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Craft & Career

Issue 13                                                                                            August 10, 2010

Dear Writer,
Let's take care of some business first.

Some of you are receiving this newsletter for the first time.  By entering the 2010 Champion Screenwriting Competition, you are automatically added to our mailing list for the newsletter and contest updates.

We use Constant Contact to stay in touch with our contestants.  If you would prefer not to receive the newsletter, then check out the bottom  of this email for information on how to update your subscriptions.  If you entered the contest, but unsubscribed from our emails, you can always check the website and blog for updates on the contest.

If you'd like to avoid the $15 in WAB fees, today is the last day.  WAB's exclusive extension goes until August 20, which is absolutely the last day to enter.   
If you want to get into the Champion Lab, make sure you read the MESSAGE TO ENTRANTS below, which informs you how to you can increase your chances of getting into the lab in two ways.

Okay, enough business.

Welcome to issue 13.

I just finished directing a feature film in Detroit, and although I have plenty of craft insight to share, I think that after spending 110 hours a week in the trenches for two months straight, I am more interested in discussing career and life lessons today.  
My column mixes some craft into what is mainly a career topic.  However, you can skip the craft stuff with one click if you haven't seen the movie discussed.  For you newcomers, check out our Facebook page for links to all of the past 12 issues and in depth articles on Exploitation of Concept, Dialogue, Film Analysis and much more.

In the Champion Corner you'll find a personal testimonial for one of the coolest and most surprising prizes for this year's winners, involving recurring columnist and Champion sponsor, Rhona Berens, Ph.D.

Jim Mercurio 

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Every Writer who enters more than three features into this year's contest is entered into a random drawing for a seat in one of the three Champion Labs this December in Los Angeles.  We will give a seat away for every fifty eligible entrants.
Quarterfinalists and writers who enter four or more features will also be given the first opportunity to purchase discounted seats (if available) to the Champion Lab.  As of now, there are three sessions, two of which begin or end with an informal awards ceremony at dinner on Friday night, December 3. 
The final three-day session allows writers the option to stick around for a separate two-day class where we do nothing by workshop scenes with live actors.

Today is the last day to enter and save up to $15.


Jim Mercurio
Jim Mercurio 

I just returned from a two-month trip to Detroit where I was prepping and directing a feature film.  I went to school at the University of Michigan and it was a homecoming in a way. I was able to show my stepson my college campus (we missed Larry Kasdan by five minutes...talk about a Big Chill moment) and take him to my favorite deli in the world, Zingermans.  When it looked like the Michigan Film Office was going to turn us down for their incentive (a 40%+ tax credit), I wrote an essay about how UM and one of its longtime professors Frank Beaver inspired my love for film, and how our film was, in its own way, an extension of that same passion.  I don't know if it helped, but we got the incentive and a massive rebate -- of course, in my world, it was all because of the essay.  Go Blue!

While I was interviewing local students and recent graduates for the role of "assistant to director," an unpaid internship role, I came upon a recent graduate who was unwilling to work for free.  She held her ground and said, "no."  In her head, she thought she had won a victory.   I had a strong reaction and actually felt sick to my stomach.  It was a strange feeling.  It was the culmination of the good and bad sides of being a "champion" of people.  I thought she was throwing away an important career opportunity, something she should have said "yes" to.  Whether I was right or wrong about her, I think there is an idea to explore about when to say "yes" and when to say "no."

As a person who likes to find connections between things, I recently saw the movie The Kids Are All Right, and discovered that it also wrestled with the same issues:  characters who were trying to figure out when to say "yes" and when to say "no."  I am going to talk about that movie briefly to make sure you get your craft fix, but if you don't want to read that part or haven't seen the movie, skip ahead (the purple type is the craft stuff) and just read the career stuff.
To read all of the column, click here.

To skip the discussion of The Kids are All Right, click here.
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A testimonial from Jim about Champion sponsor
and Life Coach, Rhona Berens, PhD.
I am proud to say that I have chosen sponsors and prizes that have a real impact on writers.  All of our prizes lead to understanding the market, improving your script or craft, gaining exposure or getting you and your script ready to be shown to the world.  In other contests, winners might wonder,  "What am I supposed to do with that prize?"  I am proud to say that none of the prizes on our list should elicit that response.

I'll admit that not all people have the same attitude toward growth that I do.  It's not a coincidence that my contest is called "Champion." My strength as a writing coach lies in seeing the best in someone's work and in themselves and encouraging it.  Teaching, mentoring, coaching, and therapy have always been a part of my life.  Going both ways!  I even think of directing as being a champion...you push the 50 people who join your team to do great work, the best work they are capable of doing.  Sometimes the process is less gentle on a film set than with clients or students, but the same principle holds.

How good am I at figuring out what people's natural strengths are?  And how organically does being a life coach flow from Rhona Berens' essence?  Let me tell you.  Before she even told me that's what she was doing for a living, I asked her to be my coach.  I don't have enough room to explain that but let me tell you a story.

When Rhona and I started working together last year, I had just started A-List Screenwriting and had planned a weekend class in Washington, DC.  A born risk-taker, I won't say I aimed too high, but I will say I committed a lot of money to host the class in a fancy 100-person auditorium in one of the nicest hotels in the city.  I was sort of bummed out when I realized that despite my organized marketing efforts, I was going to end up losing at least $5,000.

I don't teach because I expect to get rich. But I also don't teach to lose money.  (That's what indie filmmaking is for....kidding, kidding.  If Rhona were here, she would never let me get away with that joke!)  In the long run, the financial situation sort of sucked but it wasn't the end of the world.  Rhona did some digging with me to help me figure out what was at the core of my letdown.  I am a good teacher and I know I could be a huge help to the attending writers.  I was ready and willing to put on an amazing 16-hour  "show" and I was disappointed when only a small audience was scheduled to show up to enjoy it.  If a Jim Mercurio class falls in the woods, does it champion anyone?  Know what I mean?
Rhona made me understand that the weekend was still allowing my highest values to be served.  I like teaching. I want to inspire people, to have an impact on their lives. I wanted to share my love of good storytelling and filmmaking.  I still had a chance to do that, but I had to make sure that my frustration with one piece of the puzzle didn't mess up the entire experience, for both my students and myself.  Maybe the class would be a failure as a business venture, but there was no way I could let it fail as a class.

I had a free talk planned the night before the Saturday-Sunday class at Georgetown and was giving a semi-dry 30-minute talk about film financing, a topic that they had chosen. I decided to show clips from The Dark Knight and L.A. Confidential to spark a discussion about screenwriting and storytelling craft.  I wanted to give them a hint of what the weekend class was going to be like.  Well, I talked for about five minutes and it yielded some interesting results.  First of all, more than a third of the people in attendance signed up on the spot for the two-day class that started in twelve hours. 

Did I still lose money?  Sure.  Lots of it.  But do I have any regrets?  No, and here's why.

In the impassioned five minutes - which is what I try to do for three days in the Champion Lab - I relayed my love for movies and was able to reveal the craft in new ways for the attendees.  Two guys I had never met before came up to me after the class.  One of them didn't have time to take the weekend class and one of them had time to only sit in on part of one of the days.  But over the next nine months, the two of them, in completely separate deals, invested a total of $100,000 into a movie I was producing and into my company A-List Screenwriting. 

I am not going to get all New-Agey and "The Secret" on you but I know Rhona's role in my life as, ironically, a champion, helped me identify and stay true to my core values.  I have since learned that one of the reasons I fill December with 50-100 hours of Champion Lab is because I like to have intense and immersive experiences.  That's why I call myself a filmmaker rather than a screenwriter.  When I tell my top twenty writers to come to Los Angeles for a week for a class that can change their lives, I am not messing around.  I don't put 200 hours of my life on the line in December so I can have a dozen people say, "Thanks for a pretty good class."

Since I started working with Rhona last year, here are a few of the things that she helped me to allow to happen:

1) I found a partner for A-List screenwriting -  13 issues of our newsletter and some new surprises coming soon!
2) As Executive Producer, I helped to raise money for a film shot in and around DC.
3) I am closing a deal for the first-ever, I believe, screenwriting book on Scene Writing.  The book proposal was a spin-off of my dialogue article from a few issues back.
4) I directed a feature film this summer that was produced by my fellow cineaste, Erik Bauer.

So, when I tell you that I VALUE what my contest sponsors can do for you, I mean it.

You know the phrase, "Put your money where your mouth is." Well, I have a better phrase:  "Put your energy and time where your values are."  Rhona helped me to do that.  If you are interested in her help, here's what you can do.

Check out her website.

Cross your fingers that your feature lands in the top 20 which allows you two free sessions with her.

Enter four scripts to give yourself a better chance of meeting her in person in the Champion Lab in December.

Thanks, Rhona!
 Champion Screenwriting Competition's more than $40,000 in prizes is made possible because of the generous support of its sponsors: Virtual Pitch Fest, Julie Marsh, Truby's Writers Studio, The Writers Store, Rhona Berens, Ph.D., iScript and Its on the Grid.  Stay tuned for more information about the contest or our sponsors.
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Warning: SPOILERS BELOW for The Kids are All Right.

I am not going to scrutinize this movie to death like I sometimes do.  In fact, I'll leave out enough of the details so that it will only make sense if you've actually seen the film.

Notice all the hippie references and peace signs.  The movie definitely has the idea of "freedom" on its mind.  Look at how the characters are set up - the Annette Bening character says "no" to nearly everything, while the Mark Ruffalo character says "yes."  The Julianne Moore character rebels against the "no" by moving toward the "yes," but then has to learn a tidy lesson that "yes" isn't always the answer, that life is more complicated than that. 

The daughter, played by Mia Waskowska (check out her stint on In Treatment...she gave one of the best child performances ever) whose growth anchors the movie, also has to wrestle with when to say "yes" and when to say "no."  She has to figure out when "yes" means freedom, and when "yes" only means regression and empty, and possibly harmful, rebellion.

I like the choice that the writer/director/actor made in not judging Ruffalo's character at the beginning.  He is really a guy who is open to anything and just going with the flow. I started wondering if the film and the director were going to have the insight to face the fact that eventually this character was going to have to create some conflict that was earned, i.e., the world of the story would have to come along and show that he wasn't perfect.  Sure, enough it did.  He makes his mistake with the Julianne Moore character and possibly the bigger mistake of saying "yes" for a bit longer than she does.

Okay, that's cool.  He's not perfect.  He made a mistake.  But when the family finds out, their reactions are all a bit too similar.   The son blows him off.  The Annette Bening character calls him an interloper, which from her perspective, is true.  To her, he is unwanted, a selfish intruder.  The thematic stickiness escalates when the daughter also blows him off.  Unlike the others, she leaves the door open a sliver by saying that she might see him again, but her final words are too judgmental and too much like her perfectionist mother:  she tells him he could have done better.

If it's a coming-of-age story and you want the daughter to learn the lesson that life is complicated, then you really want to explore the idea that freedom is learning the balance between "yes" and "no," and that sometimes you have to say "no" to things that seem easy and feel good.  But that also means that sometimes you have to say "yes" to things that seem messy or ugly.  Here's the problem.  His mistake, as it affected the family, wasn't any worse than the mistake made by the other mother, Julianne Moore.  But instead of introducing us and the daughter to a new idea/synthesis that it would be okay to find some way to accept love from this imperfect source, the film embraced the tidier notion of casting him out and "protecting" the family by saying an unequivocal "NO."

Essentially, the film doesn't give its characters (and the emerging themes) their due. Somewhere along the way....in the writing, the casting, the directing or acting, the Ruffallo character, the biological father, besides being impulsive and selfish and a little bit lost, also became honest, caring, interested, giving, and protective.  A more mature idea of freedom would allow us and the daughter to embrace him at least a teeny bit.  If the daughter had told him that he could have been "better" and yet was definitely willing to see him at some point, it would have solved it for me.  If she had pulled his hat out of her stuff at school, that would given me a sense that she had learned something meaningful. The nice thing about the hat was that it was linked to protecting her (from the sun).  Heck, even if she had bought sunscreen or said hi to a guy on a motorcycle, that would have at least been a gesture that she's outgrown her mother, that adulthood and freedom (checkout the big hippie poster in her dorm hallway) means a complex understanding of things, and that she would be able to embrace (say "yes" to) imperfection in her life.

Speaking of life... let's go from REEL LIFE back to ... 
In the above discussion of The Kids are All Right and in discussing Dead Poet's Society and The Hurt Locker, I have discussed what Mckee calls the "Negation of the Negation."  I have playfully called it the "F-d up Permutation."  It's the place where two seemingly contradictory ideas in a script collide and mesh in such a way that an action which seems to so clearly be A and not B is actually B and not A.  To understand this in movies is craft.  To understand it in life is, I guess, wisdom.

The twenty-twoish-year-old woman I interviewed for the director's assistant position was living in Michigan after having graduated a year or so ago with a degree in journalism.  She had decided that she was going to pursue being a writer, producer or director...she hadn't settled on one yet.  I told her that this would be a good opportunity to learn about these crafts.  In lieu of a few hundred dollars a week, I offered consultation on her screenplay, a seat in my screenwriting class, and the opportunity to be present during rehearsals (even those where we would rewrite on the spot), private meetings with the producer, AD, DP, and every other department head.  And she would be allowed to watch 90% of the movie being shot from ten feet away.  I figured if she really wanted to ponder being a director, she should find out what the role entails. 

She "stuck to her guns" and said that she had to get paid $10 per hour.  I could literally hear her parents' voices in her head saying things like "You stick up for yourself" or "You don't let them take advantage of you."  She then went on to brag about how she has been able to make a living (by living at home) over the past year or so by finding paying PA jobs and Assistant to the Production Coordinator jobs here and there that paid a few hundred dollars per week. 

Trying to see if there was a better fit for her, we offered her the role of "Assistant to the Producer," with one of the perks being that she could sit with the producer at the end of shoot and review
the hundred-page application  for the Michigan Film Incentive.  If you were going to go make a 50k feature in MI as part of your rite-of-passage, this insight would have been worth more than 20k since the MI incentive kicks back more than 40% of the money you spend there.  She said no to that also.

Is it possible that I was wrong about this young lady and that maybe she was getting exactly what she needed from sporadic, poorly-paid assistant positions?  Maybe she was discovering her love for film and she was going to have an epiphany in a few months that she needed to go to grad school or get a part time job that would allow her to write twenty hours a week.  Maybe.  Maybe not.   A little context: a week later, as I knew we would, we found forty "kids"' who were willing to give us a month of their time for credit and experience.  So why did we buy this woman lunch and keep talking to her?  Why am I spending six hours typing this story for you?  I guess it's a symptom of being a champion.  There is a dark side sometimes to seeing someone's gifts when you also have to see them wasted.

See, in some version of this story I am an evil old man manipulating this poor little girl into working for free but this is where the "F-d up Permutation" plays out.  My spending an extra ten minutes to convince her to take the non-paying job wasn't manipulation and "taking advantage."  It was ironically, taking care of her and helping her career in a way her parents never could.

Spending sixteen hours a day on a production as a PA spread out over years of intermittent work is probably the least productive way to "get into the industry," especially if you want to aim for an above-the-line title.  If you want to be a producer, become an assistant to a producer - even if it's without pay - but make sure you get access to what's going on.  If you want to be a director, get in line.  And then figure out what you don't know and get in the other line:  to making movies, going to film school, or learning the related trades like working with actors, development, editing, cinematography or, ugh, producing.  

On the feature film March that I directed, one of my students wanted to be a DP, so I let him be 1st or 2nd AC for the entire shoot.  He worked tirelessly for fifteen hours a day that summer, was never late and never complained.  His payment was two meals a day plus craft service.  He told me after the shoot that he realized that he hated the camera department and that he decided to go to grad school to be a producer.  Do you know how much that information was worth to him?  A lot more than $400 a week for three weeks.  One of the interns on last month's shoot actually saw how much went in to directing and decided that he wasn't cut out to be a director.
This woman was a possible foil character for me and my life story, whose function was to show me the importance of some of the choices I have made in my life, the times I have said "yes."   I think there is a career lesson in this for all of us about when to say "yes" and when to say "no."   Sometimes getting paid isn't really getting paid and sometimes you even have to pay yourself.
There is a rule about productivity that has been applied to filmmaking - the idea that out of Cheap, Fast, and Good, you can only get two out of three.  You can rush it and it will be bad or expensive.  You can save money and it will be bad or a drawn-out process.  Or if you need it to be good, you have to pay with either cash or time.  Well, I made a low budget movie this summer that was done pretty quickly.  We shot one hundred and twenty pages in three weeks.  I think it's pretty damn good.   But it was a low budget movie and my salary was, well, nominal.  So does that mean the equation broke down?
No.  Here's why. 
It's been ten years since I've had a chance to direct a movie.  Was I going to look back at this experience and whine, "There wasn't enough time, if only I had more preparation, if only the budget were bigger, if only I had a storyboard artist..."  No!  Screw that!  How would that help ANYONE?  Although my fifty cents per hour salary has already been eaten up in travel and prep, I was paid an additional  $15,000 to make this movie. 
Who paid me?  Me.
I took three months off to work on rewrites with the writer.  I spent a month more on pre-production than anyone else other than the producer.  I turned down work and literally had to return money to clients to focus on the movie.  I cleared five-six months of my life to prepare the way I wanted to, so in essence, I sacrificed half a year of work and PAID MYSELF.
The working writers with whom you're competing make $100 to $10,000 per hour to write scripts on assignment.  They have a team of really smart people whose careers are on the line giving them notes and feedback.  If the film gets made, maybe they have A-list actors poring over every line and making the characters stronger and the dialogue better. Hey, I have even heard there are a few directors that can help the evolution of a script.
This is meant to inspire you, not discourage you.  What is it about your script or the writing process that you value enough to put aside a weekend for?  A week?  A month?  Part of your summer?  
Are you okay with just wanting to have some fun, meet some people and use your creativity?  That's cool.  That's part of why I like to teach.  Is it about the money?  If so, consider changing the line of writing.  Ever consider writing ransom notes?  But seriously, how do you keep your interest alive for five -to ten years until it's likely that the money side MIGHT pay off?
Figure out the real core values for you in your screenwriting or filmmaking goals.  Is it to tell your story?  To make a million people laugh?  To make a better movie than the one you saw at the Cineplex this weekend?  Here's one of mine: I want to show the world something that only I can show them.
These sorts of values can sustain you for the years of perseverance that this business requires.  Dig deep to find what's important to you.  Find the values that allow you to put the time and effort in to take your script or movie all of the way.  Are there things in your life that don't serve these values?  Are you asking the hard "Negation of the Negation Career" questions to make sure that the things you think are helping aren't actually hurting you?  I will pose some questions for you to ponder on the A-List Blog this week and feel free to pose some of your own too.
And when you are in service of the things you value, don't be afraid to say "yes" to yourself.  Or to paying yourself.  You're worth it.
Coming Up With Going Down
Imagine you are watching a disaster movie like 2012 or Armageddon, and in the first act they blow up New York City and the entire East Coast.  And then in the second act they blow up half of Eastern Europe.  Can the climactic set piece of destruction be wasting an abandoned building on the outskirts of Wichita that is empty save for the four stragglers who've hung around to chat after the end of their Weight Watchers meeting?  No.  And for the same reason, you can't start on your knees "tasting" and end with "tires being rotated."  It's anticlimactic - a letdown.  Plus, who needs another Bruce song about cars, right?
After a few months on the road in the mid-'90s, Bruce stumbled upon what the song was really about.  As he said in the intro to the story that led in to the song: "I've been traveling around the country on this tour promoting cunnilingus."  If this were a script, I would have told him to look at the opening image (verse): tasting.  It was there all along.  Put your money where your mouth is, Bruce.  If the song was not just about sex but more specifically about cunnilingus, then as a story it didn't go (oxymoronically) all the way ... until he rewrote the final verse:
New final verse:
When push comes to shove and shove comes to push, I was Moses standing 'fore the burning bush
It starts with a cliché and then totally twists it into something new and surprising.  It's a fun rhyme.  And it's, uh, on topic.  It pays off the "got down on your knees."  In fact, it resonates with several thematically powerful ideas: passion, religion, fire, burning, beckoning, and two connotations of supplication.  The passion and sex juxtapose with the awe and reverence of the religious imagery, taking all involved - the story, the storyteller, the audience - to a higher level, a revealing epiphany of the magnitude of the experience.
This, my friend, is a killer ending.
Subconsciously, Bruce began with what an opening image of your movie should be: something very specific.  "On your knees and tasted" sums up perfectly what we can expect from this story.  But on the first draft, he didn't nail it.  The time he spent on the road with the song was the screenwriting equivalent of getting feedback from friends or professionals or from hearing your script read aloud.  It allowed him to perfect it.
That's how theme works. You get there with right- and left-brain techniques.  Write your first draft and the uncensored right-brain process will lead you to a lot of great stuff.  But then mine your draft for clues to what your script is really about.  Before, during, or after your last draft you must become very explicit (or, like Bruce, be explicit about being explicit) and say: My story is about this.  Say it aloud.  Then use that clarity to rewrite your story and bring it into emotional and thematic coherence.
Here's the
In This Issue
Craft and Career: When to Say Yes
The Champion Corner: The Value of Values
WWBD? Column: Coming up with Going Down
Killer Endings Sale

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What Would the Boss Do?
In the early '90s Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called Red Headed Woman, inspired by the rivaling love and lust for his redheaded wife, Patti Scialfa. You can peruse the complete lyrics, but here is an excerpt from the dirty ditty brought to you by the gods of fair use:
Listen up, Stud, your life's been wasted until you've got down on your knees and tasted a red headed woman
Excerpt from middle verse:
Tight skirt, strawberry hair, tell me what you got, baby, waiting under there
Excerpt from final verse:
I don't know how many girls you have dated. But you haven't lived till you've had your tires rotated by a red headed woman
First things first: That final verse doesn't cut it as an ending.  Bruce knew it.  And let me tell you how I knew it.
Killer Endings
 and The T-Word: Theme
Killer Endings
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Killer Endings
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 T-Word: Theme
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A-List filmmakers with billions of dollars in box office have relied on Jim and his DVDs. 
But more importantly for you, Jim will be offering classes in a few cities across the country where students watch the DVDs on their own and then come for an intense 2-3 day follow-up workshop.
Want to be ready for a class?  Grab these DVDs and stay tuned!

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