Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Good Scribe, or A Good Jake

Mixing film & firefighting backgrounds on "World Trade Center" movie set. I'm the small mustache...

Part II - The Screenwriter As Firefighter

(This was published on my other blog, but thought it appropriate here as well.)

I have been both Scribe and "Jake."

Well, not really a Jake. That term is almost exclusively a reference to a firefighter from the Greater Boston & New England area.

Since I did most of my Fire/Ems work in Alaska (with a brief foray into Antarctica) I guess a better term would be "Ake."

Drop the J and you have AK for Alaska, E for emergency responder ... No?

Lost Friends & Writing Credits

Before I became an Ake I was working towards becoming a professional writer, though I didn't know it.

I enjoyed writing, and had some good response from friends, but never got around to submitting it to places that could pay me wages to write. When I finished my first full-length play, and shortly after that, my first full-length screenplay, I had no idea what to do with them. I was vaguely aware of contests, writing agents, publishers etc, but my lacking self-esteem at that time kept my pages in a drawer...

Until a filmmaker friend asked me to help her work on her story and script for a feature film she had an offer to direct.

Today, I'm still not sure what my position really was on the project. Was I a co-writer? Script doctor? Story editor?

In the end I realized she did all the typing, so I wasn't a co-writer. And it WAS her idea that she came to me with and started bouncing off me as a friend -- something we've all done as writers, I'm sure.

But then the day came where we walked all the way from uptown to downtown Manhattan discussing and developing the story together. Sure, she had final say in everything, but I was there, wasn't I?

And then the work sessions began. She would write some pages, give them to me to read, and we'd meet and discuss them at her apartment, over coffee at a diner, walking around a park. Often these sessions would go on for hours, and we'd have to block out time for them so she could still spend time with her family. I spent hours, then weeks, then months discussing the story, reviewing pages, giving notes...

The film got made. I got paid some money and one of those "special thanks" credits, which at the time I thought was all I could hope for.

I mean, it wasn't my project or original idea. I was lucky just to be asked to the dance.

A few years later when I was making my own indie feature I had done a brief Q&A for an independent film magazine and mentioned I had helped work on the screenplay and story for my friend's movie, which was receiving attention in the indie scene. My friend read my statement in the magazine and called me up. I was excited to hear from her as it had been awhile since we had last spoken (Facebook did not exist then,) but quickly realized she was upset. I defended myself and we haven't spoken since.

Most of us will have been taken advantage of at some point in our life, often to our detriment. Just as we will take advantage of others, whether it be personally or in business. Thus I strive for two things:

To limit my advantage-taking when I recognize it, and to better my ability to stand up for myself.

If my self-esteem had been more fully realized, and I had understood how to stand up for myself those many years ago, I would have fought for credit -- as story editor, script doctor, anything that would have helped legitimize myself in a profession where your name on a project, good or bad, is often more important than the short-end money.

In fairness I realize there are multiple sides to every story. The friend I've lost undoubtedly has her take on things -- but this is my side to the story and since time has long marched on and I've yet to have a real "career" as a screenwriter, I'd like to get it off my chest and officially claim my credit before I pass into the ether.

I am far from alone.

Unfairness Abounds

There is a fantastic and sobering documentary about the professional frustrations of screenwriting called "Tales From The Script."

If you are a writer who has been at it for some time, whether you've had a project sold, produced, awarded, or you've worked for years on spec in between flipping burgers, you'll recognize yourself in this documentary.

I own it and pop it in whenever I begin to believe that I am kidding myself with this screenwriting thing.

Actually, before I pop it in I usually think--

Give it up. Another screenwriting blog, DVD, book, seminar... They're all the same, say the same things. All they do is bring attention to and make money for the person who's putting it on.

Not with "Tales From The Script." At least I don't think so.

I popped it in again this week and (perhaps unfortunately for me) it rejuiced me. Even the most successful of us experience the same frustrations and battles.

Unfairness abounds.

We take advantage of each other because we are survivors, or competitive, or greedy, or insecure, or there are just too many of us.

Build your self esteem and fight. Cream can't always find its way to the top.

Careful about celebrating contracts early. I certainly enjoyed the Dom, but it's safe to say I was "out of pocket" on this unproduced spec work...

You're Not Invited To The War

With that said, be smart...

I had a small one-line role in my first professional play. The play was a hit and we were extended for a few months and so I thought I could now ask for the minimum Equity (stage actors union) wages along with the rest of the cast.

I was turned down and began to get vocal about it until a friend in the cast pulled me aside and said, "Matt, you might win this battle, but you're going to get kicked out of the war if you're not careful."

It was sage advice. You don't know how long your life is going to go on for, but the longer you are here the more you find yourself wanting to keep off the streets, pay your rent with some left over for coffee and a movie.

Screenwriting is not iron work, or nursing, or firefighting. Where once you're in, you've got a pretty decent chance at job longevity. Relatively speaking.

Screenwriting belongs to that part of the entertainment business where you're in and then you're out within the same 24 hours.

If you want back in the war, choose your battles with care.

The "Ake"

Ninety-odd percent of you are making ends meet through other work as you write your scripts. I am no different. Many of my jobs have been film-industry related, but there was a period when I fell into other work and before I knew it I was a firefighter and EMT.

It's good work -- No, it's great work.

In addition to the job, where every day held the potential for something totally unexpected and exciting, I felt like I was holding my own weight in our over-populated world. I was a positive contributor.

And I found success in a way I hadn't found success in the movie world. A regular paycheck, recognition by my peers, pushing personal boundaries, travel to exotic locales (I landed one gig working as a firefighter for the U.S. Antarctic program. Cold, but still exotic.)

Now, before I continue, if any of you screenwriters find this happens for you -- that you fall into other work that feeds your spirit, fills your wallet, puts you in rooms filled with supportive peers -- throw out your typewriter, or iPad, or pen and paper immediately and don't move. Keep that job!

I didn't take this advice.

I took a break from emergency services to return to writing screenplays because I find peace in trying to create other worlds. But it's the only part of the process I do enjoy. Trying to network myself and sell my work, I find I trip over myself. I either fight the wrong battles, or the right battles too late.

Like trying to get a long ago/galaxy far away credit to help build upon my argument I belong in the game.

It's not only about writing a great script.

And if you learn this lesson late but still feel you must keep writing, then suck it up and keep going, knowing you're the old guy at the club, or become something useful, meaningful, fulfilling, and truly awe-inspiring to the rest of us.

Cold, wet, tired, and happy.  My friend Kurt post fire in winter.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


This post is from my other blog, but I thought it appropriate here as well.

Part I - In Which We Become God

Stream Clogging
With all the daily utube & blog updates popping up on your device I want to make sure I'm not clogging your stream. All the news outlet updates, twit feeds... Webisodes... Vudu & hulu flicks... Kickstart requests... Faceblah gossip...There really is too much to read. And that leads me to...

Digital v. Film

Got into a documentary last year called Side By Side that asks the question "Can film survive our digital future?"

As much of my life has been spent in the world of film, both as audience member and working participant, I took quite an interest in the subject matter.

Now, however, I no longer care about the answer to the question "can film survive our digital future."

I used to, but then I finally understood that it didn't matter in the way I thought it mattered -- If I want to make film, watch film, project film, those opportunities will remain for a long time (as long as those asteroids miss us of course.) There are enough of us who appreciate and enjoy film as a medium, and will help to protect its existence, that I do believe it will survive well into future generations. At least until film stock is no longer produced, and even then our existing "films" will remain, even if they become artifacts in some museum.

Digital (and whatever comes next) are only new means to storytelling. And even though digital devices ensure that practically everyone can now shoot and promote some version of a moving-image story, there will long be an audience for a story to be told well. Just because the vendor has won out the shelf space of modern-day distribution doesn't mean the audience is going to take it all lying down. Someone will always be sifting through the crap to find the gold and bringing that gold to the attention of others.

With digital, though, that sifting of material is definitely more difficult. The loads of content are so overwhelming that we need to extend our days into 48-hours (the first darkness will now be known as midday and allow for a four-hour nap and work break) just so we can catch up on a day's worth of news posts, blog entries, utube channel updates, twits, and Faceblah streams.

This is referenced in Side By Side. In the film v. digital discussion it becomes apparent that one of digital's advantages is also a problem -- the amount of material can become overwhelming.

You can keep the camera (or whatever the image-capturing devices will come to be called) running almost forever, recording as much information as your storage units can hold. We're already on the precipice of pretty much recording an entire day and then sifting through to find any good bits.

Yes. Sift through those bits. All those possible precious moments because, like some junkie, you let the camera run longer and longer, capturing every tic, every realistic "actor unaware" moment, every possible moment of a sunset - the setting, set, and setted.

Yes, you can bring in more editors and assistants to help catalog and catalog and catalog. And you can throw out a few easy ones -- the actor looked at the camera, the producer's guest walked into the shot.

But there is still so much material left, so many options...

I like the light on the trees here, but if we wait two seconds the light does this cool little flash through the leaves... And wait, two more seconds, see how that one leaf kind of twists... And now the light is, wow! ...  Hmmm. Lot of options, let's come back to this shot later. How about the goodbye scene at the coffeeshop between Jack and Jill, let's watch those. How many takes did we shoot of that scene by the way? Two thousand and thirty-seven!?!?!?!

I've been on the road collecting footage this past month for a new short project. I've played around with digital before, but this is the first time I've really delved into shooting it for my own work. It began all right. I was careful to only shoot things I thought really stood out in some way -- a nice composition, colorful subject matter, etc etc. And when I did shoot I took care to only press record when I thought it was the right time, and only for as long as I needed (with a tail and head.) All of this was due to my film experience. Knowing that film was money, and that there was only so much film on a roll...

But I quickly realized I could shoot as much as I wanted. And delete. And shoot. And delete. And shoot again...

Soon, though, I stopped deleting. I kept it all, knowing that I could sift through the material later when I really had time to study it.

There are those words again. Sift. Time.

I already have too much material, but much of that is due to my not having specific shots planned out that I wanted. I went on the road to capture a lot of "B" roll, and capture it I did.

With discipline, and a story plan, this doesn't have to happen of course. But it does. The stream gets clogged.

I'm guessing there will come a time (barring asteroids) when images will record and project as we think them. Within seconds, and with honed skill, they will be thought, shot, and edited into some sort of story, or personal update, or news blip.

And those of us in that future will cease movement and meld into one unmoving blob of super-consciousness. We will end, become anew, and, missing what we once were, create in our own image on some nearby planet.

(Part II - In Which Screenwriters Save Too Many Cats)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

AlaskaLand, The Movie

Jollof rice? Or, burger & fries?

An Alaskan Story

, the first feature film from Nigerian-American writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, was shot in Fairbanks, Alaska, over a period of two weeks this past winter.

Based in Fairbanks, the story follows the lives of an estranged Nigerian-American brother and sister who reunite in Fairbanks after the sister spends two years living in Nigeria with an uncle, following the death of the siblings' parents in an automobile accident.

Produced by Maya Salganek (assistant professor of film/video at University Of Alaska Fairbanks), Jamila Capitman, and Chukwu, the film is in post-production in Philadelphia, where Chukwu currently resides.

Chukwu recently spoke with me over the phone about "AlaskaLand", and what it was like growing up as a Nigerian-American in Alaska.

Born in Nigeria, Chukwu spent the majority of her childhood in Fairbanks and studied at UAF, including a screenwriting class, before moving to Philadelphia and completing her Master of Fine Arts. In addition to having taught undergraduate courses at Temple University, she runs a short-film slam (similar to poetry slams) and works with the local youth community.

Her MFA Thesis film, "The Dance Lesson", was a regional finalist for the 2010 Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Student Academy Awards.

During our conversation Chukwu laughed easily and often, and was a pleasure to speak with. I will be keeping an eye on the progress of "AlaskaLand" and hope that it finds an audience and success when it is finally released.

Chinonye Chukwu


Matt Shields: A two-week shoot? For a feature film?

Chinonye Chukwu: [laughing] Well, I only had two weeks off from my day job... Actually, there were a couple things. We were trying to reach a deadline for a narrative filmmaker's lab, which we didn't get, but was a blessing in disguise. And, it was the only time I could get certain crew members, who I really, really, wanted to work with. Who I've worked with for years and they could only give me two weeks during that time period. And we needed to shoot in Fairbanks during that time to make sure we still had snow and ice, which the story needed to make sense.

MS: Still, that's like a 'Roger Corman' shooting schedule. Any panic moments?

Chinonye: There was never a time I thought to myself, "This is impossible, what the heck am I doing". I knew it was going to be crazy and rigorous...

The first question I asked the crew and cast members was, "Are you ready to do this in two weeks? Do you believe that this is possible"? And I told them, "You have to believe that this is possible in order for you to be a part of this journey", and everybody was really down.

MS: How much preparation was there? Was every moment storyboarded?

Chinonye: Well, to be very honest, we didn't storyboard anything. There were definitely a lot of moments where we thought of things on the whim because of time constraints -- for example, if we only had a finite amount of time to get a scene, we asked ourselves what would be the most visually interesting way to shoot this scene that was also the least time consuming...

We definitely developed a rhythm. Everyone was amazing, but it took some meticulous planning ahead of time. The actors and myself rehearsed for about a month and a half before shooting.

Also, we had two cameras. We used the Canon 5D Mark II -- we usually shot with one, but there were times we were running out of time, so we used the second camera.

MS: Why did you chose to shoot digitally, versus film?

Chinonye: [Besides the] cost and convenience, it allowed us to edit as we went. One of the smartest decisions I've ever made in my life because we were able to catch mistakes. Because of our budget we knew we couldn't fly back for re-shoots, and every night myself, the editor, AD [assistant director], producer, and DP [director of photography] would be in a hotel room looking at footage. We were able to catch technical issues -- such as crossing a 180 degree axis -- or scenes that weren't working for some reason, and re-shoot.

Also, by editing as we went, we had half a rough cut by the time we got back to Philadelphia, so it was a big time saver and kept us ahead of the game.

MS: Where you able to pay anyone? Or was this a "commitment of the heart"?

Chinonye: Yes, we paid a majority of the crew members. Something that helped a great deal was that the University of Alaska Fairbanks was a co-sponsor on this project, not in a financial sense, but they helped provide students from their undergraduate film program who worked on the crew in many aspects, and we were able to pay some of them as well.

MS: Any Alaskan crew besides UAF students?

Chinonye: Yes, lots of Alaska crew. Our entire camera department was Alaskan.

MS: What about casting the Nigerian characters?

Chinonye: Principle actors came from outside of Alaska. "Chukwuma" [the brother] is played by Alex Ubokudom, a Nigerian-American who is a formally trained actor from New York. The man who played the Uncle, an older Nigerian who needed to speak Igbo, lives outside of Philadelphia, and Chioma Dunkley, the actress who plays the sister, "Chidinma", is a Nigerian-American who lives in Philly. Most of the other actors were cast in Fairbanks.

MS: You grew up in Fairbanks?

Chinonye: For twelve years, yes.

MS: What is the Nigerian community like in Fairbanks?

Chinonye: When I was growing up there there was a significant Nigerian community in Fairbanks. It was much larger in Anchorage, because that's where most of the engineering jobs are in Alaska, and a lot of Nigerians there are in the oil industry.

MS: Your father taught at UAF, correct?

Chinonye: Yes, he taught there for twenty-five years. And he was responsible for bringing a lot of the Nigerians into Fairbanks for studying... [laughs] My father is a social-butterfly, so if you were Nigerian, we knew you. He would go out searching for people and bring them to the house, and it was also because it was so important to him and my mom that my siblings and I were constantly immersed in Nigerian culture. Because they knew that once we leave our house, which was a very traditional Nigerian household, that we were going to be purely surrounded and exposed to American life.

MS: Is the story in "AlaskaLand" autobiographical?

Chinonye: It was inspired by real-life emotions, and things that I've observed, things that I've heard about, but very few events in the film are things that I've experienced...

Part of Chukwuma's conflict is that he's trying to appease some of his black American male friends, trying to live up to the image of being a black-American male. And even for myself as a child, and even into high school, it wasn't cool for my mother to show up at school wearing traditional Nigerian attire and bringing me Jollof rice, you know? I just wanted burger and fries.

MS: Talk a bit about the sister character, Chidinma. She grows up in Alaska, then when she's fourteen leaves for Nigeria where she spends two years before returning to the U.S., now fluent in her native language.

Chinonye: With the sister, she comes back fluent in their native language, which is a really big deal. Particularly for a first-generation American to not be fluent in their native language... I am not completely fluent in my native language and that has definitely made my forming of identity and self much more difficult, because I'm trying to figure out where I fit in, and even with as much of the culture that I know, and as comfortable as I am when I travel to Nigeria, me not being fluent in the language has always been a kind of wedge...

Chukwuma, the brother, is not fluent in the language, and the fact that the sister is -- there's definitely a cultural dichotomy going on between them. It makes it difficult for the sister when she returns because she's definitely a fish out of water.

She also now has a different perspective of the U.S., of Alaska. With her being a female -- I mean we live in a very patriarchal world, but Nigeria specifically is extremely patriarchal, so she's had to succumb to a lot of sexism and a gender-based hierarchy in Nigeria -- and going from that to something that's not as extreme back in Alaska, in the U.S., is challenging for her.

MS: How did you handle those moments with the actress who played her?

Chinonye: She's Nigerian-American and has been back to Nigeria -- it was very important for me that the actors who played the main characters were at least first generation Nigerian-American -- and we spoke about figuring out those moments where she could incorporate her personal experience into the character.

MS: It's refreshing to hear about "story" in addition to simply how beautiful Alaska can be as a backdrop for movies... How much was Alaska incorporated into the storytelling?

Chinonye: It's mostly in the story and characters, but Fairbanks is also a character in the film. There is one shot, probably one of my favorites in the film, and we're looking at the frozen Tanana River, and we shot on a ridiculously wide lens, probably a 12mm, and there was this expansive river, and mountains, and trees, and the lead character walks into frame as such a small figure at the edge of the frame and he becomes engulfed by this natural beauty of Fairbanks...

MS: As both the director and being involved with the editing, have you had the problem of falling in love with certain shots and not being able to get rid of them, even when they don't serve the story?

Chinonye: This is where our editor really shines. He doesn't hold back. We've worked together for several years now and if something sucks he'll say, "This sucks and shouldn't be here".

MS: How did you get funding?

Chinonye: We raised part of the money, and then had investors

MS: Did you participate in the Alaska film tax incentive?

Chinonye: Our budget wasn't high enough, and also not all of the money went towards an Alaskan business [to qualify, productions must spend a minimum of $100,000 of qualified expenditures in state].

MS: Can you talk a bit about Alaska-based producer Maya Salganek?

Chinonye: Maya was my teacher and I was also a production assistant on the film "Chronic Town" that was shot in Fairbanks [Maya co-produced Chronic Town, which was featured in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival].

The film wouldn't have happened without Maya. She was a producer in the traditional way. She got crew together, helped with logistics, got a lot of the locations, helped us with the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] paperwork, she was phenomenal. When we were shooting I was able to focus almost exclusively on just directing.

Actor Alex Ubokudom

MS: Do you have an approach worked out you like to take as a director?

Chinonye: I feel like it's still evolving. And I learn from each production. With "AlaskaLand" I realized the importance of specificity, and being very clear with my vision for each character in the story with the actors, but also giving them room to add their own kind of touch. We talked heavily about each character. If something was going in a direction I thought wasn't consistent with the character I was very honest with the actor in telling them, and very clear about why. I think the actors really appreciated that.

MS: Is there a plan for distribution? Festivals? Self distribution?

Chinonye: All of the above! We've started by trying to build a buzz. You can't be dependent on festivals, that's like a lottery. It's going to take a grassroots effort with this project.

MS: Thank you for your time, Chinonye, and good luck.

Chinonye: Thank you. It was a pleasure.


Where's The Fire? Filmworks LLC
Maya Salganek
University of Alaska Fairbanks Film Program
"Like" AlaskaLand on Facebook

(Photos courtesy Chinonye Chukwu)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mountain Shack Theater Alaska

Not a "rih-pawf"

Anyone who enjoyed "Mystery Science Theater 3000" should have a good time at a "Mountain Shack Theater Alaska" show.

Inspired by MST-3K, the Mountain Shack Theater show is a live screening of 'less than good,' ok, 'very bad,' movies that take place in the early days of Alaska.

Founder and director Mark Robokoff points out that Mountain Shack Theater is "intended as an homage, pronounced oh-mazh, as opposed to rih-pawf" to MST-3K.

(And if that last bit is your kind of humor, then Mountain Shack is for you.)

Just like with the MST-3K robots, Mountain Shack Theater provides a live running commentary that makes fun of (enhances) the movie. Instead of robots, the commentators include a grizzly bear, moose, raven, and "Average Guy Steve," who is played by Robokoff.

Other cast members include Schatzie Schaefers, Rodney Lamb, Tim Tucker, Morgan Mitchell, and Jamie Nelson. Some also contribute as writers, as does Dawson Moore, who is coordinator for the renowned annual Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez, Alaska.

We recently attended a screening of the 1947 salmon-noir stinker, "Spoilers Of The North," and had a great time. The show included a 1950's U.S. Army Signal Corps serial, as well as a great (meaning, awful) music video.

Performances are the first and third weekend of each month, Friday and Saturday at 9:00pm, at the Alaska Wild Berry Theater in Anchorage.
There is an intermission, and beer and wine are for sale and allowed inside the theater.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Script Reader Q&A (Seeking Pot O' Gold)

Arctic Circle along Dempster Highway

Last post introduced the "script reader," who can be an early hurdle on the screenwriter's journey towards a script sale. Today, we have a Q&A with three of those gatekeepers, who each kindly gave their time to answer a few questions from the reader's perspective.

They all work in the same industry, and to some degree have similar parameters to follow when covering a script, yet their answers are each unique to themselves.

Ladies And Gentlemen, Your Readers

Synthian Sharp - Synth is the reader I began a dialogue with on John August's site. He has read for independent production companies as well as the Jules Verne Adventure Film Festival, and Valley International Film Festival. He was lead composer on Val Kilmer's American Meth, and co-director of the film, How I Became An Elephant (heartbreaking, but check it out).

Jeanne Marie Spicuzza - Jeanne Marie reads for her own production company, seasons & a muse, where her film, The Scarapist, is currently in pre-production. She is a published poet, has performed at poetry slams worldwide, and has been featured at such events as Lollapalooza and Ladyfest.

Chip Street - Chip is a screenplay competition judge for the Shriekfest Horror Film Festival, and a pre-screener for the Santa Cruz Film Festival. He's optioned two of his own screenplays, and has worked in film production as a director, art director, and production designer. This is Chip.


(I could use a new kind of free fall)

Matt Shields: You're having drinks with a visiting out-of-town amateur writer and he gets you loose enough to let him/her on some secrets... He's read the blogs, attended the Expo, subscribed to the magazines, taken McKee's course, read twenty-five of the WGA's "100 Best Screenplays," and his latest script placed well in a top comp. He's ready to take on Hollywood. What is the most important thing he still doesn't know?

Chip Street: That now it's time to stop thinking like a lone writer, and start thinking like a producer, like a collaborator. In many ways, Hollywood works like indie filmmaking, just with bigger checks. It's still a small community, where relationships matter and news travels fast. Where people want to work with other people who are fun to work with, and who are invested in the whole process. Writers who just want to take their check and disappear are less attractive than writers who are going to be involved in the project, help build the relationships with talent, be in on meetings or whatever else is needed. And for God's sake be pleasant. I've been told "I'd rather spend six months locked in a room on a project with a reasonably talented writer who's fun to work with than a brilliant writer who's an asshole." Those writers - the fun ones - are going to get more projects, and more referrals. Better yet, be the brilliant writer who's also fun to work with, and you're a god.

Jeanne Marie Spicuzza: A friend of mine and fellow poet, actress, playwright, once shared with me a great secret that stuck with me: When someone tells you they're a writer, always ask, "What are you reading now?"

Synthian Sharp: Ok, that person doesn't exist. Seriously. What you've just described is the big-fat-wet-dream submission. Primarily because, "He's read the blogs, and read twenty-five of the WGA's 100 Best." It would be hard for me to express just how far from that person most submissions are, but let me try. If even half of the raw naked spec submissions that came into Hollywood came from that person - meaning they had not only actually done these things, but had actually taken them to heart, and had actually studied and understood them - the world would not at all resemble the world you live in now. The very face of art, and, I dare say, even the political map, would have changed as a result of the severe alterations to the world's most powerful art form.

Indulge me for a moment, so that I can explain. I can say, absolutely and without hesitation, that every single spec screenplay I have ever been handed has been guilty of crimes against the standards of preparedness you mentioned above. All of them. This is coming from someone who doesn't just claim to respect the craft, but has actually taken the time to read the complete works of my favorite screenwriters, and learn from who they learned from, and count their sentences and parentheticals. If you asked me what Terry Rossio [screenwriter Pirates Of The Caribbean, Shrek, National Treasure] has to say about a given aspect of screenwriting, I can probably tell you what the blog post was called and which paragraph it's in, because I care. That's who your competition is.

Terry Rossio took the script of his idol and retyped it letter for letter, comma for comma, until he could hold the original and his copy lined up when he pressed them against a window, and see the structure standing out like an x-ray machine. Because he wanted to be a goddamned, mother-fucking millionaire. And he wanted to do it by telling stories.

As a second answer to the same question I would give you this: Read more than you write... Also, people can tell the difference between things that were inspired, and things that were manufactured. Don't ever manufacture. If you've got five screenplay ideas and four are what's hot right now, and one is that bizarre sub-genre period piece that you know Hollywood can't possibly have the balls for, but its still on your list cause you just can't get it out of your head, that's the one.

MS: Would a Preston Sturges (or any top writer from another era) script make it past any of you today?

Jeanne Marie: Yes. Especially Dorothy Parker.

Synthian: Yes. Top or not, I would lobby for rebellious material. I'd love to see "Brave New World" come across my desk. That must have been what it was like for whoever was handed "Memento". In the same sense that a hip-hop artist could make his bones today by recording over the phone from inside a prison, a Dalton Trumbo script I would beg for an excuse to get made simply because he'd been blacklisted. And the truth is, if you're a respecter of dialogue in the first place, you know that our standards have all but collapsed in that realm due to the rush-cycle of pop-culture production. Watch "Casablanca" with a pen and pad, and literally write down every single line of dialogue that became a catch phrase throughout our culture. You'll run out of paper because it's truly amazing. No modern film can do that. The dialogue in "The King's Speech" was written thirty years ago. Much of the dialogue in the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" adaptation was even older. But it's not that the capacity for good dialogue has disappeared from our fingers. We just don't respect it enough to raise it, and water it, and feed it from the ground up anymore...

Anyone interested in proof that great small-focus dialogue is still being written today should immediately head over to Amazon and watch a random episode of "Lark Rise to Candleford."

Chip: Had to Google a Sturges' script to see what it looked like. Found a copy of "Nothing Doing." It's not exactly a spec script, it's a production version, and includes shot descriptions and other details that I would hate in a spec. But setting that aside, it still suffers from many of my pet peeves: long solid blocks of description with no breaks (fifty lines!), overly specific description - down to explaining exactly how a logo is designed, and a parenthetical on nearly every dialogue slug. So, from a purely technical format standpoint, I'd have to say "no." That's the stuff that drives me nuts, and makes me want to shitcan a script instantly. Though I probably won't, not on page one. But, it will put me off, and it has to work really hard to win me back quick.

But that's the technical. Then there's the story. I do believe there's something brilliant about the economy of story in a lot of older films from the thirties and forties with regard to structure and character. It's almost poetic. I grew up on a lot of those old films, and still return to them. That's something I like to see in a script, and would be happy to let past me.

MS: You seldom (if ever) write a "recommend." What's so bad about "consider?" Don't they get a look?

Synthian: No. Writing "consider" already has some natural weights against it. Most prominently, that you didn't love the script. As a brilliant screenwriter once said, when asked what a screenwriter's job really is: "Simple. Make the bicycle fly." This of course in reference to "E.T." And they've either done it, or they haven't. Nobody wants to give a heartfelt "Eh?" Consider means: it ain't what you asked for, but the writer was so good that you didn't have a choice.

Chip: Screenplay contests are like American Idol. 10,000 people show up. Maybe 25 have some real potential, ten are uber talented, two or three are savants, and, if you're lucky, one is a true artist for the ages. You have to put 25 in the finals. That's just the rules. Those finalists are getting their look and they better deserve it. The winner's not likely to be an artist for the ages, but she damn well better be uber talented, if not a savant.

Reading for contests my "recommend" means move it to the finals. I'm not into putting William Hung, or Bikini Girl through just cuz it's good TV. I want the finals to be a steel-cage match of highly capable and brilliant contenders, any one of whom deserves to be the champ.

If I were reading for a prodco [production company], I'd probably be more demanding than I am as a contest reader. And I have a reputation for being a mean and ruthless contest reader. I get angry, physically pissed, at a truly shitty script. I hate the idea of rewarding mediocrity. And I hate the idea of wasting anyone else's time - those other hapless readers, say, who have to read all the finalists. Mostly, though, it's the rewarding mediocrity I hate. If your crappy script gets to the semis, you're going to think that what you're doing is good enough. It's not.

Jeanne Marie: Depends on the level of good, or bad.

MS: What keeps a reader honest to the slush pile of countless unknowns, instead of just promoting friends' scripts?

Jeanne Marie: Probably very little, unless he/she is of high moral character.

Chip: I got into production initially to understand how the script evolves into a finished film, the whole production process, so I'd be a better writer. I took acting classes to help me understand what actors need, so I'd be a better director. I take the opportunity to read as an opportunity to learn what really matters to a reader, what makes for a "recommend," or a "fail." I can't learn if I'm not honest - with the scripts and with myself - so, it's invaluable to put on my reader hat, be ruthless, and see what makes a great script great, and what kills a script.

As a reader, I'm looking for what most writers seem to think they're delivering: greatness. I always crack each script open with high hopes that it'll be great. I want people to be awesome. I want to find a script that makes me glad I spent ninety minutes of my life with it. If the script is truly great - it likely won't be, but I hope - it'll get a fair shake. I want the screenwriting universe to be peopled with great writers delivering great stories through great scripts. Finding great scripts by great writers - whoever they are - and rewarding that work, helps create the kind of universe I want to be a part of, and that's good for everybody. In the end, being honest to the slush strengthens the industry, and makes me a better writer.

Synthian: I have read every one of my "friends" scripts. Some, as many as three revisions, which is why the word friends must be in quotes. Their scripts are abusive weapons just like everyone else, and there is not a one I would make a "recommend" to risk my reputation for. Sorry. Nobody spends umpteen million dollars on something because they're a friend of that nice intern. Talent comes first... I'm in a luxurious position of being able to have my newest script read by some of the best and I wouldn't dare shame their desks with it. Not until it beats the ever livin' out of whatever else they may see. To illustrate that perfectly clearly to you: Last week I made a new title page in Final Draft for my current screenplay, so as to change the written by line to "Anonymous." That's how confident I have to be. Before I turn anything in, I have to be able to ask myself the question, "If this were to appear on [producer's] desks as an anonymous writing tomorrow, would it burn straight through this village like wildfire?"

I'll turn it in when the answer is yes. And if you can write that well first, then you'll beat me, and you deserve to.

MS: If the writing is entertaining, will you keep reading past standard benchmarks if things that are "supposed" to happen by then, have not happened? Or is your world hard-wired to three-act structure, etc?

Synthian: Ugh. Okay, I'm almost tempted to say I'm offended when a screenplay is Syd Fielded [Syd Field is an author of popular screenwriting books]. It just tends to show a hell of a lot less heart, passion, and instinct, than organizational skill. This is strictly a personal thing, but I just can't see myself recommending a script that doesn't at some point break at least one solid rule. Your job is to further the format. Yes, we all know what the restrictions are, but your job is to push it till it breaks. So, if you've had to make up some new convention of the thing just in order to be able to fit your universe into the limitations, I admire your needing to do that. Roll on with your Jedi self. However, you will find out very quickly that the opposite of that is true as well. Meaning, I seriously fucking challenge you to find me a script that, one, we don't know who we are or where we're going by page twenty, and two, is also entertaining writing. It just basically doesn't happen. Good writing is invisible. The three-act structure is supposed to be invisible. If you're looking for it, it's because you're an asshole. Good is good. Bad is bad.

There are basically three types of "reads." The third one we're just going to do away with because we're not talking about that here. It's where you're reading a legend, and you're there to learn from them and anything they do now becomes the new format... What we're concerned about as readers is the difference between the two first types of reads. One, the proof read, and two, the professional free-fall. What I'm asking for from you when you hand me your script, is for me to have the right to trust you're more than a pro, and that I can simply pretend your script is a skyscraper and I'm about to jump off the top, and as I fall I will hit nothing. I will keep turning pages as I plummet straight down through your story until I arrive at the inevitable conclusion, and stand up feeling only, exactly, the emotions you designed me to feel. That's what I want. Every legendary writer gives us that. Every single time. You can go pick up any David Webb Peoples script [Blade Runner, Unforgiven], or any Brian Helgeland script [Mystic River, Man On Fire] off the shelf and you will drop straight through, and the number of speed-bumps, or girders, or format errors, or confusion sessions you will hit on your way down is zero. Its what we dream of...

But, the mistakes of the amateur take our expected free fall and, one by one, page by page, slowly convince us that we cannot trust them. They little by little stop us from watching the story and turn it into a "proof read." And that makes you suck. Because the only way of avoiding that was a decision you made forever ago, because you didn't care about my time, and you decided not to read your free 150 or so Writer's Guild Library scripts, because you're a dick. Don't... be... a dick.

Jeanne Marie: My life allows me 12-15 pages. If it isn't moving me by then, it's all over.

Chip: Hell yeah. I'm big on structure, but what that means is flexible. Some of my favorite movies are slow builders and develop very organically over four acts. I look for escalation - within a scene, a character relationship, through a story - but hitting certain marks by certain pages is in no way a requirement for me. I think deconstructing stories to find those patterns is academically interesting, and sometimes those beats work. But I also think assuming it's some kind of template for success is what leads to, at best, uninspired work, and, at worst, a lot of predictable garbage.

Have a great idea. Execute with excellence. Know your formatting (spelling is a huge deal for me). And use whatever structure your story demands.

MS: Forget that paradigm! I want to write the next rule-breaking indie hit! Do indie production companies have readers? Do they follow different rules?

Chip: I don't read for prodcos, but I submit my work to them. I've optioned two scripts to indie prodcos, so I guess someone's reading scripts. Different rules? I'm sure they want great stories told well. That's the universal thing, right? In that sense, they follow the same rules. But, indies can take greater risks with films that are less commercially driven, that tell smaller stories, and that take structure apart and put it back together in a new and interesting way. In that sense, they can have a broader range of creative or commercial expectations. If you've got a rule-breaking script that's non-traditional, an indie prodco is probably your outlet. Thanks, indie prodcos!

Jeanne Marie: I'm too indie to answer that!

Synthian: Yes, they have readers, but the slush-pile is exactly the same. You'd be surprised how many writers with indie scripts are absolutely certain their script is "Independence Day," and how many "Independence Day" writers think their script is an indie. The lines are blurred now, and nobody can tell you you're wrong if you send more to one direction than the other.

Yes, they follow different rules. An indie production company I read for had a producer who, himself, had written a 165-page screenplay, which he had perceived as having done very well... ergo, the page limit for submissions at that particular office had arbitrarily become, 165. I've been sent on a hunt for the "world's greatest chamber piece" - a chamber piece is a film that takes place entirely, or almost entirely, in a single room or location, ie, "Buried," the first "SAW," "Reservoir Dogs." Its hard for me to imagine being asked to do that for a major. And one guy had been given an ice skating rink for the summer, so he needed all the best indie ice-skating rink scripts.

By all means, make your rule breaking screenplay, but don't assume its an indie. "Good" is what's wanted on posters tacked to every signpost in the production spectrum. So, if you know what you're doing, and still break a whole bunch of rules, then yeah, I could use a new kind of free fall. Send it to me.