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:

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...