Tag Archives: John T. Trigonis

Running Through the Sixth with my WOEs

I don’t write much about my grammar school years. They were pretty much standard: I cried the first day my Mom and Dad “left me” at kindergarten (I didn’t think they were coming back); between first through third grades I became so well-versed with Janet & Mark until I couldn’t help wanting one to kill the other; and being that I was the quiet one, I’d always sit in the corner during recess or lunch and play with my He-Man figures, continuing where yesterday’s story left off.

Then came the sixth grade, where I encountered one of the most influential educators I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a class with: Mr. Torio. The legends about his greatness echoed legion through the halls of Woodrow Wilson School. All anyone ever talked about was how cool the sixth grade would be. “That’s what all the seventh graders are saying,” my best friend Jeremy had said. I even remember meeting a seventh grader once –– a long blonde-haired headbanger (long before I even knew what “headbanger” meant) with a Wilson brand black motorcycle jacket and fingerless gloves. “Just get through these other grades, kid. Sixth grade’ll change your life.”

Well, I made it through six grades (kindergarten included –– my parents did come back for me after all), and I had some memorable teachers: Mrs. Gioffre (kindergarten and Grade 3), Mrs. Fitzgerald (Grade 2) and Mrs. Perz (Grade 7, I think, though it might’ve been Grade 8). Then there were some old guard” types like my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Wickle who made me admit to the whole class that Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was fiction when I believed otherwise. (And still do –– there’s truth to everything, y’know.) And although I recall Mrs. Lange’s fifth grade classroom being pretty stellar, what I remember more vividly reading a copy of Robin #1 over and over again during her math lessons ever since my friend Brian slipped a copy in my desk.

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Photo of Mr. Torio’s sixth grade class at Woodrow Wilson School. (And that’s me at the bottom and to the left.)

All the while, though, I was anticipating just how great it was gonna be once I get to the sixth grade. And it was, in many ways.

See, Mr. Torio was the type of teacher whom you know enjoys sitting up there at his big teacher’s desk, watching over his “kids” like a headmaster out of Harry Potter and making sure we paid attention to the spells of knowledge and completed our home concoctions in our notebooks before morning. But he was also the kind of teacher that cracked many jokes throughout the day, which prior to my then six years of schooling was practically unheard of. Don’t get me wrong, they were all great teachers except for Mrs. Wickle, who was just okay, but they rarely cracked a joke; they smiled, but always made certain you knew you were here to learn, and that learning was serious business and not to be lightened by a brief moment of laughter until after the lesson was complete.

But Mr. Torio, he had jokes, animal noises, and on occasion a little Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor grunt. He also had some of the greatest facial expressions around. He helped break the monotony of standardized schooling in the best possible way, all the while being able to provide us with a trove of treasured knowledge from inside our brown paper bagged textbooks and outside of it. He was the first teacher who made me want to go to school everyday, and made me understand my Dad’s story about how when he was a young boy in Greece, whenever school was closed, he’d cry.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Torio was the first male teacher I ever had. In fact, before I heard the legends of how transformative an experience his sixth grade class would be, I had thought that teaching was exclusively a woman’s career –– to nurture in their students not only with knowledge, but compassion and empathy, as well as the alphabet. Mr. Torio was able to do all that, too, and he did it just as well.

During the sixth grade, I never read comics halfway inside my desk during Mr. T.’s lessons. I waited until lunchtime to run around and play with Kareem, who had replaced Jeremy as my best friend by that time. My Masters of the Universe figures stayed at home until the day was done, at which time I’d resume their stories after my homework was done. Thinking back to those years, 1989 – 1990 was a time before I became who I was meant to become. The man I’m still becoming. Mr. T.’s sixth grade class cultivated in me a genuine love of learning that I carry with me to this day. While fifth grade blackened my eye from my first fight with a bully, it was sixth grade that saved me with my first tryst with teenage love. And when I had questions about it, Mr. T. was there with the answers, whether as a look of approval or words of sage advice.

It’s teachers like him you don’t forget. It’s lessons like those I learned in sixth grade that linger on until “the last syllable of recorded time.”

Years later, when I was finishing up my bachelor’s in creative writing at New Jersey City University in the early 2000s, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that it probably wouldn’t pay the bills for quite a some time. (And still doesn’t to this day.) Dr. Chris Wessman, my mentor and advisor, made an interesting recommendation on the final day of my independent study in playwriting:

“Why don’t you apply for graduate writing program, John?”

What?” I sneered, much more cynical then than I could ever be now. “What would I do that for?” I’ve had enough of these “Ivory Halls,” I thought to myself. It was time I became a writer.

“Well,” Chris continued, “with an master’s degree, you can get a job teaching, so there’s money coming in while you’re writing.”

Teaching? I had always thought of teaching as something you do later in life, after you had spent your life learning something worth teaching. I remember the word itself being the bane of all writers’ existences, Kryptonite to a real author’s superhuman sense of syntax and soliloquy. The darkest night of a would-be scrivener’s soul that most likely might never see a new dawn. I for one didn’t want to trade in my own black ink for red ink, sacrifice my precision-crafted words for the disjointed ramblings of college freshmen. No, no writer ever wants to teach. It’s the final nail in the coffin before you actually go out do the dying. Teach? I thought to myself. I want to write!

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NJCU graduation, 2001. That’s me (yeah, with a ponytail –– I know!) with my Dad.

But then that same night I thought of Mr. Torio. I thought about all those lessons I packed up in my cerebral suitcase and took with me from his sixth grade and all through my undergrad years. I thought about how much I enjoyed his methods, even though I didn’t know there was such a thing as methodology at that age. If I could be that kind of teacher –– that kind of professor –– well, then I just might consider going to grad school, and soon after saying goodbye to the various seats I sat in as a student, saying hello to the front of the classroom.

And teaching.

I put in my application the following year to CUNY’s Brooklyn College, and I was accepted to its MFA program for creative writing, specializing in poetry writing, my passion. And upon graduating in the summer of 2003, I landed my first gig as a university professor at NJCU teaching a poetry workshop, thanks to Chris Wessman.

Through the wonders of Facebook, I’ve managed to reconnect with Mr. Torio, and it’s quite humbling to see his comments on an Instagram photo I’d taken of my writing station, or when I read a heartfelt message from him. And I try to send him pictures of Jersey City when I’m out and about, since he asked me to send him some so he could see how the city he spent so much time in had changed.

This also got me thinking early this year. About how I spent over ten years teaching at various universities across the Garden State –– from NJCU to William Paterson University, with a few community colleges thrown in for good measure; about how during that same time, I produced over a dozen short films, two theater productions, and a feature-length movie, read at dozens of poetry slams and open mic nights, and wrote the first edition of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers in a little under six months –– “an impossible task” as most of my writer friends warned; about how today, I still consider myself a professor of not only writing and storytelling, but of crowdfunding, and how even at my neighborhood coffee shop, I’ve become a cross between Norm and Frasier from Cheers, giving life advice to baristas and regulars alike. And everyday I try and make sure my Facebook friends and Twitter followers start their days with something positive in the morning, because life doesn’t always give us that opportunity.

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Trigonis the poet reading at Cool Beans Open Mic, circa 2002 – 2003.

But just like “Know Yourself” by Drake, in this blog, I guess you can say I’m running through the sixth [grade] with my WOEs –– WOEs being an acronym for “Working On Excellence” –– and in all these years, I’d say one thing’s been proven: you may not be able to take the writer out of the professor after all. But you also can’t take the professor out of the writer, either.

Thanks for that, Mr. T. –– er, I mean Joe.

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Hitting The Writer’s Block (And Breaking Right On Through It)

In all my nearly twenty years as a poet and writer, I’ve never believed in writer’s block.

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And this isn’t a piece expounding on how I suddenly found myself staring into the blank Microsoft Word document glowing back on my laptop, how my fingers froze, or how some unfelt before fear from the Great Beyond had turned on the faucet and I started sweating profusely.

No, I still don’t believe in writer’s block.

But it believes in me, and it almost hit me nonetheless. Hard.

As many of you probably know, since March of 2013, I’ve been writing a series of mystery novels under the auspices of “Hipster Noir” on the PATH train during my morning and evening commute to work. Three novels later, over 200,000 words, and one proposal to pitch them all to an agent or publisher, I’m still going strong with my fourth novel, The Curious Case of Tomorrow (Or, The Trouble with Time Travel).

But this fourth novel, which is a direct continuation of the third, the way Quantum of Solace is a continuation of Casino Royale, started making me second guess some things. I would still get on the PATH train from Grove Street in Jersey City to the World Trade Center stop on the other side of the Hudson, and my fingers would still go to work with my iPhone music library shuffling between Tom Waits and Gin Wigmore, with an occasional Lykke Li ballad or Pearl Jam anthem cutting in over the seven-minute or so ride.

This time, however, felt different.

I knew that I was really searching blindly for a spark. Now I can’t get too detailed here because I’d have to divulge what my fourth novel is all about, and I haven’t even published any of the first ones yet, but this was the first time over the course of almost thirty-six months that the writing was not yielding anything that I was getting truly excited about, the way the first three novels had done.

Nonetheless, I kept going. I kept writing every morning and evening, just like I’d done for nearly three years. The only difference was that instead of having my characters, story, and all its plot twists, McGuffins and organically sprout from within, I was actively searching for that spark, yet never thinking to admit that I may have finally found what no writer has ever actively searched for:

The Writer’s Block. And yes, I capitalize it like a proper noun ‘cause it deserves a proper level of respect. Anything that pushes us to become better writers does.

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The way I see it, we are the ones who create the Writer’s Block, by pouring out so much of who we are and what we are in our writing. At one point, we run out of things to write. But as Tom Waits sings, “you build it up, you wreck it down…” in a song appropriately titled “Hold On,” that’s exactly I did. I gave it form, shaped the shapeless into something that, in time, and once I found its weakness, I could hope to break right through.

Back to my Curious Case of Tomorrow. Amid my searching within not one, but two separate timelines that this new novel has split into; after figuring out that what I was writing this time around was no longer a mystery novel, but a science-fiction spaghetti western (if there’s even such a thing); when I finally surprised myself one day riding that iron horse through those morning and evening tunnels humming with the electricity of possibility, I knew I had finally blasted right through that ‘Block.

I had found my voice. Again.

Then I realized that it wasn’t the first time this ever happened, but it was the first time I became aware of it’s happening. And I dealt with it.

The Writer’s Block isn’t a stumbling block, it’s an uncarved block. It doesn’t necessarily have to stop your creativity. It’s not the blank page we stare blankly at, but the page that stares at us and pushes us to shut up our minds and write anything, which proves to be the most frightening thing for us writers –– to write without purpose. Without saying anything.

Writing for the sake of writing. Of calling ourselves writers.

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The Uncarved Block, or Pu, as Taoist abstract art.

But at least we’re writing, and in doing so, we’re showing that ‘Block whose boss.

Not enough of us do this. We hit the ‘Block and we wait for the right words. We complain about it on Facebook. We may go out with our friends to forget about that blank stare for a few hours. And each of these may actually work (or seem to work) to get you back on track.

But to find the right words, you’ve got to write down the words. It’s the Taoist principle of Pu –– the Uncarved Block. Though this particular tenet tells us we should let the world carve us into what it wants. From a writerly perspective, we simply need to start with a vague idea and the raw materials of what needs to be said and then hack out the words that don’t add to it. This way, all we’re left with are the ones that do work, and which will resonate and be remembered long after they’re read.

They’ll also be the ones that will remind us why we started writing in the first place.

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Φιλότιμο: Not Without Understanding When Felt Within

A couple Saturdays a month, I try and spend some time with a dear friend of my family’s named Maria. She owns a small Greek bakery on Central Avenue in Union City called Liberty Brand Pastries and Foods, where all the “big fat Greek” families near and far come for their koulourakia (butter cookies), baklava and holiday specialty foods. My Dad and I used to visit her for Kalamata olives and conversation in his native language; now I’m the one picking up olives, feta cheese, and those butter cookies I loved as a kid. Mix in a visit from the neighborhood mailwoman, a random diner owner, and even a priest from the local Greek church, and conversation and Papagalos Loumidis coffee abounds.

Maria talks to her friend Andreas at Liberty Brand.

Maria talks to her friend Andreas at Liberty Brand.

One particular Saturday, Maria and I spoke about many things, and we eventually landed on the subjects of my book and my new gig with Indiegogo. Maria’s fascination by my ability to tell her the weather for tomorrow just by looking at my phone today paled away when I explained to her what I spend my days doing from around 9:30AM to 5:30PM. I told her about my travels over the past five months and how many people and celebrities I’ve met in my short time with Indiegogo, and how I help them make their moviemaking dreams come true by helping them get the funding they need to make films they’ll be proud to show the world.

Maria then looked me in the eye with a certain sense of pride. “Yanni,” she said, saying my name in Greek, “you are a true filotimo.”

Having never heard this particular word before, I asked Maria what it meant. She told me it meant that I was a “friend of honor and integrity,” but then went on to say that filotimo is the most difficult word to translate from Greek into any language, and it’s an even harder concept to fully wrap one’s mind around. When I got home that afternoon, I did a little research. According to Christopher Xenopolous Janus, filotimo is “the most untranslatable and unique Greek virtue.” Composed from two words, filo– (friend) and –timos (honor/respect), filotimo is “a value of personal honor and pride that pivots on empathy and compassion for others as expressed through acts of generosity and sacrifice,” according to an informative blog post on Kafeneio.

Now, being that I’m more American than Greek, I grew up without any knowledge of the concept of filotimo, but it seems its seeds had been planted by my father ever since I was a boy. My Dad certainly embodied the essence of filotimo; he sacrificed so much for my sake, raising me right after my mother died; he stood tall and strong even in the face of the unseen adversary that took his voice and ultimately his life, but not without a near ten-year battle because he felt he still had to look after me. Much like every other story out there, and of course according to Joseph Campbell, we all must “atone with the father” and ultimately succeed him, as is the case with me. And so in that supersession, perhaps I’ve absorbed a subtle fraction of the filotimo he preached and practiced without him ever having to label it or give it a name.

reconciled Greeks, in general, have a strong sense of pride and are often accused of being selfish and having a formidable ego to contend with. But within all men and women who walk through life with open minds emerge two most important elements of storytelling and life: compassion and empathy, which each have their roots firmly planted in the ancient soil of the Hellenic world. With age comes growth and understanding. But to get there, we must first work on ourselves; we must be selfish (for a time, not forever) and start working on, as Michael Jackson once sang, “the man in the mirror.” In order to craft an award-winning screenplay, one must lock himself away with only a laptop, like Herman Melville had done with the writing of Moby Dick. And once the story is written, once the film premieres, we suddenly become the most selfless people in the world by having touched all those others around us in profound ways. Inducing tears, bellying up a laugh, moving a passive bystander to act. And once that happens –– or rather once we allow it to happen –– our individuality softly melts away, as it must, before we are allowed to become something truly great and selfless: a filotimo.

Therefore, filotimo is not merely a word, but a way of life; a feeling, not a philosophy. It’s something that grows alongside and within each and every one of us, not something we learn like mathematics or language. And while I’m still working on nurturing myself in mind, body and spirit, tapping out words on the page, I’m also giving back with each poem I publish, each Indiegogo campaign I help make successful, and with this very blog post you’re reading now. Filotimo resides in other people’s perception of you, like Maria and her perception of me. Its roots, though, come from years of growth and prosperity of the self, then sacrificing that self to the greater good by simply bringing out the greater good from within ourselves.

Perhaps the greatest show of filotimo ever.

Perhaps the greatest show of filotimo ever.

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Filotimo. Machisimo. Mensch. These are all cultural concepts sometimes difficult to grasp. Are there any others that you know of? Share them below –– I’d love to know them and what they mean to you.

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Cagney, City for Conquest, and the Invention of the Postmodern Protagonist

As many of you may know from reading my late night tweets and Facebook updates, I’ve been immersing myself in James Cagney movies ever since I stumbled on his old residence in New York a couple months ago.

This phase of film watching is partly for further research on Caput, my feature-length hit man screenplay, which I’ll be rewriting within the next month or so. Before that, I spent a few solid months watching a ton of Humphrey Bogart classics like In a Lonely Place, To Have and Have Not, Casablanca (of course!) and The Roaring Twenties, in which I discovered Cagney and all his tough guy glory to come.

The plaque (L) that’s attached to the building where Cagney lived (R).

Now you might not guess it by looking at me, but when I was a younger man, the only movies I ever watched were action movies. If you asked me to name the top actors, the “Holy Trinity” would’ve been Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Kickboxer, Out for Justice, Commando­­––if you can name it, I most likely watched it (dozens of times, too, on account of my Dad and our first VCR). Stir in a bit of Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future, Part II and that about rounded out my “eclectic” taste in movies back in the day. Then the American Beauty drama bug bit me in 1999, and the virus spread on with Requiem for a Dream so that by the time Donnie Darko nailed my brain, there was no hope for remedy. This virus crescendoed when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind edged me on towards a decent into the madness of foreign films from Italy, France, Japan, Hong Kong and beyond. I was ready for renaissance.

But today, I find myself lost in classical Hollywood, circa 1920 to 1950, and rediscovering the lure of the anti-hero while most filmmakers are busy finding new ways to exploit their R-rated comedies. More so, I’m taking on tough guy tales because in many cases they are much deeper character studies into basic human behavior than most people might give them credit for. They’re not shallow reprisals of stories told over and again to supplement an “explosions quota” or the underscore of some grisly killing by demon or devil. The films of Cagney are films about characters who have faults and attempt to overcome them. They’re rooted in the ancient Greek tradition of the tragic hero, and through evolution they’ve worked their magic into the postmodern world.

Even now, I’m still fascinated how I could be so empathetic to big time baddies Tom Powers and Cody Jarrett when they get their just deserts at the end of The Public Enemy and White Heat, two of his very best films. Or even poor Eddie Bartlett sprawled dead on the steps in The Roaring Twenties. These are hard-wired gangsters who made their way in the world loaded with lead, and of course, the bulk of these characters are the basis for most of the anti- and Byronic-heroes that populate today’s more indie films and TV shows.

Original poster art for City for Conquest.

One of Cagney’s films in particular had more of a profound impact on me than I ever had expected––the 1940 film City for Conquest, beautifully directed by Anatole Litvak. In a nutshell, City for Conquest tells of a trio of street tough Irish kids growing up on Forsyth and Delancey in New York City, each determined to get out and make something of his or her life. Eddie Kenny dreams of playing a dark symphony in a city spellbound by swing; Peggy Nash wants to see her name in Broadway lights as a famous dancer; and Danny Kenny (Cagney)? Well, he has no aspirations whatsoever. He’s content with his girl Peggy and his job driving a truck until his brother Eddie comes up short for his payments to study music at school. That’s when Danny launches a career in boxing––until then something he did only for exercise––all the while longing to be back home with his girl, who spends her time tripping the light fantastic with dance hall celebrity Murray Burns, masterfully played by Anthony Quinn.

Perhaps what struck me most about Danny’s character is how all-too-human he really is. Through the film’s second act, Danny wins match upon match, and there’s a wonderful nugget of a moment when an “old timer” mentions to a crowd listening to the match that perhaps Danny wins every match because he doesn’t care whether he wins or loses, and that perhaps if he did want to win, he’d end up losing. The men to whom the hobo speaks crook their heads at him like confused puppies, as would anyone today, more than 70 years later.

You see, in today’s world, in any city up for conquest, this is a difficult sentiment to maintain since the very idea of “not caring” surely insinuates that what you’re doing is not important. But I find that’s simply not so. There are dreamers who give their all, there are those who fall asleep, and there are also those who stand somewhere in the middle. And there are those, like me, who don’t dream or do but simply are. Surely I’ve attained my one and only dream since I was a kid––being a published poet. But did I ever dream I’d be an indie filmmaker? Never. Did I ever do anything to learn how to be an indie filmmaker? Not once. But here I am, an indie filmmaker with a short film like Cerise, which has been putting smiles on lots of people’s faces, and another movie on the way, a music video in between, two feature-length scripts in the works and plenty more ideas to breathe life into.

Being successful, I find, is all about going with the flow. Perhaps it’s all that Douglas Adams I’ve been reading, but if you go in the direction the universe is pushing you, you can’t ever steer yourself wrong. In City for Conquest, Danny becomes a boxer because he simply boxes. Sure, it’s his decision, partly motivated by the need to pay for his brother’s schooling, but boxing has always been there, waiting for him all along. Like acting had been for Cagney. Like making films has been for me. Like who knows what else further down the road…

James Cagney in one of his finest (tough guy) roles ever.

Granted, Danny from City for Conquest is much more of a serious role for Cagney than, say, Danny Kean in Picture Snatcher or Dan Quigley in Lady Killer, but this Danny is still a tough guy who gets around by way of his fists, a hot-headed little Irishmen who by the end learns that his toughness can only get him so far, but consequently it elevates his spirit to the heights of Sainthood (and that’s all I’ll say about that––I don’t wanna spoil the end of the movie for you!) That’s what I found so uplifting that I was moved to tears by the final frame of the film––a character who at the beginning of the film has no motivation for anything ends up motivating others simply by being who he is through his whole life, and ultimately that is all the motivation he ever really needed. In a world where identity changes as often as a pair of socks, that says a lot about toughness; you’ve gotta be tough to trust in what you’re doing and not think about the end result.

Though a majority of Cagney’s famous roles (Frank Ross in Each Dawn I Die and “Brick” Davis in “G”Men) are less complicated than City for Conquest’s Danny Kenny and mostly motivated by money, greed, power, or revenge, I’d like Teddy Caputo, the protagonist in Caput, to be one who’s carved out of the same stock of emotions that makes audiences connect with a cold-blooded robber like Cody Jarrett and a straight and narrow guy like Danny. And to achieve that, it means more hours in front of my midnight tube lighting up my eyes with classic Hollywood noir, and I’m excited to carry the black and white torch of my journey deeper into the soul of the anti-hero that began with Bogie and continues with Cagney, and lights on the directors that helped these two titans of the silver screen endure through the decades.

What are some noir films that have left an strong impression on YOU? List ’em in the “Comments” section!

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Auteurs Rising: Filmmaking’s First Act Revisited

I recently had a brief but insightful discussion with a screenwriter friend of mine about just how long it should take to write a short script. Apparently, someone mentioned she’d taken a while to finish her fifteen-page script,  suggesting that in the time it took her to finish writing it, he or she could’ve completed the entire film from Final Draft to Final Cut, perhaps. It got me thinking about this lightning-fast world of ours and the many filmmakers in it who hold to this mentality, that the more films they make, the better their films will get in time. While this makes perfect sense from a technical skills standpoint, it says nothing about quality storytelling, and for a film to be as good as it can be, the script needs to be as good as it can be.

If the three acts of filmmaking are writing, shooting and editing, then quality can only begin in that first act, like the exposition of any great movie. It comes down to a question of quality versus quantity, and the former in any film, indie or otherwise, begins on the page. So every filmmaker should practice being a filmwriter first and foremost. Innovation in filmmaking is another integral part of the process, but a filmmaker should know his or her story inside and out and work out any kinks on paper before they can discover interesting and effective new ways of progressing that story from beginning to end.

But today, since new toys are readily at every indie filmmaker’s disposal and at relatively cheap prices, just about anyone can shoot some footage, edit it together on an iPhone and swiftly move on to the next. At this year’s Cannes Short Film Corner, for instance, my short film Cerise was one of 1900 other short films that’d been registered at the festival’s Digital Film Library. With this faster workflow in mind, it’s no wonder there are so many more auteurs out here making movies on more regular bases, and each time hoping one of them might afford them their big break.

It’s the same procedure that screenwriters undergo, really. They slave over laptops tapping away at their next feature with the same levels of hard work and hope that filmmakers exhibit when they bring those words to life on the screen. But screenwriters know the importance of composing coherent and compelling stories before the cameras start capturing them in HD; you can easily revise a few pages of dialogue, but you can’t revise a few slapdash shots that were slapdash because they weren’t fleshed out enough in the first act of the filmmaking process. Then, two wicked words are born: “Reshoot” and “Overbudget.”

Nowadays, though, it seems indie filmmakers––most of whom don’t necessarily consider themselves screenwriters––choose quantity over quality in the hopes of perfecting their storytelling skills that way because of the belief that “film is a visual medium.” This crutch seems to excuse most filmmakers from ever honing their skills as filmwriters, which might be acceptable if the story you’re telling with the camera isn’t your own (here’s the other crutch, that “film is a director’s medium.”) But with most indie filmmakers I know, the stories are our own, and stories aren’t told through storyboards alone; even comic book panels need words.

As a filmmaker second and writer first, shooting a script that’s not 100% camera-ready can be counterproductive, not to mention pricey––a laptop and a latté look better on the budget sheet! I work on a script for as long as  it needs, getting the dialog right, describing the action on paper so well that my crew will see the shot the way I see it (I rarely use storyboards, though drawing was my first art), and then shoot it swiftly and without much extraneous thought on set. It’s the only way I can ensure the quality in my work.

Aside from the two features I’ve been working on, I’ve been slowly crafting two short films in a “Memory Trilogy” I’m piecing together. The first film, Statuetory, is five years old and wasn’t entirely working until I decided to challenge myself and tell the story in a nonlinear fashion. That was all it needed; now, a story that was a bit confusing and as preachy as early Woody Allen is now a bit less talky and much more filmic. I couldn’t have rewritten this short script back then the way I’d recently done; I needed the experience of writing Cerise, then rewriting it mere days before it was shot. Now, Statuetory and the second installment of the trilogy, Café Mnemosyne, are both ready for the 5D Mark II.

This question of quality versus quantity reminds me of what a screenwriting professor told me once, which I’m sure I’d mentioned in a previous post. He said that back in Hollywood’s heyday, creative writing classes were a required part of students’ studies as tomorrow’s screenwriters. Nowadays, creative writing’s not even on the lunch menu for most filmmakers. That’s probably why there’s not many Billy Wilders out there anymore. Quality begins in Act One, no matter how beautiful and innovative your images are in Act Two or how innovative the edit is by Act Three. If it takes you a week to write a three-page script or six months to draft a twenty-pager, let it be. The audience doesn’t care how much time you spent writing the story, but it’ll be the first thing they critique if you didn’t spend enough on it.

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Ten Pages a Day: Getting Your Screenplay From First Page to First Draft

Traditional screenwriting is kaput, in my humble opinion.

For those of you who follow my tweets and Facebook status updates, you might recall that a few weeks ago I finished the first draft of my latest feature-length script Caput, a hyperbolic Hudson Hawk of an action drama that centers around a mafia hit man who’s peculiar quirk inhibits him from “getting out” for good.

Back in December I was determined to write Caput “the right way” which meant sketching some character bios, finishing a full outline, organizing a scene-by-scene breakdown on index cards, and getting through all the other step-by-step instructions that you’ll read in just about any book on screenwriting. It works for so many of my friends and colleagues whom I respect a great deal, but I found that it just doesn’t work for me.

When I write, the words need to flow. I can’t put too much thought behind them. I spent January, February, and March doing absolutely nothing with Caput except a very rough outline, which only got me up to the midpoint (in Syd Fieldian terms) before I was completely stumped. I spent a few days ruminating over it, sketching out some possible directions, but nothing seemed to work. So I put it aside, defeated for the time being.

Then I woke up on the morning of April 4th and got ready for my normal Monday teaching back-to-back Civilizations courses at one of my universities. I had packed my laptop since I was showing The Passion of the Christ as part of our chapter on Christianity, so I had a good five hours to sit down in that dark room amongst my students and write ten pages. That was my goal. It sounded reasonable enough. Ten pages, and that was all I wrote. And even though I felt the drive to continue, I parked my thoughts at page 10.

The next day, after a modest workout and even more modest breakfast, I sat at my little faux-wood table and wrote another ten pages. And ten pages a day it would be for the next two weeks, typing practically non-stop for an average of between two to three hours. By getting into “The Zone,” and most importantly by not thinking too hard about what I was writing, I was organically creating a bigger story with new characters, an entire subplot, twists and more twists with MacGuffens and other textbook elements strewn in here and there. It’s a beautiful mess of a script, I’m sure. But it’s fresh! And beginning this week, I’ll be putting together a tight revision of this first very rough draft that no eyes but mine will see.

Now I suppose it’s the poet in me, working from inspiration, letting the words flow from brain to page as if they were being whispered into my ear by some magical muse with a thick Italian accent (and pointing a gun at my ribs, too!) And although the two mediums are not worlds, but galaxies apart nowadays, one feature is the same for both: Words. If we spend too much time in our minds plotting and re-plotting, nothing gets written.) Just write out that first draft! It’s only when you have it writ that you can tell if it’s a hit.

So then, back to what I stated earlier, that traditional screenwriting is kaput. Okay, not quite. Though many script coaches and analysts will disagree with me here, I’ve found you don’t have to spend your time writing those character sketches, outlining on index cards. Just get the basic story and scenes written out and run with it. And most importantly, don’t overdo it. If you’re a writer in this day and age, you’ve probably got a job to go to at some point in the day, so write what and when you can. Tennessee Williams used to get up at 6am and write until noon every day. Well, we’re not him; most of us have to squeeze in our daily dose of writing with our morning orange juice. For me, it’s ten pages a day. For others it may be Pilar Alessandra’s Coffee Break Screenwriter approach or the “Million Dollar Method” popularized by Chris Soth and USC. And still some may simply learn tips and tricks of the trade by following the insightful tweets of The Script Lab, Screenwriting U, and Raindance Film Festival amongst others.

Whatever your method and however you do it, just write that script!

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A Writer’s Roots: My Super Powers and Secret Wars as a Wordslinger

“I can’t believe it’s been twenty-five years since I bought my first Super Powers figure!” said the salt-and-pepper haired hipster working the floor at St. Mark’s Comics while pointing out a few figures behind a glass case in the back room. We both took a well-deserved moment and stared off in awe, he at the issues of The Flash and American Vampire I was holding, and me at his Rebel Alliance T-shirt.

It was at that moment one of my earliest memories bolted across my mind: I must’ve been six or seven years old when my Uncle Chris took me to a toy store and bought me my very first Super Powers action figure. I was convinced that he picked one without a cape because he thought it might cost less or something (or perhaps I just never took the blue cloth cape out of the box due to the excitement of owning my first ever Batman figure.) And who would have thought that one figure would catapult me onto a life-long journey as a writer seeking out great stories of my own to tell?

The Super Powers Collection Batman action figure (with cape!)

Like every kid at that impressionable young age, I had a vivid imagination. I would outline very rudimentary tales using my action figures as characters. I wasn’t one of those smash ‘em up rug rats that only wanted to slam toys together in an epic battle between good and evil, the victor pecked with minor scratches, the loser missing an arm or leg. Not me. I was interested in the details in between the fisticuffs. I wanted to know why a mental melee was no match for a battle of brawn in order to set the bad guys straight.

Prior to owning my Batman and Superman Super Powers figures, I also owned a handful of Secret Wars figures, namely Spider-Man, Daredevil, Dr. Doom and Kang (why Kang I’ve no idea!) At the time, I didn’t know much about these costumed heroes except from what I’d seen on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. As for Batman, I’d only gotten a slight glimpse into the Caped Crusader’s backstory through the 1960’s series rerunning every morning. In fact, my very first comic book was Marvel Tales Starring Spider-Man #210, which cost 75¢. I remember I only had a quarter on me. Then a kind mother gave me the additional 50¢ to buy the comic. I was so grateful. I must’ve read it at least a hundred times, even after the cover had torn off; and I even read the cheesy Spider-Ham story that took up the last six pages of the comic. From that day on, I started saving up my quarters and dimes and bought more comics, enthralled by the stories. Eventually, I got the crazy notion that maybe I could tell stories in my own words, since it seemed natural enough, inbred in everyone, I thought at the time.

Secret Wars: Not a great series but a great collection.

Years later, when I’d moved onto collecting other action figure lines like Batman: The Animated Series (which initially got the St. Mark’s hipster and I trading stories) and X-Men, I would cook up stories long after my dad had gone to sleep at night. But instead of Bruce Wayne in the starring role as Batman, it was me, or rather John Enders––I used my brother and sister’s last name from their father because, as a kid of fourteen years old, you tend not to appreciate the hard to pronounce surnames like “Trigonis,” especially when you’re the “quiet kid” living in a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood.) Beneath the mask of my Batman Returns Catwoman figure was any girl at school whom I liked but was too shy to talk to. My Secret Wars Spidey was a friend of mine who’d moved away; but in my unwritten narratives he was only a brief flight away in my die-cast Batwing, and we would join forces and outwit the sinister middle school bullies who assumed supervillain emblems and hatched plots to take over the world. Y’see, back then, my action figures were pens, but there was no ink, only a story that would exist each night for a few hours as I played, then dissolve as soon as my eyes tired and I’d close away my alter egos to the Reebok shoebox where they slept while I was at school reading Dickens or Fitzgerald.

Eventually when I started high school and made friends, I advanced beyond the oral tradition of my Homeric ancestors and started writing down my stories. At first, they were based on video game characters like Trevor Belmont from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and King Arthur in Super Ghouls and Ghosts, but those short fictions further evolved in the form of Dungeon Master’s logs––yes, I was a Dungeons & Dragons kid rolling for initiative, a Bic in one hand, Funyuns in the other, and a Monstrous Compendium before me opened wide to some wicked beast I hoped would thwart my fellow dice-rolling rogues along their heroic journey. The bulk of these quests, chronicled in six or eight marble Mead notebooks, found their way into my first full-length play The Legend of Jonathan Gracco, Part One: Ordeal of Love, which I would revise years later as a college sophomore because of Shakespeare and make further revisions in an independent study in playwriting during my senior year.

The immortal cover for Konami's first Castlevania game.

Flash forward to now: Through all of these experiences with story in its various inceptions, I had built up the confidence necessary for this once timid tale-spinner to tell distinctive stories without borrowing from what’s already been told. I believe in the age-old creed: Write what you know. It’s got to come from my heart; that’s the only way I can churn out a tender parable like Cerise or a poem that touches someone thousands of miles away in a pub in London, or perform a spoken word piece that washes over an audience at an open mic. Nowadays, however, I find that stories are too thought out, too erudite. Book smarts is one thing––if you want to learn how to format a script, for instance, consult The Hollywood Standard or search online––but real writing comes from within, from the heart. A writer can’t be made paging his or her hours away in between the countless hardbacks out there about story structure and character arc. To learn how to write novels with literary merit, read Hemingway or Fitzgerald; to write bestsellers, read Dan Brown; to craft beautiful poetry, read beautiful poetry. And if you want to tell stories, all you have to do is pay attention––really pay attention––to the world around you and the world you’ve created within you. It’s all there, waiting.

The truth is that not everyone is a writer. But as storytellers, if we want to tell stories that are naturally compelling and original, we shouldn’t spend so much time with all those secondary “How To” manuals out there, but instead learn from the primaries. If you want to write a movie, read the script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Inception instead of immersing yourself in the dogma of Story or Screenplay. (Don’t get me wrong, though, those books, like vitamins, are great supplements; treated as gospel, however, they can often inhibit the natural flow of a writer, and at times even nullify a story if the writer becomes overly concerned about plot points and page counts.)

When I attended Brooklyn College for my MFA in poetry, none of my three professors ever assigned anything for us to read other than poetry, and all from one textbook, Poems for the Millennium, Volume I. We read the book cover to cover. My mind transmogrified, and I’m only using this sexy $25 word because there was something magical about it that made it more than just a transformation. Only then was I able to I write my entire master’s thesis on the red line from Times Square to Flatbush Avenue and back every Monday and Wednesday for two years.

A writer’s mind should remain closely connected to his or her heart, like a child’s. Everything in our childhood, all those stories in the backs of our minds, whether it’s the Nancy Drew mysteries that enthralled you as a little boy or girl or, as in the case of the St. Mark’s Comics clerk, the Sunday night premiere of Batman: The Animated Series which sparked something in us that made us want to follow a series to the end of the season, or made us want to write our own, is practice. Maybe, like me, you just played with your toys a little differently than other kids, plotting out intricate stories with your Star Wars figures or a twenty-sided die, stories which would never blacken the immortal white plane of a sheet of paper. And if there is something like that for us to tap into, then we must tap into it because story comes easy when you set the derrick in the right spot. Then all you’ll have to do is dig and your story will undoubtedly flow.

The classic Super Powers Collection comic advertisement.

From where do YOU draw your ideas and inspiration for the stories you create? Tell me an interesting tale in the Comments section; I’d love to read it!

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