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Best of 2016

This year the In Memoriam section of the Oscars is going to be longer than the award ceremony.

cfI’m writing this shortly after hearing about Carrie Fisher dying. Yeah, I’m a Star Wars fanatic, so of course I dig Carrie Fisher. But to me, she was something more. When I found out that she was a script doctor and wrote screenplays, that was the first time I really considered screenwriting as a cool endeavor. She was sharp and funny.

So that’s why I’m here in Hollywood. I want to write. I want to be like Carrie Fisher and be known for both my writing and my personality. She was amazing, guys. Yeah, she was also bat shit crazy, but aren’t we all?

Here is a more in depth look at my favorite films of 2016. I’ll steer clear of spoilers.

Starting with a cheat…

Tied for #10: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Both are super funny comedies, but the two couldn’t be more different. Wilderpeople is Taika Waititi’s follow up to What We Do In the Shadows (possibly the funniest movie of 2014). I think a lot of the New Zealand specific jokes go over our heads in America, but Wilderpeople is still a really touching and funny movie that’s essentially an odd couple road film…a very tried and true formula.  Popstar is a modern day Spinal Tap from the Lonely Island guys. Their reign on SNL is a blind spot for me, so I really find their absurdly silly songs fresh and new. This is one that I saw in a screening very early on in the year (Judd Apatow was there) so I don’t know what’s different from the version I saw versus the final release. I’m guessing they trimmed down the final release, but the DVD/Blu-Ray features a lot of deleted material. Like Spinal Tap, the sheer number of jokes is mind blowing.

#9: Don’t Breathe. Again this is another one that I saw an advance screening. From what I understand, a few minutes of the Blind Man explaining his motivations were cut from the final release, but are on the DVD/Blu-Ray as well as a little bit of maybe a redemption moment for Jane Levy’s character. Jane Levy is becoming one hell of a scream queen. She’s great in this and writer/director Fede Alvarez’s previous Evil Dead reimagining. Don’t Breathe features a pretty realistic look at many of the vacant neighborhoods of Detroit too.

#8: 10 Cloverfield Lane. I missed a screening for this when it was still called Valencia. I think maybe the Cloverfield tie in hurt it at the box office. Did enough people see the original Cloverfield to warrant a kind of/not really sequel? The cast of this is phenomenal. I love stories that could work well as plays too. I’d love to see a stage adaptation of this. It’s really a master class in writing plot twists. I’m trying to piece together who is probably ultimately responsible for the great screenplay since there are three writers credited. Since the first two also have “story by” credits, I’m guessing Damian Chazelle, who will pop up again on this list later, is largely responsible.

#7: Sing Street. I’m probably the perfect age to really love this love story/80s musical. I’m the same age as writer/director John Carney. Like Carrie Fisher, Carney is very vocal about his opinions. Unlike Carrie Fisher, his opinions kind of made him sound like a dick. He took down Keira Knightley after making Begin Again with her. I loved Begin Again, as well as his debut Once. Sing Street, like those two films, is also the story about a boy who loves a girl and making art with that girl.

#6. Midnight Special. This is a phenomenal sci-fi allegory about parenthood. Jeff Nichols is just a master story teller. I’m really bummed that I wasn’t able to see his second movie this year, Loving. Midnight Special is wonderfully acted too. Michael Shannon and Adam Driver both play against type. Shannon is the protective dad and Driver, fresh off of The Force Awakens, is the socially awkward and clumsy NSA agent tracking Shannon and his son, played by Jaeden Leiberher, who held his own opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in the sweet St. Vincent.

#5. Other People. Nobody has been talking about this movie that has my favorite performance of the year. It opened on 12 screens in September, but is now available to stream on Netflix. This was written by Chris Kelly, who was one of the head writers at Saturday Night Live as well as almost every other funny sketch thing. I’m guessing this is a semi-autobiographic story because it’s about a struggling comedy writer, played by Jesse Plemons, who has to go back home to take care of his dying mom played by Molly Shannon. Molly Shannon is nothing short of amazing in this. The fact that she isn’t even being considered for an Oscar nomination is a real shame and says a lot about the politics of show business. She is by far my best performer of the year. Like films along the lines of Skeleton Twins, Other People is a perfect balance of super funny in one moment and then heart wrenching in the next.

#4. Arrival. I love a movie that makes me look at life differently after seeing it. Arrival did that. I ended up going for a walk before I went to my car just so I could process what I watched. I think time jumps are really difficult to write. Arrival does that in a way that, without spoiling anything, is simultaneously clear and ambiguous at the same time. I can’t think of another film that expertly doles out information as precisely as Arrival. I’m bummed that it was based on a short story, because this is a film that I wish I could visit a more thorough version of in prose.

sw#3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yes, I’m biased. I’ve loved Star Wars my entire life. I’m not only a prequel apologist, but I’ll argue the merits of Jar Jar Binks. With that being said, Rogue One is the prequel we deserved. The last ten minutes of this film, the ten minutes where you know what’s going to happen, still end up being ten of the most edge-of-your-seat tense minutes of the year. I’ve been worried that Disney was going to do to Star Wars what they’ve done to Marvel and just drown us in content both good and so-so.  I was cautiously optimistic about a Star Wars movie without the core characters, but Rogue One calmed any reservations I may have had.

gr#2. Green Room. This was, by far, the scariest movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Mostly because I’ve been in situations that could have easily broken as bad for me as it does for the band in this film. I worked in a punk/metal club that sometimes featured Nazi bands, which drew Nazi crowds. We locked ourselves inside when fights between Nazis and SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) spilled outside and become near riots that attracted the Detroit Police. And in my later years, comedy has taken me to some really shitty dives in the middle of nowhere. Green Room, like Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film Blue Ruin is an uncomfortably grounded story about real people stuck in unreal situations.

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#1. La La Land. I’m a sucker for a musical. I’m a sucker for a Hollywood story. I’m a sucker for a love story. I’m a sucker for a bittersweet story. I’m a sucker for a story about pursuing your dreams. I feels like Damian Chazelle made La La Land specifically for me.  This, like Rogue One, ties a perfect bow on a really stellar piece of art in those final moments. The music is so good. I just saw this yesterday, otherwise I’d have already overdosed Allyson (my fiancé) with the soundtrack. I think I caught all of the “hidden” edits in Birdman. If there are hidden edits in the opening number of La La Land, then I didn’t find them…although, as soon as I finish writing this, I am going to dive deep into all the information I can find about how this was made. The cinematography was just amazing. Simply amazing. Linus Sandgren takes places I see every day and shoots them so beautifully.

So that’s the list. I haven’t seen Silence yet, but I really want to. I love stories about people whose faith is pushed to the limit. That’s why Calvary was my favorite film in 2014. I didn’t get to see Edge of Seventeen or the aforementioned Loving either. I think I’ll really like them both when I do catch up with them. One film I did see this year that will  definitely make my 2017 list is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I saw a preview screening and if it came out this year, it would have easily been in my top three. I think it screened at Sundance or South by Southwest, so I guess technically I could have included it, but we’ll hold off until everyone gets to see it.

Pitching a TV Show

pitchI’ve been fortunate over the past year to shadow an established television writer as he works on various pitches for his own shows. He works predominately in procedurals and political dramas, while I’m mainly a comedy guy.  But I knew the fundamentals I was learning were universal.

He always starts with a brief, but catchy biography about himself and why that makes him the best person to write what he’s pitching. His origin story has become like folklore.  He was a Washington DC speech writer, but some of the details change a little bit here and there.  Most importantly, the drama amps up in a way that always hooks you right out of the gate.

From there he goes into the teaser for his show. If you don’t know, that’s basically the thing you see before the first commercial that, if done right, keeps you from changing the channel for the next thirty or sixty minutes.  My mentor is great a teasers.  Political drama and procedurals are pretty much at the bottom of the list of things I like to watch, but more often than not, his teasers grab me.

Then he talks about the pilot episode while giving pertinent information about all of the key characters. He gives you enough of their backstories to get you to really know who they are as people.  Sometimes if the teaser doesn’t grab me, his ability to create interesting characters does.  His characters are always flawed.  They feel real.  Most importantly, they’re interesting.  We always know what their needs are and why they need it.

After he gives a pretty detailed beat by beat run down of the pilot episode, he goes over story beats for the entire first season of his show up to the cliffhanger ending. He wraps up by touching on the themes of further seasons so that whoever he’s pitching to knows he’s thought through this entire world.

Off the top of my head, I’ve sat through seven very detailed pitches in the past year from him. He’s a work horse.  In addition to learning how to pitch, I learned how to manage time and projects.  I’ll write more about that in the future.

So that brings me to our pitch.

Along with comedian DJ Dangler and artist Axel Ortiz, I created an animated show. My friend Joe Apel has been working in animation for the past ten years and directed me to someone at a network who might be looking for something maybe along the lines of what we created.  I sent an email and a meeting was set up pretty quickly.

DJ spends most of his time on the road making his living off of stand up, while I’m currently choosing to take a little break from the road and focus my attention on California right now. When the meeting was set, DJ decided to fly back to not only be there for the meeting, but to make sure we were prepared.

Axel is just as much of a work horse as the aforementioned television writer. He’s a veteran of the pitch meeting, but pointed out earlier that if we had a star attached to our show, that would give us an advantage.  Over the past six months, I’ve been working on getting the biggest name I know attached to it.  The week before our pitch, we got him.  He looked at what we were going in with and said that he was happy to be part of it and if it lands, we can hammer out the details then.

I researched the person we were pitching to. She was a guest on a comedy podcast and spent an entire hour talking about the pitching process.  In that interview, I also found out that she, like DJ, is from Indiana and her wife, like me, is from Michigan.  She and I both nerd out over character actors too.  So I knew we had a conversation opener and I wasn’t going to have to overly explain things like if I said, “Oh this character is a little bit like Miller from the movie Repo Man, played by Tracey Walter”, she was going to know who Tracey Walter is.  For the record, many of the scripts I’ve written have characters that I imagine Tracey Walter playing.  I know why Jonathan Demme puts him in every movie, because Tracey Walter is a national treasure!  I once told DJ that I would be more excited about meeting Tracey Walter than I would be about meeting George Lucas or Harrison Ford.  I think Tracey Walter lives within a mile of me too.  And if you think every time my girlfriend and I walk around the neighborhood, I’m not on a constant look out for Tracey Walter watering his plants, then you’re wrong!

Axel went in to pitch on another show three weeks prior to our meeting and told us what the executive asked from them. DJ and I wanted to make sure we were over prepared.  We had a pilot script.  We had ideas for story beats for our first season and I knew what I wanted to happen in the final episode of the entire series.  But DJ and I detailed out episode by episode the entire first season of our show.  We knew the story beats and what themes each episode would explore.   A friend of mine who works in printing made us a really nice pitch packet too.

The idea of writing stories with an overall point of view or theme is something that I would accidentally sometimes hit, but other times missed completely. DJ and I have a mutual friend in comedian turned television writer Nick Anthony who really hammered into us the idea that we sometimes missed that.  So when DJ and I started the conversation about each episode of our show, we started with what was the theme for that episode.  It really helped us figure out where the other characters were going to be in their individual arcs.

The night before our pitch, DJ and I walked home around five miles from West Hollywood to the far eastern side of Hollywood really exploring every character we created. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their backgrounds, and their secrets.

So going into our pitch I knew we created something cool, timely, we have a big name attached and we were prepared.

The meeting was great. I told her that I enjoyed the podcast she was on and we found out her dad and sister both went to Purdue, same as DJ.  Her wife and my girlfriend are from the same small suburb of Detroit.  She asked how DJ, Axel and I knew each other.  DJ and I have a fun origin story where we both showed up early at Nick Anthony’s home to go do a show in San Diego.  Nick wasn’t there yet.  I was parked on the street waiting.  A guy pulled up on the other side of the street, got out of his car, put a large pizza on the roof and just ate the entire thing in front of me.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  He was so full of unadulterated and gluttonous joy.  From that moment I wish I could be that guy’s friend.  That guy turned out to be DJ.  We hit it off that night and have been friends ever since.  Axel and I met at San Diego Comic Con last year and our origin story gave me a chance to really talk about how much I love his work and why he was the perfect person to design our show.

Then she wanted to know about our characters. DJ and I were able to speak passionately and deeply about each of them.  I like writing female characters.  This show features two really strong female characters.  The main character is, in some ways, man boy with arrested development not completely unlike DJ or myself.  One of the women in the show is his daughter, the other is basically his boss.  Both are strong.  Neither of them are bitchy.  Both of them are just as cool and quick as he is.  They’re strong women, but they’re perfect.  They’re deep and rich characters.  I can see how it would be an easy trap for a guy writing a woman to over compensate by trying to make her too perfect.  Ours aren’t at all.  They both have real human foibles.  Also, I’m hoping I just used the word “foibles” correctly.

At the end of our meeting she asked us what our roles would be if the show were picked up. I explained that when Garth Ennis created the comic book Preacher he gave artist Steve Dillon co-creator credit because he felt the look of it was just as important as the story.  I believe in that.  When I asked Axel to draw the characters, I told him very little.  And aside from changing the hair color on one of them, I didn’t have any changed.  I love his art.  DJ and I are great at writing jokes and character, but we still struggle with story and conflict.  An analogy a script reader gave us of a screenplay that we wrote was that there’s “a lot of icing, but not much cake”.  That’s fair.  So I said DJ and I care a lot about our characters, but if the show were picked up, it would probably be best if we were teamed with a producer who was better at breaking stories.  So I think that showed that we were flexible and going to be easy to work with.

There’s another show, which I can’t name, where the creators were fired because they were way too difficult and had very unrealistic expectations of what they were entitled to. Hollywood is a city built on collaborative art.  Nothing here is a single vision.  You have to be willing to trust others to help you create the best product possible.

According to the podcast our executive was on, because she sees so many people, her pitch meetings rarely go more than thirty minutes. Ours went 45.  She laughed a lot and seemed engaged. There’s nothing I would have done differently about our meeting.  We gave her our book with the character art and descriptions as well as additional information about the show.  We’ll know more in a couple weeks.

Yes, at this stage a hundred things would have to happen for this to be a show any of us would ever get to see. We’re going to move forward and continue pitching to other places too.  But on the flipside of this meeting, I thought it would be nice to share some of the tips that I learned.

  1. Know as much about the person you’re pitching as you can. As they say, “knowledge is power”.
  2. Be prepared to explain why what you’re pitching is important to you personally and why you’re the best person to write it.
  3. Television is a medium based on characters. Make sure you have interesting ones and you can talk about them.
  4. As with any speech writing, pepper in a joke or two if it suits the mood. I don’t think I’d try to make anyone laugh if I were pitching Schindler’s List: The Series.
  5. Keep it pithy, punk. Metallica songs are like three hours long and feel like they include every idea that everyone in the band had. In the time it takes to listen to two Metallica songs, you could listen to seventeen Ramones songs. Be a Ramone. Leave them wanting more.
  6. Don’t just talk. Listen. We were prepared to talk nonstop for 15-20 minutes, but were totally able to let our exec lead the pitch in a much more conversational and informal manner.
  7. Television is a flexible art. We didn’t get any notes in this first meeting, but my mentor has. He digests them all and if he has complaints, he does it later to his manager, not in the room.
  8. Know what you’re talking about inside and out. DJ and I know every in and out of our show where it stands right now. And if you had a question for us that we didn’t know the answer to, we’d make something up. We have an alien character who is the last of his kind. What planet is he from? Zaphodbrock. He’s a Zaphoid from the planet Zaphodbrock. I just made that up. It’s one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and one part late singer of Gwar. If you wanted me to talk about Zaphodbrock, I could. And DJ could jump in and we’d piggy back on each other’s ideas. Executives want to feel safe. The words, “I don’t know”, has never instilled security in anyone.
  9. If you can’t come up with ten items, don’t just make stuff up to fill time or space. See #5.

So there you go. I’m far from an expert, but I know a week or two ago I’d love to have this information compiled in one place.  I hope this helps or at least makes for some interesting reading.

I Am a Reluctant Test Audience

For free entertainment, I managed to get myself on the list to get free movie screening passes.  Recently, this has gotten me into a couple of super advance screenings of movies that aren’t due out for months and months.  Contractually, I’m not allowed to say anything about the movies, but there wasn’t anything in the confidentiality agreement about talking about the screening process.  So let’s cover those in the broadest terms.

After the movies everyone in the audience gets questionnaires.  And when I say everyone, I mean everyone.  Every opinion is the same.  My opinion doesn’t matter any more or less than the guy in the American flag shirt with the cut off sleeves…and yeah, that guy really exists.  My opinion doesn’t matter any more or less than woman who kept misplacing her child because she was doing something else.  My opinion also doesn’t matter any more or less than that child, who also gets a questionnaire!  Technically, my opinion matters less than all the aforementioned people because I’m too old.

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Tales From The Script: Part 6 (Here Goes Nothing…literally)

Through comedy I know a few people.  Through her work, Lesley knows a few people as well.  In my mind, here’s basically how I thought this would work.

Lesley and I wrote a really good screenplay.  We let some people read it and give us feedback.  We wrote a better second draft.  We had some funny people over to read through it and we took notes on the comedy beats and how the words flowed.  We wrote an even better third draft.  We registered the script with the WGA.  Then we started contacting people.

Our script is basically Bridesmaids meets The Social Network.   It’s really funny.  Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids, was a stand up comedian in Detroit, just like me.  A mutual friend gave me his e-mail address a long time ago and we wrote back and forth a couple times.  He was super nice and supportive.  So, with this third draft in hand, I wrote him and asked him if he could point me towards someone who could read it.  I know there are all sorts of legal issues with asking him to read it himself.  I waited for a response.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been in LA to do some comedy stuff.  I always had a couple thumb drives in my pocket with copies of the script in case I ran into someone that could do something with it.  I ended up performing on Comedy Bang Bang at the UCB Theater.  It’s a show produced by the great Scott Aukerman, who in addition to creating Comedy Bang Bang, has been making a living as a writer since about 1994.   I got to pick his brain for a little bit after the show.

He told me that a response from Paul would be a long shot because even though I worded my e-mail carefully, the potential for lawsuits would be too risky.  Even if he did write back, it was unlikely that he’d feel comfortable passing on a thing he hasn’t read himself.  Yeah, that’s a big Catch 22.  He can’t read it because of legal issues.  He can’t pass it on because it’s good because he can’t read it.  Scott said the way to get it out there is to basically treat the script like I treat my stand up and let the work speak for itself.  I need to let people in Hollywood read it and generate a buzz.  Eventually the buzz will get around and someone will take interest.   There’s a part in the script that would be perfect for TJ Miller.  I know him a little, so maybe I’ll try to get it in his hands.

The more likely scenario Scott said was that someone will notice me from my stand up and want to be my agent.  They’ll ask if I have a script and when I tell them about this thing that Lesley and I created, it’ll make me 20 times more valuable.   Great.  Well, as good as I feel I am as a stand up, no one in nine and a half years has asked to be my agent yet.

Discouraging?  Yeah.  A long time ago and older comedian asked to take me out to lunch so he could pick my brain.  He was retired now and wanted to make a run of it as a comedian.  He was a nice guy who had been public speaking for longer than I’ve been alive.  He was comfortable on stage, but every joke he told came straight from a book.  I told him that the only way he could make a go of it as a comedian was to write his own material.  He didn’t want to hear that and got angry.  I couldn’t tell him what he wanted to hear.  I told him what he needed to hear.  Scott Aukerman didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear.  There is no secret backdoor into the writing pool of Hollywood.  He told me what I needed to hear.  There is no secret backdoor into the writing pool of Hollywood.

So where does that leave us?  Lesley has a couple connections too, but they feel like really long shots.  To make the script speak for itself, I think the plan is to do what I would do with my comedy.  For comedy, a lot of people enter festivals so our peers from all over take notice of us and hopefully spread the word.  I think Lesley and I are going to start entering the script into different script writing contests and see what happens.  Maybe it isn’t as good as we think it is.  I really like it.  When I pitch it to people, they seem to like it.  They laugh.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in nine and a half years in comedy it’s the difference between a kind and a genuine laugh.  I think they laugh genuinely.

So that’s it for now.  You’re up to speed.  I’ll let you know when something happens.  If something happens.