Cannon fodder

I’ve previously written about my little World of Warcraft problem, which cost me a summer. My latest, greatest productivity killer is called Tower Defense.

towerIt’s not one game really, but rather a genre of videogames in which the objective is to place and upgrade a series of automated kill-bots (towers) in order to obliterate wave after wave of bad guys (creeps). The latest incarnations are all Flash-based, which is uniquely insidious. Normal videogames can be wiped from your hard drive; these games are always just a click away in your browser.

The best Tower Defense games are made by Paul and Dave, who recently quit their “day” jobs to devote themselves to ruining productivity on a full-time basis. Vector TD is free for the cost of a Orbit gum commercial, and is fairly classic, with a series of maps that constrict the creeps’ path (and limit tower placement). Desktop TD is a good example of the “mazing” or “freeform” variety: on a blank field, you use towers to herd and direct the creeps to their death. It’s crazily popular because it offers the illusion of optimization. It seems like there should be one ideal map, which keeps you playing and testing — and going back to the discussion boards. But any small change in the underlying variables would ruin the winning strategy.

The genre isn’t new by any means. Starcraft introduced the Protoss Cannon — generally the cheesiest way to win any fight — while Warcraft III‘s development system led to a lot of good Tower Defense games. Flash Element Tower Defense is probably the closest incarnation.

Why do I bring up Tower Defense, other than to derail other screenwriters’ productivity?

Well, it occurred to me, “What would the movie version of Tower Defense be like?” Is it a castle siege movie? An Aliens movie? A zombie thriller? And then it struck me.

It’s 300.

You have wave after wave of differently-styled Persians channeled through a narrow opening, no consideration to their lives. You have the towering Spartans, who simply defend their position and watch the bodies (literally) pile up. Just like in Tower Defense, the big worry is whether there will be a leak. From the beginning, you know eventually the defense will fail. The creeps will win; it’s just a matter of when.

This isn’t a slam on the movie, really. 300 knew what it was doing, and did it admirably. But watching it, I kind of felt like the guy invited over to check out the latest Xbox game on the big screen, only to find his friends unwilling to give up the controllers. It was still exciting, but not quite the experience I’d wanted.

In terms of videogame addiction, Tower Defense is a lot less dangerous than WoW. For starters, there’s a “pause” button, so it’s possible to answer the phone. It’s also short. A game is five or ten minutes. The open-endedness of WoW is what’s cost people their careers. Tower Defense is like a twitchy Mine Sweeper, or Sudoku without the false sense of being good for you. It’s a time suck, though, which is part of why I’m writing about it. Having explained it, I probably won’t want to play it as much.


(Update March 2011: Many dead links pruned.)

Prince of Perhaps

Several sites have reported that Disney has picked July 10, 2009 as the release date for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. My guess is that this got written on a whiteboard at some strategic planning meeting, in answer to the question, “Hey, if we made that Prince of Persia movie, when would we release it?”

It’s a perfectly good date, but I have no idea if there will be a movie to show. I don’t know if it’s getting made, or who’s directing, or who’s starring. No one knows, not even the people signing the checks. It’s still a project in development.

At this point, it’s fair to ask, “Hey John! Aren’t you executive producing Prince of Persia? Shouldn’t you be providing us readers with all the inside scoop?”

I’ll pass, thanks.

In fact, this is the last I’ll mention of Prince of Persia. Every time I bring it up, I get besieged with headshots from would-be princes, and re-ignite the debate about ancient ethnicity, a subject I have no particular interest or authority to address. The downside of making myself accessible is that people feel entitled to share their opinions, repeatedly and sometimes impolitely. I can handle that for one of my movies. But this is not my movie to make, and it’s not my movie to explain or defend.

I hope it gets made. I hope it’s terrific. I am basically an ocean of hope. But whatever happens, Prince of Persia will never be “my movie” the way Go, Big Fish, or The Nines are. I enjoyed babysittting the prince, but he’s not my kid. I’ll leave it to the real parents to speak for him.

Should I direct my spec?

questionmarkI’m writing because I find myself at a crossroads, and I could use some good advice.

I’m an early career writer-director with ten years of experience as a theater director. In the last few years, I’ve written and directed a couple of good short films, and written a couple of spec scripts, one of which is in development with an independent producer. Recently, I got a literary agent, a smart guy working for a good agency, and he wants to try to build a career for me as a screenwriter.

My dilemma involves my new, suddenly popular spec script, and how to use it to move closer to my goal of directing independent features. The script is a dark, metaphysical romantic comedy in the vein of a Charlie Kaufman film, and industry people who read it get very excited about it, noting that it is both highly original and commercial.

My agent, who is also enthused about the script, suggests that I tone down its darker elements, and try to sell it to a studio as a more conventional romantic comedy. If we do try and sell it, does it make sense to make the script more mainstream?

I’m inclined to look for a producer, and get a name actor attached, with an eye toward directing it myself as a small independent film. I know I have the skills to do it justice, but will my status as an unknown be a serious obstacle in the search for financing?

My agent says the time to make the leap to directing would be after I’ve established myself via my writing, four or five years from now. Given my background, this strikes me as an overly cautious approach. How much is his advice colored by his perspective as a literary agent?

– Nick
Los Angeles

Direct it yourself.

Why? Because you want to be a director. You have experience as a theatre director. And even though there’s a possibility that you’ll be able to sell your script to a studio, then attach a meaningful director, then get it made, then get your writing career started, the odds of all the elements coming together are pretty remote.

Remote enough that you might as well direct it yourself, assuming you can do it for an independent film budget.

Yes, there are counter-examples. Charlie Kaufman has only now begun directing, and Zach Helm didn’t direct Stranger Than Fiction, though he’s directing a film now. And, for that matter, I didn’t direct Go. But I was aiming to be a screenwriter, and I became one.

People forget that Sam Mendes had only directed theatre before American Beauty. Tell your agent that you see yourself as more of a Sam Mendes/Alan Ball hybrid, and start meeting with indie producers.

Changes while directing

questionmarkWhen you were directing The Nines, did you find that you wanted to change some of the action and dialogue because it didn’t come across in production the way you thought it would when you wrote it. And, if you changed things, was it because you were maybe hypercritical of your own work and saw problems where nobody else would or did you consider making changes just because you could (being the writer and everything)?

– Dennis Feeney

The action changed somewhat, based on the geography at hand. For instance, there’s a scene in Part Three where a family is coming back to a parked car. As scripted, there was a certain sequence for who would be where for what line of dialogue, but once you have real actors, real dolly movements and real reflections to contend with, that all changes. And that’s after storyboarding, during which some of those things were already decided.

In terms of dialogue, I didn’t find myself changing that many lines. We’d had the luxury of some rehearsal, so if there was a line that an actor really had a difficult time landing, I could change that ahead of time.

Once we started production, I really saw myself as a the director, not the writer. If something wasn’t working, my instinct was to look at changes in the performances or the camera movement rather than the words. Indeed, the few times I did go back in to writer-mode was when I saw unanticipated opportunities. During a confrontation between Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy, I added this line…


He’s an actor. If no one’s watching him, he doesn’t really exist.

…which ends up being fairly important to the scene (and, ultimately, the movie). Yet I added it at six in the morning on the day of shooting, based largely on something I overheard the actors talking about between takes. That kind of serendipity is what made my dual roles rewarding.

The Unnecessary General

questionmarkIn Final Draft, what do you use the “General” element for? The manual describes its function negatively, saying only that it’s for whatever doesn’t fit into the other elements. Personally, I haven’t found a use for it yet and was wondering what the pros use it for.

– Richard Budd

As far as I know, nothin’. I bitch about Final Draft a lot, but one good thing it can do is create new styles (er, elements) for unanticipated needs. I created one called “singing” for dialogue that is part of a song (11pt Verdana italic). So why would I need to re-appropriate “General?”

Perhaps if I were writing a treatment, or some sort of other non-screenplay document, and didn’t feel like putting everything in “Action.” It’s conceivable, I guess. I recently had to write an extended outline for Shazam!, but I used Pages for its footnoting ability. The only advantage I could see to using Final Draft for an outline is its frustrating-but-consistent revision marks.

If any readers have a better explanation for the existence of “General,” I’d love to hear it.

Interview up at cecil vortex

I have a very long (and hopefully interesting) interview about creativity up at cecil vortex. While there’s a lot of material in it I’ve written about previously, this interview is a pretty good primer on my brain and work habits.

CV: How do you use your day-to-day life to feed your writing?

JA: When I was writing for my first TV show I found that I was sorting through life with a filter: what could be “in” the show and what would stay “out.” If I heard a song on the radio that I liked, I was mentally putting it into the bin for the show. If someone said something interesting — or something boring but in a particularly interesting way — I would literally stop to write it down.

That was probably necessary for the show, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for real-world sanity. I began living a large part of my life inside the show. That break from reality ultimately became one of the main story points of The Nines — what are a creator’s responsibilities to his creations? At what point was I allowed to walk away from the universe I’d created and get back to my real life?

I think I’m healthier now. I certainly always have my ears open for interesting phrases, but I don’t feel like I’m in constant collection mode.

You can check out the full thing here.