Sunday, December 23, 2012

A long-overdue update - and what not to do when pitching...

Hallo blog. Long time, no see. I can't believe that it's been nearly a month since Iast updated. Maybe the longest time I've ever left my poor blog hanging.

And I don't even have any amazing screenwriting news to justify this. I got a new (temp) job, my sister bought a house and has been doing it up and since I'm hoping to rent a room from her, this has formed a major topic of conversation for the last five weeks. Plus there was Christmas, and its attendant parties/shopping seemed to eat up huge amounts of time.

I can make all the excuses I want - the fact remains that apart from reading a lot of other people's scripts, I've done very little screenwriting-related stuff. I got distracted. And the fact that nailing down a manager/agent and getting my O1 seemed more and more like a vague dream as I got on a bus at 8am to go to a day job, like deja-vu, didn't help.

I need to start believing that this is possible and not a dream, because it is.

Somewhere out there is a rep who really does want me on their books and will find me work, help me develop my career and make a lot of money from me one day. I just need to get off my ass and make it happen.

My next post will talk about goal-setting for 2013, because I do think it's really important to have writing goals. They keep you honest, help you see what you're doing all this for. And non-writing career goals are just as vital, if not more so...

In the meantime, my Dublin writing group (which I've now re-joined) had a pitching session as part of its last meeting before Christmas. We all sat around a table and had 3 minutes to pitch our existing or upcoming project to everyone else.

I think it would be fair to say that we all made some cock-ups, myself included. And bear in mind, I've had a lot more pitching experience than some people in the group, so I really should have known better. Here are some of the mistakes we made, so you can avoid them:

  • Not giving an idea right from the start of the title's genre, target audience and background. I pitched a family sci-fi project about a boy who accidentally creates a new species, for example, but I never mentioned the genre, so some of the group assumed that this was going to be a horror script.

  • A lot of people left out some really important plot details, which then only came out during the Q&A. Similarly, some of the pitches didn't mention vital characters or give a proper idea of who the hero was. The problem with this is that during a real pitch to a studio or producer, you might not get an opportunity to give this info during a Q&A. They might not give you the chance.

  • Not identifying your script's "hook" and making this clear. It's all very well telling us your plot and describing the characters. But what is it that makes your story different? Why should a producer be interested in buying it and spending years making the movie?

  • Going way over the 3 minute allotted time. I was guilty of this one. Time your pitch, practice it for length and cut it ruthlessly if necessary. You might not get another chance to impress your audience.


I have to say, though, I found that the pitching itself - and the comments and suggestions from the group - really helped. If there are plot holes or character problems in your script, you might as well find out as soon as possible, and with a pitch there's nowhere to hide.

Merry Christmas and all the best for 2013 to all my fellow writers. May the Screenwriting Force be with you....

Monday, November 26, 2012

Back in lovely old Dublin...

First of all, I got interviewed by fellow screenwriter Chris Jalufka for his (amazing) blog, and he made me sound so good I'm embarrassed... you can check it out here.

Meanwhile, I'm back in Ireland, back at work and back in one of the world's maddest climates. It's been really strange to go from a place where every day is the same (hot and sunny) to Dublin, where no day is the same. And where instead of writing every day and schmoozing, I'm going out to work (:().

BUT - I'm working to raise money for a good cause, to fund my next visit to L.A. Some men spent most of World War Two trying to escape from Colditz. I just need to save a load of money and get a spanking new visa that will defeat the suspicions of Homeland Security. How hard can it be?

Well, it's not THAT hard. But it's not a piece of cake, either. Basically, as a writer I can apply for an O1 visa, which will give me at least a year in the States (and can be renewed thereafter). With this visa, I can work as a writer (and that includes web writing, journalism etc. as well as screenwriting). Two visa lawyers have looked at my list of credits and reckon I have enough to apply for an O1. But to apply, I must have a sponsor, and that means securing a manager/agent.

I did PRETTY well with getting reps to read my scripts while I was in the States. One agent and four management companies, to be exact. In a situation so typical it might have been an episode of Entourage, the agent said he liked my script, but had no buyer in mind for it. However, if I found a buyer, he'd be happy to represent me! (And take his 10%). I'm still waiting to hear back from some of the managers. But I have to believe that it's going to work out. That someone's going to take a chance on me, a chance that will pay off some day very soon.

On a good note - and there are many good notes, three professional screenwriters helped me out big-time before I left Cali. One got a reader from a top production company to read my script, another gave me some gold-standard advice on writing TV specs, and the third chap - a studio reader himself - spent 45 mins going over my script on Skype. Bear in mind, they got nothing in return apart from a lot of good karma. I made a promise before I left that I, too, would try my best to pay it forward, in whatever way I can.

For now, it's back to writing, rewriting, and outlining. And schmoozing and networking, even it's not on the same scale as it was in L.A. Wherever I'm living, whatever the weather's like, 2013 is going to be the year all my biggest movie dreams come true...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The last week: movies, Stanley Kubrick, a play, and Michael Bolton....

And so it ends... well, nearly. I'm going back to Ireland on Wednesday as my temporary visa is running out. But I'm already plotting and planning to apply for an O1, which would give me 12 months in the States and also allow me to work on a limited basis (I'm not allowed to work at all on my current visa).

I'll update on this in the next post, as it's a subject that I've learned a lot about recently.

But in the meantime, last week was my last full week in Hollywood. And it kicked off in style when I got to see Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard's new movie - with the lady herself in attendance.

This was an AFI gala screening, so while it was free, I had to queue up for an hour in advance with my friend Sarah and the two ladies we were bringing with us. But this was a pretty small price to pay for excellent seats at a screening at the Chinese Theater and a chance to see an interview with the leading lady.

It has to be said, the interviewer - an L.A. Times journalist - was not a natural at drawing people out. He kept asking Marion Cotillard inane questions and repeating himself. She even looked at him several times as if to say, "Really?!"

The interview was so terrible that I zoned out several times, but I did glean from it that Cotillard considered giving up acting at one point due to the poor roles she was getting. She had one more audition - for Tim Burton's Big Fish - and decided to throw in the towel if this one fell through. Of course, she got the part and the rest is history.

The director Jacques Audiard and Cotillard's co-star Matthias Schoenaerts were also there in person and Audiard gave an interview through a French interpreter, which was quite funny. The Americans LOVED it.

Anyway, the movie. Rust and Bone is about Schoenaerts's character Ali, who's left in charge of his young son and travels from Belgium to Antibes to live with his sister and her husband. There he meets Stephanie (Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a water park, and they form a bond after Stephanie suffers a terrible accident.

To say any more would spoil the movie. But what I can say is that while the film is brilliantly acted, looks beautiful and boasts totally amazing performances, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing. It nagged at me for days after I'd seen it, what this "missing" thing was, the crack in the diamond.

And finally I worked it out - I didn't know what Ali's goal was. What he wanted in the story was never made clear. Stephanie's goal - while never made explicit - was easier to understand, but Ali's remained unresolved. And as a result, it was hard to care as much about his journey - and bear in mind, he is at very least a co-protagonist, so understanding his motivation was kind of crucial. I'd love to hear from anyone else who's seen the movie and has any thoughts on this! Maybe it was just me - I'm willing to be proved wrong.

Tuesday night was, of course, election night, and I ended up watching Obama win in a bar on Melrose with a bunch of ex-pats, a group of American gay guys, two very unhappy Republicans from Tennessee and a guy from Cuba. It was actually really exciting to see it all happen in real time, and amazing how fast the results come in (I'm from a country with PR voting, so getting a concrete election result can take days. In individual constituencies,  even weeks).

LACMA has an incredible retrospective on Stanley Kubrick at the moment - I also went to see it this week and there are some pics of the exhibits here. There are movie posters, clips from his films, scripts, development notes and of course, props and costumes. But the autobiographical stuff is the most fascinating. For example, I didn't know that he had been a press photographer at one point. There were dozens of pictures that he had taken for Look Magazine, many of which betray a very cinematic eye (especially his pictures of boxers).

Kubrick was also obsessed with chess and was an avid player. And the game features in many of his films. When asked about chess playing once, he said, "If chess has any relationship to filmmaking, it would be in the way it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive".

Saturday morning, I had my last comedy sketch writing class. I'm going to miss it - it was a a fun class apart from anything else - but I've learned a ton in six weeks about writing sketches. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a newbie. I'm just a much better-informed newbie.

Here are a few of the things I've learned - the basics were covered in this post:

  • Most sketches have an A, B and C. A is the normal situation, for example: a vampire is about to bite a lady. Well, that's not NORMAL, but we've seen it a lot. B is the twist on the normal situation - the vampire's teeth keep falling out. C is the comedic result - he is unable to "perform" successfully as a vampire because of his teeth problems.

  • Keep your sketches simple, broad, clear and relatable. They must have universal appeal. Don't over-complicate things or try to have too many premises. There should be one, clear premise.

  • Figure out which sentence should result in a laugh. Then take any extraneous words out of that sentence and make sure the funniest word is at the end. In fact, use as many funny words as possible. Don't say heroin, make it crack. Don't say juice, say Snapple. It's shocking how basic this sounds, but also how effective it is.

  • Record yourself reading the script. Does it sound like you imagined? With the perspective gained from listening to a recording, is it still funny? If not, keep going until it is!


The great thing about doing something funny like this is that you want to do more and more of it. So from here on, I'll still be writing film scripts but also the odd comedy sketch - even if it's just to give myself a laugh.

Later on Saturday, I went to a play at The Actors Studio theater, which is off Sunset Boulevard behind The Hart House. This building used to belong to William S. Hart, a silent movie cowboy. Inside, there's a picture on the wall of Lee Strasberg and a cast of actors from the Fifties, including one strangely glamorous-looking blonde. Marilyn Monroe.

The theater is a tiny 60-seater and all the seats have someone's name engraved on the side. The one in front of me said Al Pacino. Anyway, the play was one by Ronald Harwood called The Dresser and it was excellent. Obviously a great script, but the performances were just amazing. It's set in London during the Second World War and I assumed the cast was all British. But my Brit friend who worked on it told me afterwards that the actors are all American. Their accents were top-notch - I'd never have guessed!

On Sunday night, I went to the opening of The Grove's Christmas tree. It being L.A., instead of having some soap actor flick the switch, they had a lineup of seven performers, including Michael Bolton and The Backstreet Boys. And Mario Lopez unsuccessfully trying to interview small kids about what they want for Christmas....

And that's it, apart from sorting out some loose ends and going out for one last drink. I've had a great 3 months, but I'm not going to miss L.A. too much, because like Arnie, I'll be back. Soon. In the meantime, I'll miss my lovely gay neighbourhood, the nice weather, the crazy fit people, the endless optimism and of course, all the great people I've met and become friends with. See you in 2013...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Hollywood Halloween, a famous Hollywood house, and a Hollywood classic...

So the first thing that happened after the Austin trip was the (major event) that is Halloween.

The Saturday before, I went to a vintage store to buy my costume, which was for a character I made up called The Killer Bride. Basically, an effed-up white dress and veil, plus an axe. You can see the results - and a lot of other, much more amazing costumes here.

The dress was easy, then I had to get some fake blood, a fake axe and a veil. There was only one thing for it, to go to the Hollywood Toys and Costume Store on Hollywood Boulevard.

My flatmate used to work for a famous hip-hop label owner whose brother was in a seminal Eighties rap band (that's all I'm allowed to say!). And said Label Owner was in town from New York, without a costume. So she was tasked with getting him sorted. He was going AS his brother, which seemed very meta to me....

She drove us up to the Toys and Costume Store, which was MENTAL. There was a huge line of people out the door, and inside, it was the biggest costume emporium I've ever seen. Wigs, fake chains, knives, makeup, latex masks, you name it.

So we got my items in no time, bought some fake gold chains for Mr Label Owner and then it was down to the Adidas store on Melrose for the rest of his costume (yes, that was a clue).

But it turned out that he was staying with a big Hollywood director, which meant a drive into the heart of Beverly Hills to deliver the stuff. This director's pool featured in an episode of Entourage a few years ago, and it was every bit as cool in real life. Amazing paintings, photos taken by the director himself featuring all sorts of famous types, cool furniture and objets d'art everywhere, and of course, the pool where Johnny Drama once begged him for a role.

I'm sorry to say that there was no sign of either the Label Owner or the Director, but we did get to meet the Director's two charming Filipino maids. Next time, I'll be taking a swim in the pool... I wish!

That night, it was off to a Green Card party (two British ladies had just become citizens), where the good news was celebrated with champagne (fair enough) and in true L.A.-style, karaoke. I hope their walls were soundproofed!

Halloween night itself was just as crazy as I'd hoped. Everyone gets dressed up and started promenading around in their costumes from about 6pm, while the streets are lined with a lot of very camp performers on stages singing endless versions of Thriller. At one point, the mayor of West Hollywood tried to make a speech flanked by drag queens, but everyone was too busy oohing and ahing at the mad costumes to listen.

I can't do justice to how incredible some of them were - people really went all out. My favourites were the guy with the TV on his head (complete with lampshade), the guy dressed as The Queen, and the dragon.

It was a great night - and the Killer Bride went down well. I must have had my picture taken with 20-30 people. Kind of felt like being one of those guys dressed as Spiderman on Hollywood Boulevard....

On Friday, I went to a screenwriters mixer organised by the ISA, which unfortunately took place in a cocktail bar called Mixology 101, with a DJ spinning (noisy and bad) discs. Hardly a good venue for a load of nerdy people to make conversation and contacts. Having said that, I did meet a lot of people and  exchanged some cards. I just had no voice the next day...

Thankfully, Saturday was a quiet-ish day, sketch class aside. I went to an AFI screening of a digitally-remastered Sunset Boulevard at Graumans Chinese.

Now, a few things about this. AFI Fest tickets are FREE, and all you have to do to get them is book them online, and pick them up at the box office. And we all got a goodie bag afterwards, with a copy of the film on DVD and a specially-produced poster. I don't know how AFI manages financially, but I'm glad it does!

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is the ideal film to watch in Hollywood, particularly at the Chinese Theater. And seeing it there with a big crowd was something special. Gloria Swanson's terrifying Norma Desmond gets the most laughs, with the biggest ones coming after William Holden's down-at-heel screenwriter tells her she "used to be big". "I AM big!", she snaps back. "It's the pictures that got small!".

But killer lines aside - and this movie is brimming with them - this is a tragic story at heart, about people who can't give up on their dream and head back to Ohio, or in the case of Norma, accept that they're no longer a star. I'd seen the film before, but had forgotten the creepiness of Norma's morbid, crumbling mansion, and the unnerving butler Max. An early scene featuring a midnight burial for a scary-looking pet chimp is straight out of a Hammer Horror.

This is a very dark film masquerading as a comedy, directed by someone who knew just what a high price people are prepared to pay for fame. I loved seeing it on the big screen where it belongs - and if this version gets a wide release, you should check it out.

I'll update again later in the week on the rest of AFI, election night in Hollywood, and a run-down of the (tiny amount) I've learned about comedy sketch writing so far...

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Day 3 of Austin 2012 - Breaking In from Way Outside and Pixar's Story Rules...

There's always at least one panel in Austin on the thorny issue of Breaking Into Hollywood when you live in Boise, Idaho. Or Dublin, Ireland. Or Canada. And if it's not that, it's a panel on How to Get an Agent.

And I always wonder whether to go to these panels, because more often than not the subtext running through them is: Folks, you're screwed. They can be depressing. And as a writer, I don't need another depressing fact, I need hope, damn it!

But nevertheless, I figured I should drink the medicine at least once this year, so I went to the Breaking Into Hollywood from Outside one.

The panellists were TV (including Bones) and film writer/novelist Noah Hawley and TV writer Kell Cahoon, who lives in Austin. Here were their nuggets of wisdom on how to succeed in Hollywood from very far away:

  • When you get a chance to submit something to someone in Hollywood, make sure to bring your A-game. You might only get one chance to get it right. So prepare by getting good at pitching, honing your craft and managing your industry relationships.

  • Bu nice to assistants! Right now, they're powerful gatekeepers. Next year, they could be an producer, agent or executive in their own right. (I would add to this: be nice to people in general. Seriously. Imagine if everyone just stopped behaving like dicks? It would be a wonderful world and there would be no more road rage or reality TV.... ).

  • Remember, you're looking for open assignments too. So even if they don't like your script enough to buy it, they might like your writing style. And you. So be charming and polite.

  • A fact I did not know - apparently the WGA assign experienced writers to guide newbie writers when they join. It's a sort of mentoring scheme. I hope to have one of these mentors v. soon!

  • Catch 22 - writers often find it hard to access work as assistants, but staffed writers find it hard to find good assistants, especially at short notice. It's all about who you know, so use your social network! Exploit every contact you have, no matter how remote a chance it may seem. And check out this site - the Anonymous Production Assistant blog. Lots of job listings on there. Although if you're me, or Canadian, you may be fresh out of luck. Keep reading!

  • Older writers - your good script sample is your best weapon. Plus, life experience does count for a lot. If you have a writers room staffed with only twentysomething writers, you're going to have a very narrow viewpoint.

  • Indie films provide a route in that studio films and TV do not. Shoot your own movies. Make your own short films. You can do this from anywhere.

  • An important point - once you have your foot through the door, you have to follow through. So if your agent gets you a meeting in L.A., no matter where you live, you have to go there and attend the meeting! Hollywood types don't want to hear about "problems" with travel/kids/elderly parents/bosses. They have to contend with smog, traffic, angry people, the imminent prospect of being fired and the San Andreas fault.

  • This was a big one - don't take anything personally. This includes someone saying no to your script, your show getting cancelled, your movie going into turnaround, all of it. It's a business, so take the pitfalls in your stride and move on. Be tenacious. Just keep going.


I quite liked this panel. Unlike most of its kind, it did not make me want to commit hari-kiri with my Final Draft disk.

And last, but not least, there was a panel led by former Pixar story artist Emma Coats on her internet-famous Story Rules. These are basically 22 "rules" or pieces of advice based on working at Pixar, most recently on the film Brave. Emma's now shooting her own live-action shorts, including the outlaw story Sweetpea (which sounds amazing!).

The 22 rules are listed in this rather excellent Huffington Post interview with Emma, so I won't list them again here.

However, here was what emerged as Emma and her writing partner Shion Takeuchi went through the list:

  • These are not "rules" as such, but a distillation of what they have found to be true so far.

  • Know your ending (this relates to rule 7) because otherwise things will need to be retro-fitted to suit it. If you have a scene in the second act that you really love but doesn't suit your ending, it's going to be hard to get rid of it.

  • Even if you feel a scene is working great, ask yourself if an audience would want to watch it? It needs to be something that a LOT of people are going to be entertained by.

  • Writing "from you" - with Brave, the challenge was that no one can relate to being a princess. But people CAN relate to the idea of having to live an over-structured life with too many restrictions. Find what's relatable in your character.

  • The first set of sequences in your script will be the most rewritten. You should use this section to set up anticipation in the audience for what's going to happen later.

  • Act 2 problems (and is there anyone who doesn't have these?) usually happen because there is no clear midpoint. You have to use trial and error to find your "turn". Where does the story peak? Emma used a good analogy, which is poker. With the inciting incident in your script, you're "in" for a small amount, say 2 dollars. By the first half of Act 1, you get further and further in, throwing in dollar after dollar. By the midpoint, you're "all in" and there's no going back. So when in your story does your hero reach the point of no return? That's your midpoint.

  • When rewriting, be careful of remnants left over from old drafts, stuff that's no longer relevant. Ask yourself when faced with older material if it should still be there or if it should be cut altogether.

  • When writing a script about a fantastical world, the hero is usually the person who is the most naive, has the most to lose in the context of the theme, or who has the most to learn. They are the eyes of the audience.

  • Pixar storyboarding for characters - a lot of it does not get used, but it helps to form the story and makes the characters come to life (this is similar to writing bios for your characters, which I highly recommend). Ask yourself how your character deals with conflict? How do they get out of doing stuff they don't want to do?

  • The "honeymoon phase" when you've just finished a script isn't real. Just like with relationships. You have to get past it! Push past it if necessary.

  • One of Emma's rules deals with "getting the obvious out of the way". Look past the first, second and third things that come to mind and see if you can come up with something more "out there". Something you haven't seen before. This is similar to writing sketches, where you're asked to come up with 25 things that could happen in your scene. This will range from the mundane to the absurd. (Go with the absurd, at least for sketch writing!)

  • With script ideas, get someone who is not attached to your idea and run it past them. Run it past plenty of people and see how enthusiastic they are - this will give you a hint of whether it's a good concept or not.

  • If a bunch of people are saying the same thing about your script and something that needs to be changed, maybe it needs to be changed. Look at deleted scenes on DVDs - in some cases they may be good scenes, but you probably didn't miss them in the movie.

  • Test new ideas out - you owe it to your story to try things. Usually, the changes will be better.


I found this session really helpful, especially avoiding the obvious and the idea of finding your midpoint by looking for the point of no return. Thanks to Emma and Shion, and looking forward to seeing Sweetpea!

And then it was done. Except it wasn't, because I didn't go home until Wednesday 24th. So there was another two days of talking and partying and meeting up with people. There was an excellent martini lunch (thank Yolanda!) and a visit to the majestic Alamo Ritz movie theatre, where you can order food and beer at your seat and NO ONE TALKS. You get shot if you talk, it's Texas.

There was a last party on Tuesday before I went home and unusually, there was still an impressive number of conference attendees still around. I'm ashamed to say that I only got to catch one bunch of short films (all amazing). I did not manage to see one feature at AFF this year, and there were some good ones. Oh well, next time!

My plane was delayed coming back because some guy called Barack Obama was landing his little plane at LAX so he could go on some talk show. Tsk.

I'll update over the next few days on what's been happening since I got back to L.A., but in the meantime, a big, concerned hallo to everyone I know on the East Coast. Stay safe, people!

 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Austin 2 - The Return (to the Panels)

Saturday at this year's AFF kicked off with the hangover from hell for pretty much everyone and - thankfully - a panel on improv comedy. I've been doing courses in L.A. on both improv and comedy sketch writing, so this session was right up my street.

The panel members were (Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and creator of Freaks and Geeks), TV and film comedy writer Jeff Lowell, writer/comedian Dan French and producer Kent Alterman.

Paul Feig admitted that he likes to cast actors from an improv background, maintaining that the difference between those who can improvise and those who can't can be like night and day. Most of the cast in Bridesmaids were improv vets, leading to a lot of cross-shooting so that all the off-the-cuff stuff could be captured. You have to have the confidence (as director) to roll with the material that comes up in the rehearsal room.

However - the panel agreed that the movie has to work even if none of the cast are comfortable improvising. It's just the icing on the cake.

As to "what is improv really about?", they agreed that it was not about being the funniest person in the room, but about finding the truth in the comedy. And this means trusting your fellow improvisers.

Jeff Powell made an important point, which is that there must be some structure. You can't just arrive on a set and plan to improvise something in a vague way. For example, there's no script on Curb Your Enthusiasm. But they have a detailed outline to base the comedy on. Without a plan, your cast and your story will descend into chaos.

If you're writing for people who are not actors (or who aren't GOOD actors), find out where their natural strengths are and concentrate on those. Temper the script to them.

In terms of improv techniques for writers, ask yourself, "If this is true for my character, what else is true?". Heighten their situation as much as you can. See if you can find what the most insane thing is that could happen next.

Another tip - and I've already found this to be true in sketch writing - is be specific in improv. Don't say hot sauce, make it Chipotle hot sauce (or some other particular brand). And don't be afraid of using words that "sound" funny to enhance your comedy. People really react to these.

Paul Feig admitted that using improv had really freed him up. He said he used to be a writer who went crazy when someone wanted to change his scripts, but now he was much more relaxed about it. Also a piece of gossip - he's cast internet star Spoken Reasons in his new movie The Heat (which looks BRILLIANT btw)...

The other panel I found really useful on Saturday was "Heroes and Villains", with Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses), Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married) and Paul Feig again. That guy got around!

Here was some of their chat on what makes good heroes and villains. I should say that this was a really great session, partly because Jenny Lumet in particular is whip-smart and super well-informed. She knows her Shakespeare, Milton etc. so she was able to talk about even unlikely characters like Tony Montana in relation to them!

Heroes:

Underdogs are great. Paul Feig said he loved The Avengers but couldn't relate to the characters because they're all uber-heroes. Jenny Lumet said she likes people who have convinced themselves that they are telling the truth, who may be at their least heroic. Aline McKenna's opinion was that Bridesmaids made it okay for female characters to be flawed. Kristen Wiig's character is a loser who continues to make bad choices throughout the story, yet she's the heroine!

On the other hand, what if the story had been told from Melissa McCarthy's point of view? It's often worth taking your secondary characters and trying to imagine how they would see the story.

Anti-Heroes

Lumet - The Godfather is full of anti-heroes. And Hercules - the original Greek myth is much better, because he's doing all his trials to atone for horrible crimes he's committed.

Feig - As George Bernard Shaw said, "All men mean well". Even someone like Tony Montana in Scarface has an initially laudable goal, to live the American dream.

Lumet - What if Juliet did not kill herself after she finds Romeo dead? Would this change how we view her? And are we closer to Iago than Othello, because we understand his impulses, what drives him? Tony Montana wants what he sees on TV. And so do we, so we know why he makes the choices he does. It's great to watch this character grow from a small boy and embark on this journey that's ultimately going to lead to his downfall.

McKenna - In the Seventies, it was de-rigeur to have an anti-hero main character, even in pretty pedestrian movies. Whereas in later movies like Pretty Woman, they try to sugarcoat as much as possible that she's a hooker! Now, it's starting to come back around, especially on TV where you have great anti-hero leads on shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

Villains

McKenna - Miranda Priestly (Streep's character in Devil Wears Prada) is genuinely perplexed about why other people are "so incompetent". She feels besieged. Like, she's excellent at what she does, so why can't everyone else be, too? The fact that she doesn't see herself as a bad guy means that she never becomes a cartoony villain.

Feig - Similarly, in Bridesmaids Rose Byrne's character is operating from the best place. She's trying to save her friend's wedding from this crazy head bridesmaid!

Lumet - Your bad guy should see himself as a hero. That's what makes a great villain. With a movie like Scarface, Tony Montana IS his own antagonist. Sure, he has outside forces attacking him, but it's mainly him. By the end of the movie, he's achieved what he wanted, but at what cost?

So basically - have a flawed hero and make sure your villain sees themselves as the one in the right! (The latter point in particular makes huge sense to me, and I'll be using it in each and every script from now on...)

That was Saturday in terms of panels. There were more parties to go to, more people to talk to and more beer with my name on it.

Every time I go to AFF, I'm struck by how many clever, witty and creative people are beavering away all over the world, all the time, working on scripts that may never get made, specs that might never get sold. As someone said, it's like training to be a doctor, with no expectation that you'll ever be able to practice.

But once a year, the writer is king - and that's what makes Austin THE go-to festival. I was talking to another writer at one point and asked him what sort of stuff he writes. He listed off a bunch of movies - at which stage I realised that I was talking not to another rookie writer, but to the guy behind Red, Battleship and Whiteout. You have to be careful at this festival!

Back tomorrow with a round-up of Sunday....

Austin 2012 - Part One. Pitching challenges, parties and Terry Rossio on Revisions...

I've been putting off blogging for a few days, partly because there is so much to write (arrggghh!!) and also because it's been crazy since I got back from Austin. But now I'm determined to get this blogging shit back on track!

First of all, a big thumbs up and best of luck to Chas Fisher, an Australian writer/director who I met up with over the last few weeks. He has an excellent blog here, which covers his projects and his recent trip to the States. Basically, Chas attempted to do in 3 weeks what I've been trying to do in 3 months, and he managed to do a scary (but impressive) amount of stuff while he was here. Have a look - his schedule was pretty busy, but it's an inspiration!

So, Austin. Going to AFF this year was kind of weird because a. I've always gone there from Ireland before and b. it's usually been the ONLY time I have to meet people in the U.S. industry. So it was strange going there from L.A., having spent a few months meeting industry types.

This did make me a bit more chilled-out about the whole thing, but it has to be said too, there weren't AS many reps or producers there this time round. At least, that was how it felt. I must get my old AFF festivals programs when I get home and see if my suspicions are correct. There was a different, less career-desperate vibe. People actually relaxed and went out to chat and get hammered.

There were a lot of other writers there, though, both famous and not-at-all famous. And to be honest, the reps tend to show up and split early anyway, in case some writer should actually ask them to represent them ;)

I arrived in Austin on the Wednesday and spent the first night saying hallo to a few familiar faces and availing of the 2 for 1 hamburger deal at Huts. I highly recommend Huts, even if you have just the one burger - they're excellent.

Thursday, my friend Frank kindly took me to The Salt Lick, an Austin barbecue institution that's about 30 minutes outside town. I'd never been there before cos I'm too chicken to drive in Texas, but that hadn't stopped me featuring Th' Lick in a screenplay I wrote set in Austin. It was a big relief to get there and see that it really was just like I'd pictured it. They have the best barbecue meat I've ever tasted, and their sauce is to die for (not literally).

I should have had an early night and practiced my pitch, for I was pitching the next morning. But I'm not that sensible a girl. So instead I went to the Driskill Bar and talked for hours, then went to two parties. I'm ashamed to say that I only went back to the hotel when a (very sensible) friend heard I was pitching the next day and grabbed the wine glass out of my hand. Thanks Cathy!

I was pitching Last Girl Standing, a script that reached the top 10% in this year's AFF screenwriting competition. The pitch on Friday morning actually went well in that I managed to finish it in 90 seconds and did not have any blips in delivery. The problem was - and it's amazing how hard it is to see this yourself - that it was all set-up and no meat! All Act 1 and not enough Act 2. And especially in a comedy, where all the funny bits are in Act 2, this is a disaster.

The two judges - Amy Talkington and Pamela Ribon - gave me some great tips on how to improve it and were generally lovely. The other pitch contenders were also the friendliest I've ever come across at AFF and some of them are people I know I'll be in contact with for a long time. A shout-out to the poor guy with the massive head cold who had to pitch despite being smothered. That was brave!

Then it was into Terry Rossio's second annual workshop on Revisions. Last year's workshop taught me a ton so I had high hopes for this one.

The big note that he stresses again and again is: Believe your script can get better. Don't settle when it's "okay" or even "good". Aim for "great"!

Here was the main gist of his advice during the session - I hope some of it helps you as much as it's helped me:

  • Your scene doesn't start until your character's "want" is revealed. Or until the situational dilemma is understood.

  • You have an opening image, a key moment and a "throw" (or transition). Figure out what these are, protect them and enhance them.

  • A scene ideally exists to make a single story point. Character points are not the same - a scene can have any number of these. But any more than one story point and things are going to get confusing.

  • With performance dialogue, the shorter the better. Silence between words provides an opportunity for the actors. Too many words restricts them.

  • Actors also hate question marks as it locks them into a rising vocal. Try to make questions into statements if you can - it's stronger anyway.

  • What he was going through with us was polishing your script - he advises doing a rough draft, leaving it for a while, then rewriting. Rinse and repeat. Then he reads the script several times and when nothing jumps out or feels awkward, when it reads perfectly, then and only then is it done.


Terry showed us his desktop on the big screen and how it's laid out. He advises giving each screenwriting project a unique icon, even a drawing or image that you've done specially for it. Somehow, it helps him "will" his projects into existence!

He writes in sequences with his partner, and showed us the 36 sequences for their latest script. They're color-coded, with the red ones being unfinished, the yellow ones totally completed, etc.

The other really fascinating thing he showed us were pitch materials he and Ted Eliott use with their script pitches in conjunction with their story board. These included drawings, other artwork, even a full animation that they commissioned to give the execs the right feel for their story. As he pointed out, your competition will be doing this stuff, so you should too!

As I said, last year's session was fascinating and this year's was just as good. Terry went through a few people's script excerpts on screen and once again, "re-wrote" them. You learn a huge amount just by watching him do his thing, and the effort he puts into making things perfect is massive.

Then it was into roundtables, with mostly TV writers. Now, I'm thinking of writing something for TV, but like (I suspect) a lot of writers back home, I don't have any TV specs. So this session was right up my street.

TV writer Christine Boylan advised us to write both an original TV pilot AND a TV spec.

Her advice:

Don't worry about it being produce-able, write what you want to see on TV. What show is just not being made, but should be? They're looking for a unique voice, so write something that will get the execs' attention.

Do 6-10 sample scripts for follow-on episodes. But mainly, have a clear idea for what's going to happen during the rest of the series.

Break down episodes of existing TV shows and try to establish what's happening. How are they structured?

Comedy writer Paul Simms advised us to look at each scene and ask ourselves: if you took out all the jokes, would it still work as a drama?

TV is more absurd than real life, so if you're basing your show on real-life experiences, you're going to have to heighten them a bit. Don't make them TOO realistic.

He said some wise words - write every day, especially when you don't feel inspired. As with jogging, skipping days is fatal! (As a runner, I can unfortunately confirm this is true).

When pitching your show, keep it short and stick to the most important details. Try and find some way to get the execs involved, get them inspired by your idea. The more questions they're asking, the better.

We also met a film writer (who will remain nameless) whose script was recently made into a hard-hitting film, but only after the script was butchered and rewritten by the director. It then bombed at the box office, which should be a lesson to that studio (but probably won't be). This is sadly a story I hear every time I go to AFF! Hollywood, firing the writer will NOT fix the script!

Friday night, there was a barbecue at the French Legation that was as good as always and  a crazy party at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse that led to a LOT of hangover the next day. The less said the better!!!

I'll update tomorrow and Wednesday with what transpired on the Saturday and Sunday and since I got back to L.A. - there's more, much more...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Film Festivals, reps and Texas barbecue...

So since I last updated, I've been to two more movie festivals (which I think makes 7 or 8 since I got to L.A.) - namely the LA Femme Film Festival, which concentrates on films made by or focussing on women, and the Bel Air Film Festival.

In both cases, I saw some really good packages of short films. But I'm gonna single out Bel Air because a. the screenings took place on the gorgeous UCLA campus and b. my friend's friend's short movie Atonal is brilliant. If it's showing at a festival near you, go see it. The performances in it are just outstanding and it looks amazing.

Apart from that, there's been a fair amount of going out on the razz and not a lot of networking. But all that's gonna change over the next 3 days cos I'm in Austin, Texas for this year's AFF. Bring on the talking, the parties, the panels and the people.

What makes this year even sweeter is that my script Last Girl Standing got to the Second Round of the festival's screenwriting competition, so I'm able to go to more events, got a discount off my ticket etc.

I've had some luck recently with representation - currently three management companies and one agent in L.A. are reading my work. But I'd like to meet more agents and managers face to face, and this festival - informal, access all areas - is perfect for that.

I'll update next week, by which time I'll have no voice left and will be so fat from eating barbecue (I'm even going to the notorious Salt Lick tomorrow) that they'll have to roll me onto the plane...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Scary Irish films, Hollywood bashes, sketch writing and fire stunts...

A lot's happened in the 10 days since I last posted. I went to a few L.A. Irish screenings over the weekend of 28-30 September, among them Citadel and a clutch of really good Irish shorts. Citadel is absolutely terrifying, centering on an agoraphobic young father who's trapped with his baby daughter in the council tower block from hell. It's enough to put fear of hoodies into you for life, let's put it that way.

Its director Ciaran Foy spoke passionately during a Q&A afterwards about his own crippling agoraphobia, which was caused by a motiveless street attack when he was in his late teens.

During his recovery, he was told by a therapist that street thugs can literally pick people out of a crowd who've been victims of violence before, which is why people who've been assaulted once are more likely to be targeted again (scary idea, right?). Foy uses this idea of being a victim and being able to "see" fear to totally chilling effect in the movie. Citadel is easily one of the best horrors I've seen in years - go and see it when it comes out, but bring something to hide behind...

There's even a happy ending - writing the script (although a traumatic experience), helped Ciaran Foy put his own attack behind him once and for all.

And there was a happy ending for me too, sort of. A guy in the next row turned around as I was telling my cinema companion about my scripts and offered to read my work. Turns out he's an assistant at a management company. That's what L.A. is all about - right place, right time...

Kudos to Lisa McLoughlin, the festival director, for putting on such a great festival and for making us Irish look good...

Also this week, I went to my first proper, all-glam Hollywood party. Empire Magazine were doing a U.S. launch of their magazine and had a party at the Sunset Towers on Sunset Boulevard. I borrowed a fancy dress and a pair of heels from my flatmate (this girl has the best designer shoe wardrobe on the planet) and went along.

This was the stereotypical bash you've seen in so many movies - a red carpet, free booze flowing, a swimming pool, a gorgeous night-time view of the Hollywood valley. And stars - Michael Bay, Jeremy Renner, David Fincher, Brett Ratner, Joe Manganiello, to name but a few. There were loads of Brits, as you'd expect, and they pounded the bar like me as the Americans showed incredible restraint and nursed a single glass.

It was a top night. I was talking to two guys from Sky Movies at one point, who were in L.A. to do some celebrity interviews. They were mega excited about being there and it reminded me why it's GREAT to be here, why I shouldn't get complacent or lazy about it for a second.

Thursday, I had a meeting with a manager referred by a friend. He's a very nice chap, very  interesting, and the meeting seemed to go well (it was in a coffee shop, so it was more of an informal chat). He's reading my scripts, can't say any more than that for now.

On Saturday, I went to my first sketch writing class at Groundling performer and writer Sean Hogan's house. There were seven other writers, mostly female, which was refreshing!

Sean is an extremely nice guy as well as being one of those people who's just funny without having to try very hard. His advice on writing sketches is just as useful for someone like me who's writing comedy features, as one scene in a comedy film could be written the same way as a sketch and a lot of the same beats apply.

Here's what we've learned so far:

  • Always carry something with you to record ideas or little fragments of ideas.

  • Do "morning pages" to get the creative juices flowing. As soon as you wake up, grab a notebook and write 3 pages of anything at all. Do it fast. Don't correct anything. And never read your morning pages - they're just to get you motoring.

  • A sketch is 4 pages (or minutes) with a 3 act structure. The first act (couple of lines) sets up the who, what and where. The second act (the meat of the sketch) is the premise where the funny character or situation emerges. And the third act is the ending - it's funny and it wraps things up.

  • A sketch writer needs to think of a normal situation and then put a bizarre or ironic twist on it. For example, a fireman who is also a pyromaniac. A cheese shop, but there's not one speck of cheese. What if there was a self defence class, and in it was a man who attacks people?

  • Once you have your idea, write a list of 25 examples of things that could happen. Some of these will be terrible - it doesn't matter. Leave it a few hours, then pick out your best 5 - they will form the basis for Act 2. Then you just need your what, who and where and your ending...


I'll write more once I've tried this - we have to write a sketch this week and submit them by Friday so they can be PERFORMED during next Saturday's class. Gulp...

Later on Saturday I went to a beer-tasting party held by a girl from my improv class. She's a stuntwoman, so I met (not surprisingly) a lot of other stunt performers at it as well as well as a bunch of other industry people. I now know more about fire and car stunts than I ever dreamed I would - let's just say the 100% burn guys sound like they earn their money. Great party and an example again of how nice people are here. I didn't know a single person there except the hostess, and was made to feel really welcome.

And then lastly for this week, I went to an album launch party last night at the W Hotel for Daniel Bedingfield (remember him?). My memory was that he went from being super-cool to being untouchable in the U.K. over night - the fickle press! Anyway, he can certainly sing, and when he performed Gotta Get Thru This the crowd went mental. I didn't see any other famous people there apart from one Backstreet Boy...

This week, I'll be going to the L.A. Femme festival (film festival with a female slant) and gearing up for Austin, which is next week. Gotta get my pitches ready...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sketch writing, L.A. Irish and a masterclass on concept...

I finished up with Groundlings this week as the six-week improv class came to a close. I've discovered many things about myself during this class - mostly that I live way too much in my head (typical writer) and that I find it really hard to express extreme emotion in public (that would be the Irish blood). Also, Meryl Streep can rest easy for now.

But on the plus side, I have experienced the joy and ego-trip that is making people laugh. God, it's better than an adrenaline shot to the heart (at least, I imagine). I've learned that scenes work better when you cut straight to the action. How a scene can go from sad to angry to happy in two minutes, and CAN STILL WORK. That being a loser in comedy is the role everyone wants. It's the genre where you try to avoid being the winner.

I really want to do the next improv workshop, but I'm low on weeks and the Austin Film Festival would be slap in the middle. So instead, I'm focussing on something I may be stronger on. A Groundlings alum runs a sketch-writing group at his house on Saturday mornings for 7-8 writers at a time and I've signed up for this. I'll report back on how it goes!

Also this week, I embarked on a punishing bar crawl on Tuesday, courtesy of Brits in L.A. These people are crazy, don't go out with them. If you do, you'll have a very fun night and wake up the next day with a banging head and no voice...

I was still feeling the effects last night when I went to the opening gala of the L.A. Irish Film Festival with a Brit actress friend.

There were loads of Irish people, plus a bunch of BAFTA people who heard there was booze (joking, folks) and some Americans (of course).

It was at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences building in Hollywood, which isn't massive. I heard later that a lot of people showed up who couldn't get in, but luckily we'd RSVP'd nice and early.

It was a dress-up evening affair and I'm happy to report that L.A. Irish had pushed the boat out. There was a LOT of drinks and food - including an impressive amount of Irish cheddar on sticks.

They screened a film called Jump, which was meant to start at 7.30pm but didn't get going until 8.15pm, partly because about 7 people got up to make speeches (the director Kieron Walsh - who is a lovely guy - joked that it was "an Irish 7.30pm").

Jump is set in Derry and refreshingly, is not about the Troubles, but about the trouble a disparate group of young people get into on New Year's Eve. It reminded me of Doug Liman's Go - in a good way. The film boasts some really great performances and looks fantastic. I really felt like I'd been on a freezing cold night out in Derry - that's how much Jump draws you in. Well worth checking out when it hits a screen near you.

Then it was more drinks and more food, plus a very enthusiastic Irish trad band and a  troupe of set dancers. Oh, and the California Rose was there wearing her sash and tiara. I tried to explain the Rose of Tralee festival to the non-Irish, but it's impossible. You have to have grown up with being exposed to the spectacle...

I had a great time at the gala, and unusually for a Hollywood event, where a lot of people tend to look stiff and bored, everyone else seemed to let their hair down too. Thanks to the festival for a top night and I'm looking forward to seeing some more movies over the next few days!

I went to a Writers Guild event tonight - they're running a series of panel talks on different elements of screenwriting. This evening's panel consisted of Parenthood writers Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and Avengers writer Zak Penn, plus moderator Daniel Petrie Jnr (Beverly Hills Cop, The Big Easy) discussing premise and concept.

They spoke at length and to be honest, it was all fascinating (these guys have some stories), but here were the highlights:

They talked about how movies have now become either very low-budget or very high budget, with the middle-range movies getting squeezed out. And with TV getting much more prestigious, it seems like a depressing time to be a writer. BUT - Zak Penn pointed out that there are two genres in particular: comedy and horror, that people still prefer to see in a cinema, with other people there. And TV can't compete with that.

Also, marketing dictates what gets made a lot more now. As Daniel Petrie said, film is the only industry where the salesmen are allowed to say, "We don't know how to sell this" and are let away with this! A lot of films are never made because no one can see how to market them.

Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel write in the same room, on opposite sides of the same desk. And they write together, out loud, improvising dialogue.

All the writers emphasized the important of dialogue sounding natural (even Zak Penn, when he's writing science fiction, tries to stick with this) and respecting your characters by not having them do stuff just to serve the plot. They talked about establishing who the story is about - and how to pick the right character for it to be about. How can you come up with someone who feels real, who you can relate to? Ganz told a story of writing years ago on a TV series and having the actor Jack Klugman yell at him, "What do I want?". An important question to always ask - what does your character want?

Zak Penn spoke about the pressures of writing superhero movies - especially X-Men 2 and 3, which had many characters and a huge history to take into account. He claims 90% of the task is structure, and that comes from the characters' journeys. Also, it's important to establish, is this a war movie with superheroes? Or a road movie with superheroes? There will be an underlying story.

Lowell Ganz told a story about pitching the very funny Night Shift to the uber-producer Alan Ladd Jnr, and how Ladd's facial expression never changed during a frantic and enthusiastic pitch. He said at the end, "I like it, it's really funny" and a frustrated Mandel answered, "Tell your face!"

Lastly, if you haven't checked out Scott Myer's amazing blog on screenwriting, you should. One of his posts a while ago was about building a work schedule based on 14, 7, 2, 1. That's 14 hours of script development, 7 pages of script written, 2 movies watched and 1 script read, per week. Try it. I've been doing this for 3 weeks and it's amazing how much I've gotten done, despite my short attention span and the delights of Hollywood...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

True Romance, Emmy writers and a love letter to cinema....

Last Saturday True Romance got a screening - at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. This is the most beautiful, glamorous graveyard in the world (probably) and all the greats are buried there. Including, sadly, the director of True Romance, Tony Scott.

A huge screen was set up and a huge crowd, all looking like they were dressed by Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, arrived armed with booze and food to watch it. This being L.A., there were no drunken fights and people actually put their trash into a bin afterwards. Amazing.

Donna Scott introduced the film with an emotional speech and Patricia Arquette got up after the film for an equally tearful few words. It was genuinely moving to watch the movie and think that this was the film Tony Scott was most proud of. And rightly so - while Tarantino's script drives the action, Scott got great performances out of his cast. It's arguably Christian Slater's best part ever and the interrogation scene with Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is still a thrill to watch.

Kind of weird to see Chris Penn (so young he looks like Jonah Hill) and Tom Sizemore playing the cops. Both of them deserved a lot more parts as good as that.

Wednesday night, I went to another event at the Writers Guild Theater - Sublime Primetime. This was a panel interview with several Emmy-nominated TV writers, including Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Lena Dunham (creator of the excellent HBO show Girls), and Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon (Homeland).

Weiner was asked if he felt that the two episodes his show's been nominated for were the best of the last series, and he visibly struggled to agree. He loves all his actors, all his episodes, wishes they could all be recognised. He talked about the brilliant episode where Roger Sterling drops acid, and explained that he and the other writers tracked down this Life Magazine article from the early Sixties, complete with photos, where very upright middle-class people took acid under supervision. This formed the basis of Sterling's story.

Mad Men is clearly a labor of love for Weiner, and he has huge loyalty to his cast and crew.

Lena Dunham writes, directs, produces and stars in Girls and admitted that she often doesn't have time to sleep!  She talked about an infamous episode where her boyfriend pisses on her leg while she's in the shower - her dad chose that day to visit the set and stood immediately in her eye line during filming (!).

Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon previously worked together on 24, where Gordon took the executive producing duties and endured shouting matches with Kiefer Sutherland. He admitted that he was happy to hand the reins over to Gansa for Homeland. They also discussed the Israeli show which inspired it - it has to be said, it sounds like a completely different show. Much more of a drama than a thriller.

The next night, I finally got to see a movie I've waited a year to see! I met Teal Greyhavens, the director of the documentary Cinema is Everywhere, last year at the Austin Film Festival. His movie was screening, but like a lot of films in Austin, I missed it because of talking and drinking duties. So when I saw it was showing in Beverly Hills this week, I made sure to go along.

Cinema is Everywhere is based around the idea that cinema is a universal visual language that people of almost any culture can recognise and enjoy. Weaving together narratives from Tunisia, Hong Kong, Scotland and India, it features interviews with well-known names like Tilda Swinton as well as up-and-coming filmmakers around the world. We see a festival in Scotland that travels to audiences, a director in Tunisia who's trying to get his movie about a HIV-positive man past strict censorship laws, and an Indian actress who struggles against perceived racial discrimination. This is a love letter to cinema and its power of communication and a huge, four-year project for Greyhavens, who had to edit down 152 hours of footage! It's well worth a watch.

This week I've been sending out query letters and getting my rep strategy together. I do have a meeting with a manager in two weeks, so I have my fingers hopefully crossed! Even if he doesn't want to represent me himself, he may be able to recommend another manager. And I've contacted an agent that a family member was able to refer me to, so that's another lead.

I have just over seven weeks left to make things happen, so there's no time to lose! I need to get an agent or manager to act as my sponsor so I can apply for a longer visa and come back to this very hot, crazy city in 2013. The race is on...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Throwing yourself in there - improv at Groundlings. And being a know-it-all at Paramount...

I definitely wanted to try acting while I was here in L.A., figuring that it could only make me a better writer. Particularly if, like me, you tend to write comedies! It helps to know what makes people funny - what makes a good comedic performance.

So I went to the place that churns out the funniest people in Hollywood, The Groundlings improv company. Everyone's been through this place over the years, from Will Ferrell, to Lisa Kudrow, Paul Reubens, Cheryl Hines, Jon Lovitz, Edie McClurg and Will Forte, to pretty much the entire cast of Bridesmaids.

It's based on Melrose, so I staggered down there on Monday (Monday was HOT) for the first of six three-hour improv classes. I didn't really know what to expect from my fellow improvisers (there's about 15 of us) but they range from people who seem to be professional stand-ups to people like me who've never acted before.

Our teacher, Julie, got the ball rolling by making everyone stand up and say their names. She made us do this about thirty times, which was good because it took some people about that long to learn to pronounce my name. Sometimes I have whole days where no one has any problem saying it and then there are days when I literally have to keep writing it out. This was one of the bad ones.

Improv is so weird because when you describe the things you've been doing to someone who hasn't been there, it sounds like some kind of abuse! Here are some of the exercises we've had to do:

  • Standing in a circle (they're big on circles), saying a word that the next person has to repeat, while copying the extreme emotion you delivered it in.

  • Tossing an imaginary ball around, again with strong emotion.

  • Sitting on stage pretending to be a world leading expert on something mad, like nuclear fusion, and taking questions from the floor.

  • Pretending to be part of a giant imaginary machine with 3 other people, each having to do different movements and noises.

  • Sitting knee to knee with a scene partner in front of the whole group and maintaining eye contact while making up a joint imaginary story (kind of like some dates I've been on).

  • Standing with a scene partner while the group think of a horrible scenario for you to act out ("You're signing the Constitution!" "You're beekeepers!") and then having to improvise a scene based just on that. This was the worst one to start with. It was terrifying. Because you can't help but let go and know that you're going to look like an idiot. But then about twenty seconds from the end, I realised I was really enjoying it and didn't want the scene to end. You get a real buzz afterwards, no matter how it went.


Yesterday, Julie gave us some tips on improvising, some of which I think are just as relevant for writing comedy in general:

  1. Before you get into the scene, make sure you've established who, where and what. Otherwise the scene will descend into confusion. And be specific! If you're in a department store, what section are you in? What imaginary props are to hand?

  2. What is the emotional crux of the scene? Why is it worth watching?

  3. Use spacework - use the props as if they were there, and remember to maintain the integrity of the space no matter what. If there's a "table" and this has been established, don't walk through it, or if you do, make a joke about it!

  4. Show, don't tell. Don't rely too heavily on dialogue.

  5. Characters - take a cliche and put a different spin on it. Make the people you play original.

  6. Arguing about the facts in a scene drains the life out of it. If someone makes an accusation against you, sometimes it's funnier to acknowledge it and say, "Yes, that's true!"

  7. Don't ask questions - assume everything. You already "know" the person your scene partner is playing, and what you're both doing.

  8. Don't play crazy, or dead drunk. Or a little kid. Any of these people might do ANYTHING. There are no parameters. Don't go there.

  9. Raise the stakes in your scenes and always commit to them. Even if an idea doesn't sound promising or seems to be tanking, you can turn it around.

  10. Listen to your scene partner, respond, and make eye contact (being Irish, this is a hard one for me. We don't even make eye contact when we're clinking glasses. We watch the glass to make none of the precious booze spills...)

  11. And the hardest of all for me - don't plan your scenes! You can't, so don't even try. Throw yourself in there.


And that's what I'd say about improv in general - it's about throwing yourself into it. I'm loving every minute of it, even the minutes where I feel like throwing up...

I went to see some short films showing as part of LA Shorts Fest on Tuesday night. A friend of a friend's movie was showing - I highly recommend it (It's got the intriguing title A Conversation about Cheating with my Time-Travelling Future Self). A great script and very cleverly shot.

This being Hollywood, there were also shorts directed by Shia LaBeouf and ones starring some well-known faces like Roger Bart and Thomas Lennon. I saw six films in total that night and they were a really high standard. Best of all, the theatre is a two-minute walk from the North Hollywood subway station - nice one, Shorts Fest!

Today, I went to another studio, this time Paramount. And this time, for the official tour. Paramount is the only studio still in Hollywood itself, taking up a huge 65 acre site. It just looks like a studio should - which is why it's used so much in movies itself.

The tour was me, two middle-aged Brits, two young Germans who never spoke and an unfortunate tour guide named Brian from Wisconsin. I say unfortunate because it emerged early on that I knew at least as much as Brian simply by being a huge film nerd, and I find it impossible to keep facts inside me.

So every time he hesitated and couldn't remember some actor's name, or mentioned some movie, I'd pipe up. I know, but what can I say. I'm my mother's daughter.

Eventually, an hour into the tour the English lady said to me, "It's a good thing you know so much!" and I decided to stop, before Brian cracked and beat me to death with his branded iPad.

Seriously though, this is a good tour. You get driven around in a little golf cart, which is infinitely better than trudging around in the heat. And Brian took out the aforementioned iPad every five minutes to show up a clip of something filmed on the actual spot we were standing on, which was pretty cool. We saw Lucy Park, the childcare center started for the offspring of Paramount employees by Lucille Ball. We saw her offices and the side gate Katherine Hepburn used to cycle through to HER office.

There was the wet cement where a drunk Woody Harrelson and Ted Danson once put their hand and footprints while streaking through the lot (this was when Cheers served real beer!). The Forrest Gump replica bench, where Tom Hanks once sat down - for a prank - in full Forrest gear for a whole day and gave out chocolates to people. The Bronson Gate, where struggling actor Charles Buchinski was queuing one day for an audition and decided to change his  name on the spot to Charles Bronson.

The funniest thing we saw were two doors - this was in their fake New York set - that were exactly the same, except that one was smaller than the other. Brian explained that these were used in the movie Vanilla Sky. Cameron Diaz walked through the larger one and little Tom Cruise through the shorter one, creating the illusion that they are the same height. Because of course the guy CANNOT be smaller. The world would explode...

Other tidbits from the tour: Anchorman 2 is on the way. Nicole Kidman is set to play Princess Grace of Monaco in a biopic. And last night, they screened Raiders of the Lost Ark in all its IMAX glory for Paramount employees. With Ford and Spielberg present. I would have given my right arm to be there...

I went to Lucy's El Adobe afterwards, a legendary Mexican restaurant across the road with a wall full of signed celebrity fan photos. No sign of Tarantino, who's a known fan, but thanks to Brett for the recommendation!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A movie that could have been great. The best coffee in L.A. And a bar that serves cake...

It's been a weird but in general cool few days. There's been a slightly weird meeting, of which more later. I've been to one of West Hollywood's gayest club, which is saying something, and to Bar Marmont, which is something else.

But first, I saw Lawless, a movie about Prohibition-era moonshiners that should have been so much better than it was. It has a great cast - Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf - and a potentially great story of three brothers who were hooch-making outlaws in West Virginia. Based on a real story - the subject of Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County", the siblings are up against Guy Pearce's effete lawman and Oldman pops up - all too infrequently - as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner.

But it all amounts to nothing. Clarke's part as the older brother is criminally underwritten, while Tom Hardy - the film's strongest performer - is frequently sidelined in favour of LaBeouf's far less interesting younger brother. Mia Wasikowska as the local preacher's daughter and Chastain as Hardy's love interest, a former stripper, get some decent moments but again, their characters feel underdeveloped.

I was bored halfway through the film, and I think the main issue I have is that you don't care about the characters. I kept thinking of another Prohibition-era film, The Untouchables, and how it plays on your heartstrings, making you care even about a smaller character like Charles Martin Smith as the forensic accountant turned gunslinger. There's no one to root for in Lawless, apart from maybe Hardy's character Forrest, and even he seems like the best of a bad lot.

The other thing I'll say about Lawless - and it's worth a watch even to see a film that could have been great - is that it feels like a movie where the really exciting stuff is happening off-screen, in Chicago. But we don't get to see it, only hear about it from Pearce and Oldman's characters and to some extent, from Jessica Chastain, whose character has run away from the city. I kept longing to escape the West Virginia setting and see the real action.

I went back to Downtown this week to meet a talented writer-director (who will remain nameless as she's blog-shy ;) for coffee. I took two buses and a cab to reach Handsome Coffee, but it was worth it because it's the BEST COFFEE EVER. If not in the U.S., then in L.A. I can't overestimate how good it was.

I walked back through Little Tokyo, passing a middle-aged man carrying a ghetto blaster. I don't even think he was being ironic. Fittingly, it was blaring We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off by Jermaine Stewart - there's a blast from the past!

I was looking for The Bradbury Building, a setting for Blade Runner, Chinatown and The Artist, and I kind of stumbled across it in the end. It's a seriously cool building that could have been made to be a film location but is, in fact, an office premises. Weird fact - the architect George Wyman only agreed to take on the project by consulting an Ouija board...

I went to a mixer on Friday organised by The Scriptwriters Network, where I met a lot of other writers. It's nice to meet people who are struggling with the same writing/representation/selling scripts issues as you! Afterwards, a friend introduced me to two L.A. institutions - Musso and Franks and In and Out Burger.

Musso and Franks is a complete legend - one of the oldest Hollywood restaurants, opened in 1919. They had the first payphone in Hollywood and many a deal was struck over it, just as many a contract was hammered out here over dinner. EVERYONE has eaten here - and the old-school waiters and bar staff have the pictures and stories to prove it. Stepping into this place is like stepping into a time warp - in the very best sense of the word. I had the strongest - and largest - martini I've ever drunk there and it's on my weekly to-do list from now on.

In and Out Burger is cheap, efficient and serves up amazing burgers and fries. Fortunately, the nearest one is a taxi ride from my apartment, or I'd go home built like a tank. Gordon Ramsey famously ate there and then immediately drove back for another cheeseburger. They're THAT good.

Last night I had more Hollywood culture (ahem) by embarking on a bar crawl with a friend, her sister and her mom, the coolest fifty-something lady in Orange County. We started at the Beverly Hilton (scene of Whitney Houston's demise, John Edward's extramarital affair and a disastrous press conference for Richard Nixon). We had Mai Tais in the bar by the pool, which is not a bad way to spend a few hours. While the drinks are good, the food is AWFUL - don't go there to eat...

From there, we moved on to Bar Marmont, the bar part of the infamous Chateau. No sign of Lindsay Lohan or anyone else famous for that matter, but it's a decent bar full of movers and shakers. Plus the bartender knows his stuff - their drinks are strong and taste great.

And then lastly, it was on to The Abbey. It's a gay hot spot, which obviously meant it was full of very hot men, mostly watching other oiled-up hot men gyrate on a stage in tiny pants.  Good music, though! They also have the best idea ever, which is a coffee and cake stand in a bar! Seriously, who doesn't want cake at midnight after drinking for six hours? Every bar should serve it.

It sounds like I'm doing nothing but touring L.A. but I am getting some writing done too. No TV in the apartment I'm staying in has really helped, but also, being here has a way of encouraging you to write. It's like there's something in the air - and it's not just the smell of Mai Tais...

Monday, September 3, 2012

After Hours in Downtown - and a pilgrimage to Warners...

It's the Labor Day weekend here so while everyone else is on a go-slow, I'm taking the time to work on my scripts. I don't want anything going out that's just okay - it has to be great. Not just great, amazing.

As a lot of people said to me over the last week, you only get one chance here to make a good impression.

Also, next week is where the real work begins. I have 3 scripts, now what? I do have some leads to follow, agent/manager-wise, but this is very much a learning curve for me. Still, it's what I came here to do. You can write commercial scripts anywhere, but you can only really sell 'em here!

I've seen two more movies since my last post - Killer Joe and Lawless, the latter of which I want to talk more about in another post - been to Warner Bros. (!) and ventured Downtown.

Warners is way out in Burbank and to get there, you have to head up into the Hollywood Hills, over the crest of Mulholland Drive and drive down into the Valley. As in, Valley Girls. Two Days in the Valley. That place.

I made it onto the Warners' backlot only because a friend of mine works in sound and used to work on several Warners shows including Friends and The West Wing. He called in a favour and got us both past the security gate.

Once you're past it, you can walk around pretty freely. We toured around sound stages, saw the Mike and Molly set and another for a new show called Partners. Passed the Two and a Half Men star trailers and had lunch at the Warners commissary (basically a big cafeteria, only with very nice food).

But the best part was the sets! I can't insert pics here (thanks Wordpress!) but here are some I took: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151130726894589.468752.643424588&type=1

Walking down the streets of an empty town (or standing on the courthouse steps where Frank Sinatra once sang My Kind of Town) was really cool. Seeing the Warners water tower brought back memories of a misspent childhood watching Animaniacs.

When you go to somewhere like Warners, it really hits you that this is an INDUSTRY, in a way that it just doesn't in a lot of other countries. We passed huge warehouses designated only for one area of work ("Grips!" "Sound!") There were people everywhere, hammering set walls, moving camera equipment around in trucks. The sound warehouse contained aisle after aisle of the kind of equipment that any sound recordist back home would give their right arm to use. People go to work and make a living every day making movies. It was great to see it in action. Thanks to Chuck F for getting me past the gate!

Last night I did two new things: I took the subway and I braved Downtown to attend a friend's birthday party at a bar. I met a lady last week who's lived here 25 years and claims to have NEVER been to Downtown. She made it sound like a crack-zombie Apocalypse kind of place.

She's crazy - it's not THAT bad. First of all, the public transport system here is relatively clean and efficient and really cheap (it's one dollar fifty for a one way trip on any bus or subway, even  for what seem like very long distances).

However. The buses only go to certain places and seem to go off early. The subway only goes to North Hollywood and Downtown, and it's impossible (literally) to understand how to buy a ticket when you get there. Seriously, me and three nice ladies from out of town would still be at Hollywood and Vine staring at the ticket machine if an L.A. native hadn't helped us out.

Anyway, I finally made it onto the subway and got off at 7th Street. At this stage, I'd been travelling for an hour. I only had to walk about four blocks to get to the party, but along the way I started to feel like Griffin Dunne in After Hours. Like I was never going to get there.

Downtown is one of the oldest parts of L.A. (maybe the oldest), and the endless dark streets of high buildings, plus the weird planning (one minute you're outside a super cool bar, the next you're passing the world's dodgiest-looking kebab shop), starts to seem oppressive after a while. Then there's the guys at every corner who look like they've had challenging lives, yelling, "Baby, can I come along?". I began to fantasise about saying, "Yes! Bring your friends, we're going to a bar!" and seeing what the bouncer would say when we rocked up.

I sound like I hated Downtown. I didn't - I'll be back (but during the day so I can see more stuff. The Bradbury building is down there, for instance). It has some great bars and it's less "sceney" than Hollywood. Overall, I'd take it over Clondalkin any day.

Hard to believe that I'm into my third week in L.A. tomorrow. It's flown by...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dangerous beasts, lovely people - and screenings...

I had an epiphany on Saturday night at dinner at a friend's apartment. Everyone was talking about this mountain lion that's just been captured in Griffith Park. Then my friend's girlfriend mentioned that they can't let their dog out at night - because of a coyote she's spotted around their house. Oh, and there are rattlesnake warnings on forest trail signs.

So for the first time ever, I'm living somewhere with things that can actually kill you. This is kind of cool. In Ireland, we get wasps and vermin. That's about it. No predators apart from your fellow humans.

I have to say, my fellow humans here are a polite and friendly bunch. For all the rumours of L.A. being full of snobs and airheads, everyone's been lovely so far. I've met more assholes in Dublin, to be honest.

I've been to two Brits in L.A. brunches, which take place at Cecconi's on Melrose Avenue on Saturday and Tuesday mornings. They're a good idea - a chance for Brits, although this is a loose term - to meet up and have a chat about the crazy Americans. Things like, "why are decent spray deodorants impossible to find here?" and "What's with calling the hash sign on a phone the 'pound sign'?"

I went to a screening of an independent movie called Complicity on Sunday night. Directed by C.B. Harding and based on a dream he had (really - he dreamed the whole story), Complicity is a very effective thriller about a teenage house party that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Harding has made a very expensive-looking film on a very small budget, using a cast of young up-and-comers who are definitely going on to even bigger things. The script is tight and suspenseful, keeping you guessing right up to the end.

Many thanks to C.B.'s lovely wife Louise, who got me a seat at the very last minute!

Today I had tickets to a screening of comedian Mike Birbiglia's semi-autobiographical film Sleepwalk With Me, shown at the Writers Guild Theater (yes, the guild here have their OWN, QUITE LARGE, CINEMA. Take note, ISPG!).

"I'm going to tell you a story", Mike tells the camera at the start of the film, "And it's true.... I always have to tell people that". What follows is, according to the real Mike during the Q&A, about 70% true.

Based on his one-man show, Birbiglia co-wrote the film with This American Life producer Ira Glass. It covers his attempts to become a successful stand-up comedian and cure his dangerous sleep-walking, while trying to figure out his burned-out relationship with his girlfriend (played on screen by Lauren Ambrose). Birbiglia's character is called Matt and his parents are played by the legendary James Rebhorn and Carol Kane.

But there is a highly-realistic streak running through this movie that had the entire audience laughing from start to finish. You recognise parts of yourself in the script, and can't help finding them funny. Yet there is also a tragic undertone to the whole thing that only adds to the humour.

This is the 21st century Annie Hall, a finely-judged depiction of relationship issues, career disasters and trying not to kill your parents. It's my favourite movie of the year so far and if it doesn't rocket Birbiglia to stardom, there is no justice.

Cheeringly, the American public clearly agree. Sleepwalk with Me opened in 34 cinemas but decent word of mouth led to this being increased to 170 theatres.

After the screening, Joss Whedon moderated a Q&A with Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass, the producer. They had a recent amusing spat with him on Youtube, where they went to war with The Avengers and vowed to beat it at the box office!

The three guys were on fine form tonight, trading zingers and taking questions from the audience. Birbiglia had a lot of questions about how his now wife had taken the film (well, apparently) and whether his sleepwalking had been cured (sort of).

It was really interesting to hear how they'd tweaked the film to create more laughs by editing bits and adding scenes in. They certainly had a brilliant editor involved - the cuts alone make it one of the decade's best comedy films.

The Q&A was all in good humour, apart from one crazy guy in a green T-shirt, who tried to used the interview microphone to do an open-mike session and had to be frogmarched out by a massive security guard.

Then it was outside for wine, cheese and dessert - and a chance for a good gossip, for Danny De Vito and Tim Robbins were both present. We agreed that De Vito was even more mini than expected, while Robbins was much taller (seriously, the guy must be 6' 4").

My big thanks to the WGA Foundation, especially Kevin, for getting me in despite my Irish credit card not working on their site!

L.A. is an eccentric town, but I'm loving every minute of it. Now it's down to the hard work of finding an agent and convincing them to represent me...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The good, the bad and the very, very weird...

I've been here four days and already it feels like four months. In a good way.

I hiked up to Sunset Boulevard yesterday (literally, it's a massive hill) to meet British actress, writer and director Sarah Dawson for lunch. She's been in the States for years so had loads of useful info on living in L.A. and places to go. Thanks Sarah!

We met at Caffe Primo, where she's seen E from Entourage before. But sadly, no sign of him yesterday! I did see a guy after who could have been Adrian Grenier. But then again, I did have Entourage stuck in my head.

I squeezed in some writing (has to be done) before going for a meal with Frank, an editor from New York who's out here working on a movie, and his partner. We went to Roscoe's, which is a bit of a Hollywood institution. On the way, we passed the 1950's-era Formosa Cafe, where Guy Pearce confused Lana Turner with a hooker in L.A. Confidential. Someone's built a strip mall right beside it, which as Frank correctly pointed out, makes it kind of difficult to shoot anything set in the Fifties now. Plus it's really ugly (and who goes to a place called Crazy Rock'n' Sushi??)

Roscoe's is a bit of a throwback too, with a menu that I don't imagine has changed much since it opened in 1975. They serve fried chicken and waffles. On the same plate, with butter and maple syrup for the waffles. It was surprisingly nice - the chicken was AMAZING. And even the Prez seems to agree - there's a photo of Obama himself posing with the staff on the wall.

Today started out really dull, with the Hollywood Hills shrouded in mist. It was the June Gloom, but in August! Of course it burned off by 10am and the usual hot sunshine took up again. I have a pretty busy weekend planned so I decided to visit Graumann's Chinese Theatre this afternoon. It's obligatory - like a pilgrimage.

I've seen it and Hollywood Boulevard before, but going there is always an experience. You have the hand prints and the pictures of the elegant stars from yesteryear, and then the craziest people in the world everywhere you look. It's like all the people who failed the extras audition for The Grove for being too weird got sent there instead. Or maybe like the Cantina in Star Wars sent along some tourists.

Today was no different. There was a man singing into a bin. Not singing while sifting through the bin, he was serenading it. Another man struggling with his Spandex Spiderman costume in a stairwell. Two men doing karaoke and rapping about sucking balls.

All this in front of the Chinese Theatre, with bemused tourist families walking around in a daze. And I can see why they're bedazzled - after all, I'm a tourist myself. It's all bright lights, hucksters and expensive junk food. Everyone's selling something or trying to get noticed. Fittingly for a street famous for its hookers, it makes you feel cheap. And yet I have a soft spot for it.

I went to see the next movie showing, which was The Watch. A movie only watchable because of Billy Crudup's brilliant cameo as a creepy neighbour and Richard Ayoade from the IT Crowd, who's basically playing Moss in American suburbia. It felt good to see a film though - it reminded me of why I'm here. To write something that people want to watch.

Tomorrow, my first Brits in L.A. brunch (I can be an honorary Brit...)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

L.A. Reality

Well, 16 months after I first decided to go to L.A., I finally arrived here on Monday night. The temperature even at 8pm was toasty and I was lucky enough to get a taxi driver who was a born-and-bred Los Angeleno, so he gave me loads of useful information.

The apartment I'm staying in is fab and possibly the most fab thing of all is that it has a pool! Seriously, in this heat you need it.

I ventured down to the Melrose Avenue area yesterday in search of a cell phone and stumbled across both the vast and luxurious Writers Guild offices and The Grove, the maddest shopping mall in the world.

The Writers Guild offices made me smile, thinking of the tiny one-room office that the Screenwriters Guild have back home. This place is HUGE, all black glass on the outside and there's a jaw-dropping script library where you can go and spend 10 hours reading (which is what I felt like doing). It made me determined to become a member of the Guild like, yesterday. All non-WGA writers should go there on frequent pilgrimages to reaffirm their belief that they, too, can become Members.

The Grove is kind of like an outdoor shopping mall created for a film, complete with dancing fountain and an improbably good-looking, United Nations-like cast of extras. I kept expecting someone to burst in and do a chase scene - or a song and dance routine. Afterwards you go to the valet desk to collect your Lamborghini or in my case, order a taxi (No wheels for me. I'm the crazy Irish girl who walked there from Santa Monica Boulevard).

So far, I've seen a lot of typically L.A. stuff. Egg white omelettes everywhere. A burger advertised with no bun (WTF?). Lots of tiny lapdogs being taken unwillingly for walks (I am living in the gay capital of California). Botox shots listed alongside manicures. Some truly manic driving. People jogging everywhere, all the time. The best thing was a guy I came across on my walk this morning, who appeared to be auditioning for a record producer on his mobile phone on the street. He sang L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole. I hope it worked!

L.A. jokes aside, I'm really happy to be here and can't wait to get started on the road - however long and rocky it is - to becoming a repped, paid writer. And a member of the Guild.