Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Halloween treat: Red Scare is here!

Many eves ago, I told you about my friend Sam Roberts' web series project RED SCARE. It's finally here!

1956. Ten strangers lock themselves in a fallout shelter during an air raid, only to discover that one of them is secretly a VAMPIRE. Unable to escape into the sunlight, the group must figure out who among them is the bloodsucker… before it’s too late!

Check out the first episode:

RED SCARE Episode 1: "The Nuclear Club" from Sam Roberts on Vimeo.

You can also like RED SCARE on Facebook.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

10 ways to beat writer's block - and finish your screenplay

MaryKate asked via Twitter:
Finishing a feature - or any script - can be a daunting task, but you can do it! Here are my 10 tips for getting it done:

1. Write an outline
Pro writers disagree about whether you absolutely need to write an outline before you jump into the script (check out Scott Myers' Go Into The Story post about prep, and Geoff LaTulippe's response), but I think that new writers often move on to the script stage too soon. You don't necessarily have to know what every conversation will be or what themes will emerge from the story, but I think you need to know your act breaks, your midpoint and your ending before you get started. (Of course, it's okay if those change later!) Also, when you start working with producers and directors, you're going to have to do pitches and send in outlines, so I think it's good practice to get used to that kind of prep work now.

2. "Eat dessert first"
You don't have to work on the scenes in order! Keep yourself motivated by working on the parts of the script you're most excited about. "Absolutely eat dessert first," advises Joss Whedon. "The thing that you want to do the most, do that."

3. Polish later
If you come across a problem and you're not sure how to fix it, just mark it for later (I like to highlight unfinished things in yellow in Final Draft) and keep going. If you're writing a comedy, you can also add jokes later. Mindy Kaling has spoken about writing the "straight version" of a script first and adding "ornaments" when you're feeling funnier.

4. Don't aim for perfection
Some problems you simply won't solve in the first draft. That's okay! I think one of the biggest things that holds back new writers is the pressure to get it perfect. Just get something done so you can send it out for notes and then work on a second draft. Let go of the idea that your first draft will be perfect and launch your career.

5. Talk to your friends about your script
You're going to get stuck. It happens. Lean on your writer friends (tip: get writer friends!) to help you think of solutions and new directions. Even if a friend pitches "the bad version" or something you're not totally on board with, it can help your brain start working in a new way that solves the problem.

6. Write down new script ideas - but don't abandon your first one
Just when you're getting to the hard part of your script, an amazing new idea will pop into your head. This is an especially evil form of writer's block, since moving on to a new script can seem productive. Lots of writers work on multiple ideas at once, but unfortunately, jumping from idea to idea can result in ten half-finished scripts and zero finished ones. Keep a folder where you can write down new ideas - but make yourself go back to your original idea. Sometimes it is necessary to put a script aside, but ask yourself why you're really doing that.

7. Shut out the internet
I'm terrible at this, but closing down Facebook, Twitter and even your email might be necessary for you to focus. "I have on my computer something called Freedom," Nora Ephron said once in an interview. "You put in however many minutes of freedom you would want, and for that period of time your computer does not allow you to go on the Internet." You might also benefit from Jane Espenson's writing sprints or the Pomodoro Technique.

8. Find the time when you're most focused
Some writers get to work early so they can write in the mornings, while I'm the kind of person who will stay up until 3 am, when nobody's awake (especially since I'm on West Coast time) and there are fewer distractions. Try out different writing times to see what works for you. However, let go of the idea that you need a perfect moment or workspace. Even with an uninterrupted day and a view of the ocean, writing is still hard. "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper," E.B. White once said. And if you want to write television, get used to tough deadlines.

9. Start simple
I love the idea of writing what you think is missing in the world of film or TV -- and I think this is a great way to choose your projects. It seems a waste of time to write something if you have nothing to SAY. Still, when it comes a first draft, and especially your first script, you just need to start with a coherent story. The subtlety of theme and social commentary may come later. Don't let yourself crumble under the pressure to be brilliant or insightful.

10. Stop reading articles online
Irony alert! But seriously, I think the wealth of internet resources about screenwriting can be cacophonous. After you've soaked up some information and inspiration, walk away from all the advice and just focus on your story. Be honest with yourself about whether you're researching or straight-up procrastinating. Although we can fool ourselves into thinking that screenwriting-related research is a form of "work," it's not the same as writing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On the Rocks - a multicamera web series

Ten writers met through an email group and formed a writers room. They produced a 22-minute pilot episode, which they are distributing as the web's first multicamera web series. Their room is the largest crowd-sourced writers room of its kind and many of its members have professional credits working with writers in both television and features. Now they just need to raise funding to shoot five more television-length episodes. Here's their Kickstarter video:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Making Mistakes: Nine Hollywood assistants tell all

Being an assistant can be stressful. Even if you've settled in a comfortable routine, you have to deal with difficult, volatile personalities, and you often face new problems you have no idea how to solve. It also doesn't help that your boss will get annoyed if you bother him/her too much with questions. You're going to make mistakes -- but that's okay. I always remind people that your boss has a lot other things to worry about, and s/he will probably have forgotten about your mistake within a day. It also may help to know that we've all been there. To prove it, I asked nine Hollywood assistants about a time they messed up, and what they learned:

From a writers PA:
I was working on my first show, where the writers drank a lot of coffee. I did my best to make sure there was always coffee on the burner, but occasionally one of the writers would go to get some coffee and discover that we were out. I'd apologize profusely, but still get chewed out, and I spent much of my time on that show in constant fear of an empty coffee pot. When I worked on my next show, I was more confident and set expectations differently. If we ran out of coffee after the morning rush, I'd wait to brew more until someone asked for coffee (usually in the afternoon). Rather than apologizing, I'd say, "Sure, I'll have a freshly-brewed cup for you in a few minutes." Because I was positive rather than apologizing, people were happy rather than mad. After all, isn't a fresh cup of coffee is way better than one that's been sitting on the burner all day?

From a producer assistant: 
Once I sent the DVD of a movie in post by Fedex with only $500 insurance. Thankfully, it didn't get lost, but my boss said, "You sent a $15m movie with $500 insurance??" I guess I should have used our overnight courier? What my boss should have done is flown one of us with it, since it was going overseas.

Assistants often lie about their fuckups. I'm really effing good at it. Some things you have to own up to, but some things you should just lie about - like if you don't get your boss when it's an important call, you just have to lie and say the person called when he was on the phone with someone else really important

Also, I once ordered Sprinkles cupcakes for an office birthday and the boss' wife got really mad that I didn't think to call her and ask if I should also order some for her -- at her home.

From a showrunner assistant:
I've done so many things wrong. I've forgotten to book flights, set meetings, lock pages in a script, send emails... I even called a very powerful writer a midget. He, thankfully, had an excellent sense of humor. My list of blips is endless. I have one piece of advice for those who find themselves in my same position.


Lie like your livelihood depends on it. Because it does. Often the flubs are small. Like that drafted email of directions that you didn't send that was really important because Mr.X and Mrs.Y are incredibly smart, but don't know how to Google map an address. Of course they know how. But that doesn't mean they won't be pissed. So, lie. Blame the internet, or say the electricity went out for like a second and somehow the lines of power got crossed and the little dude that lives inside the internet got all confused and couldn't deliver your email. Gah! If all else fails, use big, made up words. Example: "Oh it's the flibergantor that's connected to the interfication was broken. How prostibilous!" No one will question you for the fear of looking dumb. Especially in this town where people are so concerned with image.

And if you're a terrible liar, or get caught, remember, we aren't saving lives here. It's just TV. It's just a movie. We're here for entertainment. Use the f-up as part of your next pilot, movie or spec. That's what it's there for in the first place.

From a producer assistant: 
My car's battery had died in my driveway and needed to be jump-started. Instead of taking a cab straight to work, I explained the situation to my boss and waited for a tow truck. Unfortunately, the tow truck took hours to arrive and by the time I got my car to a Pep Boys, it was 11 am. We had an important notes call with a studio starting at 12 pm. My boss was furious that I was late late to work, and said she would have paid for my cab to work, I just needed to be there. Luckily, the call was running 20 minutes late, so I was able to get to my desk in time to take notes. However, my boss reamed me for being cavalier about the notes call and stressed how important it is I think of these things ahead of time. Lesson learned: if my car ever breaks down again where it's safe in my own driveway, I'm getting my butt to work and worrying about the car when I get home.

From a studio exec assistant:
My junior executive boss was on location and traveling with the same itinerary as a senior executive. They had the exact same schedule. The senior executive's assistant told me they were coming back early and to change my boss's travel, so I did this after getting an email from my boss that they were coming back early. Then I got an angry call from my boss asking why I changed the travel. In the midst of getting yelled at, I heard the senior executive in the background say something to the effect of "why are you yelling? I told her to." Everything was ok because the senior executive pulled rank, but I should've just actually talked to him. I just need to get to know his personality enough so I could anticipate his reaction to everything.

From a manager/producer assistant: 
Shortly after I got my very first assistant job as an assistant to a manager/TV producer, I booked a trip for him to go to New York. He directed me to some janky website with NYC hotel deals, and after spending some time on it I thought I found him a killer one, which I was super excited about. Turns out, what I thought was the total cost of the stay was actually the cost PER NIGHT. He was pissed when he got the bill in New York, but it was only two nights, and he really liked the hotel which is what I think made it okay. He cut me some slack because I was pretty green, but he gave me a hard time about it for years. After that, I triple checked everything related to travel and money.

From a showrunner assistant: 
When I tried to help get a friend hired as a background extra without consulting my boss (the showrunner) first, the Assistant Directors called my boss when he was busy at home writing a script and and told him about my request. I had gone through the ADs because he was busy, but because I had highlighted my position as his assistant when I made the call, they checked with him anyway. He was angry at being interrupted during crunch time and at my throwing his name around with the ADs. I kept my job, but from then on, I approached even the smallest requests with much more caution and consideration.

From an agency assistant:
There could be the time an agent told me to never use the word "as" again. That was... frightening.

But the worst I did was fail to connect a call between international clients and a big producer on a coveted project at 8 AM.

I had scheduled it and just completely forgot. Neither the producer nor the clients had any way of contacting the other, so they both sent confused emails to my boss... who had no idea the call was happening then. I awoke to a few missed calls and texts. I got to the office and he was furious. A mild-mannered guy who never really got upset. But this was an important call about a project these clients desperately wanted and now it had to be... rescheduled.

And guess what? It was, and everything was fine. I was in the doghouse for a day because everyone was inconvenienced for an hour. It just cemented my firm belief that, especially in the agency world, there is a mad rush to make things happen immediately, but in reality... things can wait a day or two. If there's mutual interest between a client and a producer or studio, then a missed call or meeting isn't going to change that. I also learned that sometimes when you're scheduling countless meetings, you might miss confirming a few. And when it comes to phone calls, sometimes it's best to NOT have to connect the calls. Let the producer call the client directly. What's the harm in that? The agency frowned on it, but no client ever really cared WHO was calling them, as long as the call was happening...

A better mistake is one I heard from a Talent Agent assistant. He was sending an audition confirmation to Actress A and had to CC her "Group", which consisted of any relevant managers, agents, etc. But he accidentally selected the Actress B's "Group." So Actress A saw that Actress B was going to get the same audition. And Actress A called the agent and ripped him for sending other competing clients against her for the same role... and the agent eviscerated the assistant all night for being a "fucking idiot." Called him repeatedly all night, insulting him, threatening to fire him, etc...

And my friend? He just apologized and took the beating. What else could he do? He thought he lost his job, but he showed up the next morning and there was his agent, waiting for him in his office, with an agenda of stuff to take care of. They didn't talk about it again. Accidents happen. People apologize. People move on... agents just take it a little bit harder.

From a producer assistant:
Once I was listening in on 9-person conference call. I was not invited to listen in on this call, but Michael Douglas was on it and I wanted to hear what he had to say. As long as I kept my headset muted, no one would be the wiser. I ended up having to juggle several lines, though, and I forgot to re-mute myself when I went back to the conference call. Then a co-worker walked by my desk and I more or less started shouting into my headset about how many shrimps were in my lunch and how great it was, interrupting Mr. Douglas himself. "Who is that?!" he said. Then I heard my boss' door open and him yell "Get off the fucking phone!". Good times.