5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

Writespiration: “Sunny” by Boney M.

Like all the other post-Emo kids who follow everything My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has done since his band broke up (and reunited — briefly, anyway, before COVID), I spent the last week binging The Umbrella Academy season 2. It’s not a perfect show; it won’t be heralded as part of the golden age of post-millennium TV. But I’m a sucker for soundtrack dissonance, and every single episode delivers — so much so that Vulture declared the show as the killer of the “sardonic needle drop.”

In that way, whenever The Umbrella Academy does in fact use music that fits a scene perfectly, it stands out. That’s the case with Boney M.’s “Sunny,” used in the S2E3 opener that recaps what Klaus — aka Seance in the comics — has been doing while seeing ghosts and leveraging his dead brother’s invisible presence in 1960s America. The song is peppy and builds up with key changes and orchestration enhancements so well that now when I hear it (which I have numerous times since watching that episode), I can imagine exactly where in Klaus’ journey we are.

Tonight I watched a documentary on Disney Plus called Howard. It looks at the life of Howard Ashman, who wrote Little Shop of Horrors and penned the lyrics to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. I was enamored by his adamance that every song needs to have a reason to be in a movie or show. “Part of Your World” is the “I Want” song that introduces you to exactly what Ariel desires — to become human. The song’s lyrics are part of the storytelling device, and they’re blatantly placed in front of you as something the character is saying.

Now look at shows like The Umbrella Academy, where the characters sometimes dance, sometimes fight to songs that already exist and come with their own history, both to the world and to us in our own heads.

“Sunny” has a perfect place in The Umbrella Academy because it’s deliciously anachronistic. The album it was on came out in 1976, while the scene it accompanies runs from 1961 to 1963: But that would just be like our hippy dippy protagonist Klaus, who’s riding high on attention and the start of the free love movement and not thinking “Gee, did Boney M. even exist yet?” The anachronisms of all the song choices this season make sense, as those song choices match the fact the Hargreeves family has traveled back in time from 2019 and could easily be hearing these songs in the memories while the world of 1963 twists and shouts around them.

So how’s this all “Writespiration?” In only one project so far I have mentioned what my characters are listening to: whether it’s the engineer blasting A Tribe Called Quest inside his soundproof lab; a federal agent turning her car on to Elton John blasting out of the Bose speakers; or Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) singing “Wild World” at the denouement. After seeing how The Umbrella Academy uses music to push the story forward in a way very different than how Howard Ashman did, I’m interested in adopting more of that into my writing. When I was singing along to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” at the bowling alley when I was 9, I didn’t expect to see it played behind a bloodbath between two civil rights activists and two Swedish time traveling assassins, but here we are — how many other ways can songs we have personal history with be used to characterize a scene?

Music of the Write: “Appetite” by Casey Edwards and Ali Edwards

Spotify threw this one into “My Weekly Discovery” a couple weeks ago as I worked on Camp NaNoWriMo planning, and it seems like the music streaming service might know my work-in-progress better than I do.

Now that I’m committing to my house exorcist mystery, “Appetite” is a fitting theme for how Agatha succumbs to obsession while shadowing Handel and Maeve’s work driving demons from suburban homes. It sounds like something Billie Eilish would record after she graduated from college, joined a coven and opened a unisex haberdashery with a backroom full of spell and potion ingredients (actually — that’s not a half-bad story idea).

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.

Music of the Write: “The Night Window” by Thomas Newman

If, like me, you’ve thought back to what life was like this time last month before an official pandemic required us to self-isolate, here’s what I was doing: I went to see the last movie I would see in theaters for a while, 1917. I know, about two months later than the rest of the cinephile world — but it was well worth it, as I can’t imagine seeing the film on a smaller screen and being as captivated by it. I was so tense and emotionally invested that the guy I was with at one point put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was OK.

The truth was, I was more than OK: I was euphorically swept up by every artistic detail of the movie, as graphic and grueling as it could be.

Thomas Newman’s entire score is fantastic, but one song in particular has fueled my writing as of late. “The Night Window” comes early on the album and escalates to a heart-stopping swell. I lost track of how many times I repeated it last week while working on the next installment of Axiom’s backstory, and it’s earned a permanent place in my “Random Writing Music” playlist.

Music of the write: “Vampire Money” by My Chemical Romance

If there was ever a way for an emo band to scream itself into silence for a decade, “Vampire Money” is it. As the final track on Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, the song acts as a farewell from My Chemical Romance — one that would seem permanent (if you don’t count the B-sides they released separately over the next year) until this year when they announced their reunion tour.

“Vampire Money” was nowhere near my favorite song on the album when. I was working on my screenplay for an Adaptation of Literature for Film class I took shortly after the album came out. But in the years since, I’ve been possessed with its David Bowie references, head-banging beat and guitar solo that begs to be taken on its back. And now it’s on constant rotation in a number of my writing project playlists for its adrenaline-coaxing quality.

Music of the Write: “Brand New City” by Mitski

I’m late to the Mitski party, but “Brand New City” came on my Spotify radio, and it struck a nerve in my writing — so much so that I added it to my “untitled fantasy bounty hunter story” playlist. But here’s the thing: I interpreted the lyrics differently than I’m sure they were written.

“My brain is rotting in places / I think my heart is ready to die…Honey whatcha take, whatcha take, honey look at me, tell me what you took, what you took…”

On the third listen — this time detached from the project I was thinking of — I realized that “whatcha take” refers to drugs: What drug did you take? What’s in your system? Do we need to pump your stomach?

But the first two times I heard it, I was in such a headspace with this potential fantasy story (as well as my current Dungeons & Dragons character, the undying warlock Axiom Thorne) that I heard them as “What did you take from me that’s making me fall apart now?” It’s a little Dorian Grey: The narrator is disintegrating, and she’s quite convinced that some asshole stole the Grimmoire or relic that has sustained her for so long.

Again, probably not Mitski’s intended meaning, but it fits this potential project…

Music of the Write: “Shutter Island” by Jessie Reyez

I saw Vogue included Jessie Reyez in their list of “Bright Young Things: 2020 Rising Stars” and was reminded of how important her debut single, “Shutter Island,” has been to formulating a number of characters.

“For a second I forgot I was a bad bitch. Begging you to stay became a habit” — that’s Axiom (whom you’ve met), as well as Pru to some extent, and a new character I haven’t published here yet. Of course, I realize that it’s also me: A fact I’m grappling with while also reflecting on a number of other things about my love, professional and creative life at the moment…

Music of the Write: Top 5 Songs of 2019

Short entry this week to make room for my longer piece next week. This year I listened to a lot of music, discovered myriad new artists, and wrote a ton while doing both. Check out the top songs I found helped the words fall out this year:

*Note that these are songs I found this year, not necessarily released in 2019.

1. “Blood // Water” by grandson.

Call this the biggest find of the year: Jordan Edward Benjamin, aka “grandson.” “Blood // Water” isn’t my favorite of the political chainsaw rock-tronic he produces, but it resulted in the final action scene of Nobody’s Hero and acts as soundtrack to our Dungeons & Dragons Byssia campaign.

2. “Prophet” by King Princess

To be fair, King Princess’ entire Cheap Queen album was a lifesaver this year. While Lizzo’s music is killer for an explosive breakup, King Princess explores the other kind: those that fizzle out so slowly that no one notices until something extraneous happens that puts things into perspective. “Prophet” made this list because I recently added it to the playlist for a book I’ve struggled to write for seven years now — maybe 2020 will be the year I find inspiration thanks to Mikaela Mullaney Straus.

3. “Succession Main Theme” by Nicholas Britell

Find me one writer who didn’t become obsessed with Britell’s score for HBO’s dynastic drama. Seriously, I fell in love with Succession‘s theme before I saw a single episode of the show. With string blasts akin to Junkie XL’s “The Red Capes Are Coming” from Batman vs. Superman, the show’s theme is the perfect march for a pissed-off protagonist or acid-minded enemy (both of which you’ll find in the Roy family).

4. “All for Us” by Zendaya

Another HBO show find, this one pairing Labrinth with Zendaya for the song that ends Euphoria‘s first season. That show is a treasure trove of tune, including one of the first major uses of Billie Eilish and “Bubblin’,” an Anderson .paak bop that almost made this list. But “All for Us” comes packed with genre-crossing drama: soundboard aesthetics, Zendaya’s silky-to-raw vocal range, and a heart-stopping choir that carries everything on its shoulders.

5. “Honky Cat” by Elton John

“Honky Cat” was always a song that existed, but not one that I put much thought behind until hearing it in a new light in June as part of Rocketman. Everything about it is Elton, who was one of the first voices I recognized on the radio (my favorite song at age 4 was “Crocodile Rock”), and since then has been an enticing enigma of a person who finds a way to surprise me every year when I find another song from his library. Last year’s Elton Discovery was “All the Girls Love Alice,” and 2017 was “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” With seats at his Chicago show in June, who knows what 2020 will bring?

Honorable mentions: “bellyache” by Billie Eilish, “The Chain” by The Highwomen, “Every Time I Hear That Song” by Brandi Carlile, “Pretty and Afraid” by Jidenna, “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey, “I Love Me” by Nikki Lynette, “Standards” by Leslie Odom Jr.

What songs inspired you this year?

#NaNoWriMo 2019: What to do when you don’t have a plan

In my latest weekly post, I teased a character I had been working on for a while and was thinking of using for whatever I end up writing during National Novel Writing Month. When I posted it on Twitter, a friend from college responded, saying he was inspired to try his first NaNoWriMo but wasn’t sure what to know going in.

I responded with a couple 280-character tips: Have a network, set up a daily word count goal, tune out the editor in your head, etc. Anything you’d find on a typical writer’s blog.

But then I started thinking: What if you don’t have any plan whatsoever? How do you do NaNoWriMo when you have no concept of what the story is, who the characters are, and what critical human theme you want to explore?

I started thinking this mostly because, Hello! That’s me this year! And, as a sign from Master Bong Joon Ho himself, I saw Parasite on Sunday (excellent film, go see it), and there’s this monologue that’s gripped me since I walked out of the theater:

You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned…You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next.

So in that spirit, here’s what I came up with if you’re facing Nov. 1 without any idea what to write but the egotism? courage? stupidity? to want to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month anyway:

1. Build the story around stuff that’s happening in your actual life. Have a croissant and coffee for breakfast? Your main character did to. What were you daydreaming about while waiting for the barista to hand you said croissant and coffee? Imagine that happened — a homeless man went sprinting through the Starbucks and dropped a weird metal piece on the floor, not turning around to pick it up because there’s three alien-looking dudes chasing him, leaving puddles of slime behind them. But then one of them turns and looks at you, and signals that he wants your croissant, and you (rather, your main character) is now part of the story. OK, now what happened? You’re easily at 2,500 words after describing the scene. Only 47,500 more to go!

2. Pick a two-word name for your main character. Every time it gets mentioned, you’ll be two words instead of one closer to that 50,000 word count goal.

3. Be super descriptive of everything. What music is playing? What does the coffeeshop smell like? Is the croissant crusty, or does it give a little in its paper baggy? What does the barista look like? Multiple hair colors are a plus because they take up more words.

(Spot the trend yet?)

4. Spell out the chapter titles. That’s two words each time you break. Might as well make chapters pretty short, then.

5. Everyone your character talks to on the street has a dog. Describe it in full. More words!

6. I’ve started putting allusions to pop culture into my work when they make sense. Do the same thing. Find a great song to write to when describing what happens when your character finds out that the metal part they absconded with from the coffee shop while the alien was munching on the croissant is actually the key to a spaceship that landed in the dog park across the street. Then have it playing on the character’s earbuds or something, and toss in some of the lyrics to boost your word count.

7. Stuck on a battle scene? Write “They fight” and follow it with little bullet points of things that might happen. Then highlight it bright yellow so you can find it later when you have a better idea (or just need to bite the bullet and write it). My first NaNoWriMo project literally had “Zombies attack” written in the middle of the second chapter because I wanted to get on with the story instead of focus on action scenes, which I hate writing.

8. Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Write something you LOVE! OK, so maybe you’re gluten free and can’t eat croissants for breakfast, and the thought of having to write about an alien species for a whole book makes you cringe. Find something else to explore and enjoy. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about: playing and having fun with words. We just do it really fast, and really intensely. It’s like a month-long sprint, and we all end up stronger for it in the end.