December 24, 2007

My Gift To You

I have three gifts to give on this Christmas morning.

But first, a statement of the obvious:

I'm a writer.

I wrote my first screenplay when I was 21, at the end of my senior year in college. I'd taken some film and video production classes, I owned a camcorder, and I figured I'd just round up my family & friends as cast & crew and just shoot it.

No lights. No editing equipment. No budget for food or craft services or costumes. No rehearsals or stunt coordination.

Ah, to be young and naive.

Anyway, it never happened, largely because I think the guy I most wanted to play the lead probably believed I cast him because he was too similar to the unsympathetic character he'd be playing (which is, of course, why I wanted him), so he turned it down. Could never get these non actors and non film crew to be totally motivated to labor for me for free.

But, after the production sort of fell apart, I started to look at the script a bit closer, and something about it just didn't seem quite..... real.

I realized that I didn't really know enough about acting to truly evaluate whether my script was good material for someone to create a good performance. Thus began my introduction to acting as a student at the 12 Miles West Theater company in Montclair, New Jersey's Luna Stage under the tutelage of my dear coach and thespian extraordinaire Jackie Knox.

Funny - as I'm writing this and looking for the links, I see all the changes that have happened in the last 11 years since I first walked into that little black box theater. Jackie left the company, started a family, & moved them and her acting studio down to my alma mater, Old Nassau. 12 Miles West lost their lease and is looking for a permanent home, temporarily housed in Madison, NJ. Luna Stage has become its own company, with its own classes. And I, of course, have moved to the City of Angels.

11 years.

One of my little cousins just celebrated her 10th birthday last week. She didn't even exist when I took my first acting class. Tonight, she was passing out her own Christmas cards and wrapping gifts for her relatives. A whole little person with her own agenda.

11 years.

During that class, I had the opportunity to read Sanford Meisner on Acting, by the great American "Method" coach. And, aside from the various techniques and methods described, there was one passage in that book that fundamentally altered my life. To paraphrase, Meisner said that the key to any art is understanding that it takes 10 years of doing it, constantly, to become a master.

10 years.

Up to that point, I'd lived my life in these neat little 4 year increments. 4 years of high school. 4 years of college. I was in the middle of what would eventually be 4 years as an IT consultant during the internet boom that coincided with an on-again, off-again long distance relationship that finally went nuclear after 4 years.

10 years just seemed like an outrageously long time at the time.

And yet, in the ensuing decade, life has happened.

And what is art, if it is not about life?

I recently saw a Flamenco show at El Cid in Los Angeles, and, while all three dancers were fantastically skilled, there was a weight to the older woman, a profoundness, a substance to her performance that her younger, faster, more agile counterpart lacked.

She was real.

She was

MORE

Before that, I saw this music video


Somewhere around the 2:45 mark in that video, Beyonce starts a dance routine that literally had me rocking back on my hips with my mouth open saying "I want to WRITE like THAT!!!"

Before that, as I was about to start the umpteenth re-write of the project I mentioned in this post, I recruited my significant other at the time, who is an incredibly accomplished (I mean, Award-winning) actress to help me do a little read-through of the script. I knew it was good, but, just like my 1st screenplay back in the day, I knew it was missing something.

So, before we read it through, she sat for a moment and, for lack of a better term, CHANNELED THE SPIRIT of my central antagonist.

Let me repeat that: she CHANNELED THE SPIRIT of my central antagonist.

I mean, literally, for a few moments, she became him.

I've been working on this particular script since 8 days before 9/11, but, that day, I actually met the villain of my movie, face to face, in my living room.

And I'm not afraid to say, that scared the piss out of me.

And, afterwards, she told me that things like that are part of the reason she took a break from acting, because letting someone like that get inside you begins to take its toll after a while.

Now, I'm sure I know what some of you are thinking. And if you can't go there with me on this particular Macroscope post, trust me, I understand. There was a time not long ago when even I wouldn't have read past this paragraph, so don't sweat it if you're not prepared for where I'm going with this. To paraphrase Jesus, "The Word is only intended for those who can hear, and those who can't...it was never intended for them in the first place."

Of course, those who know me know that probably my favorite Bible verse is the first verse of the first chapter of The Gospel according to John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


In other words, God is a writer.

Not only is God a writer, but God is also The Story.

And The Story was already there from the very beginning.

Just like Alan Moore and Warren Ellis seem to be suggesting in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and Planetary, respectively, the stories we tell already exist before we ever put pad to pen. If we want them to be MORE, we have to align ourselves with what they truly want to be.

When I wrote my first screenplay while in film school, I'd had it outlined and structured down to the Nth detail. But when I actually started writing it, something happened. As I like to say now, when I write, there's a point at which a threshold is crossed and, even though my flesh & blood body are still sitting at a keyboard, and then going to the dinner table and then maybe watering my front lawn, I am now, at that moment, actually INSIDE the story. So, by the time I came up for air and delivered my first draft, not only was is an outrageous 153 pages long, but the final 30 pages has nothing to do with my original outline at all. The story jumps off of the path I'd laid for it and literally snowboards down the side of a mountain into an area of my own soul that I didn't even know existed.

At the time, I told my writing group that I really don't know how that happened. I mean, it's almost as if I'd taken a nap and someone else had written the final act of the film.

Today, I often find myself advising my other writing friends to stop fighting with the story. It's a fully formed thing with its own agenda. And, just like I advised one of my aunts who's stressing out because her child's future may not be what she had planned, your babies have their own path. You just have to relax and be there to help illuminate it for them.

So, as I began to embark on the final round of re-writes on this film before we try to put it in front of a camera next year, I realized that, for this script in particular, even though I'd spent much time inside the story, I'd never really tried to actually live inside the main character. And that was the missing piece. As John Travolta said in the teaser trailer for "Face/Off": I must become him.

I tried it, and suddenly, I saw the film in a whole new light. It's like, the spine of the story had always been there on the page, I'd just been too blind pursuing my own agenda to see what it really wanted to be.

But, then, to start re-writing, I also had to do what my ex had done - I had to be inside the villain for a time, too. I had to make him just as real and as human.

It was a meditation.

And, after breathing through it and turning inward, when I'd let myself personally experience the horrors that made that character into a monster.... when I finished the mediation, I was aware that my face was sore.

Because my mouth had been open in a silent scream the entire time and I hadn't even realized it.

I'm not even going to get into the story about how a Tarot card told me that THIS was the script I had to write at this moment. :-)

As I was having lunch with a friend who's a network exec, I told her that I finally understood that storytelling and writing at the highest level, the one that actually moves hearts and touches souls, is actually an exercise in magic.

It's why so many people in Hollywood who pay the bills don't understand, and, consequently, don't respect writing. They know it's necessary, but it's not something you can really break down and measure and computate. To them, it's witchcraft. Literally.

So, my first gift is for every writer out there, and it's little piece of self-knowledge: If you are a writer, and you ascribe to the highest that our art has to offer, you are a magician. Like Merlin. Plain and simple.

And even if King Arthur didn't understand what Merlin did, he damn well knew he couldn't rule without him, which is why Merlin ALWAYS had a preferred seat near the King at the Round Table.

AMPTP, take note. The writers are the ones who make it all possible. The motion picture industry as we know it today simply would not exist without writers. The debt that everyone who makes their fortunes in filmmaking owes to writing can NEVER, EVER be fully repaid.

But I'm willing to bet that the WGA will gladly put the producers on some sort of installment plan. :-)

My second gift is for everyone, and it's this: If you have ever told a story to another soul, even if it was as simple as calling your sister and complaining about your day at work, then you, too, are also a writer.

Raw & lacking formal training? Perhaps. And not necessarily in the sense of a paid script doctor or bestselling novelist. But you are a writer, nonetheless. And all rights and privileges as described above apply.

So write.

Tell your story. Who cares if it's not in iambic pentameter? So what if it's just about how much your mother-in-law is driving you mad? Nothing, literally nothing, is more important than opening your soul and sharing it to let the sun shine in. I know some say "It won't change things if I say it". And my response is, you have no idea how much your life can change by simply expressing what's in your heart. How could you if you've never done it?

And my final gift is a hand-me-down, but maybe the best one I've ever gotten. And this is for all the writers (i.e. everybody)

When my previously mentioned ex was still just the cute but strange girl in the cubicle next door, she once told me that she could tell that I believed that the screenplay I was working on was going to save my life. And, as much as I wanted to deny it, she was right. "THIS script will be the one that sells and brings me money, accolades, respect, success, love, and eternal happiness." All in that order.

And she pointed out that, because I was so fixated on the script, I was neglecting my life in the process. And, again, she was right - I was broke, overweight, and dying in a dead-end job at the time.

But, as the scripture says "The Word IS God".

In other words, you ARE The Story.

And the story is only a reflection of you.

So, before you put all of your energy into writing that screenplay, or that song, or getting that part, or that promotion, or that bonus, or that car, or that house, or that man, or that kiss, or that new pair of shoes.... before you devote your entire focus to all of these things outside of yourself, take care of yourself first.

Write your life.

Literally.

Write down what you want to happen in your life. If it's your dream date, write down how it all plays out perfectly. If it's the launch of your business, write down how easily and smoothly and beautifully and successfully it occurs. If it's selling your screenplay, write down and describe the moment when you get the call, what the check looks like when you're holding it in your hand.

If you're a member of the Writers Guild of America, fire up that copy of Final Draft and write a scene where YOU, the screenwriter, are the main character, and you are getting residual checks for iTunes downloads of your show that are phatter and richer than you ever dreamed possible.

(In fact, maybe the folks over at UnitedHollywood should put up a wiki or something where the WGA rank & file can log on and write down their positive strike resolution fantasies, i.e. the ones where you get a shitload of money & respect, not the ones where you draw & quarter Nick Counter, because, after all, it's not about him, it's about YOU, so stop giving him all of your power. He's like Freddie in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Stop giving him the power to be your Bogeyman and he'll become irrelevant. Just a suggestion).

And when you've written these beautiful scenes, read them to yourselves as many times as you can. And feel good just imagining.

"Wouldn't it be nice if this were really happening exactly the way I wrote it?"

All of that good energy has got to go somewhere.

In short, this Christmas, practice some magic on yourselves.

After all, this is the season of miracles.

This is my gift to you all.

Now I can go to bed. :-)

Ho, ho, ho.

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