Friday, July 31, 2009

AWOL Blues: Part II (The Room)

It is soul crushing.

Fucking soul crushing.

I'm talking broken spirit epic. And yet, it happened with a quiet email.

And so I quit. I quit writing.

See in the couple of years from when I started to get the script into fighting shape, several Iraqi themed movies tanked. Actually, all of them. So there we are excellent script and dick in hand. And no movie.

So I quit the biz. I quit writing. I told myself to live a year without the fucking pencil or staring at a computer screen or blank page. But what to do now? So many thing... so I learned the bass guitar. I joined a cover band. I gardened. I experimented successfully with and made my own BBQ sauce (DBQ- Red Eye Jack ad Smokey Bee). I lived an external present in the moment life and it was amazing. Huh... so this is what regular people do.

But you know the script is just sitting there and someone mentioned the Nicholl Fellowship contest the big Academy sponsored screenplay contest. I remember thinking when is that deadline only to look it up online and see that it was THAT day. Through a mishmash of electronic shuffling and faxing, credit cards and dropped elevator calls Mark and I get both LA and Chicago signatures on the application and submit the script at the deadline.

Cut to: a few months later. We make the QF. The first time I've/we've done so. It's 50/50 for the next cut and for whatever reason we don't make it. We'll have to be happy with the top 5%. But getting that first letter and reading it to Mark over the phone was a nice moment. A few months later we start getting emails asking to read the script. It's flattering, but know the end result: it's not commercial enough. It's actor'award bait, but not the time.

But the thing about screenwriting and movies is nothing is ever really dead. And the path is never clear or predictable. At my shitty day job, a junior broker here and I chat occasionally and he mentions his buddy from college is in the biz. Turns out he's a successful screenwriter having been Joel Schumacher's assistant for many years. Before he wrote himself into a room with Vince Vaughn. I seemed to recall this fact about his buddy 18 months earlier, but the timing was wrong and I didn't have anything ready to go even if I could get him to pimp my stuff. Again, timing.

But it comes up in conversation again and I asked if he'd introduce me, I had after all just placed in teh QF of Nicholl and he'd know what that meant. He got my stuff and shortly thereafter called me and offered to help out. Going against my better judgment I sent him a comedy. It went to William Morris and came back with shitty coverage.

Embarrassingly bad.
(FYI, fart and dick jokes are added after the script's been sold.)

But he was cool about it and I talked to him again and said I have this drama, kinda dark and it made the QF of Nicholl so would he take a look at that. He agreed (there are some cool cats out there). I sent it to him and he forwarded it to William Morris for Coverage. Well, I guess he got bored and before the coverage came back read the script and really, really liked it. It helped that the coverage came back with a thumbs up within the next day or two and he asked if it was okay if he could forward it to Joel Schumacher as he knew they were currently looking for this kind of material. He asked me. if. it. was. okay.

(BTW by this time: I have been suckered out of my hiatus to write Straigtht Razor Jazz -- see other blog. I vow to take a hiatus every year, a spiritual purging, if you will. I botch this by going to grad school.)

Within a couple of weeks we get a nice email from Schumacher's company. Who are these guys? Great writing. I’d love to meet them.

A trip to LA where the meeting doesn't happen -- rescheduling is the name of the game, we finally nail downa lunch, butI"m back in chiacgo so I phone in my hellos and banter. But we manage to pitch our next piece ADAM PROPHET, he likes the idea enough and we have an open door for submisison. Now we just crack that script. (Draft number 7 coming up...) Aaron or Jeremy, if you're reading this you're either laughing from pathos or recognition, regardless at least you're laughing, right.

Who knows what will happen, but my name is known in some professional circles and in a good way. And now we're one step closer to the danger zone.

And that motherfuckers is how you get in the room. Easy, no?

AWOL Blues. Part I (the hurt locker)

My co-writer and I have a meeting with Joel Schumacher's right hand guy.

How did this happen?

We wrote ourselves into that room.

I'm not a political person. At least in my writing. I seem to be more interested in personal issues such as survival, loyalty, redemption, half-realized dreams and whatever else they wrote in that profile of mine a few years ago.

That changed with the Iraq war, or police action or occupation. It took a while as I admit I was in that camp of I've read The Hot Zone or Cobra Event and I know Saddam's got the WMD. But now like everyone else, I know it was grade-A bullshit. This is what happens when you're just smart enough to be a danger to yourself and those around you.

So I decided to say something. I'd write a screenplay. And so I did: AWOL Blues.

But see that's-- now that I'm really thinkin about it the way it happened, that's not the spark point for the idea. Actually, I was contacted to pitch a small character drama for a director here in town. He mentioned he had a visual of sailors in Chicago and suddenly they're getting into a jam, those kooky sailors.

Well, I grew up with an ex-Marine father and didn't know squat about sailors, so I pitched the idea incorporating Marines and two locales the director had lived in, making it a small State-side version of Going After Cacchiato, a book I reference but only have read the book jacket thus far. It was a moment of inspiration where the whole thing fell into place. I typed up the outline, registered it online with the WGA and I pitched it with enthusiasm as if it was the only possible movie the universe would accept now and at the end of the pitch I pointed at the director and said, "and that's your fucking movie."

He smiled, said "wow."

At the end of the night, he said: I think we can make this happen."
But it didn't. He balked at my quote and really wanted it to be about sailors.

Cut to: a year later, and I'm on the indie (ie B) film festival circuit with Hard Scrambled and am hearing nothing but BS about the war. My Hard Scrambled producer and I start talking about doing a political movie. I pitch him my idea. He liked the story, but sees students, not Marines, or kooky sailors. But I have a clear vision with the piece, so we agree to go our separate ways on the project and I go off and in a rare moment of "this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life," hole up in my hotel room between screenings and start writing the script.

Nine months later, my producer asks hows it going? (seems his Iraq movie script has stalled). I send him a rough draft. He says we have to do this. This is important and we have to do it. By hook or crook. Now.

But "now" as we all know in movie speaks, means "after a lengthy script development process, also known as Development Hell (actual term)." A year and half of frustrating rewrites and finally we get the script to a pretty solid point. It's a bit loose, but it's a road trip movie. I like it.

And then the Nov 06 elections change everything. People started resigning, and now my fresh script seemes very dated. So I cut more and more of the political outrage and make it more and more about the characters and add a personal dilemma as a result of the war. The process is painful and scream-worthy frustrating. My producer and I have a different sensibilities regarding a number of things, though he sends me book and documentaries and keeps the grist for the mill going.

I don’t remember the impetus (maybe I've blocked it), but after one particualr set of notes, I call my buddy Mark Glinski and cry, bitch, moan and groan and say I need fresh eyes and writing and we have to get this script turned around so we can shoot it now.

So I do that thing I've never really done. A Page One rewrite.

Mark and I take the essence of the script, the main character and cut the rest. The original structure had a marine going AWOL and his other marine buddies coming after him. We cut the posse and made it more about spiritual conflict, patriotism, and family. And add a chick. It could have been set in Vietnam, Korea, WWII. Once we have the spine in place we divided up scenes and write. Mark proves his worth as always and comes up with some great suggestions and some truly heart-breaking scene work. Even our producer with renewed enthusiasm add a few notes and suggestions I would call brilliant.

It was, I think a breakthrough as a writer for me, this script. And I think Mark would agree. We finalized our deal with the producer. Exciting. Did I mention I'm directing? Fuck yeah. Everyone who's read the script loves it. It's very, very solid. We're shooting ASAP, we're hiring a casting director, and once we get actors attached (I have some already interested in the supporting cast pool) the rest will fall into place. And we will quit our day jobs to do Something Important. Two weeks before we're to go wide with the script to land a casting agent, the producer drops the script.

Drops. As in don't quit your day job.

To be continued...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Fountain: a Novel

A fountain on the third floor of an art institute grants the drinker the ability to create ONE masterpiece. Then shortly after you die. Shehanigans and philisopy ensue.

It's a satire.

And a mediation on human rights, the creative process, the artistic life, survival, loyalty, the state of media, etc. We follow The Critic, The Hack, The Artist. They all have names, but you don't get them just yet.

And yes, Dear Reader, it has generous dollops of sex and violence and hopefully the energy of Trainspotting the movie.

I'm about 2/3 -3/4 of the way through a first draft. This is my MFA thesis project at Queens University of Charlotte where I'm currently workshopping it under the mentorship of wildman Pickney Benedict.

This is my first novel (first one in about ten years). I'd sworn off them finding some success with stage writing and then screenwriting, but of course had a lighting flash of an idea while prowling about at the MCA silently cursing the hip art students all in black. I wrote a bunch of scenes and chapters without rhyme or reason, but usually in response to something I heard or read or saw while on other projects and then one day last winter decided to get serious about it finishing it. I started with that scatter shot collection of material and have been revising and writing like a madman ever since. So far so good. It's been a nice process of fear, confidence, cracking myself up and the constant whirly brain. Did I mention fear? Just a touch.

The workshop process has been enlightening. You really do get a sense of what works with another reader's particular sensibility. Some folks want more detail, more handholding. Some are fine with the minimalist writing. This awareness is a def asset. But I also realize that on a project like this-- it seems-- that a brief introduction is neccesarry to steel the reader. Noone really picks up a book at the bookstore without reading thee book jacket so they can get a hint of the story/genre, etc.

Nowadays it's rare (my mom excluded) for anyone to read a book or see a movie without knowing what they're going to get. The last movie I walked into cold was SHINE. I had no idea what it was about other than the lead actor was supposed to be amazing. It was a little disorienting, but rewarding as the brain tried to figure out what kind of movie it's going to be, what role the charcters will play, etc. Then you settle into it. This is why when writers do public readings they do a brief set-up with the audience to give it come context. The purist in me thinks it's not neccesarry, that the writing should carry its own weight.

And there's the rub.

But as I wrote earlier above, you know the context now for The Fountain, and I just might have post the prologue here in a bit...