Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sense of Direction

I have a poor sense of direction, which often makes me lost or late to things.  Yet somehow I make it down to the Austin Film Festival every year for tasty BBQ, interesting panelists, and great friends.  They have fun parties, panels with pro screenwriters, and interviews with filmmakers like James Franco.  I'm also a planner, which is probably because that's the only way I would make it from point A to point B.  Every year I go to AFF, something wonderful happens that I couldn't have planned for.  In 2010, I stumbled my way to third place in the Pitch Finals and in 2011 I found myself at dinner with Michael Arndt.  In 2012, my favorite experience was getting lost.

Terry Rossio runs a rewrite workshop at AFF.  Terry is the A-list Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of SHREK, THE MASK OF ZORRO, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, among others.  In his workshop, he takes one of your scenes and rewrites it live in front of a select group of fellow writers.  This is a practical way to see how the pros push to make a scene better.  He started the workshop in 2011 and I signed up as soon as registration opened.  I polished my scene, enlisted some help to convert it to Final Draft, and crossed my fingers that he'd choose my scene.  Alas, my poor sense of direction struck once again and I missed the panel I had wanted to go to so badly.

AFF 2012.  I sign up again for the rewrite panel and am one of the lucky 30 to get in.  I'm not going to let my poor sense of direction hamstring me.  This time I will make the workshop.  I cut out of lunch with my Pixar writing group early and dash to the Stephen F. Austin Ballroom to get a seat (with the help of Google Maps).

Phew, I made it to the room fifteen minutes early.  Kind of strange that I'm one of the few here.  Terry's a big writer and I'd expect the room to be pretty packed.  Fifteen minutes later, the event's supposed to start.  Yet Terry's not here.  There are more people in the seats but it's still half-empty.  Hmm, Terry must have been held up at lunch.

15 minutes pass.  I guess time management doesn't apply to big shot A-list screenwriters.  More people have filed in, but they don't look like the normal 30-40 year olds I've seen in other panels.  A lot of young people here, even high schoolers.  Odd.

30 minutes past the scheduled start time.  That son of a bitch!  Who does he think he is?  I could have been at four other interesting panels in this time slot.  But I chose to be here, to spend a week rewriting my scene, to trade several e-mails with my friend Susan trying to debug Movie Magic to Final Draft conversion issues.  All to be here on time.  I gather my things, about to leave in a huff--

When a lovely woman sits down next to me.  Her name is Simone and she's an actress.  She asks me why I have a notebook and I tell her it's because I'm a writer - I take notes.  Seems like kind of a silly question.  She notices my comedy screenplay finalist badge and tells me her husband was a finalist some years ago.  He's now a professional writer on TV shows and high-profile features.  We have a great chat and then the packed room buzzes.  Terry must be here!  Finally.

From backstage, in strolls-- James Franco.  What the hell?  It takes me a few dazed minutes to realize what happened.  Apparently, the Rossio rewrite workshop is in the Stephen F. Austin Assembly Room, not the Stephen F. Austin Ballroom.  I am a total idiot and apologize for all the bad things I thought about Terry Rossio.  I've never met him, but I'm sure he's a lovely and punctual gentleman.  I may be the only person in history who is disappointed to see James Franco.  While he is passionate and erudite, he doesn't talk about the writing process very much.  And now I realize why I'm the odd man out for having a notebook.

Later that evening, Simone introduces me to her wonderful husband, Steve.  It turns out we grew up in the same small Ohio town outside an Air Force base.  We hit it off and Steve has been a savvy and gracious mentor to me since then, helping to improve my writing and teaching me to navigate the murky waters of breaking in.

I went to see Rossio but got Franco instead.  But I needed to meet Steve and Simone, who have become good friends.  I never could have planned connecting with them, but it was one of my favorite experiences.  And it could only have happened at AFF.

I tried to sign up for the rewrite workshop this year, but it filled up within a few hours.  Someday.  But it doesn't deter me from returning to AFF.  I have no idea what good things will happen there this year, who I might find myself seated next to at the Driskill bar, or where I might get lost.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pixar Writers Workshop

Disclaimer: This post talks about people who work at Pixar and write screenplays as a hobby off-hours.  It has nothing to do with the professional writers who are hired by Pixar to write screenplays.


For this post, I'm going to talk about our unofficial screenwriting workshop that we run at Pixar.  We'll cover the benefits of the workshop, the origin, how it runs, how it has evolved, and some intangibles.  The hope is that this will spark other screenwriters to organize their own workshops.


The benefits of the workshop include:

  • Building your writing talent.
  • Getting live feedback on a script and its structure from other experienced writers.
  • Being guilted into producing more pages.
  • Hearing how your dialogue sounds when spoken by real human beings.
  • Insight into the process of other writers.
  • Learning more about the craft by doing.
  • Moral and technical support.


One of the many cool things about working at this amazing place is Pixar University.  PU provides classes on a variety of topics to let employees pursue technical and creative endeavors.  At least once a year they usually provide a multi-week Screenwriting Workshop.  It's taught by some wonderful screenwriting teachers from UCLA and USC, including Tim Albaugh (@timalbaugh), Linda VoorheesBarri Evins, and Bobette Buster.  These classes are typically a mix of beginning and advanced screenwriters, so they're geared towards learning the fundamentals of the craft and getting you started on writing a script.  However, the classes last a limited number of weeks and typically end with students having written the first act but with many more pages to write.  Several of the writers with works in progress decided to start our own workshop to keep our momentum and finish more scripts.

We've tried a couple of times to start an unofficial workshop but they always fizzled out.  This one seems to have stuck, as we've been doing it almost weekly since May 2011.  We've built a strong group that sharpens each other.  Our writers have placed in many of the toughest screenwriting competitions in the country, including the Nicholl Fellowship, Sundance, Austin Film Festival, CineStory, PAGE, and Scriptapalooza.  We all help each other get better.  There's a reason that writers have traditionally formed groups to get peer feedback, from the Inklings to the Algonquin Round Table, to Lucas/Spielberg/Coppola.

How it Runs

The workshop meets every Thursday night in a work conference room for 2-3 hours.  Typically our wonderful organizer Laura sends an e-mail out earlier in the day to get a roll call.  If she's out that day then someone else sends the mail.  We have to have a quorum of at least four people who can make it or we cancel for that day.  This is so that there are enough actors to play the different parts during a table read.  People respond with two things: 1) whether they can make it or not and 2) do they have new pages.  People with no pages are welcome to attend, as they can still read dialogue and offer feedback.

Writers typically bring 8-10 pages.  To determine the order, we usually have the person who hasn't gone the longest go first.  Otherwise, we pick an order.

The writer starts off by giving a little backstory to make sure we know where we are in the script.  E.g.  "This is right after Bob and Janice hook up for the first time, just after the midpoint..."  Then the writer casts the roles to have people read.  Typically, the writer will read the narration and pick up any small parts that weren't cast.

We read the whole thing out loud, which is enlightening for the writer.  Some things that read great on the page are difficult to pronounce or don't flow well when spoken.

After the read, people offer feedback to the writer.  Notes range from structural to dialogue to character to tone.  This can be hard for the writer to take, as writers are naturally defensive about their material.  But feedback and "plussing" are such an integral part of the way we work at our Pixar day jobs that they understand it's all in the spirit of elevating the material.


The workshop has evolved quite a bit from its origins.  We used to only workshop screenplay pages.  Now people bring in short stories, outlines, loglines, short films, and any other creative material to get feedback.  We've also done things like strategize on which Austin Film Fest panels to attend, prep writers for pitching, show and tell about our working methods, and do a Q&A session with Pixar's head of development.  People will even pitch a few ideas before they start writing just to see what people respond to.


Two of the reasons our workshop works is because we have an organizer and a dedicated core.  Laura organizes us: sends out the reminders, books the conference room, brings treats, etc.  Though we have about twenty people on our mailing list, there are a core of six to eight of us who show up most weeks. That group has become close and it's been really rewarding to see each other grow and take on new challenges over the past couple of years.

Speaking personally, it's hard for me to imagine writing a script without getting feedback from the workshop.  There's nothing like having a room full of talented writers help to make your script better and cheer you towards the finish line.  I love you, Pixar writers!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Feed the Truck

Another writing exercise from Lissa.  We had to start with one of these two sentences:
1) Sofie couldn't sleep
2) She's crazy for fish.

Bonus points if we could work any of the following words into the story:
Mr. Greenley

She's crazy for fish.  That 'ol blue pickup runs on it.  Some cars drink gas or biodiesel that smells like french fries, but this truck runs on fish.  Suits me just fine as I am an avid what-you-call angler.  My wife's always wonderin' when I'm gonna come home but as I done told her seventy-seven times, I gots to feed the truck.  And that requires a whole lot of anglin'.  And beer.  Anglin' on the weekend, anglin' at night, anglin' whenever I'm supposed to be looking for a second shift.  But there ain't no angles in that, just the cold, flat truth.  Ain't no jobs around these parts.  None that'll take a man what smells powerful of fish all day, anyway.  I hired on with a pizza delivery outfit for a spell but customers kept complainin' to Mr. Greenley (my bald-headed twit of a store manager) that they hadn't of ordered anchovies so why did their pepperonis and Hawaiians smell like goddamn fish?  That prick don't have no backbone like a real man so he just up and let me go.  That's what they call it: "let 'im go."  Like I was a fish too small to make a meal of, like I was nothing, so they tossed me back in the water and let me sink.  So now I just sit on a ratty old chair in my ratty old piece of shit boat and try to find that little fish and pull 'im up so he don't drown.  Don't think there's any hope for the poor bastard.  You see, he smells like fish.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Amblegator

Another story from Lissa's class.  This time the prompt was to pick one of the following opening sentences (that my classmates came up with) and run with it till Lissa called time.

Opening sentence choices:
Leroy knew there was a mermaid.
Bubbles rose to the surface.
The sheriff stared at the empty jail cell.
He tossed the shell into the air.
It was darker than expected.
It was a little late in the day to go fishing.
Brady put on his magic overalls.

And here's my Cajun-flavored story:

It was a little late in the day to go fishing, but gol durn if Rambles wasn't gonna go back out there and try again.  He'd been fishing this lake for pert near thirty-seven years - through three marriages, fourteen children, two wars, and one death.  One important death, anyway.  He was the only soul what believed the legend of the Amblegator, a gator so big he done drunk up the Mississippi in one slurp, before a crawfish swung on his gullet and made him give it back.

Rambles was a born and bred Cajun and he loved the taste of smoked gator.  He caught plenty of gator, sittin' on his porch over the muddy lake.  He'd bait his hook with a live chicken or an armadillo or one of those neighbor kids if they didn't shut their traps.  He caught plenty of big gators - eight, nine feet long with teeth the size of screwdrivers and a disposition like his first ex-wife.  But they weren't the Amblegator.  That was a life gator - one that made your whole life worthwhile.  Nobody believed the tales, least of all his second wife.  She was nice enough but they didn't see eye to eye on most things, like the number of beers a reasonable man should drink in a day, the importance of an education, or the utter dedication required for a lone man to catch one of the greatest beasts ever to walk this godforsaken earth.

But his third wife, Bessie, she understood.  They were mad for each other like Cupid had got hisself drunk one day and shot them both full of too many arrows.  Bessie'd sit out there on the porch with him and fish for the Amblegator too.  She'd even talk trash about how she was gonna be the one to catch 'im, just to light the fire in Ol' Rambles' belly.  But that Amblegator had swallowed her up, and now she lay at the bottom of that muddy lake, in that great beast's stinkin' belly.  Rambles put another chicken on the hook.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Super Geeky 5: Nora Potter and the Super Geeky

We're back for our fifth Super Geeky video. For this one, we went with a Harry Potter theme since my older girls love the series. It was a family affair, as all of us worked on it. I used this one as an excuse to teach myself After Effects through various tutorials on the web. You can get a free 30-day trial license for the expensive software, so that gave us a nice deadline. After creating some VFX, I now have a lot more respect for the VFX artists out there. It was a lot of fun, and a real blast to show to my girls when all the post was finished. Nora was too scared of Voldemort to watch it more than once, while Branna wants to watch it, "100 more times, maybe more."

Director/Writer/Editor/VFX/Sound: Mike Sundy
Cinematographer/Costume Designer/Hair & Makeup Artist: Tara Sundy
Special Thanks to: Lara Pendleton

Nora Potter: Nora Sundy
Hermione Granger: Fiona Sundy
Lord Voldemort: Mike Sundy
Ginny Weasley: Branna Sundy
Hagrid: Mr. Wiggles
Harlem Shake dancers: The Sundy Family

For our previous Star Wars themed Super Geeky video, see: Super Geeky IV: A New Dope

"Making of" details
It was shot on a Flipcam, then edited in iMovie.  For VFX, I used After Effects and Trapcode Particular.  For the sound effects, I used a Youtube mp3 ripper and imported it into Audacity.

Special thanks to VFXCoach, who made most of the After Effects tutorials I used below.  His website is here:  http://www.vfxcoach.com/additionalservices/vfxcoach.html

Opening Harry Potter titles: http://ae.tutsplus.com/tutorials/motion-graphics/create-harry-potter-titles/
Stupefy spell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPu6HavbQyQ
Expelliarmus spell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRd4KOGJ2oc
Priori Incantatem spell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8Sy9UKgm_k
Apparate spell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HK2wOfGH1mk
Protego spell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7XZc5LahSo
Accio spell (wire erase): Used After Effects CC Wire Removal tool
Harry Potter spell sound effects: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=70hvTVR7R40#!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Eagle Dancers

This story fragment came out of a creative writing exercise in Lissa Rovetch's children's book class at Pixar.  I love her exercises because you have no time to think - you just have to create.  It removes a lot of barriers from the writing process.  For this exercise, we had to pick two cut-out magazine pictures.  I chose these two:

Native American dancers dressed as eagles:

Tent on a river, looks like the Pacific Northwest:

Sometimes we pick the images and then pass them to the writer on our left, but this time she let us keep the ones we chose.  Then, we all had to write an opening sentence.  Then you chose which of the opening sentences from your classmates you wanted to use.  Our choices were:

The island in the distance beckoned.
Fred tried to find a ship to take him there.
He had never opened that door before.
I had the strangest dream last night.
There was dirt on the floor but Molly couldn't find a mop.
I hate wagons.
Cousins cause confusion.
They put the key back in the small box.

So that's it.  Those three ingredients (2 pictures + an opening sentence) and you're off and writing.  And you only have 10-20 minutes or so.  Here's what I came up with:

The Eagle Dancers

The island in the distance beckoned.  Larry and his son Trevor pulled the oars of their canoe.  They were camping out here in the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington.  Time to get away from it all.  Larry's wife Madeleine had insisted they take a father-son bonding trip - their last chance before Trevor headed off to college in a couple of weeks.  Larry wasn't thrilled about missing his weekly poker game, but Madeleine had made the "suggestion" in a tone that signaled it was anything but.  So Larry had packed up the Forerunner to the gills with everything a modern man needed to survive in the wild: a cooler full of Natty Light, some Costco steaks, and a cell phone signal booster so he could stream movies at night while his son communed with Nature or something.

Trevor was always a bit strange to Larry.  He was an Eagle Scout, loved the outdoors.  He was up out of the house every chance he got.  Other than the occasional grunt and nod in the hallway, Larry didn't see much of his free-spirited son.  Which was just as well with him, as they tended to get on each others' nerves if they were in close quarters.  It hadn't always been like that.  When Trevor was his little blond boy, he'd fly him around like an airplane, blow bubbles at his nose, and teach him how to hold a fishing rod.  Those days were long gone, thought Larry as he elbowed the fishing rods to the back of the canoe.  Now it was just him and Trevor and the lapping of the waves as the sun set.  Goddamn it was so quiet out here, away from it all.

They reached the shore and struck camp.  Larry tried to help but he mostly got in the way.  So he pretended to go off and hunt for kindling while Trevor whipped up the tent in no time.

Larry tried to tell Trevor a couple of ghost stories around the campfire but he kept butchering them.  Trevor laughed in all the right places, which only pissed Larry off.  They made excuses about being tired and retired to their separate tents.

Larry awoke to the sound of Trevor urgently whispering.  "Dad, come here."  Larry grumbled and groaned, but Trevor was insistent.

Trevor led Larry to a break in the tall pines.  There, in the clearing, three Native American men did a war dance in full eagle regalia.  "I thought you said this island was deserted," said Larry."It's supposed to be," said Trevor.  "How did they get here?  There's only one dock."

They soon had the answer to their question.  With one beat of his wings, the War Chief transformed into a real eagle and shot into the sky.  His braves followed suit.  "Did you see that?" asked Trevor.  "How much beer did I drink last night?" asked Larry.

<got cut off here>

Postscript: So I rushed the last paragraph or so because we had our two-minute warning and I really wanted to get to the transforming eagle guys.  But the exercise waits for no one.  Besides being fun, the other good thing about the exercises are that you get story fragments that may inspire you to write a longer piece someday.  Anyway, it's fun and drives home how little of a start you need to get going.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


There are a lot of screenwriting contests/retreats out there, but only a handful are worthwhile.  CineStory is one of them.  It's a contest combined with a retreat.  If you place as a semifinalist or higher, you get invited to the retreat.  This ensures that everyone else at the retreat is a serious writer and lets them gear the sessions for more advanced writers than a typical conference would.  The retreat takes place in Idyllwild, a fun and kooky mountain town a couple of hours outside of L.A.  The other great thing about CineStory is that it's small - only around 20 writers and nearly that number of mentors (industry pros).  That means an excellent ratio of writer to mentor.  And they rent out an entire inn that is the focal point so it feels like a temporary community.

The retreat is mainly made up of "informals" and one-on-ones.  The informals are Q&A sessions on a variety of topics.  Everyone's lounging on couches and a couple of mentors riff on a topic and invite questions.  It's much more laid back than a typical lecture.  More like hanging out in a room and listening to pro writers/managers/producers give their perspective on the industry.  During the retreat you have three ninety minute one-on-ones with different mentors.  And they actually read your entire script beforehand so they are prepared with notes and career advice.  The one-on-ones are incredibly helpful but can also be quite intense.  It can take weeks to process everything from the retreat and I wasn't sure how I felt about the whole experience for a while, but now I'm glad I did it.  It's kind of like getting notes on your script but also getting notes on why you want to be a writer and doing a gut check to see if that's what you really want to do.  No one's there to stroke your ego, they're there to help you get better and improve your script.

Pretty much all of the informals were good, but now now I'll talk about some of my favorites.  The most fun one was The Photo Challenge.  You drew a random photo from a hat and then had to make up a pitch on the spot about the image.  It was helpful for teaching you how to pitch on your feet and people came up with some really entertaining pitches in a short amount of time.  There were also some great Fly On the Wall pitch sessions where other mentees pitched and we got to listen in on the pitch and hear from the mentors on what went well and what didn't.  Any informal with Phil Eisner or Joe Forte was always entertaining and informative.  Phil is a bit of a wildman and has some crazy stories about the business and a unique perspective on life.  Clea Frost and her dedicated staff do a great job of choosing sharp industry pros and interesting topics.

The best part of CineStory were the nights after the official day's work had concluded.  All of the mentees and mentors had dinner together and then drank wine and played pool (or at least a game involving a pool table - sorry, inside joke).  Then the walls came down and it was just people hanging out.  My buddy Jason and I had fun drinking bourbon and smoking cigars with producers and managers and just shooting the breeze.  That's when you realize that these pros are just people - funny, smart people.  Same goes for the fellow mentees - a group of bright, driven writers who crack each other up.  I still stay in touch with many of the writers I met there.

So if you're looking for a screenwriting contest/retreat that gets you facetime with industry pros, honest notes on your script, and the opportunity to make great new writer friends, you want to apply to CineStory.