Sunday, May 21, 2017

Dancing in the Sun... Or Writer's Conference - yeah, the second...

Lovely snowy day.  I actually adjusted the contrast
so the peak would stand out.  The sky was
bright and sunny directly overhead.
What an amazing week I've had!  I've rubbed elbows with huge names in my industry, learned tips and tricks to writing, watched some amazing films and TV series, and basicaly filled my writing notebook with amazing information.

I feel so blessed to have participated in BYU's writer's conferences nestled deep in the mountains near the Sundance Ski Resort.  For four days, the conference convened at a lodge BYU has on the back side of Mt. Timpanogos that I never knew existed.  It snowed, it rained, and we even had perfect weather.  But more importantly, we had amazing guest speakers that offered insight into the screenwriting process and the overall world of screenwriting.

View of Timp from the porch of the lodge.
About 70 or so students, alumni, and guests heard from faculty and staff from the Theater and Media Arts Department (one department with two branches), including the chair, Wade Hollingshaus, who I have never met before the conference.

Jared & Jerusha Hess
We also met Jared and Jerusha Hess, BYU Alumni and the creators of Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Masterminds, which we watched during the conference.  Jerusha held a workshop where we discussed ways to improve our scripts and characters.  I asked her how to improve story arc when the plot is weak, but the characters are strong.  From her and other information I got during the conference, I learned that often when you have strong characters and a weak plot, your story is better for a series than a feature.  Basically you take your strong characters and place them in small vignettes and find connecting themes to link them together.  It is almost like an experiment - take a group of people, dump them in a situation, and see how it plays out.  Feature length film is very different.  You must have that strong arc - someone wants something very bad and is having a difficult time getting it.
Rebecca Thomas

Rebecca Thomas, who directed an episode of Stranger Things, the feature Electrick Children, and is a BYU Alumni, was interviewed and fielded questions from the group.

Jonathan Krisel
We also had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Jonathan Krisel.  He wrote for SNL, created Portlandia, and one of my new favorite shows, Baskets, and has been nominated for nine primetime Emmys.  One thing I really appreciated about his work, especially what I see in Baskets, is that he is charitable with his characters.  Some of them are real ding-dongs (a new phrase I picked up from the writers at the conference, and will use frequently now), but Krisel does a wonderful job at not humiliating or degrading odd people, but "celebrating their weirdness" as he put it.  We often see the twinge of humanity in these people, and immediately feel empathy for them.  This is something that I have decided to incorporate in my writing.

Have you ever watched an episode of The Office where Dwight Schrute is on his beet farm?  If you have, you most likely have seen Mose Schrute, Dwight's silent Amish cousin.
Mose Schrute, a.k.a Michael Schur
Well this guy is actually Michael Schur, one of the writers of this show who was there since the first season.  He also went on to create the hit series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks & Rec, starring Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, and Rashida Jones.  He has now created another fantastic series called The Good Place. This quickly has become one of my favorite series exploring the concepts of morals and ethics in a funny after-life kind of way.  So I'm sure you guessed it - he came and spoke with us as well.  The man is brilliant - studied at Harvard - also did a stint at SNL, but only after being called back several months after losing his first interview to another writer by the name of Tina Fey. Yes, that Tina Fey.

Schur taught us some very important principles about screenwriting.  One thing I thought was interesting is how as a writer, we might have an idea who the character is.  But often the actor will bring something to the table that will require you to adjust your perspective.  And as a writer, if you don't listen to the actors, you may need to step back and reconsider your approach to screenwriting.  He used the example from  Parks & Rec of the character of Ron Swanson.  Originally Ron was supposed to be a conniving, corrupt bribe-taking politician.  Schur explained that Nick Offerman is actually full of integrity, so it was odd for him to play the character that way.  Also Offerman really does build his own canoes as we see Ron Swanson doing in an episode.  So Offerman changed who Ron Swanson is, and thankfully because Ron is such a fun character as Offerman plays him.

I have a notebook of other great advice from all of these amazing guests at the conference, but I think I'll keep them to myself.  One last little thing I must say.  Courtney and Tom Russell, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart for all of your hard work and dedication to making this writer's conference such an amazing experience.  Also to Jared who cooked some of the best food I've had (dreaming about that Alfredo sauce now... YUM!).

Monday, May 8, 2017

MCOM com com com

I've started a new semester.  As a 40+ non-traditional student the beginning of each semester is odd feeling and interesting at the same time.  I often get confused with professors, and get some strange looks.  But as the semester progresses and I meet people in class, I find the age thing kind of disappears, and we're all just people.

This semester I'm taking three courses - a religion course, a course to prepare us for an upcoming writer's conference at Sundance with creators of shows like Stranger Things, Portlandia, The Office, Parks & Rec, Baskets, and The Good Place.  Should be amazing.

But I'm really writing this blog for my class, MCOM 320.  I think the MCOM stands for management Communications.  It is supposed to fill an upper division writing course.  However I've found myself in a very terrifying situation.  I love hiding in the shadows.  I love sitting in the back of the room and not really existing.  I hate the spotlight.  I don't like meeting new people and being outgoing.  I can edit by myself in a dark cave for hours on end and be happy as a clam.  But this class is a part of the Marriott school of business.  I'm not a type A person.  But for this class I'm going to have to pull myself out of my shell and contribute, participate, and not hide.  SCARY!  There has been a lot of talk about being leaders, managers, etc. in the class so far.  I  am none of those things.  Nor do I want to be.  As a 40+er, I've come to know who I am, and it's not that.

That being said, I do love screenwriting.  But what's the part about screenwriting that most screenwriters just loathe?  Simple... the pitch.  Yep.  That.  Standing in front of a group of people as they evaluate your work.  Talk about being in front of a spotlight.  You've spent months, sometimes years perfecting your work, and in a few short minutes, you and your work are being sized up.  Well, MCOM to the rescue!  I know this class is going to be emotionally taxing on me.  But if I can endure and learn what my professor is teaching, my ability to stand in front of a group and present my ideas will be much better.  So I embrace the opportunity (with fear and trembling), and look forward to being able to handle the pitch.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Truth is in the Fire (side chat)

In his NPR article ThereIs Such a Thing as Truth, Errol Morris asks what truth is.  There are some things that are facts.  One of them, from Morris’ article is that Reno, Nevada is further west than Los Angeles, California.  He continues explaining how truth is not relative of subjective.  He says, “There is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignoring or outright denying it.”

I’ve often felt that while there is absolute truth, often the details and nuance get lost or skewed and truth becomes confused. This became a topic I started following a long time ago, but during an environmental biology class I took last year, I learned that the real truth is much more difficult to reach.  There are many documentaries made about the environment, and it seemed that arguments on both sides benefitted greatly by not looking at the whole picture when it comes to climate change and global warming. I came to the conclusion that climate change is a real problem enhanced, if not created by man, but the very best way to save the environment is to go back to the stone age and live in caves while the majority of society dies off.  So what did it take for me to reach that conclusion?  Spending a semester studying it under the guidance of a professor. 

But then over this past election cycle, I began seeing how some of my friends on facebook and social media became absolute experts on the candidates and all of the hot-button topics from the environment to terrorism to immigration and beyond.  They would cite sources that to me didn’t seemed frankly shady.  So I began a quest to try to find truth in that mad house, and came to another conclusion – to get to the actual bottom of the story, I would have to dig, dig, dig, and dig. I would perhaps have to fly to D.C. and interview the candidates themselves along with family and friends.  I would have to become the expert, and it would be my full time job from here on out.  I don’t have that kind of time or those resources.
When it came time to share what I believe in for our fireside chat, I immediately gravitated to this subject.  I started out by combing through facebook looking for posts that seemed off to me, and trying to dig deeper, not to find an answer, but to see both sides of the argument.  What surprised me the most was that by taking this approach, I actually found that both sides had interesting arguments, some that seemed valid, and some that seemed not quite so valid.  I then tried digging deeper finding facts supporting what those arguments were based on.  Again, I found other posts.  As it turned out, we have arguments built on what some call “facts” which are built on posts about facts which lead straight down the rabbit hole.  Interestingly enough, I even found people trying to make legitimate arguments based on memes, as though someone thought, “it’s legitimate because I see a picture next to words in quotes”.  My head was spinning.

I found a couple of examples where fact and fiction crossed lines – one from a current event, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and one from the past about Khrushchev and Kennedy, and a mysterious picture of the two and what it means.  But to make a point about the absurdity of where some people turn for information, I made a meme of myself, and closed the presentation by saying that my meme proved everything that I said in my presentation was fact.  Basically my point was that truth does exist, but it’s not always in our face.  We have to work for it and earn it.  And that I feel as creators of art, media, and stories that we have an obligation that when we are dealing with things of a factual nature, to work a little harder for the truth.  I just hope that with all the false information, real truth doesn’t become some mythological creature. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sleep Sweetly Sleep Softly

Our concerned citizen project followed Grant’s niece, Kelsey Hamstead, and her efforts to help inmates maintain relationships with their children. Kelsey is involved with a program that allows mothers in Utah State Prison to record themselves reading bedtime stories for their children. These recordings are then sent to their children for them to listen to. We documented her story as an audio recording featuring audio from Kelsey herself, inserts from actual recordings of some of the inmates Kelsey works with reading to their children, and soundbites found on the internet. Our documentary, “Sleep Sweetly, Sleep Softly,” shows an individual trying to preserve valuable family relationships.
Having a parent in prison can have a tremendous impact on a child. The most immediate effect is that the child is separated from his or her parent for an extended period of time. Kelsey’s involvement helps to shorten that gap by still allowing the parent to participate in an elemental parent-child ritual such as reading bedtime stories. Nurturing the relationship these mothers have with their children reduces the chance that their children will also find themselves in jail in adulthood. Kelsey’s contribution literally keeps families together and keep children out of prison.
One item that caught our attention how Kelsey described her interactions with the inmates as very affable and warm. We thought it was interesting that someone would feel at home inside a prison center. We thought breaking stereotypes in this way, like how the beehive stories video specified the sheepherder was educated in college, was instrumental in giving life to our audio piece. Conveying this specific concept was a central goal in putting together our audio piece. One way we went about that was embedding clips from the recordings of the mothers reading to their children throughout the audio piece. Bookending the documentary with bedtime stories carried the pathos we were after and mimicked the pattern of a bedtime story, such as the book read in the audio piece, “I’ll Love You Forever.” 
                We would hope that people who listen to “Sleep Sweetly, Sleep Softly,” and consider how warmth and familiarity can be found even in a setting such as a prison. With that, we’d hope listeners would be more understanding toward these individuals and the needs they have. In our initial interview with Kelsey, she admitted that it wasn’t always easy to reserve the time to participate in this program, but helping these individuals stay connected with their loved ones was, and continues to be for her, a labor worth pursuing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Follow the...Twine?

Twine Game For Change

When I was a kid, I didn’t like reading much.  I played outdoors, watched tv, and made messes.  But when one of my friends showed me their “choose your own adventure” books, I was intrigued.  You would read a little, then be given two choices like, “go up the stairs” or “open the closet door”.  Depending on what option you chose, you would turn to a certain page and continue reading until you got to the next choice.  I call that interactive 1.0.  Now jump ahead many years, and today we have a free app called Twine.  In it, users can create their own stories and give the reader choices as to what they want to do next.  But what if that game was used to create awareness of a particular issue society doesn’t quite understand clearly?

The movie Damnation about dams built along the Columbia River and its tributaries addresses an issue of the impact that has on kayakers, fish, wildlife and ecosystems.  But it also failed to address other erosional and geological issues that I felt would contribute more to their argument.  I then took the question further, if not hydro power, then what?  There are the standard energy sources we use such as coal, natural gas, nuclear power, wind, solar, and a few others.  

I wanted to see how each contributed to energy and how each affected the environment and found a couple articles from the EPA and the US Energy Information Administration.  That was a good start because it gave me a baseline of statistics to draw from.  But I still needed more information and turned to my Environmental Science book I used in my Environmental Biology class.  That and referring to a few notes helped me remember a few things – basically that what I learned was that the truth is a bit more complex than that.  Movies like An Inconvenient Truth and many other tend to skew the real picture.  People watch a documentary and instantly become an expert on the subject.  Arguments abound, and people divide. 

Issues such as opening up ANWR and the Keystone Pipeline seem to light firestorms on social media.  Everyone has an opinion.  But getting back to my experience in my environmental biology class, I learned that the only true way we can protect the environment completely is for mankind to return to the stone age.  While greenhouse gasses are a naturally occurring thing, and in nature the carbon cycle takes care of it, we humans are pumping more carbon dioxide and other gasses into the atmosphere at a level greater than what the carbon cycle can handle.  This exacerbates the greenhouse effect.  Some feel that it’s not real, while others feel we need to cut all use of fossil fuels immediately.  This is the genesis of my game.

I want those that play this game to come to learn something that maybe they hadn’t thought of before, and perhaps to consider ideas that would make us less polarized.  I hope to show people that there isn’t a simple solution to this problem.  Both sides of the argument are right, and both are wrong.  Do you want to know what the answer is?  Then play the game!

Monday, October 31, 2016

It's Been A Sweet Alien Ride

Alien cultures, civilization, and what they would do to us if they ever invaded has dominated the world of science fiction. Films like The Day The Earth Stood Still, Mars Attacks, Independance Day, and even children’s films like Chicken Little all tell stories of what that scenario might look like. So we, Matthew Taggart and Grant Gomm, asked the question, “what would the world look like today if in 1947, aliens really did land in Roswell, New Mexico?” Our world building was off to a start.

The goal? Design items that reflected this alternate version of our world. In Julian Bleecker’s article, Design Fiction, in talking about the design of an object, Bleecker says, “They are things around which discussions happen, even with only one other person, and that helps us to imagine other kinds of worlds and experiences.” That is our goal with this project - to generate conversations about our works in this fictitious world. We chose to express this through images that in our own actual history tend to generate conversations, such as famous photos, billboards, and maps.

When we began discussing what this world would look like, ideas flowed one after another. We asked questions like, “would the aliens be friendly or aggressive?” and, “what would the governments look like if a superior alien race invaded our world? Would mankind stop fighting amongst ourselves and unite against a common enemy?” We both lept feet first down this rabbit hole and came up with an interesting alternate storyline for this world.

We imagined that further contact with aliens continued to happen, and that the original aliens who crashed near Roswell were in fact refugees from attacking superior aliens. Our planet took them in, but eventually the earth was attacked. Governments broke down as we know them, and for the most part united together against the aggressive aliens. The world divided up into varying federations united against the invaders. However, we also imagined that there would be those who would side with the malevolent aliens in an attempt to gain power from them.

As we continued developing our world, and our story was unfolding, we took a step similar to what Bleecker describes further in his article, “Might it be a kind of half-way between fact and fiction?” It seemed our world certainly was becoming this way. We grappled with the current presidential election, and thought what if our candidates today were not running for president of the United States of America, but had different political aspirations in our world?  What if Hillary Clinton was the human liaison with the aliens? What if Donald Trump was a man trying to usurp power among the federations? What if he was really planted there by the aliens as a strategy to overtake the world? In a strange way it felt that even in a fantastic world like the one we created, there would still be some striking parallels with the real world.

Our ideas grew, and before we knew it, our world was fleshing itself out. But what of the objects we were to create? We made several images using Adobe Photoshop and hand drawing, depicting various parts of our story. Each image has it’s own intrinsic message. It is our hope that discussion will happen around our images as Julian Bleecker has suggested should happen.