A Transcendent Moment

We stood on the beach and felt the warm water run over our feet. From here on the island we could see the bright lights from the mainland, and the storm rolling over it onto the ocean. My mind hearkened back to my time as a lifeguard, to being told the sight of lightning or thunder meant to stay out of the water. But the storm was far away now, and the only reason we could see it was because we could just see such a great distance here. Throwing caution to the wind, we stepped into the water.

As we swam about, she told us to look at our hands while they moved. I couldn’t quite process what I was seeing at first. My hands moved and bubbles scattered around them, only they couldn’t be bubbles. They didn’t come up to the surface and they became harder to see when I turned toward the well lit shore. She told us they were bio-luminescent plankton. Every time we moved them, their bodies lit up, and we were surrounded by them. He swam to shore, we swam out further, and then he put the lights on the beach out and we truly began to see.

I could see my legs from the glow around them as they kicked, blue light erupted around every movement of my arms. Risking my eyes I dropped underwater, opened them, and simply spun. The whole ocean glowed around me. He rejoined us and we wasted all of our energy swimming around in glowing plankton. Eventually we laid back to float in the water, impossibly buoyant.

The clouds were rolling in, blocking out the stars, but a single light shimmered through and passed over us. He figured out what it was, too close to be a planet or star but large enough to be visible. The International Space Station passed over us.

We floated there and I thought about the scale of the universe. We are so small in all of space, simple clouds block our view of that infinite expanse until all we can see is our one small contribution to it. Those clouds belong to a storm, an uncontrollable force of nature that will send us running for our rooms in a matter of hours. And yet it’s not so different from us, plunging our hands through a mass of plankton, scattering them wildly and watching them go. I wanted to freeze that transcendent moment in time and space so I could return to it at any time.

I guess the best I can do is write it down so I never forget it.

-JP

PS, but also we all totally swallowed a ton of that plankton while we swam. LOL

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The Page One Rewrite

Back in college I took several different screenwriting courses; Screenwriting I, Screenwriting II, Screenwriting Masterclass, and Graduate Level Screenwriting (I apologize to everyone who dealt with my ego during that last semester). During Screenwriting II the class was tasked with writing a ~30 page short script. I came up with a science fiction idea where older people could have their consciousness transferred into a younger body. It ended with the main character meeting the family of the younger man who used to inhabit his new body. I felt like I really had something there, and I still do considering they recently made that movie with Ben Kinglsy and Ryan Reynolds.

But that’s beside the point.

For a number of reasons the script wasn’t coming together and I realized it was because the twist ending was all I had. The 20 odd pages beforehand were all preamble and honestly really boring. So in the eleventh hour I scrapped everything and rewrote the script from page one, centering the twist early in the story so the rest of the script dealt with the fallout of that revelation.

Not only did this save my story, my professor commended me on being so willing to throw out the elements of the story that weren’t working and try something different. I felt satisfied, but figured I wouldn’t have to do something so drastic in the future.

Narrator: He would.

Somehow, despite my best efforts, this has become a regular part of my writing process. Without fail, one or two drafts in I will throw out everything I had and cherry pick the few elements that worked to rebuild the story around those beats. Sometimes this happens several times, with each new rewrite refining what works until finally the essence of the original idea forms a good story.

One of my favorite scripts I’ve written is about four friends and their giant fighting robot competing in a robot fighting tournament, and it started as a post-apocalyptic Gundam knock-off.

It’s frustrating, since the first draft is supposed to be the hard part and you should only have to refine from there, that I essentially have to write multiple first drafts before I get where I want to be. But when the new draft is invariably better than what came before it’s always worth it. I just wind up angry with myself for not getting it right the first time.

But that’s the point. Writing is a process, and this has become a central part of mine. Sometimes an idea never comes together no matter how much retooling I do. More often I’ll run out of energy on an idea and put it aside until my experience and skill catches up to the point that I’ll be more adept to handle it.

I’ve mentioned this to some of my other writer friends and, though all of them have had to do a page one rewrite in the past, none of them have to do it in every script they write. Which leaves me wondering if there’s something wrong with me or my approach to writing. Eventually the idea comes together, but it always takes longer because of the additional time each rewrite takes and if I want to do this professionally I won’t have that kind of time.

Maybe I’m overthinking my situation. Maybe I should be shopping around my outlines (more simplistic versions of the story) for peer review so I can catch my problems earlier in the process. Maybe I should get better at finding three things to put into lists.

There’s nothing more satisfying than typing THE END on the last page of a script and nothing more frustrating than completely losing those two words. But when the end result is a far better story, is all that trouble worth it?

(Hmm. This post isn’t quite working. I should rewrite it!)

-JP

PS, The idea that never came together was the one I tried to write in the Grad level class. It was essentially Confederate, the one the Game of Thrones guys want to make for HBO. To be fair I had two script ideas and the class voted for that one, but at this point I’m glad I never got it to work.

Love Simon and the Arrival of New Voices

This year during the Oscars there was a short piece about New Voices. In it, many female and minority filmmakers spoke about the times up movement and changes in representation in Hollywood. In this piece Kumail Nanjiani said something that has stuck with me ever since.

“Some of my favorite movies are by straight white dudes about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies about me and you relate to that. It’s not that hard; I’ve done it my whole life.”

The Big Sick was easily my favorite romantic comedy of 2017 and now Love Simon is an early front runner for 2018. Neither of those movies are about “straight white dudes” and yet I could easily empathize and engage with the material. Because the material is pretty damn good.

It’s not that hard.

The sentiment that there are no new ideas in Hollywood anymore is, in itself, not a new idea. Hollywood producers are picking the best scripts they can get their hands on to turn into feature films, but those scripts don’t appear out of a vacuum. The common refrain out here is that nobody will accept unsolicited material, which means a writer has to know somebody or be somebody to get their story read. Unfortunately, most of the writers with connections are “straight white dudes”.

The other common refrain among writers is to “write what you know”. It’s easier to write based on your own experiences than to endlessly research and write about something you know nothing of. So when mainly “straight white dudes” are writing movies about their own experiences, that’s how Hollywood runs out of new ideas.

(Note to self: write a movie about a podcast host with a blog who also works nights with two other jobs)

Pay attention to the movies coming out that excite you. Get Out, Wonder Woman, Coco, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Black Panther, Love Simon. Notice how the people behind them are not “straight white dudes”. The most exciting and engaging movies aren’t by “straight white dudes” so make more movies without “straight white dudes”.

It’s not that hard.

You can walk out of a movie like Love Simon and tell yourself the ancillary characters are thin, or bowing to blackmail is out of character for Love, or that Love Simon isn’t actually his name John stop doing this bit. But you can’t say you’ve seen that movie before. Because there is no straight white romance that looks like Love Simon.

Representation matters. Growing up I wanted to be Captain Kirk, Peter Parker, and Neo. I felt a personal connection to every character I saw named John, and that’s a pretty fucking ubiquitous name. These heroes inspired me, and I got to choose them. Not everyone does. So let’s give them options.

Make movies, write books, do a stupid blog like me. Submit to contests and festivals, even if you think your work sucks. If you have a new voice and new experiences to tell stories about, don’t hold them back. This stuff is hard, but when your work is good it will be recognized. The more new voices in the world the more likely they are to be heard, so everybody get to yelling.

There’s a reason white supremacists, homophobes, and sexists are scared of you. It’s because when someone comes to understand a different point of view, they change, and those people don’t want to come to terms with the simple fact that they are wrong. Eventually your chorus, the cacophony of new voices, will get through to them. They will relent. And you know what? “Straight white dudes” like me will be just fine.

It’s not that hard.

-JP

PS, the next film I’m excited about is called Sorry to Bother You. Check out this trailer:

Blow Up the Premise

Archer has been on TV since 2009, originally airing as an animated adult spy comedy, but in its fifth season the series took a sudden turn and literally blew up the spy agency where all the characters worked. To make ends meet they become drug dealers selling the cocaine they had previously confiscated in a particular spy mission. That season Archer became Archer: Vice.

This wasn’t the natural turn of events based on story-lines the series had been seeding over previous seasons. It also wasn’t entirely because the spy agency was called ISIS, although it was a little that. In fact the only explanation for the sudden shift took place behind the scenes. The writer got bored.

Archer creator (and sole writer) Adam Reed just ran out of spy stories and wasn’t having fun anymore. So he blew up his series core premise so his characters could be in a different story. It gave the show new life and, when it tried to go back to spy stories in season six, it simply didn’t work like it used to anymore. Since then every season of Archer has come with a soft reboot. In season seven they were private investigators and season eight, dubbed Dreamland, is a noir.

Writer fatigue is a real problem and it can become easy to start repeating story beats. Often writers will leave a series after a couple seasons so that, the longer they run, the less likely you are to find anyone from the original staff there. Some times a show just runs out, because the premise really only allows for so many stories to be told. Which is exactly why a series needs to blow up its own premise to find new stories to tell.

Think about some of the best shows of the century. Most if not all of them completely change their premise somewhere around the end of their third season. LOST’s third season ends with “we have to go back” promising a completely new direction for the show moving forward. Game of Thrones ends its third season with the red wedding while Battlestar Galactica ends its third by revealing who the final five cylons are and Starbuck announcing she knows where Earth is. Even comedies do it on a smaller scale, with Parks and Recreation teeing Leslie Knope up for a Councilwoman campaign and How I Met Your Mother finding Barney falling in love with Robin. All of these shows fundamentally changed themselves with no means of going back.

 

That shift, that willingness to blow up the premise, reinvigorates the series behind the scenes and opens up far more storytelling potential for the writers. This season another show has just returned from blowing up its premise: iZombie.

The little zombie show about an undead girl who eats brains to solve crime ended its third season by infecting Seattle in mass with the zombie plague. Now in season four Liv, the hero, doesn’t have to keep her zombie-ness secret because its out across town. Other cops work in pairs with a zombie who eats brains to solve crime. Blaine, the shady brain dealer, has moved his businesses into the mainstream, and it looks like a war between different classes of zombies is more likely than one between zombies and people. But it’s still the same people, with the same character flaws, and the show hasn’t lost its sense of self in the shift.

This need to change things up to keep the show alive is a recent phenomenon. In the old days (and still on CBS) a series is meant to stay the same forever. Anyone could tune into any episode and understand everything about a show. But with the advent of streaming, the ease of catching up, and the need for eyeballs in an ever growing and crowded market, shows need to stand out. A status quo is good to have for a while, changing things drastically every year could mean cutting yourself out from some stories, but every couple of years blow it the hell up.

-JP

PS, now I really want to re-watch BSG.

What Makes a Great Villain

Yes my last post was about Marvel, but that was before I saw Black Panther and oh man is there more to say now.

The most common criticism against the MCU is that it has almost no good villains. Loki is good, but can anyone even remember what Whiplash was all about? Or Yellowjacket? Or Malekith? I literally just had to look up that last name. Marvel never seemed to particularly care though. It mattered more for you to like the heroes, after all they’re the ones that’ll be back in the next movie. If you want compelling villains you have to check out the various Marvel TV series that are only technically part of the MCU.

Enter Killmonger, bar none the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Light spoiler warning! That being said if you haven’t seen Black Panther you are missing out on what looks to be a significant pop culture moment.

Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is an outsider with a grudge who attempts to usurp the throne of a hidden and extremely advanced civilization. He actually shares a lot in common with Loki, the previous record holder for Best Marvel Villain, but he edges the competition out by having an argument that’s actually relatable.

Wakanda hid itself while the rest of Africa was ravaged by colonists, then continued to hide while Black people across the world suffered subjugation and racism. Wakanda could have saved them, and with its Vibranium technology it very well could. If he can arm the oppressed around the world they could rise up and change things, with Wakanda in control.

Of course Killmonger is also bloodthirsty and dangerous. The guy scars himself for every kill he makes and there are MANY scars. His plan is similar to what the US used in the middle east and clearly that has gone very well over the past few decades. But the fact that the core idea sits in your head means he’s a little right. And to make Killmonger a little right, then T’Challa, Black Panther, has to be kind of wrong.

That’s how Black Panther makes Killmonger such a great villain. The movie allows its main character to be wrong. Black Panther uses its central premise as an afro-futurist wonderland as a cause for debate and not just a setting. Through conflict, our hero learns something from the villain and comes out the other side changed for it, with a better way to be a hero. That relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger brings to mind another Marvel movie from before the MCU.

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Okay sure, Professor X and Magneto follow the MLK and Malcolm X parallel but that’s not what I’m thinking of here.

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Yeah that’s the one! Wayyyy back in (oh god) 2004, Otto Oktavius walked into Peter Parker’s life on four metal tentacle claws and challenged him. He challenged Peter to take risks and try to get the girl. He challenged Peter to pick himself up and be a hero when he thought he couldn’t. He challenged Peter to save an out of control train. He wasn’t just a big bad villain, he embodied both the best of what Peter could be when he was sane, and the worst when his research took him over, and taught Peter to find his way down the middle of those two extremes.

Killmonger similarly challenges T’Challa to be better. Wakanda can’t just hide like T’Chaka wanted it to, but it also shouldn’t wage war against the world like Killmonger wants. It’s up to T’Challa to forge a new path for his country’s place in the world.

But what makes Black Panther so successful at this is how much time it spends telling Killmonger’s story. The movie is equally his to T’Challa’s, so that when you know his origin story and when you see him cry, you feel for him. That’s what gets his point of view in your head. That’s what makes you think he’s a little right.

That’s what makes a great villain.

-JP

PS, Am I the only one who really liked the Civil War Black Panther suit better than the new one he gets?

A Decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – A Love Story

When I was young my father gave me this comic book:

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Fantastic Firsts, a massive paperback full of first issue and origin stories for the heroes of the Marvel universe. By this point, just about anyone could name the characters on this cover, but at the time that knowledge was still fairly obscure. Some of it still is! The man in gold right in front of the Hulk is Iron Man!

In his origin story Tony Stark was captured by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War and suffered a deadly injury. He was able to prevent shrapnel from getting to his heart by building a full size vest that magnetized them away, then from there built an armored suit that allowed him to break free and become a hero.

I rather liked that origin story, then in 2008 I saw the first picture of this:

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I had heard an Iron Man movie was coming, but I didn’t expect them to recreate the homemade suit from the comics! The X-Men movies wore leather instead of their costumes, Daredevil had his silly zip-up, and Batman was running around with his nipples exposed. But this movie, the more I saw in the trailers, used the comics origin story as a template for a more modern superhero story.

Then I saw the movie, and this logo for the first time:

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I had seen Marvel before in front of a movie, but never Marvel Studios. I didn’t really know what a studio was! I was 14! What followed was a very good superhero movie that bucked a lot of traditions in the genre, and as I left while the credits rolled I was content. That would be the last time I ever left a Marvel Studios movie during the credits.

In the next few days people told me about a scene after the credits. I didn’t believe them. We tried to find a clip of it on YouTube. Easy to do now, but not then. Which meant I had to go see Iron Man again and sit through the credits to get to this:

I lost my god damn mind. See I had been reading a series called the Ultimates. It was a more 21st century take on the Avengers and in those comics Nick Fury, traditionally white, looked like this:

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He looked exactly like Samuel L Jackson. He looked like Samuel L Jackson and someone actually cast him to promise there was more to come, to promise not only SHIELD but the Avengers. I was locked in.

Then over the next three years I watched the movies fulfill the makeup of the original Avengers comics (give of take an Ant-Man and The Wasp). The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America all got their movies and a promise at the end of their credits.

They Will Return in The Avengers

The Avengers was, in no uncertain terms, a cinematic event. The first of its kind, a team up superhero movie that was also better than anyone could have hoped. The movie climaxed with a moment that still resonates to this day:

Oh yeah, that movie also changed big budget franchise film making forever. Despite the small fact that literally nobody else has been able to pull it off.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an edge over other wannabes like the DCEU, the X-Men, the already dead Dark Universe, and the Monsterverse (that’s the one with Godzilla and King Kong, the second best connected universe right now). Marvel Studios does only this. WB, Fox, Universal and Legendary are massive movie studios with many projects on the table. Disney may own Marvel now, but they keep hands off and allow the studio to do it’s own thing. It’s own thing, by the way, is tell increasingly complex stories about its characters.

Tony Stark’s arc has taken him from an arrogant weapons dealer to a peace keeper to the man willing to sacrifice himself for the world. Then in phase two, that sacrifice left him traumatized and, when that trauma was stoked, he created something he couldn’t control to protect the world that wound up putting everyone in danger. Coming off of that he surrendered control of himself to the governments of the world, the opposite of where he stood in Iron Man 2, and nearly killed one of his closest friends in blinded rage. Of anyone’s his story is the most complex. While the movies may not have gone all in on his alcohol addiction they’ve given him another one, super heroics. He tried to quit at the end of Iron Man 3 but a call from the Avengers brought him right back. This will probably kill him.

Steve Rogers went from the shrimp who didn’t like bullies to the super soldier who could actually defeat them, and gave up everything to do it. Only he didn’t die and woke up 70 years later to a world he couldn’t recognize but had to live in. For him, World War II never ended, which is why when Hydra revealed itself within SHIELD he found a new opportunity to finish it. At a point he couldn’t see the human he once was, only the super soldier, until his best friend Bucky appeared in the present as the Winter Soldier. For that last tie to who he was he shoved back against the world and gave up his place in it. One wonders if he’ll ever find peace.

Thor’s story is by far the simplest of the founding Avengers. He was poised to take the throne, walking down the path among his people, braggadocios and bold. His father humbled him and sent him to earth where he learned to be mortal, fell for the world and of course Jane Foster, then gave both those things up to stop his brother from exterminating his old enemies. He found his calling as a hero, but refused to take the throne when it was offered to him. Instead he chose to continue his own fight as a hero. Right up until his father died, leaving the throne in the hands of his evil sister. Sometimes greatness is thrust upon us, and after sacrificing Asgard to defeat Hela, Thor once again makes the long walk to the throne. This time, however, he’s solemn and regal. Unlike Cap and Iron Man, his arc is complete. He could fly off into space safely if it weren’t for Thanos’s massive ship bearing down on him.

For these three their stories are likely to come to an end in Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel. Whether by death or retirement we may never see them again. But with them they’ve brought so many more heroes into their world. The MCU has slowly trained its audience to understand heroes and comic book logic to the point that the Vision could just appear in the final third of Avengers: Age of Ultron and nobody has to tell you what he’s capable of. You just kind of roll with it.

That’s the other great strength of the MCU. The sheer power of the brand means that characters who would otherwise never get the spotlight can take center stage with ease. Would we ever see a Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, or Black Panther movie if they weren’t part of this universe? It’s unlikely. They don’t have to explain how their powers work, they just have to get the characters right and we buy into the rest. They didn’t even have to retread Spider-Man’s origin story for the third time in 15 years, they just put him in the world. Thank god.

For a movie studio to have released almost 20 blockbusters in 10 years that are all, at the very least, surface level enjoyable is unheard of. The scope of it all is insane, especially when its thrown into stark view in that class photo header image. (Check out the high res version)

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The greatest thing to happen in my life has been watching my interests somehow become, not only mainstream, but a driving force in pop culture around the world. At the end of Iron Man 2 I had to explain to everyone what a hammer in New Mexico meant. At the end of The Avengers I had to tell everyone who Thanos was. At the end of Thor: Ragnarok I didn’t have to tell anyone what that ship meant. I expect I won’t have to explain Black Panther’s tag either. We’ll see today.

Over these past holidays I found that comic, Fantastic Firsts, and brought it back home with me from my parents house. Flipping through it, there aren’t many classic characters for Marvel to adapt after Phase Three. In whatever comes next they’ll have to look to the present, in newer heroes like Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Kamala Khan as Captain Marvel, Riri Williams as Iron Heart and Kate Bishop as Hawkeye. I cannot wait for that.

Marvel Will Return

-JP

PS, I recently rewatched a bunch of old Marvel trailers, so don’t be surprised if a massive Marvel marketing piece comes out down the line. Maybe I’ll save that one for Avengers 4.

Three Years Gone By

January 10th, 2015 was my first full day in Los Angeles.

January 10th, 2018 marks my three year anniversary of living in LA.

On that first day I woke up on my sister’s couch. I had spent the night there before my apartment would become available that first day.

Today I woke up in my bed, in the house I’ve been living in for about two and a half years now. I have no intention of leaving any time soon, and count my roommates as some of my new family out here.

On the first day it was raining, but still around 60 degrees outside.

It rained again yesterday! Then today it’s supposed to be 57 degrees out. Yet all of that is still better than the endless cold that has gripped most of the rest of the country. Basically I’ve been seduced by the warmth of California.

I hung around for most of the day, waiting until my apartment would finally be available.

My day started at work, then I went to bed around 9 am when I got home. My schedule is weird right now but in the afternoon I’m going to the gym and eating dinner before, well, hanging out until work starts again.

The only occupation I had was “student”, and I hadn’t secured an internship for my semester in LA yet.

I have TWO jobs now. I am an Overnight Vault Technician at Picture Shop, a post-production house in Burbank. I’m basically a media asset librarian. But I’m also a Remote Polygonning Intern with Ubermedia, which involves outlining buildings on maps.

When I finally moved in to my apartment I met my roommates for the first time. They were almost complete strangers, and I knew only one other student in the program ahead of time.

I’m determined to see those old roommates this year. We’ve lost touch a bit but we all live in LA now so there’s no excuse. Apart from them I have my make shift family in my best friends, podcasting co-host, roommates, and actual literal sister. From their friends I’ve found an extended family. It all keeps growing and getting better.

We took our first trip together to buy groceries, bonding over food and plans to cook more than in the past.

In my house we want to start cooking more group dinners and have more parties at the house, not to mention getting Universal Studios Annual passes to go there a bunch together.

That night I crawled into bed, in a room that I shared, anxious about the next day and the semester to come.

Tonight I may nap for a bit before getting in the car and driving to work to start the whole process over again. Like I said, it’s a weird schedule.

After living in LA for three years I am feeling anchored here. One of the oddest things about visiting the east coast for the holidays was how out of place I felt there and how quickly I wanted to return home. I never used to call LA home. I’ve switched jobs yet again for the better, I’ve found some success with a Riverdale Podcast, and I’ve even written a short I intend to make this year. My primary goal this year is to do better with money, save more and hopefully make more with a new and better job. I know this post is weird and self serving, but every time I come back to it I’m reminded of how far I’ve come each year. That’s pretty special for me.

Now to roll up my sleeves and jump into year four.

-JP

PS, but like, on a macro level, 2017 was very very bad.