Friday, April 23, 2010

Notes From A (Non) High Concept Guy

I'm not High Concept, and that's okay.

A few years ago, along with an agent I had at the time, I was supposed to write a high concept comedy. The agent was a pretty slick dude, more slick than I probably deserved, he even had an umlaut in his name, which I've always wanted, but he knew his shit and was ready to lob me into the Hollywood scene like a grenade. I had plenty of ideas/barely started screenplays to pick from, and he had his umlaut. We settled on The Stand-In, a high concept comedy.

It had a great hook, a damn good concept, most of which actually came from my brother-in-law from many years ago. Although the finished screenplay had some genuinely funny moments and a couple of great sequences, I couldn't make it work, and there were two reasons for that, methinks.

1. At the time, personally I wasn't doing well, lotta shit going on, going through and especially going down, so writing a romantic comedy probably wasn't the best plan, you know, at all, especially a high concept one.

2. I'm not a 3 joke per page kinda guy.

My then-agent realized this, at least reason #2 - I hadn't really informed him about #1 - so he dropped like I was hot. I was peeved at the time, but I moved on pretty quickly from him (shuffled back to my other agent, still with him today). And I was free of the high concept chain around my neck, so in the end, I felt a lot better.

Because at the end of the day, you have to love what you're writing. If not, you're wasting your time, as well as the time of some reader at a production company/studio who may eventually get his/her hands on your phoned-in script and toss it after 10 uninspired pages, if they even get to page 10.

So, I'm not a straight-up comedy guy. I think I've written some funny scripts, but it's tough to stick to the typical comedy format, for me at least. I usually end up with some type of comedy/drama hybrid that a Wes Anderson more than excels at. And maybe that's why I've only had Options in my screenwriting career but have never sold a screenplay, because I'm just not the high concept type.

I don't think that's a bad thing though, I just need to get one of these gems into the right hands, which is always our goal as screenwriters (obviously) anyway. But I hate even calling them comedy/dramas, to me they're just about real shit going on. Life ain't always The Hangover or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, hell, it hardly ever is. And I have yet to come across a hot tub time machine, but if I did, I'ma cannonball right up in that.

To me, life is Cricket Hill, a pretty edgy script I wrote in 2003 about a family at Christmas, dealing with a multitude of issues. Then there's Union, written in 2008, about a father finding out some pretty surprising things about his kids. Surviving Edwards Avenue (2004) is a story about divorce and how one family deals with it.

Those are some of my favorite scripts, a trilogy of family dysfunction at its best, and some of my most accomplished work. And throughout each of them is a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, and a bit of shit hitting the fan. Because, to me, that's real - heart-breaking, inspiring, life-changing. At one moment life is amazing and you're untouchable, and at the next moment the other shoe drops, and you knew it was gonna drop, but you just wished it had waited a little while more before it hit the floor. That's what I write.

And when I'm inspired, and on my game, comedy/drama hybrid label be damned, I think they're the best damn stories I can tell.

It's funny, too, the different type of scripts I write now as opposed to 5, 10 years ago. At first, I had more than a few screenplays about typical college-age dudes or guys in their late 20s searching for themselves, blah, blah, blah. Now, I cringe at those stories, but at the time, I was just writing what I knew. And now I know more (I hope anyway). Now I write about fathers and mothers and love and marriage and disappointment and things coming to an end, or things just beginning. Kisses that become routine, or kisses that amaze. Children and love and despair. Loose teeth and mortgages. Finding passion. White picket fences. Falling out of love. Soccer games. Careers. Making sure your family is okay, and if they're not, making damn sure they will be.

That's what I think about now, and I hope it translates into a decent script or two. I actually had just started a new script this very week. It's about a man at a crossroads. As always, I've had dozens upon dozens of ideas already started, but I can't go back to them now, this one felt right, it feels like it's ready, and when it's ready, it can almost write itself. It's called Square One.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Surviving Edwards Avenue - Fight Scene - Screenplay Vs. Novel

First of all, excuse the wonky formatting. I'm sure there's a better way to post a screenplay & novel pages on here, but if there is, I certainly don't know it. So what I've posted here is the same scene that unfolds in both the screenplay version (written originally in '04) and the novel version (2010). Just a neat exercise. Enjoy!

SCREENPLAY Version 2004 (Pg. 87-89)

Roger bangs on Brandi’s door. JIMMY, a local tough guy in his 30s, answers. Roger gets in a fighting stance.

C’mon, let’s dance.

Jimmy hops down and nails him in the stomach. Roger falls to his knees.

I’m gonna kick your ass.

Whenever you’re ready, bitch!

Brandi comes to the door.

Oh, no. Roger go home.

Roger stands.

I love you, Brandi.

Jimmy charges him and knocks him against the mobile home. It rocks slightly.

Guys! Watch it! You’ll knock the house over!

They fall to the ground and wrestle. Roger throws dirt in Jimmy’s face.

Ha, fucknose!!!

Jimmy punches him in the mouth and Roger falls off.

I don’t love you, Roger!

Roger barely stands.

Sure you do!

Jimmy puts him in a choke-hold. Roger gasps for air.

I don’t. What we had was kinda fun. But what me and Jimmy have is funner.

JIMMY(still choking Roger)
“More fun” baby.

Don’t correct me, Jimmy. You know I hate that!

Roger gets loose and swings at Jimmy. Misses. Jimmy easily pops Roger again on the cheek.

This is fun.

ROGER(holds cheek)
I’ll take care of you, Brandi. Just tell me what you want me to do!

Jimmy gets another punch ready.

Leave me alone and never come around here again. I will never love you, okay?

Jimmy lowers his fist.

Damn. That was more painful than I coulda done.

What about the baby?

First of all, it ain’t yours. Second, I ain’t pregnant.

You’re not?

No. Daddy said it was probably just gas.

She ain’t lyin.’ I never seen a chick with so much gas. Even when she sleepin!’(imitates fart)Brrrrmppptt!! There goes another one!

I took a test. It was negative.


Stanky ones, too. Damn! Somethin’ crawled up there and died, boy!

Now leave.

Roger takes in his surroundings and nods.

Okay.(to Jimmy)Truce?

Yeah, man. Truce.

Roger nods. He walks by Jimmy and takes another swing. He misses. Jimmy nails him in the stomach and drills him with an upper-cut.

NOVEL Version (2010)

As Roger runs through the rows of mobile homes, he has no idea what he’ll say or do but figures making a plan at this point is useless and decides to make it up as he goes. One thought crosses his mind - what if she’s not home? But that thought soon passes when Roger remembers she hasn’t worked a day in her life and wasn’t likely to start now.

Roger bangs on Brandi’s door, out-of-breath. He tries to compose himself as the footsteps approach and smiles as the door opens. But Jimmy is standing there instead of Brandi, and of all the scenarios that Roger went through on his breath-reducing run through the trailer park, this wasn’t one of them.

Jimmy Durban is thirty-two years old and has been working at Al’s Stop & Gas on the edge of town for six years now. He’s got a neck full of tattoos, a shaved head and two lip piercings. He’s a pretty good looking guy under the paraphernalia and swagger, and he sings lead vocals in a local band called The Devastation that actually had a song on the radio last year. So he already had a head start over Roger, who didn’t have any piercings, tattoos, swagger or a song on the radio.

Roger isn’t sure what to do, so he gets in a fighting stance. He wants to say something bad ass, something tough, but when he starts to say “C’mon, let’s dance“ he doesn’t get all of it out because Jimmy has already punched him hard in the stomach and he falls to his knees. Not only does the punch hurt just about all of his internal organs, but it gives him the instant sensation that he has to take shit. Luckily no bowel movement occurs and the feeling passes, and he stands on his now-shaky feet. “I’m gonna kick your ass, Jimmy,” he is able to get out, and is surprised that he is able to get it out without vomiting.

Jimmy just laughs and readies another punch. “Whenever you’re ready, bitch!”

Brandi comes to the door, popping some gum, to see what the hell is going on. “Oh, no. Roger, go home.” Pop pop. She’s not really all that pissed, having a couple of dudes fighting over her gives her quite a thrill.

Roger smiles and stumbles toward her. “I love you, Brandi.”

Jimmy charges him and knocks him against the mobile home. It rocks slightly.

Brandi screams. Pop pop. “Guys! Watch it! You’ll knock the house over!”

They fall to the ground and wrestle. Roger grabs a handful of grass and dirt and throws dirt in Jimmy’s face. “Ha, fuckface!”

Jimmy punches him in the nose and Roger falls, seeing nothing but stars for a moment.

“I don’t love you, Roger!” Brandi belts out, and it slices through Roger almost as brutally as Jimmy‘s punch.

Roger rolls on the ground and finds his footing, and barely stands. “Sure you do!” he mumbles as blood from his broken nose fills his mouth.

Jimmy grabs him and puts him in a choke-hold. Roger can do nothing but stand there and have his heart broken yet again.

She sighs. “I don’t. What we had was kinda fun. But what me and Jimmy have is funner.”

Jimmy doesn‘t stop choking Roger but offers “’More fun, baby.”

“Don’t correct me, Jimmy! You know I hate that!”

Roger gets loose and swings at Jimmy. Misses by a lot. The pain in Roger’s stomach has spread to his chest, and the pain from his nose has enveloped his face. Jimmy easily pops Roger again on the cheek.

“This is fun!” hoots Jimmy.

Roger stops and lets himself bleed. “I’ll take care of you, Brandi. Just tell me what you want me to do.”

Jimmy gets another punch ready.

“Leave me alone and never come around here again. I will never love you, okay?”

Jimmy lowers his fist. “Damn. That was more painful than I coulda done.”

Roger takes a step toward her. “What about the baby?”

“First of all, it ain’t yours. Second, I ain’t pregnant.”

“You’re not?”

“No. Daddy said it was probably just gas.” Pop pop.

Jimmy laughs and slaps Roger on the back. “She ain’t lyin!’ I never seen a chick with so much gas. Even when she sleepin!’ Jimmy crudely imitates a fart. “Brrrrmppptt!! There goes another one!”

“I took a blood test. It was negative.” Brandi sits on the top step.

Roger sighs. “Gas.”

“Stanky ones, too“ Jimmy continues. “Damn! Somethin’ crawled up there and died, boy!”

“Now leave, Roger, please” she says.

Roger takes in his surroundings - the maze of trailers, Jimmy, Brandi, his throbbing face, the blood on his shirt and hands - and nods. “Okay.” He turns to Jimmy. “Truce?”

“Yeah, dude. Truce.”

Roger nods but decides to end things on a sucker punch. Why the hell not. Not much else to lose. As he walks by Jimmy he takes another swing but misses yet again. Jimmy nails him in the stomach again and drills him with an upper-cut.

Twenty minutes later, Roger is walking home, a beaten man in every possible sense. His ribs are killing him, and his face feels fat with pain. He’s about a block from his house when he stops walking and carefully sits on the side of the road, although he doesn’t quite make it to the curb. A car slows as it passes but keeps going. When the tears come, he’s not surprised, he’d just taken a lot of punches, but the pain he’s feeling is from within himself and has nothing to do with his bloody nose, bruised ribs or black eyes. He lost Brandi, simple as that, and for some reason he was having a hard time dealing with this one. He’d lost girls before, to broken stars and for other reasons not quite as celestial, but losing Brandi was ripping him apart. He cries hard, shaking, gagging and quivering, until he thinks it’s over, but it isn’t. His body isn’t done with him yet, and when the tears don’t stop he realizes it‘s just the beginning.