Introducing Chris

The Scully to my Hitchcock

There are approximately seven billion people on Earth, and for every one of those there are at least two aspiring screenwriters in LA. When I first moved to LA I was in screenwriting workshop with seven of them.

I don’t know how many people were in the workshop in total, I know this particular program (not the MFA) accepted anyone willing to pay them the almost six-thousand dollar enrollment fee, and I was put in a class with seven other people. Our only job during the nine month program was to write and finish two scripts, no constraints on quality or originality.

Only half of us came anywhere close.

The four of us who stuck it out went on to continue in our own private writing group, until one of us left for New York and eventually another of us put her writing career on hold for a while while she’s raising her little girl (soon to be girls, plural).

Which left me and Chris.

Chris has an acute sense of humor, and a natural skill at writing absurd situations and patter-heavy dialogue. His early screenplays were filled, even at their darkest, with a wry sarcasm and creativity that blew me away.

In our class together, the whole time I was reaching for the most high-concept idea I could think of, and bending everything around it in a cascade of trope-inversions with the ruthless efficiency of a terminator, I often felt the characters becoming secondary to the plot they were caught up in, and I wished I had Chris’s ability to instill each character with a unique and natural voice so they wouldn’t feel so interchangeable and lost.

I have a whole different set of strengths We probably seem similiar from the outside, being a pair of quiet white guys, but Chris and I don’t have much in common, either in terms of our natural writing sensibilities or our tastes and hobbies. What we do have in common is a respect for the craft.

In the years we’ve known each other, Chris and I have bonded over our obsessiveness about the placement of a line of dialogue, or whether a scene we both love is really necessary, whether a subplot wraps up too early or too late. He’s the only person I know who writes as much as I do, and who cares as much as I do about getting better as a writer. Its no coincidence he’s the only other person left of our initial group.

As the last two survivors of our “crew,” Chris and I have moved increasingly into each other’s orbits. I’ve learned a lot about how to make my writing funnier and clearer by writing with Chris in mind as an audience, and I’ve seen Chris’s writing become more high-concept and ambitious.

We’ve become each others fans and hype-men and, recently, we’ve become writing partners. After four years, we’ve finally gained enough familiarity with each other to lean on each other, and to make work that is more interesting by being filtered through each other’s viewpoints.

Right now we’re working together on a script about alien so we can send it to a science-fiction screenplay contest with an upcoming deadline. The parts of it I wrote are fun and scary and easily the best work I’ve ever done, and it was only possible because the characters had already been established, and their journey laid out by Chris before I ever touched it.

When we trade drafts back and forth, sometimes we rewrite scenes, and sometimes we gut them. I’ve removed or killed off some pretty funny characters, just because I thought it would improve the pacing and raise the stakes. He’s erased monologues and elaborate set-ups and pay-offs I’ve written for the same reason. Its constant compromise between our two visions of the story, and I think its only possible because we’ve been working alongside each other for a while and know each other well enough to have built up a considerable trust in each other’s judgement.

So there may be 14 billion screenwriters out there. But in my personal experience, 75% of them are going to decide to do something else eventually. Those of us left will be judged not just by our tenacity. We will be judged by how well we innovate and how well we collaborate with each other, and here I like my odds.

I swore I’d never write a blog…

…Its all my brother’s fault. My brother is a recurring character in my personal mythology, like Loki in the Norse myths, and fulfilling a similiar function of whispering dubious ideas into my impressionable and slightly thick head.

There are writers who make themselves into their work. They write memoirs and funny recollections and thinly-disguised confessional autobiographies reworked as fiction. I’m in the other camp. My scripts are about aliens, or ninjas, or mixed-martial-arts. I draw on my understanding of the tropes I have internalized from a lifetime of living in other people’s fantasies to create my own (I will give an example of this in a later post).
There’s not a lot to write about myself that is entertaining in the way I’m accustomed to making stories entertaining.

But if I were to try, it would look a little something like this:

FADE IN

BROTHER ENTERS, holding a phone. Talking to KYLE on the other end.

INTERCUT BROTHER/KYLE

BROTHER
One of the things I like is that when I follow
someone on a blog, I get a sense of them.
I feel what they’re going through, I root for them.

KYLE
I see…

BROTHER
Maybe if you started a blog, people could
follow your journey. It could be this cool gateway
for introducing your work to people.

Kyle says nothing. Its one of the few cold days in the LA year and the wind blows at the tail of his jacket as he hugs it tighter with his free hand, phone still clutched to his ear.

BROTHER (CONT’D)
Know what I mean, Jellybean?

FADE OUT

Despite a nice personal touch at the end, which captures a very real idiosyncrasy of how my brother talks, this scene lacks a sense of momentum. My brother is trying to pass down a suggestion, infect me with some much-needed optimism, but I’m refusing to engage. My reasons for doing so might be interesting on a dramatic level, but screenplays don’t allow the reader the ability to peek inside someone’s head like a literary novel, and unlike in Shakespeare most movies and TV shows don’t allow a reticent character to confess his psychological strife in a monologue as an aside to the audience. Things have to advance through dialogue and action.

I would feel more comfortable writing this scene if my brother and I were holding each other at gunpoint in a fraternal Mexican stand-off; it would still be weak, but at least the stakes would be clear.

But I can’t just speak or act in the scene because its hard to show, at least in a single scene, what is really motivating me in this conversation. Hard to show the time that I spend trying to get people to read my scripts, or get excited about my weird ideas, or at least take seriously the idea that I’ve spent four years trying to get good at this one thing, and that maybe that work deserves a fair shot.

That’s what I’m thinking about, but it doesn’t scan with the dialogue. I need a way of encapsulating all the work I put in. A journal where people can see what I’m going through, and what I’m learning. I need a way for people to understand that I’m going through a process, and that every script I write and every story I break down is a part of that process. To be seen and understood as a character in my own story.

So ironically, that’s exactly why I’m writing a blog. So that when my brother asks, “you know what I mean?” you understand that I do, Jellybean, I do.

My Brother and I (don’t be fooled by his appearance, the man is dangerously cunning)

Four Years, four months.

The most recent picture of me in the wild. Captured while walking someone else’s dog.

Its January eighth, 2019. If my math is right, I’ve been living in Los Angeles four years and four months.

There’s a lot of different ways to think about that time. One way is to stack it against the time spent all the other places. Four years and three months is approximately three months longer than I spent at a small liberal arts college in Maryland studying ancient philosophy and English literature, Euclidean geometry and French poetry and a whole host of other things, some of which I only ever pretended to have any understanding of. Its a three years and several months longer than I spent in Philadelphia, my first year after College working the night-shift at a gas station/deli (or a Wawa, if you know what that is). Its three years longer than I spent in the San Francisco Bay area living near my brother and working as a bank teller. Its more time than I spent in Georgia, where I attended most of High School, but less time than I spent in Indiana or Oklahoma, which accounts for the rest of it. Its a considerable portion of my life’s geographic investment, living in LA.

Here’s another way: When I moved to LA, I was just shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, and now I am twenty-nine going on thirty. I’m not yet old, but I will never be a young man in the industry I have set out to make my home. If I had sold my first screenplay at twenty-six, or been staffed to a popular television show as late as last year, people might have said I was a prodigy, and attributed my success to an inherent genius. I feel with some certainty that that window has closed. Going forward, any success I enjoy will be attributed to hard work and to stubborn, perhaps perverse tenacity.

The way I think about it most often though is in terms of time spent writing. I can’t honestly say I spend the majority of each day working on a script, or even that I write every day. But there has never been a period longer than a week or two when I have not been writing something since I moved to LA. I’ve finished more than one feature-length script a year. More than two. A little more than three, I think. There isn’t room here to talk about how I feel about all that writing, or the course of my own development as a writer. But the simple correlation of time and output is undeniable. Life goes on, and I write the bones of movies, and occasionally TV shows. The seed I transplanted here has taken root and grown into something I don’t entirely understand. Hence the blog. But more about that later.