Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Home for Christmas: (Not) a Hallmark Presentation

I’ve spent a somewhat embarrassingly disproportionate share of my free time this holiday season watching those endless made-for-Hallmark Christmas movies.  Good God—the scripts come off like bad first drafts banged out over a weekend, though somebody is probably making a handsome living writing them.  (Any chance you’re hiring, Hallmark?)  There are a few variations on the formula, but most play out something like this:

A work-obsessed city gal—typically a “marketing exec,” though clearly zero research has been conducted as to what precisely that entails—finds herself stranded in provincial New England, British Columbia, at the heart of the holiday season (kindly disregard the lush summer foliage in the background of every wide shot), where an earnest Bill-Pullman-in-While You Were Sleeping clone, far too manly and pragmatic to have ever participated in something as frivolous as an acting class, teaches our heroine, often with the aide of a precocious (and fortuitously motherless) child, the true meaning of Christmas—read:  small-town livin’ in the real America.  Twirling gape-mouthed in an obscenely production-designed town squarebrought to you by Balsam Hill!blanketed in a freshly fallen silent shroud of SnowCel, our newly enlightened protagonist declares, “This is what Christmas is supposed to look like!”

And that got me thinking:  What should Christmas look like?  I mean, if each of us could put the holiday season on a postcard to serve as the perfect representation of what it evokes in our hearts, what would yours depict?

Perhaps this?

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Writers Groups—the Pros and Cons

From 2010 through 2014, I participated as one of the founding members of a writers group that met every other Tuesday at restaurants around Hollywood to trade script notes and war stories.  There were eight of us in total, all with representation, though none had yet experienced what they would’ve defined as their “big break.”  We had genre screenwriters (including yours truly), drama and sitcom scribes, and even a comedic playwright, of different genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds.  Everyone brought a distinct skill set and perspective to the table.

That was nothing if not an interesting time to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.  The disastrous 2007–08 Writers Guild strike left the once-robust spec marketplace decimated, bringing about permanent systemic changes to the industry:  Studios were no longer—with very rare exception—buying and developing original materials any longer, opting instead to aggressively franchise their vast libraries of branded IPs (hence the endless Star Wars and superhero movies retarding our culture at present), and since those jobs only go to screenwriting’s top one percent, the lion’s share of screenwriters out there could neither find work nor make sales.

While screenwriters picketed, the studios cleaned house

But in 2010, the full impact of that paradigm shift hadn’t yet made itself undeniably evident, so everyone—screenwriters, agents, managers—were still operating, however futilely, under the old model, in which spec scripts were churned out by writers under the developmental “guidance” (read:  marching orders) of their management, then shopped by agents lured out of hiding only by the dangling carrot of their 10% cut.  “Spec’ing” is a demoralizing practice in the best of times, and those were hardly the best of times.

But our writers group was a tremendous source of comfort and counsel to me during that period.  It was a regular opportunity to get out of the house for a night out, to socialize with folks who understood the particular anxieties, frustrations, and exhilarations of attempting to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood.  It made the town a far less lonely place.  All of us, not just me, looked forward to those Tuesday evenings.  But more on why they eventually reached their end shortly.

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Different Stages

In the time we’ve been together, my wife and I have taken some of our greatest pleasures from live concerts:  all kinds of acts at all manner of venues—from Aerosmith at MSG, to Chris Cornell at the Beacon, to the Black Crowes at Radio City, to Cher at Jones Beach, to Prince at the Staples Center, to Ray LaMontagne at the Greek, to Pink at the Wiltern, to Billy Joel at Dodger Stadium.

We share a love for U2, and have pretty much seen the band on every tour since we started dating.  So when they came around this past summer to play the Rose Bowl for their thirtieth-anniversary Joshua Tree show, we didn’t so much as hesitate the moment tickets went on sale.

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017

The Rose Bowl, if you don’t know, is an enormous pain in the ass to get to.  (We’ve seen U2 there before, on the U2360° show they recorded for home-video release.)  It’s an outdoor football stadium in Pasadena, tucked away in a morass of winding residential roads where the streets have no name, and like damn near everything else in Los Angeles (Downtown, for instance), you can’t really fathom why this particular location was selected over, say, any other.  And once you’re down there, you’re there to stay for the duration, as the ways in and out are limited whether you’ve come by car, bus, or shoe leather.

This past May 20, the day of the concert, we arrived early, having taken an Uber to the stadium.  It was hot as blazes as we waited on three long lines:  first for T-shirts, which were all several sizes smaller than advertised, then for printed tickets at will call (the concert was “credit-card entry,” but the card I’d used to purchase our admittance months earlier had since been replaced due to fraudulent activity), then finally to wend our way into the sprawling venue itself.

By the time we made it inside, we were fatigued from the adventure, sticky with sweat.  Guzzling our Guinness Blondes—what else?—it was pretty clear we both wished we’d stayed home, and the question on our minds at that moment practically voiced itself:  “Have we finally gotten too old for this shit?”

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Monster Hunting: Some Recent Movies Worth Watching This Halloween

The spooky season is once again upon us—my favorite time of year—so I thought I’d share a few horror-movie recommendations.  Despite my curmudgeonly assertion this past spring that I don’t enjoy movies anymore, each suggestion below gives lie to that.

In compiling this selection, I tried to choose A) relatively recent movies, from the last few years, that B) you’ve likely never heard of, hence the reason worthy entries like Get Out, Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Conjuring, and The Witch didn’t make the cut.

What all of the following lacked in budget they more than compensate for in creativity; they remind me of what I found so exciting about filmmaking in my youth, before corporations controlled all of our popular entertainments, and Hollywood was ushered into our ignominious Era of the Endless Reboot.

As always, I’ve included each movie’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

It Follows (2014)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Supra-natural Monster”)

This one you may have already heard of (it isn’t quite as obscure as some of the titles to come), but I had to include it for the simple reason that it’s the most terrifying horror film I’ve seen since I was a kid.

After a one-night stand, a college student finds herself afflicted with the mother of all STDs:  an invincible supernatural entity (which can shapeshift to appear as anyone:  an old woman, a middle-aged man, etc.) that follows her ploddingly but relentlessly—night and day, wherever she goes, however far she runs—and will kill her upon catching her.  The only way to rid herself of the demonic fiend?  Pass on the “curse” by sleeping with another person!  Of course, if the wraith kills that unlucky fool, it reverses course to work its way back up the vectorial chain—meaning there’s no way to permanently outrun the malignant spirit pursuing you!

Just like an STD, It Follows leaves a stinging sensation you just can’t seem to shake once exposed.  (I’m actually looking over my shoulder as I type this at 12:45 in the afternoon.)

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Goodbye, Mr. Bott: Reflections on an Unlikely Mentor

On the first day of ninth grade, I was dropped off at the wrong high school—an all-boys Jesuit academy called Fordham Prep—and through a series of tragicomical misunderstandings too complicated to explain here, wound up staying through graduation.

Up till that point, I’d been exclusively a New York City public-school kid, where I’d spent nine years as a reliably mediocre student.  In truth, my “C” average was deceptively flattering:  My overall GPA was given a crucial bump out of the “D”-level basement by the lone “A” I could be counted on to earn in my English classes.

Despite my subpar scholastic track record, however, when I advanced from elementary school to junior high, I was, in what can only be explained as an administrative error, placed in the city’s now-defunct SP program (“special progress”—essentially a gifted-and-talented curriculum), in which students completed three years of schooling—seventh, eighth, and ninth grade—in only two.  During that time, I took two years of Latin, algebra, biology—all before I ever set foot in high school.  I passed them all, too—painfully and often barely, but still.

And this was at a junior high school, I should add, that was at the time regarded by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood as a disgrace—an unfortunate but unavoidable way station between elementary school and high school.  (I wonder what Neil deGrasse Tyson, an alumnus, would have to say about that?)  Parents simply pinched their nostrils, registered their kids, and counted the days till they’d move on to the Bronx High School of Science or some other esteemed learning institution where their real education would resume in earnest after a two-year waste of time—an institution like, in my case, Fordham Prep.

 

THE “ZONE UNKNOWN”

When I wound up at the Prep’s doorstep, however, the syllabus I was handed looked alarmingly familiar:  introductory Latin; algebra; biology—I think you see where this is going.  The lion’s share of kids who attended the Prep were coming from the parochial school system, and Fordham’s curriculum was designed to pick up where that left off.  Trouble was, I’d left those courses in the dust already, but when I explained my predicament, the administrator—I’ve long since forgotten his name (or more likely just willfully repressed it)—got a look on his face like he’d just swallowed a lungful of bus exhaust and said, “But… that was public school?”

Indeed, this was a “fresh start”—one whereby Fordham would graciously overlook my plebeian origins, and that meant erasing all trace of them.  Good news:  None of it ever happened!  Admission to the Prep was a rarified privilege, I was assured, for which to be grateful.  Fordham Prep’s name, after all, was uttered almost exclusively in whispered, reverential tones—the Prep!—and the honor of attending was one most of its students had been anxiously anticipating since preschool.  It all meant nothing to me, though:  Six months earlier, I’d never even heard of the place.  This perhaps gave me a more sober—a more realistic—perspective on the school, even at fourteen years old, than my peers or their parents.

The Prep’s sterling reputation for academic excellence, I argued without success, was largely a product of skillful self-mythologizing.  Christ, how good a school could it have been, really?  After all, I got in!  Shouldn’t that have been the first red flag?  Bronx Science—a public high school—walked the walk:  They quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with me.

And my own dismal grades notwithstanding (though I did make the honor roll freshman year, but any idiot can ace a bunch of classes he’s already taken—and passed—before), there were some objectively intellectually challenged students at the Prep.  I was a longstanding public-school kid, and knew a knuckle-dragger when I saw one (I preferred their company, for the most part), and that place was wall-to-wall with them.  All of which prompts the question:  How did Fordham achieve—and sustain—such impeccable standing if they were admitting riffraff like yours truly?

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Short and Sweet: Talking Spinal Tap for Two-Plus Hours

For those who can’t get enough of my inexcusably verbose essays on pop-cultural arcana, you’re in for a special treat:  Now you can listen to me wax esoteric for four half-hour segments!

I recently sat in on the podcast Spinal Tap Minute, moderated by Heidi Bennett and Sean German, which deconstructs Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 comedy This Is Spinal Tap minute by minute.  Coincidentally, I’ve written previously about Spinal Tap on this blog, demonstrating how the band seamlessly emerged from the contained narrative framework of the movie—in the absence of precedent for such a fourth-wall traversal—to evolve into the longest-running instance of reality-blurring performance art in the history of contemporary pop culture.  (And the joke is still ongoing:  Harry Shearer is currently prepping the Derek Smalls solo album Smalls Change.)  Tap’s influence on comedic storytelling—from the “mockumentary” format so prevalent in our sitcoms (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) to the fictional-character-who-walks-among-us pasquinade of The Colbert Report—can’t fully be quantified.

Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls), and Christopher Guest (as Nigel Tufnel)

But it can be more deeply appreciated, and that’s what I attempted to bring to the table during the four episodes to which I contributed.  These are my first-ever podcasts, so your feedback—should you take the time to listen—would be most welcome.  (Who’s gonna be the first to offer up that dreaded two-word review:  “shit sandwich”?)  Here’s a content rundown (with links to each episode):

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Richard Matheson: The Man Behind the Famed Author

Writing is a necessarily solitary occupation in virtually all of its stages:  studying craft, breaking stories, producing drafts, editing manuscripts—each of these tasks consigns us to endless hours in the privacy of our own imaginations.  Opportunities to bond with colleagues, a given in nearly any other profession, are often few and far between for us.

Likewise, reading is a conscious act of seclusion, as well—one in which we submit to the imagination of an author.  We often (usually) have no relationship with these artists outside the forum of their fiction itself, despite the profound sense of intimacy engendered through their creations, which have the capacity—and we’ve all experienced this, regardless of the extent of our own personal creative inclinations—to shape our very apprehension of reality.

In our many discussions of storytelling craft here on this blog, and our ongoing appreciation of some of the masters of the discipline, I haven’t yet addressed the subject of relationships—either direct working associations, or the kind of indirect (yet no less meaningful) familiarity fostered with the artists we revere through their stories.  Today I’d like to share a special instance in which those two roads intersected, and from it developed the rarest of all affiliations:  friendship.

After featuring my first interview here last month, I am pleased to host the blog’s first guest post.  Barry Hoffman works with Gauntlet Press, a specialty press devoted to publishing signed limited-edition collectibles and trade paperbacks; in the essay that follows, he discusses the influential fiction of legendary horror/science-fiction author Richard Matheson, and shares personal insights from his experiences as Matheson’s admirer, publisher, and friend:

 

Richard Matheson passed away June 23, 2013.  Many might not recall his name, but you know his work.  Matheson wrote twenty-two scripts for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, including what many consider the most famous, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred William Shatner as a crazed airplane passenger who sees a monster on the wing of the plane.  He wrote scripts for the two acclaimed Kolchak movies of the week (he was not involved with the inferior series).  His most famous novel was I Am Legend, which most recently was a film starring Will Smith (the movie, though, doesn’t adhere to Matheson’s original script or novel).

Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel has inspired no fewer than three very successful feature-film adaptations, starring legends-in-their-own-right Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith in the title role

He penned What Dreams May Come, which was also turned into a film.  Both the film and the novel were of great comfort to the families of victims of the Columbine school massacre in 1999.  He also wrote The Shrinking Man and penned the script for what became The Incredible Shrinking Man.  Matheson didn’t achieve the name recognition of Stephen King because he jumped from genre to genre.  He wrote two acclaimed horror novels (I Am Legend and Hell House), five westerns, a war novel (Beardless Warriors), science fiction (Earthbound), several thrillers, and novels like What Dreams May Come that defy categorization.  He wrote well over a hundred short stories but abandoned the form as his short fiction couldn’t feed his family.  He was a true Renaissance man who also wrote music (unpublished).

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A Conversation with “Shots Fired” Writer/Co-Producer Marissa Jo Cerar

Marissa Jo Cerar is a film and television writer who grew up in a family of eight adopted kids, five of whom her parents adopted from foster care—at once.  That fateful decision has provided her with endless material, and life as the only brown girl in rural Illinois, population 1,600, was unique, to say the least, because she only saw people who looked like her on television and in the movies.

After placing on the Hit List and the Black List in 2012, a pair of annual surveys of studio and prodco execs that rank the most well-regarded unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, her script Conversion sold to KperiodMedia in January of 2016.  She is a co-producer on the upcoming film Burden, currently in post-production.

Marissa Jo spent three years on the television show The Fosters (seasons 1–3).  Last year she joined the writing and producing team of Shots Fired as a co-producer; the 10-hour limited series premiered at Sundance and currently airs on Fox, Wednesday nights at 8/7c.  She now works as a Supervising Producer on season two of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, set for release in 2018.

Screenwriter Marissa Jo Cerar

I first met Marissa Jo in 2009 at an industry Christmas party in Century City (isn’t that how the plot of Die Hard got started?), and a few months later, along with six other working screenwriters, we formed a writers group that met twice monthly to trade notes and war stories over dinner.  Speaking for myself, it was an invaluable association that made me a better writer as well as a sharper analyst, and was a great source of camaraderie and confidence—two short-supply resources in a vocation as solitary and enervating as this one.

An uncommonly emotive screenwriter, Marissa in many respects served as the emotional barometer of our workshops.  For instance, when I first pitched Escape from Rikers Island in 2010, the group enthusiastically helped me brainstorm the high-concept potential of a “zombie outbreak”–meets–“prison break” genre mashup, but it was Marissa who responded from the get-go to the story’s emotional through-line—the volatile dynamic between the two leads, a white Gang Squad detective and black gangbanger forced by circumstance to team up—thereby encouraging me to make that the primary focal point of the narrative:  It would be a story about two lower-class city kids who grew up to be men on opposing sides of the law, who share more in common than either would care to admit, and whose relationship would be examined in all of its messy, morally gray complexity; that zombies were exacerbating the tension between them became almost incidental.

Somehow, to my pleasant surprise, this action thriller about alpha males trying to escape a detention center overrun with cannibalistic monsters became, at heart, a funky sort of love story—one about the love between enemies.  I don’t think I would have otherwise been inclined to reach so high—and dig so deep—with such a pulpy, commercial premise had Marissa not inspired me to do so.  In a business that’s always looking for the hook, Marissa’s instincts are to find the heart.

That profound sensitivity, coupled with her one-of-a-kind formative experiences, have been a tremendous asset to the character-driven television dramas to which Marissa Jo has contributed, which have explored such thematically challenging subjects as multiethnic blended families and LGBT equality (The Fosters), race relations between the police and public (Shots Fired), and teen suicide (13 Reasons Why).  She’s brings a unique point of view, a master’s command of her craft, and a fearlessness to her writing—because it takes courage to put your heart on the page, and risk having crushed the very thing you only wish to share.  For those reasons, I’m delighted Marissa agreed to be the subject of my first interview here on the blog:

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Spring Fever: On Baseball Season and the Joy of Not Being an Expert on Some Things

Forget the alert on your iCal.  To hell with the buds of green sprouting on the branches outside your window.  It isn’t really springtime until legendary announcer Vin Scully utters, on opening day of the new season, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!

Alas, Vin retired last fall after a 67-year run, ending one of the great rites of spring.  I can’t blame him, though; he’s more than earned his retirement.  There isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t wish him a long and happy ride into the sunset.  Life, meanwhile, goes on.  Spring came just the same.  So did baseball season.

Fellow Bronx native Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles

I have a special fondness for spring.  It is the season of my birthday, which evokes all those happy associations from childhood—not just the parties and presents, but emerging from the long winter frost to be tempted back to the streets by the perfume of blooming flowers, the petrichor of rain-slick pavement, the gentle, pre-summer warmth coming back around for a long overdue visit.  Nothing, however, heralds the season for me so resoundingly as the resumption of Major League Baseball.

This has not always been the case.  Truth be told, baseball is a fairly recent personal pastime of mine.  My wife is the real sports nut in the family, having grown up only blocks from Shea Stadium as a card-carrying—and long-suffering—Mets fan.  I was raised in the Bronx, right up the Deegan from Yankee Stadium, though it’s probably for the best I was never much of a baseball enthusiast, and certainly not a Yankees fan, otherwise our two-decade romance might have proven too star-crossed to survive one of the great New York rivalries.  Given how resolute (to put it diplomatically) team loyalties can be, it was fortunate I was decidedly nonpartisan.

I guess you could say I discovered the pleasures of baseball the really old-fashioned way—by sitting in the stands and watching the games.  And that only happened here in L.A.  Through her work, my wife regularly receives Dugout Club tickets to Dodger Stadium—those fully catered VIP seats right behind home plate.  (Yes—they’re as fantastic as you might think.)  I’ll admit I initially went along for the all-you-can-eat Dodger Dogs, but, somewhere along the way, I learned the game—and got invested in it.  That’s the thing about baseball, after all:  For three-plus hours, you have nothing to do but sit and watch (once you’ve reached your gastrointestinal limitations from the buffet, that is), so eventually you’re left with little choice but to start paying attention.  Baseball doesn’t wow you into engagement so much as lull you into complacency.  But more on that point shortly.

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Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

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