03 December 2007

Nicholl Week -- Day the Third

Tuesday broke bright and glorious, another of those damnably nice SoCal days which seem so wonderful for the first day or three but which soon start to drive me batty with their Stepford Weather obsequious artificial perfection. I mean, come on... yeah, it’s a great to see a clear sunny day with temps around 70 degrees, and a light breeze, and no significant chance of rain, but how much of that can a person really stand?

Back home in coastal Texas, if you don’t like the weather, just give it a few hours—it’ll change. You might wake to 40 degrees and crisp clear air, and by dinnertime you’re sweating through your shirt with temps in the low 80s and nine thousand percent humidity making the air thick enough to chew like tobacco. Winds that come from one direction, change their mind, back up, then make a left turn and hit the gas. Thunderstorms that scare people into believing the End Of Days is well and truly upon us but which give way in an hour to an insanely beautiful afternoon. Scorching heat. Blistering cold. Hail the size of pre-schoolers. Squall lines that hit like a freight train and leave trees and shingles scattered like confetti after a parade. Lightning storms that would send Zeus himself scurrying for cover. Hurricanes and tornadoes and drought, oh my.

And that’s just a typical Monday.

Well, maybe it’s not all that. But dammit every time I’m in LA I wake up and have that Groundhog Day sensation that I am suddenly living the same day over and over and over.

I piddle around on the computer, jot some notes (some of which you’ve already read now in this post...), then shower and prep to hump it back to the Academy Citadel on Vine Street for a day full of meetings and panels. I find a month-old CLIF bar in my bag left from Austin Film Festival, so that raspberry flavored wad of paving material serves as breakfast. I hook up with King and Mango and we again head cross country through the wilds of Hollywood.

As part of the Nicholl Experience, the Academy schedules a series of panelists and speakers to come in and give some Q&A on a variety of issues of interest to screenwriters teetering on the brink of relevance. Given that all of us Finalists have been getting dozens of requests for scripts and meetings, these panels are a potential goldmine of useful information, especially for anyone who has not already managed a Hollywood working visit before.

Our first meeting is with a trio of former agents now working as managers and independent producers: Diane Cairns, Julie Chasman, and Dan Halsted. All are interesting folks with useful info, and as will be the case throughout the week, discussions of The Strike dominate the meeting. Not surprisingly, these folks all believe that we should be submitting our Nicholl scripts to pretty much any reputable production company or producer who inquires. They contend that we are non-members and therefore not bound by the rules for WGA members in this dispute. Based upon the wary glances around the room by the other Finalists, I get the impression that this is not a course most of us are wiling to try. I know that for my own purposes I will not submit to anyone except agents and managers who have demonstrated some willingness to not attach as producers—I see no reason to even possibly risk any confusion and complication if some of my material winds up on the desk of a struck company.

After this first panel, again the Nicholl folks provide us with a nice spread there in the room, so we chow down on loads of sushi and pot-stickers and cookies as the next crew of guests files in.

Now, it’s not like I am some mega-schmoozer, but after four years of concerted effort to develop some network of friends and contacts in the industry, I actually do know a few people. Not a lot, but a few. Including some previous Nicholl Fellows and Finalists.

The next trio of speakers are all Nicholl Fellows from previous years: T J Lynch, Ron Moscovitz, and Rebecca Sonnenshine. When they enter the room, we all give that “casual greeting where we are all trying to not seem like total strangers even though we are” thing, except when Ron comes in, we smile and point at one another, and he comes over and shakes hands and does that man-hug thing which frankly still confuses me. We chat for a moment and I notice that some folks are looking at us with that “”wait-- what the hell is this about?” sort of stares.

I’ve known Ron for two years, since the time I met him at the Austin Film Festival when he was naught but a Nicholl Finalist and not yet a hardcore pipe-swingin’ Fellow. I was actually standing with him in the Driskill Bar when he got a call and turned white and said “thanks” and then had to excuse himself to go to his room and scream I AM A GOLDEN GOD! and then call his parents and co-writer and such to tell them that he had just freakin’ won the Nicholl Fellowship. We’ve stayed in touch, and we’ve played around on a few of the same web haunts and playrooms, but for pesky reasons I’ve always been unable to hook up with him during my four or five LA trips.

And now, he is brought in to lecture me by the Academy. Funny old world.

Ron and TJ and Rebecca give is the inside story of the Nicholl—how it really impacts the start of a career, what weight and value it really carries in street terms in working Hollywood—and afterwards we all have wildly different takes on what we heard, what we learned. Some folks came away slightly depressed, surprised that a Nicholl trophy didn’t somehow translate directly into more industry success. Others had very different ideas—that the trio had actually made some nice progress into a career. I was somewhere in the middle, possibly as I was already familiar with their stories. I later made the comment that the Nicholl is a very cool thing but ultimately irrelevant if you don’t do the same work as if you’d not won. That it can open some doors, but it remains the duty of the writer to walk tall through those doors and then do something on the other side.

Ron, TJ and Rebecca give us a solid 90 minutes, then we break for a few minutes as we set up for the final group of the day: producers Gary Foster and Peter Samuelson. Both of these guys boast some significant credits, and both come off as folks genuinely interested in doing interesting quality work rather than just cranking out sausage at a factory. Both lament the changes in the industry in the past decade as the folks who have a balanced interest between the art and commerce of movie making have been overrun by the MBA crowd who see the movie business as just one more widget factory: minimize cost, improve efficiency, streamline production, advertise efficiently, and then coast to sustained 12% annualized growth with minimal risk.

Except of course, movies are not widgets. They are living breathing animals, and in that regard the movie business remains in many ways more like high stakes horse racing and breeding: you can study bloodlines and pedigrees and get the “right” people on your team and do all the right things... and still wind up with a loser come race day. These MBA types do not like this. They want to squeeze money from the industry like the aforementioned sausage from a grinder: dump in the meat, turn the crank, and out oozes a consistent stream of semi-chewed meat, ready for easy sale and consumption.

Samuelson tells a long (too long to bother repeating here) story about the ending of ARLINGTON ROAD. Eventually, the final movie as released used the ending originally written and not the more upbeat ending the studio “experts” demanded. ”What’s ridiculous is that there’s a 3,000 year heritage of storytelling—from Homer on down through the ages to people like you. You’re the storytellers, and you understand how and why you do things, yet we get to the top of the heap here and suddenly a bunch of money-counters decide that they suddenly understand human emotions and responses better than the storytellers do! It’s madness!”

Again, it’s an interesting set of guest speakers in that it provokes a panoply of responses and reactions in our group. Some find it vaguely discouraging that things have changed, yet others (myself included) are inspired that there are still a great many talented and powerful people who deeply value and appreciate the importance of the “Story” kernel to the process.

Again we stay long enough to make Greg Beal start to get anxious, and then most of us wander back to the Renaissance to figure out what to do with the evening. Given that we’ve spent the day—from 9 am until almost 4—inside the Academy conference room, we’re all eager to see some sky and breathe some un-conditioned air, so 7 or 8 of us claim a pair of tables at a Starbucks at Highland Mall and just hang out for another 90 minutes or so, digesting the days events and starting to relax around each other a little more as personalities start to become more clearly defined and understood.

Finally the locals head off to fight the LA traffic, Mango starts to feel the effects of jet-lag from his flight in from Tokyo, Amy starts to get creaky from some cague flu-like symptoms, and Andrew P has to go find his girlfriend somewhere, so Sidney and Cecilia and I wind up wandering around looking for dining options. We wind up at an Italian place on the third tier of the Highland mall complex, overlooking the huge Elephant Pedestal and the Cranberry Bog.

It’s (yet another) perfect SoCal evening, and since each of us is sitting atop a thick envelope of Academy per diem cash, the wine is flowing and the pasta is just spiffy. We laugh and tell lies and confess secrets and have a truly beautiful time, thrilled to be in the company of a few members of that small crowd of people who can truly understand just how totally surreal and exciting and terrifying this particular moment can be for a writer: suddenly, we realize, we no longer have the luxury of easy excuses any more. It’s now time to either put up or shut up. We’ve all been given a day pass into some long-forbidden wonderland, and we now have at least one clear opportunity to Make Something Impossible Happen.

Each of us is giggling at the attention our little projects have been getting. Each of us is deeply honored by this attention and proud of the work that got us here. And each of us is wondering what the hell happens next.

We linger on the patio til almost 11 pm, then briefly toy with the idea of finding a better bar, but the wine and the writerly laziness conspire to push us back to the pathetic miserable hellhole that is the Renaissance Hotel Bar (seriously: just put a trio of barstools around a cellphone kiosk in any American mall and you will instantly create more atmosphere than what this cold soulless place ever boasted). We suck back a round or two of overpriced beer just to buy us some more giggle time together, but then slumber calls us each our separate way, and another golden day thus ends, late and alcohol-soaked.

(to be continued....)
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6 comments:

marcoguarda said...

Yay!

marcoguarda said...

Hey, I notice that the status of "Queen of the Sky" and the "Critter-com" project has turned from green "out there" to lobster-orange! Greetings! They're cooking! ;)

Brett said...

well, since I now have an additional potential status, I decided I needed an additional color for the progress bars.

I live a sad and empty life.
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Alex said...

Longtime lurker here, hi! Thanks for sharing your writing-related experiences with us. Here's to things going really well for you.

Tavis said...

I'm so happy someone is giving a little bit away to the rest of us. It's posts like these that inspire. Now I feel a little more educated as to what to expect when I get there. ;)

I wonder what your take is on this whole Diablo Cody thing? Since you have gotten recognition I suppose you don't feel the envy the rest of us are feeling. Like this guy:

http://tinyurl.com/323ecj

Brett said...

Criminy.

I've been a fan of Diablo for at least two years, so for someone to make it seem as though she is some johnny-come-lately flavor of the month who hasn't worked her ass off for what success now rains down on her.... just, wow.

When the break comes for a writer in Hollywood, it almost ALWAYS seems like an overnight thing to people on the outside (especially those with some eagerness to see it as such no matter what).

Most every pro writer and inductry player I've met or dealt with has been amazingly decent and smart and hard-working and generous. I'm to the point where I see such qualities as pre-reqs for early success in this industry.

And I absolutely believe that Diablo Cody has those qualities in bucketfuls.
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