Friday, April 24, 2009

Will you rescue me?

Dear Friends and Family,

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an event hosted by the Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to raising the awareness of children caught in the civil war in Uganda. For over twenty years, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the government of Uganda (GoU) have been fighting. Invisible Children has been working since 2003 to help peace talks and reduce the trauma to the civilians. Invisible Children is especially concerned with the children of Uganda. The LRA and Joseph Kony, their leader, attack civilians and kidnap young children, forcing them to fight to fight in their army. If they refuse, the LRA often tortures or kills them or their siblings or other family and friends. In the past few years Invisible Children, along with people all over the world, put on an event that helped stopped night commuting, the practice of children walking from the villages to cities every night to avoid being kidnapped for the army.

But there are still thousands of children in Joseph Kony's army. Invisible Children has been involved in trying to orchestrate peace talks between the LRA and the Uganda government for years, but every time they get close to a truce, it falls through. Invisible Children has orchestrated another event like the one that stopped night commuting, hoping to create enough attention and pressure to rescue these children. Tomorrow, thousands of people in cities all over the world are going to "abduct themselves for the abducted." Tomorrow, a few of my friends from church and I are traveling to Grand Rapids, MI, where we will meet up with hundreds of other people at an "abduction site" where we will leave photos of ourselves with friends and family, our faces circled. From there we're going to travel to an "LRA camp site" and wait to be rescued, just like those abducted children are waiting to be rescued. We're not going to leave our camp until we get the media and local moguls to come out to our site and recognize the crisis and our responsibility. At Grand Rapids, we're hoping to get Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Mayor George Heartwell, and Pastor Rob Bell to come out and rescue us.

It may not seem like there's much that we can do over here for the children in the LRA. But if I'm camping out in Grand Rapids trying to spread awareness of the crisis with our local media and politicians, I thought I'd let the people I'm close with know too. Not only has Invisible Children had success with eliminating night commuting, but our country has a tremendous amount of influence, and they can make a difference too. There is a chance we can help rescue these children.

If you'd like to learn more, go to And watch your local news. There's probably a rescue going on near you.

"It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary" - Winston Churchill

Sunday, April 19, 2009

If I could be anything different --

I'd be a songwriter/musician. They tell the most beautiful, poetic stories.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tom McCarthy

One of the aspects of the film program that drew me to the University of Michigan is their Gindin visitor series, where they bring in working writers to give guest lectures open to everyone and then workshop specifically with the master screenwriting or TV writing class. Past visitors have included Spike Lee, Nora Ephron, Lawrence Kasden, Jeb Stuart, Kurt Luedtke... I could go on (of course, these are all visitors previous to my years at the university).

So the goal of any student interested in screenwriting here is to get into the master class, 1. because it's small and selective and intensive and 2. because the visitors workshop with you and then you go out to lunch with them to pick their brains nearly one on one.

Our first visitor this semester was Tom McCarthy, actor/writer/director. He recently wrote and directed The Visitor, which got Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination. It was his first time doing anything like this at a university, and he was excellent, both professionally and personally. When we went out to lunch, I started out a question by addressing him as Mr. McCarthy, and he immediately said, "Please, call me Tom." I may have blushed.

I took about three pages of notes between his lecture and his workshop. He was an incredibly intelligent, talented person to listen to. He has a very distinct character-driven, minimalist approach to writing. I'm sharing what I thought were the highlights. I think they're best understood after reading his scripts, at least The Visitor. He has a very distinct style, and his advice reflects that.

- Make sure your characters are compelling enough to watch in their own right, regardless of what is happening in the plot of the story.

- You can overwrite, but you'll never be done rewriting.

- We overwrite. People don't trust actors and silence and the inner character moments. But you have create authentic characters.

- The Visitor was supposed to end with a quote (from the Statue of Liberty, I think). Tom decided not to include the quote so that the audience could have the liberty of drawing their own conclusions.

- Action lines are for checking in.

- Humor comes from when characters come together and interact, not the plot situation.

- Audiences have seen a lot of movies and know a lot of characters. You might have to give them a different take on a character we already know.

- Stay ahead of the audience. It's difficult. They've seen a lot of movies. Cut dialog to move quickly. You're aiming for the moment when they realize that they'll never get ahead of you - and they're satisfied with that.

- This is not a literary medium. You want the reader to see it and feel it, not to make them marvel about your writing skills.

- You can overwrite in your first draft to explore - then cut it.

- All your answers should be in the first few pages.

The winter term master class usually gets the short end of the stick when it comes to Gindin visitors. Who do you know who wants to come to Michigan in the middle of the winter? If we do get a writer out, it's often a TV writer. However, my master class had the exceptional opportunities of not only having Tom McCarthy but also Pamela Gray. Two accomplished screenwriters.

J. likes to remind us how lucky we are (and I agree). After lunch with Tom McCarthy and dinner with Pamela Gray, he said, "This is what you guys came here for. You guys are very lucky. Only once before in my years of teaching here have we had two Gindin visitors during the winter term."

And I'm very self-centered about this. Every time I want to reply, "Well, J., it's God rewarding me for my faith." But I don't. They already think I'm a crazy religious person.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


This whole city’s black and white
Tell me what is your color.
Could it be the same as mine?
Faded greens and blue street lights,
There’s a red fire burning
In the sea up to the sky.

I don’t want to wait until tomorrow
To tell you how I’d feel the rest of my life
You don’t want a waste another minute to realize
Walking on the dark side of the evening
Baby it is you, that opened my eyes
Burning like a fire on the water
The city of black and white.
Won’t you just stay?
Won’t you just stay?

I’m on the top step looking down
And they're coming up to me
It’s where the whole world wants to be found
Golden rings and coffee brown
There’s white flag waving
Where my heart is on the ground.

I don’t want to wait until tomorrow
To tell you how I’d feel the rest of my life
You don’t want a waste another minute to realize
Walking on the dark side of the evening
Baby it is you that opened my eyes
Burning like a fire on the water
The city of black and white.
Won’t you just stay?
Won’t you just stay?

Won’t you just stay now
With the light poles
Over a dark street
No one else knows
So take my hands
I’ll carry you, you can carry me.

‘Cause I don’t want to wait until tomorrow
To tell you how I’d feel the rest of my life

- "City of Black and White" by Mat Kearney

On the shoulders of giants (and lesser people)

When Tom McCarthy came to work with us, he told us how he was working on a script with a friend of his who was a lawyer. It's the first time he's worked with a non-writer on a script, and he seems to be enjoying it. I decided to walk in his footsteps and write a screenplay with my roommate.

(Actually the two things are pretty unrelated. I found the parallels all after the fact.)

D is not really a nonwriter. She is in a creative writing class this semester (to which I responded with extreme jealousy, until I remembered that I was signing up for my third screenwriting class) and is just an excellent and intelligent writer and reader overall. We came up with the idea when we got trapped in an elevator. That is actually a lie. The elevator shuddered. It didn't even stop. But we both looked at each other then burst out laughing, and as we exited the building, the most wonderful idea began to form. I'm pretty sure D was the first one to mention it, but luckily, I'm the one who knows how to format a screenplay.

Tonight I did some prewriting work on the idea. It's a delightful story, with the style of "The 4:05" but just enough more humor that I'm concerned my comedic abilities will fall short (again, it's wonderful to collaborate). And all the characters are likeable, which is apparently something I have a problem with (the Hopwood results are in again, but we'll talk about that later). I can't tell you more, of course, but I will say that John Francis Daley and Zooey Deschanel will be getting their scripts shortly.

D read the treatment that I had written so far, and we spit balled on some name ideas. That quickly disintegrated into trying to name our female lead after dead authors and types of food. But it was nice to sit there brainstorming, knowing that while D may not know the purpose of the midpoint or Act II break yet, she knows a good story. I'm not really sure which I appreciate more - the enthusiasm and new perspective of a nonscreenwriter or the creative input of a well-read, intelligent mind. Luckily for me, I get them both.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Um, you're wrong.

I was hanging out on North Campus waiting for the bus (when my friends come out and want to see something "uniquely Michigan," I take them to North Campus. It's where the wild animals and engineering students live.), perusing the posters plastered to the bus shelter. North Campus is also home to the theatre and music schools, so they usually have a lot more interesting posters than the Central Campus bus stops. I was reading one poster for some performance art show when I noticed a hand written note on the top of the poster. The Sharpie-d note said something roughly along the lines of, "Art is not for your personal commentary."

I thought about this, because I'm an open-minded university student, and decided that this person was wrong. I believe it's impossible to create art totally devoid of any commentary on its subject. If you haven't created your art to say something, then what have you created it for? Just for aesthetic beauty? Even that is a commentary on the way that you believe life and experience should be interpreted - that life, or in this case art, should be aesthetically pleasing.

Nothing that I've created has been devoid of commentary (excepting, maybe, the stories I wrote about magical ponies when I was six. But even then...). "The 4:05" commented on the nature of love and friendship. "Collapse" commented on death, grief, and forgiveness. "Join This Group?" focused on the ridiculous impact of Facebook. I feel like every story, every sculpture, every film, every blog, comments in some way on life, relationships, experience - at the very least. Some have more focused intentions. And I'm not talking just about Sicko or W.

You can't create art without commentary because of the nature of creation. Art is a physical marker of the presence of a maker. Creation suggestions a purpose, a plan, a design, and it encourages a certain perspective. And I guess I just can't fathom a situation in which the maker's art has no reflection of their plans or their purpose. If there's nothing to be said, then why create at all?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

My tuition dollars in action.

Today was a good day for the Amy Butler screenwriting universe. Pamela Gray came and workshopped with us, giving us some great advice. Afterwards we went out to dinner with her and heard some awesome stories. She was so cool. She was so excited about our lives.

And I finished Current Draft! Granted, I'm on page 75, so in the next 16 days, I have to go back and find at least 15 more pages. But I typed "FADE OUT." That's always a good feeling.