Thursday, February 23, 2017

3 x 5

When the short preview for Avengers Infinity War hit the Internet a couple of weeks ago there was a shot of a table with a bunch of 3x5 index cards carefully arranged in a grid. Murad emailed me and said they use index cards just like I do  (yes, they copied ME). For those of you who haven't read a single how-to screenwriting book I'll give a short(ish) reason why they are helpful and widely used.

A few years ago a book entitled Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder hit the shelves, giving a formulaic method to writing screenplays (there have been a few articles blasting this method of screenwriting for making movies seem trite and boring and predictable, however, he does provide some great tips). One thing he emphasizes is using 3x5 index cards to layout the entire script. Some screenwriters use the cards for a basic outline, but I use a card for every scene (movies have 40 to 60 scenes depending on the genre). It's a very fluid outline that can be easily changed or rearranged to accommodate the flow of a story.

For example, I have four scenes in mind: 1 Steve is walking down the street, 2 Steve encounters two bullies, 3 Steve beats up the bullies, 4 Steve takes their wallets. Now, this is a very linear set of events that might be played with by moving the cards. What if we have 4,1,2,3 or 1,4,2,3 or 2,3,4,1 or 3,4,2,1 (great, now I'm confused)? Of course, some of these sequences don't make sense, but what if that's your goal. Steve is disoriented and doesn't remember the sequence of events of his life in a linear time line. How impactful would Memento have been if it was told from point A to Z? Moving the scenes around allows you to think about the scenes from a different perspective and might keep it from coming off as trite.

I've adapted the index card method for comic book writing (as have other writers) to help me structure my story and keep the set-up and reveal pages in order (see last week's "How I Write" blog). Each issue I write has 3 acts, which is a segment of a larger story arc (3 to 5 issues or longer if necessary) that is itself a 3 act structure. It seems formulaic but it keeps the story from being either overly heavy with action or too slow with exposition. The cards give me a visual cue for pacing and the occasional 2 page spread (Murad hates when I write those). I need to see how 22 pages are going to come together and the index cards give me that picture. Scrivener has a notecard function, which is very helpful, but I can't get the corkboard to conform to the 22 page layout I need, so I still do it the old fashioned way with pen and paper.

For those who think outlines inhibit creativity or stream-of-consciousness writing, think of them like a house. While standing in the living room the foundation isn't visible, it's covered with thick, soft carpet or intricate tile, but it's there, keeping the house on an even plane. The framing inside the walls is hidden with gypsum board and colorful paint or designer wallpaper, but it's there, keeping the house upright and sturdy. The best writers (like architects) use formulas and tried and true practiced methods to tell their beautiful story, and the reader doesn't see the foundation or the framing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How I Write

This week I'll describe how I write, where my ideas come from, and my process for putting those ideas on paper (this might be boring as hell and I'll try not to come off as some pretentious ass; bear with me if you can or just look at the pretty pictures).

I occasionally get my ideas from offbeat stories I read in the newspaper or a place I've visited like Berlin. Most often my stories come from a fragment of a scene that pops into my head just before I fall asleep. My mind races at bedtime: news, events of the day, a movie or television show, a song, something from my past, a dream for the future...and then a concept, I see it as the possible beginning of a story -- odd snippets, like animation cels, pieced together by a series of repetitious thoughts that build into a cohesive scene. I envision it like a movie (I'm a visual thinker). I get up to write it down (no, I don't. I should, but I don't. I'll remember it in the morning...if I'm lucky). Honestly, if it's a good idea I'll scribble it into a notebook. If it's a crazy, unimaginative, unrealistic piece of garbage I'm better off forgetting it anyway. I take that idea and play around with it for a little while, seeing if there is a larger story that can evolve from it. Sometimes there is, other times not, but that's okay because I might be able to use the scene later on in something else.

Here's an example of a scene I thought of, wrote, and passed on to Murad to draw (ignore the dialogue).

If there's something there, I flesh out a plot. Most of my ideas are plot driven not character driven; characters come later. I make sure I have an ending in mind. This is very important because I think you need to know where your journey ends. Once you have your ending, getting there is so much easier. Then, I start thinking about characters, fleshing them out; who's the protagonist, what does he want, who's the antagonist, why does he want something different? I take all that and formulate a three act structure that makes some amount of sense. I have plot points in mind but not every scene thought out yet.

For a comic book I make note cards for every page. I write the general idea for the scene and any dialogue I might think important. It also helps me organize the set-up pages and reveal pages. Set-up pages are the odd numbered pages (right side) of a comic book, and the reveals are the even numbered ones (left side). That way there's a momentary bit of suspense built into the turning of the page.

I'll write the first draft by hand, and then type my masterpiece on a program called Scrivener, which has a comic book format template. In a later blog I'll regale you with tales of writing programs, but for now just know I use Scrivener (it's cheaper than Final Draft). I might do another draft after that and then I print it out and show it to Murad who will hate it (kidding) and suggest changes. I'll contemplate killing him (again, kidding) and make the changes. Once we both like the script he starts his layouts and sketches. I'll add that during the writing process I'm constantly bouncing ideas off of Murad, which helps me come up with little details about the story or characters. He'll also share ideas and I'll work them into the story (he has some pretty good ones). Our collaboration has worked well for us.

That's pretty much it. I do a good deal of research before and during writing to get the details right. I also let the characters grow and follow them where they lead me. Sometimes it enriches the story and I keep it, other times it's crap and I have to get them back on track. Once I'm finished, the feeling of accomplishment is overwhelming. I'm tired and emotionally drained, but it's exhilarating at the same time. And then I get to see Murad's rendering of these ideas and it's another wave of fulfillment because something I wrote is expressed in artwork for others to see.

Here's a page we did for a short comic about Caesar facing a Congressional hearing (don't ignore the dialogue this time):

Monday, February 6, 2017

Movie Night

When I was writing those two marvelous screenplays, I had a fantasy of being on a movie set watching my creation being shot by a big time director and big name actors and actresses. I'd collaborate with them, explain my vision, eat at craft services, and secretly pine for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (listen, I know that writers on set are as common as flying cars, but I felt like I would be the exception). As it turns out part of my wish came true, but not as I expected.

A few years ago, my daughter Remi was cast in a Hollywood backed movie shooting here in Austin. It was a very small part, but she had a few lines and two scenes with the lead actress. Remi was seventeen at the time of shooting, so I handled all of the contract negotiations (THEM: We want Remi to be in our film and we're paying $x, ME: Okay), and the discussions with the casting director and wardrobe and production assistants. An Oscar nominated director was helming the project, and to be honest, I was totally geeking out over meeting him (because Remi was a minor I had to be onset). What would I say to him, should I tell him how amazing I think he is, maybe I could slip him my screenplay, would he call security on me? No, I'll just play it cool (I shook hands with him and mustered a smile. He probably thought I was deranged because I remained mesmerized by him the entire night). As a side note, Jeannine drove Remi to her 2nd audition and could have met the director as well (she likes him, too) but waited in the car because we all thought this was a mere formality and no one of importance (besides Remi) would be there.

On the day of shooting, just before lunch, Remi and I arrived at base camp at a church parking lot in south Austin (the shooting location was at a private residence). She was shown to her trailer, which was the size of a small walk-in closet (OMG I'm on a movie set and my daughter has a trailer with her character's name on the door!!!) We filled out some remaining paperwork and then Remi and I were whisked off to the hair and makeup trailer where she was dolled up.

The makeup artist told us the last movie she had worked on had an unpleasant atmosphere because the director (also a big time actor) was a real pain in the ass. But, she said, on this movie set everyone seems happy and eager to make a fantastic film. We were then taken to a big hall where we had lunch with the cast and crew. Remi was so nervous...I was having a blast!!! She picked at her food as I threatened to introduce myself to one of my favorite character actors who shot his scenes earlier in the day (he's been in every one of this director's movies and he won a supporting Oscar for another movie that year).

Anyway, after lunch (about 3 hours later; when they say you wait around a lot on movie sets, they're telling you the truth) we headed to the shooting location. The temperature dropped into the 30's, which made things a little uncomfortable. One of the scenes had the lead actress riding a bike around the block while the camera truck followed her. She was near exhaustion when they finished and they waited for her to recover (she's the same age as Remi and a real pro) before moving on to the next scene, which involved Remi and the lead actress talking at the front door. Big propane heaters were propped up on the front lawn around the crew to keep us warm. I say we because I was sitting right behind the big time director and his monitors (are you kidding me? I get to watch him work up close?). His assistant brought me a director's chair to sit in (yes, I was in nirvana, regardless of the cold).

At that moment I realized my fantasy had come true. But, honestly, better than I envisioned because this wasn't about me anymore, it was about Remi. As a father I was bursting with happiness for her. She was realizing a dream she had with this little part in a major film and, hopefully, the beginning of a career. Unfortunately, her scene was cut from the movie, and the director was kind enough to personally let Remi know why. His stock went way up in my book, he's truly a great guy. The good news is, because of this experience, Remi landed an agent and has shot a couple of local commercials, and she's also eligible for a SAG card.

I'm proud of all four of our daughters and I hope they all have the chance to live their dreams. Jeannine and I wish for them to be excited and passionate about their chosen endeavors and to not give up when they come up against a wall. My dream came about differently than I envisioned, but I wouldn't change a thing.

Friday, February 3, 2017

I Write, part 2

If you haven't read "I Write, part 1" then I suggest you do that because this post will not make any sense to you (it barely makes sense to me, and I wrote it).

Where did I leave off? That's right, I was talking about screenwriting. After realizing no one wanted to make my magnificent movies (assholes), I decided to write a novel about the Berlin wall. In fact, I had a trilogy in mind. (actually, my Berlin wall story started as a screenplay). I plotted that story and started writing it when life got in the way, and that novel now languishes on a thumb drive (I think I know where it is...). I had a few other stories in mind (this is important for later) but my self-diagnosed OCD wouldn't allow me to start on those before finishing the first one.

Wait, I need to rewind a little here. In the '90s, while living in Germany, I had a coworker who was deep into comics, something I hadn't thought about since I was 13. He introduced me to a different world than I remembered of DC and Marvel and a new company called Image. Spawn #50
Spawn #50was being released and this was a big deal to everyone I met at the comic shop I started frequenting. I read it and was hooked on Todd McFarlane's dark anti-hero (and Greg Capullo's rendering of him). Fast forward about 20 years when issue #200 of Spawn was released. As I read it I really admired McFarlane's ability to take a character he had conjured while in high school and translate that into a multi-million dollar company (comics, movies, television, toys, etc.) I sat wishing I had such an idea for a story and a character. It dawned on me that I did (remember those ideas I mentioned). I had the basic outline and I shared it with a friend of mine who was a huge comic book fan and an artist (that Murad guy I keep mentioning). We've been working on it for a few years, hammering out a compelling story and developing unique characters, which we hope, one day, will make it into reader's hands.

Here's where all the different types writing I've done over the last 30 years payed off. I quickly noticed a comic script is like a movie script. I didn't need to spend too much time figuring out the structure, which I thought was easy. What wasn't so easy was breaking up my thoughts and descriptions into panels that make sense. A comic page is made up of panels, which are static, so, any movement of the characters has to be translated onto multiple panels. For example, a character swinging on a web at one end of the city to the other end can be written in a movie script as one sentence: Spider-Man swings across Manhattan. That description makes complete sense and it translates visually to a movie screen. However, on a comic page it takes, at a bare minimum, 2 panels to show that progression and many more for it to seem fluid. And I was writing single panels with lots of movement, leaving Murad the daunting task of creating page layouts (something he excels at) with many little panels to express that motion. He sat me down and said stop it, I was making the pages too busy. So, now I have to make a conscious effort when writing to focus on what's happening in the panel as if it's a photograph. I describe what I want him to draw and he draws it (mostly).

So, why comics and not screenplays or novels? Well, why not? It's all storytelling, it's about conveying what's in my head out into the world in a form I find entertaining as well as artistic. Denny O'Neil wrote, "Comics are a narrative form using a system of signs and images combined with conventional written language." I write comics because I want to apply the skill sets I've learned in collaboration with a great artist to produce a story that entertains as well as evokes emotion from the reader. I write because, no matter the medium, I have something to say. I write because it feels exhilarating to create, to use my imagination, and to share it with others. I write.