Category Archives: Stage/Screen

An interview with John August

John August

Photo credit: Jen Pollack Bianco

You’ve written an impressive number of scripts over the last several years. Were you always this creatively productive?

I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started approaching writing as a full-time job that I really felt any mastery of it. Sometimes I’m an artist, but mostly I’m a craftsman. I write for very specific purposes, and I can sort of switch it on and off. That came with experience.

I think “productivity” is a pretty limited concept. If you’re writing a lot, but you’re writing crap, that’s not particularly helpful. I think what I hit in my early-to-mid 20s was a sweet spot between Getting Stuff Done and Getting Stuff Perfect. My first drafts are pretty strong. They feel like the final movie. Some writers do what they call a “vomit draft,” which is long and messy, then edit it down. I don’t. I write the script that could be shot.

I labor pretty hard over each scene in its first incarnation. I play the entire scene in my head, in a constant loop, until I really feel I know it. Then I do what I call a “scribble version,” which is a very quick-and-dirty sketch of the scene, handwritten, which would be indecipherable to anyone but me. Then I write up the final scene from that.

In terms of the number of scripts with my name on them, that really comes from picking projects carefully. The frustrating thing about screenwriting is that you can spend a year working on a project that never gets made, and it’s like you never wrote it. I like to say that my favorite genre is, “Movies that get made.”

What drew you to screenwriting, as opposed to other kinds of writing?

I didn’t know what screenwriting was until fairly late in college. That was before the Internet, so the only scripts you could find in Des Moines, Iowa, were the occasional screenplays that were published in book form. I remember reading Sex, Lies and Videotape and being awestruck by how closely it matched the finished movie. It sounds naive now, but I really didn’t understand movies were written.

The screenplay form didn’t come naturally. I’m not sure it should; it’s pretty artificial and unlike conventional writing. The closest equivalent is certainly the stage play, which is pretty much just dialogue. The screenplay has evolved into this strange beast that’s meant to be a blueprint for the entire movie — not just what the characters say and do, but how the film is supposed to look and feel and sound. Most of the time I love it, but it has very frustrating limitations. I get sick of writing in the third-person present tense. I yearn to write about scents and textures and the inner thoughts of characters. One of the reasons I keep up the blog is that it’s a chance to write in my own voice rather than the detached, omniscient “screenplay voice.”

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing

An Interview with Ze Frank

The Show's Ze Frank talks about unsolvable problems, "brain surfing," pain management, and how creative pursuits change perception.

Ze Frank

Photo credit: Scott Beale /

Are there any techniques that you use in your creative process that help you generate new ideas?

Self-awareness is one of the big keys. If you read a lot of the psychology literature on creativity, one of the only real, solid correlations with being able to shift your creative output is the belief that you can change it. So for me — I think I picked this up in a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book — I’ve spent a long time just trying to figure out the kind of cycles that I go through, trying to pay attention to the different kinds of states that I find myself in.

There are times when I feel like I’m craving what I call unsolvable problems, and I have the kind of energy you need to move forward into uncharted territory and brave that side of things. And then there are other times when that seems like the most difficult chore in the world. So I’ve also gotten pretty comfortable knowing when I need to pick up solvable problems. Programming definitely fills that void for me. Also illustrating, doing little illustrations, things like that. This is a long-winded way of saying that I think I’ve got a range of techniques that feed into how I’m feeling at that particular moment.

Do you have any day-to-day habits you rely on?

I make something every day — I think that’s really the only habit that I’ve fallen into over the last few years. No matter what, I make something. This last year with The Show has been kind of convenient because it’s given me structure to play against. Before that, with the project, there was less structure and it was a lot more difficult. The Show narrowed the focus and made it a little bit easier because I know exactly what I have to work on each day. That aside, there’s this thing I try to do that I call “brain surfing.” Do you know the technique “morphological synthesis”?

I don’t.

There’s a really beautiful book by James L. Adams called Conceptual Blockbusting. It’s a book that was written in the ’70s on creativity. The idea is, you just start with a concept that’s immediate to you. I mean “immediate” in that you have some kind of direct emotional connection to it in that moment. And it can be as simple as a word. Maybe somebody pissed you off in line, or you’re worried that your toe is broken. And you just start with that and begin to associate things with it. It’s not really free association, so it’s not just anything that comes to mind. But you tell little stories to yourself that move you away from that initial concept.

So if it’s your toe being broken, you start thinking to yourself, well, what would happen if something else was broken and you tried to drive a car? Then you move away from that and you think about the worst car race ever. Now you’ve moved into a demolition derby. And you just sort of work in circles. At different points you stop and relate wherever you are back to the original concept. And just play. Sometimes I write these things down on paper, and sometimes I just sit there and do them in my head. But for me, it’s a nice little play zone where you can find very weird and silly things.

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An Interview with Howard Kremer, aka Dragon Boy Suede

Stand up comic, sitcom writer, and rapper Howard Kremer talks about the upside of getting bored easily, the power of changing one thing, and finding his name scribbled in a copy of The Artist's Way.

What techniques do you use to help you come up with new ideas?

Howard Kremer, aka Dragon Boy SuedeI take walks. I find that if I’m stationary, sometimes it’s not going to happen. I take drives. I’ll force myself to go to bed if I’m not tired, because if I lay there and toss and turn then I get ideas. Other than that I have — I guess they’re formulas? I’ll change one thing. I’ll look at an object or a situation or a show and just change one thing about it. What if oranges were square? What if Gilbert Gottfried was the star of 24? If you change one thing in a dynamic, it changes all the other relationships, so you start to be able to abstract it and look at it in a different way.

Does listening to music help your productivity or get in the way? For me, for example, taking a long walk without music can be a big help.

Oh completely. An iPod, or even having the radio on in the house, or if you’re going for a drive and you have a CD in, you’re just not going to really create during that time. Which sometimes is good because you have to absorb too. Joe Strummer said that — you have to have input to have output.

Can you describe the creative process you use when you’re working on a sitcom script? Is there anything in particular that you do to stay focused and get your work done?

Yeah, well, we have deadlines.

[laughter] That’s pretty straightforward — have deadlines and hit them.

Yeah. You know, I have a writing partner. A lot of times, we come up with the raw ideas for the story and then go meet at a coffee shop to work them out and distill them down to what we want to do. One of us will have an idea for a show, and then we’ll try to see if we can expand it into a pitch. And we’ll get together and flesh that out day by day. We meet for a couple of hours about three times a week.

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing

An Interview with Jeff Raz

Clown, playwright, actor, and teacher Jeff Raz talks about sneaking up on a laugh, writing a play in a week, and what to do when inspiration shows up at 6:30 Sunday morning.

Jeff RazDo you have any techniques you use to help you get into a more inspired mode?

You know, I usually don’t think in [those terms] because I’ve made a living doing this since I was 15. I’m kind of a blue-collar guy in that way. I go to work. The way I look at it and the way that works for me is, I just keep plugging ahead.

I started as a juggler. As a juggler, you can always get up and throw the balls. Or you get up and you throw the clubs. No inspiration needed. Throw the damn things. If they’re in the air, wonderful. It they’re on the ground, throw ’em again. It’s kind of simple.

When I write a play, what I do is, once I’ve got the research going and I’ve got it floating around in my head, I’ll try to write the whole play in a week. Just write the f****r. And it’s terrible. (I got this from Annie Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird.) So I just do that, and then I can edit it, which I do better than creating from whole cloth. And again, both of those [steps] are kind of designed to make sure I know what the job of the day is. I don’t do well waiting for inspiration.

Now, the other morning I was working ten-show weeks, which means I’m on stage for twenty-five hours a week, which is a huge amount of stage time. I get done at 11 o’clock. I get home and the turnaround between Saturday night and when I have to be back on-site at 11 o’clock putting on makeup the next morning is the tough one. And then we had a cabaret after, so we actually had an eleven-show week. I was getting really tired. But sonofabitch if I’m not up at 6:30 on Sunday morning with ideas about the show.

And why do you think that is?

JR: Just because inspiration has its own schedule. It’s not particularly good about sticking with my schedule. But my theory on that is, OK, great. I mulled them over, I wrote them down, tried them in the show, they went great. I was happy….

Laughs are elusive. You can’t head right for a laugh — it’ll go away. You can get people to cry. You can head right for a dramatic moment or a sad moment, and you can usually get it. But you can’t head right for a laugh. You have to let the laugh come or sneak around the side. The same thing for inspiration. For me, just keep working, and if inspiration chooses to show up, great. I rather it not show up at 6:30 in the morning. It could’ve waited till 9. But the job is to write down the inspiration when it comes and know how to use it later.

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Category: Stage/Screen, Writing