It was fascinating to see exactly what made it to the screen and what was added during the performance and changed during the editing. I’ve posted two pages from that sequence below. As you can see, Cassavetes didn’t write that line, Gena added it during shooting. I knew it. A man would never know what that was about, let alone think it.

If you compare the sequence with the pages, you’ll see that quite a bit was improvised, especially on Florence’s part. (Florence, a non-actor, was Seymour Cassel’s mother-in-law by the way.) You will also note how the scene ends abruptly, almost cutting off Minnie’s line. That’s pure Cassavetes. (There are quite a few pages in the script that were shot that didn’t make it into the final cut.) He hated structure, rules and all that bullshit.

Can you imagine a screenwriter bitching and complaining about that scene, that the actors went off script and were not faithful to his carefully calculated words? Such a writer is not completely committed to making the film the best it can be. Filmmaking at its best happens when a daring group of people have the freedom and passion to create. So yea, screenwriter, don’t be a sourpuss party-pooper.

So you see, this whole business of giving credit, taking credit, awards, thanks and acceptance speeches is pure idiocy. The way we thank each other is by looking at the finished product and knowing we all did the best we could and being proud of it. And by doing it again.

The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to direct, or at least, produce a film of any length. Not only will you learn about the process, but you will discover things about yourself you didn’t know. It will help you get over yourself, I guarantee it. It will free you from those things that do not matter. Precious words on paper are only a small part of the equation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thoughts and Prayers





Monday, March 07, 2011

So close, yet so... far away...

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over five years and it may surprise you that I’ve never hiked up to the Hollywood Sign. I’m not a hiker although I’ve always thought about doing it more often because it’s so good for you and so goddam fun, right? But it’s more work than stepping out your front door and just running. You have to research the trail, look up how to get there, drive there and then walk endlessly up and down hills under the hot sun. Oh and carry water and granola and wear sunscreen and hats and special socks and protective Chapstick. This past Friday it occurred to me to go ahead and get it over with and I drove down Franklin to Beechwood Drive to get to the Hollyridge trail.

First, OMG the houses on Beechwood. Second, OMfuckingG the houses on Beechwood.  Third, that’s the one thing about living in Los Angeles that I hate the most.  Envying what others have.  It will poison your body from head to toe.  Other than fear, it is what drives people in this town. Envy.  Envy will make you forget who you are.

I arrived at the trail and had no problem finding parking.  I decided my water bottle was too heavy and burdensome to carry with me and that I would be okay without water. It wasn’t that hot and it was highly unlikely I’d end up like Sally Menke.  Now that I think about it, she probably thought the same thing.  A couple of German tourists asked me how you got to the Hollywood Sign.  I pointed at a sign that said “Hollywood Sign That Way” and said “that way three miles up.”  A dude that was sitting inside his car said “Are you serious? Three miles?”  I told him that the website I checked said it was a three mile hike.  He asked me if there was another way to get there.  I shrugged I don’t know thinking what a lazy ass that dude was and got on my way.

I got hot right away and wondered if I should go back and get the water bottle. I didn’t.  I just kept on going while tourists on horseback passed by me.  Looking at so much horse ass made me realize how wrong it is for humans to use horses for work and recreation.  I used to ride in another lifetime and up until that day, I really missed it.  I know, that’s a very PETA view from someone who used to jump fences wearing a fancy, red tailored jacket, but we all have the capacity to change, don’t we?

I swore I would never take a picture of a rock. Well, here it is. A stupid rock. I think I was just nervous and scared there was no one around.

I kept on going and saw The Valley.  It doesn't look any better from far away. I noticed that you wouldn’t have any problem shooting on this side of the hill. I didn’t see one single person or horse. It’s a perfect location for the slasher genre and I started to write the script in my head.  Then, paranoia and fear set in.  I moved away from the bushes.

When I got to this water tower my imagination took over. Would they ever find my body if I got murdered up here?  You see, I'm pretty stupid about these things. I never think the worst until I'm deep in it.  I didn't really care if I put myself in danger before I got my dog.  My death would never have affected anyone until now.  It would take a while for people to notice that I was gone because it was the weekend and while my body decomposed behind a bush my poor pooch would be at home starving.  It never crossed my mind that hiking alone would be dangerous.  Still, I thought I was on the right track and decided to continue on my quest when...

...I turned around and saw the view below.  The Hollywood sign is in front of that tower.  Okay, so maybe I wasn't on the right path after all.  I turned around and went downhill back to where I came from.

I finally encountered some more horseshit and felt relieved.  The fact that I didn't see any on the path where I wandered off to should have been a signal that I was on the wrong track.

This is where I should have u-turned and gone up the hill, instead of going straight around the hills.  I looked at the clock. I had been hiking for 1.75 hours.  I was tired, hot and very hungry.  Still, I went up to investigate, saw that the Hollywood Sign was still very far away, and turned around.

After another 15 minutes, there it was and there were the tourists taking photos.  I felt like a failure and I was craving red meat and I was cranky and fuck it.

This is how I celebrate failure: with a meal from Mexico City in Los Feliz.

My ass is still sore three days later but at least I got a good workout.  I'll try to climb up to the sign next weekend. If I don't have anything better to do.