Over thirty people attended, and I was having so much fun, I neglected to get a photo!
The most important concept that we discussed is that when creating a television character, he or she must have a life situation that holds an impossible dilemma. By this I mean, a situation that can never be resolved. This way the series can go on indefinitely. An example of that is in the Breaking Bad TV series. The main character, Walter White, has cancer, and cannot provide for his family, so he becomes a drug dealer. In a comedy, the dilemma is not as life threatening but must be even more impossible to resolve. For example, in the classic sit-com, Everyone Loves Raymond, the main character wants to have both his mother and his wife. Don’t go out with your material until you have this key element in your story!
NYWIFT is an amazing organization, with over 2400 members. They have many great seminars that can be attended by nonmembers, and I recommend you check it out.
As a writer, I look for symbols to inspire me. I was heading for a subway, and took this photo — to keep me centered. Enjoy!
I’m so excited to be teaching my Writing a Half Hour Pilot Treatment at NYWIFT next Tuesday, March 12. The workshop shows you how to put together a presentation document, a treatment or “bible,” when you want to sell a TV show.
The seminar not only covers the technical aspects, we discuss how to write the pilot episode itself.
Here are the four main problems I see over and over:
1. The writer hasn’t focused on the concept or hook of the story, so however well written there’s nothing new for a potential buyer to want to buy.
2. The writer has not clarified what the series is really about: an unsolvable dilemma for the main character. Every successful show has a situation that can never be resolved. For example, in the classic show, Everyone Loves Raymond, Raymond is always torn between his desire to please his wife and his family. In each episode, he fights this battle, and never wins.
3. The writer hasn’t pushed him or herself to create really original material. Memorable characters and a good plot require hard work and research. Writers need to see and read everything that has gone before so they can see a new possibility.
4. Ultimately, what creates success is great writing. I’ll be going into more depth in the workshop. Hope to see you there.
I’m also excited to share that my former student, writer/director Diane Fraher, has been awarded a $50,000 grant to continue production on her feature length movie, The Heart Stays, which I helped her develop several years ago. It’s a great story, and I can’t wait to see the film!
Here’s where I need feedback. Students and colleagues have been requesting that I give a private group class. Here’s a description of the class:
TV Episode Boot Camp
Whip your half hour story into shape without crashing. This four-week class shows you how to:
Write fast and efficiently.
Please let me know if you’re interested in taking it. The dates are Tuesday nights, April 9,16th, 23rd, and 30th from 6:30-9:00pm. The cost is $300.00 with a discount if you’re from NYWIFT or NYU.
My concern has always been that my students get to the point where they have sold their work, directed or produced it, or have gotten a job writing for TV. One thing that has always troubled me is that several of my most talented students worked incredibly hard and got almost to the finish line, and then quit.
My job is to get the material so good that they can get to the finish line, but this other piece of the puzzle has bothered me for years. Why steal defeat from the jaws of victory?
When I looked at back at my own history as a writer, focusing on the instances where I myself quit at the last minute, I realized that the problem was not talent or opportunity but rather self-doubt, lack of confidence and not being able to get the support needed to overcome the previous two problems.
I have spent much time and money working on these issues for myself. I have tried almost everything, including yoga and therapy.
I recently had an impulse to take a workshop at the Landmark Forum which I had heard about for years but always avoided because I thought it was a cult. It’s not.
I went and sat through a three-day workshop and came out feeling very much better than I did before I went!
The material taught in the workshop was new information and got under my skin in a way that nothing else had.
The following Monday I found myself twice as productive and free of the constant negative thoughts that often swirl around in my head.
The biggest takeaway for me was learning how to put the past back in the past, and thus, was able to clear the future, so that new, better things became possible because I wasn’t using memories as a reference!
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and the following day, my boyfriend’s birthday. I went to buy a card for each occasion, and found one that was for people whose birthdays were actually on the 14th.
I was intrigued by the story possibilities. There was a situation that presented a natural conflict – a birthday being eclipsed by a general holiday, but something I hadn’t seen used in story I knew of.
I set to work to see if this idea had “legs.” I created a rough sketch of a coming of age story about a teenaged boy getting his estranged parents to reunite by inviting them both to his “birthday” party – which was actually a romantic dinner made for the two of them. It would work equally well if the protagonist was female.
I like to enhance my ideas by looking in the world of nonfiction, and so researched news stories about children who had birthdays on Valentine’s Day.
I researched various sites, and came up with several possibilities, but really appreciated finding this one which I respectfully share below:
It’s A Boy…. It’s A Valentines baby boy! My son was born at the most romantic day of the year, the day that is filled with love, chocolate, roses, balloons…. and for us a baby boy. Our little ball of joy was not due until February 16th, but I guess he did not want to wait a few more days. He wanted out on Friday the 13th.Friday the 13th that is…eekkk!!…But, for our Italian family that was not such a bad thing. You see Italians believe the number 13 is lucky; however for us it appears the number 14 was the lucky number.
Throughout my pregnancy my family and friends joked how he was going to be born on Valentines Day…I would just laugh it off. There was no way I was going to have a Valentines Day baby, I mean come on our first child was born the day after Christmas. What were the odds I would have another holiday baby…right! Holiday birthdays can be a huge pain in the neck! You have to try your best to make sure the actual holiday does not cause any issues with the birthday.
Here are some pointers I have learned over the years…how to celebrate Valentines Day and my sons birthday on the same day.
1. Do not wrap the gifts in Valentines Day paper.
2. Make sure you do not purchase a Happy Valentines Day and it’s your Birthday card. Trust me when I tell you the birthday boy/girl will look at you with a very dirty face.
3. Have the actual party (with friends) before their actual birthday. Many people take Valentines Day serious and do not want to attend a kiddos party on the day of Love.
4. It’s ok to order pizza on this day and make sure it’s a heart…have the store spell out Happy B-Day in pepperoni. We did this last year and my son thought we were the coolest parents ever!
5. Make sure the cake does not have any red or pink on it…unless it’s the birthday kiddos favorite colors…. This is mostly for boys, my son as never asked for a pink birthday cake…but hey you never know he is only going to be 11 this year.
6. Plan…Plan. Plan! Plan this party in advance or you will be stuck with no party guests! (This is for people who take Valentines Day serious and do not want to spend it at a kiddos birthday party.)
7. Make the party fun and make sure the place you choose has nothing to do with Valentines Day. For example this year we are doing an indoor paintball party…that’s as far away from “Love Day” as you can get. Unless you are going for a Love Theme.
8. Make sure you make your birthday kiddo a HUGE breakfast. When he was little I would make him pancakes in the shapes of hearts…he loved it! But not so much anymore, he wants round pancakes…LOL…Boys!
9. Sometimes you have to embrace the built-in theme….If your child loves the fact they are born on Valentines Day, then embrace it! Use this to your advantage and incorporate the holiday while making it all about the birthday child.
10. You can always half-birthday it. As your child grows, you may want to consider having the party in the summer…. I mean how cool would a pool party be for a child that was born in winter?…Awesome!!!
The bottom-line is when it comes to holiday birthday celebrations, no one solution is perfect for everyone. Some kiddos resist celebrating on any day but their actual birthday, while some enjoy having a day that doesn’t involve the holiday. It may take a few years to get it right or the answer may come easily. It’s a tough time to have a birthday, but it’s a magical time, too.
To recap, to find original story ideas, look for unexplored real life events, make a up a situation and use a few “real life” details to flesh out the story.
A great writer wrote, “I wait for the muse, who thankfully shows up every morning at nine o’ clock.” Good for him! But sometimes the tank is just empty, and then what do you? Sitting in front of a computer waiting for inspiration is a hard way to make the process any smoother. A better approach is to have preplanned strategies in place so that when you’re feeling uninspired, you can reach for a handy tool to get you going.
Inspiration occurs when it’s stimulated so here are three suggestions to get you going.
1. Do research.
Find out more about the mechanics of your story. If your character is a plumber, find out what a plumber does. If you have an interesting location, explore its history.
2. Watch inspiring movies and/or TV shows.
I always have something to watch that inspires me. Some favorites include the films, Moonstruckand Love Actually, and the TV shows, Cheers and Frasier.
3. Use real life events.
My friend, Alexandra Klausner, who’s a producer and reporter for the NY Post wrote an article that inspired a new story idea. Here’s her synopsis:
Two Catholic school nuns with a bad gambling habit stole nearly half a million dollars from the school to spend at Vegas casinos and take lavish trips. The sisters managed to get away with their scheme for at least a decade – that is until a routine audit tipped employees off to their sinful pursuits. Luckily for the nuns, the Archdiocese chose salvation over the slammer.
You see? Real life transformed into an idea for a film. This could be a really funny comedy, or a darkly tragic one.
The key here is to see story possibilities everywhere and keep them handy when the muse doesn’t show up.
This was a better week for me because two of my students, Katie Manderfield and Lisa Maria Noudehou completed their first screenplays in 10 weeks.
The stories are both great, female coming of age stories with completely different settings and different sensibilities. Both are well structured, with compelling characters, and usual arenas and strong conflicts. I am very proud of them as you can see from the pictures below. It is very difficult for us writers to let go of our material. One of the hardest things is to know when the draft is done. My writing system because it has a specific and clear method as well as a definition for what each draft should accomplish makes it possible for writers to have more control over their material.
In addition to learning the method, and having talent, Lisa Maria and Katie used the most important gift: the ability to do the work. Many congratulations to both of them, and I hope that you will be inspired to hunker down and get that screen play done!
I have been studying voice over so that I can act in some of the shows that I have been writing. I’m starting with a wonderful teacher, Paul Liberti, who has a unique way of teaching us how to almost instantly create characters and find their “voice.”
“Finding your voice” is the goal when you learn to write fiction. The notion is that there’s a written voice that’s unique to yourself as a writer! Realizing that the voice is not a metaphor has revolutionized both away I write and the way I act.
When I teach character creation, one of the techniques I teach my students to use is to find an actor who sounds like the new character, and to find a TV show or movie where they appear. The exercise is to then to watch three scenes and transcribe their dialogue as they are speaking.
This exercise has a double benefit because you can imagine the lines that your character would say, and also by writing down dialogue you see how it looks on the page rather than how it plays on screen.
Then watch the three scenes and transcribe the other characters’ dialogue in the same scenes.
Finally read what you’ve transcribed aloud, imitating all the characters.
To recap, use a voice actor’s technique to create amazing characters fast!
I’m so excited that my NYU student, Marybeth Diss completed her screenplay! It’s a funny, original romantic comedy, which is the most difficult kind of story. Her first draft was amazing: well-structured, well written and has great, memorable characters. She confided that it was the first thing she’s ever completed!
Building a Body of Work
Create a body of work because you never know what producers are looking for. Here’s how I do it:
Since I’m usually working on a dozen or more projects and must be full of ideas for each one, I keep a little notebook, and when I get an inspiration, I write it down. Later I try to expand the idea into a three-act version of itself to see if it has legs. Then, if it does, I can determine whether the idea’s best used for a script, an episode of a series, a limited or traditional TV series, etc.
This is not a random process: I have several sections in that book, which include bits of overheard dialog or scenes, characters and story ideas. I often have no idea where I’ll use something but always get a physical thrill that clues me that there’s something important here. I also take photos that will remind me of that idea later.
Here are a few recent entries:
1/19/19 Character- an elegant, slender 80-year old self-described “preacher” who believes that faith with humor is the secret to a good life. “I had stage 4 cancer, but when I discovered my faith, I was able to crucify it.” She laughed. She wears sunglasses – what are her eyes like?
1/12/19 Over heard dialog: “You’re just trying to not feel guilty about seeing me now by selling me future inclusion.”
1/17/19 Story idea: this newspaper article could be a perfect story set up: It’s about why a 106-year old woman feels she lived so long: by avoiding men. This woman, has never dated, and the article states that she reunited recently with a 97-year-old friend. I thought what could happen? What if the friend were a man who she then falls in love with and must decide whether to risk death or die never having experienced romantic love. I like this idea and will work on. It feels like it has “legs.”
Please start to build a body of work and share how you’re doing it.
I loved The Green Book, and was happy the script won Best Screenplay at the Golden Globe Awards. Have you seen it?
Getting a movie made is magic. Here’s a fascinating account of how that movie got made from The Hollywood Reporter:
“Five decades passed before writer Nick Vallelonga could share the remarkable true story of how his bouncer father Tony and a Jamaican jazz pianist named Don Shirley made a road trip during segregation: “Even as a child, it struck me as something you’d see in a movie.”
Nick Vallelonga was 5 years old when his father introduced him to the Doctor.
It was around 1964, and his dad, Tony Vallelonga, a Bronx bouncer at the famed Copacabana nightclub, had just finished a job as a driver and bodyguard for the great Jamaican jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley (who had so many doctorates, his peers called him “Dr. Shirley”).
“Even as a child, it struck me as something you’d see in a movie,” recalls Vallelonga of the unlikely friendship between his goombah dad and the refined, erudite musician. “I guess you could say that’s when I started writing the story.”
Fifty-four years later, that story is finally getting screen time. Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (of the Farrelly brothers) and starring Viggo Mortensen as Tony and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Shirley, tells the true story of this real-life odd couple’s 1962 road trip through the concert halls of the Deep South during segregation (the title refers to the Jim Crow-era travel guide that helped African-Americans navigate whites-only restaurants and hotels below the Mason-Dixon Line). Judging from its reception at September’s Toronto Film Festival, where it beat out Roma and A Star Is Born for the audience award, the film might be Universal’s best shot for multiple Oscars this year. “These people had nothing in common, not race, class or interest,” says producer Jim Burke, describing why he thinks the $23 million film — part Driving Miss Daisy, part Analyze This — will resonate with audiences (and Academy voters) in today’s div isive times. “But despite all that, they found a way to come together.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Patti Perret/ Universal Pictures/Participant/Dreamworks. From left: Mortensen, Farrelly and Ali)
“Pete is the most collaborative director I’ve ever worked with,” says Ali. “The first week, he pulls everyone together, from craft services and wardrobe to the camera department, and he says, ‘If anyone has a better idea than me, I want to hear it.’ Viggo and I kind of looked at each other. Most directors wouldn’t even say that to an actor.”
Tony Vallelonga died in 2013 at age 82 but not before finding a second, post-bouncer career as an actor. Under the stage name Tony Lip, he specialized in a highly specific type of Italian-American role, playing characters like crime boss Carmine Lupertazzi in The Sopranos and Frankie the Wop in Goodfellas. His very first role, in fact, was a don’t-blink walk-on in The Godfather, a guest at Connie Corleone’s wedding. Study that scene under a microscope and you might also spot 12-year-old Nick Vallelonga making his film debut alongside his father.
Nick, now 59, grew up to become an actor as well. His career has had its ups and downs — he landed a small part as a newspaper reporter in Splash and played an arsonist in Prizzi’s Honor — but he also wrote screenplays. And the friendship between his dad and the Chopin-playing prodigy was a subject he always knew he’d someday write about. In the 1980s, he began to record interviews with his father about his road trip with Dr. Shirley, who remained a close family friend through the years until he died in 2013, just three months after Tony’s death.
“I sort of mapped out what it should be — beginning, middle and end type of a thing — but I never fully wrote the script,” says Vallelonga. “It was Dr. Shirley who said to me, ‘I want you to do this exactly as your father has told you. But I don’t want you to do this until I’m gone.’ I don’t know what his reasoning was. But that’s what he asked me, so I waited. I held on to this for a very long time, made a bunch of terrible little movies for like 10 years” — like playing a hot dog vendor in FDR: American Badass! — “waiting for this chance to make this one.”
To help turn his map into a movie, Vallelonga recruited a well-connected writer-actor friend named Brian Currie. “As soon as Nick told me that story, I was flabbergasted,” says Currie. “I was like, ‘Wow. You know, let me run with this and maybe get some financing for it. Or I’ll get some people interested who could help us make it.’ ” Currie pitched the outline of the story to his old friend Peter Farrelly, meeting with the director at his house in Ojai, California, in 2015. Although Farrelly had never made a drama before — just mega-hit comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Haland There’s Something About Mary, always with his brother Bobby co-directing — he decided to go for it. For the next several months, the three men would meet periodically in a cabin behind Farrelly’s Ojai house, where they fleshed out a story.
Once they had enough presentable pages, Farrelly took the pitch to Focus Features’ production president Burke, who co-produced Farrelly’s Kingpin. Burke couldn’t have loved the concept more. “I bought it right there in the room,” he remembers. “That’s the first and only time I’ve ever done that.”
But Hollywood giveth and Hollywood taketh away. Within a few months, there was an executive shuffle at Focus: Burke left to produce and the new brass passed on the script. Instead of giving up, though, Vallelonga, Farrelly and Currie — with Burke now joining as a producer — continued developing the project. Farrelly figured if they could sign a big name as one of the leads, it would help land another studio, and the big name he had in mind was Mortensen. The two-time Oscar nominee, though, was not easy to convince; he passed on the project five times before finally agreeing to play Tony Lip. “It was one of the best original screenplays I’ve ever read,” says the Danish-American actor. “But out of respect for Italian-American actors, I said, ‘I don’t know, Pete, if I’m the right guy.’ ”
Once Mortensen was on board, getting Ali was a snap. Coming off a best supporting actor Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight, he had his pick of roles. But during that year’s awards campaign, Ali had struck up a friendship with Mortensen, who was nominated for Captain Fantastic. “To connect and click the way we did and then find ourselves working on a movie a year later — it was a little bit surreal,” Ali says.
With those two leads locked in, Farrelly assumed it would be easy to find financing. It wasn’t, at least not for the movie everyone involved wanted to make. A couple of studios expressed interest but only if the script could be refashioned as a buddy comedy. But Farrelly and the others stuck to their guns. In the end, it was Currie’s connections that saved the day. One of his college classmates, hedge fund manager Ted Virtue, offered to put up half of the film’s $23 million budget. In an effort to land the other half, longtime Farrelly producer Charles Wessler sent the script to indie finance guru John Sloss, who signed on to shop it with his Cinetic Media partner Steven Farneth. One of their first stops was Participant Media’s Jonathan King. Participant execs loved the idea so much, they decided to back the picture — but only if they could be the sole financier. Virtue gallantly retreated. And Octavia Spencer, who had been enlisted as an executive producer, worked t he phones and eventually got Universal’s Donna Langley to commit to release the film.”
Although Farrelly had never made a drama before — just mega-hit comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal and There’s Something About Mary, always with his brother Bobby co-directing — he decided to go for it.
Production began in New Orleans in November 2017. For Mortensen, there were two main challenges. The first was packing on 40 to 45 pounds. “It fluctuated depending how much I was eating on a given day,” he says. The other was mastering Tony’s Bronx accent. Fortunately, Nick Vallelonga still had the audio recordings he’d made with his dad, which Mortensen studied. Ali, on the other hand, had it easy. All he had to do was play the piano like a virtuoso. Luckily, his character in Netflix’s Luke Cage series also was a pianist, so he had some training. “I still had to take lessons because I was nervous about the music being a distraction if I couldn’t pull it off,” he says.
For his part, Farrelly had multiple challenges, starting with directing on his own without Bobby at his side. Even more daunting, the film he was making didn’t have any gross-out jokes. On the contrary, it was about race, as serious a subject as filmmakers can tackle these days. One of the most difficult scenes to shoot, Farrelly says, was a small moment early in the picture when Tony is tidying up his kitchen after two black workmen have been in his home. With a look of revulsion on his face, Tony picks up two drinking glasses that the workers used and deposits them in a trash can. “It’s the most racist thing he does in the movie, and I had a hard time with it because of the two actors who were playing the workers,” Farrelly says. “That scene got to them because they lived that.”
Of course, as with all movies based on real life, Farrelly had to take a few cinematic liberties with the facts. For instance, in the film, Tony and Dr. Shirley’s road trip lasts two months. In reality, it went on for a year. “We only told the first leg of it,” says the director. “We cut things because it would’ve been too much.”
A sequel, in other words, is not out of the question.
The takeaway here is that magic can happen, so keep writing and creating great stories.
This week was the final meeting of my wonderful writing class at SVA. We were lucky to have Vince Prezioso, a talented screenwriter, whose script is being made into both a television series and a movie. Who says dreams can’t come true?
I was also happy to attend the NYWIFT Muse Awards luncheon. Dave, my writing partner, and I bought a table to announce the launch of our new animation company, Double Asterix Productions. We have created four half hour animated comedies for the 18 to 49 demographic. We’re preparing to take them to market in 2019.
This weekend I am attending the Landmark Forum, a motivational conference that helps people achieve their dreams. I’m finding it very helpful in overcoming all of the usual problems that we writers suffer from time to time. It’s a wonderful investment, and I can’t think of a better Christmas present to yourself or a fellow writer.