Screenwriting is Hard!

I know I haven’t been posting very much lately, but trust me when I say that I’ve been extremely busy. For several months now I’ve been struggling with the plot to my new screenplay, Satan’s Sputum, and although it’s hard for me to admit, I’ve come to the realization that I’m going to need some help. I don’t know if you’ve ever written one of these things, but if you have you know that they’re no walk in the park. It makes me wonder how these Hollywood types can bang out so many high quality scripts week after week.

Don’t get me wrong – I have sought out help. I’ve spoken to several screenwriters I know, read all the right books, and even rented Because of Winn Dixie (which has, you’ll find, a similar narrative), but still my screenplay needs some tweaking. I know it sounds crazy but I was thinking, as a long shot, that perhaps I could get some advice from you, the reader, about turning this little script that is so near and dear to me into the blockbuster I know it can be.

With that, here are some of the plot points I’ve been agonizing over:

First of all, when my protagonist, the washed-up taxidermist Tucker Starr, graduates from Community College with a degree in advanced Cetacean Psychology and is reunited with his long-lost sister Leticia McNabb outside the Tastee Freeze in Act One, how do I describe, realistically, his horrific flash-back to first grade (wherein his teacher, Ms. Stump, forces him to recite, in front of the entire class, the filmography of the character actor Dick Miller while jumping rope and wearing a coon-skin cap). This is an important scene, because if done right it will explain Tucker’s eventual transformation (in Act Three) from a mild-mannered loner to an internationally recognized, megalomaniacal neck tie designer.

Next, I need to solve the problem of how Leticia’s Ecuadorian house-boy Arturo, who had earlier been abducted by Sufi Dervishes while lying in a large zucchini patch and writing a free-verse poem about his favorite food (Quinoa), manages to escape their clutches. Specifically, how do I write a chase sequence that involves only whirling?

Here’s another: when, on page 93, Tucker learns that he must rescue his primary school sweetheart Soon-yi McGraw (now a grown woman with, mysteriously, a third arm growing out of her left foot) from the evil Matador Testardo, why, when learning of her plight, does he immediately run to the kitchen, empty every box of dry pasta onto the floor, and fall into the fetal position while mournfully singing “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat? Does this seem out of character, particularly when taking into account his issues with gluten?

Also, I fear I need a little help with some of the dialogue. For example – in the first few pages of Act Two, when the secondary character Beaumont Affleck-Smythe wakes from his coma and sneaks out of the nursing home by hiding in a bucket of expired beet puree, he has a poignant discussion with a Little Girl before stealing her trike. I need this scene to reveal, from Beaumont’s past, the source of his paralyzing fear of raw Kale. This is particularly important because it provides the motivation for his renouncing all worldly possessions and becoming a peripatetic Jazzercise instructor in the epilogue. Also, I need the proper context for him to use the word “effluvia.”

I’m also struggling a bit with continuity. For example, on page 159 Testardo is wearing a gingham poncho while vacationing in La Mancha with his blind podiatrist Randy (where he finds the golden penguin statuette buried under the windmills of Campo De Criptano). How do I reconcile that with the pivotal scene on page 62 where he clearly vows, after losing both his legs to the ravages of disease, to wear nothing but purple rayon until a cure is found for Tennis Elbow?

And finally, in the denouement, Tucker must retrieve the microchip embedded in his now-rabid marmot Gustavo, talk a suicidal Leticia down from the top of the refrigerator, find the courage to finally change the greeting on his home answering machine from Carl Kassel’s voice to his own, and still make it to the Umakweyana competition at his niece’s Waldorf school in time to win the rubber trophy he has coveted all his life.

Phew. See what I’m saying? This screenwriting business is hard work! Anyway, if any of you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to take them. I plan on getting Satan’s Sputum shot by some big-time Hollywood director, too, so if I use any of your ideas you can expect a pretty sweet payday in the near future (I’m thinking this material is perfect for someone like Terrence Malick, or maybe Vincent Gallo).

Oh, and just so you know, I plan to submit the final draft to the Göteborg Feminist Film Festival as well, and the submission date for their Screenwriting Competition is in eleven months. That means I’m really going to have to get cracking!

I Got Your Smile Right Here…

September 11th came and went last month, and for once I thought that I had found an appropriate event that we could take part in as a family. You see, for the past couple of years we’ve had to endure a memorial service of sorts put on by a neighbor up the block that resulted in our street being overrun by fire engines, foot traffic, and hundreds – and I mean hundreds – of bikes. And not the kind of bikes whose riders pump the pedals and occasionally jingle a tiny bell on the handlebar, either. I’m talking about Hogs. Big, metal things driven by men and women who would kill you without a second thought, though not before revving their engines aggressively and making you spill your Kombucha.

As you might imagine, all of these people and their machines need to park somewhere, and consequently the street is closed for several hours in the evening to accommodate all the ruckus. When we first moved here we were intrigued, and excitedly walked up the street to see what was going on. Sadly, the gathering proved to be less a heartfelt and touching memorial to those fallen on that day than an opportunity for jingoistic chest-thumping. Nice.

Anyway, we had already decided to vacate the area this time around, and while scanning the local paper the week prior I found what seemed to be just the thing for us: a drum circle.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of one of these things – I’ve sat in on a couple myself, once back in the 90’s with an assortment of older, ex-stoner types I knew from my aged, hippie landlord, and once more recently in the decidedly less substance-reliant environment of a work related morale-boosting session. The latter occasion was one of those non-spontaneous and, in fact, paid for orgies wherein two goofy, late-middle aged men in Hawaiian shirts and gray ponytails pass around an assortment of percussive instruments and whip up the reluctant attendees to beat their tom toms or djembes in order to create some sort of communal, cacophonic bonding session. That experience wasn’t all that bad, so I figured, why not again?

I know, I know –  I don’t know what I was thinking either. Maybe I expected it to be a more dignified event, with well dressed, educated and multicultural NPR listeners milling about.  Either way this one, advertised as an alternative to the typical September 11th memorial, seemed appropriate. So I signed us up.

What we got, unfortunately, was a gaggle of dread-locked and patchoulied trustafarians whirling about on the beach while a DJ bobbed over a large CD player and music blared obnoxiously over loudspeakers. There were drums laying about alongside mini-accordions, flutes and peace tambourines, but no visible “circle.” Even worse, some of the attendees had apparently been encouraged to wear costumes, the unsightly result of which was far more visible skin, piercings and Bob Marley tattoos than is traditionally appropriate at an event billing itself as “for the whole family.” Apparently to these hippie-types the words “wear a costume” mean “dress like a Gypsy stripper with a Meth habit.” And to think I was this close to having Sarah show up wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh suit.

Needless to say, it really soured my mood, and we left almost immediately. So much for unity.

I’m not quite sure why this kind of thing bothers me, but it does. I try not to be judgmental, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s habits. It’s just that I don’t like to be in close proximity to their display.

Another example: a few years ago when we lived in Arlington, Mass, I used to take a bus down Mass Ave to Harvard Square, where I worked. If the weather was nice, I would get off the bus several stops earlier than I needed to and walk the remaining half-mile or so.

Anyway, once as I was passing alongside the park just before the Old Burying Ground by Garden Street, I noticed, up ahead, a shadowy figure lurking furtively behind a tree. I could tell that the shadowy figure was waiting for me to pass, presumably to surprise me with some unwelcome assault. I wasn’t worried about being mugged – this was, after all, in broad daylight and in public, a stone’s throw from one of this country’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. I couldn’t see much, but something in the demeanor of the person suggested a fate worst than violence. Something, in fact, far more sinister.

He looked like a Liberal Arts major. And he looked like he was going to smile at me.

Sure enough, just as I approached the tree out popped this guy, dressed in sandals, shorts and a t-shirt. His hair was long and curly, his face rotund. He was, as I had feared, smiling. A lot. Now I’m usually pretty good at avoiding these types, having spent many years dodging Greenpeace workers and Lyndon Larouche supporters, but the absurdity of the moment caught me off guard, and before I could react he had positioned himself to my right and, pointing to me in an animated fashion, exclaimed,

“Hey man, you dropped your smile!”

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty happy guy. Sure, times get tough, dark clouds occasionally gather overhead – these things happen. But I always keep the stiff upper lip and soldier on. What I mean to say is, I’ve had adversity just like the next guy, but I keep things in perspective. Once, for example, the Whole Foods near me was completely out of sprouted Kamut. For, like, two weeks. But did I waver? Did I give up? Nope.

But for god’s sake, people, if there’s one thing that interferes with my natural state of cheeriness it’s when other people feel the need to pop uninvited into my universe. I don’t know about you, but I have a visceral aversion to anybody, ever, trying to get me to be part of something they’re involved with. In my experience these things never end well. You know how it is – a nice couple you used to know cold-calls you out of the blue saying they’d love to catch up, and the next thing you know you’re enduring an hour-long, glassy-eyed Amway pitch, followed by a return visit thwarted only by the last-minute act of hiding in the bathroom until they’ve stopped knocking. You can feel your individuality and freedom of choice drip away steadily with every word. It’s the same way, I’ve found, with Mary Kay parties, volunteer work, toddler play dates, and any leisurely trip out of the house that involves more than two people.

So when faced with an obviously MDMA-saturated, parent-financed, Harvard Square-loitering goofball encouraging me to display happiness, the last thing I’m thinking about is picking up a smile that I had “dropped.” In fact, if I could have picked up anything at that moment it would have been a rock and bunged it at the guy’s head. I mean, come on! I was having a perfectly nice day!

Anyway, my experience with last months “drum circle” was similarly disheartening. Maybe it’s me, but if passing a sign that reads “Peace, Love & Unity” creates in the passer-by feelings of anger, repulsion and violence then something’s wrong.

But who knows? Maybe, upon reflection, the problem is with me. Maybe I’m not as mellow and happy-go-lucky as I think. Maybe I need to address my own issues before judging others based on their interests. Maybe I need to be less aloof.

Or maybe I just need more Kombucha. That I can do.