I do it to discover. At first it was because I wanted to be a wise man sitting behind a desk, in front of a crowded bookshelf, dishing out wisdom. In college I felt so clueless about life. Writers on TV seemed to say such deep things. I thought, “Hell, writers are the ones that know the secret to life.”
But over the years I’ve been humbled to understand writers are not always that wise. Maybe their work expresses wisdom but it’s not because the writer feels all knowing all the time. In fact, most of the time the writer is filled with doubt. So trying to be and feel wise was not a good goal. I realized the part I like about writing is the same reason that I’d want to try a new hiking trail. To discover.
Writing something — a short film, TV show, or screenplay— starts with an impulse, a bit of dialogue, a scene from something that happened to me, a strong feeling from being dumped, or falling in love. I then delve into the story everyday. Right now, it’s one hour every morning. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll discover some wisdom in the story. But it’s never the intention. If I don’t feel like I’m exploring and discovering something new, the story loses its vitality. I’ve seen that happen with a well calculated outline. When I was rewriting But She Wasn’t Perfect for PixL, the executive and I would have long discussions and I’d develop an outline. Then I’d sit down to write and the thing would have no life. Then again, you can’t just sit down and start writing a screenplay, because it does need to have a goal and place to go. But, it also needs to have space for adventure and discovery. And that’s why I write.
When I first started writing Funny Brown People it was titled, Getting to White. I still like that title although few other people shared my enthusiasm. To me, Getting to White meant trying to fit in, trying not to be different anymore. When I took these photos for Funny Brown People's promotional material I was just trying to take what I thought were sitcom family photos.
When I needed to submit some photos for a Perception of Beauty assignment at UCLA, I saw these photos in a new light. If you are Latino, this could be your cousin's family photos. But put these up as movie or TV poster and suddenly it's revolutionary. OK, maybe I'm getting carried away. But at least they're not what you usually see on a poster. This made the whole Getting to White thing seem very wrong. We're not trying to get to white, we're trying to be our version of the American sitcom family.
For the past 19 years I've surfed Bay Street Beach in Santa Monica most Saturday mornings. In that time I've made friends with fellas who frequent the spot. For the final project in my Photography II class at UCLA Extension I decided to point that camera at the boys and their boards. I tried to give very little direction and work with them to make the picture. I used one strobe and a soft box to illuminate their faces. I even took a selfie.
A good scene, a good story, a good script needs escalation. What is escalation? An increase in tension between what the character wants and his ability to get it. It can come from an increase in the stakes or jeopardy or finding out the character has less time. Jerónimo goes to tell his son that he needs to stand up to the school yard bully and as he does, Jerónimo is bullied by his own boss in from of his son. Now not only does he have to encourage his son to stand up for himself, but he himself has to stand up to his boss. The initial goal is replaced by an even bigger, more challenging goal for the hero. It can also be described as a reversal and it’s the juiciest element of drama. We can always revert to chisme, good chisme, for an example.
“You’re not going to believe it, but Hilda’s daughter is pregnant,”
“No me digas. The one who is so involved at the church?”
“Yes, that one. And it gets worse, the father is Hilda’s sister’s husband.”
“The doctor? Dios mio.”
“They met in the church choir. Can you believe that?”
“If her grandmother was alive, this would kill her.”
It's your job as a writer to create characters in a screenplay. Memorable characters are flawed yet have strong wants that propel the action of the story. Memorable characters that come to mind are Alvy Singer, Michael Corleone, Max Fischer, John Ferguson, Tony Soprano amongst a few. As a writer you imagine the character and put him on the stage of your screenplay. The biggest challenge is that once you've created the character you need to let them act consistently. In all my years of reading aspiring writers' scripts, I've noticed that the biggest script flaws are rooted in the writer dictating the characters actions and not the character dictating actions. When you read writer-dictated characters, the story feels false. It's hard to feel empathy when a character isn't acting as we think they should. This is why I've found working with good actors in script development can be very useful. They immediately catch when the character is being false or untrue to the character you've created true nature. I feel like as a writer you always want to see your character in some "cool" situation that will be visually amazing. But this forces the character to act in an untrue way. Writing from the characters perspective is incredibly hard and a talent that I think determines writing success. It's like when an actor feels they need to add some flare to words to be interesting. We watch that and it feels fake. Just being real and in the moment is so entertaining. It's hard to accept that and do it.
When writing a script, it's important that the character arc over one personal issue in the story -- this can be a value or institution like marriage, adulthood, fatherhood, or commitment. It's easy to start with a character who has issues with commitment and then end it with him getting over issues of pride. What you decide as the outcome and how this character evolves over this one issue, is the theme of your story. Why does it have to be one issue? That's what's satisfying to the audience. It came to me while taking my wellness walk around the Historic Filipinotown where I work. I thought, "Here I am walking up a hill and it's costing me lots of energy. That payoff is easier when I get to coast and walk down hill. That's my payoff." If I were to walk up this hill and then time warp -- this is what bad screenwriting does -- to another part of town and continue walking uphill, I wouldn't have earned the payoff for my audience. Hmm, but if I did go to another part of town and I did end up at a downhill or even flat place, wouldn't it be a payoff. Perhaps the metaphor isn't holding up.
The idea here is that an audience feels most satisfaction when it has earned the catharsis. So if a character is dealing with an issue of commitment and arcs on that, the audience will feel satisfied. If however, the character arcs on pride, they haven't earned the change or seen the character deal with pride and so it's not satisfying. The reason this is easily done, if that if you focus on writing to the external goal of the character, it's easy to forget the internal. That is, they might still be going after the same external goal throughout the movie, but arced or changed for different internal reasons. This is when the character arc isn't satisfying to the audience.
Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper was awesome y que? I’ll be honest. When I arrived to watch it the first time a few weeks ago, I was expecting to be bored. Instead, I was overwhelmed by my strong emotional response. It reminded me of watching the final scene of LA Bamba at the Mann Theater at the Esplanade Mall in Oxnard when I was a teenager. Watching Esai raise his hands to the heavens and yell out, “Ritchie!!!” I remember holding back the tears so my dad wouldn’t see me cry. This time around, a little older and wiser, I let the tears roll watching Hank Reina and El Pachuco on stage. This pinchi vato, so damn proud and full of swagger and style, at the center of a stage where the privileged (mostly white) come to be entertained.
All of Trump’s pedo rises up to the emotional surface. I’m forced to admit just how much all of his hate affects me. The play provides a release by articulating emotion that my intellectual-rational mind denies.
As a filmmaker, I always say that art, theater, and storytelling are essential functions of human life. This is why I do it. Then again, I don’t always buy my own B.S. But Luis Valdez and his cast brings this point home in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. Why in God’s name do we spend all this time on our art of storytelling? Henry Reina and El Pachuco made me think of all of my fictional heroes I’ve written: Paquito, Jerry Valdez, Jimmy Lopez, Juan Guzman, Angel Lopez, Manny Dominguez, Pete Cruz, Jaime Bravo, Veronica Martin. The play reminded me that stories reconnect us to who we are and what we hide in day-to-day social interaction.
Yeah, I am angry and proud like Hank and El Pachuco. Thanks Mr. Valdez and the cast and crew of Zoot Suit for reminding us why fictional stories and the theatre are still important.