Movies – Is there anything they don’t know?

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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:

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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.

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Feedback… this time it’s personal.

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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…

One of these things is like the others… and that’s okay.

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“Movies serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.” Abe Lincoln never said that. Now that it’s on this blog, it’s on the internet, and if it’s on the internet it must be true. I’ve just gone back in time and made it so. I know, mind blown right?

Back when I produced stuff I received a script that I remember to this day. It wasn’t because it was a great script. In fact I never read it. It stood out because the writers didn’t want anyone to read it without signing an NDA. They were hypersensitive to theft, because surely no one in the history of screenwriting had penned such a winner. Never mind limiting their readership to the three people who have nothing better to do than read and sign paperwork. They kept it out of the hands of someone who might possibly get the film made. If it’s that good, a production company or studio will want the script and the writer.

That we esteem our so-called original ideas so highly is hardly, well, an original observation. But really the odds of coming up with something entirely unseen by mankind are against us from the start.

As an art director friend in interactive entertainment recently put it, you spend nine months developing the coolest idea ever, and then you browse the web and find out someone is releasing something nearly identical. Eventually you realize that with billions of people exposed to the same stimuli, the same ideas are bound to come up multiple times.

Sometimes our gem of an idea might actually have been someone else’s that we filed away in the partition of our brain normally reserved for childhood memories that are conjured up by the smell of crayons or Vicks VapoRub.

Or sometimes we just go with the first thing that pops into our brain a la Mr. Stay Puft, when we should be digging deeper to come up with something fresh.

In a script of mine the main character, a star high school hockey player, finds a new passion in the form of art, which doesn’t jibe with his hometown’s obsession with the sport. A girl at school finds his notebook of sketches and encourages him to develop his artistic skills. He forms a romantic relationship with her, and eventually his artistic passion surpasses his devotion to his sport which leads him instead to attend a high-profile art school in Chicago.

Good thing I have this thing copyrighted, right?

During the writing of said script, I watched an eerily familiar storyline unfold on the series Friday Night Lights. The star quarterback Matt Saracen ends up being a closet sketch artist who keeps a notebook of his artwork. Eventually the young woman taking care of Matt’s grandmother finds the notebook, observes how good he is and encourages him to pursue art further. He forms a romantic relationship with her, and eventually his artistic passion surpasses his devotion to his sport which leads him instead to attend a high-profile art school in Chicago.

I must’ve unknowingly traveled into the future like Green Lantern and brought the idea back into the present, because having a superpower is the only way I could explain my ability to transcend space and time, just like putting that quote about movies into Abe Lincoln’s mouth.

Or maybe there’s another explanation.

First, the art thing. Questioning the social norm commonly manifests itself in artistic expression (Billy Eliot, Finding Forrester). And when we think of art, we probably think of illustration first. It’s the most common idea… which also happens to make it the least interesting.

Next there’s the romantic interest, a key ingredient in most drama. And when a character is challenged to think differently by another of opposite gender and approximate age, falling in love is pretty much a lock.

Okay fine, these are common storytelling points. But what about the art school? Well, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is commonly cited as one of the best fine arts schools in the US, if not thee best. So the odds of multiple storytellers sending their art prodigy protagonist to Chicago? Pretty high.

Obviously theft wasn’t at work here. Probability was. In the end I didn’t rewrite the script just because I’d seen that storyline pop up on NBC. I made some changes but left things more or less intact. The important thing wasn’t to create a snowflake. The main thrust of the story was that my hero stopped doing what was expected of him and instead chose his own path. And I did it in a compelling way… hopefully.

The sooner we recognize that nothing we create is truly original, the sooner we can embrace that fact and push ourselves to get as close to original as we possibly can. Just like Abe Lincoln taught us. Sort of.

Lightning, Fire, the Power of God or Something

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I’m a big cheater. Not in general, just now, as I’m writing this. My mission is to write an entry as soon as possible for the Screenwriting Grotto. Since I’m under the gun, I’ve chosen to cheat, by writing the easiest blog I could ever write: praise of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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