Using a pseudonym

questionmarkHow do you go about using a pseudonym? My name doesn’t particularly stand out, and I’ve been using a pseudonym I really like while blogging. I’d like to use this as I submit scripts to contests/fellowships/agencies, but I’m not sure of the legalities of doing such. I don’t want to legally change my name — just write under a pen name.

How would I go about doing this, but still receive credit for what I write? How would I make authorship clear on applications/registrations?

— Phillip
Salt Lake City, Utah

Your email included your full name, and I disagree — your last name is straightforward, easy to pronounce and easy to remember. But if you decide you want to use a pseudonym, there’s nothing stopping you.

For now, just use your chosen pseudonym on your scripts. You’ll need to use your real, legal name on contracts and registrations, but for casual purposes, your nom-de-plume is fine. It’s only when people start paying you actual money that you’ll need to address the legitimacy of your pseudonym.

The WGA determines how names appear on screen, and the rules are pretty specific:

PSEUDONYM
19. A writer must use his/her own name in all writing credits unless he/she has already established a pseudonym or registers one at the Guild office before commencement of employment on a writing assignment, or before disposition of any rights to literary material on which he/she wishes to use such pseudonym.

Here’s what this means in practical terms. At some point, you’ll get a job writing for a WGA signatory company (any of the studios or major producers) and will be required to join the WGA. When you do, there will be forms to fill out, including a place for your pseudonym. You better be sure it’s the name you want to use for the next 30 years.

There’s one special case that sometimes comes up. A writer has the right to use a pseudonym if she receives credit on a movie, but don’t really want her name associated with it.

Credited writers of theatrical motion pictures are guaranteed the right to use a “reasonable” pseudonym if the request is made within five business days after credits are final and if the writer was paid less than $200,000 for writing services on the movie.1

In this situation, you’d still get residuals and all the other protections from being a credited writer, but you wouldn’t have to claim public ownership of a movie that went horribly awry.

It’s important to remember that using a pseudonym is different than legally changing your name. That’s what I did in 1992 before moving to California. My original last name flummoxed everyone, so I went to court in order to swap it with my father’s middle name. It was a massive hassle, but in the long run, it’s worked much better to have one name in both public and personal life.

  1. The $200K threshold seems arbitrary, but it’s a demand from the studios. If they’re paying a writer that much, they want to be able to use his or her name and credits for marketing purposes.

A bunch of marriage news

It’s been weirdly under-reported, but Proposition 8, the November ballot initiative that seeks to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage, had its official language changed earlier this month. It used to read as follows:

LIMIT ON MARRIAGE. CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.
Amends the California Constitution to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: The measure would have no fiscal effect on state or local governments. This is because there would be no change to the manner in which marriages are currently recognized by the state.

What’s going to appear on the ballots in November is much more accurate, and makes it clear that voting for it means actively taking away existing rights:

ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME-SEX COUPLES TO MARRY.
INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.
Changes California Constitution to eliminate right of same-sex couples to marry. Provides that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Fiscal Impact: Over the next few years, potential revenue loss, mainly sales taxes, totaling in the several tens of millions of dollars, to state and local governments. In the long run, likely little fiscal impact to state and local governments.

I would have added, “Voting for this means you’re a dick.” But the new language is certainly an improvement.

As I noted earlier, the polling indicates that the initiative is struggling: just 42% are in favor, a huge drop from 2000’s similar initiative. So its backers are already falling back on FUD tactics, the most recent being kindergartners. They warn —

lovejoy

If the gay marriage ruling is not overturned, teachers will be required to teach young children there is no difference between gay marriage and traditional marriage.

In the words of Mrs. Lovejoy: “Think about the children!”

Nevermind that the statement is factually wrong. Also, when do public school teachers give lessons on marriage, period? And are there popsicle sticks and yarn involved?

It’s easy to be glib, but dangerous. The proponents of Prop. 8 — many of them out-of-state — have deep pockets and a long history of stirring shit up in their favor. That’s why in lieu of a traditional wedding registry, we signed up with Equality California, which is spearheading the opposition campaign. Frankly, we’d rather have justice than a toaster.1

But worst case scenario — what happens if it passes? That’s still up for debate.

The consensus is that existing marriages couldn’t be voided, since they were legal at the time they were enacted. And to paraphrase the late Charlton Heston: you can pry my ring off my cold, dead hand. But there are reasons to believe the amendment might still get considerable court scrutiny even if it passes. The legal lingo about “suspect classes” is a bit head-swirling, but can be summarized thusly: imagine an amendment that said African-Americans couldn’t marry. You’d have a guaranteed court battle.

. . .

In much happier news, my friend Andrew Lippa just wed his longtime squeeze David Bloch, and the New York Times has a great piece on it. I hadn’t realized that the Times now does video interviews, but wow, it’s great. You get a much better sense of the couple when you hear them tell their own story. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to want them married.

Andrew is a genius composer and lyricist, and I’ve been fortunate to be working on a project with him for the past two years. Mazel Tov to them both.

  1. If you’re itching for some righteous equality but don’t have another couple to gift, the registry is still there. John and Michael August, under “J,” strangely enough.

Packing light

I’m headed to Seattle tonight for a quick screening of The Nines. I’m packing almost nothing: my iPhone, my Kindle, toiletries and a change of undies. Over the past year, I’ve found I am packing less and less, to the point that it’s become a sport to see how little I can get by with. It’s like urban survivalism.

It even has its own subcultures: I’ve become an adherent of bundle wrapping.

Part of my packing-light buzz is probably a reaction to having a child, because particularly with infants, there’s just so much crap you have to carry with you. When you leave them at home, you’re eager to ditch the luggage as well.


Zombies, Bridesmaids and Assassins

A quick trip to London over the weekend gave me 20+ hours of plane time to catch up on reading. I finished three books. The first two had been sitting on my Kindle1, while the last is dead-tree-only at the moment.

world war zAs I’ve mentioned before, screenwriters spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about zombie invasions, so it was high time I read Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It’s structured as a series of interviews with survivors of an apocalyptic zombie event, and while certain interviewees use words a bit outside their vocabulary, on the whole I thought it created a very believable world.

These are Romero-style supernatural zombies, as opposed to 28 Days/Weeks Later style biological zombies. That sounds like an esoteric distinction, but it has huge plot implications. These zombies won’t stop. Ever. They don’t need food, water, oxygen. They can’t swim, but they’ll walk along the ocean floor in giant mobs, later to walk up on beaches. Survivors are smart to head up above the frost line so zombies will freeze solid — but remember, they’ll thaw come spring.

As disaster movies love to show us, there’s something comforting about the end of the world, and Brooks’s book is no exception. J. Michael Straczynski is writing the big-screen adaptation, and while I’d love to see it, the material really feels better suited to a Lost-style television series. Regardless, the book is worth a read if you ever spend time contemplating zombie fortifications.

cakeSloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a collection of mostly-witty essays in the style of David Sedaris. Crosley is the centerpiece of most of the tales, and she’s likable enough. Barely. I can imagine being her friend: In my 20’s, I would have been her gay roommate and/or co-worker sharing eye rolls at perceived transgressions of a secret social code. In my 30’s, I would recognize that her minor misfortunes are invariably self-sabotage in the hopes of attracting attention, and would eventually stop returning her calls.

To her credit — I guess — Crosley seems to understand her negatives. Her story about volunteering at the butterfly pavilion accurately reflects how mostly-good intentions can result in drudgery, self-doubt and shame. In the best of the essays, Crosley serves as a bridesmaid to a high school friend she barely remembers. The story works largely because the former friend is such a needy monster that Crosley’s ambivalence feels fully justified. The conclusion is disappointing, but true to the spirit of the book: she’s not sure what she learned, or if there really is anything to learn.

I think Crosley will improve greatly with better editing. She’s a smart observer, but too often feels like she’s padding to reach a target word count.

silver bearThe last book of my trip was Derek Haas’s The Silver Bear. Haas is a friend and colleague, having co-written 3:10 to Yuma and this summer’s Wanted. His novel, which charts the rise of an assassin, is stripped-down and lean. Chapters following his pursuit of one target alternate with earlier episodes: his first kill, his first love, his first betrayal. It’s unapologetically genre fiction, romanticizing even as it attempts to deconstruct.

Considering they’re both assassin origin stories, Wanted and The Silver Bear couldn’t be more different. Where Wanted is all flourishes and suspension of disbelief, The Silver Bear is played straight. It reminded me most of Donald E. Westlake’s The Ax, in that murder simply becomes a job function.

It’s a smart, quick read, and recommended.

Links to Kindle versions: World War Z, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, The Ax.

  1. Mini review: I like the Kindle a lot. It looks awkward, but feels surprisingly good in the hand. The screen is terrific for books, but far too slow for reference materials. It’s good enough that I’ll always get the Kindle edition of a book if available.

Five quick questions

I have lots of questions, but by all means choose two you’d like to answer.

— Ric
New Zealand

questionmark1) What’s the commercial potential of movies without happy endings? I’m tired of every movie having to end in a good way, even if that’s a main character surviving a slasher flick. Does a movie automatically fail if it ends with the world blowing up? Forrest Gump wouldn’t quite be the same movie if Forrest suddenly went mad and killed everyone, but surely not every single movie has to end on a good note.

Movies can certainly end with everyone dead,1 and it’s not at all uncommon to kill off key protagonists (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Titanic). Even a comedy can end on mixed notes — The Graduate being a good example. But your basic assumption is correct: the commercial potential of most movies is going to be stronger if it ends happily, simply because people will walk out of the theater happy. So you need to decide how important a happy ending is to your story, knowing the extra challenges you face with a downbeat ending.

I’d also challenge you to remember that a happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean everyone skipping off into the sunset. From The Godfather to Aliens, many great movies end on a note of uncertainty. The immediate threat may have passed, but the road ahead is dangerous.

questionmark2) What’s the best way to handle an “early life” part of a film, where you need to show the character growing up? How much is too much? How many “stages” are too many? Will it break the movie if my screenplay uses the whole first act to show incidents: at birth, 5 years old, 7 years old, 10 years old, 14 years old (and that’s condensing things, stage-wise) and then further flashbacks later on? And how do I show the character’s “want” or “why” through all of this? Or is it okay if the want or why doesn’t start until later in the film?

Every movie works differently, but trying to include that many stages will almost certainly fail. Here’s why.

In a book, aging a child from five to seven to ten to fourteen costs you nothing. You can skip from age to age, incident to incident, without trouble. Readers don’t have a strong expectation about “when the story is supposed to get started,” so as long as you are holding their interest, you’re okay.

In a movie, aging a child from five to seven to ten to fourteen means casting at least three actors.2 Each time, you’re forcing the audience to identify with a new kid, with a new face, and new quirks. The replacement cost is very high, so it has to be really worthwhile to consider doing it.

More importantly, movie audiences have strong expectations about when the story is supposed to get started, and we know the story won’t really begin until we reach the grown-up version. Any scenes involving the young versions are going to feel like stalling.

Big Fish follows Edward Bloom’s life from the day he was born until the day he dies, but deliberately structures those moments to tell the bigger story of Edward and Will’s reconciliation. That’s the A-plot, and everything else is in service of that. In fantasy flashbacks, we see Edward very briefly as an infant, then jump ahead to him as ten-year old. After that, he’s either adult (Ewan MacGregor) or elderly (Albert Finney).

Get to the grown-up. We need to know much less of a character’s history than you think.

questionmark3) What is, in your opinion, the best way to write a synopsis?

A good synopsis doesn’t follow the plot beat-by-beat, but gathers together related story threads to explain What It’s About rather than exactly What Happens. Depending on its purpose, a synopsis can be two sentences or two pages, but I find almost any movie can be well described in a paragraph.

questionmark4) How would I show someone “studying really hard all year.” Would that be a montage?

Yes, but it sounds incredibly dull. Please avoid it.

questionmark5) Say the character starts singing a song and then all these different scenes start showing. How would I write that, considering each scene coincides with certain lyrics?

The character begins singing, then as you move through other scenes, you include the next part of the song as voice-over.

BOY’S CHORUS

Oh beautiful, for spacious skies / For amber waves of grain...

SONG CONTINUES as we...

CUT TO:

INT. PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE – DAY

Mrs. Wiggin’s ginormous bare butt bounces up and down. She’s evidently straddling Mr. Garcia.

BOY’S CHORUS (V.O., CONT’D)

For purple mountains majesty, / Above the fruited plain.

Mrs. Wiggins opens her mouth in wide-eyed ecstasy:

BOY’S CHORUS (V.O., CONT’D)

America! America! / God shed his grace on thee.

CUT TO:

FIVE MINUTES LATER

Sweaty and slaked, Mrs. Wiggins lights a cigarette. Mr. Garcia is trying to work a kink out of his back.

BOY’S CHORUS (V.O., CONT’D)

And crown thy good / With brotherhood

BACK TO:

INT. AUDITORIUM – NIGHT

BOY’S CHORUS

From sea to shining sea!

The parents APPLAUD.

  1. Consider The Blair Witch Project, or Cloverfield. If either of these are spoilers, you’re officially behind on popular culture.
  2. I’m assuming the same child actor is playing 5 and 7, or 7 and 10.