Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick

Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy

I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick

Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy

Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick

Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy

You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick

The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick

I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following.

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

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Plot vs. Story

The difference between plot and story can be hard to figure out for a beginning writer. Often confused for the same thing, the two really couldn’t be more different, or more dependent on each other. After writing for a while, you do start to differentiate them. Knowing the difference can help you gain a greater appreciation for the stories you love, and help you improve your work in ways you never thought possible.

There is one project that has been giving me such trouble, a thriller that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a good deal shorter. Everything seemed in place with a setting I loved and a topic I was passionate about. When I tried writing it though, I had to stop 15 pages in because it was clear it wasn’t working. Reading my characters, I just didn’t care. They were only going through a sequence of events, no significant changes to be had by the end. I had a plot, but there was nothing inside that put magic in it.

That’s the best way to tell the difference between plot and story. You take a look at a story you love, and at first glance it look’s pretty easy to say what it’s about. Take Star Wars for example. That’s pretty simple, a group of rebels try to take down an oppressive empire in a galaxy far, far away. It is a fun western style space adventure. But stopping there is a mistake, because that’s not what makes Star Wars special.

Ultimately, Star Wars is the story of two characters, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Vader has sided with the Empire and seeks to destroy the things his son holds dear, while Luke tries to find a way to convince his father that his views are worth fighting for. In the end, Vader choses his son over his old viewpoints and sacrifices his life to save him, paving the way for a better, more peaceful galaxy. That’s the story of Star Wars. All the space battles and lightsaber duels are just dressing for what lies underneath.

How about To Kill a Mockingbird? The plot is a lawyer risks his reputation by defending an African American man falsely accused of rape. What’s the story though? The story is about his children. Witnessing bigotry in all its ugliness, their childhood innocence is shattered, but they get it back due to an act of random kindness from a neighbor they once feared.

A story keeps your reader or viewer from asking that question ‘Why should I care?’ In all of the above listed examples, the viewer has a good reason to care. Plenty of science fiction stories came out with aspirations to be the next Star Wars, but none of them achieved the same level of success because they were nothing but lasers and space fights. Many books and films came out dealing with racism and hatred after To Kill a Mockingbird, but none had the gut punch of showing how those evils destroy children.

This is not to say that plot isn’t important. Plot is what gives a story its character, providing a unique finish that creates something completely new. You can make a quest about destroying an evil ring or killing a giant shark. You can set a tale of reconciliation in a suburban neighborhood or a high rise overrun by terrorists. You can put a tale of lost innocence on a set of railroad tracks in Oregon or on a river in Vietnam’s jungles.

Plots are the little differences between stories that allow us to tell them apart. They are ways to customize stories for any type of viewer with a variety of genres like horror, fantasy, science fiction, and action, allowing you to reach people that were otherwise uninterested. Someone might not be too interested in the tale of a working woman overcoming her past demons, but if that woman is Sigourney Weaver and those demons are acid bleeding monsters, you will turn a few more heads.

The plot is great, but sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in it and lose sight of what gives a narrative its power. It’s not hard to see why, especially in genres that rely on creative worlds, frightening imagery and spectacular set pieces, but those things can’t sustain a narrative on its own. You look something like the recent flop, Gods of Egypt. It has a simple straightforward plot and is jam packed with creative and beautiful creatures and set pieces. Underneath it though, there’s nothing. Having plot with no story is like coming to a party with the most delicious icing in the world, but forgetting the cake to put it on.

It seems my thriller fell into that same trap, with an over reliance on its premise and no real care or attention given to the characters to go through it. I asked myself why the journey was important, and realized by page 15 that it wasn’t important. That was a hard realization for me when I reached page 15. It isn’t important enough for a reader, and it’s not important enough for me to waste my time on, at least not yet. I am off to a decent start with a delicious icing of creative imagery, pretty spooky sequences, and a nice serving of tension and dread. Now it’s time for the hard part, baking the cake to put it on.

But oh, so many flavors to chose from.

Script Updates and Other News

Hello everyone. First post of the month, so let me give you all some updates.

We had by far our most successful month ever since this blog was created in August of 2014. 351 views, 158 visitors, and 102 likes. So, on behalf of me, David Spada, Joseph Buehrer and Cullen McCurdy, thank you all.

The edit of the book is coming along great. Will be getting more updates from my editor in a day or two.

The job at the film distribution office has been great. It is, funnily enough, much more relaxing than my previous job in retail. I suppose it’s true what they say. If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. Got started organizing a sales book for them to advertise some of their recent titles. It is about halfway finished, and the reactions from my bosses were quite enthusiastic.

Looks like I’ll be working with someone on another short film soon. A met a talented young woman while at a Women in Film meeting and she is eager to do a short. I read her script, and it is terrific. She wants me to come on board so we will be having a meeting tomorrow.

I also did some edits to my script section where the first acts of my three feature scripts are up for viewing. Added some short blurbs that give a set up to the stories as well as the contact information should anyone desire to read the full script. I do apologize for that taking so long, but hopefully this material will be worth the wait. Once again, don’t hesitate to put whatever constructive criticism you see fit in the comments. I’m always eager to improve.

SCRIPT – Abyssus Act 1

SCRIPT – City of Wolves Act 1

SCRIPT – Distant Horizon Act 1

Thanks again for a most successful month, and we will be talking with you all soon.

New Concept Art for Never Heroes & Abyssus Coming Soon

Yesterday was a big day in the way of artwork for both the Never Heroes book series and my horror script Abyssus. The main villain from book 1 of Never Heroes, the villainous dragon Heavy, is almost done and needs only to go through some small adjustments before he is posted here. I saw the progress on the art last night, and it is nothing short of breathtaking.

Additionally, work on another element of the cover began on our designer’s end. he will be drawing the heroic dragon, Zhyx, to be added to our growing collage.

Every bit as exciting is this early piece of concept art for the monsters in the recently completed script for Abyssus. Our designer began with the McFarlane sea monster as a base before branching off, looking at various species of deep sea fish and ancient crocodiles in search for the right combination to make the audience shiver.

The creature pictured here is not a final product, but it is a wonderful start.

Abyssus Concept Art 1

More such artwork coming soon. In the meantime, give David Spada a hand for his amazing work.

If you love monsters and creatures, be sure to check out his blog at Monster Legacy. He has astounding articles for such creature greats as Alien, Predator, Godzilla, An American Werewolf in London and more.

Thanks for reading and I’ll make the art available as it is finished.

My Latest Script, Abyssus, is finished.

Today is a big day folks. After two weeks of work, my latest script, the horror tale Abyssus is finally done.

Ever since this project’s origins, it has always been a personal favorite. My first draft of this script was written back in 2012, where I quietly wrote it off as a failure and forgot about it. Earlier this year though, I started to get more ideas for it, inspired by movies like Alien and The Thing.

The story is simple. A safety inspector and the eleven man skeleton crew of a newly commissioned oil platform uncover that a malevolent sea creature has snuck on board. Cut off from civilization by five hundred miles of stormy sea with their radio, chopper and lifeboats crippled, the bio-luminescent beast gruesomely picks off the crew one by one. The men must band together to defeat their enemy, an enemy that may be smarter than they initially thought.

Abyssus is a script meant to assault its audience much like any great horror film, but it is also done with a spirit of fun, meant to recall the days of the classic 50s Universal monster movies.

One thing I hate is to see a story go unfinished, and four years later, I can safely say Abyssus is finished. I also got this new draft finished in two weeks, a new personal best for a script. Working on this script also gave me a much needed break from my Never Heroes book series. After a short break from writing, the writing of book number 2 in the series will begin.

So without further delay, here is the first act of Abyssus. Feel free to contact me and I will give you the password to view the full script. Also, don’t be shy about offering some constructive criticism in the comments. I hope you all enjoy, and don’t scream too loud.

SCRIPT – Abyssus Act 1

The Most Cruel Writing I’ve Ever Done

Today I finished the second act of my latest script, the tale of ocean horror, Abyssus. I must say, it’s my most cruel writing exercise yet.

This tale tells of the eleven man skeleton crew of Antonio Bay Atlantic Oil Platform 31 and an EPA inspector who has come to take one final look at the rig before it becomes operational. While en route, the inspector and the helicopter pilot spot an abandoned yacht that has been missing for two weeks. On the rig, the geologist reveals some strange stones found on the ocean floor. With a storm bearing down and several of the crew going missing, it soon becomes clear something has snuck on board. Something not human.

Further details on the project can be read in this link.

Writing of this script has been much easier than I anticipated, partially due to this being a second draft. The first one was completed two years ago now. Since then, my skill has improved greatly, having a better eye for character, dialogue and brevity.

There are a few touches here that I am most happy with, little character moments that give the characters much more life. For instance, during the helicopter light to Platform 31, Samuels the pilot offers Faheed the inspector a cup of coffee from a pot plugged into the dashboard. Samuels pours the inspector a cup, and rather than take a cup for himself, he takes one big swig right out of the pot.

Little moments and small touches like that take only a few words or seconds, but they tell you so much more than if Samuels monologued for 30 minutes about his childhood in Nantucket. That brings me to why this is my most cruel writing. These characters are so enjoyable.

That was the strength of movies like Alien, The Thing and Predator. The cast were more than bags of meat for the monster to kill off. They were individuals you cared about, so when they died, their deaths carried weight. If you don’t like the characters, it is harder to relate to them, so it’s harder to get afraid when whatever malevolent force bears down on them.

I tried to do the same thing with Abyssus. The characters are all working men who have known and worked together for years, with their own little in jokes and habits. Hudson, Keith and Stew chill out for games of Pinochle, Cook works in the cafeteria enjoying the nickname the others have given him (Cook the cook), Cundy stays in his room and looks over rocks he collected from the ocean floor. They’re real.

More cruel yet, I actually have the character’s triumph over adversity, at least early on. At one point in the script, they do band together, form a plan, and successfully execute it, managing to defeat their foe for a time. It is only after that they begin to really get killed off in horrible undeserved ways. It’s like watching a movie end with all your favorite characters surviving, then you tune in to the sequel and see them all die.

In the end though, that is what horror is supposed to be. It is when a writer or any other kind of artists sets out to attack and frighten their audience. If you’re willing to take up that sword, you may as well go for the jugular.