New Fire

My new favorite things are the pilot for Terra Nova and the website Brain Pickings. Before you stop reading, hear me out.

First, Brain Pickings. It’s a blog of interesting things this person finds around the internet. Always intellectual. Always interesting. Never pop-culture-y or affected. Love it. It makes me think about all the cool stuff that’s out there that I’ve never heard of and reminds me that I’ll never know everything. Which is a good feeling for someone who likes to learn new stuff. Definitely add it to your Twitter and/or RSS feed. And if you have a few bucks, donate.

Now for Terra Nova. I thought the pilot was pretty cheeseball. Then I thought, “Oh, they’re going for a mid-level, family audience.” So then I thought maybe the cheeseball was purposeful and appropriate. Nothing too challenging, nothing too dark. Like ST:NG or a watered-down Jurassic Park. But ultimately, it didn’t move me like early episodes of Walking Dead, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, or any other kick ass show that surprises you with how kick ass it actually is. So why am I listing it as a favorite thing this week? Because I got a hold of the pilot script. And guess what? It’s not strong. But even better than that, I can see how greatly improved the pilot is over the script. Whomever re-wrote the pilot for production really made some great adjustments. Particularly in the opening “teaser” ten minutes. They took out tons of VO, dialog, and standing around. They made everything into action and not discussion. The same story elements were there, just converted into actor movement and visual context. Watching the show while following along with the script was like a shot in the arm for me.

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve been working on some Earth-based sci fi stuff for a production company with no guarantees of anything, only the request to read my stuff. I have the story broken down into “chapters” which will easily become “episodes” but I was worried that if I blasted out a pilot script, I would need a great cliffhanger to keep the show going. Reading the Terra Nova script pretty much cleared my mind of any concerns. A) Because the producers reading it will change everything around once they’ve read it. And B) because the script feels like it was written pretty quickly. These writers had a great idea and blasted something out that would be readable and have the key plot points in obvious time markers for commercial breaks and the finale. So yeah, it went through a bunch of re-writes. Why wouldn’t it?! I don’t know why I thought I would have to deliver genius in the first draft. Maybe it’s a procrastination/avoidance technique that I’m using subconsciously. Either way, I’m back on pen and paper and moving forward.

UPDATE: A while back, I read a book by Ania Ahlborn called SEED. It’s a self-published novel about a deal with the devil. It was a fun, fast read (worth way more than the .99 I paid for it on Kindle), but I thought, “How is this thing selling so crazy well?” Then I found out from her blog the book got picked up by Amazon’s print publishing division AND she’s talking to Paramount about movie rights. Whoa. Then I saw this post, and I tied it back to my Terra Nova experience. If you check it out, she has very graciously posted an image of the revisions in Word from the Amazon people. There’s a LOT. Just like Terra Nova, people saw the great idea and picked it up even if they wanted to make a bunch of changes or clarifications. The lesson? Forge ahead! Be the bull in the china shop and smash your way through to completion. If the idea is there, people will get it. Maybe it will end up a cheeseball TV show, but I bet you that’s something compared to the nothing you get when you don’t finish anything.

Getting Reacquainted

Here’s a quick one… I’m finally sitting down with the book after a month or more away. I’m done with chapter 9 apparently. I had forgotten that! Sad, right? Now I need to move forward and crank out the final eight chapters or so. I’m right at the unofficial half-way point so it was a good place to stop, but now as I sit here, I feel like I’m starting from scratch. It’s like I’m in the midst of a long-distance relationship and my partner is back in town for a weekend visit. We have to get to know each other again. The question is, how do you have small talk with a book?

A friend of mine – writer, animator, artist, director, renaissance man Mike Wellins – once told me the best thing to do when getting back to an idea is read through everything you have and change one thing. Force yourself to change something. Anything! Guess what? It works. I’ve used this tactic before on screenplays and even altering a line of dialog that I previously loved really helps re-connect me to the material. When I come back to a writing or editing project after a few weeks away, it’s like somebody else’s project. And that’s true… the person who last worked on this was the me from a month ago. Sometimes I think, “That guy from five weeks ago was a genius!” And other times it’s like, “What the hell was he thinking?!” Either way, making changes here and there reestablishes the immersion into the material that I really need to start thinking in the world of that story. The present-day me owns it now.

So here I am, past the 20,000 word mark and moving forward. Cheers to the me from a couple months back who did all this work. But he’s gone now. I’ll take it from here.

Show Me the Money

Back in 2004, I sold a screenplay called Decrypter. The guy told me right up front that they bought it because they liked the title. Seconds after he said that – and I mean literally his second sentence – he said, “What else do you have?” I had a few things written up as treatments and gave him a few one-liners that he either said “Nah” or said, “Develop that and get back to me.” Anyone writing for the movies knows you never go into a pitch meeting with one idea. You have your lead idea, but you also gotta have a few ready just in case they pass on the first one. That makes sense. Meetings are hard to get and you want to get the most out of the time in front of a potential green-lighter. And take into account that the people you’re pitching to want to hear something original so they’ll listen to a whole list of ideas until something clicks or until they figure out that you have no original thoughts. The really important thing is to FOLLOW UP. Sometimes when you’re just starting out, you think people are just saying stuff to get you off their backs, and that may be true, but you must must must take them up on it. You have to stay on the RADAR. I’m saying this because I have always sucked at following up. More on that in another post. This post is about getting paid.

An interesting thing that happened after the selling of Decrypter was that people who weren’t from the writing world thought I had made it big. Even other filmmakers! Everyone assumed I would be quitting my day job and writing full time. Yeah, 10k is a good whack of money, but not that good! Even if you remove the fact that I had debts from making the movie in the first place so I could sell the screenplay, how long can you live on that money? Six months if you’re frugal? Fine, in a perfect world, let’s say I kept writing and was able to sell something for ten to twenty thousand every six months and racked up between 30 and 40 grand a year. It would modest living, and stressful, but fun. It’s not big thinking, and if I cracked through and sold one thing for 100k, I’d be set for a couple years. There are people out there who live this way year after year. But before you quit your job and give it a try, let me tell you something that I learned from Brian Bendis in a casual conversation at Excalibur Comics (here in sunny Portland, OR): it takes a looooong time to get paid.

Bendis told me a story about a friend of his who sold a property (an idea, not even a script) to a movie studio for something like 50k and quit his job the next day. Bendis yelled at the guy, but he wouldn’t listen. What the guy didn’t know, and what Bendis tried to tell him, is that the movie business moves very slowly. They won’t screw you over, but it’s not like they just hang up the phone and drop the check in the mail. There are contracts, contract revisions, budget considerations, rights considerations, signatures, credits, payouts, approvals, options… the list goes on. And weeks pass between each step. In Bendis’ anecdote, his buddy’s money didn’t come for TWO YEARS! In that time, he had to get another job while waiting for his 50k. At least he didn’t run out and buy a bunch of stuff in anticipation of the money so it was already gone by the time it arrived.

That’s another rookie mistake, and I’ve seen that, too. When I was living in the Bay Area, I met a guy who had sold a screenplay to MTV Films (remember them?) for 75 or 100k or something (the number changed each time he told the story). Guess what he did as soon as the contract went through? Bought a Mercedes and racked up his credit cards. Seriously? He had like 10k to his name and he put 7k down on this $75,000 car and bought a boatload of crap at Best Buy. He was thinking he was going to get his money fast, which is bad enough, but then he thought it was this infinite sum. He got the money in under year, but it evaporated upon impact. He had already spent it all and more. He ended up 30k in debt after getting his check which, by the way, was only for $65k. He had all this useless crap, a car he couldn’t keep the payments on, and he hadn’t written anything else in the meantime. Oh, he smoked a lot of pot, too. Which didn’t help.

I guess the moral of the story is if you sell something small or huge, keep the ego in check, always generate new work, and don’t do drugs.