Posts Tagged ‘writing’

When I was a teacher of writing, I spent a lot of time looking at what made words click for me and then trying to find exercises so that students in my classes could see and practice simple elements of style that vastly improved their writing.  I used to call it the toolbox approach to writing.

I have often compared writing an essay to building a house.  One needs a blueprint of sorts, materials that will support the structure and the fine details that make it pretty (let’s leave out the plumbing and electric for now). So the blueprint is the outline (which will include the general idea or thesis of the structure), the supporting examples (drawn from life or books or entirely made from whole cloth) and description — the fine detail that makes the essay a pleasant read.  It sounds good, but what if the student doesn’t know how to use the tools?  Would you ask teenagers to make a house without showing them first how to use a hammer or saw?

I had been out of teaching for a few years when the SAT began to include writing as one of its components.  I was asked to help tutor high school students, many of whom were gifted in math or science, to find ways to improve their score on the SAT.  These tests begin with a prompt — generally a quote of some sort (“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Confucius) — and then asking a question. “Do you believe success is the result of resilience?”

Ideally, the student would have some personal story in which they’d been knocked down and came back stronger.  Failing that, they would be instructed to use examples from literature, history, etc.  They have 25 minutes.  It is hard, in 25 minutes, to pay attention to style unless one is used to doing so as a part of their practice.

As I read through the examples of successful essays (given by the College Board, creators of the SAT), it became apparent that personal narrative was more likely to score well by almost a 2 to 1 margin. Sadly, for gifted my math and science students, they “could not remember” the details of most of the events in their lives.

It reminded me of a drawing exercise I was once given by Lance Richbourg when I studied in his class.  He had us take out a key — any key from our pockets — put it on a pedestal and told us to draw it.  We all drew it once, in about a minute.  Now we were told to do it again.  The caveat was that we couldn’t look at our paper.  Only the key.  We were to follow the outline of the key with our hands and our eyes had to stay on the key.

“And when we finish?” a crazy-haired blonde named Vita asked, following Lance with her thick lenses as he ducked out of the classroom.

Lance smiled and let his Texas twang sing out between his lips,  “Do it again.”

We’d all drawn the key anywhere between fifty and a hundred times before Lance returned.  Each sheet of paper was an agony of lines that did not connect or properly overlap.

“Take out a clean sheet of paper and draw the key,” Lance said, his dark curly hair falling over his forehead.  More groans in the large loft classroom’s fading afternoon light.

I learned to draw a key that afternoon, but I learned a whole lot more.  My initial key, the key I’d drawn in the first minute, had been subtly influenced by my mind’s idea of what a key should look like. My mind had flattened out some shapes along the key’s edge that had looked incongruously longer than the others.  It had centered the word “Royal” by putting the “y” over the hole in the center of the key.  In reality, the “y” was to the left of the hole and the word was unbalanced.  I was astonished at how badly I’d perceived the key — because truly, I was trying to draw the world’s most amazing key on that first run-through.  However, the world’s most amazing key would not have opened my dorm room.  I thought of how children make circles out of trees that are a myriad of lines and leaves.

It occurred to me that unless we are trained (or train ourselves) to observe — we do not pay attention to the details of our lives.  Fortunately for us, the brain records them anyway.  The question then becomes — how do we access them? (Oops, that’s a blog for another day) First we simply have to work on observing the “now.”

I would ask my students, who had chosen their own chairs at the table — for weeks on end — to describe what was behind them at that very moment.  Most failed.  They had come into the room, sat down in a chair, and never observed the bookshelves, the hanging scrolls, the plants.  I asked a high school Junior, a heavy-set girl who ate candy throughout class, what was above her at that very moment.  Inches from the top of her head hung the branch of a fig tree.  She did not know.

So problem number one, I told my students, is to pay attention.  I’d ask them to take a minute to describe the other students in the room — based only on what they are wearing, how their hair looks, if their fingernails are painted or trimmed, dirty or clean.  Make no judgements.  Just see.  Are their clothes well-kept, frayed? What about purses and other belongings?  I couldn’t aid them outside of the classroom, except with assignments, so I’d ask them to write a paragraph each day — describe the place you are in, describe the people who come in or out of that place, use only the senses (sights, smells, sounds, textures — I don’t encourage them to share tastes, for one thing, taste is one of the most difficult senses to describe).

“But what do we do with it?”

“Nothing.  It’s an exercise.  Just bring it to me at the end of the week.”

For the second part of the work, when they were writing, I’d ask them to use “tags.”  For me, a tag is a short physical description of a person, place or thing.

“If someone comes into your story, tag them.  Let me see something of how they appear.”

“What if I’m writing about myself?”

“If I’m the SAT reader, do I know what you look like?”

Heads shake “no.”

“So look in a mirror, see your reflection in a window.  Have someone else describe how you look that day.  Now, every narrative also takes place somewhere.  Even if you are thinking about something very abstract at this very minute, you a still sitting in this room.  You still feel the chill of the Winter air.  The people around you are sniffling and it may be the cold or an allergy to the window full of plants.”  Add a brief description of the place.

“Then won’t the essay go on forever and ever.”

“You wish.  Are you really concerned about over-writing in 25 minutes?”

“Won’t it get off point?”

“If you write ‘My teacher yelled at us’  — I know nothing about that teacher.  Is she young? Old? Stocky and intimidating?  Slender with a lisp?  If I write, ‘Miss Garvy has strawberry blonde curls that look soft as cotton candy, but when she looked at us on the desks, her voice snapped like a wet towel hitting a bare back.’  How much more information is in the second sentence?  I know the kind of trouble the class was doing (the why of the yelling); I know Miss Garvy is unmarried (or she’d be Ms.); I know that her appearance is soft, so that her voice yelling is something of a shock.  The first sentence contains scientific information, the second sentence contains emotional information.  You want your readers to respond emotionally.  Therefore you give them emotional information.

“The same applies to the place something happens.  If I’m writing about the baseball field, I could write: ‘I stood in the outfield.’ But are all outfields equal?  I remember playing in an outfield in Albany that was rarely mowed.  The grass was knee-high and there were pit-holes and mounds of dirt hidden beneath it, as well as leftover gravel that made it brutal to dive for a ball.  I’ve also played on a college field that looked as if the groundskeeper not only mowed the lawn, but combed the grass and used mousse when he was done.  It’s up to each writer how much or what kind of detail will be used, but place description gives the reader the context of the story.

“Lastly, there is often a ‘thing’ — the story revolves around a doll or a bicycle.  It has to be described. Unless you describe the thing that is gained or stolen, lost or won, it will have no emotional content — like an object you see in the 99 cent store that doesn’t belong to anyone.”

I’d challenge my students to use the two adjective tag — whenever someone appears in the story, two adjectives that describe them.  When a new place is entered, give two adjectives again. If an object is necessary to the progression of the story — a car that takes you on a date, a book that transports you far away — two adjectives.  It is not full-blown description, like Charles Dickens describing the London mud and fog at the start of Bleak House, but it helps the reader to separate what they are reading from similar stories.  Also, I encourage, each time a person or place returns, add another bit of description, flesh it out.

“If you write ‘my dog’ came down the stairs — unless you describe the dog in some way (or the stairs) I’m going to automatically insert a dog or a stair from my own memory.  I start thinking my own thoughts more than reading your essay.  Your job is to keep me engaged in your story — to give me enough detail that I can see it, follow it, smell it, hear it and eventually to be a part of it in an empathetic way.  Tagging is the first step.”

Using two adjectives doesn’t seem overwhelming to most students.  When I say ‘describe’ something, the first question I always get is “how much is enough?”  The correct answer is “as much as is necessary for your story,” but to make it succinct, I simply say “tag it.”

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After writing about Impossible Films a week or so ago, I wondered if it were possible to categorize the possible reasons that good books don’t translate into film.  As I’m still processing the topic, I don’t imagine my list will be anything near complete.  However, there were three basic categories that seemed to define legitimate reasons that a good film cannot be made from a particular novel.

The first category, since I’d reflected on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), is the philosophical novel.  Like ZAMM, there are certain novels that embrace philosophy and in fact, might simply be the metaphorical exposition of a philosophical system (anyone recall Plato’s cave?).  If one considers Hesse’s Journey to the East or Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), it is easy to see his writing as working out a philosophical system (largely based on Eastern writings).  That some of his novels, Narcissus and Goldmund or Siddhartha, are simply stories working under those philosophical principles does not alter the predominant philosophic bent of the writer.  Can one film any of those novels?  Of course.  Siddhartha was made into a film in 1972 and there is a plan to make Narcissus and Goldmund by Senator Films.  Siddhartha is supposed to have had a decent critical reception, but it was yanked from distribution for many years.  As for N&G, if you read the release, you realize there is trouble: “We are planning to work with an international writer and director in order to realize the moving and profound story of Narcissus and Goldmund. A deep appreciation of the novel is required to be able to transport this tale on a level that works internationally.” (My bold text) Yes, but is a deep appreciation of the novel necessary to want to see it?  Milan Kundera is a tricky writer who seems to belong in this category. Yet his novels are thematic, not philosophical, despite the fact that he quotes Nietzsche. He uses philosophic questions to state his theme and builds upon it.  I was not truly aware of this until I saw the filmed version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ULB translates very successfully film as a result.  Almost always, if the novel has a philosophic point of view woven into the fabric of the narrative — i.e. the narrative is a metaphor — the film will suffer.  I hesitate to put Ayn Rand books into this category as she is the Disney-tale of philosophy — good and bad people are easily recognized and there is little complexity of character or situation.  So while she tells her stories — and her stories are illustrations of her philosophy — one can only make films for her minions.  There is not enough complexity or depth in her work to make for a complete philosophy or a compelling film. She is the pop-psychologist of philosophers.

Narrator focused books: Have you ever seen a good film of The Great Gatsby?  Probably not.  Or at least not a film that equals the book.  There have been performances to admire, sets to die for, cars and furs galore, but the crux of the novel is Nick Carraway.  It is Nick who puts things into perspective and most of his musings do not occur when other folks are around.  He is on the fringe of two worlds, therefore the only one who can clearly see either.  Yet in a film, Nick is a minor character — as he is in the book.  So in the film, we — the audience — must assume Nick’s role.  We are the ones who are intended to muse on what we see.  Oh yeah, they use voice over, other tricks to try and assist us with Nick’s point of view, but in the end the difference between the novel and the film is this: imagine only being able to look at a scene from your window — there’s a party below, in the back yard of a neighbor and people are carousing and glamorously dressed; now imagine being in the yard itself — how has the perspective changed? That is what’s at the heart of translating Gatsby to film — it’s an impossible task and in the end I don’t envy the writers who take it.  I mentioned in No Country for Old Men what was lost in the film (narrator’s history and humanity) — it is a similar situation.  There are successful films made of books in the third person limited point of view, but not when the point of view does more than relate the tale.

Real magic (or magical realism).  I’m not talking about Harry Potter-esque magic where wands imitate weapons or do things that cranes and ropes can accomplish (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series immensely and this is not meant as a slight to the film-makers).  I’d read Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua para Chocolate some years before I saw the film. I admit that the crew was able to pull off most of the special effects with aplomb, but I watched in anxiety waiting for the final scene — how will Tita wrap the farm in her bedspread?  How will she eat candles so that her inner fire ignites them and opens the tunnel of light so she can join Pedro?  In the book it’s so beautifully told — but think of the image — a woman eating candles and then her inner fire setting them aflame….there is almost no way to do it that doesn’t look hokey.  So what did the film-maker do?  Fill the room with candles, put gauze on the lens and change the candles for matches (with an earlier explanation of how everyone carries within themselves a box of matches). It is an anti-climax for an otherwise immensely successful film.  So I actually started this category by talking about the most successfully made magical realism film.  I think that’s appropriate — I don’t like to pick on easy targets.  However, it also explains why I have trouble with the idea of making films of The Magus or 100 Years of Solitude.  There are just too many things that happen in those books that would be impossible to film.  Near the opening of 100 YoS, there is a narrative comment that things were so recently created that many of them lacked names (my translation). We are not in biblical times of the Pleistocene era — we are in the town of Macondo, in a time that appears to be somewhere between 1750 and 1890.  But Garcia Marquez conflates many eras into a single timeline:  how do you film that? The Magus has similar issues in that some appearances are magical in the book, but when you film them they become ordinary at best, hokey at worst.

I am a big fan of books.  I am also a fan of film and films made of books.  I cheer for every successfully made book-film, as I know how tricky is the work.  This list is by no means complete or even fully thought out.  As I said, it was a few days reflecting on what makes books hard to translate to film.  In almost every category, there has been a success story — but there have been a plethora more of failures.  I still look at my screenplay of Z&AMM from time to time.  I believe it can be done.  The hope I have for a list like this?  Once we identify the reasons we fail, we might have a better chance to succeed.

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Despite being told that the script had a hard deadline — as the first day of principal photography would be October 23rd, with the new script the production date was pushed back until early December of 2013.  My contact, the director (AT), wanted to start after the New Year.  “Why bring everyone down for a few days of shooting, and then have to break for the holidays?  There’s all that extra airfare.”  One of the producers (AG) insisted that there was an incentive to starting before the year was out, whether it was a tax credit or some other item involving distribution (which he kept hinting at), no one was really certain.  Now the latest conflict of the production was that AG confirmed that he also wanted to play Walt Disney.

With about ten days notice, I was told I’d have to be on set on the first day of photography — ostensibly to play Doc Sherwood.  “Do you know how to ride a horse?”

“The Doc Sherwood based character doesn’t appear on horseback.”

“He does now.”

Flashback: when I had my meeting with the producers in Florida, they wanted to add almost all of the people who had some influence on young WD — from the first person who gave him a drawing pad, to Doc Sherwood, who gave him a nickel to draw his horse.  There was nothing in any of these factoids that served the forward momentum of the story — so I’d eliminated them.  AG wanted Doc Sherwood, so I met him halfway — I had Disney go, at the nadir of his despair, to a public bath (true story).  In the opposing shower stall, he saw someone who reminded him of Doc Sherwood (fiction).  WD gets caught staring, and tells the man in the shower about Sherwood — believing in him, giving him his first nickel.  The man encourages WD — “must have seen somethin’, men don’t just throw away nickels.”  WD turns to rinse in the shower, and when he steps out to dry himself, the man is gone, but there is a nickel on his stacked clothing.  (This also = Jung’s “Old man in the fairy tale” — someone who encourages at a point where the main character is losing the way).

AT tells me that he’s had to make a few concessions to the producers.  They wrote this scene, but I was free to adjust the dialogue once I was there (and there was a strong likelihood it wouldn’t make the final edit).  I’d gone too far to turn back.  I was still intrigued how AT was going to get around AG playing Walt.

I flew into Orlando where I was met by the company driver.  I was starving, but there was no room in the schedule to stop for something to eat.  The driver complained for the 90 minutes to Deland about how many trips he had to make back and forth to the airport and to the set.  I bit my tongue.  The voice in my head kept saying, “you’re a driver.  You’re being paid to drive.  Why are you complaining about having to be on the road?”  Shortly before we arrived in Deland the answer came.  He was an actor, who was promised a walk-on part, but also given a job as driver.  Once he’d wrung out all the misery of the journeys he had to make this week, he harped back on older experiences where he’d driven someone from Florida to upstate NY (and didn’t get fed).  I don’t think I’ve been more relieved to exit an automobile, not even after a non-stop drive to South Carolina from NYC.

The production offices were set up in an old real estate office on the outskirts of Deland, though still on the main drag.  The director had sent fair warning to the production offices ahead of time about who I was really (the screenwriter), so the head of wardrobe whispered to me “bless you. This might actually be a film now;” make-up fawned on me, “my god, it’s so much better. They’re actually able to get name talent to consider it now.”  I had a cachet that no bit player could possible receive.  But there was something else to focus on: food in the office — rice and beans, pulled pork and burrito shells.

They were only covering rehearsal and wardrobe that afternoon, but the tension between AG and AT was palpable.  The director pulled me out into the parking lot at one point after I’d eaten.  He pointed toward his car.  Once we were inside, he explained that he could not get AG to see reason.  Not only that, but the other producer, AB wanted a prominent part as well.

“Maybe they can act; has either one studied acting?”

“AG thinks he can. He hired a coach last week.  But he can’t carry a film — I think my only recourse is to put him on film and let him see how he looks next to a real actor.  I’m thinking of having the two actors switch parts as an experiment, and then trying to get it to stick.  Back me up on this, will you?”

In all fairness, I was aware of this battle since mid-November  The director and several crew members challenged the producers on more than one occasion when the discussion of casting the lead role came up — they’d put off casting the lead, or even considering casting for several months.  Finally AG confirmed that he was planning to play the part. They there was an e-mail from a quitting production manager saying that the producers were sabotaging the work of many professionals by trying to turn the project into a home movie featuring their own unseasoned talent.  I saw the note one of the producers (AB) sent in response — that they were hiring a producer from L.A. to oversee the project.While they mentioned that the producer had over 60 projects to his credit, the ones they listed sounded like B films or soft porn.

Back to the first day in Florida. Not too much after I’d been in the director’s car, AG, the producer who intended to play young Walt Disney, threw one of the lines I’d written at me, but he changed the context, saying “Hey Doc, gimme a nickel.  I want my nickel.”  I nodded at him and smiled.  What was I supposed to do?  Get into character? He’d watched too many behind the scenes videos.

To be honest, though AG was Latino, he actually looked somewhat like Walt Disney in his 20s.  Striking resemblance.  Coming in a few hours later, I met the actor who’d been cast to play Ub Iwerks, one of Disney’s long time artists (and the guy who actually drew/created Mickey Mouse).  I rehearsed my scene with the nine year old actor who was playing Walt in the first scenes. Late in the day, I watched the director play cat and mouse with AG.  He rehearsed a scene between Disney and Iwerks. He directed AG, each time getting more demanding.  Finally, he asked them to switch parts, just for an experiment.

Later a small group of us went to eat at a small restaurant called De la Vega.  There was the actor/casting associate (FL), who’d gotten the director involved, myself, the director and the actor who was to play Ub.  The director told this actor (I’ve been searching for his name, but it does not come up — the reason will become apparent later) his plan was to switch roles, and to prepare himself to play Disney.  The primary topic of conversation seemed to be how the director was going to get the role of Disney away from AG.

The director was bringing a lot of his talent to the film from NYC.  Most of these actors had agreed (against union regulations) to purchase their own airfare and to house themselves in Florida.  AG was under the assumption that I would do the same.  The director convinced him that as I’d done the writing, they owed me at least that much respect (and since my payment wasn’t complete until the first day of principal photography, I was still officially the owner of the script).  They’d hired out rooms in the Ann Stevens House in Cassadaga — a place in Florida that is a renowned camp for psychics and spiritualists, but that’s a story for another day.  I have to say the accommodations were wonderful.  Both the Ub actor and I were staying there and were dropped off at the end of the night.  He had no call the following day, I wasn’t due on set until 2:00 p.m.  I did hear him on the phone, however, calling L.A. — informing both his agent and girlfriend of the good news.

The woman who ran the B&B greeted me at night when we arrived.  A charming earth lady in her 40s, she stood in my doorway and we talked for nearly an hour, despite the fact I was exhausted, one of those random occasions of rapport.  When I went down to the kitchen in the morning, her husband was there.  Apparently, AG negotiated breakfast out of the price of the B&B — i.e. we were getting rooms but no food.  I didn’t recall seeing much on the highway on the drive in the night before.  “Where can I get some food around here?  Is there a deli or something?  The production company is busy filming this morning and won’t come bring me to set until much later.” The man stared at me for a few minutes.  “I was just baking an egg casserole.  Give it a half hour and you can eat some eggs.”  He brewed coffee and put out some bread for toast.  I pulled out my pad and began the morning writing.

One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that I love being on set — I’ll be there even when not required.  Where else can you learn about film-making on a large scale?  I called the production company and told them to send someone when there was a car to spare.  My “I hate driving” driver from the day before showed up in an hour.

The set was removed from the production offices by a half hour to the north.  It was out into farm country and featured an old barn with live animals. It was unusual for a Northern boy to see pasture among the palm trees.  Neither image fit my experience. As I pulled up, they were broken for lunch.  Once again, I was handed around the crew as the savior of the script — lauded by sound, set design, et al.  My assumption at this time was that I was still going to receive credit of some sort for the work I put in.  (AT had mentioned along the way that the person he’d had working on that was the production manager who quit).

They were a little behind in the shooting, but it was a good thing.  I’d have time to spend getting acquainted with the horse.  After lunch, they continued shooting a crane shot of the Disney family getting into a Model T and Walt not piling in.  There were drawings all over the barn boards.  I stood behind the crew for take after take.  I met the horse trainer and Seamus, my mount for the afternoon.

I still had hair and make-up to attend, so at three the director sent me back to Deland.

We’d chosen a handle-bar mustache for my character and a pin-stripe suit.  I spent some time dressing, and at each button I felt more and more of the period. I had a bowler hat and a medicine bag. Since I was the last shot of the day, both make-up and hair came out to the set with me.  It was a beautiful day, I was about to act, and all was right with the world.

to be continued

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Late September 2013: a director I know and have worked with as an actor and writer called and asked if I’d be interested in working on an existing screenplay.  The piece was called “The Dreamer,” which should have been enough to scare me off.  The low-down, they were not only going into production but they had a first day of principal photography scheduled for October 23rd.  I usually do my best work with a tight deadline and I needed rent, so I agreed to look at the script.

The director needed to get approval, but he sent me the script anyway.  I had to sign a non-disclosure legal thing after the fact and then we were on to a phone meeting with the producers, who were based in Florida.  My comments were basically that a biopic doesn’t mean that any event from a biography gets in. (To give an example, I got up this morning, dropped my son at the car pool, drank coffee, started to write, then moved my bowels — all biographical, but most of it unnecessary for a biopic, or perhaps even this blog).  On the flip side, there was also little need to add false vignettes that were meaningless and added only bland color.  Naturally, in need of rent money, I was a little more polite.  I came away with knowing this: the producers had written the script, they had beaucoup bucks and they basically wanted the director to make a movie of their script.

A few days after the conference call, after the producers and director talked among themselves, the director asked me what I thought.

“No,” I said, as firmly and clearly as I could.


“They want you to make their script.  No matter what I write, it will be unacceptable — they’ll compare it to theirs and find fault.”

He thought for a minute.  “Would you at least agree to work on two or three scenes.  Show them what you can do — I have other people around them, people who will insist your version is better.”

To be honest, I’d already broken down a couple of scenes, entered later, added more tension (just to see what it would take, i.e. for my price).  “Why can’t you just make the movie they wrote?”

“My name will be on it.”  So I told him I’d send him the scenes and I quoted him a price based on doing more of the same.

It was already early October, when I sent the director the scenes.  Basically I’d changed the direction of the ocean — where before it was pushing the main character toward shore, now it was pushing him out to sea.  Yeah, a little thing called conflict.  Surprising what it does for a screenplay.  Silence.

Sometime around October 10, 2013, I get another call.  The producers just purchased the rights to a biographical book covering the period they wanted to film.  “Throw their script out.  Work from the book.  I’ll get you a copy.”

“This is not what I signed on for as ghostwriting — fixing a few scenes.  This is an original script.”

“Don’t worry about them — I’ll get you credit and more money.  Trust me. They can’t do anything without me — Everything is in motion.  I’ve got them where they have to do what I say. [Isn’t that what every serial killer says before they get you in the car? (Don’t tell me, I’ve offended all the serial killers out there)]. “It’s enough that I got you on board — I can’t haggle with them about the rest now.”

One of the early themes in Walt Disney’s life is artistic ownership.  In the early going, he was happy enough to be paid for making cartoons.  Yet, the distributors owned the rights.  If he was unhappy with price, other people running interference or anything else, he had no recourse.  I decided to use this as the theme of the biopic — artistic ownership.  There are a lot of layers in Disney’s early life — where he used images and ideas created by other artists (he did impression of Chaplin as a teen), his war drawings were almost journalistic, taken from the soldiers he encountered in the hospitals. Ultimately, he tries to gain control of a series he created and loses.  When he returns to Hollywood, they confer on ideas and one of his employees draw a cartoon of a mouse.  His first action prior to making a film?  He copyrights the mouse (not really a grand finale, but it does give a film, about someone’s life, a through line). What this means in crafting the script, is that every scene has some relationship to the concept of artistic ownership — if it’s there’s a manufactured but cute little story about how a mouse used to visit his office when he was starving, it’s out.

I read the Susanin book, then read it again while writing at the same time.  I pulled from other sources.  I sought out references — old telegrams, etc. looking for a character’s style of speaking.  I investigated how cartoons were made — what equipment, what processes.  And I finished in ten days.  As far as I was concerned, I had done what I was paid to do (and then some — as it was now an original screenplay, based on previous source material).

I was invited to Florida to defend my work.  Not only was I to meet the producers, but it seems there was a previous ghostwriter — someone they’d met at a networking event in L.A. who’d actually never written a produced screenplay — and we were all going to sit around and discuss this “draft.”  I’m a structure guy — if you ask me why something is on the page, I have a reason for it.  I also have experience — I’ve taught writing at the college level, in addition to work as a journalist, PR, tech writer, blah blah blah.  I’ve written numerous screenplays, one was optioned twice, another was being filmed at the time of the meeting.  But it was their dime, so I was basically  in Florida defending my decisions. I’ve done deposition training for lawyers, this was in the same vein.

“Why is the train gone?”

“No need for it.”

“But we have a deal with a guy who owns a train from that era.” [I found a way to make the train work, but not without a lot of head-scratching.]

“What happened to the mouse?”

“Even his daughter confesses it was a fabrication by the press corps.”

“But it’s a cute story.” [No, I refused to add a scene simply because it was false and cute.]

For two days, we went through the script line by line.  By now my fee was reduced to ashes.  I told them I would need a bump.  They agreed — if I made the agreed upon changes.

Imagine creating a sleek vehicle that ran across obstacles, but was designed to defeat them.  Now have someone ask you to add ears, or other ornaments that add nothing but wind drag.  Yeah.  It took longer to incorporate those changes than it did to research and write the original.  When I was finished, and everyone was on board, the producers asked me for a Final Draft version of my script.  I told them I used Scriptware (true, true — but I sensed what they were after — an editable version of the script).  They told me they needed it for production.  So I sent them the converted version (Scriptware has an export function).

A few days later, the director called me in a panic.  “I need you to review the script — make sure that they didn’t add any of their lame scenes back in.”  He sent me a copy — that had been filed with the WGA West — and had only the two producers names on it.  It was a striking feeling, to be going through my own script, confirming for the director that every word had been written by me, every scene designed, laid out by me — that every facet dealing with a script about artistic ownership had been created by someone whose name was not on the cover.  This included characters I created (i.e. Disney was said to have dated some of the ladies in his office — no specifics are given, so I created a few).

“You do know they filed it with the WGA.  Only their names on it?”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll get you credit — we’ll start with IMDb and when the film comes out you’ll have a writing credit of some sort.”

One of the producers liked several of the scenes.  He called me to ask if I was interested in any of the parts.  This did surprise me.  I wondered if he’d seen one of the reels on my website.  There was a small character part I’d written, based on someone from Disney’s past (and Jung’s “The Old Man in the Fairy Tale”).  I said I’d be very interested in playing Doc Sherwood.  “You got it.”

Stay tuned for the follow up — “Ghostwriter on the Set.”

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