Truth vs Reality

Literally the first image that popped up on Yahoo search when I put in

Literally the first image that popped up on Yahoo search when I put in “Truth Vs Reality”

I learned the difference between truth and reality from the film Big Fish. Probably not in the way you would expect, however. This article is going to have some spoilers about the film so if you haven’t seen the movie and want to you should probably stop reading right now. Also, it gets pretty personal and depending on your view of such things overly schmaltzy. It has screenplay advice but not until after a long winding story of family loss.

My grandfather was not larger than life. You can’t be larger than life, he was the exact size of his life. He just filled up so much space around him with it. I owe a lot of who I am to him. My overdeveloped sense of justice, my belief in what a person should do for those around them, a love of the TV show the Rifleman. That’s all from him.

Which now that I think about it is the main way I knew him. Through TV. Thanks to him I’ve seen every episode of Walker Texas Ranger. Every Bruce Lee movie. Most things John Wayne has been in. Quite a lot of Gunsmoke. All of Highlander. The list goes on. I also have my aversion to drinking from the man. He was not a pretty drunk.

What? You haven't seen highlander? You're missing out. Every episode someone gets their head cut off.

What? You haven’t seen highlander? You’re missing out. Every episode someone gets their head cut off.

He died. As people tend to do. It isn’t like in the movies. He died in a hospital bed. I only saw him the once. I don’t remember getting the option to go back but my mother tells me I was invited and declined. I don’t blame me. The rail on the side of the hospital bed was cold against my hands. He couldn’t speak. The gruff whiskey thick voice he’d had all the time I knew him was instead a mumbling stroke addled mess of nothing. He laughed occasionally, but a man who had always been nearly perfectly round was gaunt and thin and sad and dying.

They ‘pulled the plug’ at my mother’s urging. As I said, it wasn’t like the movies. He didn’t flat line as the camera panned up. Or take my mother’s hand one last time and say something clearly. No, he sat there in the hospital bed well aware of what was going on for two weeks.

Maybe longer.

My mother spent a lot of time with her dad over those two weeks. But as I said it was hard to communicate with him. She had to watch him go as slow and painful as one can.

She handled it very well. She only cried a lot instead of all the time.

Now, let’s jump forward a decade or so. The release of the film Big Fish.

I wish I was half as well designed as this logo.

I wish I was half as well designed as this logo.

It’s a movie about a son and his dying father. I saw it, it was by director Tim Burton who was possibly at the height of his fame. A lot of people were pissed off that it had a cheery cartoon like quality to it. They wanted dreary spiral filled Burton. I found the film charming, especially the use of music. Any film that uses a track from Buddie Hollie can’t be all bad.

I took my mother to see it as I had thought it was fun and right up her alley.

I don’t think she ever forgave me.

The father in the film was my grandfather. The way he talked, his propensity for long drawn out stories that probably had little baring in reality. His refusal to accept help or discuss his private life. Even the kind of voice he had. Or the way he looked at the end of the film dying in his hospital bed.

I have never seen my mother so emotionally distraught. Nothing else has ever come close. By showing her this film I had ripped her heart wide open and let it spill out over the movie floor. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was to never show her that movie again.

We probably talked more about my grandfather that day after the film than we had in the decade after his death put together.

It wasn’t that the film was true to life. My grandfather was a mechanic and not a traveling salesmen. His tall tales were rarely so extreme or whimsical. Drinking was his main vice not women, and as I said he didn’t die in some neat pat Hollywood way like the father in Big Fish does.

The father in big fish gets to see his son finally accept him for who he was. They share a profound moment between one another even through the haze of heart attack and death. They truly connect for possibly the first time in their lives during that passage from living to gone.

It’s utter crap. How many people actually get to do that? I mean, if you have. Lucky you. I’ve lost many people and I’ve been by a lot of hospital beds and gotten a lot of late night phone calls. The closest I’ve ever come to a Hallmark moment was talking to one of my Grandmothers who asked me if I’d be coming down from college to visit and I’d said ‘oh, hopefully in February’ ‘that’d be nice’ she said. I agreed. Hung up. And being a bitter college kid thought that it sure was a pain that family always wants you around.

She died. I felt bad.

But that’s what I’m getting at. The film Big Fish was not true to life. However it hit upon a truth. It captured to my mother the essence of who her father had been. It was so emotionally taxing thanks to the ways it altered reality to present the same story she’d gone through in an hour and a half that it nearly killed her.

So, what I’m saying is this. If you want your screenplay to ring true. To have a feeling of reality and honesty. Don’t go looking for real events. Real events are messy. They involve dozens of characters and take hours and hours. Real life isn’t full of metaphors and catharsis. Closure doesn’t come to those of us who deal with reality.

Speaking to truth and speaking to reality are very different. I’m referring to truth as an emotional truth. As something that speaks to someone and feels honest and real. It’s different for everyone. One person’s hammy is another’s perfect fiction.

Still, you can’t find that emotional core spending your time trying to perfectly replicate the way people talk. Or making sure that every weapon in your WW2 epic is exactly as it really was down to the bullet count. You find that emotional core by figuring out what part of the story moves people.

For my mother it was seeing a once strong proud man mumbling in his death bed in a hospital with no one around but a single one of his children to see him off. That image was truth to her.

If just a single moment in your script strikes someone as completely emotionally honest then to that person, odds are you’ve written a good script.

Something to keep in mind.

Also, I’m sorry mom for sharing such a private story, and I love and miss you grandpa. I wish I had known you better. I hope you wouldn’t mind me talking about this.


Movies – Is there anything they don’t know?


The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, feature length films were a couple years old. It’s comforting to know that the Little Bears are finally going to do it again. I know this because of a certain feature film called Back to the Future Part II.

Since the sometimes-maligned-but-I-love-it sequel – also known as “BTTF2” to those in the know – accurately predicted the creation of hoverboards (cuz they’re real now, right?), we can only assume that the movie knows who’s going to win the Series this year. When the Cubs clinched a playoff berth a couple weeks ago, sh*t got real. And now that Chicago just advanced to the next playoff round, there should be no doubt.

Movies know everything that’s going to happen. EVERYTHING. Not just the obvious stuff either, like China Syndrome and Three Mile Island. Glimpses into what will be are sprinkled throughout filmdom like so many lembas breadcrumbs on Samwise Gamgee.

Blade Runner’s inclusion of the Atari logo said, “Yes, dammit. This company will be around forever.” Despite an attempt to sink its own ship with the landfill-destined E.T. game, Atari has managed to hang on through various mergers and buyouts (I believe they’re now owned by a company in Sri Lanka or something). So the future noir masterpiece knew it… although LA better get going on that massive pyramid if they’re planning to have it ready for 2019.

Remember the Johnny Cab? Total Recall knew Google Chauffeur was only a matter of time.

If you watch Tom Cruise get his retina scanned in Minority Report you’ll hear a peculiar *bjink!* sound. Five years after the movie came out the iPhone debuted, along with that same *bjink!* every time you plugged the phone in. And we didn’t have to wait until 2054 to hear it in real life.

In Fahrenheit 451, books were banned in the future. I don’t get out much so I rely on my wife to tell me what people do these days. Since she started reading a Kindle she says that she can’t go back to books. I can only assume that means that books have been outlawed. I already miss those days of pairing a good Harlequin paperback with a bubble bath.

Then there’s the 1956 version of 1984. Boy they nailed it. Just look at the movie poster:


See? Ecstasy is a Schedule I controlled substance that’s illegal today. Bam.

In the original Rollerball, James Caan and the upper crust donned the hippest wardrobes. Rollerball knew that the 70s reached the peak of fashion and eventually designers of the future would realize it. We’re already there. People mocked bell bottoms back in the 80s, but they reemerged. And just one look at my own closet will show you that polyester never died. I have enough flammable content to rival the carpet bombing shot in the opening of Apocalypse Now.

Now admittedly, Demolition Man’s prognostication of every restaurant being a Taco Bell hasn’t come to fruition… yet. With taco shells being made of Doritos and the growing number of combo restaurants in the form of Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut/Carl’s Jr/PF Chiang, it’s only a matter of time.

So never deny the power of foresight that futuristic movies can bring to bear. They’re my guide to planning for a secure future. Thanks to BTTF2, I put my entire savings on Chicago back in April. At 16-1 odds, I should be walking away with a cool $80 come early November.


Incidentally, the entire Back to the Future trilogy will be playing one night only at select Cinemark theaters. Check the interwebs for a theater near you.

The 2015 Austin Film Festival!

AFFWhile I may have missed last year’s Austin Film Festival (AFF) due to having a baby, I consider myself an annual attendee. Well this year is special for me, because I will be a panelist. I look forward to seeing you all there, and especially at the barbecue! To see my panels, click here. 
Here are some highlights I’m seeing for this year’s festival:

Continue reading

How to Kill a Giant


Maybe you’re writing a screenplay or novel.  Maybe you’re trying to get in shape for the first time in years.  Maybe you’re sifting through thousands of Google Images of “giant burgers” to try and find the right one to put at the top of your blog post.

Huge projects always feel overwhelming, daunting, and exhausting, but there are easy ways to trick your brain into believing you’ll reach your goal…

Continue reading

Is technology ruining movie romance?

© aliaschingTo write a romantic movie in the age of the iPhone is to battle with technology.

There’s no doubt that how we communicate about love has changed significantly with the advent of smartphones and social media. This is especially noticeable in romantic movies, where some of the most common tropes were based on the fact that distance was a great source of drama. Will they or won’t they cross paths again? Will he or she get the message before it’s too late?

Nowadays, love letters are relegated to period pieces and war movies, unless a writer finds a crafty way to work them into the script (think Big emailing Carrie love letters from famous men in Sex and the City). Our real-life expressions of love are much shorter, crisper, and less poetic (or less schmaltzy, depending on how you look at it) thanks to our cynical 21st-century sensibilities.

So, I thought it would be interesting to look at four movies from days gone by that would be markedly different if the characters had smartphones and social media at their disposal. These romantic classics are undoubtedly products of their eras, when screenwriters didn’t have to ask, “How can I get my characters to lose their smartphones?”:

1.) Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who’s bored out of her mind and escapes from her guards during a trip to Rome. During her jaunt around the city, she encounters American journalist Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, who shows her the time of her life. They gradually fall in love, and though Joe eventually realizes that his companion is the missing princess, he keeps her secret (and the photographs of their time together) safe. When he briefly encounters her at a royal press conference, they wonder what might have been.

21st century ending: A fake Twitter account about the princess’ romp around Rome immediately springs up, gaining 200,000 followers in under 5 minutes. Joe is offered $5 million for his photos of the princess and he refuses to hand them over. But his email is hacked and the photos are uploaded to the Internet anyway. The princess continues to be hounded by paparazzi and is named one of Barbara Walters’ most fascinating people.

2.) An Affair to Remember (1957)
This 1957 movie is a real bummer, as illustrated by Rita Wilson’s emotional breakdown in Sleepless in Seattle. Terry and Nicky, both engaged to other people, meet on a cruise and realize they’re falling for each other. They agree to get their lives in order and meet at the top of the Empire State Building six months later. But on the way, Terry gets hit by a car and is severely injured. Nicky assumes he’s been rejected and moves on with his life. He only realizes years later that the whole thing was a tragic misunderstanding.

21st century ending: The to-be lovers exchange info on the cruise – just email addresses, in case one of them is a serial killer. Terry suggests meeting on top of the Empire State Building in six months, Nicky wonders why all the drama (Terry posts a comment about romance being dead on Facebook). But she never gets hit by a car because they Skype chat instead. A year later, Nicky proposes to Terry, and she changes her status to “Engaged.”

3.) Coming to America (1988)
Eddie Murphy plays an African prince about to be married off to a princess who’s been trained to do whatever he wants. But ever the romantic, he wants to find true love and embarks on a quest to find his future in queen in, well, Queens. He gets a job at a McDonald’s rip-off and lives in the most meager accommodations he can find, in hopes of finding a woman who loves him for who he is. Eventually he finds Lisa, an intelligent and independent woman who steals his heart, much to the chagrin of his parents.

21st century ending: Prince Akeem (Murphy) goes on to find his bride. But his best friend Semi spills the beans on Twitter that Akeem is a prince. When word gets out, he’s offered his own reality series not unlike The Bachelor called Finding Prince Charming. He offers a rose/proposal to Lisa in the very last episode and she accepts. Their wedding inspires African prints on Pinterest wedding boards that year.

So there you have it. While it’s pretty great that we don’t have to wonder if the great loves of our lives have been hit by taxis or thwarted by random events, technology is a thorn in a screenwriter’s side when it comes to building up romantic drama. To text or not to text, that is the question.

This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared on This Wonderful Word and The Huffington Post.

A Screenwriter’s Five Stages of Grief: Contest Edition

sad writer

Ah, the screenwriting contest. There are so many out there, and may be the key to breaking in and starting a career.

Once you decide to take the plunge and submit, your brain fills up with visions of your script claiming first prize and all the goodies that come with it – cash and prizes, prestige, connections.

But the sad truth really is that while many will enter, only a select few will advance and even fewer will win. The odds are already against you, so you do the best you can.

The latest rounds in several prestigious screenwriting contests were recently announced. A very high number of scripts will not be moving forward. Chances are if yours was among them, this could be what you’re currently experiencing.

This can’t be right. My script should be right there. Something must be wrong. Wait. Maybe I just didn’t see it. Let me look again. Are these listed by author’s first name, last name, or by title? Why am I not seeing it? Maybe they just forgot to include me. That happens, right?

Aaugh! I can’t believe I didn’t make it! All that hard work shot straight to hell! How could they not like this? I’m never entering another contest again!

Please let this be a mistake. I promise I’ll try harder and do better next time. I’ll write every day. Honest.

I’m the worst writer ever. I’ve got no talent. The judges probably read this and laughed their heads off at how bad it was. How could I even think I had a shot at this? Why did I even bother? I should just give up now.

It’s all subjective. You never know what someone going’s to like or not like. Somebody else’s script that advanced last year didn’t even make it past the first round this year. Maybe my script wasn’t as perfect as I thought. I should probably work on it some more, get some feedback on it from my more experienced writer friends, maybe even shell out the bucks for some professional notes. It’s not like this is the only contest out there, and there’s always next year.

So what now?

After a little self-comforting (and offering congratulations to any writers you know who did advance), you sit yourself down and keep writing.

You’ve got a contest deadline to prepare for.

Making the Leap to Follow Our Passions


Military Veterans in Creative Careers - Justin SloanEven the best of us have looked at our dream careers and thought they were unattainable. That there’s no way we could pursue screenwriting or acting or what-have-you while being able to pay the rent. And that’s unfortunate.

The lucky few of us hit a point in our careers where we look back at the dreams of our youth and realize that it’s never too late to reach for the stars, and we find a way.

That was me not long ago, and if not for a very emotionally supportive wife I may still be working as an Asia analyst at the Federal Reserve. Instead, I’m writing on the video game version of Game of Thrones at Telltale Games (called the HBO of gaming). I am also a published author and optioned screenwriter, and feel my career is at its infancy and will only get better from here.  Continue reading

The First Ten Pages: Indiana Jones

We all know this scene.

We all know this scene.

(Written from Comic Con at 1 in the morning! Apologies for any of those kind of grammar snafus and snobbles that come up when one does such things… ON TO THE POST!)

So, one of my fellow bloggers wrote about Raiders and you can read his writing on it here.

(In his article he basically explores how Raiders manages to do exposition in an interesting yet realistic to the setting and non convoluted way)

I am continuing his grand tradition by also writing on Raiders of the Lost Arc. Which we are not the only ones to do of course. People have talked about how they hate the ending, or how they defend the ending. How the exposition scene is impressive, how Indy never takes off his hat but everyone remembers him going after it (Which only happens in the sequels).

Let us look instead of that at the most important part of the script. The first ten or so pages. Kasdan, the screen writer of Indiana Jones and many other excellent films was always worried about one thing. That Indy would be like the two fisted pulp heroes before him. A hero with no flaws. Someone that can take any situation, woo any woman, kill any badguy.

So, what does Kasdan do with the script? He writes some of the best opening pages of all time.

We open on a jungle. We see a guy who’s obviously the hero. Fedora and leather jacket = hero. Everyone knows this. Someone pulls a gun on our hero and CRACK! He’s disarmed by a bullwhip. The hero? Is also odd, but in a super manly and cool way. Established!

Then there’s the treasure cave. He finds a dead adventurer  like himself. He finds some spiders. A pit. Some deadly darts. He passes them all.

Then the idol. He measures out the sand and makes the switch and… fails.

He has to run from his failure, and his failures keep stacking up. His guide has tricked him and steals the idol. He is chased by a massive boulder. He then gets it back but finds that another treasure hunter has gone about this all much smarter than him and he only just barely escapes thanks to luck and determination.

He flies away a beaten man with his tail between his legs.

So, if really all the opening is, is one giant build up to Indy being in over his head and not up to the challenges around him, why is it one of the most parodied and memorable opening sequences of all time?

Because it’s all about Indy being in over his head and not up to the challenges around him. That’s what the WHOLE movie is about. Indy is powerful, he is manly, he is strong, smart, quick… and he is out of his depth. It’s the entire basis of the film. He is a pulp hero who is not quite up to snuff.

Think of the scene everyone remembers where he guns down the swordsmen. In this sequence he fights and beats dozens of men… and loses the girl. She’s kidnapped. He fails. It’s like this over and over again.

Remember the big man he boxes in front of the flying wing? The guy punches him and has him on the ground before the propeller saves him.

The key to the opening is the key to the whole movie. Indy is never invincible. For as over the top as he and his adventures are, the adventures are always literally one step away from killing him. His adventure is raw because it truly seems to be about to take his life. Everything is one milometer from the edge. Not in the James Bond sense of the bomb about toe explode. Indy is embarrassed by his failures. He’s bloodied by them. He’s laid low and often mocked by his mistakes.

The intro has many plants and pay offs. The bull whip, the opening where some of his guides turn on him, the discovery of the corpse of a rival adventurer, the talk of the ancient people and their beliefs. It all comes back around to show how human Indy is.

Then it ends on the note of his great fear of snakes. The final moment of the opening is to tell the audience Indy’s biggest weakness.

And somehow our hero still comes off as cool and awesome and fun in this intro. That… that is what makes the opening of Indian Jones such a master stroke. That Indiana Jones walks away from that series of well written failures as a cool main character the audience roots for. He’s in over his head, but he always swims as hard as he can. He struggles harder than most other pulp heroes, and that is why he’s so easy to get behind.

It’s easy to be the hero when you always come out on top. What Indy does is hard.

Feedback… this time it’s personal.


I was going to blog about a recent experience with feedback when this timely article by Bob Saenz popped up in my Twitter feed. It’s an insightful look at how to receive feedback with grace and aplomb… and also robs me of an opportunity to express a semi-original thought. It’s now been covered.

My post had to do with the giving part of the equation, but since there was entirely too much intersection between the two to justify adding my publication to the vast sea of blogdom, I’ll focus on another aspect of feedback: the value of a reliable peer group willing to give it fairly. I’d love to call this a companion piece to Bob Saenz’s post, but since I’m pretty much a nobody I’ll just call it piggybacking.

I recently got painful feedback from someone in my screenwriters group whom we’ll call Mr. T (because who wouldn’t want that moniker?). It was painful not because of my superfluous supporting character or my overdescribing an action or the extreme tonal shift in my second act. In fact it didn’t even pertain to my script at all. It was feedback on my feedback.

Mr. T had shared his first pass at a comedy piece. The first thing I said was that it was too long and the humor felt forced.

Then I basically repeated that, adding that it was too long and forced even for a first draft.

What was that all about? After all, that’s what first drafts are for: expunging the dreck from our heads. Usually my initial feedback notes vacillate from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. I then refine the notes so they’re more constructive than damaging, more encouraging than cheerleading. Leave unhelpful comments to the YouTube trolls. So I never share the first draft of my feedback. Except this time I did.

Okay before I go on I want to be clear:  I’m talking about feedback that’s fair and helpful, not nice. I’m not from the EGAT (Everyone Gets A Trophy) Generation so I’d never argue that feedback has to be all smiles and sunshine. If our stuff isn’t that good we need to hear it. Therefore notes require a combination of honesty and tact for them to be truly effective. It doesn’t help to hear how awesome your stuff is – unless it’s accompanied by a check. At the same time, we don’t need another writer utterly crushing us like a giant Monty Python cartoon foot.

Whatever it was that moved me to spew that useless first draft comment – perhaps my own self-induced writing funk or my expectation that Mr. T could do better – I not only undermined his confidence in his script, but I threatened the uber-valuable peer relationship that I’d cultivated with him, as well as the others in the writers group.

I did note that the core part of the idea was super funny and it could be a hilarious piece. But that didn’t matter because he thought that rusty fork of a comment that I twisted inside of his gut summarized how I felt about the whole thing. Rather than go all Clubber Lang on me – which probably would’ve been justified – Mr. T simply took umbrage and told me as much when we spoke later. Much later.

Fortunately this writer and I are friends (um, right T?) and we’ve helped each other out many times, so we know there’s no ill will between us (right T?). But it never does any good to tear down another writer without offering to help build them back up.

And now to hope that nobody comments on how they feel about this article cuz I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of feedback…

The Up and Down Emotional Beats of Scenes

storyI am a multitasker. I love to work on my next author interview, paint, or outline story ideas while I watch a movie or great television show (which really only means Game of Thrones, after I’ve seen the episode once or twice). But there are some movies that demand our full attention, no matter how skilled we are at multitasking.

One such film, which started as a book equally as intriguing, is The Fault in Our Stars.

But let’s not discuss the merits of the movie or the book. Instead let’s consider an idea that such writing books as Robert McKee’s Story mention, namely scenes having up and down emotional beats (or positive and negative charges), and how this concept is used in The Fault in Our Stars as a case study.  Continue reading