PJ McIlvaine: In The Zone

Now THIS is the zone where we’ve always wanted to be!

by PJ McIlvaine

Writing can be a long, rough, exasperating, never-ending, demanding, heartbreaking slog. Anyone who claims that they were an “overnight” success, ahem, I’d take that with a grain of Himalayan pink salt.

Writing is lonely. The only people speaking to you are the voices in your head. And if you don’t listen to them, man, do they get cross.

Writing is physically demanding. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you may end up as old as Methuselah. I have written through flu, sinus attacks, kidney stones, the kids throwing up in pots beside me, and other untold miseries and tragedies…you name it, I’ve done it, survived and even thrived. I’m not saying I’ve done it well or that it’s easy. That’s a story for another day.

But when you’re in the zone…ahhh, it’s bliss, it’s orgasmic, it’s floating on air, it’s that wonderful, heady, intoxicating zone, and there is no better feeling in the entire world, besides, maybe, a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream or snuggling up to your loved one on a cold winter night or rocking out to John Fogerty. And I’m saying that’s a big freaking maybe.

But the zone, that elusive zone…I never know when I’m going to be in the zone. The muse is fickle and fleeting. But when the zone comes knocking, I damn well know it and I must heed the call. I take full advantage of it because who knows how long it’s going to last.

For I have learned the hard way that the zone has a mind of its own and I ignore it at my own peril. My hard drive is littered with half-completed books, barely begun scripts, and aborted first pages. I allowed myself to be distracted by other shiny new objects. Now I’m older and wiser. I let the zone do the driving. I’m merely the passenger.

So what does being in the zone mean, exactly?

Well, I can only speak for myself, but it’s when I’m seized with an idea to the point of obsession and exclusion of all other ideas. Oh, to the outside world, you seem completely ordinary. You do the routine, mundane chores like laundry and going to the market. Nothing to see here, move on.

But inside…that’s a different story entirely. I breathe it like a forbidden romance. I literally cannot think of anything else, no matter what I do or where I go. It’s branded into my brain. It courses through my veins like a rolling river. I close my eyes and voila, it’s all there, unfolding like a movie: the plot, the characters, the voices, the surroundings, complications, drama, everything and anything. I may not have the entire story fully fleshed out from beginning to end, but I have a general sense of how it goes. I find that writing it down in an outline is NOT helpful and even hinders me. I’ll usually write a paragraph or so, sometimes even just chapter headings as a guide post, but that’s it.

And also with the zone, and maybe this is the most crucial part, it waits patiently, well, maybe not so patiently, for me to write it all down before it disappears like cotton candy in a five-year old’s sticky hands.

When I’m fully enmeshed in the zone, it’s like being on auto-pilot. The words pour out of me, all coming from a higher power, and I dream up with things that later, even I wonder where the hell did THAT come from. The best way to describe it is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I know I’m going to hit land eventually, and I hope that when I do, I’ll be okay, gulp.

Over time, I’ve learned to trust my zone. Now that isn’t to say that when I’m in it that there aren’t ebbs and flows. There are, plenty of them. It might steer me in the wrong direction and I have to make a course correction. Sometimes I’ll write something not knowing how it’s going to play out and then, boom, subconsciously the answer will come to me when I least expect it or when I’m doing something else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a brilliant scene washing my hair or taking the dog out for a walk.

And when I do hit a low point, as all writers do, I just keep writing, even when it seems it’s hopeless, it’s treacle, it’s horrible, I don’t know what I’m doing (add your own reason). I know that eventually, the zone is going to come through if I just keep plugging away to finish the first draft. Once I finish that, the revising, the re-writing, all that is doable. The zone, the passion, carries me until I can type THE END which we all know, really isn’t.

Many people call it different things, for me it’s the zone. But whatever you call it, when it comes, grab it by the tail and don’t let go. And now, if you’ll excuse me, the zone, my BFF, is calling.

Pj McIlvaine is a prolific writer/author/screenwriter/writer/journalist. She has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, and a host of other places. Her Showtime movie, My Horrible Year (with Mimi Rogers, Karen Allen and Eric Stoltz) was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Find out more about Ms. McIlvaine HERE. This article first in her most magical blog.

Gerry Conway on the Live Action ‘Dumbo’ – “Burton’s Revenge”

Live Action Dumbo Can Only Be Tim Burton’s Revenge
by Gerry Conway

After a miserable time at the movies last night, I’ve come to the conclusion that Tim Burton’s grim and joyless “Dumbo” is an auteur triumph.

SPOILERS AHEAD. (Though for this movie, “spoiler” is descriptive as well as a warning label.)

I don’t recommend “Dumbo,” but I admire it. Burton has accomplished something almost startling with this film: he’s made a movie that is about as unsubtle a “f**k you” to both his corporate sponsors and the audience as one could get without actually superimposing “F*CK YOU!” on every frame. Contempt for Disney and for the audience that gobble up the company’s live action remakes of classic animated films oozes from every shot, every scene, and in particular, from the entire second half of the movie. If some films are a love letter, this is hate mail. Tim Burton clearly hates how Disney is exploiting the animated films he cherished as a child, and “Dumbo” is his bitter revenge.

Why am I sure “Dumbo” is the angry vision of a furious auteur and not a well-meaning misfire? Because I respect Tim Burton as a filmmaker too much to believe this movie isn’t exactly what he wanted it to be.

Burton has been making films for thirty-five years, and though the films he’s made lately haven’t been quite as quirky and strange as his earlier movies, they still display the control of a man who knows what he wants to achieve, and how to achieve it. You might not like where he goes, but he knows how to get you there. So, “Dumbo,” with all of the issues I’ll mention below, is exactly the movie Burton wanted it to be.

The question is, why? Why would Burton want to make a movie so driven by rage against audience and corporate sponsors both?

And why “Dumbo”?

If you’ve seen Burton’s interview with Ray Harryhausen, available on some of the Blu-ray reissues of Harryhausen’s films, you’re reminded of how much of Burton’s vision of filmmaking is informed by his still-childlike appreciation for simple wonder. As he sits with Harryhausen and plays with the saucer models from “Earth vs the Flying Saucers,” Burton looks and sounds like a five year old kid gawping in awe at a shopping mall Santa Claus. He still loves the things he loved as a child, and he becomes a child again in their presence. His joy is sincere.

The man who felt joy and wonder in the presence of Ray Harryhausen could never have produced the grim, joyless, misery-soaked downer that is “Dumbo” unless he was trying to say something about the destruction of his own childhood sense of joy and wonder.

I think “Dumbo,” in its not-so-thinly veiled critique of the cruelty of corporate exploitation of children and nostalgia, is Burton’s attempt to tear down the structure he helped to build.

It was Burton’s own remake of “Alice in Wonderland” that set the current live-action remake frenzy in motion, remember. Whatever you may think of that movie (I like it for its weird and subversive charm), there’s no question it was enormously successful and clearly inspired the corporate minds at Disney to authorize a wholesale ransacking of Disney animated classics as fodder for subsequent live-action redos.

As a loving fan of those original classics, I think Burton must have been horrified by what he’d unleashed. He couldn’t have felt otherwise. Again, look at his interview with Harryhausen. The kid in him cherishes joy and wonder. Whatever virtues the Disney live-action remakes have, with the exception, I’d say, of Burton’s own “Alice,” joy and wonder aren’t an apparent high priority for the filmmakers involved. If anything, most of the remakes are drained of wonder by the translation from the imagined to the tangible.

Which brings us to “Dumbo.”

The original “Dumbo” is a slight, one-hour fairy tale, centered entirely on a baby elephant with big ears who can fly, and cast almost completely with talking and singing animals. With the exception of a thoughtless racist element, it is a film of charming childlike innocence with a simple message about the strength of mother and child love and the power we gain when we let go of emotional crutches. (“I need a feather to fly.”)

This is not a movie that demands a live-action remake, or even, in its story elements, supports the possibility of one.

And, in fact, Burton’s “Dumbo” isn’t a live-action remake– it’s an angry, passionate argument *against* such a remake. The baby flying elephant is a MacGuffin in Burton’s “Dumbo”–not the emotional core of the story. There are no talking or singing animals, no other fantasy elements, not even a hint of fairy tale atmosphere. From a character point of view, I’d argue, there is no emotional core: none of the “live” characters in Dumbo have any emotional resonance at all. They are all bleak and joyless and broken, emotionally dead, barely responsive to the world and the story supposedly taking place around them. One of them, a little boy, has no character existence at all– I’m not sure he’s even named, and he could be removed completely from the film without any discernable impact. For a filmmaker with Burton’s skill set such a failure to develop even marginally interesting characters with a vital stake in the story is inexplicable– unless it was intentional.

I think it was intentional.

I think “Dumbo” is an act of auteur subversion, one of the most breathtaking acts of creative defiance since “Citizen Kane,” though certainly far less successful as a piece of entertainment. In fact that may well be the movie’s most defining artistic characteristic– its complete unwillingness to entertain.

It really is a remarkable achievement. To trick Disney into financing and releasing a major motion picture which savages everything about the company’s approach to its classic films, and, in addition, to its entire corporate raison d’etre, is a stunning accomplishment. What a trick. I imagine the script reads very different from what Burton shot– it’s possible to describe something one way, shoot it another, and edit it all together to produce the opposite effect from what the screenplay suggests. Because there’s so much CGI involved, Disney executives probably never realized what Burton was doing until final cut. And that, in itself, is part of Burton’s savage attack on Disney’s corporate methodology. The further film executives get from true hands-on creative involvement in the films they make– through increasing dependency on CGI and post-production manipulation– the less they really know about the movies they’re making. The very power to ham-handedly rework a mediocre director’s work in post allows a master director to hide his intentions until it’s too late to reverse them. By the time Disney executives possibly realized what Burton was up to, if they ever did, they’d sunk too much money and time into his version of the film– and had no choice but to either scrap the movie entirely or release it as it is. Given the exigencies of corporate finance, and the apparent belief on the part of Disney executives that the appetite for live-action versions of beloved animated classics is insatiable, releasing Burton’s hate mail movie was ultimately the only logical thing to do.

In the end, “Dumbo” isn’t a good movie. It probably was not intended to be. It’s Tim Burton’s angry rant against making movies like itself. It’s a slap in the face to the people who financed it and the audience who shows up for it. As a work of protest it’s kind of admirable. As a film-going experience, as I stated above, it’s a miserable two hours.

You’ve been warned. At least now, if you see it, you can “enjoy” the movie for what it is– a scream of contempt, an artist setting fire to the gallery displaying his work. Personally, now that I’ve defined it… I think I like it.

Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.

How We Screwed Up Showbiz Culture – and How We Can Fix It

Remember when show business was a cottage industry run by fans dedicated to producing the best films, TV shows, plays, whatever, for the enjoyment of just about everybody in the world?

We don’t either. But we can dream, can’t we? Here’s something to get you started:

by Tennyson E. Stead

Before I delve into the chronic misdeeds of our industrial showbusiness community, forgive me a paragraph or two to establish my credentials as your professor in this matter.

Much of my life in showbusiness until now has been defined by the work nobody in Hollywood actually wants to do, but that everyone would gladly take credit and experience for having done, if they could. For ten years, I learned the risks and rewards of producing by financing other people’s indie films with cold-calls to potential film investors. Most of my life has been spent on stage, and my classical theater education grounds my directing work in the fundamentals of dramaturgy and live performance.

How We Screwed the Showbiz Culture Up And How We Can Fix It

While I have literally lost count of how many screenplays I’ve written, I can say that eight have been optioned, sold, or written for hire – not counting the four I am producing myself. Between the producing, the years of finance calls, the years I’ve spent staring into one version or another of Final Draft and the decades I’ve invested in my theater community, I’m a product of habits that most people in Hollywood can’t find the time to develop.

Many readers already know that in 2013, I was struck in the head by a sword during a film shoot and suffered a debilitating traumatic brain injury. Apart from the many humbling and sobering symptoms I experienced (which you can read about in my Stage 32 article, Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple, my injury put me at a very high risk of stroke – so to ensure that my life in showbusiness wasn’t wasted, I wrote down and catalogued every single thing I knew at the time about building and maintaining success in entertainment. Among the many fruits that were borne by this exercise, I found a working definition of culture:

Our culture is the body of experience that people choose to have in common.

A Cultural Phenomenon

When circumstance forces a bunch of people together, whether it’s in a job that everybody hates or through some kind of economic or social disadvantage, that shared experience does very little to promote trust between them. Pushed together, people are generally willing to betray or hurt one another to establish some kind of control over their own environment. In contrast, finding out that we share something personal in common with another person, like a religion, a hobby, an educational focus, a favorite book, movie, song, show, sport, an ethical or moral system – literally any experience that we have voluntarily invested ourselves in – means we have some insight into what that person is capable of. In this way, our shared experiences become a baseline of trust for all our communication with other people and for all our collaborative labors.

If our culture is underpinning of all our communication and group effort, then the quality of our culture is going to have a huge impact on the excellence of our endeavors as a society. As content creators, our job is to decide what experiences people can and should expose themselves to as the foundation for their relationships with other people. Our community is responsible for stewardship over the mindfulness and selflessness with which we build our values as a society.

Uh oh.

When I was a kid, the least challenging way for a person to engage our culture was through sports. At the time, I resented the bullying and the disregard for intellectual pursuit that sports culture can promote. But as a ground-floor cultural standard, sports also promotes respect for hard work, the celebration of personal achievement, and the inherent value of cooperation. Remember when we could more or less assume everyone shared these values?


Challenging The Status Quo

Today, the least challenging way to engage our culture is through reality television. Instead of actively choosing which experiences an audience should be exposed to, our industry has let itself be defined by the search for content which larger and larger numbers of people are willing to accept. After generations spent mining our marketplace for data guiding us towards those projects to which our audience will offer the least resistance, we have gradually built a culture that requires nothing from the audience at all. Innocently enough, all this was done so that when any given project fails to make money, no one person in the system can ever be blamed for the financial loss – but in exchange for corporate job security, this culture is now the framework by which we communicate all matters of politics, science, public health, ethics, morality, and belief to one another as human beings.

That, my friends, is how we came to the place we’re at as a nation.

Rebuilding our cultural authority is a process that will take us decades, but it’s a process we can all engage directly as content creators. Setting an example for our colleagues in the industry is obviously vital, and setting an example for the audience gives them the means to be more discriminating and to help us curate our culture. Here are two simple things that every one of us can do to fix this:

Fight the notion that success in Hollywood is a prize that gets handed out to whoever has the coolest idea or holds the winning lottery ticket.

If you haven’t noticed it yet, that value system is a product of our reality TV culture. Instead, start investing in your craft as though you were training for the Olympics. Start investing in the people around you based on how much and how well they develop their own craft. Make it all about the work.


Specifically, look at the quality of your contributions to a show not just in terms of how present and dedicated you are on the day of production. Measure yourself with a critical eye toward the day-in, day-out training and preparation you put into making yourself the artist that you are. Be the best person for the job not just because of your creativity and attitude, but because no human being could possibly keep up with your daily, unrelenting pursuit of growth. Embrace the fact that there are some objective measures for greatness and mediocrity in the arts, and turn that truth to your advantage.

Be the strongest example of your craft, and whatever you create becomes your legacy.

Provide deliberate leadership to your community and audience. Get to know the craftspeople you’re working with and the audience you’re working for personally. Figure out what challenges these people and what excites them. Make some personal decisions about the work that would enrich their lives, and MAKE THAT. Be the person who’s paying attention to the experiences these people are sharing in common, and offer them something that will help them grow together as a community.

Take personal responsibility not just for the work you do on a production, but for the impact that work is having on the audience and the community your productions are building. If you can offer that community your personal support, then use social media. Show up to events in person, even if it means volunteering. Get involved…

…because someone has to. Because that’s our job. Because we create the tools by which people relate to one another, and because right now those people need our help.

Tennyson E. Stead an award-winning writer and director who carries a decade of experience as an independent film development and finance executive. Today, Stead’s primary labors revolve around writing, directing, and developing cinema and online content as the founder of a repertory film company called 8 Sided Films. This article first appeared on STAGE32.COM

WGA Members Approve New Agency Code of Conduct

We’d say it’s fair to call this a landslide:

See the broader view at DEADLINE.COM


Why the Writers are Going to Lose vs the Agents & What They Should Do Next

Gavin Polone, the author of the post below, is a film and TV producer and a talent manager as well as a former agent. Here he is at his insightful and provocative best:

by Gavin Polone

Over the past two weeks, the question I’ve been asked most is, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” What’s surprising is that the second-most-asked question has been, “What do you think is going to happen with this whole WGA vs. the agents fight over TV packages?”

It’s not only surprising that people care about this esoteric question of dealmaking but also — and more importantly — that the Writers Guild of America has chosen to dig in so hard over a less tangible, but still important, issue to their membership.

In the past, the guild has made its stand on such things as health care and residuals, which is to be expected, as those items are understood by all and immediately affect the economic and personal well-being of the recipients. Anyone to whom I try and explain what package fees are, and why they are controversial, usually offers me a blank look of incomprehension in return. Not the kind of thing that rouses the troops to throw themselves into battle; and yet it has. In this fight, the writers are taking a stance against the clear conflict present when agents, who are supposed to be representing the interests of their clients, are receiving separate and direct payments from studios on the projects for which they are negotiating on behalf of those same clients who are working on those same projects.

The code of conduct that the WGA is trying to force the Association of Talent Agents to sign would eliminate these conflicts, thereby affording the writers greater peace of mind that the negotiations for their work are being handled at arm’s length and with assurance that they are receiving a true free-market rate for their services.

The agents see the issue differently … or, I should say, they have a counterargument: that they are important to the process of making entertainment and therefore deserving of these large fees; that they would always act in the best interests of their clients, irrespective of how they are compensated; and that their getting package fees is a big win for clients, who then don’t have to pay the standard 10 percent commissions on those packaged projects. In my experience as an agent, manager and producer, none of that is factually nor arithmetically true. I would have greater respect for agents if they were to offer a more honest rejoinder along the lines of:

“Package fees should be allowed because they are a way for us to make more money in the short-run (because Teslas, ski houses and scamming your kid into the Ivy League are fucking expensive) and way more money in the long run, because the value of a business that is based on talent relationships and goodwill is far less than one that owns large revenue streams that continue to flow for decades. Further, if we leverage our relationships with our clients into not only owning parts of movies and TV but actually financing and producing movies and TV, we can then borrow against the assets we possess and buy other businesses and build media conglomerates and go public, or sell to private equity, and be super, super rich and get out of the business of representing talent altogether, which would be great because we don’t want to be servants to clients anymore but would rather have those clients serve us. And if you think we’re going to stop there, then you’re as much of a rube as you were when you thought the package fee was something we got in exchange for not producing movies and TV and that we would be satisfied with those high fees alone and not try to get even more. Yes, we want the package and the right to produce and own movies and TV, but eventually we’ll start buying Broadway theaters and booking our clients’ plays into them, and our actors will star and our directors will direct. And we’ll build our own streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, to show the movies and TV we make. And we’ll start book publishing houses and record companies and promote our own concert tours and construct our own theme parks and set up our own sports leagues and a bunch of other shit that we haven’t had the headspace to think of yet because those fucking writers call us on the phone all the time asking us stupid shit like ‘When will we get paid!!!!‘ “