Around the Horn: Life’s Second Act Breaks

Most movies are broken up into three acts.  For my purposes, let’s focus on the last two.

Generally speaking, at the end of the act two, the protagonist is at his lowest point, totally broken with seemingly no hope.  Take Inception for example, when Cobb–

–wait, no.  Let me do a different one: (500) Days of Summer.

Towards the end of the film, Tom goes to the MPDG Summer’s party believing his romance with her has been rekindled, only to discover that she is announcing her engagement to someone else.  At this point, he is totally crushed; goes on a bender; and pretty much loses the will to live (which is only fatal in the Star Wars universe, FYI).

I talk about this because right now, I’m feeling like this part of my life’s reached the end of its second act.  It’s like Lemony Snicket decided to start writing my life story with a climax involving a car accident.  And while recovery from anything tends to come in waves, I’m not about to feel sorry for myself – the third act’s a-coming!  So what I ask of y’all today is this:

What’s been a significant second act break in your life and what was the brilliant, redemptive third act that followed?

To Live and (Screen)Write in L.A.

Occasionally, a friend will ask me if I can talk to a friend of theirs who wants to become a “Hollywood” screenwriter. I’m not sure why people bother asking me to dispense advice to anyone because, frankly, I don’t have anything helpful to say about the biz unless you want to know how to hit on Rachel McAdams on three separate occasions and be rejected on three separate occasions or the best way to sneak onto a movie studio lot if you’re Asian (drive up to the gate with a bag of Chinese take-out on your passenger seat and tell the guard you have a lunch delivery for “Mr. Goldbaum” or just say: “Hi, I’m Justin Lin and I’m here for a meeting about [insert name of any movie in development at that studio since Justin will most likely be attached to it already]“).

Still, they insist and when I talk to the aforementioned aspiring Hollywood screenwriters, the discussions range from questions like “how do I write a script that will sell for $1 million?” (this usually comes from the Korean or Chinese aspiring Hollywood screenwriters) to them telling me how they know someone who knows someone who is “tight” with “big-time” director Justin Lin and how they’ll be happy to pass on any of my scripts to him too (Them to me: “So my cousin knows a producer who knows Justin Lin.” Me to them: “Oh, didn’t he direct Step Up 3D?”).

But the one thing that almost always comes up is how the aspiring screenwriter has no plans to move to L.A., but will still become a successful Hollywood screenwriter while continuing to reside in Gainsville or Des Moines or Hong Kong or wherever they are currently residing.

And this is when I’m able to give them the only really helpful and practical advice I know: if you want to pursue a career writing screenplays in Hollywood (a.k.a. studio films), you should move to L.A.

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW (ABOUT PIZZA) or The Secrets of Soul Man, CPK and the Genesis of Benihana

FADE IN

INT. OFFICE — DAY

Not being white has helped Norith achieve a youthful glow. For now. As he sits at his desk, facing a screenplay on his desktop that stares back like a fucking vampire that wants not just his blood, but his soul, DNA and spinal cord.

The screenwriting business weighs on this man, if you can call him that. But today is no different than any day. He writes like a Chinese boy working a double shift. Typing endlessly. Maybe pointlessly.

Then the typing stops. His eyes wander toward his Safari page, which he clicks. Checking his Yahoo email box. Empty.

Now, he checks his other empty email box. Empty.

There is nothing going in sports in June. Damn.

                               NORITH
     Probably better for the whole fucking country.
     If there’s lockout, people will probably start reading
     again.

Then, he dares to check his Facebook page. From the look of his page, and measly 206 friends, he is not one to post his thoughts or feelings for the public. So why Facebook?

Why I Hate (writing for) the Movies

DHH

David Henry Hwang is a playwright who has been producing plays, musicals and operas for three decades. He won the Tony Award for his play M. BUTTERFLY and also writes for movies and television. He spent the past weekend in San Diego to help YOMYOMF celebrate the end of INTERPRETATIONS at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and to attend the production of his play YELLOW FACE at the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company which runs until this weekend. 

Having just served as a juror for INTERPRETATIONS and returned from the impressive San Diego Asian Film Festival, I find myself inspired by the talent, dedication, and passion that went into each and every film. This causes me to reflect on my own experiences as a screenwriter working on movies, most of which did not get made, as well as the handful that did.

I should explain that I come to the filmmaking world as something of an outsider. I’m not referring so much to my being Asian, as that I’m basically a theatre guy, having written plays, Broadway musicals, and libretti for operas. So, as a writer, I am spoiled. In every form involving scripts, someone holds the primary creative vision, which the other collaborating artists support. In opera, for instance, that person is the composer. When it comes to plays, it’s the playwright.

Screenwriting is like Gambling

Since people often ask me about how I get writing gigs, I will describe the process of getting paid to write a screenplay and why it is often just like playing high stakes roulette.  As a caveat, the process I describe only pertains to film because TV is a whole different ball game.

There are basically 2 ways to go about getting paid for a screenplay – Speculative Writing (the spec script) or the Open Writing Assignment (OWA). 

A spec script is a script that you came up with on your own whether from an original idea, or perhaps you’ve actually gone out and purchased book rights or a person’s life rights. It is almost unheard of these days to pitch an idea for a script and get it sold before you write it (unless you’re a very big time writer with a proven track record).  So you go ahead and write the script on the hopes that someone will buy it after it’s finished.  

Thank you, Sexless, Diaphanous Lady, for Changing my Life

It wasn’t easy telling friends and family I would be giving up a six year career in architecture to jump into the highly stable and respectable world of screenwriting.  “You sure, Alf, I mean, that sounds kinda iffy,” one friend said.  “Hollywood sucks,” said another.  “You don’t wanna be one of those guys who dreams of making it big then ends up jumping off the Hollywood sign a year later.”   Hmm, good point.  My mom, ever supportive and tactful, pursed her lips and said only, “Oh.  Okay, Chato.  If you’re sure.” 

But I wasn’t sure.  Not at all.   I’m a Virgo through and through – we don’t act capriciously.  We’re thorough, logical, and prudent. When I get gas, I wash my windows.  Front and back.  Every time.   So everyone knew there must be some kind of air tight rationale behind my move. 

Ernest Lehman On Screenwriting

I previously wrote about how I decided the best way to learn about filmmaking was to seek out the old masters who were still living at the time and about the advice I got from legendary writer-director Billy Wilder. As a writer, I especially wanted to meet the great screenwriters and at the top of my list was Ernest Lehman.

Lehman was nominated for 6 screenwriting Academy Awards and was the first writer to receive an honorary Oscar in 2001 (he passed away in 2005). Aside from Wilder, I can’t think of another film writer whose body of work includes so many classics. I’d be happy if I could die with just one of the following credits on my resume, but he had them all: The Sound Of Music, North By Northwest, Sweet Smell Of Success, West Side Story, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Sabrina, The King And I, Black Sunday and many others.

I tried many times to try to meet him but it never worked out. My usual charming personality seemed to have no effect on Mr. Lehman. I remember thinking I’d probably have more luck trying to convince Salma Hayek to have sex with me. However, I don’t give up easily and I managed to eventually wear down convince a producer I knew to give me Mr. Lehman’s phone number and one Sunday afternoon I gave him a call. And he picked up. I couldn’t convince him to meet up with me (I guess he had no way to know I wasn’t a nut), but he said I could call him the next afternoon and he’d give me a few minutes of his time. Mr. Lehman, who was 83 at the time, did more than that. He talked to me for the next two hours and patiently indulged my questions, which I’m sure he’d heard millions of times before. And now I’d like to share some of his advice and stories below.

Why I Write

Ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you that I am not, by nature, an optimistic person. I think the idea that you just need to believe in yourself and you’ll achieve your goals is bullshit. I think a good number of the people I meet in Hollywood are idiots or assholes or, the very worse thing to be, boring as fuck. I think this industry itself is unforgiving and cruel and can easily crush your spirit and dreams. So I totally understand and sympathize with the points my fellow Offender Roger made in his most recent post.

But even with all the bullshit and my own cynicism, there’s still nothing else I can imagine doing than what I’m doing right now.

I’m a writer. I write. Sometimes I get paid for it, but more often than not, I write because I want to. Because I have to. Because it’s the only thing I really know how to do and it’s what I love. I’ve been at this about as long as Roger has—15+ years. And in no way have I made it. It’s still a struggle—very much a job-to-job existence. As Roger’s blog makes clear, this is a tough life and the first thing I tell anyone who wants to pursue this path is not to do it unless it truly is the ONLY thing you’re passionate about. If that’s not the case, you’re most likely going to get your heart broken.

The First Time I Got Fired

you_re_fired“They switch directors because something is very wrong. They switch writers because it’s Tuesday.” Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse) on Hollywood’s treatment of writers

Hollywood is the only place I know where getting fired is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially if you’re a writer. It’s almost as if the more successful you get, the more opportunities you’ll have to be “fired” from various gigs. And as the Joss Whedon quote above hints at, it’s oftentimes for reasons that have nothing to do with your inability to do the job. Many times, you get fired because, well, you’re a writer and that’s just the way things go.

How Lois & Clark Popped My Industry Cherry

loisandclarkI always enjoy hearing about how people got started in their careers so thought I’d share the story about how I landed my first professional “Hollywood” writing gig. I should preface this by saying that I was extremely lucky and I know it usually doesn’t happen this smoothly. Believe me, I know—it’s never been this “easy” again and, over ten years later, it’s still a day-to-day struggle to make a living as a writer.

My first writing credit was for the 1990s TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. For all you youngsters who don’t remember the show, it was a re-telling of the Superman story as a family-friendly romantic dramedy; focusing on the relationship between Superman alter ego Clark Kent (Dean Cain) and Girl Friday Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher). Here’s a clip of the show’s opening credits from season three which was when I came on board: