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Going to the police is dull

The sheriff’s intervention [in Psycho] comes under the heading of what we have discussed many times before: “Why don’t they go to the police?” I’ve always replied, “They don’t go to the police because it’s dull.”

– Hitchcock in Hitchcock/Truffaut

It doesn’t matter what the MacGuffin is

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever.

– Hitchcock in Hitchcock/Truffaut

I was relieved to read this the other day because I’m working on a script has an object of desire that sets off the action of the entire story, but I was worried that the object was too… unbelievable. Part of that unbelievability drives the humor, but I don’t want people reading/watching the movie and thinking “yeah, that was illogical.”

It reminds me of something an improv teacher (I can’t remember who) told me a long time ago about plausibility vs. believability: that plausibility, in the storytelling context, means “would this actually happen?” Believability means “given these circumstances, are things unfolding in a believable way.”

That’s why you can watch True Blood and be interested or entertained without tossing the whole thing out on the premise that vampires could never exist. Given that they do exist in this world, are things playing out in a believable way? OK, maybe True Blood isn’t the best example1 but the point remains.

Reading this book has made me realize how much I need to watch more Hitchcock.

  1. One reason I stopped watching that show was that the world kept changing–just one you thought you knew what the rules were, they changed, often at the precise moment that the protagonist needed them to change 

New website for Words Fail Me web series

I put together an actual website for the Words Fail Me web series. It looks a lot like this website because I used the same WordPress theme, which was a lot cheaper than paying someone to design a website.

New Short Film: My Last Fare

I shot this back in October 2013 and finally got around to editing it. Editing took a while because it was the first time I’d ever worked with a multi-camera workflow or a green screen. The discerning eye will notice some artifacts due to the green screen,1 but I actually like the effect. My writing teacher (in whose class I wrote the original script) said that it gave it a Lynchian feel.

  1. Chroma keying (the term for working with a green screen) is pretty time-consuming and difficult for someone like me, whose knowledge of post-production visual effects comes from online tutorials. I think the lighting of the green screen was a bit uneven as well, which may have made it impossible to get looking perfect, even for an experienced colorist. Not to mention that the close-ups are shot on Canon 7Ds, which tend to produce artifacts when you shoot with them in low-light/high-ISO situations. All of this is to say that sometimes a technical obstacle can turn out to be a happy mistake, if you embrace it. 

Screenplay feedback and accepting that something is broken

I did a staged reading of Begin, a screenplay I recently wrote. It went very well, with lots of laughs in the right places and the audience stayed tuned in throughout the 90 or so minutes of the reading, in large part because the actors nailed it so well. There are two reasons why I love doing a reading like this: feedback from the audience and feedback from the actors.

From the audience you learn where it’s working and where it stalls and where it’s funny and where the jokes land flat. And from the actors you learn if you’ve written roles that are fun or interesting to play. And you can see if the characters come to life when the words are spoken out loud, or does it just feel like someone’s reading some lines? It helps to have actors that prepare and commit to it.

Afterwords, we did a Q&A, where I was asking questions of the audience to get their feedback on some of the story and theme issues that I’ve been struggling with — mostly things that were pointed out as weaknesses by Blcklst readers.

I asked the audience: “I’ve gotten some feedback that said that the reader was not clear about what the theme or the point of the story is. Do you agree with that comment and why” And I saw many heads shyly nodding.1.

A lot of the feedback was related to the main character, about why he was making the choices he was making and how it seemed like things were happening to him, very funny things, but things that didn’t necessarily relate to his larger arc or the theme of the film. This type of feedback is invaluable because it provides another data point, more evidence that this is in fact a problem, not just something one reader had an issue with. But it’s also a bit strange to me, because I know exactly what the theme is, and in my head it’s so obvious that I was worried that it would beĀ too obvious.

But when 20 people nod their heads in unison, it’s hard to ignore. I tried to communicate something and I failed, as much as I wanted to believe that everything was working well. And now that I’ve accepted that, I can begin the work of addressing those issues and with some luck, take it from “a funny movie” to “a really good movie that’s also funny.”

I used to have this feeling, like a fear of putting stuff out into the world because I wanted everyone (or the people I care about) to just say “this is great, I love it, it’s perfect,” so I wouldn’t have to change a thing. But I’ve been braver lately and try to seek out critiques from people that will be honest about the issues in what I write, so that I can make my work better.

It’s really hard to do that and admit that something I love is broken, but I don’t know if there’s another way to improve as a writer (along with practicing a whole lot). And getting there required changing my mindset from “making something good” to “continuously improve as a writer.”


  1. After receiving zero response to my first question, I remembered that I had to tell them that they had permission to say negative things, which opened things up quite a bit 

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Such a funny movie. Great parody of the James Bond-type genre, like Archer meets The Pink Panther. I love anything with a bumbling French protagonist, one of my favorite characters to watch and play. Really beautiful composition and art direction too.

It sort of straddles the line between parody and satire — jokey enough to be a parody but with a definite message about Western ignorance in meddling with the Muslim world. And the chauvinism and “overt-but-playful-racism” (for lack of a better term) is so funny and done in a way that you know they’re making fun of it.

Smart, silly, and very funny. Highly recommended (Amazon // Netflix streaming).

Hitchcock on plausibility and dullness

“In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.”

– Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock/Truffaut

Doing two important things at once improves the quality of procrastination

Doing two important things at once improves the quality of procrastination. I don’t mean actually doing two important things at the same time, but having two important things you’re working on.1

This is what I’ve noticed. Usually I have a few projects going on. I’m writing something, editing something else, and maybe doing something that would fall under the realm of ‘producing’, i.e. booking a location and scheduling actors. So when I wake up in the morning to work on something or when it’s late at night and I can’t sleep because I didn’t work on anything that day, I have to pick one of the three to tackle.

If I’m feeling brave, I tackle the most difficult one (usually producing, which is not my favorite thing to do). If I’m not feeling brave or if I’m just not in a good mood, I’ll procrastinate on the difficult thing and write or edit instead. So I’m procrastinating but I’m still working on something important. If I get blocked on one thing, I have something else I can work on, which to me is the big advantage of working on multiple things at once. The disadvantage is that I’m splitting my subconscious free space among several things.

I don’t know which way of working is ultimately better, but I suspect that the marginal value of another project depends on whether or not it utilizes a mental state not already engaged by one of the existing projects. So if you’re writing one screenplay, starting a second one before the first is finished will hurt you more than it helps you.2

Why not just procrastinate by doing the dishes or surfing the web? I think I don’t because I trained myself through brute force (willpower) into working on something important every morning.

And I’ve convinced myself that I will go insane if I don’t at least write a page or two per day. This guilt comes in handy when I can’t sleep. It’s the type of anxiety that moves you forward rather than holding you back, so in a way I found a way to harness my anxiety for good.

I hope that writing all this down will allow me to stop thinking about it so much.

  1. I say you because it’s advice, but it’s really advice to myself, so buyer beware.  

  2. Although, what if you’re brainstorming one and rewriting another? Those are pretty different modes of thought. I still think that you should probably only write one big thing at a time, but I’m fairly new to this. 

Headhunters (2011)

Wow, I mean wow. Thrilling, so many good twists and really dark and funny in a twisted way. And beautifully shot. So many scenes that are just macabre and yet visually hilarious at the same time.

This must’ve been a really fun script to write. Plus it has Jaime Lannister as the bad guy. This sort of “small-time crook gets way in over his head and much suspense with a sense of humor ensues” is my favorite genre. I love films that are thematically strong and have really solid endings but are relentlessly entertaining in the storytelling (i.e. not resorting to camera tricks).

Definitely recommended (Amazon // iTunes).

Chicago indie film to premier at SXSW

The film, Uncle John, directed by Steven Piet, will premiere at SXSW. Haven’t heard of Piet but it’s really cool that a Chicago is one of the ten films screening in the narrative feature competition at SXSW. You can’t see the film online yet but here’s the website.