Grand Theft Auto

I offer this an explanation and apology for why there will be few blog posts in the coming weeks. Fewer hours spent with friends and family. And an increased number of times I reach for my weapon rather than discussing matters calmly.

GTA IV comes out next week.

Here’s the thing: I’ve never even played I-III. I’m more Tower Defense than blood-soaked crime epic. But through whatever subconscious memetic programming, I feel absolutely compelled to buy it and play it. Dude, check out the trailer on Amazon.1

Because you’ll ask, I have a PS3, which is apparently awesome or incredibly lame, depending on which system the person I’m speaking with has. I’m debating whether to get the Dual Shock controller — or if that’s like getting a Waterford crack pipe.

  1. The trailer is age-verified, but I’m not sure how or why. Considering I have Amazon Prime turned on, I obviously have a credit card, so it seems strange to ask for a birthdate.

Uggh

On Friday afternoon, WGAw President Patric Verrone and WGAE President Michael Winship sent out an email to members that embarrassed themselves and both organizations. In it, they slammed the “puny few” who bailed on the WGA to take fi-core status, thus allowing them to write for pay during the strike. They provided a link to the list of names — seven in the East, 21 in the West.

The email felt like it had been stuck in the Out box for several months, and had suddenly and unexpectedly been sent to membership. Some readers have speculated that the timing was somehow related to the SAG negotiation, but I can’t fathom how it was supposed to help. It was badly conceived and badly executed.

There are two issues involved, and it’s best to look at them separately.

The first is the decision to list the names. It apparently came about by a vote of the board(s) during the strike. I’m not privy to what the discussion entailed, but I have to assume the memory of the Hollywood blacklist came up as a significant argument against releasing the names. It’s a painful and dark mark in screenwriter history, and not easily forgotten.

The best rationale I can think of for naming names would be to end speculation and mythologizing about how many writers walked out on the WGA during the strike: it was in fact a very small number, consisting almost entirely of daytime serial writers. There was no great insurrection or profiteering by writers for film or traditional television.

I think there is a discussion worth having — whether making those names public helps or hurts the writers, the Guild and the industry. I can’t fault strong opinions on either side.

The second issue is the email itself, and that’s the real flashpoint of this debacle.

[T]his handful of members who went financial core, resigning from the union yet continuing to receive the benefits of a union contract, must be held at arm’s length by the rest of us and judged accountable for what they are — strikebreakers whose actions placed everything for which we fought so hard at risk. […]

Without concern for their colleagues, they turned their backs and tossed the burden of collective action onto the rest of us, taking jobs, reducing our leverage and damaging the guilds for their own advantage.

Clearly, de-mythologizing was not the goal here. If anything, it’s a call to unsheath swords once again, this time to fight enemies among us. As the archives will show, I supported the strike strongly, both in miles walked and moments blogged. But guys? It’s over. And trying to reignite the flames of guild fury over 28 names is ridiculous. It makes the guild look as crazy as the AMPTP tried to portray us.

Over the past two days, I’ve heard the term “tone-deaf” a few times in reference to the email. But I think that’s too soft a criticism. A tone-deaf singer at least has some idea what the melody is supposed to be — he can hear it in his head, even if it sounds like cat disembowelment to us.

This email, however, is the wrong song at the wrong time. It’s Sussudio at a funeral. It feels like it came from a parallel universe in which the strike was still happening and Spock had a beard.

If there’s any silver lining, it’s this: If you were ever going to blunder, now is the time. For the first moment in quite a while, nothing’s at stake. The WGA is not in war mode — at least, it shouldn’t be. A frank discussion of how the guild conducts itself, publicly and privately, should be embraced. And emails like this should be the first topic of discussion.


When friends read your script

questionmarkWhat are your thoughts on choosing readers for first drafts? I’ve noticed that, for example, giving a Disney movie to a Fincher fan can turn a favor into a chore and leave the writer lacking in constructive feedback. Better to give it to someone who knows and enjoys the genre and is aware of that marketplace, past and present. You’re asking them to work for free, after all.

I’ve also made the mistake of allowing someone unfamiliar with screenwriting to read a script because they asked me to. You end up explaining everything to death and they still don’t get it which can feed your rampant first-draft-phase insecurity. Was there a strategy you followed back in the day to get the best feedback or did it just happen organically?

I looked but didn’t see anything on the site to help with this. May be helpful to myself and others.

– Matt

The screenplay format is so unlike traditional fiction that it’s hard for newcomers to offer much useful feedback. They often can’t distinguish between the strange experience of reading a movie on paper and the story they just read. You may feel a social obligation to let non-screenwriting friends read your work, but don’t plan your rewrite based on their reactions.

With friends and colleagues who are familiar with screenplays — by which I mean they’ve read at least a dozen, and can talk about them comfortably — you may still need to pick carefully. Certain people and certain genres just don’t mix.

A thoughtful reader, though, can often offer constructive feedback even when it’s not her type of movie.

Back when I was in the Stark Program, we all read each other’s scripts. Al Gough and Miles Millar made their first sale with a script about a cop and an orangutan — a very high-concept comedy. That’s not in my wheelhouse, but I went through two or three drafts with them, offering very specific notes about trims and clarifications. They did the same for me on my overwritten romantic tragedy. Regardless of the genre, a good reader can help a writer see problems and find solutions. More than anything, you want a second smart brain to bounce ideas off of. That’s why you ask people to read your work-in-progress.

And for the praise. You want people to tell you you’re great.

Another thing to keep in mind: Don’t burn out your readers. Unless they actively ask to read the next draft, give them a break. You may even want to keep one or two reader friends “fresh” for the inevitable rewrite.


Were I to seek examples of the subjunctive…

…I might begin with the excellent Wikipedia article on the issue, which provides a nice introduction to its usage in English and other Indo-European languages.

I’m a native English speaker, but the first language I studied was Spanish, which I think accounts for my fascination with the subjunctive mood. It’s much more commonly heard in Spanish, partly because its usage in English disappears amid polysemy:

→ I wish you were nicer to your brother. (past subjunctive)
You were lucky he didn’t hit you. (past indicative)

Different words, but you wouldn’t know it. The only time you notice the subjunctive in English is when the verb doesn’t seem to match the subject:

→ If I were rich, I’d have you killed. (contrafactual)
→ I request that he be given exile. (indirect command)
Let us fight our enemies, not each other. (hortatory)

When the subjunctive shows up, there’s almost always drama. Someone is expressing hope or doubt. It’s worth paying attention.

Cynics have been predicting the death of the subjunctive for years, arguing that it is mostly confined to archaic phrases. I disagree. While there are many shaky grammatical constructs I could easily see collapsing (who/whom, lay/lie), I think the subjunctive has several points in its favor:

  • Most native speakers don’t know they’re using it. While we notice when it’s omitted (“If I was president…”), the majority of people get it right without knowing why. (“I demand my account be reactivated immediately.”)

  • While there are alternatives, they’re rarely better. The previous example could be rewritten, “I demand you reactivate my account…” or “Reactivate my account, you idiot!” But neither achieves the same effect as the subjunctive. English thrives on having many ways of saying similar-but-different things.

  • It’s really common in religious material. The U.S. is very church-y, so Americans get a weekly dosage of subjunctive in their sermons and prayers. (“The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make his face to shine upon thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.”)

Remember that the subjunctive is invoked by the semantics, not just the words leading up to it:

→ If I were correct with my answer, I would have won Jeopardy.
but…
→ If I was correct in my calculations, we should hear a boom in three seconds.

Now that I’ve expressed my deep affection for the subjunctive, let me urge discretion when using it in screenwriting. Many times, your characters will speak ungrammatically. Your knowledge of the subjunctive should never trump their ignorance.

PAPPY

If was a bettin’ man, I’d say he demanded Sonny kills that other fella lest he rats him out to Bubba.

That’s three missed opportunities to use the subjunctive, but it may be the right choice for Pappy. Always go by ear with dialogue.


How to Meet

questionmarkI’m at the stage where I’ll hopefully be meeting with managers, agents, and producers. As a writer/director, what should I expect from these initial meetings and do you have any advice, or pitfalls to avoid?

— Sam
Los Angeles

Meetings are a crucial part of a professional screenwriter’s job. Even when you’re not pitching a specific project, you’re basically pitching yourself as someone worth hiring in the future. So you’re right to be thinking about what you should say, do, and wear. (In fact, I’ve already addressed that last point.)

Let me briefly lay out the structure of every first meeting I’ve had in Hollywood.

The meeting is set for 10 a.m. You get there at 9:55. An assistant asks you if you’d like anything to drink. The proper answer is, “A water would be great.”1 This phrasing makes it clear that her request has been heard and appreciated, and that you haven’t mistaken her for a waitress.

The assistant will bring you the beverage, then inform you that the agent/executive/producer is running a few minutes late. This is completely expected. Entertain yourself with your iPhone or copies of Variety laying nearby. If the assistant is nearby and doesn’t seem particularly busy with some other task, engage in conversation. There’s a pretty good chance this assistant will run Hollywood someday, so it never hurts to be friendly.

When the Big Man calls you in to his office, try to figure out which seat he likes to sit in. Generally, you’re safe sitting on the couch. If it’s a two-chair situation, you might as well ask, “Do you have a favorite chair?” Because if you sit in his spot, you’re just starting the meeting off on the wrong foot.2

The first topic of conversation will be about one of four things:

  • Something he read of yours that he liked
  • A mutual acquaintance
  • His office: either the view, or how he just moved in
  • A movie that came out this past weekend.3

This is a warm-up period, and is not scored.

While engaged in this conversation, listen for the word which signals the end of the period: “So.”

As in, “So, tell me about the kinds of things you write,” or “So, let me tell you a little about our company, and the movies we’re trying to make.” At this point, judging begins. If it’s mostly a listening exercise, be ready to restate his points in different words, preferably with insightful analogies to successful movies.4

If he’s asking you to talk, say three smart things. Then get him talking again.

EXEC

So, is that the kind of thing you mostly want to write, is thrillers?

YOU

Thanks. Yeah, I love thrillers. I mean, I love all genres, but what’s great about thrillers is you get to do the **character work setting up motivations,** you get the **puzzle aspect of plotting,** and **real stakes.** With comedies and dramas, you get one or two of those, but thrillers are the whole package.

EXEC

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

YOU

You take a movie like Collateral, and it can be funny and tight and dangerous.

EXEC

I worked on Collateral.

YOU

I love that movie. How did that come about? Was that a book?

This process will continue for ten to 20 minutes, at which point he may pull out a buck slip5 listing all of the company’s open writing assignments. (Or in the case of agent/managers, a list of studios and development companies.) After a little more discussion, he thanks you for coming in.

This is your signal to stand, shake his hand, and leave. Say goodbye to the assistant. Remember to ask if you need to validate.

If there’s any specific project you talked about, follow up the next day with an email. If you don’t have his email address, it’s fair to call the assistant and ask if you can email her (the assistant) something for the boss. You don’t need to send thank you notes and such.

When I first signed with an agent, he sent me out on 15 meetings. I was meeting junior executives at companies that had never made a movie. But it was smart of my agent to set those meetings, because it gave me a lot of practice — which I needed, because I was terrible. By the time I was taking meetings for Go, I was pretty unflappable, even in the face of egregious behavior.

My overall advice is to not freak out over any given meeting. Pretend it’s just having coffee with somebody who went to your same school. Unless you’re pitching a specific project, don’t approach it with any particular expectation, and it’s likely to go fine.

  1. You may also ask for a Diet Coke. These are the only beverages you can be reasonably assured will be on the premises, and not a hassle leading to frustration or extra work. Back in the day (say, 1999), you could also ask for a “Snapple-type beverage.” But no one drinks Snapple anymore.
  2. Meeting with multiple executives is an extra-credit situation, and generally necessitates asking about who sits where.
  3. Only appropriate if the meeting is on Monday, and the movie did significantly better or worse than expected.
  4. Bonus points if you can include movies he’s worked on. Box-office disappointments are okay, particularly if there are praiseworthy aspects.
  5. A buck slip is a piece of heavy paper cut down to roughly 4×10 inches, which is often attached to a script in lieu of a typed letter. I’m not sure they even exist in other industries.