Writers’ Groups and Community

Between 1998 and 2006, I joined and left or got dis-invited from five writer’s groups. This is not counting participation and reviewing scripts on zoetrope.com and triggerstreet.com.  Typically these groups are started by people who want feedback for their own output and in some cases there is a bit of a control issue.  The last group I was involved in during those years had evolved through LIFT the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto.  Here is a group that rents equipment and facilities to non-commercial, personal films. But the screenwriting circle was run by a guy who wanted only writers trying to write for sale to the industry.  This meant a lot of reiteration of the Robert McKee and Syd Field kind of plot paradigm and nothing from the inside out or with insight into the writers.  There is the tired old chestnut distinguishing between a rule and a principle.  Today, there is increased talk about how the classic commercial paradigm is too confining.  I once used the word “dogmatic” and he asked me to define it.  I did, but couldn’t get over the air that he believed he was setting me up for embarrassment in case I failed to define it.

I happened to leave that group after my father passed away, when I wasn’t focusing on writing and had some personal issues to work through.  I had no real deadline and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing for the sake of writing.  I was then told it was supposed to be my turn to submit, so I did send the current draft of a feature script without combing through it for a final proof read.  This became an issue.  Again, this might have been another set up, this time seeing if I was truly leaving the group over grief.  Suffice to say, the tone of a meeting was set by this insufferable jackass. I had a run of dialogue between deliberately named characters Mack and Beth, and one might reasonably assume people would understand this is not an oversight, but the quality of laughter when it was brought up suggested the handiwork of the moderator.  His friend and second-in-charge of the group has gone on to make a handful of features.  But the head moderator of the group seems to have gone on to post some seemingly fake credits on imdb.  Ultimately, after each meeting the group would go for a beer nearby and I attended a couple of times but I had a night shift to attend in those days and so I couldn’t fully make the commitment to join and socialize, so that made me a bit of the odd man out and opened the possibility of letting my image be created for me.  I do remember a short being presented for discussion and I praised it for being satirical.  The woman who had written it flatly told me, “I didn’t intend it as hilarious”  so a few years later when she won the Toronto Urban Film Festival with it pretty much as written and Atom Egoyan was quoted as calling it great satire I was happy without being able to say I told you so.

Many of these little groups – some of which involved cold live readings, but mostly discussion of drafts or sections of drafts – seemed ineffective.  If I am given half an hour of a feature (25-30 pages) for comment I am unable to thoughtfully factor in the context. If we are asking each other to read a full draft, and the discussion is less about the specific dialogue and more about the broad strokes, then it may be more practical to show each other four page outlines that clearly show how the real estate of story and plot are to be spent over the first act, the two halves of the second act, and then the third act, what the turning points are and how key problems are solved.  The trouble is that most studios or filmmakers would love to get their hands on a true story outline that solves the broad strokes, just so they can have someone expand on it and steamroll the original writer into oblivion.  Most movies are professionally produced and often directed with style and the screenplay or plot is the weakest link.  The full drafts often submitted for the group to read and give notes on (including many of my own) are typically not ready to be seen by anyone.  They are too frequently knocked off because there is a sudden opening in the queue and something is due.

I also found that it is best to invite specific writers you respect if you build a group. Especially now, there is more division over how to approach humor and sensitive subject matter that it can detract from getting a useful tracking of how people follow a script and where interest levels peak or drop and what is muddled.  One group I had been invited to because I had filmed at one of the members’ houses and I had sat in during a reading and apparently my acting was well received.  This lasted until I had submitted something and a couple of members were concerned that I had not taken the same screenwriting course they had – one that apparently cautioned writers to banish anything “problematic” from a story or description, or anything that was not flaming progressive.  The friend who had brought me in was delicate when telling me this. Sometimes this kind of turn of events doesn’t come with a satisfying explanation.  I had to connect my own dots.  I looked back at my last draft where I was describing – for example – a cleaning lady who hated dirt.  I had drawn blank on the word “pristine” so I wrote in a place-holder “perfectly white” referring to her hands, but forgetting to put an asterisk on either side of the place-holder for later editing. Even something like that could have someone to get the wrong idea.

My take on writers in general is that many are gold rush seekers, and some just want to have the identity of writer, but most of us are interested in ourselves and the bubble around us.  They say you know someone by the company he or she keeps.  I was in that last screenwriting group for three years, and I am somewhat on speaking terms with one of the members but couldn’t confidently say many of the names even if I remember drafts of their scripts I’ve read.  I’m not even sure I like many of the writers I know.  I am certain that taking random opinions to heart has caused me to waste time exploring drafts of my work that were dead ends.  Meanwhile there are times I have written coverage on someone’s script and they appreciate that it is getting into how the themes are used and what personal issues the writer brought into it.  A story or script might be a message or clue from the unconscious, just as the initial spark of an idea and its euphoria is the tip of that iceberg hinting that the rest might be stored in the writer’s mind and that he or she is the person to develop it.

Jim Jarmush has said he will write a first draft in longhand and hand this to a typist and shoot that.  Woody Allen claims to use an old typewriter, then maybe circles a few things on it with pen for corrections and lets someone else retype it.  Meanwhile some of us are puttering away at multiple drafts instead of getting on with it.  One script I had been paid for each time I did a rewrite (for which I’m grateful) had been set aside by the producer and needed my encouragement.  It had table readings and yet no urgency of production until world events made the core premise dated.     I think initially a previous writer would not provide an electronic version because he wanted control.  So I retyped that draft and made some adjustments along the way and gave both a pdf and editable office document to the producer.  I had recommended printing it out and writing in concerns or edit notes onto that so that I could see the changes at a glance and go through it in the file to apply changes without unnecessary time-consuming re-reading.  But a poor typist was brought in to use different software and generate a new draft I had trouble wading through and could not embrace as a potential director.  I really needed to be able to track at a glance what had been dropped or changed and I was angry with the unseen typist who had made so many mistakes that this draft could not be presented to anyone.  To this day, I offer ideas on fixes but I know if I do it there is a psychological commitment. Not having the last word is one thing, and wanting to make a different movie is another. Even though I certainly want to see my friend have something to show for all the time and money that has already gone into generating the material.

During all that same time, over ten years, my clown epic had been refined to a point where I was livid when I discovered some key people wanted to do improvisation instead of the dialogue I had crafted.  That would have been too unwieldy and rob me of true closure that vindicated my writing.  But other filmmakers have their premise and draw in their collaborators and jump into pre-production without a finished script and have a leap of faith about improvisation.  I know myself enough to know that would not be my cup of tea. I like to have a common point of reference, a final script. I wonder if skipping those screenwriting support circles might have allowed me to just blunder ahead with whatever crazy drafts I had and make features fifteen years earlier.  I do know that if you are in a group just because you answered an open call or you belong to a co-up that entitles you to participate it won’t be as useful as notes from someone whose work you respect and who cares enough about the craft to ask what you mean if something is unclear and who may even care if you exist.  If you love the craft of screenwriting and some of its architectural demands then it won’t be so personal that it is uncomfortable – it is just about how information is set up and how prepared the reader/audience will be for what happens next.

In your twenties and thirties, a screenwriting group might be a way to network. It might also be a way to push people away with failing to be progressive enough or passionate enough with political opinions.  It is a double-edged sword.  Identity politics can wear you out.  And if you have notes on a script and by the time a circle comes around to you others have already said what you had prepared it will seem like a waste of time.  The funny thing is that a playwright I respect had once stated in a blog that, “You should not respond to feedback on a script right away.  Just take the notes and think on them and decide what is useful and what is not.” Something like that.  And yet how many times after a table read or screenwriting discussion do we expect writers to answer questions or justify something in the script? Maybe at the outset, the writer should ask what kind of feedback is helpful (tracking one’s interest in the scenes, characters, content) and that you have no intention of asking questions, only noting them to look over later.

Sometimes doing several stabs at a outline is more useful than any feedback.  Really kicking the tires of the story without generating a huge word count and getting lost in the weeds.  I encourage people to write but the concept of peers and peer review isn’t something to take as having blanket value.  Some say even random feedback is akin to what you get from the general audience anyway, but there is a skill to reading and evaluating just as there is a talent and craft needed for the writing itself.  Some people are armchair studio executives and others will putter with writing, off and on, like playing the lottery.

For years I could spend time reading scripts and noting my observations and generating substantial reviews on-line and in return getting reviews for my own scripts that were minimum word count b.s. proof that the person just skimmed the script. I know if I have spent a couple of hours reading a script or anything else (especially with an open word file for my notes and first impressions as I go) I will have something to say.  Making room for a lot of writers in a group to present their work for feedback requires commitment.  I might prefer to e-mail my notes if I can’t attend a meeting and be denied the e-mail address of the writer of the month because the moderator wants all discussion verbal and oral face to face.  (Really to make sure his/her role and authority as moderator is not rendered irrelevant.)  Even though that is not practical. Ultimately, some people might feel they need a sense of community and people to have a beer with or vent with but in practical terms a screenwriter circle is not practical.  Maybe one great script with a circle of producers and financers would be ideal.

 

Working with Murphy 4: Digital and Collaboration Atrophy

Murphy’s Law comes into play even with the most idealistic intentions.

A friend of a friend initiated a collective that eventually was called Group Therapy, the stated objective being that each weekend we could all be working on a new short and keep up our crafts for the sake of keeping active and having something to show.  It was to be a democracy where anyone interested would submit short scripts that could reasonably be shot with limited locations over a weekend and these would be voted on so that we might have four to do over a cycle of a month.

A script I had written four years before in a batch of other scripts, Support Group, now had a dated resolution but it was one location and a lot of characters so I modified it a bit and at the last minute slapped on a new title page, “Stereotypes Anonymous.”  It was one of the four scripts that got enough votes to get the go-ahead.  Maybe because some of our group were actors and there were a number of roles.  Chris, another member of the team, was initially supposed to direct it.  I thought I would detach from it and see what someone else does.  The Chris got a paid opportunity that made a conflict so it fell to me. Once I had worked out a seating plan and storyboarded it, I was then more committed. I modified the script to allow a couple of gimmicks that were new, and ultimately the only things people liked about the finished movie.  We were the last project slated to be shot, with fewer resources. But a lot of people came through with combined connections.  Somebody got us a karate dojo to shoot in, which reads basically as a room.  Somebody got us a real handgun for a character to wear.  Even though I wanted a gold charm SHAPED like a gun.  Instead it was a black weapon against a black t-shirt.  Someone got a Samuri sword which also allowed us to have an amusing scene people did not know how to react to.  I won’t link to this video, because it didn’t really set the world on fire.  But I enjoyed most of the people working on it.

A 360 degree pan of the circle of participants did not have the impact intended in the storyboard.  Instead of literally being in the center and panning around it needed to have the impact of floating past people, wide angle, with the camera close to the actors and maybe on a jib arm of some sort.  The short has a number of image ideas that I may try again in another project.  There is one soft focus shot that bothers me.  The owner of the camera was shooting and I may have stopped pestering him to check the focus by zooming to sharpen before each shot.  By not risking offense, I ended up with a soft shot.

There is bold content in “Stereotypes Anonymous” and I have to own the fact that it is very much my voice, dark and politically incorrect.  The intention was to cast people from the written categories and have them demonstrate the absurdity of their associated stereotypes.  The Asian girl wears a kimono and likes to take photos of the group and when outraged pulls a sword.  There is a gay man who likes to smoke and make snobbish remarks.  We shot it under the gun in one day, with actors needing to leave early.  Because I had storyboarded it we got away with moving from the few establishing shots to smaller groups within the circle. But the energy and sense of reaction or tension that might have existed earlier in the day of the shoot – which is hard to quantify – was lost. The upside was that when an actor had a rough time with his lines we could be patient and he didn’t have as many eyes on him.

Ultimately the editor of the group was busy with someone else’s project so I had to outsource and pay for that out of my own pocket. Had this project come together a year later, I would have had my own editing software.  Had it come together five years later, I would have also had a better camera than the one being used.  But it is the human resources that are the real value.  Which brings us to the next controversy.

After choosing the scripts we were going to produce that month, a fundraising event was organized.  I don’t know how much went into the pot but it would be a meaningless figure here.  Next came the ramp up for the following series of shorts.  One of the group founders decided that this time we would begin with fundraising and then choose the scripts.  Many had been read for the next session so we had an idea what might be the options but no voting had been done.  The plan was to canvas local businesses and ask them to buy an ad in the program for the screenings of the last batch of films at the National Film Board John Spotten theater.  A few of us questioned it without being especially articulate as to what might go wrong.  We could not anticipate what Murphy’s law had in store.  That is often the case.  The founder was one of the best canvassers and raised more than a  thousand dollars.  Then he thought why should he just put that into the pot for the group and subject his own script to a vote and possibly not have it chosen strictly on merit.  The movie he wanted to make was more arty and the narrative complicated and it also had many scenes and locations, so it was not following the perimeters of low budget and single location.  He convened meetings in which he advised those who could attend that he and the co-founder had decided the money raised (ostensibly for movies yet to be voted for, and by screening films everybody worked on) would be allocated first to his own film and after that any other films would be voted on. This caused me and others to protest and ultimately many of us left.  A bunch that stayed and continued with the founder called themselves Splinter Group and a couple of them may still have animosity to me or others for not playing along with the new paradigm.  Had we anticipated this and articulated the danger early on, I do not know if it would averted the problem but it would have posed the question:  Should money determine which movie gets produced?  Should fundraising determine which script is chosen?  In the end, all of the funds were used up on the art film and its director never screened it or uploaded.  I have never seen it.  He had a nice chat with me years later while I was working as a guard outside of a bank (exactly how you want to meet previous creative collaborators). He said people had copies of it but it didn’t turn out the way he wanted.

Here are some odds and ends from the next project under discussion:

The next year I set out to shoot a feature on Super 8 Film.  I spent about $600 on rolls of stock, thinking that the developing would just be a matter of dropping it at Shopper’s Drug Mart and that it was covered in the purchase price as it had been for decades (or at least since the days I was in film school).  But that policy ended.  I fit the main shoot into a week off from work.  I did shoot some of the with about 10 rolls of the stock and used a video camera to record sound and some of that came together in an edit but it just wasn’t as presentable as I had hoped.  An actor fell out at the last minute and I had to step into a role and had not memorized my own writing.  I also realized that I was excessively tired; later in the year I would be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  I was not the only one feeling tired either.  At the outset I had asked each prospective actor if they actually have the time to do a film and that I didn’t want it interfering with their work or school.  Once filming was well under way, I discovered the actors – especially our lead – showing up dead tired.  They were both doing their night jobs and going to school and then showing up without sleep.  On a certain level it seemed to work in some footage because it was about mind-reading. But it is not something I would have I was asked well into the film by a friend of a friend who had volunteered to be “producer” whether I would then allow him to be credited as co-director so that he could have a feature credit on his directing CV.  I had to say no.  He claimed that the lead actress had told him if he is not allowed to co-direct she will leave the project.  I called her up and asked if this is what she said.  She said no.  The whole point was for me to break into a feature.  Some of my scheduling was reasonable but racing against the clock was not always working.  Because of the producer presenting his hidden agenda, I decided to contact everyone and cancel the rest of the film.  Once it had been stopped, I had more time to look over my script and storyboard sketches and reassess.  Off and on, the reassessment has taken 13 years and counting.  Different movies have come along with a similar emphasis, so I have taken the material I cared about and had to graft it onto a different paradigm each time.

The above describes the second time I tried to initiate that feature.  The first scene shot was with an actor I have since used for several other projects but who ghosted me after the first shoot.  I might still use the footage.  It was just an attack scene in a part of the old LIFT building that was then under renovation.

The third time I tried to shoot, the third time I had cast the lead, was with an actor I had met when I was asked last minute to act in someone’s short.  The actor across from me was talented and gave an emotional performance that likely was not well served by my own lack of learned lines, the filmmaker’s lack of costume for me as a priest, and the lack of a confessional book. . . frankly the overriding sense that these two young guys had a camera that had fallen off of a truck and it was just being held off the shoulder because they didn’t have a tripod and there were “no rules” about filmmaking.  None of that inspired confidence.  They took none of my advice and so there was way too much recorded of me flubbing lines and likely no way to cut around it.  In hindsight, I should have taken the director aside and given him an ultimatum.  Some actors will definitely cram for a shoot and meet that challenge.  I didn’t.  I thought I had, but my memory let me down.  Still, it could have worked with specific camera decisions. Would have been nice to have that young actor’s performance.  Maybe when it became clear that the scene would not cut and had to be scrapped, that guy abandoned my project.  I shot with this guy on the Toronto subway, in the elevator of the CN Tower, and at a workplace of mine when the building was empty.  We got some good shots in.  I SHOULD HAVE had some sort of meeting with at least my villain and a couple of other actors, so he would have a sense of the team and community making the film so it is not just me.  He went with his girlfriend on a holiday to Prague and a couple of other places, so I tweaked the script a bit for the remainder of the shoots but when he returned even though he agreed to meet to pick up a hard copy of the revised screenplay he never showed up.  And returned no voice-mails.  I have imagined either he thought the script was just too many mini-shoots or he might have been angry that my unprepared acting ruined the other guy’s movie.

I finished shooting some rolls of Super 8 film in my home town on holiday that year, just burning through it thinking it was wasted on images of my parents and other family members but years later that is the footage that had value, especially after my dad passed away.  I had a similar experience with rolls of 35mm still film in college.  I would think I’ll shoot out the roll on kids and family and then I’m thankful to have those images when the project itself was otherwise rote and meaningless.

Both of the projects mentioned in this entry of the blog are having elements combined for one of my next projects.  Even though I am writing this from the most gun shy phase of my life, knowing how so many things can collapse. And this is only some of it.