The Table Read

Most writers I know have quirky habits; eccentricities that usually only other writers understand. I’ve never really considered myself “eccentric,” although I’m sure some might disagree. Whenever I find myself at a stopping point, like finishing a scene or an act transition, there’s one thing that I absolutely have to do. I say I’m a creature of habit. My wife calls me Rain Man.

I read what I’ve written out loud. Not really that eccentric sounding, right?

I have to read it out loud, standing up, while I walk in odd concentric circles – usually under the confused, watchful eyes of my three dogs. Preferrably, I do it in the living room while the TV is on with something demographically inappropriate for someone such as myself, like “Katie” or “Dr. Oz.”

I can only surmise that these necessary conditions help distract the parts of my brain that would otherwise run interference and keep me from taking a critical eye to my work. That, and it removes the temptation to check email, Facebook, and Twitter – in that order. It always has to be in that order. Otherwise, the universe might collapse.

Last night at my weekly screenwriter’s group, we did table reads for the people who brought work in for critiquing this week. Mine was not up for review since I had brought in pages the week prior. We alternate every two weeks. It’s on a first RSVP basis.

This week our table reads included a pirate song and a song sung by a Gilliam-esque Salvador Dali type protagonist who fancies “Santa Lucia” (which none of us knew other than “Santuh….Loooo….Cheeeee….Ahhhh”).

I’m a big fan of the table read, not because it’s an extension of what I do at home when the wife is away, but because it offers an insight into my work that otherwise might go unnoticed. But the key is to make sure that no one involved in the read is a trained thespian. Not having English as a first language is a bonus, as well.

Nothing will highlight issues with your scene descriptions, dialogue or slug lines quicker than someone reading it aloud who is wholly unfamiliar with the work. For me, it’s on par with a tip given to me by a former co-worker of mine who is also a writer.

Rae Tip #1: Quickest way to check for punctuation and grammatical errors: print your stuff out, shuffle all the papers, then read each page backwards beginning at the bottom. Takes you out of the story and keeps you from glossing over what might be glaring mistakes.

You’re welcome.

A Likely Chain of Events

“From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen i.e. what is possible [or like life] as being probable or necessary.”

Excerpt From: Tierno, Michael. “Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters.”

Pretty cut and dried, no?

It’s amazing how many movies I’ve seen or screenplays I’ve read that seem to ignore this simple fact. The next time you see a movie and something about it seems off, ask yourself whether or not this nugget of truth was violated.

So what does this have to do with the fact that I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Downtown Manhattan Beach writing a blog entry as a sort of warm-up for today’s writing adventure and listening to Bathory’s seminal piece of Black Metal hatred “Under the Sign of the Black Mark.”

I like to listen to Black Metal when it’s sunny and beautiful out. Contrast, baby. Contrast. That and I’m working on a horror screenplay so it helps to listen to something creepy and Scandinavian.

This is my first time writing outside of the house. The yard guys came today so all the dogs went apeshit for about an hour and a half and then people started knocking on the door. I don’t like it when people knock on the door. I find it upsetting.

I fully planned on taking a walk at the beach prior to settling down to write. We have a wedding to go to in a few weeks and I’m 5 lbs away from my target so I want to look muy sexy for the wife when we get all gussied up and are running on moxy.

As I was going to begin my trek, I saw an open spot in Starbucks, a solitary round table sandwiched in between the guy reading email and the twenty-something coed surfing Facebook.

There’s actually I guy in here reading a script which I found somewhat unsettling as I had built up this idea in my head that my beloved South Bay is somewhat impervious and impenetrable to the cliches that apparently rankle everyone here and in the rest of these United States.

Yes, I realize that I’m perpetuating the cliche but like I said, this is a first for me.

So my day has turned out to be quite Aristotlean. I’m sure most of my days are as such; I just never notice it.

The Day After

No, not the ’80s made-for-TV movie that scared the shit out of all of us because we thought the Soviets were going to dust the US with a nuclear winter.

The day after writer’s group. In which my pages were read and eviscerated – by some.

Granted, the majority of criticism was geared toward my particular writing style (some incidental formatting issues aside).

Allow me to illustrate.

I try to find a happy medium between just enough description and too much. I tend to lose interest in a screenplay, even if it’s a movie I really enjoyed, if it reads like a novel.

Which is why I make a conscious decision when I write a character or scene location description, to see if I can describe the essence of either the character or location. Sure, I have an idea of what this character looks like in my head but I’m not a casting director. I have an idea of what the location looks like it but I’m not going to tell a production designer how to do their job.

I guess it’s an extension of not wanting to direct from the page, which is such a common pitfall – for new and established writers – unless you’re a Quentin Tarantino, who’s able do what he wants.

I can’t even frame a picture, let alone a shot so why would I write something like “we CLOSE IN on so-and-so’s face?”

One critique said it was repetitive, even though I only limit my three-word descriptions when introducing major characters and scene locations. I didn’t realize consistency was a bad thing.

About 1/3 of the group really liked the idea, another 1/3 hated it (their words) and the other 1/3 abstained.

Which is why I can still take everything with a grain of salt. There isn’t one perfect way and the only way I’m going to develop my own voice and style is to not chase a shiny ball.

Amiright?

http://youtu.be/YUEINQCKLHc

Don’t Open the Book

I’m still surprised by the number of people who are unaware that this amazingly-bad-but-still-f’in-awesome jewel of ’80s horror comedy (featuring the husband and wife duo of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss) exists.

Plus, it has Keri Michaelson. If you were a guy who grew up in the ’80s, I’m pretty sure you know Keri Michaelson. If you don’t, I’m sorry you missed out.

Gimme a break, ‘cuz I know what it takes!

The Chris Eigeman Correlation

He’s probably not aware of it, seeing as how he lives in Manhattan, but Chris Eigeman moderates my Thursday night screenwriter’s workshop. Chris’ real name is Evan and he’s a dead ringer, both in looks and voice, but without the snark.

Here’s how it works: people bring in pages, a table read is held, then positive and constructive critiques are offered.

When Evan’s turn came to do his pages, he prefaced the read by getting people up to speed on where in the story we’d begin and that it was a Horror/Suspense screenplay.

Before he said the title, I could only focus on the title that I really needed it to be.

Please please please, let it be called “Go Away, Cookie Man!”

It was not and I found myself wrestling with unbridled disappointment.

Since it was a group setting, I felt I should I be able to share my feelings. I’ve seen enough movies to know that when you’re in a group, you’re supposed to share in order to grow as a person.

So I did. It became a teachable moment as the group were unfamiliar with Noah Baumbach’s seminal “Kicking and Screaming.”

I felt better about myself afterwards.

I say “seminal,” but I’ll be honest. I can’t name any other Noah Baumbach movies so I’m not really sure whether or not “Kicking and Screaming” is his defining work.

If it’s not, it should be. It has Parker Posey. I love Parker Posey.

Oh, Miami.

One Minute Horror – Sleep Tight

Consider it a writing exercise that I do from time-to-time.

INT. ABIGAIL’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

ABIGAIL (6)
sits upright in bed.

WHEEZING. COUGHING. GASPING.

MIRIAM (30s)
guides the INHALER in Abigail’s hands to her tiny mouth.

SQUIRT SQUIRT.

ABIGAIL
inhales. Holds. Exhales.

MIRIAM
Better?

ABIGAIL
smiles. Nods. Lays back down.

MIRIAM (CONT’D)
(kisses her forehead)
Try to get some sleep. Night night.

INT. MIRIAM’S BEDROOM – SAME

MIRIAM
slips back into bed. Burrows under the covers. Bleary, fluttering eyes focus on the…

BABY MONITOR
on the nightstand. Next to Miriam’s head.

CRACKLING. STATIC. COUGHING.

THEN…

An UNKNOWN VOICE.

Malevolent. Hissing. Supernatural.

UNKNOWN VOICE (O.S.)
Sleep tight…

THE END

Overheard on Netflix…

From John Carpenter’s interview in Tales From The Script:

“People who are good at other things don’t become screenwriters. If you’re good at something else, go do that. People become screenwriters because they can’t do anything else.”

Word, John. Word.

From Here to Eternity…

Sometimes it’s either or.

In this case, it was we could either pay the balance of my tuition to UCLA’s Professional Screenwriting Program, or make sure our dog Ellie got better.

She ate poop (not mine) and got a wicked blood thing from it. She’s better now. She hasn’t eaten any poop since then.

But that meant the vet bill sucked up a good chunk of the money that had been set aside for tuition.

Not that I’m complaining. My dog is healthy and asleep at my feet. Along with the other two. Because when I decided to write full-time, my wife decided to keep me barefoot and pregnant with dogs.

We now have an SUV.

So, since UCLA is no longer an option, what’s next?

Tonight, I’ll be attending my first screenwriting group in Venice. I’m excited. Although if anyone mentions how much they love kale or Radiohead, I’ll probably get up and leave. I care for neither.

Mine is a tricky path I’ve chosen where nothing is as it seems and there is no way of anticipating how the cards will fall. Anything can happen at any time.

All you can do is have a plan.

I could tell you my plan, but do you really care? Probably not.

Speaking of anything happening at any time.

So, I’m at Uncle Bill’s the other day. Having my chili cheese omelette and chatting with another local with whom I’ve spoken with before. We’re talking about movies, antique watches, people we’ve known who chose to live in Nepal and then contracted parasites worthy of Nat Geo specials when suddenly…

Him: Have you ever heard of so-and-so?
Me: The so-and-so who used to run (BIG MAJOR F’IN MOVIE STUDIO) and the guy who took (ICONIC SPACE MOVIE) to (OTHER BIG F’IN MOVIE STUDIO)? That guy?
Him: Yeah, him. He’s my father-in-law.
Clark W. Griswold: No shit.
Him: Lemme know when your script is ready. I’ll give it to him.

So, yeah. I got that going for me… which is nice.

Testament – Trial By Fire (Live in London)

A fitting song…

Feeling Amazingly Average

That’s how I felt after I received my first professional screenplay evaluation from The Blacklist.

Officially, a 6/10.

Considering “The Patron Saint” is my first screenplay (although technically my 2nd) where I actually knew something about plot, story structure, etc… and the fact that whomever did my evaluation does this for their living and probably reads more bad scripts than good, I’ll take that. I’ll take that with a “thank you sir, may I have another?”

The average… they ain’t so bad.

Screenplay: “The Patron Saint
Music: Theme from “The Patron Saint” (because I’m that multi-talented)

From the evaluation:

“The Patron Saint” is a gripping mystery with a great lead. Coverdale is a very strong and well-developed character. We see both her vulnerability and her tenacity illustrated well, and this creates a complete and complex portrait of her as an individual, a capable woman driven to solve the case and prove herself, but weighed down by her own past and short-comings. The investigation itself is very engaging, providing an interesting exploration into the mind and method of the killer, and the thematic issues of animal abuse.”

That was from the “Strengths” portion; I’ll spare you the “Weaknesses” segment. I prefer to embrace my shortcomings in the privacy of my home where Toni Braxton can un-break my heart.

Finally, from the “Prospects” portion:

“Cops and serial killers are a very tired genre, and a spec needs something exceptional to stand out. The most unique aspect is the animal abuse angle, but that’s not really something that attracts a mainstream audience. Still, it is a compelling script, and Coverdale is a great character who could shine if the right actress was cast.”

All-in-all, I felt the eval brought up some great points to consider as I move into the re-writing process.

However, I do take exception with one point: “cops and serial killers are a very tired genre.”

THR Article: “Serial Killers: TV’s Newest Obsession” (6/28/13)

Subtext in screenwriting is crucial. So, what’s the subtext here?

1) There weren’t any issues with my story structure, formatting, scene/character descriptions, ability to conceive and tell a story.

2) I accomplished what I wanted – even though it was “average”:
a) I was entertaining (i.e. not boring),
b) my characters and story were believable, and
c) the reader cared enough to make it from page 1 to page 102.

I win.

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