Cracking the K-nut

Attention screenwriters: we added a fantastic new backer reward for the Kickstarter campaign! Now, at the $1000 donation level, Joan and I will do a full evaluation of one of your screenplays. Both of us are experienced readers for competitions, and both of us have had more than a few of our own scripts torn apart by some of the best analysts out there. More details are on our project site.


It’s something I felt could add value to this funny business of asking people for money. If we offer a real service as a benefit for your supporting My Shanghai, then the perk is suddenly more than a token. I can’t tell you how much time I spent agonizing over what to offer with each donation category. T-shirts? You have to deal with sizes. Mugs? Pretty heavy to ship, though I want one. Posters? We have to print posters at some point, but you need mailing tubes…

Hats are essential. One size fits all, easy to mail, and I just happen to like hats. I’m waiting for the final design, a beautiful Chinese seal that my friend Dan Lucas is designing and carving with traditional Chinese characters. It’s gonna look sharp, red on a black hat. You’ll see the seal on the poster too… as soon as we get posters…

So, Kickstarter. It can be a hard nut to crack. Many thanks to everyone who has donated so far. A lot of people still don’t know about Kickstarter, or they want to think about donating and it slips their mind. Studio System News has a good article comparing Kickstarter to a few other crowdfunding sites. I explain that it’s like pledging to PBS, only there’s no bank of phones behind me and there’s no money in front of me if we don’t reach our goal of $20,000 by June 1. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing deal.

Now, as I’m writing, a mouse has run between the piano and a big chair three or four times. Each time I get up and move the humane mousetrap where he can get a sniff of the peanut butter inside. I love peanut butter so I don’t know why he didn’t run in there immediately. Should I leave it undisturbed and wait, or change out the peanut butter for something else more enticing? Some other nut, perhaps? Would he like a t-shirt?

Maybe I should just get out the camera and put him in the movie. Ah! There he goes, back under the piano…


© 2013 First Straw Films


To date I have about 20 hours of interviews, dialogue and action to transcribe for My Shanghai. The transcriptions are the written record of the video clips and other audio. I could hire someone to do it, but there’s no better way for it to soak in than to do it yourself. Then you can reverse engineer the script.

Screenwriters will swear you need a script before you can shoot a movie. There are exceptions.

Several years ago I went to hear Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There) shoot the breeze in a small outdoor amphitheater at Reed College. Gus also made Gerry. Gerry is about two guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who go hiking and don’t take food or water with them. Part of it was shot in a frigid little cabin in Argentina. Matt and Casey and Gus didn’t take any firewood with them. Guess what they burned in the fireplace to stay warm?

I understand the screenplay wasn’t the holy manna of this film. It may have been a hot piece of writing, but only in BTUs, not critical reviews.

(To be fair, I don’t think Gus Van Sant is anti-script. He had something else in mind for Gerry, and he had Matt and Casey.)

Feature films generally need scripts. Documentaries need them, too. One clear difference is that a documentary is not “scripted.” When I interview people, I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say. I might think I know what they’re going to say, but after I ask a question, I have no idea how the words will come out. I can ask the same question six times and get six variations — the same story, newly told.

Sure, you have to approach the documentary with a plan, an outline, a clear sense of where you’re going. You also have to be light on your toes, because things can change in a heartbeat. When we showed up for our film shoot the first day, the man across the street was moving. He generously offered us his back yard on the bay for interviews if we wanted it. If we wanted it!

Maybe I’ll start with that interview. It would be easy to transcribe because the wind started to blow and ropes hit against a metal flagpole across the patio and we didn’t stay long. The first draft of My Shanghai will include: “Heavy ropes clang against a flagpole o.s. [offscreen].”

If I’d had a script to begin with, I probably would’ve jammed it between the rope and the pole to stop the noise.