I heart WriteRoom

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the production notes for The Nines. The document will end up being about 20 pages, detailing the backstory of how the movie got made, from inspiration through editing, along with everyone’s bios. It’s part of the press kit for the film, helping the journalists at Sundance remember who the hell was in the movie they saw three days ago.

Ultimately, we’ll end up formatting the notes in Word or Pages, but for raw text I lean heavily on TextMate, which is what I use for all of the writing for the site. It’s unbelievably powerful, if occasionally maddening.1 I have TextMate set to automagically generate a lot of the formating markup, and the tag-wrapping feature can’t be beat. But on a lark, I decided to try a new application for writing the production notes: WriteRoom.

It’s deliberately, refreshingly bare-bones and retro. When you open a window, it takes over your entire screen, including the menu bar. All you see is the words, complete with a blinking cursor. Perhaps nostalgic for my years writing on an old Atari, I’ve chosen a dark blue background with almost-white 18 pt. Courier. Give me a kneeling chair and a dot-matrix printer and I’m in junior high again.

Other writing applications are picking up this full-screen meme — honestly, it’s hard to figure out why it took so long. Apple’s Pro apps (Final Cut Pro, Aperture) have had no qualms grabbing every available pixel of real estate, although they don’t completely banish the common interface elements. (Except for Shake, which also requires a blood sacrifice to Ba’al.)

The big-screen treatment is the digital equivalent of closing the kitchen door when company comes over: Never mind the mess in the sink, let’s have a nice dinner.

WriteRoom 2.0 is in beta, but there’s nothing spectacularly different or better than plain old 1.0. Either version is worth checking out.

As for the inevitable question: Could I write a script with it?

Yes, no, maybe.

I’ve actually had conversations with two gurus of web markup about creating a simplified screenplay markup that could be imported into “real” screenwriting applications like Final Draft. WriteRoom and its ilk support tabs and external scripts, so it’s conceivable to build a system like ollieman’s screenwriting with TextMate bundle.

But for now, I have an actual paid rewrite to be doing, and it’s a Final Draft job. Sigh.

  1. To wit: If you use command-z “Undo” to fix something you shouldn’t have deleted, TextMate will replace it one letter at a time, undoing each backspace rather than the whole chunk. Apparently, the software creator feels strongly that this is the logically correct behavior, and while I disagree, I fully respect his decision to say, “because that’s how I want it!”

Because nothing says quality like a cow

In an article in today’s LA Times about his collaboration with Laura Dern, director David Lynch bemoans how expensive Academy Award campaigns have become:

So in what must have looked like a scene from one of his own films, Lynch recently made a “For Your Consideration” sign touting Dern, hired a piano player and a cow named Georgia and sat for about four hours at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue and another four in front of the Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip. “It was the greatest cow,” Lynch said. “People would come up wanting to pet the cow and talk. So many people came up and said they wanted to help. So there is a part of us that can see through [the hype]. All I want is to try get the word out.”

Follow up: What job should I beg for?

follow up Continuing the tradition of readers following up on previous answers, we hear back from the guy who wondered what the best job on a movie set would be for him to learn more about filmmaking.

Here’s the original question and answer:

A friend of mine is a writer whose work has been lucky/funny enough to make it to the big screen. The sequel has been greenlit and he just shot me an email letting me know that he’s signed on as the director! I am an aspiring screenwriter and I understand how valuable it is to be on set and get a bird’s eye view of the process. So my question is this:

What job should I beg him for? I’ve got no on-set experience and I’m not sure how much staffing power the director has, or in what areas he has it. I don’t want to ask for something completely unrealistic and appear foolish. I am, however, eager, ambitious and a very hard worker. I’ll carry their luggage, haul equipment or simply make sure the toilet paper is properly stocked — if I can just get a peak at the process, write during my down time and make friends/connections. I’d kill for this opportunity. I just need to know…um…. what opportunity exactly, I’m killing for.

— J.R.

If the budget allows him to have an assistant, that’s the job you want. By shadowing him, you’ll get the broadest perspective of preproduction, production and post.

Maybe he already has an assistant, or the budget won’t allow him to have one. Then it gets a little harder to figure out the right spot for you.

Assuming you can drive a car, answer a phone and work long hours, you can be an office PA. You’ll learn a lot about the logistical side of filmmaking, but won’t have a ton of on set exposure — you’re running back and forth from the office a lot. You’ll be taking orders from a production coordinator, who will generally send you for a pickup in Santa Monica when you just got back from Venice. On the plus side, you’ll get to know your LA geography a lot better, and become familiar with the various vendors and production houses.

While an office PA can learn on the job, an on-set PA actually needs to know what he’s doing. There’s a useful guide you can download, but a large part of the job is simply anticipating what’s going to happen next, and that only comes with experience. But everyone has to start somewhere, so if you can convince the first and second AD’s (who oversee the PA’s) that you’re a quick learner, they might bring you on. But always keep in mind that you’re working for them, not your buddy the director.

If you’re competent with a videocamera, another possibility is to shoot the behind-the-scenes footage. That certainly gives you access. Just make sure not to step on the toes of the actual filmmakers.

If it’s not possible to get a real job on the movie, it’s absolutely worth asking your friend if you can visit set a few times during production. Just make sure that when you do, you make yourself a ghost. The best set visitors aren’t just invisible — they’re almost immaterial, and never in the way when you turn the set around. The safest place to hover is generally near craft service; they pick that location to be close to the set but never in the way.

JR wrote back yesterday…

In October of this year I wrote you asking what job I should beg my writer-turned-director friend for on the set of his new movie. After reading your response I immediately went to beg for an assistant job — preferably on set since that would obviously be the biggest thrill for me — but made it clear that office PA would be terrific as well (naturally, no begging and choosing). He already had an assistant, but promised to do what he could to get me on as a set PA. He also informed me that since the film is shooting outside of California, he’d have to speak with the executive producer to make sure that I wouldn’t jeopardize any tax credits they’d be receiving from the state in which they are working. Lastly he’d have to speak with his ADs to make sure they were fine with a quick learner with no experience.

As it turned out, the assistant directors were cool and I didn’t kill the tax credits. I’m a set PA!! The ADs have been extremely friendly. They’re communicating as much information as they can before production begins in January so that we can lessen my learning curve as much as possible. The PA handbook you shared has also been invaluable. I’m truly grateful for your help and insight.

In January I’m leaving my 9-5 to go on set for 3 months and play a (small) part in creating something that’s been an indescribable part of my life. I’m beyond ecstatic. What little downtime I have will be spent writing, conning the right folks into reading it, and trying to network my way into my next job. I’d appreciate everyone’s tips and or experiences in accomplishing these things if you’d care to share.

Thanks again,

Clive Cussler really, really dislikes Sahara

Today’s LA Times has a lengthy article about Clive Cussler’s lawsuit over SAHARA. It’s a fun, gossipy read, partially because I’ve had beers with many of the people involved:

For those who don’t have time to read the article, I’ll summarize the moral: be very careful when adapting the work of living authors. Particularly when they go on about how much they hate Hollywood.

Cussler had unprecedented and frankly unconscionable control over the adaptation. He bitched and bullied and couldn’t be placated. And if the resulting movie was less-than-stellar, well Mr. Cussler, three fingers are pointing back at you.

But on another level, I get it. Screenwriters are used to seeing their material altered, mangled and reinterpreted. Screenwriting is part of a process, and the craft can only support medium-sized egos.

The novelist, on the other hand, is God. And God doesn’t like to be told he’s a crotchety old jerk who’s been coasting on a mediocre franchise for years. I sympathize with Cussler’s dilemma: he wanted a big movie to bring new readers to his books, without any risk of the cinematic version replacing his literary one. Dirk Pitt has black hair, damnit! It says so here on page two! He wanted Hollywood on his terms.

Have fun with that lawsuit, Mr. Cussler.

My own experiences with adaptations have been more positive. (How couldn’t they be?)

For A WRINKLE IN TIME, Madeleine L’Engel functioned through a trusted producer, and while I had some significant disagreements over what plot points really needed to stay or go, at least I wasn’t arguing with the author. BIG FISH was a love fest from the start, with author Daniel Wallace so intrigued by the screenplay form that he became a screenwriter himself. And CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was made with the blessing of — and little interference from — the Roald Dahl estate.

What lessons should an aspiring screenwriter take from the SAHARA debacle? For starters, remember that the unhappy stories get press simply because of the train-wreck factor. Most times, the author and screenwriter have a decent relationship — if they have one at all. A smart novelist remembers that the existence of a movie doesn’t change anything about the book sold at Barnes and Noble. And the smart screenwriter remembers to praise the author at the press junket.

When should I panic?

questionmarkA two parter: First, after several years of false starts, I’ve finally finished a script I think is pretty good. I have a friend who is a pretty established movie writer, and he has a manager at an established company. Friend gave Manager the Script. After two months, Manager finally read the Script and called me up and said he really liked it a lot and was excited about it. But Script is an unusual sci-fi comedy and perhaps a tough sell (a director and or star would need to be attached) and so Manager needs to “find consensus” with others at his company, so I need to wait for others at the company to read it. Time passes.

After a couple of weeks, I have another conversation with Manager, who tells me nothing has happened but people are out of town — be patient, let’s connect a week from today. A week passes and no call. Another week-and-a-half passes, and I email. Another three days, and I call. Manager is “in a meeting.” Will call back.

Friend, who knows Manager well, has said, “Manager will not give you the silent treatment. If he doesn’t like the script, he will say ‘I don’t like it. Sorry. Bye.'”

After several days, I’ve gotten no response from Manager on the call or email.

Second, meanwhile:

I have another friend (Friend 2) whose very good buddy is a partner (in TV) at a large Agency. (Script is a feature.) Solely as a favor to Friend 2, Agent agrees to read script. I drop off Script in the Agency’s mail room. Time passes.

Nine weeks later, Friend 2 asks Agent about the Script. Agent’s assistant tells Friend 2 to tell me to resend the latest version of Script to Assistant, because Agent is going to take it home over the weekend. Done.

Two weeks later, Friend 2 and Agent have lunch. Agent says, “Sorry, I haven’t read Script yet. I or one of my associates will read it.”

A week or two later, I leave my first voicemail with Agent’s Assistant, asking if I can have any info on whether the script has been read or gotten any coverage.

A week later, I have heard nothing back.

Am I fucked?

— bagadonuts

Your story is my story is almost every story of an aspiring screenwriter in Hollywood. In my case, the agency was CAA, the friend was an instructor at USC, and the waiting game went on for about two months before we finally got a pass. But during those two months, I came home from work every day staring at the answering machine (it was still the answering machine era), hoping for word about the script.

Bagadonuts, you are not fucked. You are just stuck in the waiting cycle which hits everyone. And so you know, the waiting doesn’t magically go away as you progress further into your career. Just the people change. Instead of waiting to hear what an agent or manager thought of your script, you’re waiting to hear back about what the studio chief is thinking. But he’s busy dealing with a crisis on This Other Movie. So he’ll get to it when he can.

Best advice: Always have multiple things out there. Follow up on a reasonable schedule, but never speculate that silence means doom.

The Nines screening schedule at Sundance

The good folks at Sundance just sent out the screening times and locations for The Nines. Their website doesn’t show the schedule yet, but I presume it will be up soon.

Sun. Jan 21, 9:30 pm
Eccles, Park City

Mon. Jan 22, 8:30 am
Prospector, Park City

Tue. Jan 23, 9:00 pm
Sundance Village

Sun. Jan 28, 3:30 pm
Rose Wagner, Salt Lake City

The first Sunday is the premiere, and by far the largest theater — the same place we premiered Go in 1999. That’s the place to be if you want to see John hyperventilate. The subsequent screenings are generally calmer and more intimate, though I don’t know how intimate I’ll feel like being at 8:30 in the morning with a hangover.