Friday, December 30, 2011

Goals 2012: The Goals Themselves

My goals for 2012 are going to be realistic and achievable: 30 hours of craft-work a week, split between the two areas of the craft that I care about: story construction and visual storytelling.

I) Story Construction
  1. I will finish writing my current feature script
  2. I will write a second feature script
  3. I will write a short film*
  4. I will co-write a comic book miniseries
  5. I will read a screenplay a week**
  6. I will read Aristotle's Poetics and one add'l craft-related book
II) Visual Storytelling
  1. I will form a weekly peer-oriented directing workshop
  2. I will direct the noted (*) short film
  3. I will take at least one improv class
  4. I will thumbnail one scene from the noted (**) script each week
  5. I will watch one movie with the sound off each week
  6. I will finish reading Impro and read one add'l craft-related book
If I put my heart into it and be sensible about achieving the above, then by the end of 2012, I will have:
  • Written 2 feature screenplays
  • Written 1 comic book series
  • Written and Directed 1 short film
  • Read 52 screenplays
  • Thumbnail'd 52 scenes
  • Watched 52 movies silently
  • Read 4 craft-related books
  • Taken 1 improv class
  • Participated in 52 directing workshops
Looking over these, the ones that stand out to me as most important are naturally the ones that are in greatest danger of not happening. I will have to be extra vigilant to ensure that my goals involving PRACTICE & CREATION are put ahead of STUDY -- at least until such time as all three can be naturally executed in proper proportion.

Goals 2012: Where do I want to go as a storyteller?

As in the previous posts, the following questions are taken from Scott Myers' Go Into The Story blog.

* Do you want just to write movies?

Movies are what it's always been about for me. If all I ever did was write for film, I would be okay with that. I have written a spec for fun, and I'm planning a comic with a friend who is an artist, but those are more for the exercise, the experience, than any true professional ambitions. I love telling stories with pictures, any medium, including theater, that does that, I will someday probably consider dabbling in. But it begins and ends with two hours of light projected onto a silver screen.

* Do you want to write and direct?

I absolutely want to direct. Directing and writing have always gone hand-in-hand for me. At first, I wanted to be a writer, but then I found myself taking over the camera when making movies with my friends. And at a certain point, I made a career decision that I didn't want to put my scripts in someone else's hands. As I began to devote concurrent study to visual storytelling and directing actors, my passion for it grew to encompass writing. Soon enough, the relationship reversed, and I wanted to write my own scripts because I didn't want my directing career to depend on waiting around for a script to direct. And so on.

Now, I've reached an equilibrium where I consider everything from the dreaming up the story all the way through to mastering the sound at the very end a vital and valid part of the storytelling process.

Apart from that, when I write for too long, I get cabin fever and need to get out on my feet and be physical, collaborating with designers and especially actors to craft the living movie. Once that invariably burns me out, I'm ready to hole back up in a room and stare at a screen for 16-hours a day, stitching the pieces together. Throwing that out, mixng and matching, and re-stitching until a complete, pointed motion picture exists.

And by then I'm burnt out on the story entirely and ready to go to work on a new one.

* Do you want to write and produce?

Right now, producing doesn't interest me. But I imagine that a lot of the logistical work I actually do when directing short films is technically "producing", so I imagine that at some point, being the control freak that I am, I'll take up producing my work as well. Probably to the same extent that Spielberg or Cameron produce their own work -- may I be so fortunate.

* Do you want to bounce between writing big commercial movies and character-driven indie films?

I don't distinguish between the two. I try to craft stories that require only what they need to be told. That said, a story about the final battle for the future of mankind? It probably needs a MASSIVE budget. A story that features a plummet from 150,000 feet to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean? Probably needs MASSIVE budget. You get the idea.

* Do you want to write screenplays and novels?

When I was 9 I thought I wanted to be a novelist. As I tried to write novels over the next few years, I slowly realized that the only reason I read novels was because my parents wouldn't let me watch movies on weeknights. So I'd read novels as a kid, and every night I'd watch them as movies in my head. Then when my friends and I started making short films in junior high, my writing naturally transitioned to visual storytelling. The rest is history.

* Do you want to carve out a niche writing specific types of movies or write across multiple genres?

As I mentioned in a previous post, science fiction is my bread-and-butter, war my stock-and-trade. Given that, it shouldn't be a surprise that my first feature script was a post-apocalyptic war story.

But as a rule I like stories of all kinds, provided they're well-crafted, emotional, and not self-indulgent dramatically or artistically. As broad as that is, it actually includes a very narrow range of films; the very best. Casablanca and Aliens are my two favorite films, and could they be any different? They're as unlike as two films can be except in one regard: the pitch-perfection of their level of craft. If every movie I made was a hybrid of those two, I still wouldn't complain. But I'm also drawn to the high adventure -- The African Queen was the first "classic" film that I fell in love with. I was age 8, home sick with food poisoning for three days. I watched it every damn day I was sick and rarely have I felt better. I love Hitchcock's witty suspense films: Rear Window, Notorious, NxNW, Shadow of a Doubt. John Ford's westerns, especially Stagecoach and The Searchers.

And I don't say "love" with empty respect, I'm not praising these films because I feel obligated to -- they really are the movies that fuel my passion.

It's also not a coincidence that mentioned Spielberg and Cameron earlier. The depth, breadth, and diversity of their careers has been an inspiration for me my whole life. They were the first two filmmakers I became consciously aware of. As much as I love "Star Wars", I came to it a later in childhood than most. Instead, the "Star Wars" of my childhood were "The Terminator", "The Abyss", and especially "Aliens". I had those three on constant rotation before I ever knew they were made by the same guy. Likewise, "Jaws", "E.T.", "Indiana Jones", and "Close Encounters". I was a Cameron/Spielberg fanboy many times over before my friends' love of "Star Wars" became infectious.

So if I had to pick, I'd want my career to be as malleable as those two great filmmakers' careers have been. I want to be able to jump from one genre to another as nimbly as Spielberg, and and embed myself in SciFi as deeply as Cameron has, before shifting gears to spy thrillers and historical action/romances. Do I want to make the next Titanic? No. But do I want to be the next Spielberg or Cameron? Not that either.

I want to take those influences and be the first Erik LeDrew.*


*(special thanks to Jackie Chan for the assist)

Goals 2012: Where am I as a storyteller?

The following bullet-point questions were taken from Scott Meyers' Go Into the Story blog. I am going to use them to help assess where I am as a storyteller.

* Is this where I want to be as a writer?

This is a difficult question to parse, because there are three different answers, depending on the context of the question.

In terms of craft, I am on the path I want to be on. I have a greater understanding of story and the telling than I ever have, thanks to the continued guidance of my mentor, and continued exposure to numerous great films. I also cannot underestimate how great it was have a partner to develop the story and outline of my current script. Not only was it creatively fruitful, but it taught me a great deal about myself, my strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller, and my creative process. I tend to like to work from the gut, but within a strong structural framework. For example, I must know that the path to story event 'C' starts with 'A', but I love improvising and spitballing my way through 'B'. This "dreaming" part of the process might be my favorite part. According to Gary Ross, it's by far the most important part to him. When it comes to actually writing, I'm a bit of a control freak with my prose, so it's all well and good that my writing partner eventually tapped-out. I think the dreaming was his favorite part too, so there's no hard feelings either way. I still run ideas and, now, pages past him as I work through things, but the bulk of the work now falls on me. I am okay with this.

In terms of process, I am not satisfied. I have not yet managed to make writing an organic part of my everyday life. It helps having zeroed-in on a specific project now, but for weeks I've been languishing, stressing myself out over my lack of concrete definitive progress. My natural state of being is to work in fits and starts, but that's not conducive to a healthy, productive lifestyle. So I want to change my process to a more regular one, with less periods of high- and extremely low-intensity, and a more consistent, persistent state of progress.

And In terms of my profession, I am not satisfied. I have a great job, I do not as yet have a career. And it is a daily struggle to keep from feeling like every hour not spent writing and directing movies, every hour not spent telling stories, is an hour wasted. I think this sense of personal failure would diminish if I could get onto a more regular writing schedule, even if I'm still not yet a paid "professional". But let's unpack that word "professional" anyway -- my mentor told me that a writer doesn't become a professional when he gets paid. A writer becomes a professional, and then gets paid.

* Am I writing what I want to be writing?

As a matter of fact, I absolutely am writing what I want to be writing. I am not writing as much as I want to be writing, but I am telling the stories I want to tell. I imagine this will become more of a problem the closer to the profession I get. But right now, the only thing I answer to over the context and content of my stories is my heart.

* What do I want to write?

if science fiction is my bread and butter, war stories are my stock-and-trade. All of my ambitions tend to point toward speculative ficton, including my two feature scripts and a few of the ideas for short films that I have. But in practice, the vast majority of my storytelling revolves around or derives from my experiences in combat. I know I can't keep milking it forever, and what's more, the further I get from literal war, the bet my storytelling seems to get. This is why it was such a challenge to hone down my love-in-war short film DESERTERS from its initial unsightly, ungainly, uninteresting 25 minutes to a reasonably sharp, pointed, emotional 7m45s.

Everyone says "write what you know" but I think it should be the other way around: "Know what you write." Storytelling requires objective construction as much as it requires a subjective "voice", and speaking just for myself, writing what I know is simply too dangerous a proposition for thematic and structural discipline. I get too easily overwhelmed.

This doesn't bode well for the war stories coming up that I have to write after my current script, but I hope that with practice, I'll get better at exerting control over the subjective elements of my stories and be able to tell something more conventionally "personal", because I do have a few war-derived stories that have crackerjack concepts.

* What do I need to write?

I need to write, simply put. I have a good instinct for drama and story that I am continually honing and learning to better hear, but it's all for nothing if I'm not writing regularly.

* Is there a particular story I have surfaced about which I am particularly passionate?

Right now, the SF script is the story demanding my attention -- it's strong, intense, and has something passionate to say. I'm not worried about losing interest, only in stalling-out from lack of progress. The war-derived story that I recently cracked the mythic structure for is up next -- that and a transcontinental Western are the two calling to me to be hashed-out and dramatized after the current one.

* Has something important happened in my life this year which has shifted my writing perspective?

This past year was an incredible eye-opener for me and truly humbling. There's really nothing quite like having no income and being in danger of eviction (we eventually made the last month's rent and moved out voluntarily, but we couldn't have made it another month) to really put the fear in you, so to speak. I really cannot emphasize how enormous an impact it had on my perspective of life, on how I see the poor and homeless, the hungry and the downtrodden. Between being unemployed, having my short film rejected by film festival after festival, and having a hard time excelling at freelance commercial gigs, it really brought me down to Earth. The simple fact of having no money, knowing that none was coming in, and having this great ambition to be a successful filmmaker one day -- the incongruity of it was enough to make me realize just how goddamn hard it is to succeed, and that nobody is going to give it to me. it was enough to make me realize that I have to put in the effort myself, and that it will be a long, hard road filled with blood, sweat, tears and broken dreams before I can achieve my goals.

A few things came to me this year, that proved to be particularly apt, namely, something Sam Raimi said on the Spider-man 2 commentary which I listened to a few months back, when I was just beginning to crawl out from under the weight of unemployment. Raimi said, "The thing about Hollywood is that no one wants to give you a shot. But if you go and prove you don't need a shot, suddenly everyone will want to work with you." That, more than anything, is what I'm trying to figure out how to achieve at this moment.

* Am I in touch with my Creative Self?

When I raved earlier about how great it was having a partner to develop the story for my current script, I think this was one of the things I was getting at. I started to notice that when I read an outline for a scene, or a sequence, that I'd get a gut reaction. I'd begin to feel either like I'd eaten something gross, or like I'd eaten something wonderful. It was sort of a hot/cold sensor, and I found the more we dreamt and spitballed, the more clearly I could read that sensor. I've come to the conclusion that this is my creative instinct, one that academia taught me to suppress. I've spent the last year getting back in touch with it and it feels glorious.

* What can I do to be a better writer?

Simply put, I need to STUDY and I need to PRACTICE, everyday. I'm naturally afraid of failure, so my first impulse is to revert to study when there is a conflict between the two. But I've done so much study and have only a few things to show for it, that I think I need to invert that relationship some, or at a minimum, find a happy medium.

I was caught in a pickle with this exact issue a few weeks ago; I didn't know whether I should commit to writing a script or to studying a particular filmmaker. Of course, my desire was to do both, but as I began to count up the hours I wanted to put into it, I began to realize it was pretty much impossible with a full-time job. So I turned to my writing partner, who at that point had ended his primary engagement with the project. His point was that when you practice, it forces you to synthesize everything you've learned up to that point, and even exponentially expands your understanding. And that is simply something I don't do enough of.

My takeaway is that, if study is my natural failsafe, I should direct my efforts into what is not my natural failsafe: PRACTICE -- and let study happen the way it naturally does anyway.

Goals 2012: Looking Back at 2011

I'm going to write a series of posts that hopefully will set me on the path to making some achievable, realistic goals for the year of 2012. I'm going to start this first post with an assessment of what I did and did not accomplish in 2011.


  1. I finished my short film DESERTERS, after an interminable post-production period.
  2. I finished the outline for the feature film I was co-developing with my friend and sometimes-writing partner Matt Davis.
  3. I began revisions of an ambitious script that I wanted to direct as my next short film, only to realize after a few days of work that the story would rather be a simple feature film than a dense short film. I set this aside until #2 is finished.
  4. I clarified the mythic story shape for a feature I intend to write after #2 and #3 are accomplished.
  5. I came up with an idea for a short, to fill the gap left by #3's ascension to feature status.
  6. I expanded the structural shape of another short script I've had knocking around for a while. Either #5 or #6 will be my next short film.
  7. And while this isn't a writing goal, it's a "goal" achieved nonetheless: After spending the second half of 2010 unemployed and the first half of 2011 bouncing from unemployment to unstable freelance gig to just being grateful for having any income at all, I finally landed a full-time job thanks to a good friend. The work is good, and although not directly related to storytelling, is close enough for the moment. The people are good. The place is good. And the pay ain't too bad either. I was the last person interviewed of dozens of people, so I'm very grateful to have landed this job and consider myself fortunate to have just barely made it in under the wire.

I'm not going to make a list, because that'd just be punishment, but I will point out a few things. I did not finish a single script this year -- short, feature, or otherwise. I did not completely revise any scripts this year. I did not make any new short films. And a part of me, while financially much more stable, doesn't feel any closer to having achieved my goals than I did a year ago.

That voice is unfair and inaccurate, but it does have a point: I didn't accomplish what I set out to accomplish a year ago. To be fair, I struggled just to find an income for the first half of the year, spent the summer training and getting used to my new job, and then only in the fall did things start to pick back up creatively.

In 2011, I moved the ball down the road. Not as far as I had hoped, but it did move forward, and that's important to remember.

In 2012, I will move it even further.