The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It may not look like it, but this is an exultation

I have to squeeze myself, you know. When I’m not writing out of inspiration, I write out of guilt. I explore the vast and varied means by which I can point out to myself just what I haven’t gotten done lately; what scripts remain unfinished, what stories remain undeveloped, what producers wait by the phone for work I swore was still a priority. The reasoning is that, if words are coming out, it can’t be a bad method, which is the same rationale the medieval barbers used to explain leeching.

My latest technique has been the spreadsheet – a rolling chronicle of all significant projects fighting for the small and shrinking active space in my brain, which is addled and fuzzy on the best of days. Between screenplays that need finishing or revising, stage plays written and unwritten, short stories, short plays, and treatments for tomorrow’s screenplays, the list now presents 15 titles, with a 16th in a holding pattern while a couple of sales opportunities work themselves out.

I have color-coded them.

Of course, as anyone who ever drew a blueprint for a snow fort knows, if you spend too long at it, the planning can become its own end. Without execution, all of this examination amounts to little more than lashing myself with barbs before an uncaring Muse. Sooner or later, I must drown the hooey, hitch up my pants and goddamned
write something.

Yesterday I finished a treatment.

Six months ago I had this meeting with a manager and he put a bug in my ear about going back to teen comedy, already. It is what got me paid before, after all, and he wants me to get paid so he can get paid. In the aftermath of that meeting I ginned up about a half-dozen ideas for teen comedies, filtered them down to three good ones and expanded those into one-pagers. I sent those one-pagers to the junior manager in his office and he pegged his favorite one.

That all took about two months, during which time I was traveling to Hawaii, producing my 10-minute play, pressing ahead on the new screenplay I still haven’t finished, and watching my life in Hollywood detonate under my feet. Since then I’ve known that they eagerly await that next evolutionary phase: the treatment.

For those who don’t know – a treatment is a detailed prose telling of your movie’s story: the major turning points, the general makeup of the characters, the tone, the highlights, it’s the cinematic equivalent of the grocery store sample bite. It can range anywhere from three pages to seventy (James Cameron is famous for his background-drenched, technobabble-stuffed “scriptments”), but most come in around 5-6 pages.

The advantage to writing them is that you tend to work out a lot of your structural problems before you’ve even written FADE IN, and you have an intermediary document to share around if you’re making a play to have someone give you money before you’ve started writing the script. Successful writers can do that. I am not a successful writer at this point. But I do like proving to my agent and others in my circle that I’m working.

The disadvantage of writing treatments is that you do a queen bitch of a lot of work for five pages. I cannot dismiss one salient point, though: the last time I did a thorough treatment before starting a screenplay, I sold it.

This turned out to be the longest treatment I’ve ever written for an original story. I once condensed a mammoth 17-volume
manga series (which hadn’t even been translated) into a 30-page treatment and project breakdown, for which I had to combine or abandon 70 percent of the plot elements and characters. The Japanese intern who first showed us the project then took it and sold it to another company, and now I have to wait for a script or movie to appear to find out whether he used any of my story fixes and I have to sue him. I also wrote a 10,000-word treatment for a miniseries about the early history of the video game industry. I called it The Joystick Generation, which I thought was pretty cute. So far the cable channels haven’t agreed.

But for this raunchy little campus farce I dedicated 4,500 words, I had to edit to drop it from nine pages to eight. That’s worth a little celebrating. I’m well-armed now to write the script if that turns out to be the next step.

Of course, Jimmy, that would mean that the color-coded task list I mention above – thanks to my perseverance and nose-to-grindstone-ery – has now gotten longer. Ha-HAH!


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