An update on screenwriting

Happy year of the dog, everyone! I’m writing this post from Shanghai, sitting around the family dining table.

First, an update on the screenplay itself. Here’s the initial treatment. I shared this treatment with ~15-20 friends and have been tweaking the story with their feedback. There were two big concerns: first, readers felt like Nick and Jean’s relationship was too unbalanced: Nick had too much power and Jean had none. Second, readers felt like the contrast between Nick and Allen was too simplistic: Nick seemed almost entirely a bad person, and Allen seemingly didn’t have flaws.

So I’ve been working to fix these things. My tendency in writing seems to be thus: I start stories in an innocent and straightforward manner, and with each edit and re-write, the story gets darker and more cynical and sometimes more violent slash masochistic. Layer by layer. Maybe that’s what I really want to write and I’m just getting more comfortable putting it out there? Let’s see where this screenplay’s rough draft winds up.

Other updates:

I’m reading books like Shot by Shot [Amazon] and The Filmmaker’s Handbook. Shot by Shot in particular is a good overview of the filmmaking process, very accessible and with lots of practical examples.

I’m watching movies that are comparable in tone and content to what I hope to achieve. Paying close attention to how they’re shot, the music, the dialogue, editing. Two influential works are Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. What qualities do I like about them? The emphasis on real life issues, the nuanced and extended dialogue, the simplicity in how they’re shot and scored.

Thanks for reading. The next update will come if / when there’s something concrete to share. Perhaps even an update on the music front. Until then, 新年快乐,万事如意,阖家欢乐,年年有余!

3 days in our Taipei: a screenplay treatment

Here’s my treatment for the screenplay that I mentioned in the last post. From what I understand, a treatment is a condensed, eg one to two page, story of the intended screenplay. It’s used to help communicate the plot and characters and is meant as a tool for early feedback. So, here it is! Love to hear what you think. I’ve sent to 10-15 friends and will collect their thoughts and questions and plot holes, and then iterate a few more times on the detailed scene-by-scene outline before I really dig into writing each scene.

PS. In writing this story, I imagined Jean as a white girl from the West Coast or South, if we can find a suitable lead actress here in Taiwan / Asia. If we can’t, maybe I’ll try to cast for this role back in the States

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Working title: 3 days in our Taipei

Logline: A young American woman travels to Taiwan to salvage her relationship with a Taiwanese American man. She soon discovers that he is a changed man: He does drugs, parties constantly, and might be cheating on her. During their fallout, she meets and is drawn to a local man.

Synopsis:

Jean is a young American girl who met her Taiwanese American boyfriend Nick in college. A year after graduation, Nick moved to Taiwan in the hopes of becoming a musician. Long distance has been hard on the couple, and Jean visits Taiwan in an attempt to salvage their relationship. She doesn’t tell Nick, however, that she plans to move there.

Jean arrives in Taipei and is greeted by her local friends Angela and Denise. They reminisce at a neighborhood cafe, and then prepare to meet Nick and his friend Sam for dinner and drinks.

Dinner is a rowdy affair at a local Taiwanese restaurant. Jean’s reunion with Nick is a little awkward. She soon learns that Nick is not only job less, but generally aimless in life. He parties constantly, drinks heavily, and might be doing drugs. Jean also notices some flirtation between Nick and Denise.

The group heads to a popular bar where they have more drinks and play beer pong. By chance, Jean meets a cute and funny guy named Allen. Everyone is getting very drunk. Later that night, Jean sees Nick flirting with an unknown girl. She goes to confront him, but she’s drunk and disoriented and falls. Angela helps her up and takes her home.

The next day, Nick and his friends recover by hiking Elephant Mountain. After the hike, Nick and Jean meet up. Things are initially tense, but Nick half seduces half coerces Jean into sex. It’s passionate and intense and they soon fall asleep. Jean is woken by Nick’s vibrating phone. Denise is sexting him. Jean attempts to leave, but Nick stops her, and in the ensuing argument, she becomes convinced that he’s cheating. The confrontation becomes physical but Jean escapes.

That evening, Angela is consoling Jean when they run into Allen. Soon Jean finds herself being taken by Allen on an impromptu date. She is drawn to Allen and to the city he shows her. They wind up at the night market, where they bump into Nick and his friends. Nick accosts Allen, who becomes embarrassed and frustrated when Jean doesn’t defend him. Allen attempts to grab a taxi. He asks if Jean wants to join, but she’s unable to decide. The ending is a split screen of two possible outcomes – one where Jean joins Allen in his taxi as they drives away, and one where she’s pulled back by Nick.

Writing and making a film: the ongoing journey

I’m writing my first “real” screenplay, from start to finish, and I plan to make a movie from it right here in Taipei, Taiwan.

Along the way, I’d like to share that adventure on the blog: who I’m meeting and their roles, what lessons I’m learning, the struggles, the questions and fears. I’m even considering launching a podcast alongside it, where I interview people in the film and entertainment business (mostly in English) across Asia, as a way to meet people in the industry, learn from them, and grow an audience.

So what’s happened so far?

For starters, I’ve constructed a detailed story outline and continue to change it based on friends’ feedback. The most common feedback points were:

  • There was a power imbalance between the characters that didn’t serve the story
  • Since the protagonist is female, there was a concern that I couldn’t properly write her character (and maybe I should consider finding a female co-writer)
  • There was a lack of character arcs throughout the story (the characters didn’t change in response to events and experiences; there was no development)
  • There was too much telling (characters sharing their opinions) instead of showing (characters acting on their opinions)

What’s the story about? In one sentence, it’s about a mid-20s girl who moves to Taipei to try and salvage a long-term relationship, and the ensuing complications of modern love.

Besides writing the screenplay, I’m re-watching inspirational and comparable films (examples that I think fit thematically or tonally include Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). I’m studying the technique and process of writing a screenplay (for example, one piece of advice I heard on a podcast with Kumail Nanjiani is, as a general concept, to start a scene in the middle of the action, and to end a scene before the action is completely over; for example, if the scene is a person walks into the house and has a conversation and then leaves, start the scene with them walking into the kitchen, and end the scene as they approach the door, something like this)

I also met a local TV producer who may help me when I’ve finished the screenplay. A producer’s job, as far as I understand it, is to manage the money, put the various human pieces together, and make the trains run on time.

Given my complete lack of directorial experience or knowledge, one important decision he said I’d need to make is whether to hire a main Director who owns the project, in which case I would lose some creative control but gain that Director’s vision and skillset, or hire an assistant Director / technical Director to work under me and essentially execute my vision on how to shoot each scene, in which case I’d gain more creative control but it would add a lot more responsibility and risk.

In the next post I’ll talk about how the screenwriting is coming along, talk about budget and expenses, and share whatever else has happened on this movie making journey. Thanks!

Knaussgard and his autobiographies


I read the first book in Knaussgard’s series of autobiographical novels several years ago and was immediately taken in by his thoughts, his style, the flow. And last month I began to read the second book and once again I was reminded of why he’s such a special writer, and this a special work. For me, below is such a snippet:

After we came home from Idö I realized that this was all or nothing, I told Linda I was moving into the office, I would have to write day and night. You can’t do that, she said, that’s not on, you’ve got a family, or have you forgotten? It’s summer, or have you forgotten? Am I supposed to look after your daughter on my own? Yes, I said. That’s the way it is. No, it isn’t, she said, I won’t let you. Okay, I said, but I’ll do it anyway. And I did. I was totally manic. I wrote all the time, sleeping two or three hours a day, the only thing that had any meaning was the novel I was writing. Linda went to her mother’s and called me several times a day. She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone. I just held it away from my ear and kept writing. She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You’ll never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty pages a day. I didn’t see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a bastard, said I was an unfeeling monster, said I was the worst person in the world and that she cursed the day she had met me. Fine, I said, leave me then, I don’t care, and I meant it, I didn’t care, no one was going to stand in the way of this, she slammed down the phone, she called two minutes later and continued to swear at me, I was on my own now, she would bring up Vanja alone, fine by me, I said. She cried, she begged, she pleaded, what I was doing to her was the worst thing anyone could do, leaving her alone. But I didn’t care, I wrote night and day, and then out of the blue she called and said she was coming home the following day, would I go to the station and meet them? Yes, I would.

Daily Habits Checklist (December 25 – January 21): “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have” – Tim Ferriss

New year new ‘tude!! Ok not really. Pretty much the same ‘tude. But — hopefully the new year brings better and stronger habits :)

I traveled a lot this month, hence the days where I finished zero habits. On days like those, I might actually meditate, or do pushups, but I don’t fill in the chart for some reason…

From a scores perspective, it was a poor month. Winter probably has a negative impact (eg, I want to exercise less and sleep more, I have poorer eating habits when traveling and when seeing family who stuff me with rice and fatty meats).

But it was a happy month, so I can’t complain. Sometimes the big picture, the overall feel, the intangibles matter more than the numbers and the check marks.

The new year looks to be a very exciting one. I will renew focus on writing music and stories that can be turned into screenplays/films. I’ve been publishing excerpts of Accidental Billionaire here.

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have – Tim Ferriss

Here’s why and how I track my daily habits.

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