Back to the Word Factory

This is my soliloquy, spoken directly to the audience, somehow unheard by the other characters onstage: I love to travel, but mostly, I love to get home.

Vacation trips always seem to last one day too long — except when they’re entirely too short. No matter how long the voyage, it’s usually at about the three-quarters mark that I realize I’m not, in reality, a traveling man of leisure. Phone calls, emails, and blinking cursors will always be waiting for me when I get back. Fortunately, so will my bed, my TiVo, and my dogs.

I’m writing this from the lounge at Incheon airport, waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles. Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul were all amazing, not just for their antiquities but also their dynamism. For example, Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower is ridiculous, but worth a visit just for the view from the observation deck. In most cities, you’d see the horizon. In Shanghai, you just count the number of five-story buildings being ripped down to make room for new skyscrapers.

Shanghai feels like New York, Paris and Tokyo crammed together. Seoul, on the other hand, is the metropolis Los Angeles would probably be if there were more than one industry in town. It’s very spread out, but with ample freeways and a competent subway system.

The most fascinating part of Korea was a trip into the DMZ. For about ninety seconds, I was technically inside the North Korean border, with a few thousand armed soldiers ready to shoot if I were to do something stupid, such as pointing with my finger, or trying to defect. (I did neither.)

One weird observation: I loved China, but their national firewall is a pain. It prevents access to giant swaths of the blogosphere, whether or not the sites have anything to do with nationally sensitive issues. Although I could pull up johnaugust.com just fine, many of my friends’ sites were completely inaccessible. (Of course, simply mentioning the firewall may block johnaugust.com. The irony is appreciated.)


Happy Easter from Beijing

I’m in China for a week of sight-seeing, research for one those Someday Scripts I hope to eventually write. The project is very much Old World, so most of my time has been spent tromping around the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, getting a feel for the architecture and details that you don’t really find in a book.

While the historical landmarks have been everything I hoped for, the real surprise has been modern China. It doesn’t feel anything like the Orwellian state I read about in high school. All the Business Week articles about China’s rush into a market economy understate the degree to which it already feels First World. People have cooler cell phones. They own their own apartments. Beijing feels like it could host the Olympics next year — although they have until 2008 to finish the new subways and all the other improvements underway.

I’ve been to St. Petersburg, which has a similar beautiful-buildings-to-ugly-cinderblocks ratio, but the mood couldn’t be more different. Beijing feels like it’s on a massive sugar rush, and the people in the park seem genuinely happy. It’s like Los Angeles, with more smog and darker hair. That doesn’t sound like a rave, but it’s actually pretty cool.

My advice is to come before the Olympics, when everyone will see how world-ready it is. Mandarin is notoriously difficult to master, but it’s pretty easy to pick up basic traveller pidgin: hello, excuse me, where is.., is it here?. As I overheard one expat Texan say over cocktails: “It’s easier to speak than to understand.” A great double-entendre, which in this case is true.


Writing vs. relationship

questionmarkHow do manage your time between writing and relationships? Aside from the hours of just you and your computer (not to mention meetings, phone calls, and more meetings), how do you find time for significant others?

I just broke up with a nice girl because I couldn’t make enough time for the relationship. I felt guilty every hour I spent not writing and when I got a free moment, my first thought was writing when it should have been my relationship. How can a writer remain prolific and not estrange him/herself from people? Can the two worlds coexist and if so how?

I don’t want to end up sad and lonely but at the same time I’m unable to compromise my strong work ethic to make time for new relationships (it’s hard enough maintaining the existing ones!)

–Michael
Los Angeles, CA

Unless you work at Wendy’s, it’s always tough balancing a career and a relationship. What’s even harder is balancing three things: a day job, a relationship, and the writing career you’d like to have. So the first thing I’d say is, accept that one of these three things isn’t going to get all the attention he/she/it deserves.

These days, I mostly work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Sometimes I have phone calls after hours or on weekends, and occasionally I’ll have to fly to London on five hours’ notice. I get up two or three times a night to jot down things that pop in my head, and I’m always borrowing my partner’s Treo to text-message myself some snippet of dialogue overheard at a party. But from outward appearances, I have a pretty normal working life. So, living with John August the screenwriter isn’t any more difficult than living with John August the attorney would be. That’s a luxury of being able to write as a career.

Back when I was working as an assistant, and writing at night, I had a lot less “free” time. I didn’t go out much. I stayed in on Friday nights and rewrote. I didn’t date a hell of a lot, either. I made a conscious choice to buckle down and get some scripts written. In the end, both work and relationship turned out well, so I guess it worked.

But I’m not sure it was the smartest choice, given my situation at the time. Many writers take ten years before they meet with any real success, and if I’d continued to put writing above relationships, I’d be a sadder, lonelier guy today.

For you, Michael, the better choice might be to stake out some Non-Writing Time, when you deliberately and guiltlessly do the things normal people do, including dating, parties, and watching your sweetheart’s favorite show even though you don’t particularly care for it. Once you specifically block off some Us time, it’s easier to set aside the ten or so hours a week you need for your writing. And if she can’t live with that, well, she can’t live with a writer. Better to know it now.

On a related note, make sure you’re not using your strong work ethic as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Writers are notorious hermits, and that can be dangerous.

During my writing-at-night era, I didn’t go out much at all, but the times I did were often revelatory. An example: I remember meeting Trey Parker at Three of Clubs in Hollywood in either 1994 or 95. Although I’ve never spoken to him since, I know it was him, because this guy was also from Colorado, and he corrected me when I called him Troy. Twice. He told me that he and a friend were making this video Christmas card for a guy at MTV. I felt kind of bad for him, because it seemed like he was kind of struggling.

Of course, that video Christmas card was the original South Park, and he and Matt Stone became successful zillionaires. Seeing the first South Park, I felt some envy, sure, but more importantly I felt inspiration: this guy I met a year ago is now making this kick-ass show. If he can do it, well, maybe I can too.

Obviously, my life didn’t turn on one chance meeting at a bar. But the sum total of all these little incidents really do add up. So whether it’s drinking, dating, or relationship drama, make sure you’re out there experiencing actual life. It will make you a better writer, as well as a more-interesting person.


What does a writer’s assistant do?

questionmarkIn your most recent posting you mentioned your assistant Chad. Someone in the comments made a crack along the lines of “oh boy, sure would be nice to have an assistant,” and that got me thinking… What does he do for you? Is he more of a secretary, or does he actually help with the writing, reading drafts, etc.

I know your previous assistant went on to become a director, so I’m sure that Chad doesn’t just sit around all day answering the phone and filing his nails. Do you guys work out of your home, or have a separate office?

–Alon Ozery
Toronto

Back before he wrote and directed Dodgeball, Rawson Thurber worked as my assistant, and was nice enough to write up this article for the site. So, first, I’d point you there.

Typically, a Hollywood assistant does a lot of what you’d normally call secretarial work: answering phones, scheduling appointments, arranging travel, and dealing with the clutter of office life. In the case of my assistants, they also proofread everything I write. Sometimes, there’s plenty of work, but more often they’re on their own, which is why I make it a habit to hire screenwriters. If someone is going to be under-employed, sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day, they might as well be writing something that can further their career. That’s how Rawson wrote Terry Tate and Dodgeball.

My other fantastic previous assistants include Emilie Sennebogen, Sean Smith (who is now writing on “Summerland”), and Dana Fox (who wrote The Wedding Date).

Chad, who’s been with me for about two years, has a project set up at Warner Bros., and takes a lot of meetings around town. Before too long, he’ll move on and become a full-time screenwriter, and the cycle will begin again.

As to your second question, our house has a free-standing garage, and I work in a space attached to that. It’s ten feet from the kitchen door to my office, but it’s a crucial ten feet — enough that it feels distinct from home life, but close enough that I can still run in and get whatever I need. I could probably get an office at a studio, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like it as much.


Picking a printer

questionmarkWhat kind of printer do you have? As a fellow geek, I’m curious. In my imagination, I see a professional screenwriter requiring a huge, high-powered beast that can print one script per minute. Or, do you not even print anything since it’s all sent out via PDF in these modern times? How much do you print in the average day/week?

–Alon Ozery
Toronto

We have an HP LaserJet 4100TN (closest equivalent is probably the 4250tn), which is more than adequate. It can print out a 120-page script in about four minutes — but more often it’s only printing 60 pages, because we’ll choose side-by-side layout to save paper.

I don’t print nearly as much as I used to, since most times I’m delivering a .pdf rather than a printed script. I used to recommend screenwriters spend the extra money for a fast printer, but there’s really no great advantage now. Almost any laser printer — and even most inkjets — can print a script in less time than it takes to walk the dog.


Removing duplicate iCal entries

geek alert This is hugely off-topic, so feel free to skip to the next article, which will likely have something to do with screenwriting and/or filmmaking.

My assistant Chad and I use Apple’s iCal to keep track of appointments. It’s nowhere near as sophisticated as Exchange or a real professional calendar system, but for the most part, it works. He maintains “John’s Work” calendar, and I maintain “John’s Personal” calendar. We both use the built-in publish-and-subscribe feature, so we see the same things on each computer.

After doing this for several years, however, some problems have arisen — mostly stemming from syncing with various Palm devices. Calendar events get duplicated, often six or seven times. Multiply that by several years, and the files get huge, and slow: my Work.ics file ballooned to 1.7 megabytes.

After searching the internet for a program that would fix this, I finally had to write my own. In the interest of paying-it-forward to the next guy with the same problem, here’s what I wrote. Continue on only if you’re truly geeky, or desperate.

UPDATE: Changes with OS 10.4 (Tiger), and specifically iCal 2.0, means that the script as written won’t work anymore. Sorry. But the underlying concept still holds. With an hour and a little ambition, it should be possible to eliminate duplicates in the same way. Just be sure to always work on a backup of the calendar file.

(more…)