Don’t panic as you hit the panic button

elevator sign This sign in the Beverly Center parking garage is, I think, an example of found poetry.

I find the decision to switch from subjunctive to indicative mood in the second line bold and foward-thinking; the elevator will become inoperative, in the same way that all men will grow old and feeble.

In lines three and four, I appreciate the writer’s ironic instruction to remain calm while inciting alarm in others.

“If furnished.” Those quotation marks are the author’s wink to an audience jaded by systematic disappointment. We know there will never be a telephone.

And how could one read those last two lines as anything other than a call to inaction? Yes, there are steps you could take. You could attempt to be a hero, as you’ve seen countless times in movies and on TV, but you’re certain to fail. Better to give up now, and learn helplessness.

Ding. Sigh.


How to Rewrite

Over the weekend, my friend Rawson came to visit the bambina, and we talked about the script he’s writing. He said he was about to start his next draft, which was mostly character tweaks. He was unsure how to go about it.

I said, “Decide out what you want to accomplish, then figure out which scenes would need to change.”

He seemed to think that was pretty good advice. And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed.

The biggest problem with most rewrites is that you start at page one, which is already probably the best-written page in the script. You tweak as you go, page after page, moving commas and enjoying your cleverness — all the while forgetting why you’re rewriting the script.

Instead, you need to stop thinking of words and pages, and focus on goals. Are you trying to increase the rivalry between Helen and Chip? Then look through the script — actual printed script, not the one on screen — and find the scenes with Helen and Chip. Figure out what could be changed in those scenes to meet your objectives. Then look for other scenes that help support the idea. Scribble on the paper. Scratch out lines. Write new ones.

Then move on to your next goal. And your next one.

At first, this “checklist” approach to rewriting probably won’t feel organic. It doesn’t have the same flow as writing the first draft. But fixing your script isn’t that different than fixing your car. If the stereo was busted, you wouldn’t start at the tailpipe and work your way forward until you got to the dashboard. You’d rip out the stereo, figure out what was wrong, and replace it if you couldn’t get it working. Then you’d do the same for the headlights, the shocks, and the windshield wipers. A car is a car, and a script is a script. But they’re both made of lots of little pieces, and you can only fix one piece at a time.

And scripts are much better than cars. If you don’t know what you’re doing when you try to fix your car, you might be stuck taking the bus. With a screenplay, you always have the old version saved on disk. So roll up your sleeves and get to it. Don’t let the fear of screwing up keep you from starting.


Welcome to the O.C., bitch

questionmarkWhen you have a character talking on the phone who is not in the scene that the audience is watching (e.g. Bill is in a phone booth talking to Jim who we only hear but never see) — do you use (O.S.) or (O.C.) or something else?

– RMT
Los Angeles

I would use O.S., which means “off screen.” I think the distinction is supposed to be that O.C. (“off camera”) applies when the speaker is physically in the same space as the person he’s talking to, but just not on camera, while O.S. is when speaker and listener are in different places.

Your case is definitely the latter. It would look like this:

Bill holds up a one-sec finger while he answers the payphone.

BILL

Ni hao.

JIM (O.S.)

Where the hell are you? He’s waking up, and I’m out of demerol.

I don’t think the distinction between the two terms is all that useful. In fact, I never use O.C., even in situations where it would probably apply — I just use O.S., and no one is ever confused.

I can’t say for certain what my aversion to O.C. is. It may be that on a subconscious level, I know that the “C.” stands for “camera,” and I try to never refer to the camera itself. I think it takes the reader out of the story, reminding them that what they’re reading is just a script.

However, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with O.C. — most readers will know what it means. So if it floats your boat, by all means use it in appropriate situations. Which does not include this one.


Big Fish’s Karl the Giant has died

McGroryMatthew McGrory, who played Karl the Giant in Big Fish, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 32.

While his character in the film was about eleven feet tall, in real life, Matthew was “only” a bit over seven feet. While he was big, you didn’t really sense he was a giant until you shook his hand. Then you felt like a child trying to greet an adult.

I got to know Matthew a bit while we were filming in Alabama. He was quiet but funny, muttering asides in that incredibly deep voice that sounded computer-generated. He travelled everywhere with his own chair — he was too big to fit in regular ones — but in every other way was a normal member of a sizable cast.

Meeting Matthew, you definitely got the sense that being his size was a strain on his health, and in fact, his death is listed as natural causes. My condolences to his family and many friends.


Podcasting is for babies

iPodNow undeniably in my mid-30’s, I’ve come to accept that there are certain trends that I’m just not going to bother giving a shit about. Just as my Mom will never really understand the internet, there are now cultural innovations that are completely lost on me. Call it Generational Giving-Up.

For example, custom ringtones. Thanks to technology, my cell phone can now chirp out 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” But why would I ever want it to do that? If I really liked that song, why not just buy the real thing on iTunes? Do I hate my fellow humans enough that I feel they should be forced to listen to my musical obsession du jour every time a random friend calls?

(And don’t tell me that Top-40 ringtones help you tell that your phone is ringing, rather than someone else’s. It’s called vibrate, people. I never wonder if someone else’s phone is shaking in my pocket.)

Other things I’ve officially given up on:

  1. SMS abbreviation.
  2. Decyphering hacker-codez.
  3. Screensavers.
  4. Custom skins, icons and cursors.

One item that had been circling the rim of my mental wastebasket was podcasting. I admired the technology, if not the user interface. I just didn’t see a need for it. I can barely keep up with contents of my TiVo. Having additional stuff banked just didn’t make sense.

Then two things changed.

First, iTunes added podcast support. It’s not perfect, but for a 1.0 version it feels pretty intuitive. Most importantly, it keeps another application off my dock.

Second, I had a kid. And with her, came a revelation: podcasting is for babies.

Or more specifically, podcasting is for parents who have both hands full feeding an infant.

In our house, we’ve set a rule that the baby doesn’t see any TV until she’s at least two, which means no television while feeding. Since it’s almost impossible to read while holding a squirming infant in your lap, mealtime gets a bit dull. But through the magic of podcasting, I can easily catch up on all the back episodes of all the NPR shows I’ve missed.

My favorites include:

The Business with Variety’s Claude Brodesser
The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell
iTunes New Music Tuesday

So consider me a convert. At least until my daughter progresses to solid food.


When should a writer become a corporation?

questionmarkMy writing partner and I have sold a few projects, with, hopefully, a few more to come. The question is, at what point should we incorporate into a film company? Before we’ve sold the next project or after? Once we’re more established as a team? When we start making greater than a certain amount of money per year? What are the perks and drawbacks to making such a move?

–Dara
Los Angeles

Most screenwriters who find themselves making a living at the craft end up incorporating at some point — as do actors, directors, and other relatively well-paid professions in the film industry. I became a corporation shortly after Go.

The idea is that the studios don’t hire you directly. Rather, the studio makes a deal to “borrow” your services from a corporation that you’ve created. These one-person corporations are called “loan-outs,” because loaning out your time and talent is all they really do.

What’s the point? Well, there are two main advantages.

The first is financial. Because the studio is paying you as a corporation, rather than as an individual, it’s easier to deduct business expenses, such as office space, assistants and computers. Your corporation can set up a pension plan for its sole employee: you. You can also avoid paying personal income tax on the money for a longer period of time. (Though you do eventually have to pay it.)

The second advantage is liability. Let me first invoke my I’m Not a Lawyer Disclaimer — so don’t bank on what I’m saying. But the corporation can help shield your personal assets (your house, your car, your toothbrush) from lawsuits that might come up relating to your screenwriting career. If I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, it’s because I never, ever want to be sued.

The only real drawbacks of incorporating is the expense and the additional paperwork — quarterly statements and such. Although some writers manage to keep up with it themselves, I couldn’t imagine doing it without a business manager and an accountant. (Which are not-insignificant expenses.)

As for what point it makes sense to incorporate, the rule of thumb I heard was when your annual income consistently exceeds $200,000 per year, it’s time to form a loan-out. But that was 1999, so who knows what the current figure is.

My suggestion would be to talk with your attorney, and get his advice. He’s the one who would actually be filing the paperwork with the state to get it all set up.

Also, if you’re living outside the U.S., all bets are off. You’ll need to find someone familiar with the specific rules of your country. For instance, Ireland has amazing tax breaks for writers. I suspect becoming a corporation there would be a terrible idea — but you’d need an expert to tell you.