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New Past Time: Reading Screenplays May 7, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, Study.
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I’ve developed a new hobby: reading screenplays.  I never realised how much fun and how educational it be.

I read a few when I did screenwriting last year, but I kind of considered it a necessary learning experience and didn’t read as many as I should have.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the university library looking for a book that was conveniently ‘misplaced’.  It was listed as available but was nowhere to be found.  Typical.

Anyway, I was huffing and puffing from all the running around looking for it and desperately needed a break.  So I rested against a shelf of books and randomly decided to pluck one out.  As it turned out, I was at the screenplay section, and the one I picked was ‘The Contest’ episode of Seinfeld, possibly one of the greatest half hours in sitcom history.

I found myself laughing out loud as I read it, gaining a new appreciation for Larry David’s (and Jerry Seinfeld’s) genius, and the genius of the actors to be able to pull off those lines.  It was quite astonishing, really, putting anything I have ever written to complete and utter shame.

I used to think screenplays were just for the lines, but reading a good screenplay is a very enjoyable exercise in itself.  And a lot quicker than reading a book too.

I’ve grabbed a few more screenplays to read at home, just for fun.  I just got through the screenplay of one of my favourite films, Fargo, which has a phenomenal screenplay, a well-deserved Oscar winner.  The way the Coens write dialogue is just ridiculous.

I’m looking forward to doing more, when I have the time.  I do also have plenty of books I still need to read as well, not to mention a whole heap of writing to do.

Which screenplay should I read next?

Book Review: ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich April 22, 2011

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Here I go again, letting another book cut the queue of the books I’m supposed to be reading.  I had been interested in checking out Ben Mezrich’s (author of Bringing Down the House, the book that was made into 21) The Accidential Billionaires for ages — you know, the book that was masterfully adapted into one of the best films of last year, The Social Network — so I couldn’t help myself.

I got the e-book version in my little online shopping spree, thanks to the 30% off from the lovely but struggling folks at Borders.  I essentially started reading it yesterday morning as soon as I woke up (I keep the iPad beside the bed), and even though I was out the entire day, I somehow managed to finish the whole book before I got home.  Yes, it was a short book (with some very short chapters), but it was indeed a massive page-turner.  I can’t think of the last time I read an entire book in a day.

The Accidental Billionaires tells — in a dramatic, narrative style — the story of the founding of Facebook, from the dorms of Harvard into the biggest social networking phenomenon in the world.  I was surprised by how closely The Social Network mirrored the book in terms of plot and progression, and was even more surprised to see that Aaron Sorkin (the guy that adapted the book into the Academy Award winning screenplay) was one of the people that Mezrich thanked at the end of the book.

So if you’ve seen The Social Network, there won’t be much that in this book that you don’t already know — Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, the Winklevoss twins, Sean Parker — no wonder Mezrich thought it was a tale too extraordinary to pass up.  However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the story, even though I found myself constantly visualising scenes from the movie on just about every page.

The interesting thing about this book is that it does not read like traditional non-fiction.  Mezrich has made The Accidental Billionaires a work of ‘creative’ non-fiction using narrative techniques, including evocative descriptions and deft dramatisations.  As I read the book, I kept wondering just how much of it actually happened, because Mezrich’s primary source was Eduardo Saverin (the co-founder that was screwed over by Zuckerberg, who declined Mezrich’s attempts to contact him), who later refused to cooperate with Mezrich after his law suit against Zuckerberg was settled out of court.  Was Saverin telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or was his memory coloured by his anger towards Zuckerberg?  And honestly, did Facebook really get created because Zuckerberg and Saverin wanted to get laid?  Seriously?  Am I too old or is American college culture really that perverted?

On the other hand, Mezrich also had stacks of court transcripts at his disposal (from both the Saverin case and the ‘Winklevii’ case), as well as other eye-witness accounts and insider interviews.  But it still left a big question mark in my mind, especially because Mezrich admits to ‘re-creating dialogue’ based on the recollections of participants and the substance of their conversations.  Naturally, this meant certain conversations and correspondence may been compressed or may have never even happened.

However, thanks to Mezrich’s creative narrative techniques, The Accidental Billionaires is a crisp, enjoyable ride, albeit slightly one sided as most of it is from Saverin’s perspective.  It’s also somewhat unfortunate that Saverin stopped feeding Mezrich information after the settlement, because I think the book could have been even better.  The narrative started losing steam towards the end, probably because of the lack of information on what exactly happened, resulting in a fair bit of creative guesswork on Mezrich’s part.  Admirable effort, but it couldn’t completely disguise the problems.

3.75 out of 5

A word on the film

If there’s one thing I learned from The Accidential Billionaires, it’s that Aaron Sorkin is a screenwriting god.  In my humble opinion, The Social Network is one of those rare films that surpasses the book on which it is based.  I know David Fincher probably deserves a significant share of the credit, but Sorkin’s screenplay was phenomenal.  He managed to capture all the key scenes of the book (with little or almost no variation), which was great, but it’s the scenes he created that weren’t in the book that ended up being the most iconic scenes in The Social Network.  And the dialogue, most of which Sorkin must have just made up, kept the essence of the characters and simply elevated the story to a whole new dimension.  Mr Sorkin, I am in awe of your awesomeness.

Back to Writing Class…and I’m Excited! March 3, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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Kiss goodbye to not writing enough!

Following a lengthy period where I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I expected or wanted to (though I did find out that I’m about to, ahem, become a ‘published’ writer, in a ‘book’, no less), I finally returned to writing class this week.

Admittedly, I was a little frightened, a little concerned about whether I’d be able to get back into the swing of things, whether I could handle the workload, and whether I could handle even more workshopping.  This term, the final term, is where I would have to put everything I’ve learned together and produce a lengthy piece of work — with a view of getting it published.

And so I was somewhat nervous before class last night — I could tell because I was extremely thirsty.  But things got slightly easier when I saw that our lecturer was the same one that taught me last year for another subject.  I really enjoyed his teaching, even if he did like to show off a bit.  It also helped that there were a few other familiar faces in class (including a couple of brilliant writers).

As the class got underway, I relaxed a lot more.  As it turned out, the syllabus was very similar to previous subjects.  Yes, there are presentations and lots of workshops, none of which I really like, but I know they are effective in building me into a better writer.

Anyway, back to this major project.  I’m very lucky because I’m doing this term full time and don’t have to worry about work (apart from the occasional freelance article or review I sign myself up to).  Others who are working full time have to squeeze time out of somewhere, usually on the weekends — though on the flip side I guess you could say that they might be more efficient because time is so precious.

I had actually considered applying for a full time job (well, 35 hours a week, flexible) at a well-known magazine publication, but after last night’s class I think I’ll hold off for a bit.  I absolutely need to nail this major project, and I’m prepared to pour everything I have into it.

The question is, should I write a novel (or novella) or a screenplay?  Both will be based around the same idea, but they are very different formats.  Some say I should do a screenplay, because it is potentially easier.  Others say maybe a novel first, and then adapt it into a screenplay.  Our lecturer told us yesterday that screenplays is where the money is at.

However, the one thing that is making me hesitant about writing a screenplay is that my supervisor will be somethat that doesn’t exactly share the same tastes as me.  He/She did give me a good mark when I did the screenwriting class last year, but we disagreed on a lot of things.  He/She is more of an ‘arty’ filmmaker, whereas I like my stuff fast-paced, witty and sharp.  He/She does appreciate humour but does not think violence can be funny, whereas I think it can be hilarious, in a dark comedy sort of way.

So right now I am leaning towards a novel, a fictional memoir of sorts I’ve been contemplating on writing since about this time last year.  Either way, I’m excited because I know having this as a ‘subject’ will force me to get myself into writing shape and minimise the procrastination and laziness.

I need to break these bad habits I have formed while living a life of relative leisure.  I need to use the power of my mind, like Charlie Sheen.


Writing Screenplays is Hard Stuff! March 24, 2010

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We finally started learning how to write a script in our screenwriting class last night.  About time, considering we have to hand in a first draft of an original screenplay in a couple of weeks.

I have decided to go with a short film as opposed to a feature.  This is, after all, my first screenplay (the old crap I did with a friend doesn’t count — those were never finished anyway).  After last night’s class, I’m sure I made the right decision, because writing a screenplay is so much harder than I had envisioned.

You do learn a lot from reading screenplays, watching films and reading up on screenplay writing conventions and basic principles, but it’s not until you sit down to write one that you realise how difficult it is.  How do you structure it?  How do you describe the characters?  How do you transition from one scene to another, from one Act to another?  So many problems, and yet there’s so many ways to solve them!

I keep making the mistake of putting in too much aesthetic detail as opposed to capturing the essence of the tone and mood.  Who cares about what the characters are wearing or if they are shaven?  Wardrobe and make-up can take care of that.  It’s about making the script director and actor-friendly, so when they read it, it gives them an idea of what they have to do, while still allowing some level of creative freedom.

The short film I have in mind is a simple concept, but hard to pull off.  I’ve got the major plot points and the characters (I literally woke up in the middle of the night last week, had a sudden burst of inspiration and developed all the main characters before going back to bed), and last night I finally learned how to use a screenwriting program.  The one I’m using is Celtx, a free program (that can be downloaded here).  I can’t compare it to the many other free programs out there, but so far I have found it easy to use and navigate.

Whilst mucking around online, I also found this event called “Script Frenzy“.  It’s the screenwriter’s NaNoWriMo.  Write a 100-page screenplay in the month of April.  Sounds too challenging for me.  I’m going to stick to my 15-page first draft for now.

Lastly, we watched this Aussie short film last night by Nash Edgerton called “Spider”.  I’m not usually a fan of short films but this one was superb.  Check it out below.

Over-analyzing movies and novels March 18, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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I’m enjoying my writing course at the moment, but one thing that irks me is the tendency for class discussions and teaching to be bogged down by over-analysis of a film, script, short story or novel.

I don’t have a problem with chatting about what we thought of the particular work, or even what we thought of specific elements or parts of the work (say a scene or paragraph or chapter).  But to go on for hours about some very obscure symbolism or theme or meaning which may or may not have been the intention of the writer/director/artist seems to be a little presumptuous and perhaps a bit of a waste of time.

While there are definitely exceptions, most of the time I doubt the creators of these works had put that much excruciating thought and detail into every little thing, especially things that the ordinary audience would not have picked up until at least the second or third viewing.

I appreciate that sometimes, certain things in a work are deliberately left ambiguous or vague so they can be open to interpretation by the audience.  So what is the point of trying so hard to pinpoint exactly what that thing is and forcing a specific and definitive meaning onto it?

I wonder if sometimes the creators of the work actually come out and say, “Stop wasting your time analyzing my work.  I never meant for it to be so deep and meaningful!”

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