MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #18
New digital toys for writers seem to debut approximately every twenty minutes. Let me to tell you, however, about one piece of equipment I keep in my office that remains unchanged for over a hundred and fifty years.
USER POWERED LAPTOP
I still see myself as a Johnny-come-lately to the digital world, a Luddite, a high-tech illiterate, even though I purchased my first computer now nearly thirty years ago.
Elsewhere in these columns I discuss the differences between writing by hand and writing via computer. That first computer, the long-ago discontinued Micro-Decision II by Morrow, a company out of business now for decades, had no hard drive. No mouse. There was no web; no email. I used the device exclusively as a word processor.
What a word processor it was! Certainly it sped up my writing. The primitive spring-wound, coal-fired machine enabled me to crank out, say, an apparently thoughtful letter in a minute or two.
The problem was the envelope. It could take me an hour and a half to address it just right. I would feed it into the printer every which way. The address would emerge upside down or on the back. I would burn through a half dozen envelopes before I could get one with an address properly configured.
Even then it emerged sealed. I would steam it open over a tea kettle, paint the flap’s rim with Elmer’s Glue-All, insert the letter and re-seal the envelope. Magellan sailed around the world in less time than it took me to accomplish this mundane, routine task.
I’ve updated my equipment more than a few times over the years, but addressing envelopes remains an ordeal. To save time, in my university office I keep a typewriter. Its sole purpose is to address recalcitrant envelopes. One day, with my door open, an undergraduate student passed by in the corridor as I was inscribing an address on an envelope using my beloved Hermes 3000 typewriter.
Hearing the clacking, a sound till then unknown to him, the student paused. Indicating the typewriter he said, “What’s that?”
“You’ve never seen one of these?” Clearly he had not. I heard myself say to him, “It’s a user powered laptop.”
Instead of laughing, he appeared intrigued.
I started typing away. He drifted through the door and up to my desk, peering at the machine as I typed. “The user,” I explained, “powers the machine by pressing the keys.”
“So it needs no electrical cord!”
I showed him how with every stroke the carriage traveled forward a notch. I demonstrated how, upon the tinkling of the sort of service bell you'd find at a hotel's front desk, the device wrapped at the end of a line, soliciting a broad sweep of my arm, advancing the line and returning the cursor, so to speak, to the left margin.
“Look!” the student said, his eyes as wide as frisbees, dancing merrily in their sockets. "It prints as it goes!"
He predicted that one day all computers would incorporate this state-of-the-art, breakthrough capability.
Writing in Pairs: Spotlight on Writer Partners
Jason Latshaw & Doc Pedrolie
Screenwriter Jason Latshaw is a recent graduate of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program. Among his many awards, Jason placed within the top 3 percent for the Nicholl Fellowship and also placed first in the Golden Brad Screenwriting Competition. In addition, he wrote and directed the short, "The Electric Chainsaw Massacre," which served as an official selection of numerous film festivals. A married father of two and talented graphic artist by way of Philadelphia, Jason is one half of a writing team with award-winning screenwriter Doc Pedrolie. Jason writes for both film and television.
Inspired by HAROLD & MAUDE, Doc Pedrolie recently completed his MFA in Screenwriting at UCLA. While in the highly competitive program, Doc won the 2008 and 2010 Jack Nicholson Award in Screenwriting; as well the 2009 Alfred P. Sloan Screenwriting Fellowship. He has worked as a Story Analyst for Deuce Three Productions (Curtis Hanson) and Winkler Films (Irwin Winkler & Jill Cutler). A former Chicagoan, and freelance film critic, Doc is one half of a writing team with award-winning screenwriter Jason Latshaw. Doc writes for both film, television, and occasionally the stage.
Latshaw & Pedrolie are agented by United Talent Agency, managed by Circle Of Confusion and represented by Bloom, Hergott, Diemer, Rosenthal, Laviolette, Feldman, & Goodman.
Read on to see how these two writers met at UCLA, and the benefits that come from writing in pairs.
When did each of you first determine you wanted to become a screenwriter…were you already in the middle of a different career?
Doc: I wasn’t in the middle of a career, actually, I was an undergrad in Milwaukee, of all places. There I had a professor - Jim Balestrieri - who’d been to AFI. He was a playwright/screenwriter. I took him for Intro To Dramatic Writing, where we could write whatever we wanted - play, one act, short film, feature, pilot, etc... I said “feature” the first day when asked what I wanted to write. I have no idea why. At that point, I was a poet. Once you said it, though, the only way out of the class was to write it. That was the rule. Jim weighed our pages for our mid-term grade, literally. The more you wrote, better the grade. After much procrastinating, self-defeat, and one epic ten day blast of writing, I wrote my first (horrible) script. Brought it in, tossed it down on Jim’s desk. He picked it up - didn’t once look at it - looked me in the eye and threw it in the trash and said: “Great! Now we can really get started.” I was hooked.
Jason: For me, my destiny was basically sealed in the third grade, when I wrote and staged my own version of the Nativity story, which was about four minutes long, three minutes of which was a long, brutally realistic birthing scene. I made that class feel something, you know, and I was hooked. I’ve always been enamored with stories and characters and the journey and adventure of it all, so to be able to contribute whatever I could to that great tradition, I’ve constantly been searching for that particular sign up sheet!
I'll admit, though, I did always consider it to be a bit of a pipe dream, and thought I needed to be realistic so I wouldn’t be some starving artist. I placed it all in the hobby category and rose through the internet marking ranks at JP Morgan Chase. However, I found there was something worse, for me, than being a starving artist. And that was a well-fed banker. I was growing steadily more subdued about it for a while, this comfortable life my wife and I had settled into. I really felt like I needed to make a break for it at some point, or else that was all I’d ever be. Still, I didn’t quite know how to go about doing that.
Once you knew you wanted to become a screenwriter, what did you do to try and make that happen?
Doc: Nothing and everything. I wrote to learn. I spent another year with that professor in Independent Study, learning the basics; but after that I was on my own. So, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was the forest-killer. The only rule was finishing. Any and every genre. I also watched an unhealthy amount of movies, plus I actually read everything I pretended to read in college (Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc...) and wrote some more.
Jason: First I tried UCLA Extension online, about 10 years ago. I thought I could make a go of it from the East Coast. That was a good start, but looking back, of course it wasn’t nearly enough if I was going to be serious. I realized that sad truth even then, and my general melancholy grew. My wife recognized my dull disposition, and asked me, “What would you do, if it weren’t for me and the kids. If you didn’t have to worry about us and money and all that?” And I said, right away, “I’d go to LA, enroll at UCLA, make a real run at this thing, so I know I took my very best shot.” My wife replied, “Well, then that’s exactly what we’ll all have to do.” Until she said that, I never thought of moving to LA as an actual possibility, but suddenly it seemed like the most obvious, right thing in the whole world. Quitting my job, moving to LA, enrolling at UCLA – it was exactly the kind of inspirational dramatic action that I needed to prove to myself and everyone else that I was deadly serious about this.
How did you come to work together as partners? How do you think it will help you achieve the goals you have for your writing?
Doc: We came to the partnership pretty organically. Jason, his wife, and kids, who are some of my most favorite folks were the first people I met in L.A., by total happenstance. Then Jason and I were in a small, dedicated writer’s group that met weekly the entire time we were at UCLA, so we read each other’s 434 scripts and gave tons of notes to each other. I’ve been awfully envious of Jason’s talent since his very first script at UCLA. He can weave some serious magic. Then along the way we talked about collaborating on a graphic novel that just turned into the partnership when we graduated.
As far as how it helps us is pretty simple - two heads are better than one. In a meeting, when pitching, handling notes, especially as we develop material - meetings that might trip me up psychologically on my own or impossible story knots that would take longer in development are much more effectively and efficiently dealt with when you have someone to bounce everything off of.
Jason: Doc was the first person I met in LA. We were both lost, looking for a UCLA barbecue in Hollywood on a ridiculously hot day, both navigating, poorly, the lack of parking, the hills, the general disorientation. We stumbled our way together until we found it. Then, we were put into the same intro 434 class at UCLA, and immediately I realized that Doc was a writer to be reckoned with. His notes were often brilliant, his words cutting in a very good way – and hey, he liked my writing too, which of course means I’m going to like him very much.
For three years we read everything each other wrote, giving notes, generally helping each other develop some excellent scripts. And that naturally led to us starting to write some things together. We were excited by the quality, and the “rapid development” that working together brought about. Writing can be such a solitary endeavor, and you’re trapped up in your own head and your own imagination so often, sometimes it’s just nice to come out and bounce all that stuff off someone else. It’s amazing to me how often we arrive at something very good very quickly.
In meetings and in generally surviving this brutal business, it also really helps to always know you have an ally in the room. Before, during, and after meetings, it’s such a relief to have someone who is walking along with you, sharing the disappointments, helping you check what you thought you heard or didn’t hear, processing everything with you. I’ve taken a ton of these meetings and been through the wringer on my own, and a ton now with Doc. It’s better with Doc, without a doubt.
Doc and I have big goals in both film and television, and we believe that together as a team we’ll be much more likely to achieve them. There’s just simply more strength in two people. Everyone’s crazy and lazy and messed up sometimes, but with two people, we can cover for each other. 99 percent of the time one or the other of us will be sane enough to succeed. That’s big in this kind of pressure cooker.
What advice do you have for other writers to stay dedicated to their craft while balancing other necessary aspects of their life?
Doc: Slow and steady wins the race. Seriously. It’s tough. Accept that and move on. Then the next step is: do what you can habitually. That’s where slow and steady comes in. Chip away at it. Only have an hour a day, or every three days? Sit down and work that hour religiously - same time, same place. But you need to do it when your tired, when you don’t feel it - always push through and respect the hour. Tell the family - this is when I’m really working, or make sure that hour is when they’re busy, too. In Mike Werb’s class, Billy Ray came to speak one evening and he talked about first coming out of school at UCLA, he had a family and he had to work to provide for them, plus he wanted to spend time with them. So, he found he could only write on Sunday evening for three hours - which he did, without fail, and wrote the screenplay that got him going.
Jason: The truth of the matter is you spend time on the things that matter to you. If you aren’t sure what matters to you, look back and see where you spent your time. In my opinion, that should be loved ones, survival, art, and health. You have enough time for those four things. Really, a solid hour each spent on loved ones, art, and health will add up to huge results if you can stay consistent. And then you’ll still have 21 hours left in the day to divvy up as you see fit. It’s hard. I had a period in my life – about two or three years – where I was fortunate enough to be able to spend six to eight hours a day on my writing. I won’t lie, it was glorious and I pine for it every day, and the results from that kind of time investment were really impressive. But now, my life has changed, and I have to spend more of it on chasing the dollars, and the family really always has to come first. But I still carve out the time every day to write, and the results are still impressive over the long run. I have this theory – I think that secretly we want to give up, because being successful takes so much hard work, and it’s pretty exhausting. But we need to make ourselves believe that we tried our hardest, we need to create this scenario where we can accept our surrender and still feel good about ourselves. I’m always looking out for those tempting excuses that arise that one can accept and still feel good about their effort – while in fact quitting. I think the work-life-job balance is one of them. “Oh, I could be a good writer if it weren’t for my family, and my job. But family and paying the bills – that has to be the priority.” It sounds good, but the truth is it’s NOT either/or. Yes, they are the priority, but give yourself an hour to two a day for the writing, and then you don’t quit.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: