Q&A with Dr. Mckittrick by Kylan Huacuja

Most writers eventually hit some sort of road block when writing.  A common one is lack of motivation/inspiration.  I decided to ask Casey if he had any ideas to help someone in this situation get past it, this is what he told me: I am very atypical in that I only write when I am sure I can produce something.  I admire people who can routinely set aside time specifically for writing.  If I have been away from my work for awhile and want to get in the mood for writing, I will go back to the characters and try to add more characteristics or back stories to them to see where they are going next.  This helps the writing flow and the story will come to mind more easily.

The end of his answer brought me to my next question.  I was curious to know if he had any rituals or exercises that he performed before he brainstormed to easily develop new ideas.  He had a few in mind:  I think of actors that could play my characters and visualize what they would naturally do on screen to help give me an idea of what I want to happen in the story.  Also when I come up with anything relating to my script like dialogue or setting, I write it down somewhere.  Anywhere—notebooks, napkins, my hand, post-its.  And eventually put together everything that I wrote.  This gives the illusion that I started writing, making it easier to actually start.  I have also taken trips to places where I want my script to take place giving me a better idea of the cultures flavor and landscape which ultimately helps the writing process.

Personally I would love to have a job in the film industry, but don’t know the best way to get into it.  So far all you people out there who are in the same boat as me, I did you a solid and asked Dr. McKittrick what he thought some of the best ways to get in are:  Any internship or volunteer work dealing with production would be great.  Becoming an extra in any film would give you some good experience also and give you an idea about how a set operates.  I have heard of people moving to Los Angeles to take temp jobs because that sometimes gets you in the industry door, or getting a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree can get you ahead as well.  If you want to be a writer, then write to develop a diverse portfolio to show a range of writing abilities and then find an agent.  You could also enter film festivals to get your scripts out there faster.

I was interested to find out more about how he forms his narratives.  I wanted to know if he thought it was better to have most of the story in mind before writing, or to just think of new ideas as he wrote: For my script Pray for Me I had a good idea about what the first and some of the second act would entail, but after that I just came up with new ideas as I was writing.  I had about six key scenes that I really wanted to write, but as for the third act, the only thing I knew I wanted to for sure happen was to have a certain character end up okay at the end of the movie.  Sometimes crucial parts of the story just come to mind and turn out to become a huge part of the script.  About a quarter of my script was written as it came to me. There isn’t really a right or wrong way to do it; it depends on personal preference.

At this point I was still pretty interested in the beginning parts of the writing process.  So I asked Casey the following; when incorporating the narrative you thought up, with what will be seen on screen, how common is it that you have too much or too little to include:  You have to keep in mind the traditional amount of time movies are allotted before you start putting things down on paper.  It’s 30, 60, and 20 minutes for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd acts.  What I do is almost map out how long I estimate each scene taking so I can get a good idea of how much time the movie will be.  A good rule of thumb is each page of the script usually ends up being a minute of screen time.  In Pray for Me I ended up with 33, 59, and 13 minute acts.  If you just plan it out and try to get to objectives in the plot the fastest way without taking anything valuable away from the story, you should be in good shape.

Dialogue is something that a good amount of screen writers struggle with.  Some of them write it too bland or predictable, while others include too much or too little.  I wondered if Casey had any tips to come up with the right amount: Always speak it out loud. It needs to sound natural, and the only way to do that is by speaking it.  I try to resist clichés or common sayings because I am wary of sounding like someone else or like an everyday conversation.  Also try to visualize the scene and what actors can communicate non-verbally, like feelings, ideas, motives, and let them do some of the work for you.  This will help you become an economical writer.  If you have too much dialogue, try to cut out adjectives so descriptions come naturally.  Industry standard says to cut down on stage directions, but I personally like a lot of them because I have that micro-managing tendency, where I want to make sure every line has the nuance I intended. It’s a weakness.

Everyone has their own favorite character on screen. I asked Casey if he thought those characters were entirely made up or based on someone the writer knows:  The characters people like the most are either the ones that they can personally relate to, wished they knew someone like them, or know someone like them.  Familiarity helps people connect.  What I do is combine aspects of a bunch of roles I see on screen and people in my life to form characters.  I take any trait that I like and use it; it doesn’t matter if they are real or fictional.

I don’t know about you, but I am kind of tired of seeing the same script format in EVERY movie.  It’s all so predictable.  I told Casey this and asked him if he would ever recommend formatting a script differently from the classic three-act structure:  From a practical standpoint, no because it will be hard for Hollywood to read it.  If you can’t think of any other way to write it, do it.  It is rare to see happen but when it does, it is refreshing to see.

Revising your own work is difficult for most people.  I was curious to find out if Casey had any tricks to read and revise his own work with more criticism:  For me this is the hardest part of the process because I feel so attached to what I wrote that it is hard to go back and change something and still have it flow naturally.  When I read my own work for a good while I start to hate my writing voice, this makes it hard to become objective.  When I need to rewrite a section I start from scratch, and when I am done, I compare and contrast both versions and take what I want from each.

I started to run out of questions dealing with the writing process and began to want to know more about getting ready for Hollywood.  One thing that every writer needs to have is a logline.  A logline is a summary of the movie in one sentence in about 25 words.  I asked what kind of things should be included or focused on in it:  You have to nail the identity of the protagonist in a few words and capture their circumstance at the start of the movie in a couple word as well.  After that you need to suggest that they “travel” from one point to another in some way, shape, or form.  The last thing that needs to be included is the explanation of the moment when the protagonist “travels” from one point to another (character A encounters X and then becomes Y).

Gotta love Star Wars.  “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is a tagline that almost everyone knows.  I asked Casey if he aimed for that kind of renown standard when coming up with his own tagline:  I don’t think that taglines are really that important. It’s hard for me to think of any taglines right now.  I prefer mine to be confusing or ambiguous over catchy because it draws people in easier and they want to know more about it.

I mentioned Pitch Fest earlier and I also mentioned how Casey was lucky enough to participate in the event.  I wondered what he would have wished he knew while he was preparing for Pitch Fest and what he wished he knew while he was pitching:  I wished someone forced me to have a 1-sheet (advertising summary of script) and that I found a visual artist to help me make the one-sheet visually appealing, to get producers to understand the idea better.  I wished I researched the production companies before I went, like go online to see what they produced before and what they were currently interested in.  I knew this, but it is important to know before you pitch the big actors and small ones that could play your characters.  It is also important to be personable so producers want to get to know you beyond work and to demonstrate that you are unique and devoted.  While I was pitching I wish I more often remembered to be explicit about the plot and themes because I know my work well, but my audience does not know it as well as I do.  You don’t want to forget about the little things.  Also don’t let producers draw conclusions for themselves, draw it for them.  A good thing I did was explain things without referencing other shows or characters; I made mine seem similar but not at the same time.

So you pitch and get some people interested in what you have. What is the next step? Do you have to continue to seek out producers or do they find you:  Afterwards you keep revising.  Never assume you have a deal.  Keep on operating like there is no interest and keep looking out for competitions. Look at my first Pitchfest: I had a LOT of interest in both of my projects, and none of them panned, for one reason or another.  Keep trying to get pitches and do NOT call back because if they want you, they will call.  Also never assume that just because you pitch that your ideas will circulate.  If you want to send a company or company affiliate some of your work, NEVER send your script, send a one-sheet and maybe a treatment because the script puts them in legal trouble.  They can be sued for copyright infringement. Again DON’T send anything besides a one-sheet, unless they ask.

Let’s say that a producer wants to buy your script and wants to negotiate some terms of the buy.  What kind of things can be discussed:  A producer can option the script.  An option is a “lease” of the script in a time constraint of usually 1,2,3, or 5 years.  They have a certain amount of time to consider making the movie.  If they don’t make it in time, they can either renew the option or give the script back.  They can also just buy the script for a flat sum or agree to buy it for money plus a percentage of the money the movie makes.  You can negotiate writing credit if you want it and you can have a say as to how much they change your script.  The company can also make you a producer if both parties are comfortable with the notion.

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Pitchfest Round 2

So. Pitchfest 2012.  

This year, I came armed with 4 copies of the film script Pray For Me, 7 copies of the revised TV pilot, and 3 first drafts of the TV pilot.  That, plus I had about 40 one-sheets for Destiny Design, about 10 for Pray For Me, and a bunch of treatments for both.  I had decided ahead of time that, since Robert is still interested in buying Pray For Me (provided I rewrite the 3rd act to his liking) and since Destiny Design is likely to be more marketable and easier to sell, that I would focus this Pitchfest on selling Destiny Design. 

 I did things a little differently this year, and I’m not sure if I regret it or not.  I offered almost everyone I pitched to a complete script at the end of my pitches, unless they seemed totally uninterested.  The conventional wisdom is that a producer will only ask for/take a script if s/he is very interested, because it involves a whole new slate of legal/intellectual property concerns.  And the average person at Pitchfest gets .88 of a request for a script–so less than one script offer out of between 15 and 20 pitches average during the day.  Well, I blew away that statistic–7 out of 11 producers accepted a Destiny Design script from me (2 asked for treatments only, and 2 declined).  And for Pray For Me, I got one script request out of four, plus 2 treatment requests.  This, on one hand, sounds amazing, and I’m very proud of it.  On the other hand, I’m wondering how much of it was that I had scripts on hand so that their response was less a “Sure,” than “Why not?”  

 One of my best pitches was for a guy named Tim from Tagline Productions.  He has been a producer for PSYCH on the USA Network for 5 years, and he was a producer for the show Man Up on NBC this past fall, though it was canceled quickly. He LOVED the pitch and even said he could see Destiny Design on the USA line-up next to Psych!  (I actually have never seen a full episode of Psych, but I’ve seen snitches, and it seems respectable).  He took a script, and the last thing he said, which I thought was very curious was that he could see a huge male demographic for the show.  I heartily agreed with him, though I had never thought of it in those terms before.

 I had 2 horrible pitches in a row.  One was a producer who didn’t seem to have a very good command of English, and didn’t seem to be interested in what I was selling.  He didn’t even listen.  Three minutes into the pitch, he said, “Is this a sitcom?”  I said, “No, not at all.  Have you been listening?”  He asked for a treatment, I handed it to him, and he whined, “But it’s SO long!”  I snatched it out of his hand, said “I really can’t waste copies of this on people like you,” and got up and left the table, before the cowbell sounded.  The next shitty pitch was kind of the same, though there were 3 producers, and it was clear they hadn’t designated someone to be in charge.  So they justsat there.  At the end of my pitch, they said, “So, what have you done with this show?”  I said, “Uh, I WROTE it, I’ve done a table reading of it.  That’s why I’m here.”  I was mystified as to what they meant.  Later, someone told me that it was getting to the point in the industry that a lot of producers wouldn’t touch your work unless you had already secured funding from other sources, or had actors attached to star in it.  Clearly, this doesn’t bode well for the future of writers.  The last thing they should be expected to take on is the work of producers!  So I left that meeting confused and more than a little pissed.  The last thing they said to me was, “It sounds like a great story.  I hope you find someone in here to read it.”  WTF?!?!  They were all but admitting that they didn’t want to be the first to jump on a new writer or show, that they just wanted to attach themselves to something already in progress.  What a waste of time!!!

All in all, I got 7 requests for a full script of the Destiny Design pilot out of 11 pitches.  They start getting pilot shows together, casting in the late fall, and then shooting in January or February–so there’s no hurry, but I’d love to know if anyone will keep their interest in the project after reading it and sharing it with colleagues and their readers.

Of 4 pitches for Pray For Me, I got 2 requests for a treatment of it.

  Robert, my producer-friend whom I met last year at Pitchfest, was there again this year, and a couple of 5-minute time slots, when he wasn’t busy hearing pitches, I sat with him to catch up.  It was great to see him, and his news was even greater:  In the past year, he has merged with 2 other production companies, and now, instead of making one low-budget film every year and a half, they are trying to slate FOUR movies a year for production!  He indicated that his new partners would love my film and told me it was all the more important that I tighten/redirect the ending, to make a good impression on his partners.  He was clear that he didn’t want to show it to his partners until he felt it was totally ready. But I was extremely excited, needless to say. We made a date for later in the week.

Two days later, I met with Robert.  He invited me to his studio, where they were actually filming his latest picture!  He gave me a tour of the lot, let me watch about half an hour of taping, and introduced me to one of his stars as an “up-and-coming writer.”  The actor he introduced me to was Zoe Bell, who has been in quite a few Tarantino pictures, as both a stunt double (Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill ) and as an actress in her own right.  In fact, right now she is shooting both Robert’s film–called Raze–and Tarantino’s latest,  called Django Unchained, so she’s traveling back and forth between sets.  Very exciting.

So Robert and I sat down and quite literally, on the bus from South Central to Burbank, I had come up with a MAJOR change in the story of Pray For Me that would necessitate a radically different outcome.  In fact the entire final 30 pages would be completely different.  I texted my good friend Josh while on the bus–he has been in on Pray For Me from the start, when it was called Christ the Kink, and has read it many times–and he seemed to like the changes.  I proposed them to Robert, and he loved the idea!  He thought it might very well save the movie dramatically.  For those of you wanting details in the changes, feel free to ask.  I’ll just say, it’s almost changing one of the big premises of the movie, but I feel like it keeps the spirit of it intact.  In a nutshell, I’m taking the whole Baptist Wedding Night scheme off the internet, and instead having them make films, dvd’s of it. For various reasons, that will give one of the 3 main characters a big chance to redeem themselves by the end, and Robert was worried that no one would be redeemed in the eyes of the audience.  

I also told Robert that a couple of others may be interested in my movie, and asked what I should do if I got an offer.  He said, “Remember, I’m not attached to your movie at this point.  You need to do what you need to do.”  I asked him if he’d like me to consult him first if I got another offer, and he said, definitely.  I also asked if I should mention his company as a potential backer for the film, and he said yes to that too.  So, no promises, but again, I’m thrilled that he remains invested in the project.

Thinking About Hollywood

I had no luck with the first two screenwriting competitions I entered, though I did get some nice encouraging feedback from the judges.  Whatever weaknesses there were in the writing, it was clear that people saw the script as a potential film, and this was vital for keeping my spirits up regarding the project.  In December of 2010, I decided to take some steps of my own in the hopes of finding representation.  I was up for the tenure in 2010, so I was facing the possibility of spending the rest of my life in Kalamazoo if I was granted it (which I was).  Living in Kalamazoo—in fact, living anywhere outside of Los Angeles—makes it very hard to sell your product.  It requires constant pavement-pounding, networking, and following up in order to make film deals happen.  At the very most, I could afford to take about two trips to LA per year in order to peddle my scripts, and this made it quite unlikely that I would see much progress.  So I decided to look into finding an agent who would represent me when I was unable to.

I got a subscription to IMDb.com’s premium service, which contains names and addresses of industry professionals.  From that, I made a list of about 50 agencies and proceeded to call all of them over winter break.  Almost every single one said the exact same thing to me—that they were not taking on new writers, and that they only saw writers based on a colleague’s recommendation.  In other words, you had to know someone even to get your feet in the door.  I had heard how difficult it was to find representation as an actor.  I didn’t realize it was even more rare to secure an agent as a writer.   Talking to my tv friend, I was dishearteningly schooled about the harsh truth of Hollywood:  cold calls will never work.  The two ways you can break into the business are either to win a screenwriting competition, or to attract interest at what is called a pitchfest.

Taking his advice to heart, I started doing research into pitchfests.  The most highly regarded one is called “The Great American Pitchfest,” and it is held in Los Angeles every June.  I got a research grant from Western Michigan, and they generously agreed to fund my trip to LA and my first foray into pitching.  “Pitching” essentially means providing a brief, potent verbal breakdown of your film idea in the space of a few minutes.  Hollywood sees tens of thousands of pitches a day; a few of them eventually get the green light.  So, yes, the odds are not good, but I reasoned that this may be my only chance for some exposure to Hollywood money.

Before I get into my experience with Pitchfest, I’ll mention the second project I found myself pursuing in this past year.   By the end of 2010, I was reasonably satisfied that I had a good working draft of my screenplay.  I was always prepared to do more revisions, but I was proud of the work I’d done, and I convinced myself that, even if my film is never realized in celluloid, I could always be gratified by the fact that I had started and finished a major creative project by myself, with no coaching or support.  Along with this realization, though, came a little anxiety.  Did one script make me a screenwriter?  I wrote this script because I had an idea that I liked, because I had a bunch of student loans, and because I was looking to use writing as a sort of therapy to deal with my past.  Would I ever be struck by inspiration again?  Before allowing this line of thought to turn into a total existential freakout, which—knowing me—I was in danger of doing, I reasoned the following:  I wrote a good, strong respectable screenplay.  Some would say this made me a screenwriter.  Others would not call me that unless my script were bought and produced.  The bottom line, it didn’t really matter what I called myself.  I was a good friend to my friends, a solid scholar who had published in books and journals, and a good teacher with a tenured professorship at a good school.  This was what really mattered to me.  This screenwriting stint was just gravy.  Crisis averted, I let myself relax a bit and assured myself that I never had to come up with another script idea again and that if I never did, I hadn’t failed at anything.  I should be proud of my accomplishment.  The next morning, I woke up with a new idea.

Startled at how excited I was by this new prospect, I hurried myself to a coffee shop, and with a brand new notebook, I began project number two.  A brief description:  While I was in grad school—again in the early days of the internet—I remembered being shown a rather chilling web site.  It was called “coincidencedesign.com.”  It is now thankfully defunct, but it is still accessible in an online archive, and one can still witness firsthand the diabolical intentions of this site.  It was a business that targeted wealthy businessmen who were in search of a wife or girlfriend.  The service was a sort of matchmaking system with a repugnant twist.  The company would research whatever woman a client had in mind and find out everything about her—they would interview old bosses, old boyfriends, family members, neighbors, etc. to find out every foible, every significant detail about her.  They would create a dossier of the woman, all the while breaching pretty much every ethical code concerning privacy.  They would screen to find out about any diseases or history of addictions and, perhaps most insidiously, they would arrange for their client to meet the woman “coincidentally” by finding out her schedule and creating a calculated situation which looked like Fate.  They would coach the client about her likes and dislikes, find ways for the client and woman to connect in terms of their past, their families, etc.  If the woman’s father served in Vietnam, the company would find out the troop and the client could claim that his father served in a nearby squadron; if the woman had a cause she championed—say, lung cancer—the company would invent a past for their client which included cancer activism.  All of this was about a man’s gaining the upper hand in a relationship by manipulating the relationship from its very beginning.  Ideally, the woman, thinking that Fate had brought them together, would fall in love with the client under totally forged and artificial conditions.

I thought this morally reprehensible scheme would be great fodder for drama, and I began to think of a point of insertion into this madness.  I started to envision a protagonist, a 20-something Latina woman getting her Masters degree in Austin, Texas, in the mid-90s, at the peak of the computer boom.  I had lived in Austin at this time and thought it would be a great time to set the show.  Austin was transitioning from a hippie college town into a yuppie technology capital.  I began to think about this girl—I named her Carmen—and wondered how someone could find themselves in the midst of a horrible institution like coincidencedesign.com.  I decided that I would make her an honors student, heavily recruited by IBM and Apple and the other big-time corporations, about to graduate valedictorian of her class.  A bitter and vindictive ex-boyfriend would set her up to plagiarize her thesis and, just before graduation, she is expelled from her school.  The companies who had been recruiting her so hard would now not answer her calls.  She went from the next big thing to a punchline and a cautionary tale.  On top of this, I imagined that she came from a wealthy family with a white father who was himself a computer company executive, who is so disgraced by his daughter’s failure that he withdraws all support from her, and her mother reluctantly follows.  Her brother is already a black sheep in the family, and he has both drug and gambling debts piling up, to the point that his life is being threatened by loan sharks.  On her own, Carmen is faced with few options, and when a man comes to her from Destiny Design dot com and explains the premise of the company, she is initially repelled by the horrible shadiness of the operation, but decides to take a job with them temporarily out of economic necessity.  The company wants her because before her downfall, she was recognized as a great researcher and savvy programmer, and they are looking to hire a female to provide a feminine sensibility in coaching their clients.  So the show progresses from there, chronicling her day to day involvement in a place to which she is morally opposed, but that provides her with a paycheck and, although she won’t admit it, a stimulating intellectual challenge.  The fact that she is betraying women for a living is something she has to learn to deal with on a daily basis, as is hiding the nature of her job from friends and family.

While I began to sketch all the possible trajectories of the film, jotting down potential twists and turns of Carmen’s story, I realized quickly that I had too many good, viable ideas to be contained in a 2-hour film.  Immediately, I started to think in terms of a quality cable show—one like Weeds with a really strong female protagonist who makes questionable choices.  I had as little experience writing for television as I had for writing films, but I figured I would give it a try.  What I ended up writing was a 15 page document called a “treatment” for the tv show.  It began with the premise of the show, the background of the protagonist, and then proceeded to sketch out the various changes that happen in the first couple of seasons of the show.  I was enormously proud of the premise, and I liked the potential for all of these stories to come to fruition.  I liked Carmen instantly and wanted the best for her, but I was inspired to really put her to the test by painting her into incredibly raw and difficult situations.  I shared the treatment with about ten of my film students in the spring, and they all responded positively to the show; some of them almost immediately had ideas for the directions of the characters.

Now, I had two different projects to talk to producers about at Pitchfest.  I was both excited by this newest addition to my tiny portfolio and a little concerned that having two projects to pitch in 7 hours would prove to be too much for me to handle at once.  I spent the next few months practicing my pitch on willing victims, though not nearly as much as I should have.  As the date came closer, I received some info from the organizers.  To my surprise, about 200 production companies and agents were taking part in Pitchfest.  We got a partial list of those participating, and a partial list of people they represented or had worked with.  The list was quite impressive, and a little intimidating.  They also had advice about dress code and what to bring with you.  They suggested wearing the standard “writer’s uniform,” khaki pants and a button-down shirt.  This eliminated any guesswork for me.  The “uniform” is justified by one philosophy I have heard about a writer’s position in Hollywood.  However, I have just as often heard the opposite philosophy in use.  The ostensible reason for a “uniform”:  You are not supposed to stand out; your ideas are.  Pitches are about selling an idea for a film or a tv show.  You want the agent or producer to focus on your product, not you.  In khaki pants and button-downs, writers are presentable, but not overly dressed.  They don’t stand out; there is no real mark of individualism except for whatever is present in the pitch.  The opposing philosophy, of course, is that, in selling your film or tv idea, you are also selling yourself.  You need to engage the producer or agent and convey that you are trustworthy, bright, current, and interesting.   In fact, most of the producers I met had opinions that fell in line with one or the other. Some thought the writer needed to minimize her presence when pitching ideas; others thought of pitching as an act of self-promotion.

The bottom line, whichever your take, pitching is a unique activity that one will likely never do in another context.  You have about 3 minutes to sell your movie, to use sound bites to paint a picture, tell a story, and argue for your idea’s relevance, originality, and marketability.  It is indeed an art form to streamline the explanation of a 100-minute film into 180 seconds and maintain the spirit and the integrity of your piece.  Obviously, you can’t do every aspect of your film justice in that time, but you have to figure out what will resonate the most with your audience, what sound bite they will take with them after the meeting, what idea will cause them to lose enough sleep to call you back or draft a contract.

The organizers also suggested bringing what is called a “one-sheet” with you to provide a visual illustration of the concept you are pitching.  I wish I had taken this advice to heart.  It is something that I kept putting off, reasoning that I had no artistic abilities and that my ideas should sell themselves.  In retrospect, it was a mistake not to have one prepared, because almost every time a producer was interested in my premise, he/she would follow with “Do you have a one-sheet?”  But I am getting ahead of myself.

Like most of the other steps in this process, I didn’t have any kind of mentor or teacher with experience, so I was pretty much feeling my way alone, basing my actions on intuition and whatever I could glean from people’s experiences on online message boards.  The message I got from veteran writers was loud and clear and depressing:  fewer than 1% of scripts end up getting read by producers;  of that 1%, fewer than 1% of those are sold; of that 1% of 1%, only a small percentage of those sold are actually carried through to completion and made into and distributed as a film.  There were plenty of jaded folks online telling me that I had no chance, that Pitchfest was a waste of time.  It took all I had to take their admonitions with a grain of salt.  I knew that misery loved company, and that a lot of those writers giving me online “advice” were projecting their own negative experiences onto me.  Egos are fragile things, and it’s easier to regard your own personal failure as a universal experience than to recognize that there are exceptions.

The morning I woke up in Kalamazoo to fly out to LA, my first words upon opening my eyes were “Pray for me.”  I immediately recognized it as the REAL title of my film.  For a year now, I had been struggling with a good title for the film.   I probably had generated about 40 titles before I settled on this one.  “Pray For Me” was pithy, it captured the religious themes of the film, suggested that characters were involved in something for which they needed redemption, and if you really read between the lines, there’s an almost kinky aspect to the title:  it’s an imperative verb, commanding someone to do something, and it’s what the onlookers are implicitly asking of their filmed subjects (without their permission).  Having a title, even at this late date, felt good.  It seemed as if I had solidified my “product” in an important way.

After flying into LAX, I saw a couple of old friends, some from college, some from Michigan, and I tried to get into the Hollywood mindset, whatever that may be.  I had my friends time my pitch, making sure that I didn’t ramble or stutter.  I got my film pitch down to 2 ½ minutes and my TV pitch down to 3.

The morning of Pitchfest, I woke up in my Burbank Travelodge, about a mile from the Marriott where the event was being held.  I put on my “uniform,” gathered a couple of copies of my film script and my TV treatment, and set off on my walk to the hotel.  I arrived almost right at 10:30, when Pitchfest was scheduled to start.  I first had to get in a line to receive my registration package and an ID card.  I quickly fell in with a group of five who were trading stories about previous pitches.  All were veteran writers who had been doing this for between 3 and 15 years.  They greeted me warmly, assuring me that no matter what, I would have stories to tell, if not a contract or even a contact.  According to them, you are only truly successful in a pitch if they offer you their private information—phone number, e-mail, etc., and they ask you to send a document.

I got in line outside the Burbank Marriott ballroom, where 200 folding tables were set up across the dance floor.  Velvet ropes snaked around to contain the masses at the front of the line.  I saw all types around me.  Men, women, 20-somethings, 40-somethings, 60-somethings.  People in suits who had ignored the “uniform” suggestion.  People in running suits going for the–well, I don’t know what they were doing.  People were reciting pitches to each other in lines, to themselves, doing breathing exercises, personal grooming, affirmations.  There was an actual cattle bell sitting at the front of the ballroom that rang every five minutes to let you know when your time was up.  At the bell, you were supposed to get up, shake hands, and then return to the foyer to get in line for another agent or producer.  If a producer wanted to, he could hold up the line for you and keep you for another round, but the norm was to cut and run when you hear the bell.  Of the approximately 200 companies, I would say about 170 of them were representatives of production companies, and the rest were from agencies.  Four days before the event, the organizers had sent out an additional document which was incredibly valuable.  They had listed every company participating, as well as a survey each company filled out indicating whether they were interested in film or tv, what genre they specialized in, the past productions they had under their belt, and what kind of project they were looking to undertake, as well as any advice for prospective pitchers.  I had made a wish list of about 20 companies that seemed compatible, either for Pray For Me or Destiny Design.   Within an hour (and Pitchfest lasted 7 hours), I had ditched the list altogether, relying instead on word-of-mouth from some of the “friends” I had made in line at 10:30.

I was the third person in my first line.  This producer had put on his questionnaire that he was interested in both TV and film.  When the cowbell dinged, I power-walked to the card table with the corresponding number on its flag.  The table, like all the others, was white on the surface, and skirted with a lemony yellow linen.  As I approached the table, I was terrified.  A balding white man in his 50 sat facing me.  He nodded that I should sit down across from him.  After a quick handshake, he flatly said, “What’ve you got?”  I asked him if he preferred a movie or tv show.  He said “TV.”  This turned out to be quite atypical.  Of all the companies that indicated by questionnaire that they were interested in both tv and film, whenever I asked them for their preference, they requested the film pitch.  Except for this guy.

I began my pitch Destiny Design.  I pulled my laptop out to show him the web site I was using as the springboard for my drama—coincidencedesign.com.  I knew I was in trouble when he had absolutely no response to the premise of the web site before I even got to the pitch.  “This is probably a guy that would USE this service,” I thought to myself as I pitched my heart out.  When I finished—about 3 minutes later, he sighed, “Is that it?”

“Pretty much, in a nutshell,” I answered.

 He paused for a moment.  “Sounds more like a movie.”

I waited for a follow-up question or comment, but nothing came.  Deafening silence.  I heard snatches of pitches going on around me.   Vampires and baseball and spies, oh my.  My impulse was to say, “You idiot, I just gave you about two seasons’ worth of content.  How in the hell is this stuff supposed to be addressed in a two hour movie?”  Instead I said, “So what do you think of it as a movie?”

He shrugged.  The conversation was over.  Mortified, I rose to my feet, mumbled a “thank you” that sounded more like a question, and retreated to the foyer.  I was the only person in the entire ballroom standing up, besides those waiting on the sidelines.  I hadn’t even made it to minute five of my first pitch.  The walk of shame seemed to take forever.  I was dazed and asking myself, “Is it going to be seven hours of this?

I got into a second line.  There were two people ahead of me.  I had decided on a film pitch, just to get the taste of the first pitch out of my mouth.  This was a company that was only interested in movies, looking for dramas and comedies.  When my time came, I crossed the ballroom quickly, saw that I was approaching a man and a woman at my designated table.  I shook hands with them both, and the man, obviously the alpha of the duo,” barked “Let’s do it!”

At least this pair had energy.  The first guy had looked so miserable to be awake and alive and listening to me.  These two were the opposite.  At each pause in my description, he would bark, “And then what?!  And then what?!”  I got to the end, and he inquired, “Anything else?”

“That’s pretty much it,” I replied.

The man took a few breaths and then declared loudly, “I don’t think that’s a movie I’d want to see!”

Immediately, the woman (who I assumed at this point was his wife due to their body language) and I countered at the exact same time, “I WOULD!”  The wife and I giggled, recognizing that we had spoken the same response at the same time, and without missing a beat, the man turned to her and barked, “Shut up!”  Suddenly, I felt like I had launched myself in the midst of a domestic dispute, and one that I was clearly losing.  Nervously, I tried to redirect everyone’s attention by asking for clarification.

“Why wouldn’t you want to see it?”  I tested firmly but without any aggression.

“I just—I wouldn’t like those people.  It’s just too much.”

So maybe my friend had a point.  Maybe people would be turned off by my main characters.  Again, the conversation seemed over before the bell had even rung.  The man stretched out his hand to say goodbye.  The woman looked cowed and apologetic.  I made my second retreat, hugging my computer bag for comfort.

I had read in the registration packet that participants saw between 12 and 24 different producers and agents on the average.  Here it was twenty minutes in, and I had already accrued 2 staggeringly clear rejections.  I got into a third line, beginning to think about the virtues of an early, liquid lunch at the hotel bar.  When my third cowbell resounded, I began to trudge toward my third table.  Again, another man and woman whom I assumed were married.  I really didn’t want a repeat performance, so I mustered the biggest smile I could as I sat down.  I shook both their hands.  They wanted the movie pitch.

For the second time in a row, I pitched the film.  As I drew to a close, the man asked, “Is that all?” in a manner very similar to the last jerk.

“There’s a love story embedded in there.  Do you want to hear about it?”

I cringed at my own question, realizing that I was sounding wimpy and defeated after two rejections.

“Of course,” the man responded, seemingly with interest.

I started to explain the love story, how it evolved out of the main plot, and how the film ends with this possibility as a redeeming moment in the film.

They were both quiet for a few beats.   He doodled on the tablet in front of him and asked, “How much are you seeing this for?”

It took me a second to realize he was asking about budget.  Boy, was I not prepared for a question like that!  Or maybe I was, because I had an answer right away, although I was talking out of my ass.

“Four to five,” I retorted, trying to sound casual and confident.

Of course, I meant 4-5 million.  I reasoned, in that moment, that only an amateur would actually say “million.”  I saw their eyes widen a bit, and they paused.

I filled the silence with “You could do it for 2-3, but if you got a name for the lead , it’d be a bit more.”

I marveled at my own response.  Where was this coming from?!  I hadn’t really thought about discussing budget.  I figured that would be a conversation to be had much later.  But it indicated interest; that was for sure.  My pulse raced, and I felt simultaneously elated and fraudulent, like I was 19 and trying to buy liquor.

They took this information in, and then he followed with, “Who do you see in it?”

Wow, this was for real.  The surreal quality of the moment overtook me.  Here I was, a nerdy English professor who had been living in southwest Michigan for going on 6 years, sitting in the Burbank Marriott discussing what Hollywood actors he would put in his own movie.  This kind of kicked ass.  The only thing that would have made it better was if we were drinking martinis.  Luckily, I had some answers for this.

I responded, “I see Mia Wasikowska from The Kids Are Alright for the girl.  For Preston, I’m thinking Zach Gilford from Friday Night Lights, Colton Haynes from The Gates, or Hunter Parrish from Weeds.  This could also be Zac Efron’s “Fuck you, Disney” movie.  That got a smile from both of them.  They digested these names, appearing to mull them over.  Their demeanor really warmed up.  The man followed up.

“You got a one sheet?”

I cringed, not realizing that was something people were actually going to ask for.  I immediately popped out a lie.

“You know, the maid in my motel this morning through out all my papers, thinking it was trash,” I apologized, “I can get you one in a bit.”

“And you have the script completed?” the woman asked.

“Yep, it’s all done,” I boasted.

“Can you get us a copy of that by lunch?” he asked.

Taken aback, I said, “Sure.”

“This sounds like something I want to read,” he said.

“Me too,” his wife chimed in.

The bell dinged, and they kept me a few extra seconds to ask me about who I was, what I did.  They were impressed by the professor thing, and actually volunteered that they had a few distant relatives that worked in Kalamazoo at my university.  Again, there were handshakes all around.  This time I felt a warmth and a sense of connection to them.  They said their goodbyes, concluding with “Don’t forget to send us your stuff as soon as you can.”

I was ecstatic, especially in light of my first two failures.   I tore through the lobby in search of a computer lab.  Right by a bank of elevators, I spotted a small room with computers and luckily, one was vacant.  I figured it would require a credit card or some kind of code, but the organizers of Pitchfest had cleared the lab for our use.  I was feeling very blessed at that moment.  I got online, and I cut and pasted a one-sheet from various documents I had stashed away in my Hotmail.  I knew there was no time for any graphics, but I played with fonts and bolds a bit.  “Pray For Me” went in bold letters at the top.  I realized at that moment that I had planned on working out a catchy tag line for the film, but I hadn’t come up with anything satisfactory.  The adrenaline still rushing, I typed, in smaller letters after the title, “Online Baptist Wedding Night Porn.  It was only a matter of time….”  Not perfect, but it was definitely eye-opening.  I liked that it captured the very spirit of the idea when I had first mentioned it ten years ago, when I asked “That internet!  What are they going to think of next?”  So this became my tag line.  I then put a copy of my logline beneath that.  The logline is a description of your story in about 50 words or fewer, preferably in one sentence.  Often, it is followed by a combination of films whose marriage would explain your product.  My logline read,

A darkly comic drama, a feature-length project.  A recently graduated Ivy Leaguer, his girlfriend, and lifelong gay best friend spend their last summer together working at a Gatlinburg, Tennessee Baptist-themed Honeymoon Resort, where they create a successful porn web site by secretly streaming footage of Baptists losing their virginity on their wedding night (Boinkin’Baptists.com); when they are caught by the Feds, their friendship dissolves, as each friend’s real motive for exploiting the Baptists becomes clear, their capture resulting in disaster for two of them and the beginning of a very unlikely love for the third.  In a nutshell, it’s Less Than Zero meets Zack and Miri Make a Porno meets Deliverance, with a decidedly queer twist. 

 I’m not claiming to have the perfect logline.  In fact, it’s probably too long by half.  But I decided for myself that I’d rather have it be obnoxiously too long rather than confusing or misleading.  I reasoned that anyone who was truly interested in the film’s premise wouldn’t reject it simply because its logline was too long.    

Here is my current one sheet for Destiny Design

 Anyways, back to Pitchfest.  I e-mailed the script and one-sheet to the lovely couple and got back in the game.  The following pitches were smoother, better received, and while a lot of them didn’t match the enthusiasm level of the couple, the producers seemed genuinely interested in my two stories.

During the lunch break, I had a long-anticipated Long Island Iced Tea and called some friends for moral support.  They were super-helpful, since I had no real allies in this whole venture, and one of them gave me some advice that really got me through the afternoon.  He told me to use my education, mention it, and be proud of it.  He reasoned that anyone worth their salt would respect someone with a doctoral degree in literature.  When I countered that a few people in the industry that I’d met seemed to shrink from the news that I was a Dr., he rightfully said that those were people I didn’t want to be dealing with in the first place.  So, for the rest of my pitches, if the question of my background came up, I wasn’t afraid to tell them about my time in school, and my current role as a professor.  He was right; more people were impressed than turned off.

In the afternoon stretch, I saw quite a few more producers and only one agent.  I had decided for myself, while waiting in line, that I would go for producers over agents because I was really more prepared in the moment for selling my two products than I was for selling myself as a long-term client.  I hadn’t really brought a portfolio or CV with me, and even more tellingly, I didn’t HAVE a portfolio that included a broad range of samples of my writing.  I realized that agents were likely looking for someone who had produced quite a few original works.  I knew from talking to my TV writer friend that agents (at least, agents for TV writers) liked to see both scripts from original shows and spec scripts of shows that already existed.  A SPEC script is one that is meant not necessarily for production, but to showcase your talent.  People write spec scripts in the hope that someone will like their style or their concept and hire them to come on board as a writer for a show, or hire them to write a whole other movie script.  And I was woefully short on spec scripts, so I stuck with producers.

I ran into the nice couple later in the afternoon, and asked if they had gotten my e-mail.  They said yes, and they expressed that my script was all that they had talked about during their lunch hour—exciting news, indeed.  They told me they looked forward to both of them reading it the following week, and wished me luck on the rest of my pitches.

One thing I realized by the end of the day was that often a production company would send one of their junior people to functions like this in order to field possible future projects.  I met with my fair share of 20-somethings who seemed very interested in my shows, but didn’t have the authorization to ask for a complete script.  Instead, they would take their information back to the production heads, and make recommendations based on the pitches they had seen and liked.  I hadn’t realized before that production companies are VERY reluctant to request full scripts from people, and will only do so if they know right away that they are serious about acquiring the property.  Apparently, when you ask for or receive a full script, the legal issues kick in.  Meaning, if the company makes a film or a show that is at all similar to yours, they can be sued, and the company looks really bad if they have acknowledged receiving the script.  That is why, if you send a company a script without their soliciting it, they will usually send it back to you unopened.  They really don’t want the hassle of lawsuits, and not even acknowledging receipt of the script is the only way to avoid some pretty serious legal entanglements.

Several of my other TV pitches went really well, and there was pretty much immediate interest.  On the 5th or 6th pitch, I had the opportunity to lie for the second time that day, and I took it.  After I pitched the show, the man asked, “Have you written the pilot yet?”  “Of course,” I lied.  “How long is it?” he inquired.  “Fifty-five,” I deadpanned.  I marveled at how good a liar I was in these circumstances.  He asked for a copy of the pilot, which I agreed to send when I had “polished it.”  Three others got the same BS response from me.  So now, I had a new project to complete pretty damn quickly—write a pilot episode for a show I had just dreamt up months earlier.

By 4:40, I was exhausted.  My pitches had all started to run together in my head, as had meeting all the various characters who represented the studios and companies.  I thought about throwing in the towel and calling it a day until a friend I had made that morning took me aside and said, “Go meet with Robert, number 33.  He’s a good guy, and he’d like your stuff.”  I figured doing one last pitch would make me less likely to feel regretful later on that I hadn’t taken full advantage of the day.  I waited in line and met up with Robert from C—- Productions.  We immediately hit it off.

He told me right away that his company was quite small, and that they usually were looking for horror or sci-fi projects.  I told him that mine was far from either of those things, but when I gave him the logline, he was immediately intrigued.  I went through with the Pray For Me pitch, stopping (stupidly) every few minutes to say, “Are you SURE this is even interesting to you?”  He got good-naturedly impatient, saying, “Will you please keep going?  I like this.”  When I finished, he asked (as I had grown used to) if there was anything more.  I said, “Yeah, well, there’s a gay love story kind of embedded in there.  Not sure if you guys are open to that kind of story.”  “Of course we are,” he barked back, “If it’s a good story, it’s a good story.”  I went on to tell him about the story, and how it fit in with the ending.

He paused a moment, then said, “I really like it.  Will you send me a copy?  I can’t promise my colleagues will be as gung ho, but we can give it a try.”

We shook on it, and I promised to send him a script by that evening.  So, by the end of the day, I had a pretty elated feeling.  I met up with some of my “friends” from that morning.  They asked me how I had done.  I told them that, out of 15 pitches, four producers had asked for a pilot episode of my show, and three had asked for a full copy of my screenplay.  Also, three others had promised to make a good report to their bosses about Pray For Me.  Of the others, only one person had gotten more than one request, which I found out was the average at Pitchfest.  Suddenly, these friends weren’t so friendly any more.  Our plans to go out drinking afterwards quickly disintegrated.  I’m sure they cursed me as someone who came in with “beginner’s luck.”

After unwinding with a good friend and a margarita, I returned to my hotel to find several e-mails.  The first was from Robert.  His was short and sweet:

Good meeting you at pitchfest!  I would like to read Pray for Me.  Please sign the attached submission release form and return it to this email along with a pdf of the screenplay.

The attachment was really interesting.  I’ll include the bulk of the contract here, just to show you how careful people in the industry are about plagiarism:

Dear C**** Productions,

 

I, _______________________, the undersigned author of the Screenplay entitled ________________________________, am voluntarily submitting said Screenplay and hereby request that you, C**** Productions, an independent film production company, read and evaluate said Screenplay. I understand that you have no obligation to read and evaluate said Screenplay or to inform me of its evaluation, if any. In the event the Screenplay is selected for further development by you, I understand that a separate contract will be executed stipulating all terms and other obligations of both parties, and that said contract will incorporate this release by reference.

I understand that you would refuse to accept or otherwise evaluate said Screenplay in the absence of the acceptance by me of each and all of the provisions of this release. I represent and warrant that I am the author of the above Screenplay; that I am the present and sole owner of all rights, title, and interest in and to said Screenplay; that I have the exclusive unconditional right and authority to submit said Screenplay to you upon the terms and conditions set forth herein; and that no third party is entitled to any payment or other consideration as a condition of the use of said Screenplay as set forth herein. I will indemnify and hold you harmless from any and all claims, expenses, losses, or liabilities that may be asserted against or incurred by you at any time in connection with the use of said Screenplay, including without limitation those arising from any breach or alleged breach of the warranties and promises given by me herein, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and other costs incurred defending against same.

I retain all rights to submit this or similar material to persons or entities other than C***** Productions. I knowingly acknowledge that no fiduciary or confidential relationship now exists between me and C**** Productions, and I further acknowledge that no such relationships are established between me and C**** Productions by reason of this Agreement or by reason of my submission to C**** Productions of said Screenplay.

I acknowledge that you receive numerous submissions of ideas, formats, stories, suggestions, screenplays, and the like, and that new ideas for motion pictures and/or television programs are constantly being submitted to you or being developed by you. I also acknowledge that many stories and ideas are similar, and often different stories and ideas relate to one or more common underlying themes. I acknowledge that you may have had access to and/or may have independently created or have had created ideas, themes, formats, stories, suggestions screenplays, and/or other materials which may be similar or identical to the theme, plot, idea, format, or other element of the material now being submitted by me. I understand and agree that I will not be entitled to any compensation because of the use by you of any such similar or identical material.

I understand that the submission of the Screenplay to you may expose the Screenplay to others and hereby specifically release C**** Productions from any and all liability, direct or indirect, resulting from the improper use by any other persons or entities of any similar ideas, formats, stories, suggestions, and the like relating to said Screenplay. I have retained at least one copy of said Screenplay and release you from any and all liability for loss or other damage to copies of said Screenplay submitted to you hereunder. This release extends to C**** Productions, its agents, associates, employees, officers, directors, and volunteers.

I hereby acknowledge and agree that there are no prior or contemporaneous agreements, oral or otherwise, in effect between C**** Productions and me pertaining to said Screenplay including, but not limited to, agreements pertaining to the submission by me of any ideas, formats, plots, characters, or the like. I further agree that no other obligations exist or shall exist or be deemed to exist unless and until a formal written agreement has been prepared and entered into by C**** Productions and me.

Should any provision or part of any provision be void or unenforceable, such provision or part thereof shall be deemed omitted, and this Agreement, with such provision or part thereof omitted, shall remain in full force and effect. This agreement shall at all times be construed so as to carry out the purposes stated herein. I hereby state that I have read and understand this Agreement and that no oral representations of any kind have been made to me and that this Agreement states our entire understanding with reference to the subject matter hereof. Any modification or waiver of any of the provisions of this agreement must be in writing and signed both by the undersigned and Chaos Productions.

Signature_________________________________ Date___________

The above is a standard release form that is required by our lawyers, as project funding comes from various sources. If you have any questions or concerns about the wording of the agreement, we strongly suggest that you seek appropriate legal counsel prior to your submission.

The next e-mail was a Facebook friend request from Robert.  Two other e-mails I received were similar written requests for the film screenplay, with similarly worded contracts attached.  So freaking exciting.

Before I went to bed in my last night in California, I looked back to a note I had written myself a couple of nights previously when I was stressing about Pitchfest.  I had titled it, “Things I Will NOT Do at Pitchfest.”:

1.  Cry while pitching idea.
2.  Admit to hating Forrest Gump.
3.  Devolve into a synopsis of Cannonball Run.
4.  Slap an executive.
5.  Ask if they like me or how well it is going.
6.  Burp, vomit, fart, snort, or squeal.
7.  Act out plot with makeshift sock puppets.
8.  Sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
9.  Call my ideas “edgy,” “the shit,” or “boffo socko.”
10.  Ask for drugs.
11.  Do America Ferrera impersonation.
12.  Refer to “my personal pain.”
13.  Forget the names of my characters or common words like “bathroom” [wizz palace, tm Amy Poehler]
14.  Start with, “My name is Casey.  I like fly-fishing, antique cars, and round numbers like a million.”
15.  Affect a British, Australian, Puerto Rican…okay, any accent.

Looking back, I had only violated two rules I had set for myself.  I’ll leave which ones up to your imagination.
I added to this list a new one.  This list was “TEN THINGS I LEARNED AT PITCHFEST.”:

1.  In moments of desperation, some go out for blood, and some realize we’re all in this together.
2.  I prefer the latter.
3.  “That’s a very good pitch” is a consolation prize.
4.  Reading producers’ faces is very painful in that you know the moment when they disconnect, but reading producers’ faces has to happen or else you will never connect.
5.  You really should have a cast in mind and a sense of budget.
6.  Don’t apologize for anything you have done or thought, unless you can be really charming about it.
7.  Bring one-sheets.
8.  Hearing a cowbell every 5 minutes for 7 hours is demeaning, but you have to act like it’s normal.
9.  A cocktail at lunch never hurts, but two might (didn’t test it).
10.  People act like they’re open to lots of things, but usually have a very narrow field of expectation.
11.  Be prepared to speak to how these ideas got in your head.
12.  Don’t be afraid to admit to being over-educated.  It’ll weed out a few, but more likely generate respect.
13.  Don’t try to reproduce a pitch verbatim, or even close.  Go with the flow in your head, as prompted by the demeanor of your audience.
14.  Don’t stare at what they’re writing.
15.  Refuse to be humiliated.
16.  This is an arguable one, but I felt whenever I found myself saying, “This is the kind of experience I want my audience to have.  I want them to feel this, and then learn that,” people listened harder and respected me more.
17.  Never trust a damn hotel’s computer service for printing, copying, or (god forbid) designing a document.
18.  Find a few anchoring, solid cool people to touch base with periodically.
19.  If you love your ideas and stories, good people will see it.
20.  I can survive this world of Hollywood, and maybe even thrive in it, at least once a year.

Receiving Feedback and Revising

After finishing my screenplay and submitting it, I did three things almost immediately.  I registered the script with the Writers Guild of America.  Registering a script provides a record that you claimed ownership over your work on a particular date.  It certainly won’t stop all plagiarism, and it’s not always a decisive piece of evidence in lawsuits over intellectual property, but it’s nice to have a record of when and what you claimed as your product.  Next, I sent a copy to one of my best friends who had been patiently waiting to read it.  Third, I organized a table reading of the screenplay with actors from WMU.  It was summertime, and I was fortunate enough to have a colleague conducting the New Play Project course, and from there, I was able to find 13 chipper actors ready and willing to read parts with almost no notice.  Within a week, I got a response from my friend Josh.  He loved the script, had read it two or three times already (which incidentally, is more than I had read it, and I WROTE it) and wanted to meet with me over drinks to talk about it.  We had some beers, and he explained what parts drew him into the story, what held his attention, what he loved about the characters and the unfolding action.  It is hard to express how gratifying it is to hear that someone’s response to your writing is largely in sync with the feelings and motivations that you as the writer felt in producing that writing.  Hearing my own story echoed back to me by another voice convinced me that this venture was real, that I had in fact created a reality that someone else was compelled by.

In a few weeks, we got the actors together for the table reading.  The volunteers had only had about 24 hours with the script.  Some had read it closely; others hadn’t cracked it.  I ordered pizza and coke for everyone, and introduced the actors to Christ the Kink, explaining that this was the first draft of my first attempt at screenwriting.  In retrospect, I really wish that I had taped it.  Overall, it was a brilliant experience.  Hearing your own words spoken back to you, in character, is something I hadn’t experienced as a poet or as an academic writer.  I was watching, or at least, hearing (at the table) an entire world play out, and it was one that I had created!  I made notes the entire time, scribbling in my script whenever a line sounded unnatural or forced, whenever there wasn’t laughter when I expected there to be, whenever there WAS laughter that I didn’t expect, or whenever I noticed an actor struggling over words.  When the other readers reacted positively or showed that they were absorbed in the goings-on, I highlighted.  To my pleasant surprise, there was pretty consistent laughter in the second act where there should be, and by the end of the third act, there were appropriate sighs and sniffles.  For a trial run, it was very much a success.

The actors were gracious enough to stay for an hour after the reading to give their input.  Most reacted very favorably, and they genuinely answered yes to the most important question I had:  “Would you go see this movie?”  The criticism was incredibly helpful, if a little overwhelming at times.  Some felt that I needed to include some flashbacks of the main characters’ parents.  We learn through exposition that Preston and Jason had a hard time growing up, and that Preston’s parents were abusive drunks, yet we never see them in action.  We have to take the characters’ personal testimony for the truth.  In another embarrassing instance, I let a glaring anachronism betray my age.  I referred to a “Walkman” as a prop in a car scene, and my 20-year-old thespians had to remind me that Walkmans weren’t really a thing since about 1988.  That’s about where my knowledge of technology ends.  So it was a good note.

Another criticism that I hadn’t anticipated is an interesting one.  One actor suggested that my three principal characters all spoke suspiciously alike.  He suggested that there was little to distinguish among the three, in terms of their attitudes, temperaments, and vocabulary.  Some disagreed, arguing that these three had been lifelong friends and were therefore very likely to speak similarly to each other.  But the criticism stayed with me.  That is still an issue I am responding to.  All characters are in some way a mouthpiece for the author, but each character should be distinct, recognizable in his/her own way.  Especially because the three characters really diverge by the end of the film, I think it’s important that the audience have a strong sense of their individuality.  The last major criticism I heard was that, after the climax of the film, we don’t see onscreen how several of the characters react to the tragic events of the story.  We only see them in montage at the very end as a quick recap of the aftermath.  I understood their need to get more from these characters; I also took that as a good thing—as a sign that they had begun to care about these characters and that they were invested in what happens to them.

I decided to give myself a month or two’s rest from the script, to let it gel in my head before revisiting it for revisions.  In the mean time, I submitted to another script competition, and gave it to a few other friends to read.  All the feedback returned to me was positive.  I sensed that most people who read it felt it was a good fit for the big screen, that it was a compelling story, and that it was worth pursuing in the industry.

At this point, I only had one real connection to Hollywood.  I had met a guy, an alum from WMU, who had found success as a TV writer.  He was kind enough to come speak to my class in the spring of 2010, and we kept a correspondence going afterwards.  He asked for a brief description of my film project and warmly offered to read a copy when I had finished it.  I sent it to him and didn’t hear back for well over 6 months.  When I did hear back, I immediately wished I hadn’t.  Here I was facing some of the first deep criticism of my work.  I’ll attach the majority of his e-mail back to me:

 As for your script [Christ the Kink].  I did give it a read.  I think there was a lot of smart writing and fun dialogue, but I had a hard time because I just didn’t respond to the story.  I’m not a fan of the crazy conservative right, but I thought the depiction of the Christian South felt almost mean-spirited in a way that would make it a really tough sale (those people buy lots of movie tickets).  And then on the other side were the prep-school kids who were so corrupt that I wasn’t really rooting for any of them to have a journey or change.  I just didn’t really want to watch them.   The tone of the piece also shifted.  The first act felt a bit like a Brett Easton Ellis coming of age story, the second act felt more like a comedy, and the third act took an incredibly serious drama turn.  As an overall note for the future, I think you can pair [sic] your dialogue WAY down.  Almost every line is a clever monologue.  It’s a difficult note to give because the writing itself is excellent, but the overall effect is that it doesn’t flow naturally.  When we speak to each other in real life, we tend to speak in short clipped sentences… and none of us are that clever all the time (if only).  Just don’t be afraid to take a less-is-more approach.  I say all this with a grain of salt because I’m not a feature writer.  Truthfully, I am terribly intimidated by features, which is probably why I write for tv.  Your script shows that you’re obviously smart and have a great sense of humor.  And from the sound of it, you’ve already made a lot of revisions.  I wish you all the best.  

Ouch.  Ouch.  Ouch.  Ouch.  Ouch.

After the lovefest I had been experiencing, I clearly wasn’t prepared for such a radical critique.  The frirt week after receiving this, I was pretty devastated, and took the entire e-mail as an indictment of me as a writer and as a person.  I then told myself that everyone would have a different take on the script and it was also important that I remind myself of the context in which he is writing.  He has spent the last 4 years writing for a teen-oriented nighttime drama on the WB.  He just changed to a job as a head writer on another teen-oriented drama on the WB.  Thus, he is highly attuned to what it means to write for a particular audience.   A very wide audience, but nevertheless a specific audience.  I tried to take his suggestions one by one, to see how much I agreed with each.  I needed to remind myself not to assume from the get-go that everything he mentioned is a failing of the script, just his perspective.  The first thing he mentioned was the script’s “mean-spirited”ness.  Hearing that was quite a blow, but it also made sense in the scheme of things.  In writing for television, particularly the WB, my friend had to please middle America.  He had to come up with script ideas that were edgy, but not too edgy, provocative, but not too provocative.  They had to meet certain requirements for their demographic, and they also had to edit themselves so that their sponsors would keep their advertising support, which is the bread-and-butter of the tv industry.

I felt as if, perhaps, he was judging my screenplay by those same standards.  “Mean-spirited” is a really strong characterization, but his point was an important one:  If my script risks alienating Southerners, deeply religious people, people with middle American values, then those people are very unlikely to buy tickets.  That would mean DEATH in the TV industry.  But I had to think for myself, What does that say about my screenplay?  Who exactly is my audience, and am I insulting my own core demographic?  It was then that I realized just how much of an Independent film I had written.  I had always sort of considered Christ the Kink a hybrid, somewhere between an Indie and a big Hollywood movie.  A big Indie or a small mainstream film.  Reading this particular response was a reality check for me.  I in fact did not agree with his assertion that the screenplay was “mean-spirited.”  Yes, it portrayed some of the Baptists as closed-minded, naïve, and/or afraid to think for themselves, but there was certainly no blanket characterization of all Southerners or all Christians as one particular type.  In fact, Nicholas, one of the supporting characters who becomes prominent in the third act of the film, is one of the most likeable, audience-friendly characters in the whole script, and he is a Baptist from Alabama.  Also, one of the major points of my story was that Preston, Audrey and Jason—our main characters—behave in a way that is indeed “mean-spirited,” and this is their major flaw.  I wanted the audience to walk away from the film feeling as though what those three did was a major problem—that even though they grew up oppressed by Christians, this revenge ploy really did nothing in the name of justice or retribution.  It was important for these characters to recognize that they had been hurt early in their lives by Christians, but tying their whole identity to this idea of being victimized is hardly a way to progress through life and thrive.  So, I thought it was pretty clear that “mean-spirited” was a reductive way to regard my story.  What it DID tell me, though, is that I would not be counting on conservative audiences to champion my film, that I didn’t write it for middle America, and that I didn’t have to.  My friend’s critique ended up being something I didn’t agree with, but it also let me face the question of my demographic and my expectations for what kind of producer would find my story interesting and worthy of filming.  So, from this point on, I thought of my film as an Indie project.

The related critique that my friend had—that he couldn’t root for the characters because he could not bring himself to like them—was equally troubling.  I had aimed for three main characters who had a lot of questionable quirks and idiosyncrasies, who had been wounded in their young lives and had responded to this wounding in ways that made them appear cynical, hardened, a little vicious, and warped.  But I had felt confident that some strong sense of humanity prevailed.  I thought back to some of my favorite films, and realized that one thing they had in common was that all of them made liking the central figures quite ethically challenging.  This was true of most novels I loved too.  I am attracted to stories about characters who generate highly ambivalent feelings in the reader/audience.  I think it attests to the strength of your story, that one can be turned off or even repulsed by the thoughts or actions of a character, but is stilled compelled to find redeeming moments in that character, to wish them the best in their journey, and to hope for an auspicious outcome—either a triumph, however compromised, or a new beginning.

My friend had, in essence, given up on these characters, finding them irredeemable.  It may sound strange, but I took this very personally.  These people were, in a sense, my “babies.”  I had created and nurtured them and, however much they disappointed me as their creator, I never thought of abandoning them.  No one has voiced a similar critique, before or after my friend’s reading of it, so I am confident that these characters were sufficiently sympathetic to most of the audience.  But I realized that my friend probably represented a certain population, a certain sensibility, that would reject my characters.  I could regard this as an artistic failing on my part, a failure to empathize on their part, or as a natural part of interpretation, where different people’s sensibilities allow them to arrive at very different conclusions and points of identification.  This criticism also made me think about the actors who would inhabit these parts.  I think a lot of audience sympathy depends on how the actors interpret the characters.  The character may do horrible things or hurt someone else with words, but if they can project a kind of vulnerability, or a sense of being contrite and/or reflective about their actions, then we can still embrace them.  I fell like this is largely the province of the actor, as much as the writer.  I don’t want to put all responsibility on the heads of the actors as an excuse not to change my characters, but I’d rather not idealize characters, to show them in all of their ugliness, and let actors breathe the necessary humanity into them, or maybe more accurately, ignite the “human kindling” I have already embedded in the character, though it may be hard to find.

My friend’s next critique is also a really interesting one.  He suggests that my first act reads like a Bret Easton Ellis film (see Less Than Zero or Rules of Attraction), the second act reads like a comedy, and the third act is a serious drama.  He meant that to be a criticism of the whole work’s lack of cohesion, but I strangely take it as a compliment.  The reason that I like this characterization is that I really like movies that take you on a ride, in terms of your genre expectations.  Some of my favorite films, especially those by Todd Solondz, Pedro Almodovar, and Paul Thomas Anderson, don’t commit to one genre.  In fact, they evolve genre-wise as the story unfolds.  In some moments, you may find yourself knee-deep in melodrama; in others, you may be engaged in the lightness of slapstick comedy; yet in others, you may be taken on a cerebral puzzle through figuring out a murderer.  I always appreciate having the rug pulled out from under me, provided it doesn’t separate me from the characters that anchor the film and it doesn’t transform itself simply for the sake of being quirky.  I understand the critique.  Audiences go into a film and expect certain conventions of a genre to be followed.  It is an accomplishment to sustain a certain mood, environment, and set of operative values over the course of a two-hour film.  I understand that, the more films mutate in terms of genre, the more likely they are to go off the rails and become incoherent to their audiences.  All in all, this goes back to the initial concern of my friend—middle American audiences are likely to feel betrayed or irritated when genre conventions are not followed.  In this more experimental milieu, I feel like I have some license to change the tone and the pace of the movie.  I love the idea of audiences laughing delightedly and wickedly in the second act, and then tearfully regretting the laughter, just like the characters do, in the third act.  If this choice threatens the coherence of the film, that is a risk I am willing to take.

The last critique my friend made was dead-on.  Despite my resolution not to write a literary work—remember, that’s the first warning I ever got regarding the approach to screenwriting—I knew that my propensity for big words and lofty phrasing had gotten the better of me at times.  I had been really vigilant as I wrote, trying not to over-write, trying to let the visuals speak for themselves, but because the genre is so new to me, I found myself not trusting the story-telling to the director or the actors or the cinematographer.  I wanted to do it all in words.  And of course, this makes for a clunky script, one that is weighted down by exposition and metaphors when it should be flowing from one scene to the next.  My story contains plenty of eye candy, plenty of interesting ethical situations, plenty of vivacious people—I don’t need to oversell it with the language.  So, yes, my friend is right.  I am still trying to find ways to slim down the verbiage.  Of course, it’s hard to do so without sacrificing lines that have become incredibly meaningful on a personal level.  It’s a difficult process of what a friend of mine calls “Murdering your darlings”—the idea that in order to refine and improve your work, you often have to let go of a portion that carries a lot of weight for you.

The Screenplay Is Conceived

Once I had established writing as a fairly regular practice and began sharing some of my work with others, with an eye towards publication, I opened myself up to possible longer-term writing challenges.  And of course, given my debt situation, I was attuned to the idea of lucrative writing projects.  Journal articles may get you a few dollars a year, and a book publication in academia may afford one some nice evenings out, but they are nothing to change your overall financial portfolio.  I thought back to a crazy idea I had in a computer lab back in grad school.  It was around 1999, and the Internet was still very new, and my friends were remarking on how quickly technology was moving, and also how pornography seemed to be at the forefront of these technological leaps.  At this time, girls were beginning to auction off their virginity on eBay, and we were already getting junk mail in our e-mail accounts about sexy Catholic schoolgirls, sets of naughty twins, even things as outlandish as barnyard sex.  It seemed as if we were destined to repeat the Fall of Rome with all of this cyber-decadence.  To my friends, I recall joking, “I bet the only thing they haven’t done on the internet yet is show Baptists losing their virginity on their honeymoon.  Wouldn’t you pay to see that?!”  I have a dark sense of humor, and I thought it was a funny, if horrifying, idea at the time.

I thought nothing of it again until the fall of 2008, when that recollection struck me as a particularly interesting idea for a movie.  Naturally, I wasn’t game to find some Baptists myself and tape them having sex and then exploit them on the web.  That’s what fiction is for.  I started asking myself:  Where would someone go to find Baptists losing their virginity?  What kind of people would take this on?  How could you be remotely likeable or identifiable and still be motivated not only to spy on couples, but to broadcast their most intimate moments to the masses?  How would you go about filming couples without their permission?  How would these couples really BE when having sex for the first time?  Would it be funny, clumsy, embarrassing, boring, sad, interesting, or ultra-hot?  Would it be wrong to assume that Baptists would be virgins on their honeymoons? What would the consequences be if you were caught?   This initial scenario obviously launched a thousand questions.  Luckily, they were questions I was anxious to answer.

I started, of course, with a fresh notebook—spiral, this time (it seemed right)—and took a quasi-journalistic approach.  I asked myself,  Who?  What? Where? When? Why? How?  The What is what came first, and hasn’t changed much since the inception of the idea.  Even now, when people ask me what the film is about, I say, “It’s about Baptist Wedding Night Porn.”  Of course, there’s a lot more to it, but it was the anchoring concept.  That first Fall three years ago, I dealt primarily with Who? And Where?  before I ever started writing a draft.

The Where? may have been my easiest question, but my answer required a lot of fleshing out.  Most of my mother’s relatives are from eastern Tennessee, and growing up in Georgia, I had many opportunities as a child to visit the Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas.  My family, in fact, has property there—a cabin, or glorified condo on stilts, that sits next to the Little River.  I vividly recall a trip I took as a child to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  Dollywood, the amusement park mecca of the greatest country-western singer I have ever known, was just being built at that time.  Pigeon Forge, I remember, was nothing more than a highway with go-cart racetracks and miniature golf dotting the roadsides.  Gatlinburg was a formidable tourist town.  It was, and still is, a wondrous concoction, part Bible Belt, part Old Mountain Charm, part Tourist Trap.  It is a city grid of antique car museums, taffy and fudge shops, country music venues, and unending food buffets, all dwarfed by the neighboring Smokies, which, I must admit, are astonishing in their beauty.  It is a city where churches hold retreats and conventions; it is also a city where Southern Christian types come for their honeymoons.   Bingo.  I had my where.

I started to do research online.  I googled “honeymoon” and “Gatlinburg,” and that was probably the most enabling move I made in the entire process.  These beautifully tacky Christian resorts popped up, and they were such eye candy, I felt as if I couldn’t NOT write the script, for the sole purpose of reconstructing these honeymoon suites on a film set.   Here’s a beautiful example:  http://www.honeymoonhills.com/Photos.asp

The heart-shaped beds and hot tubs, the profusion of pinks and reds, the gaudiness of the valentine’s-mixed-with-Jesus aesthetic was the stuff of comedic genius and the perfect setting for Christian honeymoon porn.  So that December, just a few months after I decided to pursue this writing project, my father and I took a road trip to Gatlinburg.  We took pictures of the museums, the mountains, and hotels.  We took postcards from local motels, nosed around wedding chapels just to soak up their flavor, got coupons for food and concerts, and talked to some hotel managers about their experiences with honeymooners.  All of this I collected and put into a giant notebook.  I knew I was going to be writing the bulk of this in Kalamazoo, and I thought it was really important that I have a resource to draw on when I needed to evoke the local color of the place, to get inspired by its ambiance  and to feel renewed in the writing process.  It proved to be a very valuable resource, helping me get back in touch with the project after letting it sit for a year (but that comes later).

In addition to the “where,” I started to work on the “who.”  After all, I couldn’t really have a film without characters populating that world.  On my Greyhound bus ride from Kalamazoo to Atlanta that Christmas—I have started taking the bus down south for the holidays because it gives me time to mentally adjust to visits with my parents—I began to take notes about the characters.  I wrote down the principal characters, how old they were, and various and sundry facts about them.  On top of that, I also parenthetically put actors I was familiar with next to each character in order to reference what kind of visual image I was attaching to each character.  I wrote out their physical characteristics, their quirks, what they were like in high school, their relationships with each other, how long they had been friends, etc.

When I had established a basic profile for each of the principal characters and a few of the supporting ones, I started thinking about how I could make the leads endeavor to do something as morally questionable as filming people having sex without their consent and then displaying it for the world to see and STILL have some redeeming qualities.  It is very difficult to watch a movie when you have no sense of respect, identification, attraction, or good will for the main characters.  I wanted audiences to be torn, to judge the actions of these characters, but not be ready to abandon them just yet.  I sketched out their past and in doing so, revealed that each of them had been raised by wealthy, vacuous, hypocritical, and in one’s case extremely violent, ultra-Christian parents.  So there became a sort of score-settling element in the decision to film the Baptists.  Another one of them—now Jason—is gay, and he had been bullied by Christians his whole life, so this was an opportunity for him to give back a little of the humiliation and powerlessness and shame he experienced as a child and as a teenager.  Preston is the one who has the major vendetta.  His hatred for his parents gets mapped onto his “victims,” and he sees their religion as making them into hypocrites, morons, less evolved human beings.  Audrey doesn’t have as much reason to move forward with the plan, though her deep love for Preston allows her to overlook the more unseemly sides of this business venture.

I had a sense of the “who” and the “where” and a little bit of the “what.”  The “when” quickly fell into place.  I decided on the present day, after spending a little while entertaining the idea of its taking place in the 80s.  Were that to be the case, the cameras they used would be bigger, unwieldy, harder to conceal in a hotel room, and the internet didn’t exist yet, so they would have had to make duplicate videotapes and find a porn distributor that would mail them to customers.  I thought the internet made things cleaner, more efficient, and it let me use my fantasy url:  BoinkinBaptists.com.  I also considered that, if there were major budget considerations, it would be difficult to shoot crowds and exteriors with everyone there in 80s costume.  Placing the action in the current moment seemed to involve the least amount of stress.  So it was done.

I covered the “why” a little bit above.  To answer the question, “What motivates our main characters to perpetrate such an outrageous crime?”, we have the issue of the vendetta, the childhood rage and the scorn directed towards the stifling confines of religion.  I also thought about more general, human motivations.  Filming Baptists having sex for the first time would be fascinating to watch.  You could watch it to get turned on, to laugh at people, to examine human behavior on an anthropological level or sociological level, or just experience a very human moment of vulnerability and symbolic weight.  The scenario has the potential to be uncomfortable or poignant or titillating.  I wanted to show that these characters each brought some of these motivations to the table.  I also loved the dramatic and comedic possibilities of showing many different couples, eliciting those same kinds of responses from the audience.

The “how” was difficult for me to conceive, simply because I am the farthest thing from a tech nerd.  I wasn’t sure what the equipment needed to look like, how expensive it would be, where the kids would be able to monitor the action from, and what it would take to transmit the camera images to a web site.  I ended up having the kids stay at a house that was adjacent to the honeymoon hotel so that they could monitor the action from close by, and interfere if they had to.  I asked some computer savvy friends how they would go about installing surveillance equipment and how best to conceal it, and I tucked that information away for the when the actual writing began.

Over the next few months, I let the characters and the idea simmer.  In my spare time, I often visualized the hotel, the individual suites, the house where Preston, Audrey, and Jason set up camp, etc.  I thought about how they would interact, what would get them to the hotel, some more logistical questions.  I decided then that the only way they would be there was because of a job opportunity.  One of their aunts would own the place, and she would go away for the summer, leaving her nephew and friends the hotel to run (with her co-manager Darletta—more on her later).   This was a tricky situation.  I had envisioned the kids as rich Northeasterners who were 22, just out of college, and I didn’t want to change this.  But it seemed unlikely that the kids who were so well off would deign to go down to the Bible Belt to work for a summer changing sheets and wheeling room service carts in a Baptist Honeymoon resort.  That is when I decided to let drugs into the picture.  These are smart kids, well-educated, witty, and quick, but also very jaded and prone to escapism.  I thought that having them be frequent coke users, and alcoholics, and potheads, etc., it might explain their enthusiasm to do something so unexpected of them, so off the grid of their daily Ivy League lives.  I also wanted to emphasize that these kids had been friends since childhood and that they realized this was their last summer to do something meaningful together before going their separate ways to grad school and law school, etc.  So for these months, I thought about the details.  I began to actually have dreams about Gatlinburg, and the various rooms of the hotel I had created in my head,  and that was very exciting.  At the same time, it was frustrating because I hoped to see my characters populating those rooms, and they weren’t.  Eventually I got some vague people in there, and after a while, they began to look like Preston, Audrey, and Jason.

I had never taken a screenwriting class, nor did I even know any screenwriters.  I think I had read a total of two movie scripts in my life.  So I had a lot of catching up to do.  My learning curve was steep.  I went to Barnes & Noble and did some deep comparison shopping.  In the end, I chose The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley and Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Robin Russin and William Downs.  The first is more of a bible, a manual that gives you all the technically correct formats for dialogue, camera directions, and transitions.  The second was a more philosophical piece about what it takes to create a narrative and make it cohere.

I found both books enormously useful, so much so that I didn’t seek out any other sources.  I felt all of my questions were answered therein.  In the intro of Writing the Picture, I encountered some advice that I really didn’t expect, and it was advice that probably saved me a lot of hair-pulling and heartache.  It wasn’t so much advice as it was a description.  A screenplay, they wrote, is not a literary work.  It is a blueprint for action occurring in time and space.  This statement both puzzled me and made me very nervous.  “Literary” is my thing.  I write poems and literary criticism.  I adore big words and beautiful phrases.  I like metaphors, similes, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and all that good stuff.  Here they were telling me I was in foreign territory.  It turned out to be spectacularly good advice.  I certainly faltered along the way, lapsed into some of my “literary” tendencies, but I really took that statement to heart as a guide for my writing mission.  And it is very true.  The camera does so much of the work in a film, things can’t be verbally over the top, or you produce overkill.  The visual has to rest comfortably with the spoken.  A poet relies on the spoken alone.  It is a hard transition, but it is very helpful to look at those types of writing as very different animals.

That next summer in 2009, I rented a house in Cleveland, hoping to get away from my life in Kalamazoo and write in peace.  I was armed with my film books, my Gatlinburg folder, my spiral notebook (that I had filled with random thoughts throughout the day, like what record albums would be found in the suites, and what brand of cigarettes certain characters smoked), and my character profiles.  I should mention that I also purchased a copy of the computer software Final Draft.  This is a MUST for all screenwriters.  Every major writer in Hollywood uses the program; it is genius, so so helpful and practical.  The software has the built-in formatting of a screenplay, and it knows where the margins are for dialogue, for description, and for other kinds of direction.  It has a memory of your character names, so you don’t have to type names repeatedly.  I can’t say enough wonderful things about Final Draft.

I sat at the dining room table in my rented house in Cleveland Heights and cranked out about 32 pages in about 3 days, with almost no sleep.  I wrote chronologically, so I basically wrote the first act in that time.  A page of a screenplay is roughly equal to a minute of screen time.  Therefore, you want your script to be somewhere between 90 and 135 pages, most often 95-110.  I got through the 32 pages, set up the character introductions, set a tone for their interactions, and gestured towards what was to come.  The action actually begins in Connecticut, where the kids are from.  It isn’t until about 30 minutes in that the kids get to Tennessee.   So, basically I completed the first act.  This is where I stopped.  I still can’t quite explain why I stopped.  I was a bit freaked at how much I had written in such a short time.  I started to draw out a lot of insecurities that I hadn’t paid attention to before.  I thought about the fact that no one had ever taught me to write a screenplay, that I was learning as I went.  I realized that I didn’t know any screenwriters, or really anyone in the industry, for that matter, save some people in licensing.  I suppose it was a crisis of faith.  The whole project started to feel overwhelming, and I took a very long break—one that lasted almost exactly one year.  In that year, I was busy teaching and didn’t think about the screenplay often.  Occasionally, I would let my mind wander to the car trip from Connecticut to Gatlinburg my characters were taking; I would think about the necessary transitions the kids would face in getting used to life in Tennessee.  I wanted a real “fish out of water” story, and I thought quite a bit about what it would be like to live there, coming from where they did.  I thought about their first impressions of southerners, what they would find funny or strange or disgusting.  So, in this year, I committed nothing to paper, but still let these questions brew in the back of my mind.  Before starting the screenplay, I had decided on a tentative title.  I originally called it Christ the Kink.  I really liked it, but found out later that most of my friends hated it, and a producer told me that any production company would be nervous at buying a product with “Christ” in the title because it would be too controversial.  Some of the other names I entertained:  Gatlinburg, A Vigil Keep, Hearts on High in the Smokies (which is what I named the resort the kids went to work at), and Thresholds.  Naming the film turned out to be a much bigger ordeal than I had imagined.  Sometimes I think writing the thing was easier than naming it.

So, the next summer, 2010, I pulled out the old notebooks, the folders, the computer files, and the software and resolved to pick up where I left off.  I re-read the first 30 pages and then progressed from there.  About four sleepless days later, I was finished with my first draft.  I probably should note here that I don’t work well—no, I don’t work AT ALL—without a deadline.  So, it’s not that I didn’t sleep all this time because of my dedication to Art.  I had set a deadline for myself, which was midnight of June 1.  This was the deadline for the Austin International Film Festival’s screenwriting competition.  I had researched script competitions, and this one had been touted as one of the most widely recognized, as well as one of the most likely to get you noticed by film producers.  So I plotted to have the script done in time to submit.  Which I did, with about 4 minutes to spare.

A word about film festival competitions.  There are quite a few every year.  Entry fees usually range from 35 to up to 100 dollars.  The prizes vary greatly.  Austin’s has some of the highest—10,000, I believe, for first place in Drama and in Comedy.  Of course, consequently, everyone and their mother submits to the AFF, meaning you are competing with several thousand other scripts.  In a lot of festival comps, even if you are only a semi-finalist, the organizers will put your script in a compilation book that will circulate around to several production companies.  This is a nice side benefit to the competition—you can get some exposure you’d never planned on.  Some festivals provide you with reader feedback, where the judges will offer you some basic critiques of your work as part of the entry fee.  More commonly, you can pay extra for a judge’s critique.