A Mastering Film Three-Fer: On Writing

I know, I know. My capacity for posting these pieces here has right shit of late. But nonetheless, here we go…

In my last post, I talked about one of the most important steps you take as a writer: walking away between the first and second drafts so you an approach the rewrite as objectively as possible. Now, here are three guidelines (I hate to say rules) I live by when rewriting.

Your Enemy Is Now Your Friend

The delete key. I don’t use it in first drafts (that I don’t handwrite anyhow). It’s anathema to the process of first draft writing. It implies going back when the purpose of the first draft is to push forward. If I could disable it, I would.


Next up…

Let’s take a brief interlude from our discussion about rewrites (Just Walk Away, The Delete Key Kills the First Draft). At this point, you’ve been with that initial germ of an idea for awhile. Maybe a month. Maybe a year. How’s the relationship going? Is it a love story with a happy ending; a saccharine-sweet swan boat ride?

Or, is it halfway between love and hate, with the line constantly blurring? Does every word it says to you make you tense? Do you occasionally do the dishes? Or does it demand everything from you?

This goes all the way back to the beginning of your project. You’ve had the idea. It’s your first date. The rush of it is still with you. Maybe you chatted the idea up a bit. You and your idea had an amazing night together. And then you called back. And you went out again. And again. And again…


And finally…

The engines rev. That familiar guitar tune kicks up. Cars zoom past the screen, accompanied by silhouetted characters standing all cool-like. Because silhouettes are cool. Then, a non-descript American accent. Wait a sec. Then, three dudes on a stage. Still no accent. There’s no life. It’s just dudes and cars. Which is boring as hell except to the most devoted gear-heads.

The show and bitter disappointment I’m speaking of is the American version of Top Gear, which, simply put, is three guys talking about cars. The British version, hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May (also three guys talking about cars) takes that concept and makes it fun and appealing even to those who couldn’t care less about the difference between an alternator and horsepower. As a trio, Clarkson, Hammond, and May are characters in the truest sense of the word. Their chemistry is infectious. They’re fun. They’re memorable. They’re not the American version. That show’s just three guys and some cars, where the alternator has more personality.

Character is everything.

Keep reading… CHARACTER IS…


A Mastering Film Two-Fer: The Writing Series Continues

Joining my first two posts in my writing series at Mastering Film, Screenplay First Drafts: Out of Your Brain and Onto the Page and I Can’t Read My Writing & That’s OK!, are two new pieces, the first on the majesty of Post-It notes, and the second on the most important rewriting step you take: walking away. Here are previews of the pieces, and be sure to follow the big-ass links that follow the preview to read the complete article!

We’ve talked first drafts and the pros and cons of handwriting them, but now we’re going to step backwards into what I do before I pull out the legal pads and pens and chicken scratch the page up in a week-long flurry of manic, over-caffeinated, under-rested fury:

I plan. A lot.

By plan, I don’t mean outline. I don’t outline. I take the Stephen King approach of grabbing two or more people, throwing them into a situation, and record them working themselves out of it. I have a very definite end I want to hit (and in the case of my transmedia work, where I cut off one medium and jump to another), a sketchy midpoint, and a more or less complete beginning (opening scenes are everything to me). All that stuff in between? No clue. I let the characters figure that out.

My walls are filled with Post-It Notes, divided by project (there are six sections of wall dedicated to six projects), and very few of them contain any notes about plot points. The Post-Its are filled with questions for me to answer. “What If?” is my pet phrase. “What if so and so did such and such?”

Planning Your Script: A Feast of Post-Its


We’ve gone through a lengthy research and planning process, spewed the first draft (affectionately referred to by myself as “the vomit draft”) all over the typed (or, in my case, handwritten) page, and written “fade out” in varying degrees of legibility.

Now what?

Walk away. Leave it alone. Don’t look at it. Don’t re-read it, and don’t think about it. Have a drink or four. Soak it in. You’ve just done something 80% of “screenwriters” haven’t done – written a draft of a script. You’ve taken it from idea, which is meaningless, and taken it into an executed brain dump with form, structure, and something resembling the vision of a final product (that is now, oh… another buncha dozens of drafts down the road). Savor it.

Just Walk Away: Rewriting, Step One

@ Mastering Film: I Can’t Read My Writing & That’s OK

Part two (part one can be found here) of my writing series is live over at Mastering Film dot com! In “I Can’t Read My Writing…,” I lay out the pros and cons of being a “write by hand” guy, and my love of making doctors be proud of their own handwriting. Here’s a snippet. Follow the link for the full piece!

When last we met, I opened up a series on writing with (appropriately), a post on first drafts. In it, I chronicled my journey from anal retentive composer to brain-vomiting first draftsman. Following my writer’s journey into brain vomiting, I found my technique again lacking. I examined it from all angles until I realized something I had overlooked: I was writing on a computer and the organizational process became more important than the writing process. I would organize folders, inboxes, project folders, trying to find the best way that represented how my head worked. I learned an important lesson – my brain does not function like a Mac. It’s not pretty, it’s not functional, and it does whatever it wants to do.

That’s when I pulled out the legal pads, pen, and paper clips. I found what was missing was the sensation of “writing,” not “typing.” And so I wrote, never once looking back at what had been written before – my handwriting, which would make a doctor say “hey, I’m not bad” also contributed to this. In the time since I adopted this method, I’ve written three feature scripts in a year, planned out the transmedia project that is Whiz!Bam!Pow!, wrote the radio shows, films, novellas, and comic books that populate the WBP world, and learned the most important lesson a creative can learn:

Hemingway WAS right: the first draft of anything is shit.

I Can’t Read My Writing, and That’s OK!

@ Mastering Film: Screenplay First Drafts

My newest piece (and first part of a series on writing) for Focal Press’s Mastering Film is live! Here’s a sneak, and be sure to follow the link to read the article in full!

I came into filmmaking and writing through composing music. Near the end of my tenure as a scribbler of notations for other people to play (come to think of it, that’s pretty much what I do now), I was working on multimedia pieces that involved scripts and carefully choreographed music pieces – which was no doubt the gateway drug to me writing and making films (and transmedia works) full time.

As a composer, I wrote my first – handwritten – draft as final, which means I agonized for weeks over a certain note. I was the living incarnation of the composer stereotype (down to the long hair, but minus the piano on the floor). As is usually the case, the pieces that I would write on a spur-of-the-moment flurry of creative “inspiration” (read: desperation) were more lively and fun than anything I agonized over. Yet I couldn’t get over that music school version of Catholic guilt – put the agony into it, feel guilty if you don’t.

Screenplay First Drafts: Out of Your Brain & Onto the Page

@ Mastering Film – Courting Controversy

It’s a day of new posts as my newest piece for Focal Press’s Mastering Film  goes live! In “Courting Controversy,” I offer a few tips on how to handle hot-button documentary subject matter. Here’s a snippet…

When I made my first historical documentary, The Fourteen Minute Gap, I was asked by my boss if I was willing to shoulder the controversy it would create. Would I be willing to have it in my portfolio?

The Fourteen Minute Gap tells the story of an erased telephone call between President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover on the morning of November 23, 1963, less than 24 hours after John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. While the call is erased, the cover-up job wasn’t done very well – a transcript survived. Weaved in with the story of the call was the backstory of events leading up to the call, as well as the story of my former colleague, Rex Bradford’s discovery of the erasure and his efforts to get it out to the media (which ignored it).

Of course I was willing to have it in my portfolio. It’s a fascinating piece of hidden history (which makes me giddy with delight when I find such a cool, digestible story). But was I willing to shoulder the controversy?

Check out the whole post here…

Courting Controversy: Four Tips for Documentaries on Hot-Button Topics

@ Mastering Film: “Jazz, Interviews, & Penmanship: Five Tips for Successful Interviews”

My newest post for Focal Press’s Mastering Film website went live this week. In “Jazz, Interviews, & Penmanship: Five Tips for Successful Interviews,” I share the five guiding principles that have resulted in great on-camera interviews in my documentary work. Here’s a peek:

I’ve talked a lot about questions in both of my previous posts: the last (and most important) question you should ask in an interview, and theongoing questions that should be with you throughout the development, production, and post of the work you’re making. Now, it’s time to talk a bit about answers. Here are the five key principles that guide me through the interview process, be it a five-minute interview, or a five-day one.

1.) The camera is there.

It’s ludicrous to try to convince your interview subject that the camera isn’t there. It is. It’s omnipresent. To say otherwise is disengenous to you, your project, and most importantly, your interviewee.

And here’s the full post – enjoy!

Jazz, Interviews, & Penmanship: Five Tips for Successful Interviews


@ Mastering Film: Strengthen Your Documentary by Questioning… Yourself

My second post for Focal Press’ Mastering Film Dot Com is live! In “Strengthen Your Documentary by Questioning… Yourself,” I talk about how any work of creation is the process of answering your own questions. Have a look, have a read, share a lot, and enjoy!

In my first post, I examined what I believe to be the most important question you can ask an interviewee, “is there anything we didn’t talk about that you would like to talk about?” Questions are the bread and butter of documentary film – without questions, a documentary is simply a soapbox for your views. This works wonderfully if that’s what you’re aiming for (though all too often a compelling story is sacrificed), but when your aim is to create a timeless work that will have the same potency twenty years from now as it does twenty seconds after release, the right questions are essential.

Strengthen Your Documentary By Questioning… Yourself @ Mastering Film Dot Com

@Mastering Film – Everyone Has a Story

I’m very excited to announce my new writing gig as a regular contributor to Focal Press’ “Mastering Film” website!

When I left my life as a musician in 2004, I immediately started teaching myself the nuts and bolts of the film medium, and Focal Press books were a huge part of my education. Seven years on, when I was offered the chance to write for their new online resource, Mastering Film, I jumped at the chance to have a venue to bring some of what I’ve learned to others.

My first post, “Everyone Has a Story,” discusses the most important question to ask in a documentary interview. Upcoming posts include more documentary stuff, a lot about writing, and something I’m very excited about – an ongoing series on transmedia and the future of storytelling!

I’ll shut up now – go read “Everyone Has a Story” at Mastering Film dot com!