Solving Problems, Meta-Style

Tim Ferriss is, in my mind, a moderately interesting self-help guru in the Tony Robbins mode. But just as Robbins can sometimes be a man of interesting ideas (when you get past the shorts and those headset microphones all self-help life-coaches are required to wear), Ferriss also has some curious techniques for ‘hacking’ life. He seems to take a sort of meta view of tasks and is able to break them down into component parts, which he then masters very quickly.

Many people think he’s a hoax, or self-obsessed ‘winner,’ but I’ve read one of his books and found it fairly useful. Here’s an interview I read with him on Boing Boing.

What Is Better Than How

As a writer with several projects in active rotation, I learned long ago that ‘How’ matters much less than ‘What.’

The how is cool — we all like it when the style of a project (whether that be the way people dialogue, or a cool approach to screen direction or script narration) is well put together. But the ‘what’ of a story — the scene weave substance (AKA – this happens, then this happens, then this happens) — is always the boss. In fact, a beautiful script filled with wonderful turns of phrase is junk if the ‘what’ is weak.

The reality is that there are two kinds of scripts: those who are meant to impress readers, get an agent, get financing, etc., and those by established writers who don’t have to worry about ‘style’ on the page. The Coen Bros, for instance, aren’t worried about how the script reads — they know they’ll be okay because the script is already in, so to speak. Mortals like myself, however, have to constantly impress to raise financing, get an agent, get a project off the ground. So we pay attention to style. Maybe too much attention.

It’s pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many of us fall into this trap. I’ve spent lots of time making sure my scripts flow well — that the events in them are pleasing, almost poetic in their revelations and developments of themes. Also, that that they flow off the page in a well-turned phrase, or are free of typos, or have a pleasing look. And in trying to impress readers, it’s way too easy to put the cart before the horse.

Many times the ‘what’ — the true content of a story — is overlooked or even treated as secondary. But a quick glance at various scripts of great movies will often reveal typos, clumsy turns of phrase, and incomplete or poor formatting. The ‘what’ — the meat of the story, the scene weave — however, is usually dynamite (usually).

It’s a bit akin to a great cinematographer working hard to make a shot the most beautiful he can … but the contents of his shot is less than impressive. There are so many good-looking but vacuous indie films out there, films in which all of the work went into the presentation and not enough went into the content. They pass by like postcards, in and out in a moment with nothing left behind.

The same is true of writing on the page — sometimes, so much energy is spent making a sentence pretty, but not enough time is spent on what the sentence is about — the content of the thought

But next time when you sit down to write, make sure the What is first and foremost as good as you can make it. Then worry about the How.

The Man

Got a chance to work with Wes Studi recently in Santa Fe. Let it be known: He Is The Man.

Anyone who doubts this should reacquaint himself with Magua, his character in The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann’s terrific film from the early ’90’s. Magua is one of recent cinema’s most fearsome villains, and though it’s pretty tough to steal a film from Daniel Day Lewis, Wes Studi did it.

Watch:

Night’s Bright Colors

My good friend Jason Smith and I have collaborated for most of a decade, as he partially scored every single one of my movies. Even today, I couldn’t be more impressed with his talents (he’s the one, for instance, who wrote and performed the ukulele piece on the Alison trailer).

He’s also got his own band, Night’s Bright Colors, and though they’re usually more of an in-studio recording outfit, they play around every so often. Here’s a video I shot of them recently roaring through one of their songs at the Bobo Gallery, here in Asheville, NC. Go check out their music on iTunes.

Juggling Projects

It happens: Sometimes our various projects pile up on one another, and we have to adapt and find new ways of working to handle the new load or risk creatively stalling. For me, I’ve had to learn to pick up my pace a bit if I want to get all of my writing and filming (among other things) done. I was apprehensive about this at first, but I’ve found it’s not so hard to juggle various creative projects at one time — if you’re organized, motivated and ‘in the flow,’ as the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi puts it.

Flow, of course, is the state of of creative focus that happens mid-point between boredom and anxiety — as Wikipedia defines it, flow is ‘completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

Now, I’ve written previously about some rewrites happening on The Mourning Portrait, while Your Ass Is Grass is still pulling at my coattails, asking to be given its proper due. But all of this is to ensure that if I don’t get as focused as possible with my scheduling and conceptualizing, things will be getting done at a slower rate than I had hoped. Nothing will flow.

This is not a new problem, of course. I spoke recently to the science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, and he mentioned that he writes fiction in the morning and non-fiction in the afternoon, which seems like a good way to go: it keeps you from mixing two styles of narrative, say, or from allowing one project to bleed into another.

In my case, the projects are both narrative screenplays, so the challenge is to wipe my hard-drive brain clean of one before settling into another that same day. Can it be done? I think it can. The tough part is to compartmentalize the projects and let them be themselves, without any cross-pollination.

But on the other hand, some cross-pollination may not be a bad thing. On The Mourning Portrait, the team and I had worked out a certain way of going forward that allowed for maximum clarity of purpose and intent. I liked it so much I’m using that same method on Your Ass Is Grass. So maybe it is okay to mix the projects a bit — but only a bit. It really is like juggling — one project is in one stage of development, while others are in a more nascent place.

At any rate, there comes a time when a leisurely writing pace is just not what’s needed — sometimes you have to step it up a bit and get ‘r done. Having a flexibility of creative methods helps in these bottleneck moments; in other words, it helps to have ‘speed’ as well as ‘quality’ in your toolbox.

Acting!

So, I recently got asked to teach several acting classes up in NYC, by the good folks at One on One NYC.  I said yes. Seems they like to bring in various well-known and-or veteran filmmakers and casting types to talk about the craft of acting.  Darren Aronofsky did it.  So did Brad Anderson, Frank Whaley, and lots of other cool people.

Both of my classes are on Thursday, March 3, in Chelsea. It’ll be fun. See you there.

Your Ass is Grass, Update 2

Well, time heals all wounds.  It also helps tear down creative walls.

Indeed, the roadblocks have cleared and as expected, the time off from my next script YAIG was well spent.  A major plot point recently suggested itself, and now there’s a clearer vision, a better approach, a fresher perspective ahead.  Without getting too specific (you gotta watch the movie to find out what happens, man), I was able to get inside the main character’s point of view in a stronger way, one that will make the final version much more compelling.  Quirkier and more eccentric, too, which of course is really one of the strengths of indie film. The new approach will up the budget quite a bit, definitely out of the range of the micro- to low budget I was hoping for. Now it’ll be in the mid-six figure range, if not more.

But that’s okay.  The creative drive wins out every time, and if the story wants to be a bit more expensive, then so be it.  It is what it is.

Favorite Fiction, Revisited

LeiberSwordsDeviltry1_cropOne of the cool things about getting older is the perspective it gives you. Now that I’m (ahem) of a certain age, I’ve found it fun and enlightening to go back and revisit some of the beloved genre novels that worked for me so well when I was in my teens.  In short, I’m now rereading the great science fiction, horror and heroic fantasy classics of my youth.

I loved the ideas, the landscapes, the characters, and — yes — the escapism of a lot of these novels. But also I learned from them; they were my friends. Now, I wanted to see them from a new vantage point — were they good?  Were they worthy of my time?  Is it just plain nostalgia? Should I go find my temporarily shelved copies of Nudge and The Alienist?

I started with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was amazing, and seemed to prefigure this effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster era of movies by about, oh, a hundred years or so.  Then it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and finally I made my joyful way through Stevenson’s famous novelette of Victorian supression, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  All were simply delicious, and reminded me why I love to read in the first place.

More recently I moved up to a few contemporary works: Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, a literary take on heroic fantasy which could never be filmed, was first. I just re-finished Peter Straub’s Jack of Shadows, and it knocked my socks off (see that entry here).  Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot — one of his seminal early works — gave me a bit of a thrill, and reminded me why people like him so much in the first place.  Michael Moorcock’s Swords Trilogy, a wonderful psychedelic fantasy series originally written and published in the swinging sixties, blew my mind, baby.  Now it’s Fritz Lieber’s Swords And Deviltry, the first entry in his legendary Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books.

Of course, I do space these out among other, more challenging, literary-based works:  The Corrections, Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, etc.  But my heart (my Rosebud!) still lies with these sometimes cheesy but undeniably fun period genre novels.  And if the original version sported a cool Frazetta (or Frazetta knock-off, as above), then all the better.  (In that spirit, the books I read have been, as much as possible, the initial paperback versions — yellowed, dog-eared pages and all.)

Lieber, I learned, is a prose stylist of the first order; the writing is simply gorgeous, something I was unable to appreciate fully the first time around.  This came as a surprise because fantasy is seen as fairly weak when compared to non-genre prose. (Once, when I finished Toby Wolff’s memoir A Boy’s Life and turned my attentions to a newer acclaimed fantasy series, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, it was like driving on a splendid four lane highway and suddenly bouncing along a dirt road.  Martin’s language was leaden; the voice unoriginal, and it made me appreciate Wollf’s seemingly simple sentences as wise and elegant all the more.)

I’m happy to report that the true fantasy and sci-fi classics are mostly excellent: Just like Tolkein’s work is splendid by any standard, these are also bursting with life.  Lieber’s writing is funny, dark, smart and so well-ingrained in modern geek culture that it practically wrote the book on, well, funny, dark and smart fantasy (it also served as the unofficial basis for the world of the early Dungeons and Dragons game — which may not come as a recommendation for some).

But as an adult, and an artist myself, I remain impressed with Lieber’s accomplishments, and am reminded why I was so drawn to these genre works in the first place:  Often, they served as receptacles of ideas — they confronted life and its challenges through an interesting lens of escapism and teenage power fantasies that appealed not only to me, but to millions of people across the world. They make me remember why I love reading, why I love rainy days — so we have an excuse to sit inside, under the covers, and fall into a good book.

Next up:  Asimov’s Foundation books and Moorcock’s Elric series.  I’m so looking forward to it.

Your Ass is Grass, Update 1

So, periodically, I’m gonna post a creative diary of sorts on my upcoming project Your Ass Is Grass. This is number one.

Work on the script has been going well, but there’ve been a few hitches here and there, as always. First and foremost, I decided to put the script away for a bit to let it jell in my head a little more. My writing process is pretty clumsy: The first draft is to figure out what my story is going to be; the second and third are simply trying to make those elements even better — to find out what really works, what doesn’t, and to make the elements that do work richer, more ‘themselves,’ so I can truly create an excellent and original piece of work.

That’s a slow process, but for me a necessary one. I’ve never been able to outline and proceed simply with that, due to the fact that most of my creative decisions that stick seem to be the ones made in the heat of composing. Thus, coolly sitting down to outline a story seems to be too easy. There needs to be blood on the page, a heady mixture of plot and character that comes only from the thick of battle.

Second, my script The Mourning Portrait has gone through a few small revisions, so I jumped onto that project for a time and let YAIG sit and jell for just a bit. Which is okay. That’s life. If you’ve read my previous post about the writing process, you know that as long as progress is being made on some front, I’m happy. The key when you switch from project to project is to keep that momentum and don’t falter. Easier said than done, of course.

But the script for YAIG is coming along nicely — in my head. Sometimes it helps not to work too fast, or to try to hurry things. I really do think the extra time is often well spent. One of the bad habits I’m trying to get rid of is to rush things along, and honestly, to write scripts that could have been better if I had taken an extra four months or so to finish. That’s why I’m taking my time and letting themes and ideas simmer before committing them to a final draft.* This is a good one, I’m telling myself; one of the ones I’ll be remembered for. So I’m in no hurry to get it out there.

Thanks for your interest! Keep your butt in the chair!

*This is not to contradict my earlier assertion that work is best done only staring at the page.  There are two kinds of writing, of course:  the actual compositional kind, and the dreamy, staring at the ceiling kind.  Both are essential.

Shadowland

shadowland-new-coverI just finished a mind-bending and very moving novel, Shadowland by Peter Straub. Best known for his collaborations with Stephen King, he’s sort of the brainy half of that duo, perhaps resulting in a relative (lack of) popularity — his work is heady and at times difficult, but definitely worth the effort. But now, it seems his excellent early novel is headed for the big screen — in 3D no less.

First published in 1980, Shadowland is a long, sometimes dense book about two boys in the 1950’s who are apprenticed to a master magician. It’s both frightening and touching, and a perfect vehicle for today’s effects-driven films. Lots of crazy phantasmagoric imagery abounds — it’s sort of like Disney’s Sorcercer’s Apprentice sprung to life in a darker and much more disturbing way. In fact, the book comes close to being one of those classified as ‘unfilmable,’ but I don’t think it is — the filmmakers just needed a couple of decades for the technology to catch up to Straub’s incredible imagery.

So far it looks like the always excellent Bill Nighy will be playing the older magician. If this is any indication of the path the filmmakers are taking, the movie could be an incredibly beautiful and mind-bending film. Straub has had precious few film adaptations of his work (as opposed to Stephen King’s 17 million or so) and so its nice to see the bald old man getting his due.

For my own viewing pleasure, I’m wishing them well.