Failed his last saving throw

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, died this morning at age 69.

I haven’t played the game in 15 years, but it remains the single biggest influence in my career as a screenwriter. And I’m not alone: a quick poll of my writer friends revealed a huge number of teenage rangers and magic-users. That’s no coincidence. Building an adventure in D&D requires the same imagination as constructing a screenplay. Running a campaign is like running a TV show, with weekly sessions at the ping-pong table in the basement.

D&D isn’t where we learned to write, but where we learned to think epic. A game could last all night. Or all year. By the time my friends and I stopped playing, our characters had three generations of mythology behind them, with family trees that would bewilder Faulkner.

The game is also where future accountants learned to obsess over convoluted rules. Particularly in the early editions, there were more charts and figures than you’d think a seventh-grader could handle. But we ate it up. In a pre-internet age, a few hundred pages of dense data on mistletoe-gathering and the restrictions on Limited Wish spells was like info-crack. Even when you weren’t playing D&D, you were thinking about the next character you wanted to roll. The next adventure you wanted to build.

I’m sure I’ve read Gygax’s AD&D books — notably, the original Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide — more than any other printed matter I’ve owned, probably by a factor of 10. It’s where I learned what c.f., i.e. and e.g. meant.

I’ve moved 10 times since college, but the crate of D&D books has always come with me, unopened but somehow indispensable.

So, my sincere thanks to Mr. Gygax for what he brought into the world. We live on after death by creating things that outlast us. By that metric, Gygax is nearly immortal.

Test screening questionnaires

questionmarkWe have the first cut on a historical drama we eventually want to try to get on History Channel or Lifetime. It’s about a group of young Quaker Girls who create an anti-Rebel/Pro-Abolutionist Newspaper in the middle of Confederate Virginia.

We want to have a test screening to determine plot comprehension, pace, etc. Where do we find an example of a test screening card or form we can “borrow?”

— Drew

There are several companies that do paid test screenings, and I’m sure each has a template and a standardized methodology. But you’re not interested in statistics, and don’t need to compare your movie with other historical dramas of the last five years. You just want to make your movie better. So you can safely make up a sheet of your own.

Here’s what you want to include:

  1. First question: How did they like it? You want to get a sense of (a) what changes the people who liked it feel are necessary, and (b) whether there are any changes that could win over the people who didn’t really like it.1

  2. A space to list the things they liked most.

  3. A space to list the things they liked least.

  4. A space to list any moments they felt it lagged.

  5. Ask if they ever got confused — and when, and why.

  6. If you have specific areas of concern (music, narration, whatever), you can either make those open answer questions, or give some sort of 1-5 grid for circling.

  7. A big thank you at the end, because they are doing you a huge favor watching your in-progress project.

You want your viewer to be able to fill this all out in less than five minutes, so that means no more than two pages. Your best bet is to photocopy it on card stock, two sides.

In the Downloads section, I’ve included the form we used for our second test screening of The Nines. Feel free to use it as a template. 2

Because you’ll ask: Yes, it was strange test screening a movie in which a significant plot point concerns the test screening process. But it was a big help.

Ultimately, you may still want or need to do a more professional test screening. For instance, if you sold it to Lifetime, they might need to know how their audience responds to it, so they can tailor their advertising appropriately. But for the early stages you’re in, I’d save your money and do it yourself.

  1. Often, the folks who don’t like it will never like it, but it’s worth hearing their opinion so you’ll know what to expect.
  2. The second question, “Given a pair of magical scissors, is there anything you’d snip out?” is the one I always wished people would ask me.

Post-strike update

Last night I went out for beers with my picketing team from the Van Ness gate. I hadn’t spoken with any of them since the end of the strike, so it was nice to catch up, and see them in clothes not specifically chosen for walking in the cold.

Remarkably, it was the first conversation I’d had about the strike in over a week. After three months of talking (and blogging) about nothing other than the AMPTP, the NegComm and picketing schedules, it’s surprising how completely the strike has vanished off the radar.

With the official contract ratification results due today, it feels like a good time to take stock of where various projects have ended up in a post-strike universe.

The web series

We’re finishing editing on the web pilot I shot at the start of the month. Once it’s done, the financiers will go off and look for distribution and advertising partners. If we can find the right combination, we’ll aim to shoot a block of episodes this summer.


I spent the weekend barricaded at the Disney Grand Californian working on the next draft of Shazam! I’d gotten the studio and producer notes just before the strike, so this was my first chance to address them. It was great having a three-month break from the script, because it meant I could look at it with fresh eyes.

There are some web reports out of WonderCon about a possible title change to something longer and more Harry Potter-ish. Nothing’s decided yet. Obviously, one of the challenges with the property is that an audience will automatically assume that the hero’s name is Shazam, when it’s not.1

Dreamworks project

When the strike began, I was halfway through the first draft of an unannounced project for Dreamworks, with a major star and director involved. Without being too specific, Something Happened unrelated to the strike which made it very unlikely that our movie could (or should) get made. So one of the first conversations I had after the strike was with the producer and director to figure out whether or not to proceed. After about 15 phone calls, many involving agents and executives, the decision was made to kill the project.

It was the right choice. While it’s hard to walk away from 55 pages, finishing the next 55 while almost certain that they could never be filmed would be even more dispiriting. As I write this, it’s not clear whether I’ll segue into a different project for the studio, or just write them a check for the money they’ve already paid me. Either way, I feel better getting to work on a script that is much likelier to become a movie.

Heroes: Origins

My hunch is that this spin-off series will stay in the deep-freeze for a while, maybe never to be thawed out. Tim Kring has said in interviews that the priority is getting next season’s plotline (“Villains”) ready for launch, as it should be. If Origins is resurrected at some point, I’d be happy to direct my episode.

  1. Shazam is the wizard who bestows his powers; the guy in the cape is Captain Marvel. For legal reasons, the movie can’t be called Captain Marvel.

Scripting a short film

questionmarkI’m about to get cracking on my submission for a prestigious short screenplay competition. I wondered if you had any advice specific to writing shorts? If you were judging a shorts competition, what would you be looking for?

— Kirsty
York, UK

A short film, like a short story, can’t waste any time. You need to give us your principal characters and establish their motivations immediately. There’s very little stage-setting before you get to the inciting incident and the ensuing complications.

The hero’s fundamental problem/challenge/obstacle needs to occur by the time you get to the 1/3rd mark. So, if your short is meant to be three minutes long, the big event needs to happen on page one. If it’s a 10-minute short, it happens around page three. It’s not that you’re worried about your reader getting bored before then — if you can’t entertain us for three pages, there’s a problem — but rather that if you delay any longer, your story is going to feel lopsided: too much setup for what was accomplished.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t worry much about traditional structural expectations. Funny almost always works better than serious for a short, because there’s not enough time to create the narrative movement you expect in drama. But there are exceptions. The Red Balloon for example. And I loved Walter Salles’ chapter in Paris, je t’aime, which was simply a sad rhyme.1

So think funny, or poignant — but only if French.

I’ve put the script for my 1998 short film God up in the Downloads section.2 It’s 30 scenes in 11 pages. A lot of story happens, quickly. But many successful shorts take the opposite tack: they’re essentially just one joke, fully exploited. Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Jagg Off is that kind of short, as are most of the SNL and Will Ferrell videos you’ve seen.

For the competition you’re entering, however, I’d be careful not to submit anything that felt too much like a comedy sketch. If I were a judge, I’d be looking for a script that doesn’t seem like it could end up on Saturday Night Live. (Or the British equivalent.)

Good luck!

  1. That said, it probably wouldn’t have stood out in a script competition.
  2. The short is a bonus feature on The Nines DVD.

When a character has two names

questionmarkI have a character that appears midway through the script, but is never introduced by name and the reader should not know who he is at this point. So, let’s call him something descriptive: ONE-LEGGED MAN. All the while, in other scenes, his actual name is being mentioned. Let’s say: KEVIN SUGARMAN. Towards the end of the script he introduces himself to a character and it becomes important that the reader understands that ONE-LEGGED MAN is KEVIN SUGARMAN.

From this point out what do you think would make for the smoothest read:

1. Continue calling him ONE-LEGGED MAN
3. Or start calling him KEVIN SUGARMAN

— Ruckus
Atlanta, GA

This happens in scripts all the time. There’s no perfect solution, but your general goal should be to confuse the reader as little as possible for the fewest number of pages.

If One-Legged Man has dialogue as “ONE-LEGGED MAN,” keep using that name through to the end. It’s confusing to have dialogue blocks with differing names.

If One-Legged Man has no dialogue (or very little dialogue) before he becomes Kevin Sugarman, it may be worth swapping his name, particularly if he hasn’t been prominently featured in a lot of other scenes. The slash technique (One-Legged Man/Kevin Sugarman) works best in scene description, and then only as a reminder to the reader. The guy’s name shouldn’t be 25 characters long every time you use it.

Finally, there are times when the best solution is to simply tell the reader that the character’s name is Kevin Sugarman from the time he’s first introduced. From what you’ve described, it sounds like the reveal is very important to your story — it a key joke or plot point. But in many cases, it may not be worth the trouble and possible confusion.

Saturn Award nomination

Matt Venne emailed me this morning to point out something I would have otherwise missed: The Nines just got a Saturn Award nomination for its DVD.

It’s a cliché to say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated,” but really, it is. And surprising, too. The Nines isn’t an obvious choice at all.

The Saturn Awards are all about science fiction, and while The Nines ultimately fits in that category, the viewer doesn’t really understand why until the last 10 minutes. When we were doing press for the movie, I called it “stealth sci-fi.” Hearing the logline, you wouldn’t guess it goes into Star Trek territory. (I’m spoiling very little to say it does.)

So, my thanks to the nominators, who obviously did watch it and get it.