Writerly Wisdom – What Would Morgan Freeman Say?

Last month I enjoyed another invigorating visit to the Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference.  In the company of many talented writers, storytelling analysis was exchanged, creative energy was reignited, and good whiskey was consumed.  There’s something reassuring about reuniting with my writer friends from all over the country to commiserate over writing woes and to also celebrate those small breakthroughs that keep us going.  AFF is always an enriching four days.

The panels were once again fantastic.  As I mentioned in my last post, I was treated to the wisdom of professional heavyweights like Matthew Weiner and John Ridley.  I jotted down notes during a few of the panels and thought I’d share some bite-sized pieces of advice and observations that resonated with me.

Franklin Leonard (founder of The Black List and all-around champion of writers) made two comments that I found particularly insightful: “‘Good enough’ is never good enough” and, in regards to reading a new script, “I don’t so much want to be invited in as PICKED UP AND HAULED IN.”  I really love the idea of the latter.  It emphasizes the importance of those first few pages and how they have to demand a reader’s attention.

John August and Bruce McKenna headlined a panel about Point-of-View.  Theme was a major component of the discussion since it serves as the backbone to most stories (at least the memorable ones) and drives a character’s actions.  John brought up an exercise he’ll use when he’s losing sight of the theme, which he calls “What would Morgan Freeman say?” Using the iconic Freeman narration heard in films like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS as examples, John will take a scene he’s struggling with and write-up faux-narration that could – but never would – accompany the scene.  The thinking is that Freeman’s narration in the aforementioned films often gets to the heart of a character’s mindset and struggles, so it helps us revisit the emotional undercurrent of a scene.  I actually put this advice to use in regards to a couple of key scenes in the current screenplay I’m working on and found it extremely helpful.  Sometimes I get so caught up in the mechanics of getting from one destination to another in my writing, that I forget about the engine that’s propelling the story forward.

I was already impressed with John Ridley’s resume – 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THREE KINGS – but my admiration for him was sealed when he mentioned that he was willing to stay to answer more questions after his panel wrapped up, but he would need to check the Packers score at some point.  Turns out he grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Ridley talked candidly about the risk he took to reinvent himself after achieving early success because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as simply an “urban” writer.  And it was touching to see him get emotional when he brought up the turning point for his new career trajectory – his introduction to the book 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  He also talked about how writers often mine personal territory to enhance their stories, sometimes to the detriment of the people closest to them.  He credited fellow screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie with the following observation about writing:  “It’s hurting people that you love to impress people you’ll never meet.”

MAD MEN creator Matthew Weiner was humorous and frank about the genesis of his revered series and the long road he took to get it sold.  Although he had a moderator, he didn’t really need one – his opinions and anecdotes flowed generously.  A young woman asked him for advice for aspiring writers.  And what he felt was “the most important advice” that he could bestow was actually pretty simple: “AIM HIGH.”

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The Creative Tune-Up: Tex-Mex-Style

It’s hard to believe that 2014 is in its final months. The year is flying by and I can barely maintain this bloggy. (Insert standard mea culpa for taking so long to write a blog post.) My not-so-new-anymore job has been going well, but it requires a lot of mental energy.  Subsequently, I don’t think I’ve been writing as much as I should be. I have been slogging through my latest feature screenplay – one I started last year – but still don’t see the end in sight. And the free time that I do have has been spent enjoying other creative pursuits, including movies, concerts, and the opening game of the LA Kings (you know, the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Champs). Yes, I’ve been playing hooky from writing…and I’m beating myself up for it.

I'm Not Worthy

I’m not worthy

Which is why it was great for me to attend the Austin Film Festival and Writers’ Conference last weekend for the fourth year in a row. I reconnected with many wonderful writer friends I’ve made over the years and made a few new ones.  I also got to sit in on some enlightening and inspiring panels.  The depth of talent AFF attracted this year included Craig Borten (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), John August (BIG FISH), Jenny Lumet (RACHEL GETTING MARRIED), Matthew Weiner (MAD MEN), and John Ridley (TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE). I’ll save the insights gained for another post, but I was truly recharged from the experience.  The late-night conversations at the Driskill Hotel bar are always a highlight. Fueled by whiskey and adrenaline (since you get very little sleep during the conference), my fellow scribes and I would discuss and dissect our favorite movies and TV shows, and share the common frustrations, anxieties, and small victories that define our writerly lives.

Rough night at the Driskill

Rough night at the Driskill

The conference also allowed me to take a look at my output and realize that I have gotten some shit this done year. Thanks to a short screenplay contest discovered by my co-writer on BLACK SEA ROSE Jillian Reilly, we co-wrote a short script that received an Honorable Mention in the competition. The same organization facilitates a 48-hour short story contest, too, so I now have two short stories under my belt. I also took another online screenwriting class to enforce deadlines around the aforementioned feature script – because of it, I reached page sixty.  The class also enabled me to flex my analytical muscles again as I read and critiqued the work of my classmates.

Now this work I’ve done is far from perfect, but at least it’s work. It’s words on a page and it’s a reminder that while I may not be doing it every day, I’m still doing it. As I’ve observed before, the only thing we can control is the work we produce. Austin 2014 has invigorated me to keep producing.

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Blathering in Bourbon Country

I went to Kentucky over the 4th of July weekend to visit a dear friend of mine I’ve known since college.  It was a wonderful trip complete with beautiful weather, fun conversations, and an ample amount of delicious Kentucky bourbon.

Lexington Bourbon


My friend’s fourteen-year-old son was enrolled in a three-week summer camp at the local university where he had decided to dedicate his three weeks to a class on film analysis and production.  My friend decided it would be a great idea to volunteer me as a guest speaker at the class while I was there. <Gulp!>  The professor was very nice and accommodating as he welcomed me to blather on for an hour about my experiences in “the industry.”

As I looked at the young faces before me, I was encouraged to see a decent number of girls in the class. (Go female filmmakers!)  I rattled through my trajectory in animation and also mentioned my adventures in screenwriting and the slog of trying to raise money to make movies. (The professor is also a filmmaker, so he and I commiserated together.)  I talked about all of the great resources out there, many of which can be found on the oh-so handy interweb (IMDb, Done Deal Pro, Drew’s Script-o-Rama, etc.)  And I shared my tales of rejection, even reading two opposing sets of coverage on AUNT MOLLY’S MELTDOWN just so the kids could see how alternately thrilling and devastating feedback can be.

But the main takeaway I wanted to impart to these teens was the idea that they don’t need permission to make their movies.  If they think they want a career in the film business, then they should go out and make films.  NOW.  They have youth on their side.  They have each other as a network.  They have encouraging mentors like their professor.  They have accessible technology to do it.

Yes, it’s advice I need to start following myself. (If only I still had youth on my side…)

And then the professor pulled up two short films I suggested we show the class.  I’ve shared one on this blog already – it’s a funny, observational piece called IT’S NOT ABOUT THE NAIL and it’s by my very talented Cinestory friend Jason Headley.  The second one is a super creepy short film by David F. Sandberg called LIGHT’S OUT – I was blown away by it when I first saw it. (You may want to watch this one during the day.)  Here are the links:

 It’s Not About the Nail

Light’s Out

LIGHT'S OUT even scared me!

LIGHT’S OUT even scared Ghost Dog!

Both films went viral, serving as great reminders that you can be entertaining and impactful in a short amount of time.  I hope my little presentation helped the class feel inspired to go make their cinematic mark.  I know I can’t wait to see what they create.

P.S. This post is dedicated to my ever-dedicated blog reader JF.  I’ll try to keep the posts coming more regularly!

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Best Fest Yet!

2014 marked my fifth year attending the Los Angeles Film Festival.  Once again I was inspired and energized by the “small” films I saw on the big screen.  In fact, I think LAFF served its 20th anniversary well by featuring the strongest slate of movies I’ve seen yet at the fest.  There was a lot of beautiful, sophisticated filmmaking on display – far more satiating than my general diet of popcorn and Swedish Fish over the past week.

And for the first time, I finally saw a majority of the films that won major awards at the festival.  It’s always such crap shoot figuring out which screenings to go to – especially when there are almost 200 films to choose from.  I made an effort to see as many of the films in the narrative and documentary competitions as possible, and I’m happy to report that I’m in full agreement with those selected as winners.

Happy 20th, LAFF!

Happy 20th, LAFF!

Here are my own highlights from the festival:

MAN FROM RENO – This modern-day noir thriller follows a Japanese novelist escaping her fame by hiding out in San Francisco and an older, small town sheriff who finds himself on the trail of a dangerous smuggling operation.  Eventually, the two characters intersect and work together to solve the mysterious happenings around them.  Director David Boyle has shot a gorgeous-looking film that feels Hitchcockian in look, pacing, and tone, yet refreshingly showcases a diverse cast.  The two leads, Ayako Fujitani and Pepe Serna, are particularly effective. This film won the jury award for Best Narrative – an honor that is certainly well-deserved.

STRAY DOG – When writer-director Debra Granik filmed WINTER’S BONE in Missouri, she cast local Ron “Stray Dog” Hall in the small-yet-pivotal role of Thump Milton, the enigmatic grandfather to Jennifer Lawrence’s character.  Ron ended up being a major presence behind-the-scenes, helping Granik to find lived-in locations and colorful extras to enhance the movie’s authenticity.  Once shooting wrapped, Granik realized that Ron himself was a subject worth investigating and she got his permission to make a documentary about him.  As a Vietnam vet, motorcycle enthusiast, husband to a Mexican immigrant, and owner of a trailer park, Stray Dog Hall has a lot of stories to share – some humorous, some heartbreaking, all totally engaging.  The film received the jury prize for Best Documentary at LAFF.

LAKE LOS ANGELES – This was the last film I saw at LAFF and it was the perfect way to cap off a wonderful film fest.  Directed by Mike Ott, LAKE LOS ANGELES tells the story of a solitary Cuban immigrant and a young Mexican girl whose lives cross paths when he provides temporary housing to her and a group of illegal immigrants.  The two eventually part ways, wandering through the bleak surroundings of their California desert community while the audience is left hoping that these lost souls will come together again.  The film may seem simple on paper, but it’s deeply moving in its exploration of loss, loneliness, and resilience.  And like MAN FROM RENO, it’s anchored by its two exceptional leads, Roberto Sanchez and Johanna Trujillo.

THE YOUNG KIESLOWSKI – I really loved this film.  The confidence of the filmmaker, writer-director Kerem Sanga, is apparent from the start.  In telling the the tale of a college student who suddenly finds himself facing fatherhood with a girl he only just met, it’s funny and quirky without ever trying too hard.  It’s also rooted in characters who feel fresh and unique, yet real and accessible.  Lead Actor Ryan Malgarini deserves high praise for shouldering the film with the perfect mix of awkwardness, smarts, and charm, and kudos to Sanga for firing on all cylinders in terms of writing, production values, pacing, and poignancy.  No wonder it won the fest’s Audience Award for Best Narrative.

DLB MEETS DDC – No, this wasn’t a movie, it was a moment.  One night during the fest I spotted Destin Daniel Cretton, director of SHORT TERM 12, near the concession stand of the Regal Cinemas and made my way over to him.  I shook his hand, gushed about SHORT TERM 12, and then introduced myself.  Yeah, not exactly my smoothest moment, but I was excited to encounter the writer-director of one of my favorite films of 2013.  He’s a lovely guy. (And he clearly has great taste since he was one of the Jury judges who chose MAN FROM RENO for Best Narrative!)

BYOF – Bring Your Own Friends.  While I never mind doing things on my own, it’s always a treat to share experiences like the Los Angeles Film Festival with fellow film lovers.  As in years past, I had a number of friends meet up with me for a screening or a panel, usually followed by libations of some sort and more movie talk.  So a special thanks to MB, SK, JC, MM, KS, JL, GT, DF, and MT for taking in cinema, cocktails, and conversation with me.  Let’s do it again next year!

Cheers to Indie Film!

Cheers to Indie Film!


Posted in Film Festivals, Los Angeles Film Festival | 2 Comments

Return of the Writer

As much as I try to get back into a regular writing routine, 2014 keeps throwing curveballs at me.  The latest curveball comes in the form of new employment.  Last month out of the blue, I was offered a producer role on the direct-to-video LAND BEFORE TIME 14.  Yes, I am now working for Universal Animation Studios.  While it was a tough decision to leave Disney in the middle of a production – especially one with an outstanding, immensely talented crew – I’ve realized that I need to be pragmatic about my animation jobs, and the Universal offer was too enticing to pass up.  I’ve been at the job for a month and I’m very happy with my decision. (Although I do wish I could have taken that awesome crew of people with me.)

Since I’m settled in at work, I am easing back into a writing regimen.  My friend and co-writer on BLACK SEA ROSE, Jillian Reilly, convinced me to enter a writing contest with her called the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge.  It’s a three-round competition where writers are placed randomly in heats and given a genre, subject, and character assignment.  Later in June, contest judges will choose a top five in each heat to advance to the second round.

The first round happened at the beginning of May when Jill and I were given the following marching orders: Genre – Romance, Subject – Bankruptcy, Character – A judge.  We had eight days to write a short script employing those elements and it couldn’t be more than twelve pages.  It was a fun exercise to try to stay within the parameters given, but also think outside of the box, too.  A bonus was that Jill happened to be in New York at the start of the contest, so I flew out there to meet her and together we determined the outline of our story.  From there we e-mailed drafts back and forth – the main challenge being to hone the script down to twelve pages.

If we advance to the second round, we’ll be given a new assignment and have only three days to write no more than eight pages.  In the third and final round, contenders are tasked with writing a five-page screenplay in just twenty-four hours. That should be really interesting since Jill is in South Africa and I’m in LA, which means we have a nine-hour time difference.  But whether we advance or not, it just felt good to write something new again.  Jill and I are even discussing the possibility of expanding our short script into a full-length feature.  After a slow start this year, I feel like my writing mojo has finally returned.  It’s time to focus my attention on a couple of my still-to-be finished scripts begging to reach FADE OUT.

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An Overdue Oscar Post-Mortem

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I haven’t blogged in a while.  I can’t blame writer’s block because I don’t really believe in it.  Rather, what I do believe in is laziness.  And procrastination.  And loss of mojo.  And day-job-itis.  Whatever you want to call it, I’ve been experiencing it hard this first quarter of 2014.  But I’m here at the laptop now, fingers tapping away on the keyboard, trying to pull together a few cohesive thoughts.

So let’s talk Oscars!

I know…the ceremony was a few weeks ago.  But I did manage to see all nine Best Picture nominees and came away with my usual strong opinions – for better and for worse – about many of them.  As usual, there were a few nominees in the mix that defied explanation for me.  It seems there’s always that one movie that everyone in the theatre ardently loves and laughs at while I sit stone-faced and perplexed over what I’m missing. (I won’t name names, but one of the films titles was the midwest state in which was set.)  But instead of doing my usual countdown from nine to one, I figured I’d stay positive and focus on my top three – and throw in a few overlooked films that I would have easily nominated in place of some of the others, were I Queen of Hollywood.

So here goes!

I'm breathless with anticipation.

I’m breathless with anticipation.


I went into this film with looooooooooow expectations.  A three-hour film about the excesses of Wall Street?  A movie that features Leonardo DiCaprio smugly addressing the camera?  A story where money and maleness and being masters of the universe are the dominating narrative forces? <SIGH>  And yet…this was one of the most entertaining, compelling films I’ve seen in the past year.  And the fact that it was three hours long and held my interest the entire time made me admire it even more.  I don’t understand the criticism the movie’s received about it glamorizing the overindulgent lifestyles of investment bankers because, if anything, I found it to be the opposite – a compelling cautionary tale about too much of a good thing, the car crash that you can’t look away from.  Scorsese proves once again why he is one of the greatest American directors working today (strongly assisted by his ever-reliable editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a powerhouse script from Terence Winter).  And if Matthew McConaughey weren’t in the Best Actor race, Leo would have won the award hands down for his most dynamic, dimensional performance yet.


Obviously, the subject matter is difficult to endure.  And what really struck about the film is how unrelenting director Steve McQueen is in setting his camera and not letting the audience look away from the horror unraveling in front of you.  In more than one scene, I was acutely aware of wishing for a cut to another person, another moment, anything to avert my eyes from what I was witnessing.  But that relief didn’t come.  And the result was all the more powerful.  A beautiful-looking, deeply unsettling film, anchored by the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Best Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong’o.  I was very satisfied to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE given the Oscar for Best Picture.


Admittedly, I was rooting for this film going into it and it fired on all cylinders as far as I’m concerned.  A “difficult” topic by Hollywood standards (HIV/AIDS) that was twenty friggin’ years in the making, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the little indie film that could.  While the story of an unsavory protagonist’s road to redemption could have been handled in a treacly, movie-of-the-week manner, director Jean-Marc Vallee attacked the subject with riveting honesty – the film’s emotional impact was genuinely earned.  And there’s no denying that Best Actor Matthew McConaughey is having the year of his career.  His portrayal of a hard-partying homophobe who suddenly finds himself battling AIDS (and the stigma and crippling bureaucracy that accompanied its treatment in the early eighties) is the heartbeat of the movie.  And he’s aptly supported by a lovely, nuanced Jared Leto.

As for three films of 2013 that could have easily replaced three of the not-to-be-named Best Picture nominees, my choices would be PRISONERS, AFTERNOON DELIGHT, and SHORT TERM 12.  Lucky for you, they’re all available on iTunes and/or Netlfix and/or On Demand, so I encourage you to check them out!

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The Bigger Picture

I’m clearly off to a rocky start with my 2014 resolutions.  While I have been reading more and, in fact, finished a great novel recently – Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (thanks for the recommendation, KS!) – my extracurricular writing (including the regular upkeep of this here blog) has fallen to the wayside.  Yes, when I arrive home at the end of a long work day, even mustering up the energy to answer personal e-mails can seem like an insurmountable challenge.  We’re only three-and-a-half weeks into 2014, though – I’ll find my way.  I have been thinking about the scripts I want to finish and start this year, so that counts for something, right?  Long days aside, the only way I’m going to do it is to just DO IT, though.

One edict I am managing to keep is my goal to see all of the Oscar Best Picture nominees on the big screen this year.  Okay, okay, I realize to many of you this is hardly a lofty ambition (and it’s not), but here in La-La land during awards season there are DVD “screeners” readily available so you can watch all of the nominees from the comfort of your Crate & Barrel sofa, cuddled next to your pets with a glass of wine in hand.  In the past, I’ve seen a number of the nominated films this way, thanks to the generosity of friends and colleagues (who shall not be named because the stern Academy rules make it seem like a person could lose a limb for sharing a screener).  However, last year I saw ZERO DARK THIRTY first as a screener and then in the theatre, and seeing it on the big screen made me appreciate all the more the scope and ambition of Kathryn Bigelow’s film.  I couldn’t escape via the “pause” button on my remote – in the theatre, I was staying on Bigelow’s intense, harrowing ride.

But *I* wasn't there for snuggling!

But *I* wasn’t there for snuggling!

Big Screen vs. Small Screen also brings to mind a similar experience with a favorite film of mine: WEST SIDE STORY.  I love the musical and I love the film.  I had only ever experienced the movie on the small screen, though, since it came out in 1961 (long before DLB was even a possibility).  Then a couple of years ago, the state-of-the-art LA movie theatre the ArcLight offered a screening of WEST SIDE STORY in all of its 70mm glory.  I had to see it!  It was such a treat to witness those terrific Jerome Robbins dance sequences on a huge screen and to enjoy the amazing Bernstein & Sondheim songs in Dolby surround sound.  But what was particularly transformative for me was Richard Beymer’s performance as Tony.

Granted, Tony is not as flashy a role as the other male characters in WEST SIDE STORY, like Riff and Bernardo, but seeing Beymer on the small screen always left me feeling like he was the weak link in the cast, a bit milquetoast.  But all of that changed when I saw the film in at the ArcLight.  Seeing Beymer’s face fill an entire screen opened up an expressiveness and vulnerability in his performance that I had never noticed before.  His Tony felt more heartbreakingly accessible than ever.  He was no longer dwarfed by his counterparts.

Yeah, even though Lucy & Sophia can’t come to the movie theatre with me, I think bigger will be better – or more illuminating – when I’m assessing the Best Picture nominees this year.

No worries, DLB.  We've got some serious napping to do.

No worries, DLB. We’ve got some serious napping to do.

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The Next Level

Admittedly, I am sputtering to the finish line for 2013.  What a strange, transitional twelve months it’s been.  Trying to figure out the work/life/Deliberate-Productions-work balance has proven challenging lately, and I feel like I’m floundering on all fronts.  (Yeah, that explains the sporadic blog posts in the latter part of the year.)  But the power to change things starts with moi, so I’m ready to tackle 2014 with more focus and commitment.  It’s time to re-calibrate.  Isn’t that what New Year’s resolutions are all about?

Some of my goals in the next coming year include the usuals – reading more, writing more, and flossing more.  I need to stay more frequent with my blog posts, e-mail correspondence, and general friendship maintenance.  I want to send more handwritten letters and cards to people.

I will try to eat less, drink less, and spend less.  In fact, I’m kicking off January with a cleanse of sorts – no booze until my birthday in February.  I shall miss my vino and winter whiskey, but after much holiday indulgence I’m sure my liver will be grateful for the break.

Bye Bye Bourbon!

Bye Bye Bourbon!

I need to create something tangible this year.  I was hoping to produce a short film at the end of 2013, but that veered off-course thanks to another project that demanded my extracurricular attention.  So going into 2014, I am determined to produce some sort of piece that requires a camera, a director, some actors, and an exceptional sound guy or gal.

To this end, I find inspiration from my writer-director friend Jason Headley.  I met Jason at the CineStory retreat in September 2012 and was struck by his intelligence, sensitivity, and talent.  After the retreat, we stayed in touch over e-mail and I remember asking him at the end of 2012 what writing contests he planned on entering in 2013.  He responded that he wasn’t going to enter any; rather, he would “just go make a film.”  As Jason so insightfully put it:  It feels funny to try to get other people to give me approval to do a thing I can do without their approval.


Later in the year, Jason made this short: It’s Not About The Nail.  The video went viral. It’s featured on Will Ferrell’s “Funny or Die” website. It has been seen by over 7 million people on You Tube.  It’s a Staff Pick on Vimeo.  Earlier this month, it garnered Jason the following tweet from Michael Eisner: “@jason_headley will be a big director.”  Great, well-deserved things are now happening for Jason Headley.

Because he didn’t look for approval to do something he could already do.

It’s time for me to take “doing” to the next level.

Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy, dream-come-true-making New Year!

Cheers from DLB and VP Babs!

Cheers from DLB and VP Babs!


Posted in Life Stuff, Writing | 2 Comments

Sustain Interest

Despite the smackdown my first ten pages took at the hands and intellect of Lindsay Doran, I still came away from the Austin Film Festival feeling inspired and motivated.  The conference has so much to offer, and there were a number of panels I wish I could have checked out, but there simply wasn’t enough time.  When you’re presented with simultaneous choices like Vince Gilligan, Callie Khouri, and Jonathan Demme, what are you supposed to do?!? (Me, well, I chose Vince Gilligan.  But he and I share a birthday so I figure that means we’re kindred writing spirits, right?)

February 10th = Emmy! (Right?!?)

The panels I did attend were all really satisfying and informative.  Some were about the mechanics of writing while others were more anecdotal observations about working in the entertainment industry.  But all involved successful people whom I admire.  Listed below are their bits of wisdom that resonated with me.

JEFF NICHOLS (writer/director of TAKE SHELTER and MUD)

  • When writing a script, he starts with the “big idea” – first love, revenge, masculinity – and builds his characters around that.
  • Every character’s trajectory is driven by what the character wants and what they need, which are often at odds with one another.
  • You can’t let an antagonist’s backstory trump the POV of the main character.
  • Each film Nichols has made has been an experiment in form.  He never follows a specific structure (i.e. act breaks, plot points, etc.), but, rather, let’s the story and characters guide him.


Taylor has co-written the aforementioned films with director Alexander Payne.  He talked a lot about writing with a partner and emphasized that it’s important to set-up the ground rules of the partnership.

One rule he and Payne adhere to when working on a script is that they always work together in the same room rather than divide up the work and go their separate ways.  Taylor explained that while writing together can be more time-consuming and painstaking, he finds that it forces the partners to come to a true consensus over the material rather than get too attached to their own separate work.


Johnson presented a “Script-to-Screen” analysis of his first independent feature BRICK.  He was heavily influenced by crime writer Dashiell Hammett in making a modern-day noir movie set in a high school.  The moody, Sundance-winning film follows Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye, a lonely teenager determined to find his missing ex-girlfriend.  Johnson talked a lot about the character of Brendan and the focused mission Brendan was on throughout the course of the film.  As writers, we’re told that the protagonist should always be active and should drive the story.  Johnson stressed the importance of his main character setting his sights on a goal and always pushing toward it,  despite the often unsettling information he received.  Even when Brendan suffers at the hands of others, he takes his punishment and continues onward. (Funny – that’s a lot like my “First Ten Pages” panel.  Or writing in general! )

  • You’re not constructing something, you’re EXCAVATING something.

Man on a Mission

SHANE BLACK (writer of LETHAL WEAPON, writer/director of KISS KISS BANG BANG)

Like Rian Johnson, Black shared a script-to-screen analysis of his film KISS KISS BANG BANG.  The script began as his attempt to write a romantic comedy.  He even consulted with the legendary James L. Brooks. Diving into the first draft was a struggle, and he ultimately had the epiphany that he was not Brooks. He realized, “I was trying to fly before I could walk.”

  • He thinks in terms of the trailer.  What are the tone and the shape of the film?
  • Similar to Rian Johnson, Black likened writing to excavating.  “Much of what we do in managing shapes is chip away at them.”
  • It’s important to imbue a mystery that’s specific and speaks to your passion.  What’s your take?
  • He believes in directing on paper.  You must give your audience a sense of how they should feel.
  • It’s really about finding where you’re ferocious.  Where you’re impactful.  Where you’re in the zone.
  • You’re accessing something creative that you find passionately interesting.

 TERRY ROSSIO (co-writer of all of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies)

  • Like music lyrics, every syllable counts.
  • ASSERTIVE WRITING: Assert something!  A conflict.  A joke.  A mood.  An opinion.  A desire.  An action.  A problem.  An emotion.
  • CREATE INTEREST – from your title to your very first page to the rest of what’s there.  Create and sustain interest!

I think that last piece of advice sums up the ultimate mandate for good writing: Create and sustain interest.

Time to get to work!

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The Torturous Ten Pages

The 2013 Austin Film Festival and Conference has come and gone, and for me it was the best one yet.  A large part of that was due to the presence of honoree Vince Gilligan.  Just about every panel featuring him (including a screening of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, which he presented) was packed to full capacity as those of us in attendance tried to glean whatever wisdom we could from the man responsible for creating one of the greatest television series ever. (BREAKING BAD, for those of you who may have been living on Mars for the past five years.)

VINCE! (I swear he's on the stage!)

VINCE! (I swear! He’s on the stage!)

There’s a lot of ground to cover regarding AFF, so I’m going to make this post another two-parter.  And for my bloggy readers desperate to know how HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF fared in Lindsay’s Doran’s panel “The First Ten Pages”…well…I’m getting the painful news out of the way first.

So let’s talk about DLB taking it on the chin at “The First Ten Pages” panel!

Once again, about thirty of us crammed into a small room at the Driskill Hotel to learn about the art of making a strong first impression.  The five of us with pages being reviewed were asked to sit toward the front – perhaps so we could stare into the eyes of our executioner?  My writer friends Jon and Heather were there to provide moral support…and post-panel drinks at the bar afterward.

Lindsay was stationed at a high table at the front of the room and her iPad was connected to a large screen on which were listed the TEN COMMON MISTAKES she encounters when she reads scripts.  They are as follows:

1) Boring Title

2) The Story Doesn’t Begin

3) Not Actually a Comedy (DLB Note: The scripts selected for this panel were randomly pulled from the top 10% of comedy entries)

4) Unlikable Main Character

5) Too Many Characters (i.e. Who is the protagonist?)

6) Obstacles without Stakes

7) Confusing

8) Transparent Exposition

9) Comedy Based in a Superficial World

10) The Three Most Terrifying Words in the History of the American Screenplay

Script by script, Lindsay offered her impressions and feedback.  She always started with what she liked about the script (which took about two seconds) and then launched into the problems that arose for her during the read as they related to her list of common mistakes.  My script was third on the chopping block and the things she liked about it were the title and one of the supporting characters.

Yep.  The title. And one supporting character.

I feel your pain, Lady.

I feel your pain, DLB.

As for the sins I committed from the list, they included #2, #3, #6, and #8.  Ouch.  The one that really hurt was that my exposition was transparent (#8).  If there’s one thing I resent in films, it’s when information is communicated to an audience in a way that underestimates their intelligence.  I try hard to relay necessary info in as subtle a way as possible (without being too obtuse), so it was personally frustrating to learn that I didn’t achieve this in Lindsay’s eyes.  But her challenge to me was to find a more “elegant” way to introduce exposition.  It’s a challenge I’m determined  to meet in my next draft.

One of the other criticisms I received was that I was offering up obstacles without stakes – I need to show a more emotional attachment between my lead character, Wendy, and what she’s struggling against.  Lindsay pointed out specific places where I could heighten the stakes for Wendy in a way that would more effectively engage the audience.  Her advice was spot on.

I’m happy to report that during the panel I took my medicine dutifully and did not run from the room screaming.  While I joke about post-panel drinks, I actually didn’t come away from the experience feeling massively insecure about my writing ability.  Rather, a gut-check tells me I’m on the right track with the pages I presented and now I’ve got my marching orders to help me bring HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF to the next level.  Progress.

Lucy at Door

I guess that wasn’t so bad…

I do have to share a funny moment that happened toward the end of the panel.  When Lindsay was about to start analyzing the final script, she looked at the writer of it and noted that he seemed nervous.  Without missing a beat, the writer replied, “Well, that’s ‘cuz you’ve been shittin’ on everyone’s scripts.”  A welcome moment of levity that caused the room to burst out laughing.  Lindsay took it in stride.

And in case you’re wondering, The Three Most Terrifying Words in the History of the American Screenplay were found in the opening lines of the aforementioned final script: “LAYLA, 47, Somalian.”  This, too, drew a laugh because Lindsay’s point was that most Hollywood studios aren’t looking to make movies about non-white women over 25.  Sad but true.  She didn’t say it was impossible, but in this particular case she suggested that the writer find another way to ease the reader into such an unconventional story.

The benefit of a panel like “The First Ten Pages” with a professional like Lindsay Doran is that it pushes you to BE BETTER.  As a producer, she wants nothing more than to find that next great script that grabs her attention and electrifies her enough to shepherd it through production.  How generous of her to give her time and professional experience to those of us eager to deliver the goods.  “The First Ten Pages” remains one of the most practical and beneficial panels offered at the Austin Film Festival and I hope I can attend it again next year. (Although I’m happy to relinquish my place on the chopping block!)

Posted in Film Festivals, Hungry Like the Wolf, Writing | 3 Comments