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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sex and the Screenwriter

by PJ McIlvaine

Okay boys and girls, gather round as Mama PJ gets ready to pontificate on one of her most beloved subjects: sex and the art of screenwriting. All right, you can stop with all the sniggers. I’m not joking. Really. A screenplay and sex have more in common than you might think on first blush.

After days, weeks, months, years of voluntary, solitary servitude, you’ve finished your screenplay once and for all. Bravo! You revel in richly deserved post coital bliss. You’ve toiled long and hard for this moment. You have absolutely no doubt in your mind that this is best thing anyone has ever written since Moses went up on the mountain and got the Ten Commandments from you know who. You’re so love with your script, you don’t stop to ask if you will love it in the morning. Tonight all the constellations and the stars have aligned. You’re giddy with passion and glee. It’s mine, all mine, and no one can take this precious moment away from you.

Okay, now let’s leap ahead a couple weeks. You keep playing and toying with your script, but now you just don’t love it, you’re besotted with it. Obsessed. While the act of writing was a temporary high, a great release, a catharsis, it’s not enough. It never is. Now you want other people to appreciate your masterpiece, to see it in the same light that you do. You want to show it off, you want to strut your stuff to all those VIP’s who can bring your dream to life. Isn’t that what it’s all about? To see your fantasy, your reality, on the silver screen or the boob tube or maybe on a sheet in your backyard. Fill in the blanks.

You know what comes next. You have to pimp your script like a mean mudda brudda in the hood. It’s a wild world out there and you’ve got to throw your thighs, I mean, your logline out into the big blue beyond and see who bites. So after many sleepless nights, you finally come up with a logline full of snap, sizzle, pop and crackle, a tease to make those VIP’s request (i.e. beg) to read the script. When you do it right, they have no choice but to ask to see more, even if they do so out of guilt or shame or plain old curiosity. When you do it wrong, it’s the cold, cruel silence and sting of a lover’s rejection. You want them, but they sure as hell don’t want you. You’re not alone. We’ve all been there.

Keep this in mind as you go fishing: every time a reader, manager, agent, producer, director or actor picks your script to read, it’s the equivalent of going out on a blind date. It is. Trust me, they want to like you. They really do! Otherwise why would they bother going through this ritual day after day, night after night. Their job is to find a script that will dazzle their boss, secure a promotion, appease a star, finalize a deal, promote themselves, burnish their reputation, get someone off their back or get them laid and a thousand other Very Good Things that doesn’t necessarily have anything do with the quality of your work.

Do you honestly think these execs want to schlep through ten to fifteen scripts a night just to fall asleep alone on the sofa? Of course not! They’re filled with anticipation and apprehension each time they crack open a cover stock. Is this the script the one that will knock their socks off? The screenplay that will give them an Oscar, a fancy foreign car, a mansion in Malibu, a yacht, a blow job from some nubile young actress? Or halfway through the damn thing will they be praying that an atom bomb drops not only on them but the idiot who wrote this drivel? They have your script in their hot little lands, and now you have to bedazzle them. They want to be seduced and you want your script to seduce them at least for the next hour and a half.

Consider this: the first pages of a script are just like foreplay. You want to flirt and tantalize and get their creative juices flowing with all sorts of wonderful possibilities. You want them to want you, all of you! Also, you have to make them feel that they’re in the hands of a pro, someone credible and capable, someone who’s going to give them a hell of ride for one hundred some pages, not someone who’s gonna fizzle out after page 20. They don’t want to spend a couple of precious hours with some bumbling, stumbling fool who wouldn’t know their way through three acts without a map. And if you are that bumbling, stumbling fool, do what I do. Fake it! Make them believe that you do know what you’re talking about. That’s what writers do! We fake it all the time, but we make ourselves look good as we do it. Don’t hold back. Pull everything out of your bag of tricks. Who knows when, or if, you’ll get another chance? If you don’t have them hooked in the first couple of pages, forget it, that deliciously wicked twist on page 65 won’t matter.

Ask yourself who would you rather spend an evening with: Malcolm, a nice guy who goes on about his tedious business, brushes his teeth, goes to work, tells long winded stories with no punch line, goes home and eventually discovers a dead body in his basement around page 85…or Devon, a redheaded conniving little live wire who juggles two husbands and two sets of kids that don’t know about the other and who is always trying to keep one step ahead of another husband she abandoned in Alabama (but not before clearing out their joint bank accounts) and that pesky FBI agent who wants to cuff her for his own nefarious purposes. Listen, I’m as straight as they come, but hell, I’d rather spend the night with Devon (or her unsuspecting, devoted spouses).

If you tease em’, you have to please em’, and not only in the first act. You have to keep the tension thick, the drama throbbing, the humor constant and stretched like a rubber band, the complications escalating until everything goes bing, bang, bada boom in the most wild, the most unexpected of ways, yet a way which is also logical and organic to the story. Translation: if you have set it up early on that a mongrel is going to scamper in and save the planet before complete annihilation, you can’t suddenly have an elephant trample in.

Oh, and another piece of advice, for pity’s sake: no extended, drawn out finales/climaxes. I’m sorry, maybe some people like this, but I don’t. Damn it, once you’ve reached the climax, get out of Dodge quick. You know exactly what I’m talking about. The extended talking head scenes explaining the preceding seventy-five plus pages, the twists and turns that no one saw coming (not even the writer but they decided at the last minute to pile it on for extra effect, hey, it worked for so and so and he made a bazillion bucks), the useless verbiage just to add more junk in the trunk, the “villain” who takes a hundred bullets in the head but returns for one last monumental battle between evil and the Good Humor Man, the cute but oh so predictable “here’s what our loveable goofy characters are doing in the future” outtakes, the car chases that go on for pages and pages with the inevitable fifteen million car chain reaction crash on the freeway in which our hero miraculously survives and swaggers away without nary a scratch or a blister.

Bah! Makes me want to take a shower.

If you’ve done your job right, when that VIP puts your script down, he should be as in love with your script as you are. In one fell swoop you’ve found your champion, your best friend, you’re Knight in Shining Armor. If you haven’t….well, you know, with the first schlub to show interest, pick yourself up, put on a new outfit, try a new hairdo, and liberally douse yourself with perfume or aftershave. You can take this to the bank: as sure as there is another script to write, there’s always another prodco, another manager, another agent…tomorrow.

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