Saturday, August 9, 2014

hitter Chapter Two

Let's pretend you're vicious
Let's pretend you're cool
Let's pretend suspicious
Let's pretend you're fools

The Germs “Let’s Pretend”

Chapter Two: The 240

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA. A haggard Jude Karsen was seated at a table in an interrogation room. He was smoking a cigarette, wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket. He had a distinct, bright skin-pink scar on his forehead. A bullet wound. Several manila folders sat on the table in front of him. He had one open, looking at the photos. A man slumped over dead in his living room. Jude's target.
“I drove around a bit, just wandering, found a place to eat dinner. While I was driving I would disassemble the weapon and toss its components out the window. The silencer was homemade. I smashed that. The clothes would go in a Goodwill bin unless they had blood on them, in that case they'd get burned...”
One F.B.I. Agent stood at the back of the room. He was tall, thin and balding prematurely. He had pursed lips on his narrow face. A skeptical look. Agent Theo Craidman rubbed his cheek and sighed.
Sitting across from Jude was an older man, mid-fifties. He had the square-jawed good looks of a forties matinee idol. Silver flecks ran through his black hair and mustache. Special Agent Carter Vance leaned back, glancing over at Craidman. Craidman gave a small shrug as if to say, “Who knows?”
Vance looked back at Karsen thoughtfully. “A rental car? Seems risky.”
“It was rented under a fake name with a fake ID and a stolen credit card number. I know they have GPS in them now, but the odds of it being linked to the crime were pretty low. Even if it was, all you'd find is 'Mike Smith'. A man who was never been seen again after that night,” Karsen put out the cigarette in the ashtray. “Thanks for letting me smoke.”
Vance nodded dismissively. Karsen pushed the folder back towards the agent. “This one is mine. I killed him.”
“This is a remarkable story, Mr. Karsen,” said Vance.
Craidman held up a typed list of names, glancing them over, “And this list of victims. Two hundred and forty. That's a nice round number,” Craidman's voice held a light skepticism. “Some of your victims were high profile. Like Tiffany Teague?”
The balding agent set the list down in front of Jude, “The news shows are still flogging that story two years later. Must be quite a feather in your cap to fool the law enforcement agencies of three different countries.”
Jude was silent. He studied Craidman, knowing he was being mocked by the man, even though the agent kept his voice carefully neutral. Vance cleared his throat.
“Mr. Karsen, why are you turning yourself in, after all these years, all these murders?”
Karsen tapped another cigarette out of his pack of American Spirits. He locked eyes with Vance as he lit it, “Getting shot in the head caused a significant shift in my perception of reality.”
“Almost dying. I'm sure that was traumatic.”
“I did die,” Karsen exhaled smoke, “It was traumatic.”
The two agents couldn't help but look at the bright scar on Jude's forehead. Suddenly there was a loud knock coming from behind the mirrored window. The three men looked over at their reflections.
“Would you excuse us, Mr. Karsen?” said Vance.
Karsen nodded, and the agents left the room.

Waiting in the observation room were two agents. Special Agent-In-Charge Angie Marrs was in her late fifties. She was athletically thin, but age was bringing boniness to her body. Her real hair color was a mystery to the investigators at the F.B.I. but she kept it dark brown to match hawk-like, chestnut brown eyes. She was dressed professionally and conservatively in a maroon pants suit.
With her was a young Hispanic man. Agent Sergio Velasquez. He was carrying two tablets as well as holding a thin, manila file. When Vance and Craidman entered, he set everything down on the corner table to shake hands. Then he passed the thin file to Craidman, who flipped it open.
“That's everything we can find on Mr. Jude Karsen,” said Velasquez.
Craidman snorted and passed the file to Vance.
“Anyone ever like him for murder?” Vance glanced the paperwork over.
“And this is all you got on him? This is nothing.”
Velasquez shrugged. “I've put in requests to Interpol. But this is all we have so far.”
Marrs interrupted, “Gentlemen, nine months ago an assassination attempt was made on Jude Karsen's life. It was very nearly successful.”
“This stuff about being dead?” asked Craidman.
Velasquez crossed his arms and leaned against the table, “It's all true, apparently. He was clinically dead for at least ten minutes.”
Craidman snorted, “Can anyone say 'brain damage'?”
Marrs ignored him, “We'll know more shortly, we're interviewing his doctors.”
“Whoa,” said Craidman, “How much time are we putting into this?”
“At this point it is an open investigation, Theo. If nothing else, someone tried to murder Mr. Karsen and that person or persons are still at large. So I am taking this very seriously and that means that you will do so as well.”
“This should be an LAPD matter,” said Craidman.
Vance was carefully thumbing through the thin file. “There may be a reason he came to us instead of them. He used to be on the job. LAPD for six years. He left about twelve or so years ago.”
“Great. A mentally challenged cop. This is getting better and better.”
“Hey, Craidman, we have to work with you all day and you don't hear us complaining about the fact you're retarded,” said Velasquez.
“That's offensive, you wetback.”
“Blow me, tard.”
“Gentlemen, as much as I enjoy the heady atmosphere created by your witty repartee, can we focus please?” snapped Marrs.
Vance got back on point, “Who did the LAPD like for the shooting?” Velasquez circled back to the observation window. Karsen was sitting silently. Smoking.
“They investigated thoroughly and came up with nothing. No motive, no weapon, no suspect. And it looks like they took it seriously because Karsen used to be on the job,” said Velasquez.
“I want to speak to the detectives who caught the case,” Vance snapped the file shut.
“I'll have them come in for a sit-down,” said Marrs.
Craidman shook his head, “This is going to be a waste of time. Trust me. The guy has something wrong in his head. Maybe the bullet did it or maybe the bullet just shook it loose. But this guy is not playing with a full deck.”
Marrs joined Velasquez at the window and both of them watched Jude.
 “Perhaps,” said Marrs. “But Sergio tracked down every name on Karsen's list. Every name corresponds to a real person. All dead or missing.”
Velasquez turned back to Vance and Craidman, “Not always murdered, I should point out. Several were accidental deaths. I've downloaded all the information you need onto your tablets.”
Craidman was pacing the room, shaking his head. “No, no, no. Let's think about this. Do you really think it's possible for a professional hitman to kill two hundred and forty people without the F.B.I. even being aware that he's operating? Without the BSU even having a profile on the guy? No way. No one flies that far under the radar.”
“I would find your naivety charming, Theo, were it not so misplaced and ignorant.” said Marrs. “As you should know, most cities have murder clearance rates between fifty and seventy-five percent. Some have far, far lower clearance rates. The ugly little secret is that if you're highly intelligent and very careful, making a career out of murder isn't as impossible or unlikely as we in Law Enforcement would like everyone to believe. So yeah, I am taking Karsen seriously and you will be thorough in your investigation.”
Craidman sighed, “Suddenly I have the urge to take a huge crap.”
Velasquez followed Craidman out. Marrs and Vance were left alone. They stood silently for several minutes, just watching Jude through the mirror. Finally Marrs spoke.
“What do you think, Carter?”
Vance was thoughtful. He stroked his chin and studied Karsen, who sat very still in his seat.

“I really don't know, Angie. But that scar on his forehead makes his story very compelling.”

hitter Chapter One

"What they're not ready for is guys like you and I and Nails and all the other gnarly gnarlingtons in my life, that we are high priests, Vatican assassin warlocks. Boom. Print that, people, See where that goes.”

Charlie Sheen

Chapter One: The Anatomy of a Hit

MARICOPA, ARIZONA. A train pulled into the tiny station. A handful of passengers straggled out of the car and made their way to the dusty asphalt parking lot. Scrubby trees and miserable little bushes dotted the gravel landscape surrounding the depot. Jude came off the train last. He was dressed in a plain, rumpled, inexpensive suit. He was dragging a small, rolling suitcase and wearing cheap black sunglasses.
He crossed the platform and made his way through the enclosed waiting room. He entered the restroom, found a stall and locked the door. Forty minutes later, when the station was nearly abandoned, another man came out of the stall. He was dressed in simple blue jeans and a t-shirt and wearing leather sandals. He was wearing a baseball cap and aviator sunglasses. He had medium length blond hair and a blond goatee. He carried a duffel bag.
He walked to the parking lot and entered a waiting cab. Virtually unrecognizable, Jude Karsen headed towards Phoenix.
Twenty minutes later, the cab dropped Karsen at an industrial area of town. Several auto repair and body shops lined the streets. An Enterprise rent-a-car storefront was just about to close. “Mike Smith”, blond with a blond goatee, showed his ID to the clerk, gave her a credit card number, signed several papers and picked up his vehicle. It was a Ford Escape.

Karsen drove slowly through a residential neighborhood on the east side of Phoenix. The neighborhood of Arcadia. Upscale homes on large lots. Huge yards that turned the desert green. Beautiful trees lined the streets bringing shade from the obsessive Phoenix sun.
As he approached one home he slowed down. This home eschewed the lawn in favor of a rock garden. A koi pond sat near the front porch. As Karsen watched, a cream colored Lexus SUV pulled into the driveway. A man got out and dragged a garment bag from the trunk. He yanked out a small suitcase as well and trudged to his mailbox. Nothing but junk mail. The man slung his garment bag over his shoulder and pulled his suitcase, trying to hold on to his mail and go through it, all at the same time.
As Karsen slowly passed by the house, the man dropped the mail on the driveway. With a sigh, he set down his garment bag and bent over to pick it up. This was Jude Karsen's target. Karsen drove on.

His disguise removed, Jude Karsen paid cash for a room at a Day's Inn. They made no request for any identification. Once in the hotel room, a nondescript place with a queen-sized bed, large television and a small table with a chair, Karsen pulled a file out of his dufflebag.
In the file were several print-outs and photos. Photos of the man and the home Jude had driven by earlier today. Jude read the files over again. This was the fifth or sixth time he’d read them. Then he turned on the television and watched ESPN. He followed that with pornography viewed on his laptop. After he finished, he went to sleep.
The next morning Jude jogged past the house in Arcadia at around 8:30 A.M. He paused across the street from the house, pretending to rub out a cramp. He watched his target leave for work. Right on time.
After a light lunch of a wrap at Chick-fil-a, Jude went back to the motel. A package was waiting for him, addressed to “Mike Smith”. There was no return address.
In the motel room, he opened the package. Inside was another set of clothes from shoes to hat. A silencer and a disassembled handgun. He assembled the weapon and then took the file on his target and burned it in the tube.
After this he took a nap.
Several hours later, he put on gloves and wiped down the room. Carefully and thoroughly. He wasn't particularly worried about it at this point. It was more out of habit than fear. A meditative practice, almost.
At 9:30 P.M. Jude walked down the street toward his target's house. He was wearing khaki shorts with large pockets, gym shoes and a polo shirt. He had a baseball cap on, pulled a bit low. One hand was in his shorts pocket.
Approaching the house, he crossed the yard, crunching on the gravel as he moved towards the door. He reached the koi pond and went over the bridge to the front porch. Only a few lights were on. Through the window he could see the light from the TV casting shadows on the back wall. Canned laughter could be heard.
Karsen walked up to the front door and put on gloves. With a gloved hand he reached for the door handle and turned. It was unlocked and opened quietly. Karsen walked inside.
Moving soundlessly through the house he drew his weapon from his pocket. The noise from the sitcom playing on television was almost surreal. Jude rounded the corner into the living room. He stared at the middle-aged man sitting in an easy chair for a moment before the man knew he was there. He raised the gun, pointing it at his target.
The target looked over, startled. He spilled his beer can on the carpet. He saw the gun, the silencer. He looked from the gun to Jude's face. He wasn't frightened, exactly.
“Why...are you here?”
“I don't ask why.”
“This is...unexpected.”
“Is it really?” Karsen was bemused by this response. He fired three times. Two into the chest and a security round into the target's left temple. Karsen cocked his head and studied the dead man, slumped back in his easy chair, almost as if he had fallen asleep while watching TV.
Karsen turned to the TV and shut it off. He left, making sure to lock the front door behind him.
He walked back to his rental car, got in and drove away.

Friday, August 8, 2014

hitter: Prologue

Palm trees are candles in the murder winds
So “When the hills of Los Angeles are burning
many lives are on the breeze
Even the stars are ill at ease
And Los Angeles is burning.”

Bad Religion “Los Angeles is Burning”


SHERMAN OAKS, CALIFORNIA. Hot Santa Ana winds swept west, up Ventura Boulevard. Dust swirled and the trees bent. A newspaper hit the windshield and skittered off. Talk radio was reporting on wild fires burning out of control in Malibu and Sylmar. The sky in The Valley was burnt orange, the setting sun reflecting off particles of smoke filling the air. For some reason the desert wind made Jude Karsen shiver as he got out of his Mercedes and handed the keys to the valet. A styrofoam coffee cup rolled and danced at his feet before being picked up by a gust and skipped away.
Karsen looked up and down the sidewalk as he headed for the glass door to the restaurant. He stopped before opening it, his hand on the metal handle. Something didn't feel right. Something was off. But as he looked around, there was no visible cause for alarm. It was a typical Saturday night on Ventura. It must be the Santa Ana’s, he thought. And the smoke. It makes the light weird.
Jude Karsen took off his sunglasses and put them in his sport coat. He opened the door to Nikita Franz and was hit by laughter, the clatter of plates, the tinkling of glasses. The low crush of a dozen pleasant conversations. The place was packed. Organized chaos. Hosts and managers were wearing headsets. A tall young hostess, standing in front, was holding a clipboard, taking names for an ever extending wait. She smiled when she saw him, recognized him. He nodded and pointed towards the bar. She nodded back and Karsen gently pushed his way past the waiting guests to the cocktail lounge. A server passed by in front of him, carrying a tray of steaming hot plates. The smell wafted through the air and Jude realized he was really hungry.
The bar, set off to the side of the main restaurant, wasn't very large and it was standing room only. Three small cocktail tables sat next to the window looking out on the street. Jude watched them for a moment before moving towards the one to the right. Just as he was a foot away, the couple seated at the table got up as their pager went off. Their table in the restaurant was ready. Without waiting for the now empty table to be bussed, Jude Karsen sat down. He placed his back to the wall and stared out the window to the line of cars waiting for the valet.
This was a Hollywood crowd. And Jude fit right in. From his clothes he could be a music producer or studio executive. He was dressed expensively, casually cool. Nick, the bartender, pushed his way through the crowd to Jude's table.
“You want the usual tonight, Mr. Karsen?”
“Yeah, thanks Nick.”
Nick set a Black Label on the rocks down in front of Jude. Jude smiled, “Beer with dinner. Deadwood Porter still on tap?”
“You know it.”
Karsen swirled the ice in his rocks glass and took a whiff of the scotch before taking a sip. Life was good.

Karsen was almost finished with his 10 ounce dry-aged New York Steak, served with burgundy truffles, smoked bacon and roasted baby vegetables, when she walked in. As Jude ate, he scanned the crowd. He wasn't looking for anyone in particular, but he wasn't 'people-watching' either. Threat assessment would be a more accurate term. Analyzing targets, ascertaining weaknesses. He used his steak knife to cut into the final bite of a roasted carrot. And watched her move through the press of mortals.
She moved like a dancer, he thought. Possibly an actress or runway model. Someone who used her body, knew its movement and flow. Karsen caught himself experiencing a mild euphoria. It was almost as if everyone she moved past seemed to fade a little in color...or slide into a strange, almost imperceptible slow-motion.
She reached the end of the bar almost directly across the room from where Jude was sitting. She turned and smiled right at him. The she turned away as the bartender approached.
Karsen signaled Nick, indicating for the burly barman to join him. Nick was there promptly. Karsen couldn't tear his eyes of the woman.
“Who is she, Nick?”
“No idea. She's somethin' else though.”
“Did you hear if she's alone?”
“I think she said she was waiting for someone.”
“Put her drink on my tab.”
“You got it, Mr. Karsen.”
Jude watched as Nick approached the woman. They spoke briefly. Nick nodded toward Jude. The woman turned and smiled again. She lifted her drink to him in thanks. He motioned her over to his table.
He watched, entranced, as she walked through the bar towards him, her black dress seeming to trail, whip and billow around her in a surreal fashion. Karsen, feeling like he was in a dream, stood and pulled out a chair for her. She sat down, placing a small purse on the table next to her drink.
The cocktail was in a martini glass. It was a dark, swirling mixture of alcohol. Gold flecks glistened in the ebony beverage.
“Thank you for the drink,” she said.
“What is that?” Jude stared at it. “I've never seen anything quite like that.”
The woman dipped her finger into the martini glass and touched her dripping fingertip to Jude's lips.
“That's...very unusual.”
“It's called the Black Death,” she took a sip. “It's one of my favorites.”
“I've never heard of-”
Her phone rang. Her cell phone was in her purse. She reached for it and pulled it to her lap, pulled out her phone and answered it. Keeping her eyes locked to Jude's, she put the phone to her ear, indicating for him to be silent. She said not a word, but listened for a moment. Then she put it down. And smiled at him.
“Good night, Jude.”
Too late, Jude realized. He shoved back from the table. Too late he reached for his weapon. She was already aiming a snub-nosed .38 caliber pistol right at his forehead. Point-blank range.
She fired.
The bullet smashed into Jude's forehead. He dropped like a rock.
She fired again and again into his body on the floor.
Screams rang out as the crowded restaurant went into a complete panic. Through the mad-blind chaos, the woman calmly walked to the side door and disappeared into the night.
Nick crouched next to Jude's body. Blood welled from the bullet wound in his forehead, it trickled down the side of his face. The bullet wounds in his chest were turning his blue silk shirt black.
Jude's eyes were open wide.

Nick screamed for help.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Coleman Luck III's Screenwriting 000 - Part II - You Lack Character

In Part Two of Coleman Luck III’s Screenwriting 000 I once again cull from letters that I have actually sent about scripts that were actually written. Let me reiterate, I am not presenting myself as some kind of teacher, great writer or expert. Merely trying to make own life easier by codifying all these letters into one document which I can pass on to anyone who might dare to ask my opinion in the future (or discourage anyone from actually doing so). Scripts and stories mentioned within are fabricated for educational purposes.

Dear Friend,
Thanks so much for sending the second draft of your “screenplay”.  It’s clear to me after reading it that you did not do almost any of the things I told you to do to prepare for your rewrite.  Congratulations!  Your terminal laziness is the mark of a true writer! Talented people tend toward laziness.  Many of them are still successful because of their natural abilities. This, however, is not a problem that you will have since you seem to lack any natural gifts at all! Hard work is going to be your only option.
Now in keeping with my habit of always opening by stating the positive, let me say that you did, at the very least (and I mean this literally) get the format right. If someone were to glance at your script without reading it, it does appear to be a professionally written screenplay.
Unfortunately for you, I read it. As well as the letter you sent along with it.
As I was doing so, I was struck by several things. First is your derisive attitude toward planning or outlining of any kind. You “just want to write” and “let the muse flow”. To quote President Bush, Mission Accomplished!  The muse-inspired flow of your writing reminded me of the inexhaustible lava in my bowels after visiting Tijuana. Such a flow it was! Of course that was inspired by street tacos and the ice-cubes melting in my margarita, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear where my inspiration came from, only that our results were completely comparable.  Reading your script was not unlike the burning pain I experienced as I squatted for two hours over a filthy hole evacuating carnitas and poorly masticated jalepenos, all the while groaning and sweating like necrophiliac in a zombie movie (See? I did read your script).
Quoting the unknown famous writer who said “just write and get the first draft out before you rewrite” and “don’t overthink it” does not convince me that this is true. Especially since I can’t find any famous screenwriter who actually uttered such nonsense.  Your process of “winging it” and “letting inspiration guide” has resulted in the 168 page piece of garbage you sent to me. Not only is it almost unreadable, it is totally unshootable. But I have decided to honor your request that I “stop speaking in generalities and give specific criticisms to help guide the rewrite.” Here it is. Burn it. Burn it with fire. There is nothing usable in this draft. Not even the character names. Is that specific enough for you?
Let’s discuss what you loosely term “your writing process”. Getting a vague idea and then just crapping on the page is not “a process.” (Sure it might work for Christian films but how low are you setting the bar for yourself?) If you want to make professional film or television there actually exists a disciplined method for story construction. This method has been in place for decades now and doesn’t really vary in any significant way, especially in television writing. Because of the time constraints in creating television, the writing process has been stream-lined for maximum efficiency. And with any decent film or TV show, it begins with Character.
You seem to be unclear on what a Character is and how they are to be utilized in story.  For our purpose, the definition is “a person in a novel, play or movie.” Did you get that? A PERSON. Because the babbling creatures that you have spewing lines bear no resemblance to any persons that I have ever met. And if there are actual people like those in your script, you live in a frightfully stupid and terrifyingly illiterate place. What you have created are not people or characters, but talking props that do what you want them to do without any motivation or personality whatsoever. They move your plot forward one idiotic action and painful line of dialogue at a time. They are not real and therefore they are not relatable and therefore no one cares about them. And because of that, no one cares about your story.
Young writers think they have to come up some great idea and the story comes from that. And sure, a great idea is important, but what drives the story and what the reader or viewer invests in, is the character and that is where you must start. Who is your protagonist? Who is your antagonist? Who is this story about? Who are they as people and how do they relate to each other? I will often write out character bios before I even begin breaking the story. In fact, when pitching a television series, these are frequently written up in the series bible along with the pilot to give the network and the studio a good grasp on where the series is coming from and who to think about casting. Because every television show, no matter the concept, is rooted in a character. This is someone that people want to invite into their homes once a week (or nowadays binge stream a season in a weekend, but the point is the same).
 Some things to include in a character bio? Parents, place and circumstance of birth, upbringing, religion, schooling and education, personal philosophy, habits, likes and dislikes, relationships and formative events. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but a general idea. Sometimes half a page is enough.  Sometimes it goes over a page or two. I can hear your nasally whine already. “I was told never to write anything that won’t actually go on the screen.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Whoever said that or teaches that is a lousy writer.
A detailed character bio gives you as a writer a good understanding of what the character…a person…would or would not do in any given situation. Once you have truly developed a character, they will speak to you, telling you what they would or wouldn’t do. And you can’t force them to just do what you want. Well, I mean, you can force them, but this is bad writing because it can violate the personality of the character just to move your plot. And this results in what you have in your script, unmotivated actions by talking props. Let me tell you something. Letting your characters begin to speak to you and come alive in your head is one of the joys of writing.
What are people and how do you go about creating them? Deep questions. One good, solid way is base your characters on real people to start with. People that you know or that you’ve read about. One highly successful director recently discussed creating a supporting character in his film by thinking about his best friend and imagining said friend as a New York cop. This is an excellent way to work because the template being used is a real person with real responses that are known and understood. You know your friends (assuming you still have any after asking people to read what you write) and how they react.
For my latest (and quite possibly last) screenplay, I read an interview with the subject of a sociological study. The subject was a young woman who described at length her personal history and upbringing. The biography of this anonymous woman fit the needs of my story perfectly so I stole her life and tailored it to fit my script.
In screenplays or stage plays there is limited time for character development.  You can have only one or two complex characters per screenplay and those are your leads. However, generally you need to have at least a few supporting characters. Sometimes you have ensemble pieces and character development for these is no different if it is a 90’s Bruckheimer action film or some miserable Oscar-bait drama set in the south.  You have a ton of characters to service and very little time to do it. So this is one of my Rules of Thumb for character development. I call it the Seven Dwarves Rule. And it’s basically that. Give each character one distinct character trait so that they can be easily identified by the audience.  The characters do not deviate from this trait for the duration of the film. Think I’m making this up? I’m not. It works the same way whether it’s Armageddon with Bruce Willis or August: Osage County with Meryl Streep.
Another source for character that must be discussed is that of self. Yes, all writers base characters on themselves. Personally I find myself to be endlessly fascinating! I assume most other people will find me so as well. Usually when I do this, I focus on one aspect of myself or a simple combination of traits. Since I know what I would do or say in any given situation this can give me a clear handle on the character. Especially if I am painfully honest. And that’s the only way this works. Utter honesty. If you aren’t going to be honest, if you’re going to write yourself as you imagine you are, heroic, passionate, brilliant, you will get a caricature rather than a character.  If you write yourself as you really are, hurt, angry, cowardly, cruel and conflicted and toss in the occasional decent moment, you will be getting somewhere. Someone once said that if you aren’t embarrassed to let people read your work because you are so sure it will reveal things about yourself that you really don’t want other people to know, you haven’t done your job as a writer. Think about that. Think about creating that level of vulnerability in your work (clearly you aren’t embarrassed to have anyone read your work, though you should be, for different reasons).  Delving into a character like this can give you insights into the hidden recesses of your true character.  This is one of the reasons that writers refer to writing as cathartic.
But the truth is, the reader probably most of the time, won’t realize it’s based on you. Even if you’ve been painfully honest. What’s more likely to happen is that they will relate to it personally themselves; they will emotionally connect to the characters and think that your insight into human nature is deep and profound because of how you have touched and understood them and their innermost thoughts and feelings like no one else ever has. Because, really, we are all a lot more alike than we want to admit. If this happens you have succeeded in creating a Character.
And when Characters come alive, they drive the plot. Where they take you can be a real adventure.
Of course, one essential part of expressing Character is through dialogue. Finally here I have gotten some honesty from you. You say you “suck at dialogue.” This is absolutely the truth. I have thought long and hard about this aspect of screenwriting. It seems some people just get it and others, no matter how hard they try, just don’t get it. I’ve pondered whether writing dialogue is a skill akin to perfect pitch in singing or music, a natural talent that just can’t be taught. And while there may be some truth to this, I have rejected that idea. There is a really simple reason why you don’t write good dialogue.
You don’t listen.
No. Shut up. SHUT UP. You see, that’s your problem right there. The only thing that interests you is the blather streaming from your own piehole. Do you want to write good dialogue? Spend your time listening to people. I mean really listening. Not waiting for a break in the conversation so you can talk, not thinking about things while you tolerate the person across from you speaking. Listen to them. Become fascinated by how they speak. The rhythm, the cadence, the accent, the word choice. How well or poorly they express their ideas, how they struggle with their emotions. How they speak in every kind of situation. Listen to what they are saying.
While I generally applaud self-centeredness, you can’t write good dialogue unless you are outwardly focused and you truly listen to other people. Maybe this will help you. If you really listen to them thoughtfully and thoroughly, you are just using them to become a better writer. If, for a moment, they feel cared for or loved, that’s just a bonus.  Hey, who said being a writer had to make you a horrible human being.
I’d like to conclude this letter with a comment on Character Arc. You’ve asked if I find the arc of your lead, Dr. Awkins to be believable. Well, I fail to see any arc at all. Awkins begins the script as an atheist materialist scientist.  After everything he goes through, including executing his best friend who had transformed into were-badger and destroying a vampire with holy water (blessed by scientologists, so Awkins is okay with it?!?) his perspective on these things doesn’t change. In fact, he seems more committed than ever to finding a scientific cause for the zombie infestation and disbelieves any supernatural evidence even it happens right before his eyes. An arc has to move a character from one place to another. An arc can describe growth or disintegration, but if the character stays static like Awkins does, there is no arc. We will touch more on this subject next when we get further into the writing process and structure.

Next: Coleman Luck  III’s Screenwriting 000 Part III

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Coleman Luck III’s Screenwriting 000 – Part I

It is amazing to me that it’s been over ten years since I last sold a professional screenplay, yet I still get asked to read and critique screenplays by those desiring to enter the profession. As if my current situation and distressing failure to break back into Hollywood weren't dissuasive enough, I would think my generally unpleasant demeanor would keep this from happening, but it doesn’t. Such is the power of the strong delusion that draws people to screenwriting and Hollywood itself.

As such is the case, I have decided to coalesce many of the letters I have written to aspiring screenwriters over the past ten years into one document that I can pass out to everyone who approaches me. The novice might be concerned by this approach, because isn’t every screenplay different? While the professionals out there who might decide to make use of this free little document will recognize that I can reverse Tolstoy’s quote “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and apply it to screenplays. “Every great script is great in different ways, while the lousy scripts are usually lousy in the same ways.”

This document isn’t to proclaim myself as some kind of teacher or state that I, in any way, know what I’m talking about. I don’t. It’s merely to make my own life easier the next time some writer wants my opinion and thoughts on his or her screenplay. Then I can just hand them this document, perhaps circling or underlining some point or another and I will have done my duty with minimal effort on my part.

I should also state that almost every lesson contained herein I have learned from other writers, some of whom have taught me explicitly, re-written me, or given me notes to guide my re-writes. It is part of the legacy of Hollywood that I now pass on. With that said, to the letter.

Dear Friend,
Thank you so much for sending me your screenplay. I realize that it is a sign of your respect for me that you wish to have my thoughts and feelings about your artistic endeavor. And I want you to know that I deeply appreciate that. First let me congratulate you on completing this work. Writing a script is very difficult and I want to start with the very positive statement that you should be proud of yourself for having finished this project. Well done!
Now on to my notes. Before we begin, I would like you to know that should you detect any bitterness, anger or annoyance in my words, they are not directed at you, but rather at a universe that has conspired against me by depriving me of a child that I could have passed your script off to, to read and give notes which I could pass back to you as if they were my own. Or, at the very least, a Studio guard gate and a secretary that would make it impossible for you to reach me at all. Alas, such is not the case, but that is not your fault.
I want to tell you about something called “The Flip Test”. At least that’s name it was called when I learned about it. It comes from back in the day when screenplays were only printed on paper and were not emailed as pee-dee-effs or word documents. What would happen is this. An experienced producer, showrunner/writer, studio exec or whatnot, would pick up your script and just flip through the pages. Without reading a word.
This flip test would let the person know if the writer knew what they were doing or not, just by looking at the format. Why? Simple. If you don’t know the basic format, everything else sucks. Your characters, your story, your dialogue. Not using the proper format means you don’t know how to structure a story for film or television. No, no, stop. I don’t want to hear about how amazing your story is, because it doesn’t matter and it’s probably not true!
A screenplay is the most technical form of creative writing ever devised. It is a battleplan on which armies march. It is a blueprint on which a skyscraper is built. Do you think you could sketch something out on a napkin, even just a single family home and then expect masons, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, roofers, etc to look at your filthy little napkin drawing and build a house? The idea is idiotic.
It is no different with a screenplay. The screenplay is the basis on which a small army of people move and work. Whether it’s an indie picture with a ten-person cast and crew or a mega-feature with dozens of departments and hundreds of people at work. What you write on that page tells them all what to do. We will get into the details of this later. But right now, what that means is you need to learn proper format.
For that you should take a screenwriting course at a local university or college.  Back in the day there were only about four or so universities that offered these classes, but now every community college and ridiculous organization offers classes on how to write a screenplay. Most of the people that teach these courses are lousy screenwriters, but some of them are ok teachers. While you probably won’t learn much of use, at the very least you will learn how to properly format your script.
What’s that? Where did I study screenwriting? I’m not sure why that’s pertinent, since you did come to me for my wisdom, but I’ll tell you anyways. I’ve never taken a screenwriting course. But I am a second generation Hollywood kid. I grew up reading my father’s screenplays hot off the printer (anyone who tells you it was a typewriter is lying. I don’t know what a typewriter is, I am not that old). When other kids were mowing the lawn to earn their allowance I was doing coverage (that’s writing up a short analysis of a screenplay).
My father would walk in periodically and drop a stack of screenplays four-feet tall on my floor and tell me to pick the ten best for him to read. So whole careers were depending on what some fifteen year old kid thought of a script. I thought nothing of it back then, but now I imagine that if those writers knew their fate was in the hands of a teenager, it would probably appall them. All that hard work and some kid was going to decide if you were even going to be considered for a job.
So I probably read close to a thousand screenplays before I even graduated high school. And wrote up coverage, detailing the plot, character development, dialogue, etc, on dozens of them. After graduating I went to college where I studied literature instead of filmmaking or screenwriting and I learned about great writers, great writing and great storytelling. I studied literature because I already had a handle on the technical aspects of screenwriting. I needed to learn how to tell a story. You don’t have a handle on either story-telling or format.
I tell you this not only because you asked, but because you will have to follow similar steps in your own way if you want to become great at screenwriting. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Take a course in screenwriting. You need it.
What’s that? You can’t afford it? Or whatever miserable excuse you have for not taking this basic step…Ok. Fine. The first thing you need to start over (and you are starting over, your script is worthless) is a screenwriting program. Because whatever moronic formatting template you are using on Microsoft Word is just failing. Hard. Oh, you’re not even using a formatting template? Well, surprise, surprise. That does explain a lot.
How’s that? You can’t afford a screenwriting program? I know they are more expensive than the classes themselves, but this is one thing you simply can’t do without. You must have a screenwriting program. Since I have no desire to hear you whine about your poverty (and seriously, if you dislike poverty you should reconsider this whole screenwriting thing and go into insurance. I did that for a while and it was delightful) anymore I will provide you with a link to a free one. Download it and learn it. Now you have a screenwriting program.
The next thing you need is a book to teach you how to write screenplays. No, I am not doing that. I recommend only four books mostly because these are the only four I’ve read. Many hundreds have come out in the past decades, but you really don’t need to fill your head with a whole bunch of nonsense. And I’m certainly not going to wade through all the crap to find the good ones. Trust me, most of them will be a total waste of time. Get these four and read them in this order.
1.       The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
2.     Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
3.     Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 by Lew Hunter
4.     Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
Yes, you will have to spend some money or go to the library and check them out (a “library” is a building that you go to that’s like Netflix for books…but it’s free). You might even be able to find free downloads of them online if you look.
If you want a book on television writing you are on your own. I have never even read a book on that but I am sure one good one must exist out there. Probably. Maybe.
Along with reading those books, you need to get your hands on every screenplay you possibly can. There are whole websites where you can get screenplays that go back decades. Classic films, hit films, lousy films. Get them and read as many as you can. If you stop short of 100 screenplays, you just are not serious. No, you can’t just watch the movies. Do we have to go over this again? Do you think looking at houses qualifies you to draw up blueprints? Study the blueprints. Pick one screenplay a week, read it and make notes on it. Use the books I told you to read and learn to understand how these screenplays were constructed.
But guess what? You need to do more than this. I want you to pick out twenty that are as close to the genre of screenplay you would like to write. You want to write a sports film, find the script for Rocky. Get it? Now take those twenty and outline them. Break them down, beat by beat and outline them according to what you are learning from Syd and Lew. Oh, does this sound hard? Is this no fun? Suck an egg, turdwad. Get it done. When I was writing a spec episode of the hit TV series ER, I got three upcoming screenplays from the showrunner. I outlined these three scripts, color coding the storylines so I could literally see the structure and took them apart. I did this just so I could write a spec script that only a handful of people would ever read and one that was guaranteed to never be produced. But it got me work. Dismantling a screenplay by outlining it and color-coding that outline will allow you to examine the guts of a script.
No, I don’t do this anymore. But I don’t have to. After a long time of doing this and writing screenplays, I can see the structure just by watching the shows, but you can’t. So pick out 20 scripts in the same genre and dismantle them. Learn how and why they work (or don’t work).
While you are reading the four books, and the screenplays and doing the outlines for those twenty scripts, I want you to be reading at least one novel every couple of weeks. Read the classics. This article on what novels every writer should read includes many lists. 
I hear you whining again. You don’t like to read? Or you only read Sci-Fi or Fantasy or whatever. Well, grow up and hit the books. If you don’t love to read, you will suck as a writer (I should say keep sucking). Not only should you be reading novels, you should be reading biographies and histories and myriads of other genres as well. Only by filling your mind with rich literature and fascinating ideas can you even begin to write well. Also it will give you something to compare yourself to. Yes. You should be trying to compare yourself to the great storytellers of the past.
Yes, this does seem like a lot of work. Yes, it does set the bar high. But if you are not passionate about writing you will never be great at it. What’s that? You don’t want to be great, you just want to sell your screenplay? Then give up now. Either seek to achieve greatness or just stop. Seeking greatness, passionately, obsessively might make you competent. Barely. You might have a chance if you start over this way. Probably not, but maybe. 
Now…go read those screenwriting books, read as many screenplays as possible, outline 20, and read novels obsessively. Then rewrite your screenplay and get back to me.

That should buy me some months if not forever.

What? You’re back already? *Sigh* All right. Lemmee see it. Ok. You passed the flip test. It looks like an actual screenplay. I guess I have to actually read it now. Now I will have to tell why it still sucks in Part II.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Personal Experiences with the Paranormal, Part 3: Black Eyed Kids?

I'd be lying if I told you I didn't know about Black Eyed Kids before this happened to me, late summer last year. I definitely did. Now, in the moment, that idea never crossed my mind. But afterward? Hell yes. And the thought lead to all kinds of regret I realize is stupid, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Let me tell you about my neighborhood. I live in a poor part of town. A bit ghetto, a bit of the barrio, a bit of the lower economic class of a cross-section of races. It's L.A. The apartment complex spans a short block, it's dusty brown like the desert we live in. It's got two pools, lots of little Mexican children and, for the most part, a pretty friendly population.

I am a destitute writer, so I spend my free time writing. When this happened I was working mostly in the mornings and afternoons. I would get home, hit the gym and then settle in for an evening in front of the computer.

It's pretty common for the evenings in the summer to be chaotic around our apartment complex. Kids playing in the pool, the ice-cream man pushing his cart up and down the sidewalk, women talking outside the laundry-room (hey, I do my own laundry, but I am pretty much the only guy I see here doing it). You know. Nice. Poor but pleasant. Like a mixed-race 21st Century version of a Fifties Sitcom.

And people will knock on your door. Sometimes to borrow something. I cook, so neighbors pop by to find out the origins of the great aromas wafting from my kitchen window. Sometimes for a little help working on a broken-down car. But mostly it's kids selling candy bars or Christmas wrapping paper. Or jittery tweakers selling magazine subscriptions. Or old Mexican men selling bootleg DVD's. LOTS of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Because it's hot out I leave my windows open (A.C. Isn't cheap and I'm broke remember?) hoping for the cross breeze. That means, though I can't see anyone from where I sit and work, I can hear them very clearly as they walk up to my door.

When I hear someone knock, I answer it. Besides buying the occasional candy bar, I smile, politely decline, wish them a nice day and send them off. No big deal.

That evening it was quiet. Which was strange in and of itself. I should at least have been able to hear the distant sound of Ranchero music. I heard a couple of people walk up to my door. I am not the first in my courtyard, so usually I hear the salespeople as they knock on my neighbors doors and work their way around to me. Not this time. Whoever it was walked right up to my door and knocked.

I got up to answer it, reaching for the door handle when a chill went through my body like I have never experienced. A cold tightness in my chest. I halted my hand movement towards the door handle and placed it flat on the door as if I was feeling for heat from a fire.

I have a peephole on my door, but it never crossed my mind to use it. I stood there with my hand flat on the door and listened. They knocked again.

I don't scare easy. And I wasn't exactly afraid, but I was having a visceral experience all over my body. A base, fear reaction. Just like I could hear them, they had heard me move to the door. They knew I was inside.

“Yes?” I said, “Who is it?”

A boy's voice answered. “We need to use your phone.”

“Yeah, that's not gonna happen.” I started laughing. I stress laugh, when I am in pain or under pressure. They heard me laughing. And neither of us moved for about a minute or two. A really, really, long minute or two.

Finally they walked away. Not to any of the other eight doorways within fifteen feet. Not to ask anyone else. Before they could have gone more than a dozen yards, curiosity reasserted itself and I yanked the door open, running after them to see who it was and where they were headed. The courtyard of my complex was completely empty.

Afterwards, I thought the experience fit the stories about Black Eyed Kids and I kicked myself for not opening the door. Coming face-to-face with Black Eyed Kids? How cool would that have been? But then I remember that feeling, my skin crawling and the certain knowledge in me at that moment, there was no way in hell I was opening that door.

Want to learn about Black Eyed Kids and other strange stuff? Check out the Anomalies Unleashed Subreddit

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Personal Experiences with the Paranormal, Part 2 -- A Twist in the Tale (Two UFOs continued)

I will never forget looking over at my friend Jeff, sitting in the passenger seat of my car, holding a half-rolled joint to his lips, just staring straight ahead. “Did...did you see that?” I gasped.

I wasn't gonna say nothin'!” Jeff stammered.

For years I found this response strange. But I never once asked him about it until now. For years I thought, “You weren't going to say anything about the giant, glowing ship that hovered a few dozen feet in front of my car? Like if you didn't say anything, I wouldn't have noticed it? Like maybe the white hot and blue throbbing light emanating from this huge orb, hanging in mid-air, close enough for me to hit with a rock, might have, I don't know...just escaped my attention?”

I wasn't gonna say nothin'!” I tell myself that I wrote it off as him being humorous. But that wasn't it. Because, while Jeff and I agree on what happened leading up to the event, as well as the location and even what happened afterward, our perception of the event itself was totally different.

Jeff describes the event as seeing a brightly glowing golf-ball sized object on the horizon above the hill. He states that it floated there for awhile (how long, he is unsure). Then it darted around in a triangle pattern before flying off at an amazing speed. The movements it made were impossible for any man-made or human operated vehicle.

So from his was possible I might not have seen or noticed the object so far away. While I could not believe anyone could miss something so powerfully close it's light was radiating off the hood and glass of my CRX.

Jeff is also not as certain as I am that we were not “missing time”. However, he does state that he has never had anything else happen to him even remotely similar to this event. Once UFO abduction takes place, it tends to continue over the life of the experiencer. While this isn't necessarily true one hundred percent of the time, it tends to be the case. The fact the Jeff has never had any other UFO encounters or similar experiences, tends to rule out abduction in this case.

I know for a certainty that we did not experience any "missing time", for another reason. And it's one I will get into later. Let's just say I had a face-to-face encounter with what popular mythology calls a “grey alien”. It couldn't take me then, when it was up close and personal and trying really, really hard, so I am pretty sure it didn't take me during this first UFO encounter. I will get around to giving the details about this, but it is part of a much larger story, a lot of groundwork needs to be laid and I have several other topics I want to hit before I delve into that one. I don't want this turn into a “UFO” blog.

Several people have asked how I knew it was evil. Jeff and I differ on this as well. He states that for him that he didn't feel it was evil. What he felt was fear, specifically fear of the unknown. He did describe it as an “ominous, pulsating orb”. He also states that he “doesn't believe it meant us any harm.”

My reaction was subtlety different. I also felt the orb was “ominous” but I didn't feel fear per se. What I felt was dread...and not of the unknown. I felt like I was being stared at by a living creature, the ship itself felt like it was alive, or if that wasn't the case, something alive inside it was staring at me, at us. I felt bad afterward. Like something bad had almost happened. This feeling of dread, I will admit, was subjective to me, but it was pervasive and powerful.

Subsequent experiences and further research have given me greater understanding of why I would feel such dread, why I would feel...the presence of evil.

I hope this answers some of your questions. But now you have two perspectives on the same event. What do you think?