Crazy monk

In the Dream of Red Chamber, one of the four Chinese classics, a monk passed by Jia Baoyu and told him the fate of him and his friends in a poem. But Jia and his young friends couldn’t care less about the monk. Let alone his words.  They dismissed the monk as crazy. 

When we’re given crucial information before we are ready for it, more often than not, we won’t listen a word of it.  As I write this paper about my film school experience, I began to reread those handouts from my professors. All of a sudden, they make so much sense now with scripts and some level of Hollywood experience. 

But one thing remains true for the whoel time. It’s the attitude of writing every day. Many of my UCLA professors are quote collectors. This one amongst the others is my favorite:

You must write every single day of your life. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. May you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

– Ray Bradbury

Even though I knew I should write every day, I didn’t because I thought my job was more important than my words…

CUT TO a year later.  I had too little credits to consider an artist visa. I then realized that crazy monk was not crazy after all. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Learning by doing

I woke up this morning noticing a bunch of new messages at strange Beijing hours, plus a new contact invite. 

Another student director contacted me to fix his thesis short.

After collaborating with two student directors there, their program chair and the other screenwriting professor who’s no feminazi seem to approve of my craft.

This third director is someone I’ve been dying to work with.

Before switching to filmmaking, he had been working in advertising for the most part of his adult life.  Having looted every “big deal” advertising award on the face of the earth, the guy decided to switch industry. 

Just like that, he quit his ECD (Executive Creative Director) job in a 4A agency in Shanghai. He applied and attained his special talent visa (EB1-A) within a month. Then he simply immigrated his family to the US, his wife and their three-year-old daughter. 

I love his personal story as well as the short film he pitched me. Just like that, I landed my third short film project within a month. 

By end of December, I would be able to see him and the first student director in person in Shanghai. Without fearing that I may become cocky or expensive (cocky no; but expensive, for sure), they confessed just how hard it was to find decent writers (let alone good) and they want to keep working with me in the future. Without even seeing his story in my words, the guy said he trusts me and believes that I would do a good job. 

If I had 20% chance to get myself back in the US within a year and half, now that number can at least beat Trump’s latest approval rate. 

But most of all, I love discovering the differences of people’s creative minds. I used to roll my eyes when a director started to describe how he would frame a scene, and how much in love he was with the color, the tone, the mood… “Dude, those are fine, but they don’t help me to move the story forward!!” Now I relish their visual talent which I haven’t yet developed.  

I finally began to appreicate when Prof. Howard Suber told us that film is a collaborative business. Because when the right people meet their right match, things just start to click and work. UCLA helped me make my tool. But these collaborations make a skeleton key out of that tool.  

 

Yours truly,
YZ

RBYZ: Share thy mud pie (#006)

Jim Strain, screenwriter of the original Jimumji and amongst many, many other movies, shares his Hollywood journey and what he means by ‘mud pie.’

I love Jim’s intro accompanied by this revealing picture on his website:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had never seen a “self starter” key on a typewriter until I found it on an old Remington 5 portable in an antique store. It now hangs on the wall of my office. When you press the key, the typewriter carriage advances in slow but steady increments. Seemed to me the perfect metaphor for life as a freelance writer.

I’ve written screenplays for virtually every major Hollywood studio and even had a few produced. I’ve dabbled in theater, contributed to magazines and newspapers, and published a few books. I wear many other hats including that of a teacher, consultant, and sometimes artist.

It’s hard if you are first-generation of anything. It’s especially true in the show biz.
Meet Jim Strain, who found his way into Hollywood by being a self-starter.

What you’ll hear:

  • Jim also graduated from the UCLA Film School, what does he think about the film school experience?
  • How did Jim end up in Hollywood? Or shall I say, get in and stay in the showbiz and still creating work from his heart and soul?
  • Jim has taught at the UCLA Film School’s revered screenwriting workshop for quite some years, what’s the key element to become a screenwriter, from his perspective?
  • How does UCLA Film School’s pitch week work from a professor’s perspective?
  • How did Jim balance his dream of writing and hard-living in LA before he broke into Hollywood?
  • Does hardship in life help you to become a better writer? If yes, how to channel it into your work?
  • How to find like-minded people to collaborate? Here is a clue: Not via Craigslist.
  • What exactly does Jim mean when he says ‘mud pie?’
  • And so, so much more!

The most satisfying thing in life is to share your “mud pies” for others’ sympathetic consideration. — Jim Strain

Links from the episode:

Listen and subscribe to Rock Bottom with YZ:
A weekly podcast for and about anyone and everyone who has spiraled downward and doesn’t know which end is up.

Listen to Rock Bottom with YZ on RadioPublic

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. Click here to see ways to help #RBYZ to grow.

RBYZ: I’m gonna still be writing (#001)

From Midwest to LA, a teacher-turned-screenwriter’s California dreaming and dreading.

My first-ever guest is a teacher-turned-screenwriter who likes simple stories, complex characters, and real-life absurdism.

What you’ll hear:

  • What has teaching got to do with screenwriting?
  • Why did he choose film school after years of writing screenplays since he was 16?
  • Write what you know is a cliche. Write what scares you.
  • How does he deal with frustration, Rock Bottoms? Two words. Angry run.
  • Celebrate the wins. Celebrate the successes. But then, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
  • How to get the writing workshop going after film school? Consistency and the right mindset.
  • How does he process friends’ successes? Acknowledge it’s there and try not to let it consume you.

It’s hard to be successful at anything you do. You just have to like being unsuccessful. If you can do that, then you’re in the right line of work.

Your students are your audience. You’re not owed anything. If you fail to grab their attention, they’ll let you know.

If you think you’re writing something that is going to be successful or popular, it ain’t.

Wherever I end up in the world, I’m gonna still be writing.

Link from the episode:

 

Listen and subscribe to Rock Bottom with YZ:
A weekly podcast for and about anyone and everyone who has spiraled downward and doesn’t know which end is up.

Listen to Rock Bottom with YZ on RadioPublic

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. Click here to see ways to help #RBYZ to grow.

Never judge a book by its cover

I talked with the classmate from the screenwriting class during recess yesterday evening.

The lad is from Ireland. He was in finance for 13 years. Eight years in London. Another five on Wall Street. Still carrying a gruff Irish accent, he dons the same weathered baby-shit brown tee to the class. I would’ve never thought in a gazillion years that this lad in front of me used to be in suit and tie all day long for the most part of his adult life.

“I never wanted to be in finance.” He cut to the chase. “Money was good. But I was miserable.”

He pulled me in right away. A storyteller he is.

“I went there to make just enough money so I can live off later to write my own films and get them made cheap. I know my stories would never go through the studio pipeline. I have savings.  Now I want to apply for film school to get ahead with my pursuit.”

Wow.

“How do you like your film school experience?” He marched ahead with the big question.

I explained that if he wanted to write lots of scripts, UCLA Film School is a no-brainer. Because of its quarter-system. When I was there, I wrote one full-length feature script every ten weeks, along with other classes like Howard Suber’s Film Structure, and miscellaneous classes like producing, acting. I did feature and TV pilot in one quarter plus other classes and TA. It was sheer madness. But I learned about my limits and potentials.

He was concerned about the odds of getting in. Wall Street has its mark on him.

“There are thousands of applicants, right?”

“But you are a very good writer.”

I think he’s playing a good hand. Of course, there is luck and other x-factors. But how would you know if you don’t try?

We had to dash back, because the class had started. Scanning his baby-shit tee again, I beamed.

Good to meet you, Ex-Wall-Street-Wannabe-Filmmaker from Ireland.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

What it takes

A friend in NY called me last night. Just a while ago, he was studying film scoring at NYU, and I was doing screenwriting at UCLA.

We both come from China. We knew each other through a mutual friend. To be frank, the name of that friend eludes me now, just like most folks I used to call friends back home.

It was 2015. We both just got accepted. We had great expectations. We wanted to shatter America with our vision and mission before we had any clue how real artists live, and just how an aspiring expat artist makes a living.

CUT TO: THREE YEAS LATER

He said he’s in a dilemma. The job offers here are just a tad away from starving in NY. But there is an exciting offer back home. The company that is hiring will go public very soon. The package will include some portion of the initial offering.

What should he choose?
Keep SLAVING here?
Or, fly back and SOAR?

Ang Lee is my friend’s alma mater. Friend added—

Everybody mentions Ang Lee. But nobody tells you the staggering number of people whom you never know because life finally crushes on them. And they are just as talented as Lee if not more.

I asked him where he prefers staying in a long run.

“Here, of course.” He admitted.

I told him my concerns for artists to stay true to themselves back home. Because back home, you won’t have sufficient peer support. It would be easy to get lost, again. And then, not many people back home understand your vision. What would you do then?

Here we are, at another crossroad in our life.

But here is what I do know—
Not one choice is less courageous. We have gone this far. We have put our dream to test, unlike most “poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much,” as Teddy Roosevelt said.

Just like life, the conversation didn’t lead to an answer. He asked me for my perspective. I gladly offered.

Two artists. Heart to heart. No glam filters. No photoshop. Just raw cuts underneath the facade.

Three years ago, I despised anyone who yielded to reality. Today, I just listen. Because tomorrow, I may choose it myself.

I told my friend I’ve stopped using social media. I have no instagram. I don’t update my Facebook or WeChat Moments. I still have the accounts, because I may use them to reach out to people. Since I don’t know what I’m missing out, I keep my fear at bay. So I can sit here and write this blog. So I can keep making art.

Just what it takes to get there, I still don’t know. But I do have a better sense. Three years later.

Here is I will tell my younger myself from three years ago—

Your faith will be questioned.
Your passion will be burned.
Your perseverance will be tested.
You will learn so much about the craft. And even more about yourself.
You think you’re pretty strong now. But you will emerge stronger.
It’s going to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done.

Scared?
Me, too.

Here, I’m leaving in a minute. You don’t have to come.
If you do, buckle up and enjoy.

And she did.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

You never know

I’m staying home today. I have a haircut appointment at noon, because I have a lecture to present tomorrow. Then a 4:30 meeting with the Chinese writers. So I decided to use my own vacation day to stay at home. Barely 8 o’clock, there was pounding against my wall. The construction workers started their day’s job. But I’m uncharacteristically  undisturbed. A great time to practice Zen, right?

Yesterday evening was the screenwriting class I enrolled at UCLA Extension. It was much better than the previous two sessions.

I thought the instructor was high-strung. During the break by the water-cooler, we had a little chat. She was juggling so many balls—

She was teaching two evening classes.
She was also taking a YA Novel writing class through UCLA Extension. The deadline was 12 hours away. She wanted to turn in 30 pages, but she only had 10 as we spoke.
She was also working on a rewrite. The deadline was three days away, the Sunday. But she hadn’t started yet.
All the while, her 98-year-old mother back in Ohio was not doing well. Struggling.
Her other industry friends had projects announced on Deadline.com. But now, the people she wanted to give scripts to were all busy with their own stuff.

“That’s the life I’m dealing with.” She shrugged with a sad smile. I wanted to give her a hug. Because I know that face. I am that face.

I was critical of her in the first two classes. Because she was giving an unfair amount of time (50 mins out of a three-hour class for a dozen students) to a 65-year-old woman who was adapting the Holocaust memoir written by her parents. To be frank, the woman had a low screenplay IQ. She had an even lower EQ. I was on the verge of losing it. I bit my tongue and stared at the clock. I stormed out of the class the second we were dismissed.

The instructor said she stayed until 11:15 PM?! last time for the woman. I told her plainly, “Set some boundary.” I suddenly had more empathy towards her than I had known in me.

After the break, I pitched my old-new story. It was the first feature I wrote at UCLA. I got some really interesting notes. As soon as I got home, I watched the reference movie they mentioned, Stand by Me (1986).

I thought the class level was beneath me, at first. But yesterday from the table read, I found two guys were pretty good writers already. One had impressive action beats. Another had a fantastic ear for dialogue.

Although I didn’t bring in new materials last night, I got new ideas from the group. I did it by simply showing up. (Hat tip to Seth Godin’s blog post on “Showing up.”)

But it didn’t just end there. The “dialogue guy” emailed me through the course platform later, saying that he also wanted to apply for UCLA’s Screenwriting MFA program next year and asked if he could ask me some questions regarding the program.

It was a really thoughtful email. He explained that I was the only one he knew that went to this program most recently. He seemed sincere and respectful. Immediately I replied. I gave him my cell and email address. Of course, next time in class, we would talk more. I would even approach him if he didn’t. He showed me two things: bravery and sincerity.

Funny thing about reaching out. I’ve had many, many of those situations, mulling over how the recipient would think of me. But guess what, there is nothing I can do. The worst case scenario is no. But these days, you would probably get a ‘no response’ response at best. so what do you have to lose?

You never know.

 

Yours truly,
YZ