J BUSH

She’s Not Just Some Secretary

She’s not just some secretary.”

 

This is what one of the producers on my movie said about the female lead, three hours before we went in to do the studio pitch. We were arguing on the phone about the fact that I wanted her to have a certain job that would give her status more equal to the hero of the film – and he thought her having that job would be unrealistic considering everything she does in the movie and that it would take the audience out of the movie. So he gave her a job demotion right before the pitch, which I argued about – leading him to say “she’s not just some secretary.”

 

I spent the next couple hours timing myself reading the highlighted portions of my beat sheet – and eating anchovies (brain food) – (a fatal mistake as I would be self-conscious about my breath all afternoon) and turning over that sentence in the back of my head like a kid’s rock-tumbler –

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

I got to the production office a half hour before the pitch. The exec who’s been working with me this whole time sat with me with our feet up on his coffee table and kept me calm. He had tried to demote the female lead for the same reason a month or two before – at 7 pm on a Friday – and I had launched into a histrionic speech that went something like “we are trying to attract both male and female audiences with this movie. And as a female audience member, I can tell you, we know when we are being patronized. We know what kind of movie this is going to be, when it’s being promoted. We see when the female lead has a lesser job and less status than the male lead – when the filmmakers and producers making it consider her less than – and we know what they think of her and us. And if this is going to be that kind of movie then I can’t be involved.”

 

Gulp.

 

In case you don’t know, those are the words of a crazy person.

 

But those are also the words of a person who is crazily dedicated. Crazily invested. Who believes in what she is doing. Who feels it. Who is leading, not following.

 

And at the time, this exec had said “Ok. I get it. I’m in.” (For what it’s worth, that’s the worst/craziest thing I’ve said to him or any exec. And it’s a sign of just how hard we’ve worked on this movie. And – he deserves hazard pay.)

 

So we’re in the production office, before the pitch. My exec friend is keeping me calm. He looks me straight in the eye and goes “I want you to know I was on your side. We didn’t even talk about it.” And I knew what he was talking about – and in fact, I never even questioned that he was on my side on that. So I proceeded to tell him why this thing about the male lead and the female lead being equal means so much to me.

 

“It’s not, like, some abstract feminism thing for me. I was raised by a single mother who had no education and worked full time as a secretary –

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

– and all she wanted for us girls was to go to college and never have to work a desk job like her and have better lives than she did. And not only did I go to college but I went to Princeton and my first job out of college was [the same job we've now given the female lead in the movie]. And despite all that, I have felt marginalized my entire fucking life — growing up in a house of all women (already marginalized as a gender in this species) — abandoned by my father who went off and left us to sink from middle-class into poverty — abandoned by a culture that couldn’t care less about what it feels like to be less than, displaced, marginalized, disempowered always. This is real for me. Visceral –” 

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

I didn’t know you grew up in a single-parent home,” he said. “I did too. That must be why we’re so …”

 

Sympatico?” I said.

 

We drove the golf cart over to the studio where I met another exec for the first time. (The producer was already inside.) The three of us stood around nervously chit-chatting before the pitch. Making conversation about our families. They asked about my sister, and I told them about how she’s never come to visit me in LA. How she disapproves of my risky choice to become a writer and how she’s basically waiting for me to fail and move back home. How up until recently, it’s been hard to argue with her.

 

The assistant called us in to the pitch.

 

Afterward, the producer, my exec friend and I drove the golf cart back to their bungalow. We were laughing cuz I thought the producer was mad at me cuz I kept stopping the pitch to make jokes (and once to accuse the studio exec of yawning — he wasn’t) cuz I was afraid the mood was getting too dour. The producer goes “you want the mood to be dour if your movie is dour!” Through the whole pitch he kept saying “keep going!” cuz I kept detouring.

 

But as we drove across the studio lot, the producer said “you did really really well” and I appreciated that as it was my first studio pitch ever and I was nervous as hell. And as the sun set over the soundstages and the balmy breeze blew my half-shaved hair back, I took a mental snapshot and said to myself in my head – remember this moment cuz your life is about to change.

 

And it did. We sold the movie the next day. My dream project. There’s nothing else I’d rather be working on right now.

 

But with dreams answered comes responsibility too. I just spent a week with my mom (I’m writing this on the airplane back to LA), and I was telling her about one of the many complicated aspects of studio filmmaking. I was uncertain about what to do.

 

I always err on the side of being vulnerable,” she said.

 

Mom, you’ve got to remember – screenwriting is heavily male dominated. Like 85%. Everyone already thinks I can’t do the job because I’m a woman. If I go around showing my belly, I’m going to look feminine and weak and lose all respect.”

 

Well then I guess your industry is just over my head.”

 

She’s not just some secretary.

 

No mom I think you understand it just fine.

 

 

Great Ideas Look Like Bad Ideas

If you come up with a new idea and you tell your agents and managers about it, or some executives or producers you know, or your friends, and everyone loves it, that’s a bad sign. That means it’s not fresh enough. That means it’s sitting too close to the surface, too obvious, too similar to what’s already happening in the zeitgeist, in the culture.

Your reps’ jobs are to hate your really great ideas. Because they are focused on what’s selling right now and what they predict might sell tomorrow based on that — in other words, yesterday’s great ideas.

But if your ideas are really good, they’re not going to look good to anyone at first. And that’s the magic window where — if you have the courage to follow your instincts and your gut — you can capitalize on the lag time between the moment that you know it’s good and the day the rest of the world wakes up to it.

Your job isn’t to follow the zeitgeist, it’s to make it.

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Peter Thiel basically says the same thing in his class on startups:

“3. Secrets exist.

People don’t really believe in secrets anymore. But secrets exist. It’s just a matter of learning how to find them.

Risk aversion and complacency discourage people from thinking about secrets. Existing conventions are much more comfortable. But secret truths can be incredibly valuable. Importantly, they are discoverable; by definition, any answers to the questions in Lesson 2 above are secrets. Perhaps the biggest secret of all is that there are many more secrets in the world that are waiting to be found. The question of how many secrets exist in our world is roughly equivalent to how many startups people should start. From a business perspective, then, there are many great companies that could still be—indeed,are waiting to be—started.”

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Seth Godin says the same thing:

“All good ideas are terrible

Until people realize they are obvious.

If you’re not willing to live through the terrible stage, you’ll never get to the obvious part.”

Stay Open

I like looking through bins of old photos at garage sales and flea markets. I buy pictures that make me feel something.

This morning I was idly flipping through pictures — searching for feeling, meaning — and from somewhere Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” started playing –

– and suddenly I was 16 years old, camping out down by the river behind my parents’ log cabin in the North Georgia mountains (where they still live) with the boy I had a huge crush on beside a crackling campfire, listening to Bob Dylan for the first time and letting him teach me to smoke pot for the first time ever –

– and my eyes filled with tears — not because I’m sad, but because I’m human –

– because this town is constantly trying to push us toward feeling less, toward being less connected, less human, trying to thicken our skins and build our callouses and make us more cynical and more skeptical and more cruel and less trusting — like we’re naked gladiators in the arena ripping each other’s throats out with our teeth and scything each others’ breasts off and tearing arms out of the sockets till the blood gushes rivers in the sand and they’re lounging in their boxes, turning around to complain about why the figs aren’t riper –

And our jobs are not to fucking let them.

Our jobs are to lay down the swords. Stop fighting. Stop wounding each other. Most of all, stop wounding ourselves.

Stay open.

Stay open.

Stay open.

And what’s most ironic is — that’s what they want from us. The best ones know it too. They know they are simultaneously brutalizing us and then begging us to stay open. Stay soft. Stay connected.

That is the job.

I’ve tried to make my new movie as personal as possible. I’ve infused it with my own memories, hopes, desires, fears — and those of the executive I’m working with — which I’ve been extracting and infusing into this movie. Or maybe he’s been infusing his guts into it — as aware as I am of how important it is to make this movie real and vital and personal, about the shit we’re really dwelling on. It’s a big movie about extraordinary people in dramatic circumstances — which we are obviously not — but at its heart it’s about people kinda similar to us, who maybe have big, stressful stuff going on in their lives — who feel like they’re doing battle on a daily basis — and then suddenly something happens and they’re instantly by that campfire behind my parents’ log cabin when I was 16 –

I feel like part of what filmmaking is is an internal process of what I was doing at the flea market this morning — flipping through the old photos of your life — constantly scanning for what makes you feel something — then putting that in.

That’s what this executive and I have been doing for months. The more personal the better, I say. Even for a big budget action thriller. Stay open. Stay connected. Stay soft. That’s the job.

 

Don’t Stare At One Thing For Too Long

I took this pic yesterday while writing at a Soho pub. This image feels so London.

One of the many bad habits I have is I tend to spend too much time staring at one thing.

I’m thinking of scripts and novels right now, but I’m also thinking of life.

I freeze. I hesitate. I spend way, way too long staring at the same thing – when I should just keep moving the minute I realize I don’t know what to do.

Because doing nothing is almost always worse than doing anything at all. When you’re moving, you may be moving in the wrong direction – but it’s easier to figure that out when you’re doing something, when you’re in motion. Because when you freeze, you stop course-correcting, you lose any sense of your bearings. You forget where you are.

Worst of all, when you freeze you send yourself and the world the message that yeah, you shouldn’t be going anywhere. This spot right here feels safer and less uncertain than any random direction you might pick. And since staying in one place is far less anxiety-provoking than moving, you feel a sense of relief. But it’s illusory relief, akin to the relief you may feel when you refuse to get out of bed in the morning. Yes it feels better in the moment, but as your life and your work grind to a halt, your losses far outweigh the temporary comfort.

It’s the same with staring at the same beat in a script for too long – or staying at the wrong job or relationship or whatever it is – it feels better in the moment, but it can be subtly, silently devastating.

Any moment in your writing (or job or relationship or whatever) requires some thought, yes. But you know when you’ve paused too long. And when you do, make yourself go somewhere else, try a different spot. You’ll have a million excuses for why you can’t or don’t want to, but also you can just try it and see how it feels.

This is the outside of the pub pictured above. I'm in love with all the window boxes and hanging plants everywhere in London.

 

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I’m reading Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox. It’s an entertaining ethnographic study of what makes the English tick – the perfect thing for my hostess to give me to read during my first visit here in London.

Story By vs. Written By

Questioned Proposal © by Eleaf

 

Someone asked me to answer this question on Quora, so I thought I may as well throw it up here:

Question:

What is the difference between story writing and screenplay writing for movies?

My answer:

There is no difference.

People who don’t know what they’re doing or are not particularly confident in their screenwriting will go on and on about structure and formulas and hitting this goalpost at that mark and blah blah but the fact remains -

A screenplay is a story told visually (and with some dialogue). There is absolutely no other difference. It’s just a different style of telling a story (through pictures, sounds and spoken words rather than written words).

The more you focus on telling a story (rather than hitting all the goalposts the books talk about) – the better off you will be.

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I would also like to recommend this answer to the same question by Mark Hughes. He gets more into the nitty-gritty of the “story by” vs. “written by” credits.

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Today’s “What I’m Reading” is a “What I’m Listening To” -

I really love podcasts. There’s a handful that I listen to every episode they do. I’ll try to post about all of my favorites, but today’s favorite is “Extra Hot Great” – a podcast by three true lovers of T.V. and movies and all things pop culture. (They are Tara Ariano, David T. Cole and Joe Reid). They’re funny, insightful, and best of all they infect you with their love and sense of ownership over wonderful (and some terrible) things to watch.

 

Every Dialogue Line Is A Punchline

 

Project 4(Barbara Kruger) by KelsIZbwnage

I want every line of dialogue I write to land like a punchline.

Even in the most serious, least funny stuff I write — I still strive for that rhythm. Each line sets up the next. And each line has to land. And if it doesn’t, you tighten it (by cutting off the top of the line, the first half of the sentence, which the eye skips over anyway) — or you cut filler words — or you reorder the line so that the highest-impact word falls last. Or conversely — you reorder the line so that it falls away, it’s a throwaway, the intensity and conviction of the words and the speaker drop from the start of the line till the end. And this is a kind of punchline too, where we suddenly look at the speaker, knowing there’s a story there. He’s the butt of the joke. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not.

What we’re talking about is a way to make your dialogue rhythmic, musical and responsive. Just make each line feel like the punchline to the joke that was the last line. I’m not saying make it funny — I did this in death scenes in my Iraq pilot. Ok maybe there was a little humor there, I don’t remember.

Just make it punchy.

 

Get Dangerous

I’m dangerous.

As an artist, I threaten the status quo. I test boundaries. I push limits.

Now, that isn’t to say I don’t get along with people or don’t follow directions or don’t take notes. I do. I believe in storytelling as a collaboration, and TV as one of the most collaborative media there is. And I believe in creating stories that are true to the show you’re making, and true to the network you’re on.

But collaborating and staying true to the show’s voice are no excuses for staying in the middle. Or being boring. Not threatening the status quo because that’s safe. You can plod along turning in recycled ideas and you’ll probably never get fired for it — because what are they going to point to? How reliable you were? How you always turned in material that you knew for sure would make it on the air, and that 68% of your audience would kinda like because it wouldn’t upset them and they’d kinda never even notice it go by?

Instead you can become an artist. And you can turn in material that may push the edge of what the show may do — and make the show bigger, and deeper, and bolder, and funnier, and more interesting, and more lasting. You’ll still turn in stuff or pitch stuff that you know is safe — because that’s part of your job, to repeat — but part of your job too is to get dangerous.

Scene Questions

I met M at our “Welcome to the Writers Guild!” meeting earlier this year. I don’t know if he would mark it earlier, but I would put it at the conversation in the parking garage that night that I felt like I understood him and him me – I felt connected to him, which for me is very rare.

M and I are both TV writers. Because we want to keep our skills tight, we started a new scene-writing exercise, just the two of us. Every day we’re creating a scene assignment for each other, to be completed in less than 30 minutes, no online research. It’s just as much fun to make the assignments as it is to write the scenes – because in my mind, they don’t exist in a vacuum. The assignments, the scenes, communicate with each other and with our lives outside the project, creating a story with a life of its own.

So because I’ve got scenes on the brain, I’m going to share my cheat sheet with you. This is what I bust out when I find myself staring into space for 20 minutes – a file I have on my computer called “Drama Questions.” It’s a list of questions cobbled together from a variety of sources – David MametJohn August, others I can’t remember. I gathered them from all over into one Break In Case Of Emergency File.

Here They Are:

  • Who wants what?
  • What happens if they don’t get it?
  • Why now?
  • What is the hero’s problem that starts the scene?
  • In the end, how are the characters thwarted or turned in another direction?
  • What are we left wondering?
  • What’s the silent movie version?
  • How does the scene advance the story?
  • How does the scene reveal character?
  • How does the scene expand on an idea? What theme does it explore?
  • How does the scene build an image? What does this image mean?
  • What’s funny in this scene?
  • What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
  • Where could this scene take place?
  • What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
  • Who absolutely needs to be in this scene?
  • Where could this scene possibly take place?
  • What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
  • What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
  • Where do I want the story to go next?
  • Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
  • Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
  • What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?

I want to be clear that I didn’t write these questions. But this is pretty basic drama stuff, and I don’t want to keep it from you just because I can’t source it properly. If I’m really stuck, I actually write out the answers for the scene I’m working on. Or I just read them over to give myself a kick start. Most of the time I don’t need them – but sometimes I do. And that’s what they’re there for, like a map or a wooden stretcher to stretch a canvas painting over.

If you go through and answer all these questions for the scene you’re in, guarantee it’ll get better. And as for what to do next, the next scene is a conversation with the scene you’re in – the way M and my scenes and assignments speak to each other, asking and answering questions.

The Only 2 Things You Need To Know About Screenwriting

Whenever I get stuck working on a script (which is often), I remind myself of the only two things that matter:

1. Visual

2. Emotional

Screenwriting is that simple.

You can find a way to make any story beat more visual. If you’re stuck, ask yourself — what’s the silent movie version? (that’s Mamet’s advice) — how can I see what I want to say here.

And every story beat should be emotional. That means it matters to the characters, on a gut level. And we should empathize enough with the characters that it matters to us. So if you’re stuck, ask yourself — what matters here? why? how can it matter more, and more, and more …. Emotion can be fear or anger or love or contempt or pride or despair or — whatever matters to them and to you and to us.

Then repeat these steps a bunch of times, and you’ve got a script.

What You Need To Know About Cliche

One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.

This was very painful.

We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.

I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.

So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.

She told us “a cliche is anything  you’ve ever heard before.

This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?

Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.

Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.

I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.

But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.

Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better –

Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.

 

 

 

 

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