My Third Party Voting Friend is the TV Writers’ Logic Police of This Election

I’m from the Midwest – so my social media feeds are not entirely void of Trump supporters. Their posts can scald, but I have developed a protective layer that prevents me from exploding when I rub up against them. The algorithms must have figured this out, because now I’m being fed more posts from my progressive lefty friend (we’ll call him Stan, which either is or is not his real name) whose feed, as we approach the one-month-til-E-Day at this writing, has become a barrage of doom-forecasting about America’s fate under Biden/Harris rule.

If you have a Stan-like-person in your life, then I don’t need to overexplain the philosophical stance. The gist is that while Trump is a “Capital D” Devil, moderate Democrats are—at the very least—“Small d” devils, and that far too few people have noticed this. Posts from Stan are intended to educate by citing examples of Democrats’ historical sneakiness, posturing, failures and hypocrisy.

These observations are not untrue.

What they are (especially if delivered with enough snark and given wide airplay) is a decelerating force leveled against a group of people who need to move en-masse toward a goal.

What if our political situation was a TV Show?  One of the first things you have to do at the outset of creating a show is break story. Breaking story is charting your map of where you’re going story-wise, and planning the stops—plot points and emotional beats – you need to hit along the way. This is a balancing act, because of course it’s impossible to predict exactly where you’re going to end up, or if every stop is going to work like you’re hoping – but even with these uncertainties in play, in order to start moving you have to drum up the faith that the destination you’ve chosen is worthwhile and that your chosen direction is something that is bringing you closer to it.

Recently I was listening to a TV showrunner, Glen Mazzara, talk about the dynamics of a writers room during this stage.* He says, I understand the scene isn’t working – that it’s cliché, or reminiscent of something, or it makes no sense. I don’t need you in my writers’ room to tell me it’s not working – I want you to help me make it work. The worst thing you can do in the room is be “the logic police” – you’re saying no, you’re creating a negative feeling.**

My friend Stan is the logic police – and I can say first hand, it’s not only a negative feeling, it’s a tangible obstacle. In this case, the time I spent on social media engaging with his arguments and attempting amateur-level cognitive behavioral therapy was time spent at a stand-still –and time that I could have spent writing postcards or phone banking or doing anything else positive or forward moving.

Mazzara also says, I have a rule. That is “do not knock something off the table without putting something else there.

I pressed Stan to say what, exactly, he was suggesting that people should do as they approached the ballot box, given there are no perfect answers. He danced and dodged, until finally, pinned down, he recommended voting for a third party candidate. Which third party candidate? I asked.  He responded, Anything lefty. Probably Green.  He was not proposing any solution, merely a way to “send a message” to the Democratic party.***

Believe me, I have all kinds of rebuttals to this that I’m tempted to provide here, but I’m going assume you’ve seen different versions of most of them on your Twitter and try to stay on track with my analogy.

From the time I first contemplated writing for screen, teachers, writers, and agents have told me, you’re not going to love every opportunity that comes your way, but you have find something in a project that resonates with you. And, I’ve always strongly felt that when you join a team, you have a responsibility to add value that is both energetic and tangible. The network and the studio have bought the Biden / Harris show. That’s the job. Sure, there was a time when I dreamed a Warren show would become a reality, but now is not the time to cry about that. Now is time to beat out the most compelling Biden / Harris season we can imagine and promote the hell out of the pilot to get the numbers we need November 3rd for a four-season pickup.****

Footnotes:

*A cool thing that has come out of the pandemic is that Sundance Collab is temporarily offering a free membership with access to a lot of educational content including the Glen Mazzara masterclass where I sourced his quotes.

**When I heard this, I thought of my friend, writer Dave Metzger, saying something similar at an AMA. He added that another reason logic-policing often receives tepid reception in a room is that, in a group of seasoned writers, everybody already knows there’s a problem. Pointing out the obvious is not a move forward.

***Notably, Stan seems to assume that despite his nay-saying, the Biden / Harris ticket will prevail – i.e. he’s depending on people to disregard his logic and supply him with an improved Little-d devil system that he can criticize . He’s basically that guy on your school group project who maligns you for being an authority-smitten grade-grubber instead of doing any work because he knows you’ll carry him to the “A.”

****If you enjoyed this post, then tune in for Part 2 of this series, tentatively titled, Here’s Why My Infuriating Third-Party Voting Friend is Not All Wrong wherein I will quote Harold Zinn, Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” and Jack Epp’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. It will be published after the election.

(Final note while I figure out how to captions a “feature image” with the new WordPress settings… “Paul and I voted — not for a third-party candidate.”)

That Time I Almost Unfriended April Ludgate

We’re stressed. Here’s a poll taken in June by the American Psychological Association, and here’s an article about about how we’re more stressed now than in the 90s — especially if we we are old enough to remember the 90s.

Individuals in my life support this. They Report incidents of road rage, scuffles between maskers and anti-maskers, flare-ups on social media and in life. Nerves are fraying, people are getting more judgmental and less patient with the quirks and foibles of others.

Except for me… or so I thought. I hadn’t yelled at Paul or gotten worked up on Facebook. I was doing pretty well…

Until the April Ludgate incident.

My husband’s lunchtime break of late has been rewatching Parks & Rec. Occasionally, I’ll wander in from the back room and join him or listen from the next room while working on a jigsaw puzzle (we all have our own ways of self-medicating).

A couple weeks ago, I brought my lunch in in time to catch the last half of an episode from Season 5. The storyline was that Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott’s character) had taken a job running a campaign for a congressman in Washington D.C. and he’d brought April Ludgate (played by Aubrey Plaza) with him — I think because she’d been flailing about what to do with the rest of her life.

So in this episode, Ben is having problems getting the respect of the interns, who are young, good-looking, richer and better connected than he is. In particular, one intern doesn’t do the work Ben asks him to and and seems to be the source of disrespectful drawings of Ben with a stick up his butt.

The combination of these things cause Ben to regress into a pandering high schoolish nerd trying desperately to fit in with the cool crowd. It’s funny but painful to watch him buy everyone pizzas and organize an ultimate Frisbee match while everyone quietly mocks him–and it’s a relief when he finally gives up this ill-fated effort and puts his foot down with the privileged ringleader intern.

But the twist is — it wasn’t intern who drew the pictures that sent Ben into a tailspin.

It was April.

Ludgate.

So to recap, Ben gave April a job, drove her to Washington DC. Was only nice to her… and she sabotaged his ability to do a job he was excited about, and undermined his sense of self worth.

And then I started to think about how April she treats Ann and Leslie, who constantly try to help her; how she’s mean to Jerry, who has no one on his side; how she fell into a job that, at its core, should be about helping people, and how she consistently and militantly uses her power to make people’s lives harder — remember how at the very beginning she charms Ron Swanson by not passing on any messages and scheduling his meetings on dates that don’t exist? Ha ha, so funny…. Unless you are the citizen blindly hoping that people at a government office might actually do their job and listen to you.

Since I’m not usually one to get triggered by fictional characters in a decade-old sitcom, I’m guessing my reaction might be related to other things that were going on in my life: Like the fact that for three months and many hours of calling and writing the EDD, Paul and I still couldn’t get a response, or that I was caught in a negotiation involvling a lawyer who was so deeply offended I asked a simple question that he seemed to be at every turn choosing to make things more expensive and difficult for me, or that daily I was reading headlines about another government worker who fell into a job he had no intention of doing, and who views his constituency with about the same disrespect an lack of empathy as… April Ludgate.

That day, as I watched April’s sulky, non-apology for her betrayal of Ben, something flipped in me. I thought “I’m done.”

I had not become blind to the fear and insecurity beneath her behavior or the well-placed hints that she’s emotionally vulnerable under her prickly surface.

I had just ceased to care.

I no longer had any interest in untangling her psyche or even watching her grow to be slightly less of a garbage-person. I didn’t want her working for me, I didn’t want to work for her. I didn’t want to attempt to understand her dysfunction. I didn’t want to apologize or explain things on her behalf to people she’s supposed to care about or do the emotional labor she refuses to do. I just wanted to avoid her completely.

I was ready to unfriend her completely but I didn’t, because, you know, she’s FICTIONAL.

And a few days later, I could again — grudgingly — see the amusing side to April’s antics and acknowledge that I had overreacted.

It’s probably just that there’s some shit going on in the world… and it’s making us stressed.

I Made A Short Film

I made a very short film — under three minutes. THE CHASE stars my niece and nephew, who have both grown much bigger now than when this was shot. I wanted to learn a particular editing program, but my computer wasn’t robust enough for the task, and then other work moved to the front burner, so took it a year before time and resources finally aligned… but I’m happy with the result:

The credits go by fast, so I’ll call attention to the fact that even on a three-minute film, it works better if you have a village. My friend Christine was behind the camera, while another friend, Caroline kept things moving doing an A.D. / producer duties. My mom handled craft service, Paul acted as consultant and “spackle.” And, of course, the whole enterprise was elevated by the great original music. I’m very lucking to be able to use my sibling card to draft Greg Gordon Smith to compose and perform.

This Is US… I mean, RESEARCH

This Is Us Research…

this is us banner

I have always loved to watch TV, and read books. Yet both of these activities tend to be tinged with guilt. Probably because, for most of my childhood, whenever I was doing these things, I was avoiding other things I was supposed to be doing, practicing piano, doing my homework, sleeping.  As time passed, and I became my own internal mother, it was easy to insert just about anything into the supposed to be slot.  Cleaning, arranging my sock drawer, doing my taxes, spending extra time at work.

And when I became a writer, it got even better. Because it’s super easy to counter almost ANY activity with “should be writing,” and get a nice little guilt buzz from it. (At this very moment,  as I’m blogging, I’m feeling guilty because I should be writing.) So, even though watching and reading are necessary components to what I do — I’m pretty much hard-wired to feel guilt.

There is, however, a (partial) guilt-loophole. This is, if I go to a meeting, and the producer or executive references a book or a show, then it’s like homework.  It’s research. Watching or reading it becomes the thing I should do, which is awesome. I get to read comic-books, young-adult novels and books on eclectic subjects, all without my guilt-alarm ringing!

A couple of weeks ago, in a meeting, someone mentioned that a show I’ve been pitching has structural similarities to This is UsI’d seen a few episodes early in the season, and — in the context of the conversation, felt like a slacker because I hadn’t kept up. So now, with permission, I launched vigorously into watching the rest… and fell in love.  I binged-watched the rest of the season over about three evenings and cried so much I had to go buy a new box of Kleenex to get through the last night.

Part of what makes the show so effective is how it often parcels out emotional bombshells and surprising reveals very lightly in terms of its story-telling.  No big set-up or announcement, just a passing reference to something the characters already know but the audience doesn’t. So there’s this tone of, Oh, by the way, did we not mention that… “These people you’ve been watching are siblings.” “This happened in the past, not the present.” “This person is dead.””This person was married.”

These reveals immediately prompt questions that don’t get answered right away — as they discuss in this Variety article.

It’s a really neat trick, and I’m planning to go back and study it when the season ends next week.

I like this quote from the article, where they talk about how the creator pitched the show:

He did say that over the course of time, he would always have those big moments and those big hooks and surprises and reveals, but that they wouldn’t have to be every week because once you’re invested in these characters, a smaller moment could feel as big as those huge moments once you’re totally engrossed in the stories of these characters’ lives and the decisions that they make.

Once you’re invested in the characters, and engrossed in their stories, a smaller moment feels bigger…

 

Aspect Ratios and Conquering My Lazy Brain

My brain is lazy.

When it comes to screenwriting, there are those who say you don’t need guys in front of classrooms to teach you to tell a story. “Just read scripts,” they say, “and you will learn all you need to learn.”

What they mean by that (I hope, at least), is not really just read.  Even though you aren’t in school, I think the statement assumes you will make a study of the scripts you are reading and notice things—from sentence structure to how scenes are set up to the shape of the dramatic action.

I think this works if, by nature or discipline, you are a person who tends to break things down, analyze, determine their essence. My husband, Paul, is such a person. He’s inclined to look at things—including narrative—in terms of its mechanics. Me? Not so much!  I love to get lost in a story, and before writing school I read hundreds of stories without worrying how they “worked.”  One of the things that school did for me was give me a kind of checklist of things to notice, on paper and up on the screen, and made my brain less lazy.

But now that we’re preparing to produce Lovers in Their Right Mind, (and I still want to direct that short film!) I want to think less like “just a screenwriter” and more like a “filmmaker.” And guess what? I’m finding out my brain is still lazy–about all the things that weren’t on the checklist! For example, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of media without really thinking about the PICTURE.  Not even the most basic part: the shape of the frame. Of course, I noticed when movies on DVD started to offer the option to “letterbox,” on my television, and I knew it was supposed to be better. I noticed when we bought a wide screen TV. But I didn’t notice that there were still variations in how wide. And I didn’t think about the choices behind why the film was originally shot in any specific way.

Now, with three weeks of a community college Cinema 1 class under my belt, my world has forever changed. I have a new item on my checklist of things to notice, and it’s called ASPECT RATIO. The “ratio” part of aspect ratio is the width of the frame divided by its height. I guess the “aspect” part is just how it looks. Here are some common aspect ratios that will probably look familiar:

Ben-Hur-aspect-ratio-comparison

Why shoot in one aspect ratio instead of another? There are lots of reasons. For a long time, televisions only could broadcast 4:3–so if you were creating for TV, that was a gimme.  And if you were shooting film and needed to save money by shooting with 16 millimeter film instead of the more expensive 35 millimeter…that also meant you were shooting 4:3.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended a screening of a movie called “Fish Tank,”  and in the Q and A session afterward, the director talked about the fact that she shot the movie in 4:3, even though she had other options. Her movie was about a single protagonist and Arnold felt that 4:3 was the best way to direct attention to one person, and to help convey her internal life  without being distracted by all the things around her.

fish-tank-movie                          (An image from Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank)

On the flip side, it seems intuitive that movies featuring vast landscapes or big space battles might opt for a wider format.

Think of your favorite movies. Can you say whether they were shot in 1.85 or 2.35, or something else? Are you curious? All the sudden I wanted to know.  Children of Men?   Strictly Ballroom? Or Brokeback Mountain*? What about the new release, Sicario that folks are talking about?

So I was thrilled to discover that there’s this whole ‘nother part of IMDb (Internet Movie Database) that (no big surprise) I had never noticed!  Once you select a movie, if you go over to Quick Links on the right and click on Explore More

Explore more

…you’ll see this menu, where you can select Technical Specs…

Technical Specs

…which will show you stuff like Aspect Ratio!

Fish Tank Tech Specs 2

So next time you’re playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you can look up St. Elmo’s Fire**, and see how wide they decided to make the screen to accommodate the whole Brat Pack… You’re welcome!

* The landscapes in Brokeback Mountain felt so sweeping and beautiful, I felt for sure it was 2:35, but I discovered it was only 1:85. Then I thought  how often it was focused on just the two people how  intimate it felt, and, and it made sense. As a romance, we want Lovers to have that tension between our two leads…so should we shoot 1:85?***

**I remember St. Elmo’s Fire feeling kind of close–with lots of apartment interiors and bars…1:85 stuff. But when it turned out to be 2:35, I thought about the size of the ensemble cast, and how some scenes had several characters reacting to what other characters are doing. Lovers is also a movie with a big families and parties and a big wedding reception. Hmmmm…should it be 2:35?***

***Don’t worry, our director, when we find her, will have an opinion!

 PS. Here’s a fun video from back in the days of pan-and-scan…