Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sidecars with the Screenwriter

In my writer's retreat high above Toronto, I was pleased to entertain Leon Acord-Whiting.  Creator of the Award-winning Old Dogs & New Tricks.  Actor, Screenwriter, Director, Diva.  He looked fabulous.  Young. (He told me to say that).  After a sidecar (what the hell was that?), we launched into a conversation...

JS:  What inspired you to write the pilot for Old Dogs & New Tricks?

LAW: There were several different motivations that all seemed to form a "perfect storm" of inspiration.  I had been a pretty successful actor in SF for about 15 years.  Then I moved to LA, and it was like starting over all over again.  I was frustrated, because I had the chops now, but wasn't getting opportunities to really show what I could do.  Also, I was 47 at the time, and I knew I needed to do something, create something I was proud of, before I was 50 so I could wake up on my 50th birthday wanting to celebrate instead of committing suicide.

Many people had told me that I should either write a film or a web series, and produce it myself, but I wasn't really interested in that.  But then, in the Summer of 2010, I took an extended vacation at my parents' in Indiana.  I had nothing but time on my hands.  I was thinking "OK, this is purely hypothetical, but if I DID write something for myself, what would it be?"  I'm a strong believer in "write what you know."  So I immediately thought of the topic of turning 50 in Hollywood.  I thought of the kind of show it would be.  I decided on 4 main characters, just so I could show as many gay points of view as possible.  When I sat down to create the characters, it was like "BOOM!"  It took me less that an hour to create them in brief biography form.  Their stories just came to me.  I quickly outlined them.  And from then on, it was like a fever dream.

JS:  Over the past three seasons and the mini movie (with a second mini-movie to follow and a fourth season), the characters have all evolved.  Were the paths a concious effort or a fluid one?

LAW:  A little bit of both actually.  Writing a story about 4 guys who were still not completely "grown up," I knew that the path of the show would be their maturation process.  So that was always there, in a general way.

But often, your hands are tied by unexpected cast changes, location changes, things you can't control --and you sometimes have to change your overall plans.  Initially, the show was always going to be about Nathan & Damian's on again/off again relationship.  Once I realized that wasn't going to be possible, I had to find other ways for Nathan to have lessons, and to grow from them.

When we lost the location we used for Nathan's office, and had to use a different one, we had to explain it somehow.  That fact that it was right after Nathan's split with Damian made it easy -- Nathan had let his business go to hell and had to move to cheaper offices.  So sometimes these unexpected changes coincide with the story you are telling.

Sometimes your audience dictate the changes.  Originally, I wanted Neal to be, if not sympathetic, at least not villainous.  But Doug Spearman had other ideas, and the audience hated Neal as a result.  When Parnell Damone Marcano too over the role the following season, he played Neal with much more dimension, and as a result most viewers are now rooting for them.

JS:  When you write, do you keep your actors in mind - picture what they woulod be like in a certain scene, for instance?

LAW:  Originally, no, except for the role of Lydia, which I wrote especially for Amanda Gari.

Now, I suppose I do sometimes write to the actors' particular strengths.  Jeffrey Patrick Olsen is great at emotionally vulnerable moments.  David Pevsner is good at making serious moments a little funny, and funny moments a little serious.  Curt Bonnem is, well, the more outrageous I can write for Curt, the better!

But mostly, these actors have great range, and I mostly write with the comfort and assurance that there's nothing I can throw at them that they won't be able to pull off.

Oh, and Bruce L. Hart as Nelson Van Eddy -- no matter how bitchy the line, he can make it funny, too.  So I've kinda changed Nelson from being just a spiteful bitch to being a funny bitch.

JS:  What is the biggest misconception of screenwriting?

LAW:  Hmmm, good question.  I'm not sure I can answer it, because I don't know what misconceptions people have about it.  Different people probably have different misconceptions.  I would say, the biggest misconception is that its something you can do an hour every few days, and be successful.  To me, it is like going to the gym, or mastering a musical instrument, or learning a new language.  To me, you have to do it, every single day, completely surrender yourself to it for periods of time, and accept that the rest of your life just doesn't exist, in a way.  But then, I know some writers can produce a body of work from just writing now and again.  Dirty bastards.  So they could say my philosophy is a misconception!

To me, it's like an addiction.  It takes me a long time to work up the nerve to start, to eliminate the negative voices in my head.  Once I can finally get "in the zone" I don't ever want to leave.  But the stress of confronting your fears.  I see why so many writers drink.  I don't drink, really.  But its impossible for me to write without smoking and pacing.

JS:  You are about to premier a mini-movie "Where were you when the RIGHTS came on?" bringing the topic of the US ruling on gay marriage.  Does having a current world event have an impact on your writing?

LAW:  Always.  In fact, that's my biggest regret about doing a web series, with such long periods between seasons.  I grew up on Norman Lear sitcoms, and I would love to have a platform to comment on world events as they happen.  Alas, its just not possible.  We once did a throwaway joke about "President Romney" which we had to keep redubbing, because the Republican frontrunners in 2012 kept changing.  We settled on "President Santorum" but even that was outdated by the time the episode aired.

Even with this special, we have to "backdate" it, and begin with a title card that reads "June 26, 2015."  But we're releaseing it on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's dfecision, in order to seem just a little more timely!

JS:  Lastly, this season, Season 4, is your last.  As a screenwriter, do you have anything else brewing, or will you retire the quill for a while?

LAW:  I have a few ideas.  I'd love to write and perform another one-man show, and I have an idea thgat I think would be great.  But I'm also longing to just take some time off.  Writing is, in its way, very self-destructive.  I think I need to build myself up a bit before I tear myself apart like this again.

*In all confession, I must say that I have a small role in the production of this series.  To view the series, and the series mini-movie on the 26th, go to odnt.tv.  to donate a few bucks towards Season 4, go to https://www.gofundme.com/odnts4

Friday, February 5, 2016

Doctor's Orders

Jazzed about a simple line a Doctor said to me this week, one that will streamline one chapter and another that previously felt disjointed. Thanks Dr. E!  The line? "Who's ready for some '80s jam?"

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Lager and Literary Chat with Luke Murphy

Luke Murphy is the International Bestselling Author of two crime-thriller novels.  In preparation for our chat at the Writer's Retreat Chalet, I had a Lay-Z-Boy shipped in (which stuck out like Frasier's Dad's chair), a keg ready to be tapped and pounds of chicken wings to devour.  The Carrington clan would not have approved.  Luke did readily. After the keg was dry and oodles of chicken eaten, we settled back.

JS: I have to bring up my wife's question after reading 20 pages.  "Has he gone to LA?  He sure seems to know a lot about it"  I know you went to Vegas for Dead Man's Hand, but LA?

LM: The simple answer is NO, I didn't visit LA...but I had a lot of help. One of the editors I
worked with is from LA, so he was able to help me a lot. The internet, with sites such as Google Maps, allowed me to research and roam the city, checking out various street names and locations. I traded emails with the LAPD and the LA City Attorney's office, so they were very generous with filling me in on the rules and regulations, as well as some insight into Los Angeles. 

JS: Was it tough writing as a female?

LM: It's funny. I'm a male caucasion, but I have yet to write a book from that POV. Dead Man's Hand was written from an African American male's POV, and Kiss & Tell was written from a female's POV. Weird, right? I have to admit that I cheated a bit when writing from this female POV. I created Charlene Taylor, the protagonist in K&T, as a tomboy - a very athletic, tough-minded female character. To be honest, she acts and feels more like a male than a female. Of course she does have a sensitive side with female instincts, but she likes booze, sex, and talking tough. But to answer your question, I found myself asking questions to my wife at times, like, "How would you feel if this happened?", "What would you do in this situation?". So it wasn't easy at times.

JS: I loved Kiss & Tell.  Any sequels in the works?  For Dead Man's Hand?

LM: I'm currently working on a sequel for Dead Man's Hand. The manuscript is with my third
editor, and I'm hoping to have it out to publishers by the spring time. As for Kiss & Tell, I
would love to write another book with those characters. I received a lot of positive feedback from readers on the character of Charlene Taylor, so I would like to write another story involving her. The wheels are turning LOL.

JS: With a teaching job, three kids, a wife and a pug, how do you find the time to write?

LM: Good question, I wish I knew LOL. I'm a little more flexible and have more time in the summer, when school is out, but winters are challenging. I have four jobs: teaching, tutoring Math & Reading, reffing hockey (Wed. nights), and writing. This is what a typical winter day in my life looks like:

6am - Wake up, start fire, make lunches, shower, dress
7am - Wake up the rest of the family (the dog is the toughest) and help get them ready for school and daycare
8am - Bus picks up 2 oldest girls, then I take my youngest to daycare and go to work
9am-3pm - Teach at school
4pm-5pm - Tutor Math and Reading at my house
5pm - 9pm - Family time (supper, homework, bath, story time, quiet time, bed time, etc.)
9pm-12pm - Writing 

Some nights are different, better than others. Because writing isn't my full time job, and I don't rely on it to pay bills and eat (thank God because I would have starved long ago), if I'm not feeling it on a certain night, I just turn off the computer. If the writing is going well, then I will go longer. So my writing could last anywhere from 1-3 hours on any given night.

In the summer time I prefer to write in the mornings, because that's when I feel I'm most productive.

So this is my life. Now that I actually sit back and look at my schedule, I think it's kind of a crazy ride.

JS: Will you stick to novel-sized format, or throw a novella our way?

LM: Another good question. I've actually been dabbling in shorter, novella length books, but nothing that I would feel comfortable enough to seek publication yet. I've also been contemplating a switch-over in genres, maybe leaving the crime-thriller genre for a bit and trying my hand at something different. But still, nothing I am ready to dive head first into yet. But I do believe that in the future (3-5 years), you might just see something different from Luke Murphy.

(My take-away from this chat is if you have a crazily hectic life, you can be an International Bestselling Author too!  And have the Lay-Z-Boy to prove it!  Not to mention Murphy is a phenomenal writer.)

Author Link: Author.to/Author

Dead Man's Hand link: http://ow.ly/hd4Xv

Kiss & Tell link: http://myBook.to/Kiss

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cocktails & Confessionals with Cathy Astolfo

Catherine Astolfo is the author of many suspense/thriller/comedy novels. She is lucky enough to be the first guest in my Writer's Retreat Chalet (aka the Carrington mansion from Dynasty, high above Toronto). After a few bottles of wine, a few questions were asked of her...

JSJudy Blume is famous for waking up and scribbling thoughts on a tissue box.  Anne Rice writes on her walls.  How about you?

CA: I have been known to write things on bar napkins and bathroom walls, but I was awake during those moments. Perhaps not conscious, but awake.

I do get up in the night and scribble ideas, just like Judy. However, my husband, who happens to be the painter in the family (as in walls, not art), put the kibosh on wall writing for the kids, so I was forced to be a role model. Though I could have blamed it on sleep-writing.

Nowadays I keep a journal in my bedside table and one in my purse. I have a slew of pens and pencils around the house, along with notebooks. I have a pile of journals that are half-filled with half-assed thoughts that never made it into stories. At least, not yet. I have a compulsion to write all the time.

I have a theory that I borrowed from Susanna Kearsley. (Okay, stole.) Writers are born writers. Although everyone can scribble down a few ideas and thoughts or write a daily journal, not everyone is obsessed with doing so. Born writers are obsessed. We have a switch in our brains that demands a flow of words be consistently put down on paper. Authors are writers who are also obsessed with sharing those words. That switch includes a passion for having others read our thoughts. Most of us aren’t blessed with ESP, so we have to acquire agents and publishers.

These obsessions result in the compulsion to write no matter where we are: on walls, tissue boxes, in sand, or in the air.

JSWhere do you think your thoughts come from? You've run the gamut from the very dark to comedy.

CAMost people who know me question the very dark thoughts as opposed to the comedy. I have a good sense of humour and I’m pretty optimistic. I like people. I like to have fun. When I invent someone who is a bit like that, no one bats an eye. But when I invent a character who not only abuses animals but also runs a bestiality club, they are beyond shocked.

One reader shared a theory with my friend that I must have had a traumatic childhood (I didn’t). I countered with the hypothesis that my dark place was a result of being an elementary school teacher.

Seriously, as a teacher and a psychology major, I have had an enduring interest in evil. Why do some people choose the path of violence and cruelty while otherwho had a similar upbringing—choose kindness and generosity? I’ve read a ton of books on psychopathology. I’ve encountered some children who appeared to have a disposition toward meanness and even evil, right from their entrance into school. The sad part is, they don’t change despite all our efforts, including (often) that of their parents.

My thoughts, therefore, are centred on evil when I read a particularly bleak bit of news about what human beings do to others. Or when I hear a true story about someone’s horrible relative. Or when I listen to my veterinarian-assistant niece talk about puppy mills. Despite my fairly optimistic nature, I want to delve into the hearts of darkness through my writing. I want to seek the why.

Writing very dark thoughts is, I’ve realized, an outlet in which I can control what happens. In most of my scenarios, there is a happy ending, unlike real life. Justice is served. Criminals (usually) get their just desserts. To quote a line from my darkest novel, The Bridgeman, “I was its skin, its movement, its shape, its god, its creator, its destroyer.” When I am writing the very dark books, I control the bad guys’ fates.

I also love being able to explore social justice issues. The mystery genre allows any topic to be included in the plot. Often, some psychopathology is involved in the issue, which is a bonus for me.

JSDo you have a favourite book you've written?  Personally I loved Sweet Karoline.

CA: I think that’s like asking which of your children you like best. I can’t pick. I love them all for different reasons. Even the ones who get vilified (i.e. The Bridgeman for its harsh content).

JSDo you form the entire book prior to writing, or let it plot on its own?

CA: I do a bit of both. I’ve heard some people call this pants-ing versus plotting. As in by the seat of your pants or, I surmise, writing down the plot as an outline before you begin. The idea for Sweet Karoline began with one sentence: “I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.” No plot, other than a vague idea that I wanted to include my children’s ancestral history. The Bridgeman had a detailed plot outline and a character study, but it winged off in different directions anyway.

Often I have an idea, the germ of a plot, and I do a general outline accordingly. But I consider it a living document. It can change its mind, grow or shrink, at any time. I don’t have to follow every single plot twist from the initial plan.

Often the characters truly do seem to take over, even though I’m sure you’ve heard that cliché before. It honestly has happened to me—and what a thrill when it does! The subconscious is dictating instead of that editor/critic/control freak on my shoulder. Now I seek those moments like an addict.There are many authors, very successful ones, who simply sit down at their laptops and write. Others make detailed character outlines and plot plans. What I often say to anyone who asks my opinion about pants-ing or plotting is this: Do what works for you.

JS: So what are you working on now?

CA: (laughs) That's a long answer.  I am currently going through a bout of ADD.  I'm editing the second Kira Callahan novella, editing a Young Adult book called Shadow House, writing a non-fiction booklet about Twitter for Writers, collaborating on a Thriller script with my daughter and collaborating on a Horror script with my son.  That's all, though I may throw in some short stories here and there,

(So, my takeaway from this is that you don't give Cathy any liquor without going through her purse and pulling out the Sharpies.  It'll save you cash in repainting the bathroom.  That and she is an exceptional author.)

To learn more about Cathy, hit the links below.  Trust me, her novels are golden.

FACEBOOK Author Page Link: https://www.facebook.com/Catherine.Astolfo

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Voice

Losing one's voice when trying to dictate a story to the computer really couldn't be more frustrating.  There is no way Pharell, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani or Adam Levine would turn around for this froggy croaking.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


So, for those not in the know, here's a handy-dandy chart showing the uncircumcised penis becoming a circumcised penis.  Men reading this just lost their minds.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Birds

By the way, the birds to the right of this I imagine to be the ones chasing Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock classic, not the ones that drive my cat, Freud, into a manic state.