She’s Not Just Some Secretary

features, screenwriting, storytelling, women

She’s not just some secretary.”

 

This is what one of the producers on my movie said about the female lead, three hours before we went in to do the studio pitch. We were arguing on the phone about the fact that I wanted her to have a certain job that would give her status more equal to the hero of the film – and he thought her having that job would be unrealistic considering everything she does in the movie and that it would take the audience out of the movie. So he gave her a job demotion right before the pitch, which I argued about – leading him to say “she’s not just some secretary.”

 

I spent the next couple hours timing myself reading the highlighted portions of my beat sheet – and eating anchovies (brain food) – (a fatal mistake as I would be self-conscious about my breath all afternoon) and turning over that sentence in the back of my head like a kid’s rock-tumbler –

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

I got to the production office a half hour before the pitch. The exec who’s been working with me this whole time sat with me with our feet up on his coffee table and kept me calm. He had tried to demote the female lead for the same reason a month or two before – at 7 pm on a Friday – and I had launched into a histrionic speech that went something like “we are trying to attract both male and female audiences with this movie. And as a female audience member, I can tell you, we know when we are being patronized. We know what kind of movie this is going to be, when it’s being promoted. We see when the female lead has a lesser job and less status than the male lead – when the filmmakers and producers making it consider her less than – and we know what they think of her and us. And if this is going to be that kind of movie then I can’t be involved.”

 

Gulp.

 

In case you don’t know, those are the words of a crazy person.

 

But those are also the words of a person who is crazily dedicated. Crazily invested. Who believes in what she is doing. Who feels it. Who is leading, not following.

 

And at the time, this exec had said “Ok. I get it. I’m in.” (For what it’s worth, that’s the worst/craziest thing I’ve said to him or any exec. And it’s a sign of just how hard we’ve worked on this movie. And – he deserves hazard pay.)

 

So we’re in the production office, before the pitch. My exec friend is keeping me calm. He looks me straight in the eye and goes “I want you to know I was on your side. We didn’t even talk about it.” And I knew what he was talking about – and in fact, I never even questioned that he was on my side on that. So I proceeded to tell him why this thing about the male lead and the female lead being equal means so much to me.

 

“It’s not, like, some abstract feminism thing for me. I was raised by a single mother who had no education and worked full time as a secretary –

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

— and all she wanted for us girls was to go to college and never have to work a desk job like her and have better lives than she did. And not only did I go to college but I went to Princeton and my first job out of college was [the same job we’ve now given the female lead in the movie]. And despite all that, I have felt marginalized my entire fucking life — growing up in a house of all women (already marginalized as a gender in this species) — abandoned by my father who went off and left us to sink from middle-class into poverty — abandoned by a culture that couldn’t care less about what it feels like to be less than, displaced, marginalized, disempowered always. This is real for me. Visceral –” 

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

I didn’t know you grew up in a single-parent home,” he said. “I did too. That must be why we’re so …”

 

Sympatico?” I said.

 

We drove the golf cart over to the studio where I met another exec for the first time. (The producer was already inside.) The three of us stood around nervously chit-chatting before the pitch. Making conversation about our families. They asked about my sister, and I told them about how she’s never come to visit me in LA. How she disapproves of my risky choice to become a writer and how she’s basically waiting for me to fail and move back home. How up until recently, it’s been hard to argue with her.

 

The assistant called us in to the pitch.

 

Afterward, the producer, my exec friend and I drove the golf cart back to their bungalow. We were laughing cuz I thought the producer was mad at me cuz I kept stopping the pitch to make jokes (and once to accuse the studio exec of yawning — he wasn’t) cuz I was afraid the mood was getting too dour. The producer goes “you want the mood to be dour if your movie is dour!” Through the whole pitch he kept saying “keep going!” cuz I kept detouring.

 

But as we drove across the studio lot, the producer said “you did really really well” and I appreciated that as it was my first studio pitch ever and I was nervous as hell. And as the sun set over the soundstages and the balmy breeze blew my half-shaved hair back, I took a mental snapshot and said to myself in my head – remember this moment cuz your life is about to change.

 

And it did. We sold the movie the next day. My dream project. There’s nothing else I’d rather be working on right now.

 

But with dreams answered comes responsibility too. I just spent a week with my mom (I’m writing this on the airplane back to LA), and I was telling her about one of the many complicated aspects of studio filmmaking. I was uncertain about what to do.

 

I always err on the side of being vulnerable,” she said.

 

Mom, you’ve got to remember – screenwriting is heavily male dominated. Like 85%. Everyone already thinks I can’t do the job because I’m a woman. If I go around showing my belly, I’m going to look feminine and weak and lose all respect.”

 

Well then I guess your industry is just over my head.”

 

She’s not just some secretary.

 

No mom I think you understand it just fine.

 

 

Find A Way To Make It Acute

drama, features, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.

Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.

No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.

With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.

If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?

The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.

The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.

Find The Mystery

drama, features, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

We watch for the mystery. All stories have a mystery. Sometimes we don’t notice because the mystery sucks.

  • Love stories — The mystery is who is going to love who in the end, and why? There should be genuine doubt about who is going to wind up together, and why, and how. If there isn’t, you’re writing porn. We should care about this mystery — this is the pleasure of love stories. See Jane Austen.
  • Dramas — The mystery here lies in who the characters really are versus who they say they are and who they think they are — see Mad Men — or in us making discoveries about the character’s world at the same time she does. The protagonist is in trouble — how is she going to get herself out of it?
  • Crime/Thrillers/Action/Sci Fi — These have mystery built in, or they should. How are we going to solve this big fucking problem? What’s really going on here? Good to have competing mysteries — say, the overarching mystery of the situation and the mysteries of characters’ identities and the mysteries of love stories. As for the overarching mystery, see my joke’s on them post — the joke is always on the main characters, and the mystery here is figuring out how to get them out from under the punchline.

Our mission as detectives is to solve the mystery — by finding out what happens next. If the story doesn’t compel us on this journey, doesn’t send us racing to the finish, we need to shave clutter and bulk up clues and foreshadow and raise the stakes so that nothing matters more than solving this big, interesting mess.

Risk

drama, features, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing, women

I think the Ed O’Neill character on “Modern Family” is based on my real dad. He’s engaged to his 29-year-old maid. She’s an evangelist from Brazil. He still pays her to clean the house.

This is not the kind of story I would ordinarily tell on the internet, because I’m a private person by nature. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this space to be. And I’ve decided — if I’m going to write about story, I need to fucking tell stories, right?

Story is risk. When you’ve got something to lose, you’ve got a story to tell. When you’ve got something big to lose, you’ve got a big story to tell.

Though on the surface it’s funny, the story of my dad feels raw, acute, and dangerous. Talking about it publicly feels risky. I feel like I have everything to lose — by telling it, I risk being unsafe, insecure, unloved, or exposed. And that’s where this story lives — where the risk is.

Get big, get brave, get risky, or don’t tell stories — because no one gives a shit about the story of how comfortable, complacent and compliant you are.

Story doesn’t grow in the middle of the road. But my dad’s fiancee’s village in Brazil seems to have plenty of poor relations who need new houses (hint hint Dad) where I suspect it thrives.


The Turning Point Before The Turning Point

drama, features, screenwriting

New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban  and held for four days in Afghanistan, along with his translator Sultan M. Munadi. Munadi and an unnamed British soldier were killed in the British-led rescue.

Farrell filed this devastating account of their four-day imprisonment and rescue the day he returned.

I was struck by the following moment, which occurred soon after the initial capture:

Once away from immediate pursuit, they transferred me to a waiting car and drove into the dusty back roads of Char Dara District at high speed. “Russian?” one asked me, a question that seemed so out of recent historical context that it made my heart sink.

I see this as an example of the turning point before the turning point: a subtle signpost of foreshadowing that contains in microcosm what lies ahead. It’s like a little crystal ball in the story, there to foretell the future by containing inside it in miniature everything that’s about to happen.

In this instance, Farrell’s being rapidly driven away from safety by his captors, knowing his chances of surviving diminish the further they go. When his captor, his enemy, thinks he’s Russian (the enemy of twenty years ago), he’s overwhelmed with the feeling that he’s been captured by people who don’t know anything about which war is happening or who they’re fighting against. As it turns out, these captors will spend the next four days moving from house to house with seemingly no plan, no purpose, before finally bringing the brunt of the British military on them all, losing two good men their lives. And they don’t even know who they’re fighting against, or why.

All of this is neatly foreshadowed in the captor’s “Russian?” comment — and Farrell’s heart-sinking reaction. If I were dramatizing this story, I would careen towards this moment jarringly, out of control, then dwell on this “Russian?” beat to underscore its sickening, foretelling quality. Just an extra couple viscous beats too long, making it snag the pace the way it does Farrell’s heart. And then speed up the chase again, now with Farrell having caught a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The turning point in a story is an important structural support, giving us something to build to, react to, creating new energy and direction for the story. However, these mini turning points before the turning point — these moments of foreshadowing — can have the same effect without changing the course of the story over-all. Like a twig propping the outer edge of the tent leading up to the tentpole. When Farrell heard the word “Russian?” he knew his story had just changed for the worse, but it took the next four days to watch it unfold until the real turning point when he was rescued and saw his friend killed in front of him.

via The Reporter’s Account: 4 Days With the Taliban – At War Blog – NYTimes.com.

Preston Sturges: 11 Rules For Box Office Appeal

advice, comedy writing, features

Eleven Rules For Box Office Appeal:

1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.

2. A leg is better than an arm.

3. A bedroom is better than a living room.

4. An arrival is better than a departure.

5. A birth is better than a death.

6. A chase is better than a chat.

7. A dog is better than a landscape.

8. A kitten is better than a dog.

9. A baby is better than a kitten.

10. A kiss is better than a baby.

11. A pratfall is better than anything

The Screenplays of the Gardening World

features, screenwriting

I love Japanese Gardens. Have ever since I was a child. They tell stories, they lead you on little adventures, they’re mystical and calm and bright and peaceful all at once. I love them.

Japanese gardens are like the perfect screenplay: they tell stories visually, economically, using smaller symbols and moments to stand in for larger ones. Surprises are essential, and space gives a Japanese garden the feeling of freedom, just like in a good clean script with lots of white space. These gardens are designed to trigger emotions.

Making a Japanese garden is all about eliminating things from your garden and making the garden represent something else, such as a mountain or a forest or a grass land. But because the design is minimalist, a single rock can represent a mountain, and a single shrub an entire forest.

The point is to underwhelm the senses and allow the viewer to contemplate the story without being assaulted from all sides with color, texture and detail. It’s the opposite of Michael Bay gardening.