gourmet therapy

When I'm stressed or depressed, one of my favorite ways to deal with it is to cook. It's also a chance to experiment. Cooking is very zen for me. I'm totally present, and forget everything else. There's also a kind of dance to it - moving around the kitchen to the time of the dishes as I prepare them.


carrots sauteed in brandy and honey mustard

salmon poached in white wine with sweet sauteed onions and tarragon, finished with a splash of cream and chambord

to drink: kir (the white wine with a touch of chambord)

The carrots were OK, but the salmon is amazing.

(massage, cooking - why am I single?)

change of direction

Well, I have enjoyed the last few months. I've been working from home for a company that was paying me a salary but not giving me much work (Pay-per-click advertising campaign management.) I knew it wouldn't last, but they've decided to end the contract... so now I need to start doing massage full time. And I need to make that start paying the bills within a couple of weeks.

I wish I had money saved up so I could lease a space, but it seems I may be doing outcall for a while. I hate outcall, even though it's what I thought I wanted to do, because I've found that 99% of outcall clients think they are getting something I don't do.

Oh, well. I'll make something work.
I always find a way to get by.

random brain spurt

I've had too much caffeine (which for me, is not much - I don't consume it regularly so it's easy for me to get wired on the stuff) and so you get another post from me before I go try to fall asleep.

I wrote a rather enthusiastic but perhaps not entirely relevant review of Mystery Man's The Toy Maker. Hey, it was fun, but if you looked at the first link, I think you'll see the effects that caffeine have on my thoughts are rather similar to the effects on the spider's ability to spin a coherent web. Or at least, it feels that way at the moment.

Then I read this tidbit on Jane Espenson's blog:

I'm reminded of one of my first jobs. We were working together as a staff on a script. We had just put in a stage direction: Fran enters, walking on eggshells. After a moment's thought we changed it to something like Fran enters cautiously. The show had a very eager and very literal crew, and we feared that actual eggshells might appear on the set.

Which reminds me of something totally not related to screenwriting.
When I was a chef in Prague, one of the keys on the register was "misc food." When someone wanted extra dressing, or a side of bacon or whatever - the waitperson would ring it up as "misc food" with an appropriate price, and then was supposed to write on the ticket what the item was before giving the ticket to the kitchen. But, well, sometimes they would forget.

Cooks are troublemakers. Incompetent waitstaff are their favorite toys... and the tricks can be cruel, because incompetent waitstaff make our lives difficult and make us look bad. It's not uncommon for the cooks to stick a plate under the broiler and "forget" to warn the disliked waitperson. Which is not funny - it's downright dangerous. As a chef, I encouraged a little creativity among my staff in order to avoid the more extreme or nasty (such as spitting in the food, or dropping it on the floor) commonplaces. Misc food was our favorite.

One particularly vapid and annoying waitress (whom we had nicknamed the "Barbie Doll for her blonde hair and the cause of her glassy-eyed smile) was constantly making mistakes, who kept her job because she was a consummate brownnoser. Once she was so busy following the owner around, she had a table walk out on her. She never, ever wrote down what the misc food was supposed to be. So, we would set out a small side plate with her order - containing miscellaneous food. One olive, a crust of bread, and, usually - an eggshell.

She never did get that right. She ended up getting arrested when she ran out of happy pills and tried to slit her boyfriend's throat with a broken mirror. Yes, while she was on shift. Fortunately, it was in back of the kitchen rather than out on the floor. Barbiturate addiction is a terrible thing.

Oh, yes - my days as an expat are full of colorful characters and dramatic stories. It'll take a lifetime to weave them into my work... (so I don't need any more tragedies, OK universe? I'll be perfectly content to have happy stories from here on out.)

Page One

I'm going to blather about my process, and talk too much about my story - because I'm working things out in my head.

Not long ago, I posted about the Script Frenzy writing project. I intended to participate, writing a new screenplay from scratch during the month of June.

Instead, I've gotten stuck on my rewrite of "From the Ashes," a script I wrote the first draft of three years ago and then lost, and found again. I love the imagery. I love the characters, and the protagonists arc. I love the theme... but I've realized that it's, well... boring.

I write my first draft by hand in a notebook, and as I type it up, I tweak it - solidifying the character's voices, improving action lines, smoothing out progression in scenes, adding transitions in or between scenes. As I was working through my hand-written draft, I realized that I had written the same two scenes over and over again, with tiny variations. There's no progress for the first 2/3 of the story - just tiny revelations about the characters. Not surprising, because when I wrote this - I was stuck myself, and the theme deals with my own issue. My own attempt to rise from the ashes. So I have a 70 page character study about two messed up people and one somewhat stable one who doesn't do much.

Great. Solid characters, but not a film. At least not one I would go see.

So I added a new opening with more on the backstory, because it's the protag's past which makes her present dillema so intense. But, well, it's backstory. So I took it out. Then added it back, and considered bringing more of that story into the present - making the two timelines overlap.


She was a model for a controversial fetish photographer, who was her husband. He was abusive, and that abuse became part of his art. She took it, because he was a "genius." Until she couldn't. Then he died - under circumstances she could have prevented but made the conscious choice not to.

Secondary character's backstory (not the antagonist, as the antagonist is herself): a kid, who, tries to show off for his mom who is a bit permissive and a little drunk at the time, has an accident which nearly kills him - and leaves him badly scarred, and (as we find out) epileptic.

The story opens with these two, a few years later, encountering one another. He's a teen and trying not to need his dad so much, mom is an absent parent - gone off to chase an adolescent dream. She is closed off and trying not to need anyone... but he latches on to her, and she finds herself befriending him. She needs to help him, but doesn't trust herself - worries that her baggage means that she'll do him more harm than good... but she also needs to redeem herself, and so, when she realizes the extent of his problems - rather than tell his father, she tries to "fix" things herself...

which is all I've really got for the first two acts.

So, next thing I do when I'm rewriting is to take all the scenes I have so far, write them on cards and shuffle them. I add new scenes, and take out scenes and set them aside. In reality, I do much of this in my head.

I've been writing poetry for nearly 30 years. My process with that is thus: I write it once on paper (sometimes, now, I do write it electronically.) Then, I write the whole thing again, simply transcribing it, making small tweaks. This may be on paper once more, or may be typing it into an e-doc. Same as I do with the screenplays. Next, I take every line and I put spaces between them, making them into separate entities. I may leave a few stanzas together, as I do sequences of scenes in a script - because I'm confident that the progression there is exactly as I want it. Then I shuffle. Sometimes a random re-arrangement gives new energy to tired lines, points to a new direction. Sometimes I end up putting things back much as they were. Sometimes I cut out most of it, keeping only a fraction of the original. And sometimes I add in a great deal more.

And often, I do all of that in my head - juggling images and lines. I've been doing it long enough that I can manage much of it that way, see the effect without actually executing it. (I do the same with recipes when I cook. I can taste how certain ingredients will effect one another before I put them in the pan together.)

So, while I haven't typed or written much in the last couple of weeks - I've stripped down and re-built this thing in my head several times. I scan the draft - and re-consider. Make a note or two. I've figured out which scenes contribute nothing new, and which are essential to the theme and the characters. Only a couple are essential to the plot, as thin as the plot is. I've merged two characters (in an already small cast.)

I decided I needed a strong subplot to liven things up.

I had the seed of one, but hadn't really brought it out - related to her modeling, rather than focusing on her as the widow of an abuser.

I looked at the logline again, and realized that the fact that she's a widow is nowhere near as interesting as the fact that she's a former fetish model. (Mentioning both makes it a bit clunky.) But if I call her that in the logline, I need to bring that element into play earlier.

And that's when the whole thing turned inside out.

I'm now switching my A story and my B story. Which means cutting way back on the boy, who I've written so many pages about. Simplifying his dilemma - so that I can focus on an entirely new dramatic conflict for my protagonist. One which is actually external. One which involves a real antagonist. And which externalizes the theme, so that the B story can be the internal struggle.

But that means I'm scrapping all but about ten scenes, and starting from scratch.

So it is: a page one re-write. Back to the outline. I hope to have the outline (an actual written one) complete by Friday, and "From the Ashes" will be my project for Script Frenzy.

Yes, I've talked a lot about my ideas. Am I worried someone might steal them? What, are you kidding? Because the story of a widowed fetish model and abuse victim and a troubled epileptic boy is so commercial? Even if I had the nearly 12,000 people reading this blog that I have as friends on my poetry profile - I doubt any of them would have the personal experience to elucidate those characters even if they wanted to. And I've not said anything about my new A plot, except that it ties back to the modeling.

Nah, this one's mine. It's personal. And now that I've found the key to making it a movie, I'm excited about it again, and making progress on paper and not just reconstructing in my head.

Modulating Tone: Comedy and Its Functions in Dead Again

So, after I watched Dead Again, I had all kinds of great thoughts circulating in my head about this subject... but I hurt my back, and then I got a flu or maybe food poisoning (yes, the drama never stops in the Deerfield house) - and am only just now feeling up to sitting at my desk for more than a few minutes... and I've lost most of my sharp insights.

Nonetheless, I will attempt to touch on the points briefly.

One of the difficulties of the story in Dead Again is that there is a tremendous amount of exposition. Not only do we have a mystery in the present day, but a whole second storyline in the past - plus we have to learn about reincarnation and about hypnosis - at least as they work in the universe of this story.

The primary tool Scott Frank uses to help us over these expository chunks is humor. He has an entire character, played by Robin Williams, whose function is essentially to explain the rules: "Thanks to fate, the only cosmic force with a tragic sense of humor, you burn someone now, they get to burn you later. That's the karmic credit plan. Buy now, pay forever."

Because we're entertained by the speeches, we don't mind them so much.

In fact, there's another comic relief character whose primary function is to bring in exposition: Mike Church's friend Pete. He explains, through a story, how traumatic amnesia works. This scene is at once slightly creepy, amusing, and even a little bit touching. This complexity of tone helps distract us from the fact that we're getting expository chunks.

Another use of humor is as a distraction. When we are introduced to the character who will prove to be the antagonist - he seems like a harmless kook. It is the light humor in the scene which makes this work, because he is, in fact, borderline creepy. He is, in fact, casing the place. He recognizes the period furniture and so likely surmises Mike's connection to his own past. His hypnotism without permission is a violation, but he deflects criticism of his behavior by commenting that the water tastes a bit like bourbon. He picks up the glove (a crucial plot point, the fact that we know he saw it there) but then deflects attention from his action by commenting again on the furniture.

Another writer may have played this introduction of the character much differently, but using humor to deflect in this way works to keep our suspicion off of him for longer.

One more use is the "calm before the storm,"... OK, so this is where my memory fails me. I know that I noted this as I was watching it - but it's been a couple of weeks and I don't recall the moment.

There are even small injections of humor into the middle of the most dramatic scenes: in the final confrontation, Pete walks in with a pizza. Here humor helps to ratchet up the tension one more degree.

While all of these examples are about humor in this drama, the importance is really the modulation of tone overall. The placement of slower scenes before the most intense ones, of a mix of humor and concern and curiosity and romance and danger - all in the same scenes. Rarely is anything played for one note. Rarely is a scene about one element of the story, or one aspect of character development. This modulation helps make such a complex plot work by packing more into each scene.

from the "just wrong" department

In this week's Entertainment Weekly, I saw two snippets:

Elijah Wood is to play Iggy Pop in a biopic (oh dear)

The new Rodriguez version of Barbarella will not be campy in any way (double oh dear)

Storytelling Objects: Props as Story Devices in Dead Again

I watched Dead Again for the umpteenth time. It's one of my favorite movies, but it's been a while since I'd seen it - and I've never listened to the writer's commentary on the film.

There were two aspects of the screenplay that he discussed which really interested me: the use of objects as storytelling devices
the modulation of tone in scenes

The plot of this story is complex. If you haven't seen it, you won't be able to follow my discussion... so go watch it already. It's great fun.

I think that the first subject is interesting, because as a writer, I find it easy to get too much in my head - and the real 3-D world of plastic, material objects can be overlooked. In Dead Again, objects are used as clues, as character development, to imply relationships between the present and the past, and to reveal plot points.

Minor objects include the gloves and furniture... The gloves. Grace has only one glove when Mike meets her. It's a clue - both about her, and it ends up being a clue about who is behind her attempted abduction. (Who could know she was missing a glove?)

Furniture - specifically chairs. Grace blocks her door at night with a chair. Mike collects furniture that could have been in Roman's home, and comments specifically on a chair (which she then uses to block her door.) When the adult Frankie comes into his home, he comments on one of the chairs, also subtly revealing his connection to that period. Couches - the first time Roman and Margaret have sex, they are wet on a couch, and the sex scene with Mike and Grace mirrors this.

The most important are the scissors, and the anklet.

The story revolves around a murder that was done with a pair or scissors. "Grace" (aka Amanda) dreams about them. We see several around Mike's house. In one scene, he uses them to cut up bacon while he's cooking.

They've been shown and we've built up fear around them - so the scene in which he tries clumsily to assure Grace that he's not dangerous works well. He storms around the house, pulling her along, picking up each pair of scissors and giving them to her, forcing them into her hand. This is also a nice way of showing that it was not he, but she, who held the scissors which were the murder weapon in the past.

When we finally take Grace/Amanda back to her house, we see that she's been obsessed with scissors for a while. Suddenly the three or four pair that Mike had don't look nearly so ominous as compared to the dozens of paintings and sculptures she has.

Then there are the actual scissors which were used in the murder. We see them in the memories, used to cur hair, sitting on a dresser... as well as in Grace's nightmares - where they threaten her, and finally in the scene of the actual murder. When the antiques collector pulls them out, and shows that he owns them now, we already know that it was he who used them to kill Margaret. The other scissors have all just been echoes of this pair, and none carry the threat that these do.

The anklet: This object has a myth attached to it. It becomes a symbol of their love, of their romance. When Frankie considers stealing it, it is a threat to the couple and not simply the theft of an object. When she wears it in to the party, and Gray Baker admires it - he is, unconsciously perhaps, not admiring her only, but admiring them as a couple. It connects Roman and Margaret for all time, two halves of one whole, so that they return to one another in their new life. When Frankie kills her, and takes the anklet, he pulls it - snapping the clasp, as though breaking the bond.

When Frankie's mother pulls it out to give it to Mike, it is as though she's been the guardian of the love for all these years. She was always the protector - of Frankie, but also of Roman... and despite his love for another woman, she preserved the symbol of his happiness. She returned it to Mike, and the return of the anklet precipitates the resolution, and thus ends the artificial separation between the lovers.

But before that can occur, of course, justice must be done and the murderer is done in by his own weapon - the original scissors are buried in his back.

Thus the two central symbols of the film are opposites - the scissors which divide, and the anklet which unites.


In a comment on another blog, I remarked on my experience studying with Allen Ginsberg - and someone asked me to talk more about that.

Ginsberg himself was more a presence than a teacher - he was at some of the parties, in some of the performances, had some conversations... in fact, he was one of those gay men for whom women do not really impact his reality much. I was introduced to him four times (the school's director thought he'd enjoy my work,) and each time he looked right past me. I wasn't offended so much as amused.

At any rate - this was my response. It ended up being pretty lengthy, so I thought I'd put it here as well.

Well, I took the MFA course in Writing and Poetics at Naropa University. The writing school there was founded by Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg - and named (somewhat absurdly) the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics - the latter half of the name being a reference to Gertrude Stein. I say absurdly, because I always considered Kerouac's work to be very much embodied, very much physical... but that little contradictory bit of excessive name dropping was very much in the spirit of the beat poets.

It's a small school, and the writing department, graduate and undergraduate, was perhaps 60 students, so there was a wonderful intimacy with the instructors. Ginsberg was there in the summer, and others like Hakim Bey, Adrienne Rich, Jerome Rothenberg and Diane diPrima taught courses. Anselm Hollo was on the regular staff. Other people came and spoke, performed or visited - including Philip Glass, Gregory Corso, Ed Sanders, and Ram Daas... I did a fundraiser with Ferlinghetti for a minority students' fund and got chewed out by Amiri Baraka for the same.

Really, it was an incomparable experience. I have several stories.

What I learned (and can apply to screenwriting,) and this may seem as contradictory as the school's name, was the value of structure. I wrote more formal poems while I was there than I ever have. I found that using the structure of a defined form was freeing to the imagination, it gave inspiration a lightning post to be drawn to. It allowed you to direct and craft the raw idea.

I was particularly fond of repetitive forms like the pantoum, which taught me how an image can be repeated to tie a poem together - and can change meaning slightly every time it recurs.

It also inspired me to go out and get life experience, to travel and have adventures - rather than become an academic. Nothing against academia. If I had gone that route I'd probably have a small measure more recognition as a poet, and a literary critic or theorist... but I think I've lived a far more interesting life.

For some of my poetry (I no longer write in form much, but it still influences my work):

The Big Bucks to the Men

Not surprising since I've already noted the lack of women overall behind the camera in Hollywood, such as the abysmally low percentage of women directors (4-5%)... but I was curious how much was the most a woman had ever been paid for a screenplay.

Look at the following:
Top 11 Highest Paid Screenwriters
Screenwriter's Salaries
Highest Paid Screenwriters

In the first list, there are no women.
In the second, there is one woman's name attached to a produced screenplay - but the other (2 or 3) mentions of women on the second two pages are all for unproduced work. In fact, the highest amount offered to a woman was offered on the condition she step away from a project she'd written for herself - and she refused. (It hardly counts if she didn't even take the money.) All of the women on the list had male collaborators. The single produced script was co-authored by Anne-Marie Crichton and her husband - Michael... I feel somewhat certain it would have sold for as much without her name attached.

In response to this, I declare my intention to have the record for the most paid to a woman for a produced screenplay. So there.

Perfect Toffee

I just had the perfect toffee. Not too hard or too sweet. A soft crunch with a buttery finish and a nice saltiness. It is rare to find toffee that's the perfect consistency.

Vosges Caramel Toffee

What's this got to do with screenwriting?

Well, we all need a little inspiration from time to time.

the Long Shot

Several examples of the long shot used well:

I'll add to this list Dead Again. There are a few long shots in it, notably one which was filmed as a single long shot but got edited down - the first hypnotism scene in the antiques shop. It was actually a dolly shot, because they wanted smoother movement than a steadicam could provide, as it circled slowly around the room. The challenge was to make the room big enough for the camera and the track, but still make the space feel small and close.

There are other long shots as well... I may have to watch it again to note some of them. Been thinking about writing on the use of objects as narrative in film, and Dead Again has some wonderful examples of that.

Personal Context and Movies

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike the movie Birth.

The main one is the creepy burgeoning relationship between Nicole Kidman's character and a 10 year old boy. No, it never crosses the line, but they do discuss sex, and behave in other completely inappropriate ways.

The other is the fact that the characters all seem socially retarded. As though none of them has ever been around a child, and they have no idea how to react to one. As though they have never been presented with a preposterous story and had to engage their minds to question it in more than the most shallow way.

Some folks found the pacing too slow, but that didn't bother me. I thought that the pace was as elegant as the cinematography and music - which was stunning. I re-watched the opening scene twice after the film was over.

The acting was powerful, though there were times when the dialogue seemed to be trying too hard to sound like Mamet and came off as choppy and tongue-tied. Unsure if that was a problem with the script or the actors.

Some folks were bothered by what they perceived as loose ends, but I didn't care that the ending is not neat.

In fact, there was much about the film that I enjoyed... but on the whole, my gut instinct is deep, visceral hatred. Yes, I hated this movie. I avoided watching it for a long time, because I knew I would hate it - but then I read something about it which intrigued me. (A review which said it was neither a con artist story nor a reincarnation movie.)

I should have simple passed on it.

You see, I am a widow. About the same length of time as Nicole Kidman's character, Anna - ten years. Like Anna, it took me several years to even begin dating again. My own grief was complicated by the fact that my husband as also a complete bastard (and that's being nice about it)... but I can relate strongly to the character.

I knew how much this child showing up just as she was ready to marry another man would destroy her. I knew how hard it would be. In fact, I saw it as a metaphor for the feelings that would come up in her as she prepared to marry - that the husband she thought she had finally let go of would come back and "haunt" her and she would behave in a foolish manner and even think of running away.

But what pissed me off was having her interact with this child as though he were an adult. It's one thing to believe that the kid is her husband. I can imagine being faced with this. I cannot imagine, from that point, discussing sex with this child. Allowing this child to take off his clothes and bathe with me. Allowing a kiss that has the tenderness of a lover. It simply would not happen. I would want to keep the child in my life, yes - but I would not consider making this kid my partner.

Crossing that line makes her entirely unsympathetic. Not only because of the pedophilic implications - but because it makes her weak. In fact, she doesn't grow or change. At the end of the film, she's still hung up on him, and has not been able to move on. She's crippled by her grief. I want to slap her and tell her she's not the only widow in the world. I want to medicate her. I want her to grow the fuck up and stop being a selfish, whiny little nit.

This reaction interested me, because I think it's the first time I've disliked a film because of my personal relationship to it. I've loved movies irrationally before.

I love The Long Kiss Goodnight, because it strikes a chord with me. I spent most of my life as an adventurer, traveling and pursuing goals that most people never consider. I may not have been an assassin (was never that cool!) but I definitely lived in a way that was antithetical to the PTA-mom universe. And part of me longed for that world. Part of me wanted to just put my past aside, pretend it didn't happen, have a kid and bake cookies. I make great cookies. And she's eventually able to integrate this other side, and live happily as uber-mom... Well, I do admit that the fact that I had taken a few magic mushrooms before watching it the first time may have enhanced my sense of the films profundity. (What? I was in Prague. It was legal.)

Another film I have an irrationally soft spot for is The Fifth Element. This was a decent movie. I recognize that it's not fantastic. That it's a fun ride and entertaining - and for most people not much more... but the circumstances under which I watched it the first time mean that it effected me profoundly. No, I wasn't tripping - I was grieving.

My husband and I were staying at a friend's place in the country, and I had to go into the city to work. I slept in the office at the bar where I was the head chef, because the commute was too long... I was scheduled for three days of double shifts over the weekend, and then he was going to come into Prague and we would go watch the movie together Sunday night.

Instead, our friend came to see me at work on Saturday to tell me he'd died.

Dazed, I went to see the movie a few days later. Sitting in the back of the balcony, in a mostly empty theater, I knew my husband would have thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I was moved deeply by the message that the fifth element is love. I cried a lot. And the movie still affects me more than it reasonably should.

But that's part of the wonder of art. As a poet, I long ago stopped worrying about whether people understood what I was trying to say - and became more interested in whether they came away from a poem touched or moved in some way. The poems became less about expression and more about connection. A movie becomes a collaboration with the audience. They receive it according to their interests, knowledge, abilities, circumstances - and transform it into a personal experience that makes it unique to them.


I named him Rebound, because the first night in my house he leapt from the couch, bounced off the coffee table, and flew three feet through the air to land by my feet.

I found him by the fire hydrant in my front yard, very young, a little scared, happy to see me. No one in the neighborhood was missing a puppy. His collar was too tight. His paws had no dirt on them, and were as soft as his belly - as if he'd never walked on a hard surface in his life - so I'm pretty sure he was dropped there. (I'm on a corner near a major street.)

He's recovering well. Still has pain around his ribcage and shoulders, but has figured out how to walk on three legs (though only for brief periods - the front leg that works has a cracked scapula, and it tires quickly.)

Last night, he used those springs in his butt to leap onto the couch. The couch is as tall as he is, but he just leaned back and sprung up - landing on his back legs and then letting himself tip forward onto the cushions so he wouldn't impact his front legs...

Looks like one of his legs is completely dead, though - and it will likely have to be amputated.

But he's going to adapt just fine!

Script Frenzy

I've been taking care of my injured baby, and haven't had much time to do more than that - but a have gotten online a few minutes here and there...

Came across this:

I'll be doing it. I did get about 70 pages of a novel written during National Novel Writing Month (though I didn't finish it - should have outlined.) A screenplay in a month seems much more achievable.

Besides - I love deadlines.

Pray for my puppy...

My puppy got hit by a car tonight. Knocked out cold and dragged several feet...

He's at the emergency clinic right now, under observation.
It's going to cost me a hell of a lot of money, but it looks like he's going to be OK. He might lose the use of one leg due to nerve damage. There's still the possibility of more serious neurological damage, or blood clots.

Right now he's in a lot of pain, and scared...

I'll pick him up in the morning and take him to the regular vet to talk about surgery and rehab.

I don't have any children, so he's my baby and means a lot to me.

(pictures: http://new.photos.yahoo.com/empressgate/album/576460762395594812 )