Ah, summertime, ’07. The weather’s heating up, the Yankees are struggling, Paris Hilton something something jail something something…but most of all, there’s pre-strike panic in the air.
When Entertainment Weekly starts covering a possible writers’ strike, we’ve finally hit the big time. As we head deeper into summer and approach the October 31st deadline, there will be plenty more hand-wringing to be seen.
Before then, though, we’ve got the little matter of a WGA election.
And before I talk about that, I want to wax positive about our union.
I know. Shock of all shocks. I’m a vocal and public opponent of our current leadership’s policies, but something really good happened recently, and they deserve acknowledgement for their good work.
This month, following on the heels of a successful effort to bring The Daily Show under a guild contract, the WGAw and WGAE worked together to bring four more Comedy Central shows under union contracts: Mind of Mencia, The Sarah Silverman Program, The Showbiz Show With David Spade and the upcoming series American Body Shop.
Those contracts sound like good ones, and they include credit protection, salary minimums, pension & health and residuals.
Why is this so important?
Representation of labor is what unions do. The more labor they represent, the stronger bargaining position they’re in…at least in theory.
My personal theory is that in a union like the WGA, it’s not the numbers that matter, but rather the quality of employees that matter. It’s nice to imagine 1,000 reality editors in our union as “storytellers,” but it’s much better to have 30 people-who-write-words-and-get-paid-for-them types.
You know. Writers.
I was critical of Patric Verrone’s reality organizing effort for two main reasons.
First, Patric insisted on “union standards,” which require the signatory company to not only agree to do all its own shows union, but to force any subsidiary production companies to also go union. It’s a great theory, but since it’s never happened in Hollywood before and the film studios and networks don’t apply union standards to guys like me, something told me that they wouldn’t ever apply it to someone writing lines for Tyra Banks either. Insisting on union standards only gets in the way of actually achieving something.
Second, Patric was leapfrogging past basic cable to get to reality, and while there’s a large argument about whether or not many reality producers and so-called “preditors” are writers at all, no one questions the bona fides of actual writers on a ton of basic cable shows that aren’t under WGA contracts. Why not target clear-cut cases first?
It looks like the Guild is swinging around toward my view of things.
Here’s what the WGA didn’t do this time.
And lo and behold…success. Four shows under Guild contracts. 30 writers getting P&H and residuals and credit protection…all of which are moral imperatives for employers to grant writers (in my humble opinion).
Now, compare that to the ANTM debacle!
Well done, WGA. I don’t know if this is a slight course correction or a signal of greater shifts to come, but I hope this trend continues. This is how you go about the business of representing writers–not through posturing and public aggression, but through quiet, private and leveraged negotiating.
Okay, that was the Good. Here’s the Strange.
The WGAw constitution requires the Nominating Committee to submit two candidate names for each officer position prior to an election. This is a somewhat rare quirk for unions. Most allow “white ballot elections” in which candidates can run unopposed. Not us, though. And that’s led to some weirdness in the past, particularly when no one but one person wanted to run for an office, so, well, patsies were recruited. Allies who were willing to fall on their sword.
Until this time, apparently. Elias Davis is running unopposed for Secretary-Treasurer. I think this may be a first. I’ll check with Tony Segall (WGA General Counsel) on this one, and report back.
And the Predictable?
Kathy Kiernan is running for President against Patric Verrone. Now, I know Kathy. She’s a very good person, but she’s not a serious candidate for President, and I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way.
Kathy was elected to the Board last year, and she was on a slate of candidates endorsed by…drumroll please….
She’s an ally of Patric’s, not a real opposition candidate. And so, in order to go through the motions here, we have the obligatory “contest” that isn’t a contest. Both candidates will write lovely statements about where we are and where we have to go, and neither will take swipes at each other.
In fact, both will praise each other and talk mostly about how they both want the same things.
Then Patric will get re-elected.
It’s not really offensive. It’s just silly. It’s a little strange that Kathy’s the one running against Patric, particularly because she’s a newswriter, and as such, she doesn’t even work under the big contract that’s up for negotiations this fall.
Heh…you know…if she won and then we went on strike, our President would still be working while we all walked a picket line.
That would be amusing.
But she won’t win. She’s not in this to win, but to fill a slot. Personally, I hope her candidacy does at least a little to educate our membership about the fact that we do have newswriters in our union. They’re terribly served by the WGAE, whose Executive Director Mona Mangan has managed to beat her own dismal record for incompetence by bungling the CBS newswriter negotiations for over two years now.
Yes, they’ve been working two years without a contract.
Way to go, Mona. You’re a real labor hero.
I hope Kathy uses her platform, obligatory thought it may be, to shine a light on that sad story. For all of our obsession with internet residuals, there are people out there who aren’t even trying to get any residuals for anything.
They just want a halfway decent contract.
We won a nice victory in basic cable.
Maybe the news will be next.
We got a nice mention in the Times today.
For those of you who are new to the site, the menu bar at the top of the screen breaks everything out into categories. If you want to search for particular topics, SEARCH is to the right.
Of special note is our forum, which is our general discussion area for all things screenwriting. You can access it through the menubar, the link under the search box or…hell…
…just go here to register. Like everything else on this site, it’s cost-free and ad-free.
So go ahead, look around. Kick the tires.
I’ll have a new article up later about the Writers Guild…and for the first time in a long time, it’s going to be a positive one.
Hopefully we’ve all gotten enough arguing done on this site as of late. Let’s get back to the stuff that really matters.
I want to talk about the concept of harmony within a scene. Lots of people come up with good ideas. A number of them come up with good stories for those ideas. Writing good scenes, however, seems to be a much rarer skill.
I consider a good scene to be its own movie. There’s a beginning, middle and end. There is conflict, crisis, resolution and cliffhanging. But above all, there is a harmony between the building blocks of the scene itself.
These are your three instruments that must be played in each scene (unless the scene only features one person, in which case you’re down to two instruments).
(Side note: I don’t know if screenwriting teachers agree with me or not or so forth. This is how I look at stuff. Don’t write and tell me that I’m clashing with McKee or Truby. I’ve never read them, and more importantly, I don’t care.)
A classic rookie mistake is to write a scene with two or more characters that doesn’t use all three building blocks. The main character is realizing something about himself in the scene, and there’s an interesting thing happening between the two characters, but the scene doesn’t advance the story in any significant way, and if cut out of the film, wouldn’t be missed.
Or perhaps two characters are having a fight while accomplishing a plot point, but the fight isn’t internally relevant to the main character.
Let’s say, however, that you’ve got a scene that has all three tools working.
Are they working in parallel, or in sequence? Are the working in isolation, or in integration?
Are they harmonizing or simply playing their own tunes?
Rather than intellectualize this concept, I’m going to ask you to read a scene by a real master of the craft. Scott Frank wrote this scene for his film The Lookout. After considering how to best present this scene in the context of this web page, I opted for maximum laziness and just embedded the PDF. This should work in Safari for Mac and Firefox and IE for PC. If you need the Adobe Reader plugin, go here.
(Actually, since people were having issues with the plugin, it’s now just a direct link)
Here’s the backstory you need before reading the scene (and spoilers apply, of course). LEWIS, played by Jeff Daniels, lives with the main character, Chris Pratt. All we know about Lewis is that he’s blind and clearly more wise than the 20-something Chris, who suffers from accident-related brain damage. Lewis basically looks after Chris. He even cooks his meals for him.
LUVLEE, played by Isla Fisher, has been sleeping with Chris, but what we know is that she’s really the girlfriend of another guy who is using Chris to rob a bank. Chris has told Lewis that Luvlee is his girlfriend, but he hasn’t told Lewis anything about the plan to rob the bank.
Luvlee has just slept over at Chris and Lewis’ apartment for the first time. It’s the middle of the night…
So let’s talk about how these pages epitomize harmony in scenecraft.
On the first page, we learn that Luvlee is a stripper, or at least used to be one. But instead of coming out and telling us, we learn this fact by way of Lewis’ internal character. It’s his blindness…and the attendant qualities of being blind…that allow him to draw the conclusion we hadn’t yet made, and thus pull something out of Luvlee that neither she, nor any other character, nor the plot itself, had yet managed to do. Meanwhile, she’s immediately thrown off guard by Lewis from the very beginning of the scene. Here’s a blind man she didn’t see…and he’s immediately seeing right through her. So who’s blind?
All on page one. Note that we’re enjoying all three axes of scenecraft working in harmony. His character pulls out plot which sets the tone of the relationship…and there are no seams showing yet.
Here, we watch as Lewis and Luvlee settle into a wrestling match. Page one was just the warning shot. Lewis has announced to Luvlee that he sees more than most people. And Luvlee, with her casual “Wow. You hear about that…”, has decided that playing the dumb stripper act is probably the best strategy here to avoid revealing too much. Of course, we’ve also learned something internal about Lewis, which is that he’s not yet willing to reveal anything about his blindness. Why? And why is Luvlee lying to him? These internal and interrelational elements are working together in service to unearth a nugget of external, or plot, information.
Lewis tries the head-on approach. She clams up. He shows his cards when he asks about Gary, confirming Luvlee’s suspicions (and note…the fact that Luvlee was suspicious before Gary asks is an intentional choice in and of itself!), and she not only keeps her silence, but goes on the attack.
She decides to figure out just whom she’s dealing with here. Is Lewis a brother? A father? Just how protective of Chris is he? Is this just curiosity, or is Lewis a danger? So she smartly turns the tables on him, revealing both to Lewis and the audience a heretofore unestablished caginess. As she interrogates Lewis, her character transforms from a dingy moll into a much smarter cookie. Hell, not just smart, but a bit dangerous.
“Maybe your only friend?”
Ouch. And she was so sweet just a moment ago…
Now Lewis realizes he’s not dealing with some airhead stripper he can push around. This is a real human being in front of him who’s smart enough to hear what he has to say.
He has a goal in this scene: protect Chris. That’s plot.
In order to achieve his plot goal, he has to reveal something about his internal character. His hope is that the truth of his internal character will change the relationship between him and Luvlee, and that in turn will help save Chris.
And so, Lewis reveals how he was blinded.
And folks, that’s all in two pages.
When people talk about “tight” writing, this is what they mean. Everything’s beautifully interlaced. The elements are affecting each other and looping back around. Oh, and take note…the quality of the dialogue itself is almost secondary. Dialogue doesn’t have to be sparkling in and of itself. It just has to be properly chosen in order to achieve the harmony you need in your purposeful scene.
Now, let’s go on to page three.
We already knew Lewis was a cook, but now we come to learn that Lewis was a cook. The implication between them now is that some people cook stuff up, and other people eat it. You know…there’s con artists and suckers…and that’s the world.
When Lewis asks “What are y’all cookin’, sweetheart?” he’s not just asking, “What are you and Gary up to?” He’s saying, “I was one of you, so come clean.” When you layer significances, the scene becomes more compelling. Harmony.
Trapped like a rat, Luvlee becomes petulant. See, once Lewis tells her he used to be a meth cook, she realizes that this blind glimp can probably read her mind. They’re of the same tribe. She briefly tries a new tactic…the “saint” who wants to help Chris, but even she knows that’s not going to hold up.
So she switches to a new strategy…which is denial and then anger. And with each new strategic switch, she reveals more and more that her internal voice is guilty, guilty, guilty of a crime. In this case, the interpersonal starts to reveal the personal, and once Lewis has her on the ropes, he attempt to actualize his goal.
“So tonight, in the dark, let me help you out and ask it again: what are you doing here?”
Lewis doesn’t ever say “You’re using Chris.” Nor does he say, “I’ll go to the police.” Nor does he say, “I’ll kill you if you hurt my friend.” Nor does he ever find out what Luvlee is even up to.
What he asks of Luvlee is simply this: “What are you doing here?”
His internal revelation has changed the interpersonal dynamic to reveal something about her internal state which leads him to the best strategy to achieve his external goal.
And that strategy is clearly guilt. He’s trying to guilt her into letting Chris off her perfumed hook for whatever it is she and her boyfriend Gary are trying to pull.
Three and a half pages.
The scene isn’t great because of the information revealed or the relationship between Luvlee and Lewis or the internal truths of their characters.
It’s great because of the way those elements all worked in harmony.
And it’s the harmony that makes good writing great.
I’m working on my next entry, and I’d like to embed a pdf into the text using HTML.
If I use the EMBED tag, the pdf embeds nicely in Safari, but doesn’t work at all in Firefox, and I haven’t even begun to check it in Windows just yet.
Any tips on how to best do this?
Update: Okay, I got it working fairly well in Vista on both IE and Firefox. Firefox for Mac still eludes me. If anyone knows how get Firefox for Mac to recognize embedded PDF’s, go ahead and comment.
The smoking thread is easily the most populated we’ve ever had, and the software’s getting rather pokey digesting each added comment (I’m sure you’ve noticed).
Use the comments for this entry to continue the debate. I’m closing comments in the other one so that the whole site doesn’t bog down.
Update: I just received the following email from my assistant.
“The smoking thread is easily the most populated we’ve ever had…”
Wow. That is so great Craig – the most poopulatd thread you EVER had – how ever did you come up with the idea?
If I’m not mistaken, you promised me a mention in the article…and yet, none exists.
Hmmmm. I see how you are.
THANK YOU, Jacq. Lesko, who definitely gave me the idea to write about this. You are my everything, in spite of the word “poopulatd.” It was an excellent topic to suggest, and I appreciate it.
Like the old song goes, “Smoke gets in your eyes.”
It seems the MPAA is taking that quite literally. Recently, they decided to include on-screen depictions of smoking as one of the criteria that can earn a film an “R” rating.
I’ll take a somewhat unpopular (among Hollywood types) view on this.
I think it’s a good idea.
Naturally, most smoking in movies occurs as a general reflection of the fact of smoking itself. Smoking, like driving, is a part of visible life. However, movies have made something of a fetish of smoking for a few additional reasons. Actors are often looking for “business,” that catch-all word to describe hands-on activities that take the burden of undue focus off their dialogue.
Smoking is a great bit of business. Watch Bogie roll his own cig, then light it up in The Maltese Falcon. Great business.
And the reward?
The smoke itself.
Cigarette smoke is Hollywood’s cheapest special effect. It curls around the actor’s face. It lights beautifully. The simple act of taking a drag can shorthand misery, suspicion, anger…
Smoking is a great window to the soul, as visually informative as a smile or a tear. The way the actor exhales, the way they stub the cigarette out, the ritual of the “light,” the snap of a Zippo, the flick of the butt…
It’s all wonderful.
I don’t care what anyone says. Smoking DOES make you look cool, and movies make the already cool act of smoking even cooler-looking.
The one-sheet for Chinatown, which you see above, was illustrated by a friend of my named Jim Pearsall. It’s my favorite movie poster of all time, and that’s in no small part because Jim nailed the noirish essence of smoke. Jake Gittes is a man’s man, a tough private dick whose oxygen is the very stuff of smoggy L.A. And Evelyn Mulwray is a vision, a bit of smoke curling in the air. Beautiful, seductive…and then gone. Disappearing into the Chinatown air.
It’s movies like these that made me want to smoke. Yes, I’m actually someone who can safely say with 100% surety that I started smoking because of the way movies made smoking look. So did Jim Pearsall. In fact, that’s how Jim and I met. We were two smokers working at an ad agency in 1992. I’d stand outside sucking down my Marlboro Menthols (I know, I know…), and he’d rip the filters off his Carltons and tell me stories about old Hollywood.
Two years later, he was dead. Cancer, naturally.
The week before I got married, I quit smoking. I quit cold turkey, and I haven’t had a cigarette since 1996.
Still, is this a moral crusade we need?
Here’s my basic view of the MPAA and their ratings system. I don’t always agree with it. I know that I’ve personally had my share of issues with the MPAA on every movie I’ve done, and I have no doubt I’m in for plenty more. However, the MPAA ratings system is not censorship. The MPAA ratings system is designed to help parents figure out whether or not a movie is appropriate for their children. Simple as that.
We can argue about whether or not it does that well (although most parents apparently seem to think it does). I do know that every time I’ve gone in to recut a scene in order to avoid an R rating, I did so not under the threat of censorship, but out of a personal concern for my own bottom line. In other words…greed. I wanted a PG-13 so that the film would be seen by a wider audience, and I made the personal choice to sacrifice some moments in order to get that rating.
Even the dreaded NC-17 isn’t censorship. It’s just a rating. As an aside, however, I do believe that newspapers that refuse to run ads for NC-17 films and theaters that refuse to exhibit those movies are way out of line, and I think the MPAA should make a concerted effort to kill that practice…at least with the major newspaper and exhibitor chains.
Anyway…the operative question is simply this: do parents want their unaccompanied children to see a movie that glamorizes smoking? And yes, the ratings board seems pretty specific about the glamorization aspect. Context counts.
I’ll be honest. I don’t want my children to have that option. I was able to quit smoking, but I’m sure damage was done. It’s a risk I’d rather not leave to my children and the film industry to take together. I want to be a part of that decision. I’m not supporting the nanny state, nor am I attempting to legislate morality. An R rating doesn’t mean the film is evil, or it’s taboo, or it’s sinful or it’s shameful. It means that it includes certain content that parents should have the right to decide whether or not their children see.
I don’t agree with many of the criteria for R ratings (and I think there’s too much violence permitted in PG and PG-13 films), but I agree with the MPAA on this one. After all, I wasn’t just being an idiot when I decided to smoke.
I was being a 16 year-old idiot who had seen a lot of movies.
I accept responsibility for my choice as a child. As a parent, I’d like to accept responsiblity for the choice as well. The MPAA gave me one. I think that’s a good thing.