Monday, May 11, 2015

Screenwriting - The Not Writing Parts

How about a few words again about writing, more specifically, screenwriting?

To become a screenwriter, to sell screenplays, you first have to learn to write a good story. Story is almost all important, as you also need to learn the screenplay format. Finally, you need to learn the system that absorbs and pays for those screenplays.

Then you will have to sell what you've written. But how do you get to and through that selling part once the writing has been properly accomplished, read, rewritten, reread, coverage completed, changes made, perhaps contests entered and more changes made and then, finally, it's time to shop it around?

Try setting yourself up ahead of time.

Networking, for instance. IS there a better way? Certainly there are other ways but the best way is to already know someone or better still, someones to whom you can submit or better still, who you know will actually read your work.

Stage32 CEO RB Botto talks about this in an interview:

Is Hollywood Really All About Who You Know? by Richard "RB" Botto (Stage 32 CEO)

Over my lifetime I've had repeated accidental moments where I've met someone or learned about filmmaking. I've shot a couple of shorts, one in college, one later as a public access cable TV producer. Invaluable lessons in film production.

I suspect if I haven't yet, I've certainly gotten a very good foundation laid in many of the problems you can run into on a film production. I took a film production series of seminars at Bellevue Community College with famous director, Stanley Kramer.

What an amazing experience that was, to sit in a theater with other filmmaking students and be so near to greatness. That was a time I screwed up too though as some of hose students later got together to work on a couple of productions of heir own. I should have found a way to get involved but it was at a time just post college when I was pretty penniless. 

Anyway, my biggest issues in order of nightmare level?
  1. Concept - what, and how and writing it
  2. Equipment - getting the equipment you need, those to run it, and equipment issues and failures
  3. Talent - finding, motivating and handling
  4. Post production - the editing process and again, equipment issues
Situations like public access cable TV had a built in distribution channel. IF you used their equipment and studio, you had to schedule your production to "air" at least once. Mine aired twice. But this isn't about that, or my previous video I shot at my university.

This is about networking, and getting experience.

More so about experience. I'll let RB talk in the video (above) about networking.

Obviously, if you have people to throw your final drafts at, you're way ahead of the game. There are film festivals where you can shoot a short clip of your screenplay so you have something to actually SHOW people. You can enter contests, cold calling\submitting (never a great idea but hey, things do come from them like .01% of the time). 

So, experience...I'll tell you one example of something I experienced. 

Back in about 1986, I was going home one day from work. I worked at  Tower Video Mercer Street store in Seattle. I lived on the Magnolia side of Queen Anne Hill. About half way home one afternoon, I stumbled upon a production company shooting scenes up on the hill with Seattle in the background.

I had nothing going on that afternoon, so I parked and walked as close as I could get without being in the way and just hung out, absorbing what they were doing. Watching a production taking place practically in my own neighborhood.

I was patient, I wasn't leaving until they did. I was there for two or three hours maybe. Then I heard they were going to break down and move to the next location. It was a night shoot. I could hear their plans. They were going down below to the Seattle Center, where the Space Needle is, for a Monorail Terminal scene. 

One of the guys noticed me watching though a few other locals were watching too in that neighborhood location on the south Queen Anne hillside. He paid me little attention, but he had noticed me. That, was important.

As they broke down to leave, I headed out myself. I went home, wasted some time waiting for them to get to the new location, grabbed a bite to eat (which in those days was very little) and then headed down to the Seattle Center.

I found a good place to sit, just opposite the Monorail Terminal entrance on a concrete wall, with my back to the Space Needle immediately behind me. The map below couldn't show any better exactly where I was sitting, watching the production.

Of course in 86 the EMP didn't exist (or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, for that matter) and right behind the monorail from me was the Fun Forest where the rides were located since the Seattle World's Fair opened. As indicated in the article they closed down finally on Jan. 2, 2011.
Newer map but you get the idea
I came to realize that evening that they were shooting a TV series version of one of my favorite films produced and directed by one of my all time favorite directors, John Carpenter. Here's IMDB for 1984s, Starman. For that matter, here's IMDB for myself.

I love that film for various reasons, the director, the actors, the concept, and that final speech by Starman (Jeff Bridges) himself about how good the human race really wants to be but continually fails and yet tries again. Uplifting, hopeful, taking a possible horror film and making it more like an adult version of ET.

So, that was pretty cool.

I had found myself on the set of the pilot location for a new TV show based on one of a favorite film of mine. It was to star Robert Hays, a staple TV actor back then  and star of a classic comedy, Airplane! T

he feature film of Starman also had Charles Martin Smith who had just previous to Starman been in one of my favorite films of all time, Never Cry Wolf in 1983, as well as Karen Allen and Richard Jaeckel,

Once I realized I was on the set of 1) a new TV pilot, 2) the TV version of one of my favorite films, 3) based in my town, 4) with Robert Hays and 5) did I mention I was on the set location of a TV production?
This could almost be a photo I took from where I was sitting
Anyway, I sat there on that concrete wall, out of the way but quite obvious, for an hour or two. I spent most of my time trying to see the camera set up inside the terminal. Mostly I watched lots of extras milling about until they were needed, all dressed randomly, playing the part of the general public in the background to make it all look normal. I learned about being an extra on a production that night. Like set decorations, there was much boredom and waiting around.

The guy who had noticed me at the previous location kept noticing me again at this location. He was busy, rushing around with a hand held radio giving orders. He was having someone turn on the rides there that were behind the monorail terminal shot as background. You can see it in the pilot. It looks like the rides were going the entire time and they were whenever the camera was rolling and they were filming something, typically for a minute or much less. But they were then turned off again until the next set up and shot.

Finally, he was walking past me yet again and just stopped. He thought for a second, turned to me and said, "Didn't I see you at our previous location earlier today?"

That was my opening.

I told him my story as briefly as I could. About how I had studied screenwriting at college and that I was an aspiring writer. That I'd never been on the set of a film production before and I was just trying to learn all I could. I said if I needed to leave I would understand but until he told me to leave, I was there for as long as they were. In the end, I did stay and it went on until after midnight.

By this time full nighttime was upon us.

I asked him what it was he was doing, what his job was. He told me how when productions came to town, he was one of the local location managers. In this case at this location, he was handling the background, running the rides and their lights during shots, and just overall managing what was going on there.We chatted in general for a few minutes until I think he realized I was legit in my interest.

Then he just said, "Come with me." I had no idea what was going on, but hey, I followed him.

We walked up into the terminal, past the extras who all noticed me as if I were actually someone important. He took me up inside the monorail terminal, walked right up to the camera where an ancient old guy, the director, was seated behind the second unit camera.

There were two stand-ins with their backs to me at an open monorail door. They had the Robert Hays stand-in wired with one of he little balls of light that was famously in the film and wold now be in the TV show, which gave the Starman character his paranormal powers.
Robert Hayes as Starman
The location manager told me to just stand right there. I smiled understanding.

He smiled and said, "Have fun."

I could only respond with, "Thanks, so much!"

He could feel my excitement and pleasure at having such an awesome front seat to things. Then he just walked away. I never talked to him again. In hindsight I realize now I should have gotten his name, networked harder, maybe pushed for meeting him later on to discuss things, like getting into the field of location managing as a way into local film productions.

I was stunned as it was and just happy to be breathing, and on a set. It was a possible opportunity lost, to be sure. When opportunity knocks, you have to be near enough to that door to hear it and then you have to answer that knock. But sometimes you don't really know what answering it properly is, until later in hindsight.

So there I stood, six feet away to the right of the camera and director. The director looked at me once and then ignored me. They were working after all. There was a lot of stopping, waiting, fooling with the wired device, proper lighting issues, shooting a few seconds, stopping, resetting, shooting...and it went on that way for hours. I couldn't have been happier than at that moment, however.
NOT the stand-ins I was watching that night
The stand-in for Erin Gray who played Jenny Hayden, was very attractive. Both her and the Starman stand-in noticed me. But then, she kept noticing me. After a while I got the feeling she too thought I was a "somebody", maybe a producer or someone important, perhaps someone who could be useful to her career?

I couldn't help but wonder of the possibilities of after location scenarios. Which alone was fun in and of itself. An after shooting party maybe? Alas, no...these were all working actors who probably had day jobs and would instead most likely go home and get some sleep. Or maybe I missed out?

What all I learned that day and night, I cannot tell you now. But it was helpful, useful back then as I got to absorb the feeling of what it is like to be on set, the grueling hours, the waiting, the work and effort, the setting up, breaking down, the extras, the stand-ins.... it was worth the time spent, it was inspiring and gave me hope. Not something to give light import to.

My point in all this is this, you have to set yourself up to experience the things you want to experience. Perhaps had I walked up and been more gregarious to the location manager in the first place, I may have ended up with more access. As it was, I can't complain, though. I went for it in persistence and persevering, showing my interest and dedication to the art and process, as best I could. I could after all, simply have gone home and ignored that film production up on the hillside.

Writing is such a tough field now a days (and it always has been but it's gotten even tougher in recent years), that we have to be dedicated, we have to persevere and we have to be creative, not just in the writing, but in how we get to be known, accepted and supported. We need, as RB says in his video above, to offer to help those who we want to have help us.

We need to show others how affective our passion is for the art and what their knowing us can do for them.

In my life in the corporate world I learned one important thing (well many really but one stands out). I always made it clear to my managers in the beginning, that I was there to make them look good. To make their life easier in anyway possible. That I was someone who would help them advance. When you become a tool in someone's toolbox, you don't have to do anything else because they will get used to calling upon that tool to do their work and that, is always good for you.

I let them know that I thought they were more important than I am and so credit goes to them. That has worked for me in several ways. I almost always (not always, almost always, but that's important to recognize) and so I ended up usually getting the attention I was giving away. I came to be protected by my managers. I got a reputation for someone to work with or have work for you.

So much is about "making it" is about people becoming or being made aware of you, believing you can do something for them, and their wanting to help you for any of a variety of reasons. One reason not being a small one in that you are passionate and a force for them to latch onto and be drawn forward by.

My grandmother once told me when I was young that she always tried to be around those who were educated: doctors, lawyers, etc. I took that to heart and got a degree, the first in my nuclear family to do so. The same is true in any endeavor specific to that effort. Try to hang around at least writers, or people doing film production at any level. But find people who are serious, passionate, motivated and doing and acting on their interests.

Remember that the contact you make with anyone high up in a field, but not the highest, such as assistants to some big shot, may one day themselves replace that high level person. It's part of what networking is all about. You want to get to know those in power, but as you spend years doing that, don't ignore the rest of us who are nobodies. Because one day we may be in charge and you'd best have allowed us a good impression of you when, hopefully, we remember you.

As they say...

Be kind to everyone on the way up; you'll meet the same people on the way down.

Don't be timid, be humble.

As my screenwriting prof at my university told us, a screenplay or manuscript sitting on a shelf in your closet will never get sold. As it is with you and your talents. You have to let others know you are there, that you're available and that you're someone to reckon with (in a good way, but then there are times....).

Impress, motivate, and acquire loyalty at very least based on your ability to do something for someone. And remember, when you stop doing good things for people, you stop being hat useful tool in their toolbox. You're only as good as your last project. When you write you are a writer and when you are not writing, you have to ask yourself, what are you now?

Go out and be brilliant! Almost....

By the way, if you are into the writing parts of writing....get the books, do the studying, read screenplays, take classes, and so on. Read and acquire reference books like, Syd Field's Screenplay The Foundation of Screenwriting (obviously), Screenwriter's BibleDr. Format Answers Your Questions, and so on.

Also pick up a copy of John Jarrell's Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro. Just be aware, he swears. Still, it's a very entertaining, insightful and informative read.

I'd also like to mention an Off Camera with Sam Jones episode with producer Chris Moore for a video version of a screenwriter or film producing wake up call about the current state of Hollywood.

John Jarrell (Romeo Must Die (2000)) also offhandedly suggests: Save The Cat, How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks: A Fast & Easy Toolbox for All Writers, Once you do learn the formatting of a screenplay, you then need a solid dose of reality and that's what John's book offers.

NOW, go out and be brilliant! 

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