MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #23
The view from the writing studio high atop my Silver Lake home is so beautiful that in order to avoid distraction I draw the shade. Some years ago I commissioned an artist to paint a picture of the view. When I viewed the result I saw that the painter's vision was different from my own. Was it as fine as I had hoped it would be? It was not. It was better. Read on to see why screenwriters should stay open to surprises.
A SCREENPLAY IS NOT
A PASTRAMI SANDWICH
Some years ago my wife and I discovered in a Silver Lake tchotchke emporium (‘tchotchke’ is Yiddish for trinkets, costume jewelry, creative paraphernalia, objets d’ art) extraordinary water colors by a local artist. They depict scenes from the neighborhood. Silver Lake is a hilly, leafy, serene enclave surrounding a clear, blue, eighty-acre reservoir. It is at the center of Los Angeles, two minutes from Dodger Stadium, not five minutes from City Hall, and yet it seems at the same time to be somewhere out in the countryside.
The paintings are bold, unromantic, even anti-romantic. They contain lots of blank space. Their focus is often plain pavement, gutters, asphalt swaths writhing like eels as they negotiate the topography’s contours. Here is a run-down auto repair shop, there a downscale beauty parlor, and over there a rickety dry cleaner.
The artist, Robert Campbell, wanted two hundred dollars per painting. We told him the price was not acceptable. We offered instead to purchase three for a total of nine hundred. After full and deliberate consideration he consented to our proposal.
Silver Lake boasts numerous architectural landmarks including homes by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son Lloyd Wright, also Neutra, Schindler, Greene and Greene, and more. Our own home, typical of the area, is a Spanish Colonial Revival structure built in the 1930s, set into a hillside on four levels, with stucco walls and a terra cotta tile roof.
The view from my study is so alluring that I draw the shade while writing. Otherwise I would stare out the window all day and never write a word. The blue sparkling lake lies below. Beyond that lie the verdant Verdugo foothills. Further back arise purple mountains in all their majesty, the ten-thousand foot San Gabriels, sporting snow atop Mount Baldy even in August.
I commissioned Campbell to paint a picture of the view.
He came to the house, climbed the stairs to my aerie, set up his easel, and went to work.
An hour later he showed me the result.
It was not at all what I had envisioned. The lake and hills and mountains, instead of serving as the center of the frame, are consigned to a diminutive corner at the top right. The vast bulk of the graphic consists of the tiles. They dominate the scene.
Why do I write about this in a column treating screenwriting?
Because the artist’s vision was not merely different from my own; it was superior.
A picture postcard view is just that: a picture postcard view. They are a dime a dozen at the local convenience store. The painter had captured a vision that was more original, more engaging than what I had seen in my mind’s eye when I commissioned him. Because the house resides on several planes, the tiles run this way and that. Where they meet, as various angles coalesce, early 20th Century craftsmen had carved and trimmed scores of tiles individually, every one unique, in order to conform to the particular surfaces where they are arrayed.
Screenwriters constantly confront this sort of dynamic when we work on assignment for producers. Moreover, we do so almost inevitably with disappointment.
Consider me, the patron commissioning the painting, to be a film producer; think of the painter as the screenwriter. I have a vision in mind and hire the artist to realize it. Instead of merely carrying out my instructions, he exceeds them and gives me something far more beautiful than I had bargained for.
Is this not cause to rejoice?
Alas, that’s not the way it works in the movie biz. When a producer orders a film script it is like ordering a sandwich at a deli. He wants what he orders. If he orders pastrami and the waiter brings him egg salad, he’ll send it back. Wouldn't you?
A screenplay, however, is not a sandwich.
The pity is that producers rarely see anything in a script other than what is different from what they had in mind when they ordered it. Soaring imaginations on the part of writers more often than not translate for producers as disappointment. Rather than letting go of their inferior image, producers likely cling to it and reprimand the writer for not having achieved it with precision.
Writers must realize that even scripting our own original screenplays, where no producer has described any story to us, we have to let go of our earlier expectations and embrace new development and unplanned images. The last thing any writer should do is to drag his ever-evolving story, writhing and wriggling like the asphalt streets in our watercolorist’s Silver Lake paintings, to some earlier pre-ordained intellectual notion that once resided in his head.
The lesson for life and screenplays alike: stay open to the surprises.
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Dan Mazeau
DAN MAZEAU grew up in Santa Rosa, CA and majored in physics at UC Berkley before enrolling in the MFA screenwriting program at UCLA. There he wrote a family fantasy "The Land of Lost Things" and the script was set up at Nickelodeon/Paramount, with Arnold Kopelson producing. Hired by Dan Lin and Warner Bros. to adapt "Jonny Quest," he was named one of Variety’s "10 Screenwriters to Watch" in 2008 and the script was on the Blacklist that same year. In 2012, he wrote WB’s "Wrath of the Titans."
Other projects include "The Flash" for Warner Bros., and Doug Liman’s "Untitled Moon Project" for Dreamworks and Pararmount. Dan completed some production rewrites on “Men In Black 3” last year and is currently adapting the Japanese Manga “Bleach” for WB and writing two projects for director Shawn Levy.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?
Dan: I always loved movies. As a kid, I spent countless hours making fake squibs and monster puppets and shooting crappy little short films in my backyard. But a career in Hollywood didn’t seem like a realistic proposition, so I pursued my second love: science. Then I graduated, started working for a biotech start-up, and realized pretty quickly that sometimes second loves are second for a reason. I moved down to LA a few months later.
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
Dan: I enrolled in UCLA’s Professional Program, then subsequently enrolled in the MFA program. I had great instructors (like Paul Chitlik, Neil Landau, and Hal Ackerman and Richard Walter), and given that I spent the last five years doing quantum mechanics, it was a helpful transition for me.
My career started like many others: a friend (who I met at UCLA) liked one of my scripts enough to pass it on to another friend, and it wound up in the hands of someone at Kopelson, who liked it enough to pursue it. The accepted wisdom is that the walls of Hollywood are insurmountable, but my experience has been very different. People in this town are desperate for good material, and if you write something that gets them excited, something that can actually become a movie, that script is the only ticket you need.
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Dan: That’s a tough one. I’ll cheat and say two: “Jurassic Park” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” “Jurassic” because it’s the movie that I saw at 12 that made me want to make movies. I walked out of that theater having seen real, honest-to-god dinosaurs, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that magic. And “Butch” because it’s simply one of the best American films ever written.
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Dan: Read and write. I must’ve checked out every script in the script library while I was at UCLA. Old scripts, new specs - everything. I wrote countless pages. Tried genres I never imagined I’d try. And it was all important. It was all helpful. But it’s also important to keep in mind that you’re not only creating a work of art, but a small business plan. If you look at the local multiplex and you don’t see a single movie remotely similar to what you’re writing… you’re either a genius, or you’re in big trouble. You have to write things that feel like movies. Stories that resonate with a mass audience. And that doesn’t mean just one genre, or one kind of movie. If you love big fun popcorn movies like I do, write those. If you love dark dramas, write those. Just write. Don’t worry about networking, or querying, or any of that. Just write movies, and you’ll find a way in. It’s not easy, but it is possible. I’m living proof.
Catch Richard If You Can!
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