Saturday, March 07, 2009

"Day of the Writer" Cinequest Film Festival Event

I attended the "Day of the Writer" event yesterday in downtown San Jose and... some extremely interesting stuff. It was put on by the Cinequest Film Festival and featured four different events throughout the course of the day.

1. A seminar with Professor Hal Ackerman of the UCLA screenwriting program.
2. Another seminar... this one with Professor Richard Walker, from the same UCLA program.
3. A panel discussion with four accomplished screenwriters talking about their work.
4. A moderated Q&A session with "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody.

Yep... a pretty good value for the $20 ticket price.

The dominant theme that I took from the day was was something said in one way or another by multiple speakers... writers write. The idea being that for someone to consider themselves a writer, they simply have to put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) and do it. Where the success comes from (keeping in mind that whole thing about talent helping) is from repeating the writing process over and over.

There were variations on this theme to be sure with some people focused more on the writing schedule that you stick to and some on just getting the words out whenever, but all seemed to echo this notion that you just have to keep writing consistently.

With this said, below are some of what I felt were the more interesting things from each speaker:

Hal Ackerman: author of “Write Screenplays that Sell: The Ackerman Way"

A really friendly seeming and engaging guy who hit probably harder than any other speaker this notion of creating a writing schedule and sticking to it. As others noted, you're not always going to create great work during that time (heck, you may not write much of anything), but you're committing to it.

Tying into the prior stated concept of "writers write", Ackerman told an anecdote about how he wanted to call his screenwriting book "Take Vienna" (as opposed to the title that he attributed to the book's publishers). The story behind this was from Napoleon Bonaparte who when asked his military strategy replied somewhat incredulously... "if the goal is to take the city of Vienna, then the strategy is... take Vienna!" As Ackerman related... nothing gets written if you don’t write it, and what makes you a writer is the physical act of writing.

Ackerman also imparted some of what I'll call high-level wisdom through his story of meeting George Burns at a party and the comedian asking “What do you do?” and then upon hearing that Ackerman was a writer, following that up with “Do you love what you do?” Ackerman then being able to respond "yes, I really do"... that's good stuff.

Was also some pretty good technical type advice from Ackerman:
- Desire: when you start writing something, don’t worry about theme, instead think about what the desire of the character is... what does the character want?... what are they willing to do?... how will they get it?

- Intimacy trumps morality: if they audience connects with a character (often through experience or the objective of the character), what they do isn’t as important… they can still be rooted for.

- The 3 act movie: end of act 1 – sea change event, end of act 2 – something horrible, end of act 3 – it all goes down.

- Inevitability: what to shoot for, as opposed to predictability.

Richard Walker: also a professor (and screenwriting author) from UCLA

Had some interesting things to say as well. Some of his ideas are listed below:

- You must write your own personal story… told an anecdote about George Lucas and his father (with whom he had a difficult relationship) influencing the story of Star Wars.

- All we have in life is time… and the clock is ticking so we have to decide how to use it.

- Integration of a story means absolutely everything moves forward the character and expands your knowledge of him.

- Be wary in writing of using “discussions” to reveal plot. Have to think about how people really interact (isn’t sitting around talking about their motivations).

1. Suck for bucks – should try to reach as big an audience as possible.
2. Sex and violence are good – remember that it’s dramatic art.
3. Lie through your teeth – it’s not a true story.

Panel Discussion featuring:
(1) Executive producer of Fringe and Everybody Hates Chris.
(2) Writer of both the book and screenplay for 1906… being made by Pixar.
(3) Writer of “The Machinist”.
(4) Writer on George Lucas Clone Wars TV show.

Lots of random interesting things from the panel discussion:

- You have to learn to write well… it’s a craft.

- Clone Wars guy started after he didn't like his 9-5 job and enrolled in a short-story program at Stanford.

- Research can be a good way to start writing.

- Exec producer screenwriter writes from 12:00-3:00AM.

- The minutiae of life is not high drama.

- Importance of the writing schedule… eventually stuff will come.

- Outlining as a critical part of writing.

- All different types of writers. Among the four panelists, three described themselves as 1. A bleeder writer, 2. A component writer & 3. A vomit writer.

- Should read “Writers at Work” from the Paris Review.

- If you sit in a chair for an amount of time, you’re a writer.

- Should be confident in your voice… from the writer of “1906”.

Diablo Cody

Super super cool. She came across as down to earth, friendly and very grateful for the success that she's had. Probably more than anyone else she provided evidence of the fact that if you're doing good work (in her case, it was writing a blog), it's actually possible for someone influential to notice it... and there's your big break.

Her appearance was a "moderated" Q&A discussion with the audience and Lew Hunter, the Chairman Emeritus and Professor of Screenwriting at UCLA. I use the quotes because... well, because it was a bizarre often rambling moderation. That said, the appearance was excellent.

Below are some of the random things I noted from her talk:

- Author of “Candy Girl” prior to "Juno" and has "Jennifer's Body" coming out this fall.

- Wrote “Juno” w/o outlining or taking a screenwriting class… just bought a script in a bookstore and followed that.

- Highly recommends blogging… it’s a way to get eyeballs w/o rejection. Just hit publish.

- Posts regularly to Twitter and does a column for Entertainment Weekly.

- Loves John Irving.

- You just have to write daily… it may not be good, but it’s done.

All in all, an excellent day with some really good content.