Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reverse Engineering and Expository Compression Or: Learning From Giant Ants (Part One)

Raymond Chandler said trying to learn to write screenplays by looking at movies was like trying to learn architecture by looking at houses. He’s right from a technical standpoint, but I’d give him an argument on a philosophical level. I think you can learn a great deal about writing from watching a well-written, well-directed movie. You can learn even more if you take the time to analyze the work, to take it apart in a literary equivalent of what they call in the computer business “reverse engineering.” Take it apart to find out how it was put together. Chandler himself did this on occasion. If he found a novel that impressed him, he’d actually rewrite the book in order to get a better understanding of how it was constructed.

A screenplay is a vivid, present tense description of a movie. How can you get the feeling of what you see on the screen onto the page? What details make it come alive, what details get in the way?

The exercise I want to offer is less severe than Chandler’s, but comes from the same impulse.

Pick a movie you know well and admire. Any movie you love; you don’t have to justify the choice because this is only going to be between you and me. The only requirement is that you have to own a copy of the thing, a tape or a DVD.

The simplest way to do this is if you have a DVD player in your computer. Slap in the disk and open a fresh word processing document right next to the DVD window.

Start the movie and, based on what you see and hear, start writing the first scene.

Let’s take a shot at this together. I’ll just take down my DVD of Them! slip it into the disk drive and press play.



Ancient, twisted Joshua trees lean over us framing an unforgiving vista of shrubs and sand and a thousand square miles of nothing between us and the ragged mountains on the horizon. You couldn’t find a less hospitable stretch of real estate on the far side of the moon.

A drone, just barely audible over the wind. A fleck of light in the sky. A second and the drone becomes the sound of an engine and the fleck of light becomes a small plane. It banks over us, weaving back and forth in the sky, like a mother eagle looking for a lost chick.


Looking down at the plane, close enough to see NEW MEXICO STATE POLICE stenciled on the side of the fuselage, as it cuts across the baked landscape a few hundred feet below.

Down there a gray road cuts through the landscape. The patrol plane catches up with a dark car on the road below, headed in the same direction.


JOHNNY KELSO, the pilot in desert khaki and dark cap, picks up his radio and transmits.

301 to car Five W. Code one.


In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call as SGT. BEN PETERSON, a fifteen-year-veteran riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN, picks up the handset of the unit’s radio.

Five W to 301. Go ahead Johnny.

JOHNNY (radio)
I think we’re chasing the wind, Ben. Maybe the guy who phoned in that report must have drunk his breakfast. We might as well call it…hey, wait a minute.

Ben looks up through the windshield at the circling plane.


The road stretches on to the horizon. The patrol plane banks over the road about a mile ahead of the car.


Johnny banks to get a clearer look at the desert below.


Flying over the desert and getting lower. Just sand and scrub for a moment, then something else, a small figure moving through the brutal landscape. We can’t get much detail, but it looks like a small child.


Johnny climbs as he passes the kid.


Ben and Ed listen to Johnny’s voice over the radio.

JOHNNY (radio)
It’s a kid all right. Maybe fifty yards off the road. I’ll keep circling her until you pick her up. Ten-Ten.

Ben pushes transmit on his handset.

Ten-Ten, Johnny.

Ben flicks his hand toward the plane. Ed leans on the gas.


Ground level, watching the patrol plane swoop low and head toward us. It flies by, taking us to the face of a nine-year-old GIRL walking through the desert in nightgown and robe, a doll in her arms. The doll’s head has been smashed, a section of plastic skull is missing. The girl doesn’t look up as the plane roars over her head. She doesn’t hear it. She doesn’t see it. Her expression is that of someone shocked into numbness.


The patrol car pulls over a few dozen yards from the girl. Ben is out of the passenger side before Ed has the car stopped.

He stands away from the car, cups his hands around his mouth, and shouts to the tiny figure marching through the sun-baked landscape.

Hey! Hey, honey! Hey, little girl!

She doesn’t stop. She just keeps walking. Ed is out of the car now and the two officers look at each other. This doesn’t feel right.

Ben starts across the sand, toward the little girl.


She keeps walking as Ben runs toward her.

BEN (calling)
Hey, wait a minute! What are you doing out here, honey?

Ben reaches her. Only when he gets down next to her and puts his hands on her shoulders does she stop her thoughtless progress. But she still looks straight ahead, beyond the horizon, never focusing on the face of the police officer.

Honey? What’s your name?

Nothing, no reply. Not even a sense that she can hear him. Ben’s concerned face: What the hell happened to this kid?

Who do you belong to?

Still no response. Ben passes his hand in front of the little girl’s eyes. She doesn’t blink.

Ben scoops the girl up into his arms and heads back to the unit, she doesn’t resist.


Ed watches his partner heading back to the car. The radio squawks. Ed opens the driver’s door and reaches in for the hand-set.

Car 5W to 301, go ahead Johnny.

JOHNNY (radio)
There’s a trailer about three miles ahead of you, pulled off to the side of the road. I didn’t see anybody around it. You better check it out. Ten-ten.

Okay, Johnny. Ten-ten

Ben reaches the passenger side and gently puts the girl on the front seat of the patrol car. Ed sees the blank look on the girl’s face.

What’s the matter with her?

I don’t know.


No, she’s not sunburned. She couldn’t have been out in the sun very long. Looks like she’s in shock.

Johnny spotted a car and trailer up ahead. Maybe she’s from there.

Maybe so.

Ben gets into the patrol car. The little girl is a mute bundle between the two officers. These men know how to handle crooks and drunks, but they’re pulled up short by how this literal babe in the wilderness has shut down, as if to protect herself from something. Ed puts the car into gear and the unit pulls away from us, heading down the dusty road.


The little girl leans against Ben’s side. Rocked by the motion of the car, her eyes flutter and close and she falls asleep against Ben’s sergeant’s strips and badge.

Ed and Ben look ahead.


Looking over the hood of the patrol car as it pulls up to fifty-feet of vacation trailer hooked to the back of a station wagon. No sign of life.


Ed pulls up to the station wagon. Ben moves to get out of the car, but Ed stops him.

No use waking her up unless there’s someone here who can identify her. I’ll check it.

Ed gets out of the car and starts toward the trailer.

Ben watches Ed advance, he shifts in his seat; ready to move if his partner needs him.

We stay by the patrol car and watch Ed pass the station wagon, his hand resting on his side arm, casual, but ready. He moves to the far side of the trailer. He stops. Looks at the side of the trailer we can’t see, then turns back to Ben and signals him to come over.

Ben gets out of the patrol car. He eases the little girl’s head onto the bench seat then starts to cross to Ed.


At Ben’s side as he approaches Ed.

What is it?

Have a look.

We see what Ben sees: The far side of the trailer is completely destroyed. Not crushed in, but pulled out. Personal belongings and furnishings are scattered around for a dozen yards and the skin of the trailer looks like it’s been peeled back by a giant can opener.

The two cops exchange looks, then Ben cautiously approaches the wreck and steps up into the trailer.

I’ve never read Ted Sherdeman’s shooting script for this movie, but since it was written in-house at Warner Bros. during the early fifties I assume it was much more technically oriented than my transcription. Since it was set for production, there would have been no reason to “sell” the script through the writing. Selling has now become a major function of a screenplay; selling the story to a director, a producer, a studio, an actor.

The great shift in screenplays over the past thirty years has been the move toward a more literary feel to the page, a sense that the reading of a script needs to be an emotional experience and not the unrolling of a technical document full of shots and angles and all sorts of paraphernalia that disrupt what John Gardner called “the contiguous dream” of the reading experience.

You’re still expected to logically describe what we’re seeing and hearing, but now you have to evoke a mood, a sense of the piece as well. Do it right and you can end up with something like the opening of James Cameron and Gale Hurd’s script for Aliens:



Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God...cold and remote.

You want to evoke a mood, a world, you want to economically present vivid characters worth investing in. But if you really needed me to tell you that, I don’t understand why you’re even thinking about this profession.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Secrets of Failure (Part Two)

It’s hard to rationally defend your choice of profession when all you’ve really got to show for it are snapshots and mangoes. But writers struggle to keep warm by the thin heat of such small fires. Ultimately, they’re all we’ve got to stave off the stupidity and the fear, the avarice and arrogance and the whole range of behavior you find in this business…behavior you wouldn’t tolerate from a child, but which seems to be the prerequisite for power in this town.

I’d like to share a couple of my pale fires with you.

I was in London one November and I went to Westminster Abbey which is crowded with tributes. Statues, plaques, and the bones of kings and queens. Everything grand and sacred. As you wonder through all this chock-a-block marble, you come across something that at first glance looks like a simple table shoe-horned between a couple of dead kings. The tabletop is a large tilted mirror. It’s set there so you can look into the mirror which reflects the detail of the abbey’s ceiling. At first I thought this was just a convenience, something they put in to make it easier to enjoy the incredible detail above you. Then I saw a very small metal plate at one end of the table. When you read it, you realize this particular piece of wood and glass is another memorial, this one dedicated to the mason who built the ceiling. His memorial is a reflection of the work he did.

I saw that table and I thought, “That’s it. Right there, that explains everything.”

Do the work you love, the best you can. Everything flows from that, including how you’re remembered.

One final fire: Very early one morning, alone in a New York hotel room, I peeked out from under the covers and watched winter light collecting in the corners. And something came to me like a ghost. For a moment I thought it was a ghost because I’d never felt such a palpable yet invisible presence. It was frightening and fascinating and I waited for this sensation to become a recognizable person, something addressable that could answer a question I’d been working on.

I mentioned the Mobius twist when your older work gets produced. There’s an even more remarkable phenomenon that happens sometimes when you look back at the things you’ve done and conclude you weren’t really wise enough to have written them. Yet there they are. The best work a writer does is that for which he or she feels the least conscious responsibility. It simply flows from somewhere. You don’t write it down so much as the paper is there to catch it. Sort of like spirit writing. Maybe this feeling in the room was a Dickensian manifestation sent to explain where it all does come from. But it took no shape, rattled no chains, spoke no explanation.

Instead, something turned in my heart like a teacup on a saucer or a planet on its axis. I said before one of the things a writer is supposed to do is sit in hospital rooms holding the hand of the dying. For reasons I can’t explain, I realized alone in my bed that morning that ultimately the hand we are holding is our own and that it’s our passage we are meant to make less painful, less fearful.

And, really, that’s not our job as writers, but our task as humans. In this gentle caretaking there is a path to grace that will prevent any misstep, any false note, any diminishing of purpose so that we can not only write, but live so no one commits suicide, no one despairs and people feel strengthened if not encourage to live on.

A writer spends his life alone on a beach, standing at the edge of the ocean, whispering. The words carry. Farther than you can imagine. You never know who hears them, or how they feel when the words reach them, or if they understood what you thought you meant. But you don’t have to worry about that. Because you know you said what you wanted to say, and the rest takes care of itself.

And you’ll never know how much the rest can be.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Triumph of the Index Cards

I was trapped in a theater with an obscenely successful mainstream American movie (it really doesn’t matter which one since they’re all pretty much the same), trying to figure out why I was so profoundly unmoved by all the noise and fury on screen. And it came to me that the reason the movie was so empty was that they had neglected to finish the script. In point of fact, there was no script. What they’d done was lavishly produce the outline.

Mind you, it was a good outline. Everything was in place according to the latest books and software about what makes a good movie. Step by clear-cut step, it proceeded forward in a way that must have satisfied its author as much as it satisfied the executives who approved it. This is natural since all involved parties were joined at the story point, lock-stepped together by the same rigidly distilled definitions of character and plot that excluded such pesky variables as originality and soul.

If only there had been some writing. If only there’d been one scene or a part of a scene that actually did what it was supposed to do. Or, better yet, did something unexpected. But, no. The overall impression was of a director gleefully photographing the index cards right off the bulletin board and thinking he was making a movie. What he was making was a multi-million dollar storyboard.

One of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer was when I learned to effectively outline. I was working freelance on two widely different television series, the creators of which resided at opposite ends of the outline spectrum. One was hyper-detailed, someone for whom writing could not begin until every minute detail was in place. The outline for an hour of television could be twelve of fifteen pages long. The other was infinitely looser, recognizing the basic rhythms of the form and happy to stake out the landscape with a single page of one-sentence scene descriptions and let you lose. You could write a script from the former in three days, but you had a lot more fun writing the latter.

My personal style lives between the two, but leans heavily toward the looser. Of course, now that everybody and his brother has to approve your story before you start writing, more detail has crept in and I long for those days when an entire third act scene could be capsulized by the words, “And then it gets weird.”

Without an outline of some sort, writing becomes a wandering in the desert, and a desperately under-provisioned wandering at that. But a good outline is less a map than an itinerary; a proposal for a journey that may be revised en route. It helps you push off with a goal in sight, but leaves you the freedom to revise, recalculate, and pay attention to the wind. It should be open to question, unafraid of challenge. It’s more important that an outline offer the psychological comfort of structure than it impose a rigid framework.

The problem, as I see it, is that somebody has taught a generation how to outline without ever checking to see if they could write. Perhaps more damaging, these same good folks have taught a new breed of executives the same rules as ways to judge the work of others. In this fashion powerful communication tools are being put in the hands of people who have nothing to say, while effectively eliminating the chance of anything even slightly outside the lines ever getting made.

Regardless of how neat the results, the process of writing is inherently messy. When you remove the mess, you also remove the discovery that lives at the heart of the act of writing; experiencing the thing that was unknown a second before it entered your mind, cued by the last word you wrote. Trying to render creativity down to a by-the-numbers process does not produce better writing. It only makes for more efficient hacks.

It also gives people the fantasy that they are writers when that just isn’t the case. I like fantasy as much as the next person, but whatever satisfaction I get from putting together a chest of drawers from Ikea, I know that doesn't make me a gifted cabinetmaker.

I suppose there might be something evil behind this. It might be more of the deep-seated hatred of writers this business seems built on, the ever growing conspiracy that’s bent on replacing writers with content providers. I know we make them nervous, but there’s no reason to hate us.

The executives who have learned chapter and verse of the latest story analytical theories feel obliged to show off in meetings: “All the conflict seems internal to me. Can we fix that?” Perhaps they’re like naïve students who, after a half a semester of Music Appreciation 101, think they can explain Mozart. Then they sit down at the piano and all that comes out is “Chopsticks.” That’s got to be a letdown.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I was standing in the Long Island Railroad section of Penn Station the day before the night before Christmas, talking on a pay phone while waiting for a train to take me out to the Island. I was trying to carry on a conversation over the noise and confusion, trying not to think about who might have handled the particular phone I was holding so close to my face, when the person on the other end of the line gave me a phone number. I fumbled around for a pen, and, pressing the bacteria-laden phone against my cheek, rapidly jotted the number across the upper margin of The New York Times.

We talked for another moment, said “Merry Christmas” and “good-bye” and hung up. Then, looking down at the Times, I felt a strange little shudder, for a ghost had moved through the train station. The spirit of someone long dead had passed very near me, perhaps on his way to get a pretzel, recognized me, but seeing I was engaged in conversation didn’t want to interrupt so he decided to leave a message.

I looked down at the Times in my hand and there was the phone number I’d just been given, but it was written in my father’s handwriting. I would have recognized it anywhere, but especially in this context: crowded into the upper corner of a newspaper. My father doodled, and many was the copy of The Daily News that sported blue ballpoint illuminations at the margins.

I looked closer. It was my handwriting, but done like that, quickly and off-balance and on newsprint in blue ink, it looked less like mine and more like my dad’s

All these years and I had never noticed the similarity. Now I look at a page of my particular hieroglyphics with its fat-looped t’s flowing directly into skinny h’s, the tails of the y’s and g’s slashing down to the bottom of the line below, or the line below that depending on how excited I am, and the resemblance is quite clear. They’re two very different ways of writing, but you can see the family resemblance the way you can spot the ghosts of your parents’ features behind your face in the mirror as you grow older.

My father died more than thirty years ago. He was the youngest of four children, a high-school graduate, and worked most of his life at menial jobs. He was a janitor, a laborer. He died doing that. At sixty-nine he dropped dead at work wearing the last in a succession of gray or blue or green coveralls.

He was a veteran and a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, which took care of the funeral, There was no will, no estate, I kept his Volunteer Fireman’s badge and some photographs, and in the years that followed, believed that my father had left me no legacy…except a tendency to answer questions about what I want for Christmas with my father’s request: “Just some peace and quiet.”

And now I see he’s in every word I’ve ever written, riding along, speeding the pen lightly over the page. He is in what I write like a drop of blood distributed evenly through a painter’s pigment.

How strange to notice this now. How remarkable to have the obvious revealed to me as I wait for a train to take me out to Holy Rood Cemetery for the annual Christmas visit and running of the rosary at my parents’ grave. Once again, the universe acts like a Zen master: answering questions with riddles, then sitting back and smiling as we figure things out for ourselves.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Certain Boxes

I rent a storage space, one of those industrial-strength closets with a corrugated steel door in a bunker-like building five minutes from where I live. This was out of a general desire to order my life by removing from underfoot those things I don’t use every day and/or lack the will to throw away. Mostly manuscripts.

I boxed them, labeled them and hauled them to their sheet-rock catacomb, there to wait until I can find some unsuspecting university that not only wants my "papers,” but is willing to swing by and pick them up.

These boxes contain just about everything I’ve written, stack along with items belonging to my late mother, rescued from a similar storage space near the men’s correctional facility in Teaneck, New Jersey. I’m going to need a really gullible university.

Behind a rolling metal door you can find all my successes. But what I’ve been thinking about lately are those more purgatorial boxes, the ones containing the remains of projects that have gone on without me. These are not to be confused with trunk pieces, those favorite but unloved projects that might still get made one day.

No, I mean the results of assignments I’ve taken as the first or maybe the middle writer in the arduous development process that leads to studio-made American movies. A process known as “The De-Flavorizing Machine.” These were jobs I had taken with high hope, noble enthusiasm and a sincere goodwill which in retrospect makes one look downright certifiable.

“You should have known it would end badly. One look at how many producers and how many levels of executives each with an agenda magnetically opposed to the others, and you should have known it would all end in tears.”

Not really tears, thought. Tears have finality; getting fired has finality. Weeping or yelling at somebody gives a nightmare at least the appearance of a conclusion.

The thing is, writers don’t get fired in this business. Not really. The most accurate verb to describe what happens would be to say you are “forgotten” off a project.

A script is turned in and there is a silence more profound than any found on the dark side of the moon. But then, silence is preferable to hearing from their attorneys.

A recent addition to the limbo boxes began with the best of intentions and ended with words such as “recalcitrant” and “Mutual non-disparagement clause.” They have moved on without me and I’ve banished the script from my hard drive and my house. Hauling it–nay speeding it–to that dark sepulcher on Ventura Boulevard.

Fortunately, the hostility and bitterness don’t cling to the pages themselves. No, all is peaceful in Building 2, Space 391, where the words that have been spoken rest comfortably with the words that will never be spoken. It’s the same level playing field which lets kings be buried with their dogs and permits my mother’s “good” glasses to rest in the same box with the Welch’s jelly jars. It is the equanimity of the tomb.

But to really rest in peace, these ghosts must sometimes be avenged. Opportunity for retribution doesn’t come often to writers, but sometimes it does.

I was at a reception after a screening, one glass of white wine under my belt, when someone I hadn’t seen in years came up to me all smiles and “How are you?”…apparently forgetting that she never called me after I gave her a second draft and that it took a phone call from my agent to the studio to find out I was no longer on the project.

And now one of the producers stood before me, so glad to see me after all this time. She asked me if I had a copy of that script I’d written for her during the first half of the decade. Maybe we can get it back in development somewhere. I told her it was in storage, in a cardboard box printed with a brown wood grain, in a metal closet in the shadow of a freeway.

Then I did something you never get a chance to do. Maybe it was the wine, or the need for closure, or the realization that those boxes full of scripts have as much right to justice as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Calmly, evenly, with a smile on my face, I told her, “You know, you never called me after I handed in that draft. You just left me hanging. It was a rude, rather cowardly way to do business. You should have done the right thing, but you didn’t.”

It was late, she had an early meeting the next day, so nice to see me again. I like to think of her exit from the reception as “slinking away,” but I could have misinterpreted; the event was self-park and she might have been disoriented by the absence of a valet.

In a fictional world my route home from the screening would have taken me past the storage facility. I could have looked over at the bland building and cranked up the radio in salute. But I would have to drive out of my way if I wanted to perform such a victory lap. Besides, that would have been way too tidy an ending for my taste.