The sure thing

No such thing as a sure thing in creativity.

Everyone starts somewhere.

Except for the extremely fortunate ones like Theodore Roosevelt, and the extremely unfortunately ones like Abraham Lincoln, most of us begin life simply average.

What it comes down to is what course of life we choose for ourselves.

Most decide without having to decide that they would play the game run by the house. The house’s rules are their bread and butter. That’s how they fit in, to feel safe and secure. What it also implies is that the society demands that they strive to go to the best of the best since kindergarten, so they are ahead at every single step. They even have to have the best burial plot.

Usually this is a particular crop of exceptional test-takers, overachievers, IQ lottery winners. Statistically speaking, they are still the minority. They won because it’s in their factory default mode.

The prospect for the rest of us seems gloomier than ever. We’re unhappy, unsatisfied, uninspired. Because we are never going to be able to reach the shiny object that seems just a tad out of reach. 

That leaves us to the last thing we can control: what we choose for our career. The sure-thing careers are lawyer and doctor. If you happen to love these jobs, then hooray!  If you graduate with a student loan, once you are in practice, your future immediately becomes a sure-thing even if your work ethics is just moderate.

Now, what if you are like me, who dreams to be a writer, not in your next life, but right here right now in your current body?

What I can say from my own experience is that graduating from Francis Coppola’s UCLA Film School doesn’t guarantee you the sure thing. Getting picked by a top-notch Hollywood producer when I was still in film school doesn’t get you to your end goal.

The truth is, if you get into the film industry to feel secure, you should get the hell out before you set your foot in.  The film industry is the last industry that would give you that. You have to earn it for yourself.  Word by word. Script by script. Day after day. Night after night…

But if you do enjoy and admire a good story, maybe you would appreciate working above-the-line in the film industry. 

Don’t tell me, surprise me.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

What makes a good story

If I can’t feel it when I write it, how can I expect anything else from the audience?

I had a call with a director on her short story today for the rewrite.  She wanted to make sure all the elements were there, all the ambiguity was explained at the beginning.

I then said, “Look, I understand where you were coming from. But doesn’t your version sound like a beige flight safety promo video? How do you want me to feel in the end?”

So what is a (good) story? What isn’t?

The bottom line is, we want our hero to go through hell, to hurt, to lose, to experience a near death before he grows, and learns, before he gets his want, or not. No matter what the reward, he has to earn it first otherwise the audience would feel cheated. Besides, we want the surprises to keep our minds engaged. By giving us details like how we deal cards, our hearts are satisfied through working and solving the puzzles by ourselves. And when we feel what the hero feels at the very end, we finally realize that we have been manipulated by the storyteller. But like the hero, we let it happen. Because the journey is the reward. 

By pinpointing her mistake, I also realize it’s the pitfall that I also tend to fall into. 

As a storyteller, my job is to stir emotions. If I can’t feel it when I write it, how can I expect anything else from the audience?

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Haste makes waste

I had a call with my screenwriting sensei on a challenging project that I had been tackling with. Sensei started with chitchat. I saw what’s awaiting me… After some thirty minutes in, sensei stopped by saying, “Okay, now it’s time to draw some blood.” 

For some 2.5 hours. I felt every bit grateful for the notes he gave me. They were ruthless and spot-on, and exactly what I needed for the next over-haul.

For the amount of projects I have been taking on lately, I convinced myself that I would build the structure first and fill in the soul and flesh later. That way it wouldn’t kill the momentum of the dread of having to give birth to a first draft out of thin air. 

“By not feeling his desire, there is no weight to his denial. Always, always get the emotional beats out before you fill in the details. And I can see those fillers knowing that you are just trying too damn hard to avoid the difficult scenes that put your character alive.” 

Ouch. I felt like Po in Kung Fu Panda… So the question is, when will I stop writing with the head and start writing with the heart? I can use this project as a transformation point to my next phase. Or start with my next blog.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

A writer’s life

I’m proud to say that I’m now a working screenwriter. I’m for the moment out of my “between job” phase. 

After getting in bed (Hollywood uses it as a catchy phrase… so bear with me here) with some eight directors and counting for a number of feature and short projects, I’ve found the G-spots that are sure-fire turn-offs. 

Here comes the list:

  1. Comment that begins and ends with “The feel is not right” phrase. Then give no follow-up explanations, leaving the writer in the dark trying desperately – in all kinds of positions – to please the director who’s likely impotent. 
  2. Got the script from a writer who turned in at some strange hours but never ever say, “Thank you.” As a writer, I start hypnotizing myself that, “Now now, remember you got paid for this. It’s a blessing to earn money doing this. Just suck it up.”
    – But is good manners this hard?
    – Did someone just say ‘hard?’
    – My bad.
    – Come here, bad girl.
  3. The no-reply no-payment treatment till you beg for a response. Then the other side would simply say “Oh gee I forgot. I was so busy with XXX.”
    Or, give you the shrug plus the guaranteed eye-rolling in your back. Probably with the O.S. “The fucking nerve!”

I’ve never tried prostitution. But given the abundant resources out there, sex workers and writers share more than a few resemblances. More often than not, they get fucked in the ass for less than what they do to deserve.

But sometimes, you hit the jack pot too. Say, for a recent project even before I turn in the second and final draft, I got the rest of the payment in my bank account.  I stared at the incoming wire and couldn’t believe my good fortune. Alas, the gratitude is fleeting because you have other customers to please

Like Susie’s advice to Mrs. Maisel before baring her soul to the audience: 

Tits up!

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Under the moonlight

As a writer, my job is to bring what’s under the moon back to the sun.

The more people entrust in me with their stories about love, about rock bottom, about vulnerability, the more I realize that there is no such thing as a perfect life. If someone says he begs to differ, then I’d say he’s missing out on life in general.

Everyone at some point gets her heart broken if she trifles with love. Sometimes what they’ve experienced should only happen in a movie. And yet, the truth is stranger than fiction. 

As a writer, you get to see life in various shapes and colors. If you don’t have an open mind, you only capture a limited few layers of life and people. But if you are willing, willing to set aside your own judgement, your own opinion, maybe you will find that people are more alike than they’re willing to let on. 

And yet, we tend to preach the popular, go with the flow through sunlight. We only let go of our subconsciousness and desire under the moonlight.

As a writer, my job is to bring what’s under the moon back to the sun. When it’s done right, it provokes people, it makes them uneasy, angry, upset… But in the end, people see their true selves through the story. 

They won’t admit it, but they feel it. To a writer, that’s a job well done.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Communication

All I can do is to listen better; make sure who does what by when in writing.

I was going to have three calls today. One with the feature project director. The other two with the short film directors. 

The first one went extremely well. I was elated how this pro from the Big League liked my voice and nuances in the script. 

The second director was caught up in production. So we rescheduled till tomorrow. 

The third, boy oh boy, the third one got my head spinning like crazy. The director bumped into every possible pet peeves I had, the ones I didn’t know I had or the ones I thought had departed me…

Maybe I was being greedy. Because I didn’t need this extra short for my credit list when I was slaving away three short films, one feature while trying to build up the structure for my first Chinese animation feature plus a few other things.

Through the communication with the third director today, I learned a few things about communication and miscommunication.

Phone manners: Never answered the phone while you are in the loo when you tell the other side that you are ready while actually you’re not. Lock yourself inside the room when you know your call would meow and distract your conversation. The director blatantly did both. I rolled my eyes so openly. Thank the Lord it was not FaceTime.

Everyone needs to be acknowledged. This person never once said: “Thank you so much to turn it around within the 12 hour window.” Maybe she’s just another spoiled rich brat from China that need some spanking. I heard myself thinking.

Especially for screenplay projects, written words should be everyone’s best friend. I found myself trying to convince the director my vision from our previous conversation. It became her words against mine. When she said, “oh, my characters won’t do that. You can find it in the file I sent earlier.” “No, you didn’t.” I called her out loud. “Oh, now the male character has changed so much blah blah blah and the female character…” That part of our convo was a mistake, if not a disaster like Trump v. Pelosi & Schumer. I should ask her to send me more background stuff in bullet points before I started. Maybe she is young; maybe she’s inherited the worst part of the director title before earning it.

As a rule, I try to speak Chinese unless I can’t come up with the English word. I know how pretentious it could sound to the others in certain scenarios. We are both Chinese. So what the fuck? The director’s cringe-worthy English pronunciation got on my nerves if you want to know the truth. I’m not a pronunciation Nazi, but having so little awareness of how poor her English is by contaminating her mother tongue is what gets me. I found myself speaking English unnecessarily frequent with her as a way to beg her to stop.

And earlier I should sense the red flags. Like when I told her my price. She tried to bargain for a few rounds when I already told her that was what I charged for her three other classmates. Or, the part where she tried to give me RMB instead of USD and calling it thoughtful because I’m in China. I would have appreciated her street-smart in a whole different setting. Right then, I was not impressed to say the least.

When I asked her at the end of our call to send me her notes in bullet points, she never did. I recalled earlier when she came to me that she was worried about not being able to make it in time to the hands of her producer. Now she’s stalling?  Or maybe, we are just not the right fit. It happens. 

When my mentor asked me to not to internalize other people’s urgency but to go with my pace, I said I don’t have many choices right now because I want to get back to LA before I get bogged down by the Shanghai way of thinking (translation: What’s in it for me? How much can I milk out of it?)

I know better now after the bumpy voice call with the wannabe director. I took the rest of the day off; took a stroll with dad in the park; caught up the latest Colbert I’ve missed for the last few days; lit my scented candle and took a warm bath. I felt calmer. 

On the flip side though, I can’t help but think about those general meetings which I never heard back from. Is it because I was having too huge an ego for my petite stature? 

Hell, I can’t please everyone. All I can do is to listen better; make sure who does what by when in writing especially when I spar with another person whose personality doesn’t fit mine, which I’m sure may happen quite often.

And yes, I will need to breathe more and chill out. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Learning by doing

These collaborations make a skeleton key out of that tool.  

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