Date Archives March 2008

Day 5, Thursday

Very, very short post today. Evening session was canceled tonight because Rick is out of town, and I’m ever so grateful. My cold is killing me. I’m taking cold medicine all day to suppress the worst of the symptoms, and I’m sucking on cough drops to minimize the coughing, but my throat is raw, my voice is toast, and I’m dead on my feet. I’m going to finish this post, select a scene to do in Tom’s class next week, and then go to sleep.

We had John’s “Where’s the Structure” class and Tom’s “On Your Feet” class today. The big news is that I’m disillusioned with acting. Yes, all it took was two classes! I was in a scene today, and the director had such a strong vision about how everything should be done that we were reduced to puppets. She told me not only what I should do at every moment, but also my backstory and what I should be thinking from moment to moment.

In her defense, we had only a few minutes to work on this, so it isn’t like we could have sat down and discussed it. But I really felt that it wouldn’t have mattered if we discussed it anyway. She had a vision, and my job was to bring it alive. <shrug> Okay. Her scene, right?

See, that’s my problem. Telling me what to do like that turns me passive aggressive. I don’t do direct conflict — and nor did I hold back and not try to do what she wanted me to do — but part of me disengaged.

In general, I really like the acting. It’s challenging. And I appreciated her insights. But if being an actress means being a puppet, then it’s not something I want to do, even for fun. Because that’s not fun. Or particularly educational.

I’m anxious to have people do a scene I wrote. I’m going to go through my finished screenplay and pick a scene now, and I’ll print it over the weekend. I’ll hopefully get to direct a scene next week too.


Day 3, Tuesday

Jay brought me cold medicine last night (and myriad other things). He’s a doll. He pretty much had to drop the stuff off and run because it was so late, but just that he was willing to drive all the way downtown at that hour just to do that says so much about him as a person and as a husband. I’m so lucky to have him!!

Once I took some medicine and suppressed the cold symptoms, I slept pretty well. I was up before my alarm and had time to get ready and breakfast on soup before trekking over to the Seattle Center. It’s sunny today, which made the walk nicer. I’m fat and out of shape, so I don’t love the walk, even if it’s not that long, but I do okay. It seemed easier this morning; I’m hoping by the end of class, I hardly notice it at all.

First class this morning was John’s “Where’s the Structure.” Needless to say, we concentrated on structure. Hero’s journey. Inciting incident. Purpose of act one. He starts his class fast, and he moves fast. Pretty much the only break in note taking was when we were watching movie clips. I had to remind myself a time or two that there is no test later. I didn’t have to get every single word on paper.

Some takeaways:

  • Opening shot is the most important shot because it’s the only one that doesn’t have to move the story forward. Use it to reveal theme.
  • Everything you do in a movie must have a purpose. Setup and payoff.
  • Characters are defined by what they DO.
  • Create situations that force your students to take risks — bigger and bigger risks as the movie progresses.
  • “Button” — line at the end of a scene that transitions you to the next scene and makes you want to keep going.
  • Exposition is best revealed in an argument. It’s a “weapon.”
  • A movie is “here is my lesson on how to improve your life.” People don’t like unhappy endings because we don’t want to think our life ends unhappily.
  • Theme is the moral, the message that resonates with all of us.
  • Characters tell the truth under great duress. Only.
  • Event — something irreversible that forces the hero to make a new and immediate decision.
  • A hero must be willful. He has to act. He can’t give up. He has to keep going.
  • Call to adventure comes at the 10% mark.

In the afternoon, we tackled John’s second class, “The Play’s the Thing.” This class was a blast! It was an acting class. It’s the class where John teaches us the method that we apply in Tom’s “On Your Feet” class.

I’m not an actress. Excluding a couple of bit parts in Children’s Theater plays when I was in elementary school, I haven’t done any acting. Oh wait — I also had a bit part in one play in college. Horrible experience. I don’t really consider that experience “acting” because I had no clue what I was doing.

John is teaching us pure Method acting. It’s really fascinating stuff. He said, before you can act, you have to build a character and know that character. Then you can react in the skin of that character.

There are two main questions that actors need to ask and that John is going to ask over and over:

  • Who am I? This is the complete backstory of the character — the sociology, the physiology, and the psychology.
  • What do I want? The overall “want” of the story is called the “super objective.” There are also objectives in each scene.

Next we discussed beats. A beat is the beginning or end of an intention. Beats are the moments of a scene — actors are acting moments, and moment by moment a scene is built. As an actor, you apply a verb — not an adjective to every beat. What is the purpose — the intention — of that beat? To shame. To charm. To apologize. To accept. To cajole. To amuse.

We spent a lot of time identifying beats in some scenes, and then we played a couple of scenes. I got to act in one of them. Fun! Acting is majorly hard work — extraordinarily complex — but that kind of work appeals to me. I can totally understand the thoughts the character is having and the emotions she’s feeling and figure out how I should be acting and speaking, but it’s really hard to make my body match my inner picture.

One thing John said that really hit me was that people don’t come to the movies to see actors speak facts. They come to see their interpretation of a role. He also cautioned us as screenwriters not to act or direct for our actors or directors. We just give the words, and we imply the subtext beneath. That’s the real challenge for screenwriters — to write in code and say what you really want to say without actually saying it.

Final class of the night was Rick Stevenson’s class, “The Storyteller’s Conservatory.” We pulled our chairs into a circle and talked. First we introduced ourselves by telling our most embarrassing story. Then we got to the point of the class: Each student will tell our own story, the story of what made us who we are today. And then the class will analyze it and organize it as if it were a screenplay.

Seriously cool class. In fact — I think Rick may be my favorite instructor. Unfortunately, I can’t give anymore details right now because I’m sick and must lie down. More tomorrow dear friends!


Day 2, Monday

The day I’ve been waiting for for sixth months arrived today… and I woke up with the beginnings of a horrible cold. My sinuses are draining, and I can feel the onset of a killer chest cold complete with wicked cough and painful sore throat. Lovely. Perfect for the beginning of those long, intense days.

Nevertheless, I ate my Cheerios, put on my raincoat, and trudged over to the Seattle Center. The building was easy to find once I figured out how to get across the streets. The conference room is big and roomy, and there are plenty of plugs for laptops. I was also pleased to see that there’s free Wi-Fi down in the food court. Since we have an hour for lunch and a bit over two hours for dinner, I tentatively decided I would eat lunch at the food court, and then go back to my motel room for dinner.

Our day is composed of three 3-hour classes. Today we started with Warren’s class, “Such a Character,” then had Tom’s class, “On Your Feet,” and wrapped up with Stewart’s class, “The Personal Connection.”

Warren was up first, and he did a bang up job. His premise is that when a movie really sticks with someone, it’s because the characters mean something to them, not because the movie had a good plot. So his goal is to teach us to craft unforgettable characters that resonate with people. He said not to misunderstand the concept of “universal.” He said many people, trying to make something more universal, make it less personal. He said that’s the wrong path. To make something universal, it has to be intensely personal.

Each person has an unanswerable question that they’re struggling with. For writers, this “nugget” is what they then explore in their films. He said that if you look at a great filmmaker, you can see the same nugget reflected in their films even if the films themselves are quite different.

For example, one possible nugget is “Why do we make choices that hurt the people we love?” He gave the example of a person who chooses to cheat on someone, even though that person absolutely doesn’t want to hurt the person he or she is cheating on. That person is rationalizing his behavior and trying to choose between two outcomes that he seems as diametrically opposed. For example — compassion vs. honesty.

These two things are NOT opposites, nor is one positive and the other negative. Both choices have pros and cons. The pro of compassion is that your loved one will be protected from hurt, but the con of compassion (in this specific instance) is guilt. The pro of honesty is the relief of telling the secret, of having everything out in the open. The con is that you may well lose everything because now others are free to act on that knowledge.

The point of the film is to see the character wrestling with this unanswerable question, not sure what to do. An external event, however, will force the character to act. And what the character learns is that the answer generally isn’t A or B, but some murky C choice that is somewhere between the two. And then… once the decision is made… it isn’t necessarily over. Because the question cannot be truly answered. It’s just posed again.

There was way more to this class, but I’m not going to rewrite three hours worth of notes. This was one of the key ideas I came away with though.

Tom’s class is called “On Your Feet,” and that’s exactly what we did. We were split into groups and assigned a scene, written by a student, to work on. There was one director (per scene) and the necessary actors. We had to block and practice the scene, and then perform it for the group.

After the performance, Tom asked for notes from the observers. What needed to change? Where were the clunky bits? What wasn’t necessary? What needed to be added? Then he gave us his notes by walking the actors through the scene, beat by beat, and asking them questions.

I’d say the key takeaway for Tom’s class today was the idea of “intention.” Each person in the scene is doing something all the time. I don’t mean busywork. I mean logical actions that logically lead to the dialogue and behaviors in the script. Part of an actor’s and director’s job is to figure out these intentions and block accordingly.

For the writer it’s extraordinarily helpful to see the scene worked out like this, because this is when you find out what’s working and what isn’t. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

One funny moment. In my scene, one of the people is supposed to be a frail older man. Tom asked for clarification on the character, and someone said, “He’s a decrepit old man — in his late 60s.” Tom — who is in his mid-70s and anything but decrepit — found that hysterical.

Stewart’s class is “The Personal Connection.” This is the class where we dig in deep in ourselves and then apply that to our stories. We started with some timed writing exercises. The point of these exercises is to free us. Although he may give some very specific rules for the particular exercise, the main rule is that we have to write constantly and quickly. It’s essentially stream of consciousness.

After the exercises, we talked about SPLAT. SPLAT is a cartoon by Jules Feiffer. He gave us two cartoons, the first of which is God (or a wise man) sending someone off in a direction that promptly gets him splatted. The person comes back and is sent back for another splat. When he gets the same direction a third time, he protests and asks why. Because, the wise man says, in life there is but one place to go, and it’s a mile past splat.

In good drama, Stewart explains, the protagonist is frequently presented with the very challenge he has always tried to avoid. Going through SPLAT can mean risking everything familiar and safe, but not going through means risking everything. In movies, we crave seeing the protagonist go through splat, because of the instant of pride, self-forgiveness, or redemption in the achievement. Going through SPLAT gives us a glimpse of our capacity for magnificence. If the confrontation succeeds, it gives the audience hope. If not, it at least tells the audience that they are not alone.

He showed us a cool clip from one of his movies that illustrates how a traumatic event in his life made it into one of his movies, then we did another timed writing exercise. This one was lists. We answered the questions “My mother always…,” “My mother never…,” “My father always…,” and “My father never…,” and we had to answer them for ourselves, for our protagonist, and for our antagonist. This was hard, because I hadn’t thought of my protagonist or antagonist to that depth yet. Still, I think I came up with some interesting possibilities.

One of the best things about this class is Stewart’s readings. They’re personal stories. Deeply personal. I don’t know if I can ever be that raw and honest.

Whew, it was a long first day. I have to get “home,” and then do Warren’s homework. Jay is bringing some stuff to me tonight, so I’ll get to see him too!


Sunday… moving out, moving in, moving on

I was cranky last night and depressed this morning. Those who know me know those are not my normal state of being. The class I am completely, totally psyched for… but the non-class stuff I’m unhappy about. Stuff like…

  • moving into a motel (without my family),
  • being in the city,
  • being without a car, and
  • boarding Pax.

I’ve been so upset about those things that poor Jay, who doesn’t want me to live downtown for three weeks, was put into the situation of convincing me to go through with it. Intellectually I know I’ve made the right decisions in regards to all of the above, but it’s tough just the same.

Still, I knew when I got up this morning that no matter how much I wanted to stay home, I had to pack and leave. So I did. I checked off the items on my list, and around 2PM Jay and I headed out. We stopped by Target (where I saw my dear, dear friend Myella and got a much welcomed hug) and Barnes and Noble and the grocery store, and then we headed into the city.

As I packed, and even as I purchased things on our errands, I arranged things so they would be easy to carry up to my new abode. We got a terrific parking space and got everything upstairs in a single trip, and by the time I got unpacked, I was beginning to feel more positive about my little room.

It is, by any but the most humble yardsticks, a little room. It’s smaller than an average motel room — no getting two queen beds in here! — with a tiny kitchenette and a bathroom. Initially, I didn’t like it. In my privileged old age, I’ve gotten spoiled, and it took me a while to realize that I really don’t need more than I have right here. It’s clean, and it has cable Internet, and the mattress is reasonably comfy. I don’t cook so I don’t need a bigger kitchen, and I’m several floors up, so I can leave my window open to cool it down a bit. If I can get used to walking around the city, I might even learn to like it just a little bit.

When we first got here, I couldn’t get the Internet to work. So Jay spent an hour and a half troubleshooting and banging around on my computer. He’s not a Mac person, so there were frustrating moments. He got the Internet working, but we absolutely can’t get the Mac mail program to send e-mail. Not sure what’s going on there. I’m not worried about it. I’ll be doing little e-mail (I hope), and what I am doing, I can do on my phone.

At 6PM we had reservations at The Wild Ginger, an incredible Pan-Asian restaurant near Pike Place Market. This restaurant is one of our favorites, but I haven’t been there in years, because I hate coming over to Seattle with a passion. It’s a great city — sincerely — but it’s a CITY. I’m a country girl, and I think the population 6000 town that I live 15 minutes outside of is about 3000 people too large. The traffic and parking and big buildings and crowds and noise in Seattle drive me bonkers.

But, since, like it or not, I’m here for three weeks, we decided to take advantage of it by eating at our favorite west side restaurants whenever we get the chance. We did Wild Ginger tonight, and next Saturday we’re planning to hit Marakesh with friends. I’ll get a couple of recommendations for other awesome places to eat during the other weekends I’m in town. Gotta get my fill, because it’s pretty certain I won’t be back for dinner for a long time once this class is over!

Dinner was incredible, and we were home early. Jay dropped me off and went home to feed the critters, and I came upstairs to get things ready for tomorrow morning. It looks like all my ducks are in a compulsively straight row, so now all my depression is gone, and I’m just excited about class tomorrow.

All in all, it was a good day, even if I did have to leave my family and move into the city. It was marred by only one thing. I talked to my friend Kalisa this evening, and her daughter lost her filly, Ransom, today. It was sad and unexpected, and worst of all, the vet can’t give them definite answers about what happened. Ransom was a handful, but Kyra was learning tons from her, and the changes in that horse over the past months were amazing. She was a smart, beautiful, special horse who was much loved by her human family. She’ll be missed.

God speed, Ransom.


Day 1

I should probably come up with more creative titles, but I’m too tired for that. Day 1 will suffice. I’m terribly annoyed right now because I spent all of lunch writing out a blog post, but I can neither get my Mac to mail the damn thing to my PC nor get Blogger to let me copy and paste. It’s a long post, and I bloody well don’t want to retype it.

Sigh. There. Got it. Went over the network, but had to put it in like three different formats and strip weird formats TWICE. I may not like this Mac to PC stuff.

I’m cranky. Better stick to the class.

We met at 9AM at The Alibi Room, a restaurant/bar in Pike Place Market. It looks like there are 12 or 13 students and five instructors. We met four of the instructors today -– one is out of town. Between 9 and 12, each instructor introduced himself and described his class(es), and then we got to know our fellow students (and ourselves) through a couple of exercises.

John Jacobson opened the morning and told us a little about The Film School. He and the other instructors have worked in film and taught film-related classes for years. And they lamented that in the past years, storytelling seems to have gone by the wayside. Technology has taken the place of good stories. So they decided to do something to counter that trend, and this class is the result. As each instructor introduced himself and his class(es), this storytelling theme was frequently repeated.

Also, all of the instructors emphasized the personal aspect – getting in deep within ourselves. This part will be hard for me. Very hard.

First up was Tom Skerritt. In his class we will be writers, directors, and actors. We’ll have to write and direct and act and be honest about who and what we are. He said you have to get to the point where you’re raw, and joked that it’s very inexpensive psychoanalysis.

Quick aside – Naomi, I made a point of telling Tom hello from you. He was enchanted that I knew you and said you are “a treasure.” I already knew that!

Next up was Warren Etheredge who is a very funny man. I can tell I’ll like him a lot. He said at the end of this class we’ll either have the tools to be a successful screenwriter, or we’ll learn we absolutely don’t want to be a screenwriter. That’s both wonderful and scary. Warren emphasizes character in his classes.

After Warren, John came back up and talked about his classes. He teaches the more structure-based classes. The technical stuff. He said we’ll learn a ton of information in the classes, and then after the class the challenge will be to apply it and make it our own.

The final instructor we met today was Stewart Stern, who I can tell is a real sweetheart. He said we’ll do all of the exercises three ways – as ourselves, as our protagonist, and as our antagonist. Exciting!

We also did two short exercises. First we did a “Dream Journal” where we wrote out what we WANT. Anything, not just class or screenwriting related. And then we wrote a bit about where we want to be in ten years and what steps it would take to get there. By the end of class, he wants us to have a detailed plan with milestones at 3 mos., 6 mos., 1 yr, 3 yr, 5 yr, 7 yr, and 10 yr. Wow!

The second exercise was even more personal. We had to share two life-changing events with a partner, and then that partner told the class about them. Very tough. People were open and honest though, and it was cool. We’re going to know each other really well by the end of class.

After lunch we had the first in our Master Storytellers series. The guest today was Boaz Yakin. This class is sort of like Inside the Actor’s Studio, except with screenwriters. Boaz is both a screenwriter and a director. One of the key ideas he drove home to me is that if we have a project, a screenplay, that we feel strongly about and really want to get OUR message out in, then we have to go the independent film route and be both writer and director. If we go the Hollywood/commercial route, then the screenplay is just a blueprint that others will use as a starting point, and the finished project will not resemble what you created.

Boaz was absolutely fascinating to listen to. Although he has done some commercial projects, he isn’t particularly proud of them. They aren’t successes in his mind. The projects that are his vision, start to finish, are the projects he is proud of and considers his successes.