Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Blog: Rules of Engagement

Posted on March 6, 2013 at 4:55 AM


The first thing you have to learn when you take that leap in to the film industry, and God help you if you ever decide to do that, is how to manage your time. Not merely with multitasking or planning ahead so you don't do everything last minute - as though that's ever been a good idea - that goes without saying for any job, but more abobut what you want to put effort in and to pursue versus what you don't wish to waste your time on. In the entertainment industry you have two simple categories: what you want to spend time on, and boy will you spend time on stuff, and what you automatically say "no" to as though you're on the Gong Show. In fact, that's kind of how Hollywood is: one big Gong Show. 

That metaphor is quite accurrate, the more I think about it now having just written it. You have to be to the point and impress, and you only have a small window to do it in.

That's why when, say, a writer wants you to read a script, they have what's called a "log line." It's basically a one or two-sentence tidbit of what the script is about. A producer/agent/exec will read that and decide if it sounds like something they want to take a look at (and then promptly give to an assistant or intern to actually take said "look").

I've covered that before, you can read my old "Rules of Hollywood" blog on this site if you want to know more. Something I didn't cover, though, is how people tend to "read" scripts - the actual opening and flipping of pages, reading scenes and dialogue and so forth. I, like many I assume, came in thinking you "read" everything. Front to back. Each page. Take notes. Think of it as a book report.

Boy was I wrong.

Script Reading

Everyone who works in film and television seem to have a standing rule, or at least a variation of this rule: if a script hasn't "hooked" you in forty pages, it's never going to. The average feature script is a hundred or so pages, sometimes less sometimes more, but usually in that range. However, you rarely read all of that. If you're reading and the first act does nothing for you, then there's really no reason to continue going on. If the mystery isn't built, characters aren't established, story still unclear, you still have no emotional investment, then no matter the exposition to come, that first forty pages still is doing nothing for you and is looked as a "representative" of the rest of the work. You can tell a lot in just forty pages, from bad dialogue to bad action scenes and ploddy pacing to what needs to be rewritten (and if forty pages, already, is looking to needing a rewrite then that's a whole other conversation). Forty pages is a testing ground for any writer and any script.

Note, if you're lucky the reader will read the first forty and last twenty, that's another common format but that's assuming the first forty was in any way decent in the first place. They (and that includes me) will actually skip ahead if it's "good." It's not so much getting the full picture as much as it is getting the "jist."

That's probably why television is so big right now, and I'm about to go in to that more. You can read forty pages of an hour-long pilot, and that's damn near the whole thing and can wiz through a half-hour in about fifteen minutes instead of committing to it. Usually something more condensed is often more focused as well, so you can determine even more on if it's a story and show you want to commit your valuable time to.

My Valuable Time

Reading scripts is part of my job. This work-related approach to things has effected how I consume and engage myself in media, relationships, social interaction...well just about anything, really. My time is limited, and I don't want it to be wasted, but I want to give anything and everything a fair shake. You can't just waddle around like a lost penguin with just presumptions and assumptions, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. If it grabs you, great.

If it doesn't, and truth is most things won't, then you have to move on. I want to give everything a try, but there's only so many hours in a day, so this is how I've cut it all down and whether not I should thank script reading or blame it for all this is still up in the air.


Regarding TV Shows

Let's face it, television has been outstanding the past few years. Ask anyone in Hollywood and they'll tell you there's a strong shift towards film-quality production on television - from directors to producers to actors to how stories are told and "must-see events" created. Stories in a lot of shows, especially hour-long dramas, require investment and dedication on part of every viewer. They are stories that you can't just "sit and watch," miss a few in season three and expect to know what the the hell is going on. You have to start from the first episode and watch it all the way through, even if you have to deal with an awful season like Season Four from Lost.

So, I had to find a way to refine it all. It's my own mining technique and I got it all from how I learned to read scripts. It's as follows:

Rule #1: I won't watch any new show unless I know it has a second season or one on the way.

I was burned a little bit ago with four new shows on television I was greatly looking forward to. I sat down every week and watched them. In nearly every case, they all ended in cliffhangers and in every case they all weren't picked up for a second season. These were shows that were intended to have  "bigger arc" to everything going on. For example: Awake. People really liked that show, and it was full of twists and turns and a huge mystery. But then it just ended. Same for Terra Nova, a hugely ambitious action epic of a show but we'll never know what happens. They're dead. Done. I saw the first act and have to assume the rest. My time was wasted.

There are exceptions. Some great shows only lasted for one season, but they have to be pretty acclaimed for me to go back and watch them.

Rule #2: Any new show I watch I give there episodes to hook me.

This goes straight to that script-reading approach. If a show isn't going to hook you after three episodes, it's not going to hook you. That's three hours to get me intrigued, invested, amazed or on the edge of my seat with anticipation (no better determination of a show's quality, to me, than when I immediately feel the need to watch another episode). If it can't do any of that, then it's not a show for me.

I really like this rule because it's like taste-testing. You can really discover some hidden gems. For example: Southland. You look at the show and the commercials, it might come across as just another cop-show (a genre I got burned out on a long while ago). But after three episodes, I was hooked. Other examples: Mad Men, Louie, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Veep, Deadwood, Dexter are all other shows that I consciously did the three-episode rule on and loved or currently do love.

In contrast, there's a show like True Blood, which shows assumptions aren't always going to work out. On paper, True Blood is a show that should 100% be up my alley. I like vampires, I like horror, it's HBO and gory and all sorts of stylish with violence and sex. But after three episodes I not only wasn't hooked, I damn-near loathed it. Other examples: Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Revenge, Suits, Weeds and Shameless. All are just shows that really didn't hook me. Doesn't mean they're bad, well True Blood I think is kind of bad but I don't want to push any buttons here, it just means they're not for me and in some cases (like Suits) I might give them another shot…but like I said I have priorities and giving shows a second chance means I might not give another show a first.

Speaking of priorities:

Rule #3: Backlogs suck. So pace yourself.

Yes, I still need to watch Supernatural, I still need to get to Newsroom and I damn sure need to check out American Horror Story. But that's not all, because I love classic television as well. Good TV like Kolchak, for example. I had been wanting to watch that one-season show for ages and finally did and loved it. Hell, I loved it after just the first episode.

Then a year or so ago I put myself through a wringer and watched every single Star Trek series from beginning to end, including the animated series. How long did that take me? Hell, I don't know. I had to have taken six months at least. I was in the zone.

Say "Hi" to my weekends.

So I have to find a balance. You can't watch a dozen old shows you've been wanting to watch. I do one at a time, and purposely make a schedule on how to watch: if it's a 30 minute show (like The Twilight Zone, which I'm running through right now) then I'll watch four a week. If it's an hour long one, two a week. Sometimes a show will just keep going and going and going. You want to know what happens next. Well, that's where will power comes in. Oh how many times did I want to not stop watching the original Trek…well, you just have to.

How does that relate to script reading? Because anyone and everyone in this business has a backlog of scripts. Some are at the top of the stack you know you need to get to, but most are just sitting there waiting like little trolls. Most of them are going to be pretty bad too, but like giving any of those backlogged shows three episodes, you give all those backlogged scripts forty pages.

Of course, this is all also dependent on my current viewing habits, much like how many scripts I read is determined on how much other shit is more important. During the fall, I really don't watch television all that much. Most of my favorite shows seem to come up in the early winter to spring. Summer is kind of dead too. Those are actually my favorite times, I can run through a whole show quickly.


Regarding Movies

Film is a different story entirely. I don't have any rules save for one:

Rule #1: If your film makes me start hating it, then I will stop watching it.

That doesn't mean "if your film is bad, I'll stop watching it." I'll fully watch a bad film, but if a movie has me loathing it to the point of me looking for a drill for my skull, as though it's going out of its way just to make me hate it, then I'll absolutely stop watching. There's no better example than my worst film of 2012, The Watch. I stopped watching The Watch after a half hour. I gave it a half hour, which is about the time I would watch any movie that would go so far out of its way to make me hate it. It made my decision for me.

When I sit to watch a movie, I've committed to watching it. Even a movie like Battleship, another atrocity of 2012, I still finished. Sure, it was bad, but it didn't make me stop watching. It was, as they say, a movie that "is what it is" and you just move on and get to the finish line. In the case of The Watch, I didn't want to see that finish line. Not because it was just "bad" but because I truly turned on it - like a friend who does an off-color joke with no apology and throws you under the bus while doing so.

I do that with scripts sometimes too. It makes writing those pass emails to the writers difficult, which is why a lot of pass letters to really bad scripts is only about a sentence long and doesn't really go in to too much detail. If it went in to detail, it's just being mean because there's nothing good to say about it. The old "start with a nice quality, put the reason and bad qualities in the middle and end with a good quality" formula just won't work on those.

To get me to stop watching entirely is rare, but there's at least one or two films year that achieve that.


Regarding Videogames

Videogames are a pretty parallel to script-reading, actually. Forty pages of a script I'll give, and forty minutes of gameplay I'll invest in to a game as well. You can pretty much tell if you're going to be into a game in the first forty minutes. It's usually set its foundation by then, and its up to that game to "hook" you like a script does. It's all the time I will give to any game, even old staples of series I've enjoyed. Metal Gear Solid 4 and God of War III I gave forty minutes to each, both series I've played in the past and enjoyed, but really couldn't get in to either after forty minutes. Forty minutes of Red Dead Redemption or the underrated Sleeping Dogs, however, just grabbed me and wouldn't let go.

Videogames are the simplest and easiest for me. You can get a handle on a game and make some strides in forty minutes.

Horse Theft Auto


Regarding Books and Music

Ah, the final media-frenzy here. It's kind of the same with some quirks.

For books, I'll read four chapters of anything. Seriously, anything. Fantasy, thriller, biography, self-help…whatever. I like to read, but I have to decide what I want to commit to and four chapters seems to be a good rule of thumb.

Music is a little harder. I have favorites, you see, and don't really look outside my favorite styles and genres. I think that can be said for most music listeners. I like Van Morrison or Led Zeppelin, you like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. I'm open to anything across the board in most things, but music is completely different. While I listen to a lot, I primarily listen to anything under "rock" or whatever "alternative" might be considered for that decade. If it's an old standard for me, for example that new David Bowie album that's about to come out, I'll listen to the whole thing no matter what. If it's a new band I'm unfamiliar with and discover or have recommended to me, I give a good listen to any song, but the "sound" need to get to me somehow. Music is one of the more subjective and emotionally-responsive forms of art out there. You kind of just close your eyes, and if it works, it does, if not, then that's enough.

Yeah, those last two are kind of half-assing it. But what about the rest of Life itself?


Regarding Life

Script reading has spoiled me. I don't have ADD…I don't think…I wonder what Judge Reinhold is doing right now....sorry...

Let's say I meet someone and we're chatting, as people are want to do or at least pretend to enjoy doing. Are they going to want me to listen to what they have to say and talk about?

Well, everyone wants to be heard, right? But the question is, do I want to listen. Maybe I'm overly judgmental in that regard, but in reality it's me asking "is this person worth my time to listen to what they have to say?" Let's face it, most people, especially in Los Angeles, are generally pretty conceited and full of themselves. I really don't care about that, so it's really up to the person to make me want to talk with them, be friends or just generally hang out with an understanding that I can stand being around them. I give them the chance, and believe me they should with me as well, but in either case if it's not working out...then it's just now working out and I move on with only a passing recollection during some conversation later on that usually goes "oh yeah...I kind of remember him/her." I only want to do with something if I enjoy their company and I feel we have something to talk about or do.

I can best describe this in a situational description.

A while ago, I was living with some roommates and one of these roommates would often have friends from work over. Like any new person I meet, I say hi and whatnot and try to engage them in a conversation. But these individuals, most of them, were in their early 20s and really had nothing to offer to any conversation. I mean, when you're 20, your paths of dialogue are a lot different than when you're 30, so these folks had nothing to offer me of interest and I pretty much avoided them from that point on. Even pop culture stuff, the basic approach of any conversation, because my pop culture conversations are a lot different than someone who is 20 years younger and of a different generation entirely.

It's not their fault, they're not bad people and it's not like I dislike them, but the point of "hanging out" is to have a connection and there was none to be had. I gave it a shot, and that's all I'm willing to really commit. It's the way society is structured. Not everyone hangs out with everyone in some other social "clique." I don't consider myself a part of any "clique" necessarily, so I'm open to anyone as long as they're engaging. Even if I don't have something in common with them, that doesn't mean through knowing them that I wouldn't. But they have to put forth the effort, because I'm certainly giving them the shot.

That's kind of the way it is with a script or some director sending me a demo reel. I'm giving you a shot...get me on board. If I've opened the door, you gotta make the strides to walk through it. I'm happy to join you, but you better make it worth my while.

It's not so much the age-difference, looking back...more maturity and just acting like an adult (or at least not being an asshole).

That sounds a little pretentious, but for me it's just logical. Maybe I'm Vulcan.

Now you might be wondering: does that apply to dating someone as well?

Well, if I dated more I would tell you for certain, but it's all kind of the same thing, isn't it? You tend to make up your mind at some point if you like someone or not, romantically or otherwise.

In many of these cases, I think most people also follow these rules. The thing is, I consciously do it. I go in to each situation with these rules in my mind - not in the back of my head but one of those whispering asides like "Ok...I'll give you 40 minutes" or "three episodes" or "one conversation." I tend to think ahead of time, probably over-think is a better word,  compartmentalize anything and everything as though it's a logic puzzle.

But that's what script-reading has done to me. Everything is just structure and pacing and analysis. How much time are you willing to invest in anything or in any situation if you aren't stimulated or interested? Not a whole lot...which probably also explains why I'm single.

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