Tag Archives: screenwriting

Tolkien: Lessons from an Amateur

I simply invented Mordor.

I simply invented Mordor.

I suppose it would come as no great surprise, given the nature of this blog, that I adore the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Personally, one of the most enlightening  elements of the special features of the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (now officially the Middle Earth Saga) is hearing the writers of the films discuss the difficulty in translating Tolkien to film. But it isn’t the length or density of Tolkien that troubles the nights and days of Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson most, but the distinctly unprofessional style of his narratives. Tolkien, after all, was foremost a professor of linguistics who made up fake languages and an alternate universe on the side. In fact, taking a step back to view the scope of what he has written for and about Middle Earth, it verges on monomaniacal madness.

But then there’s the undeniable success of both the books and films to attest to the deep meaning and love that so many people find in Tolkien’s work. So, let’s toss the style sheets and the outlines, the synopses, log-lines, character breakdowns and pitches for a moment. Let’s look at what writers can learn from the greatest amateur of our age.

1) Write something that you, yourself, would like to read. The driving force behind The Inklings, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ group of literary friends, was the lack of modern literature that they found interesting. While Da-da, surrealism and absurdism reigned between the First World War and the Second, naturalism and social-realism seemed to dominate after. But for Tolkien, neither complete rejection of all meaning and the past, nor the hard-bitten acceptance of the post-nuclear world would do. If anything, by reaching into the literary and mythological past, Tolkien strove to re-write (and, thereby, to right) the wrongs of the world as he experienced it. By recasting old heroes and stories in a frame for the modern audience, he strove and found in that fertile ground new meaning and new relevance. It just so happened that in his traumatized times (and ours), he wasn’t alone. The moral for writers being: if you feel the lack, then likely others do as well.

2) The importance of being named. Naming is ancient magic. A name gives form and reality to the formless. Naming a star, a weapon, a space-mission, a child all still hold resonance somewhere deep in our human soul. Names came first for Tolkien, and yet are sometimes problematic. Sauron and Saruman spring to mind as a sticking point, but are they? True, these names are but one of many for these two characters. Like most in Middle Earth, they are known by various names in his various tongues. But while a pro might never have two antagonists with names so close in sound, doesn’t the sound also link them? Those sulfurous S’s and thunderously rolling R’s are evocative of their particular form of evil. Just as the cozy familiarity of Sam, the woodiness of Frodo, and brightness of Merry and Pippin all give us character information before we ever get to know them. Which leads me to…

3) Trust your audience. Not everyone will be enchanted into the dense, footnoted, and appended world of The Lord of the Rings. Like any good myth, Tolkien plops us down in the vaguely familiar world of the Shire before whisking the reader to “the heart of the forest” where, as Joseph Campbell noted, “the journey begins…where it is darkest and there are no paths.” And what holds for the journey of the reader, holds as well for the writer: every story is a journey, an adventure. Tolkien dared to lead us into a world-apart, into territory he himself was still discovering, and his lust for the thrill of discovery draws us with him. Perhaps this world is not for all, but then again, not everyone wants to live in a world of giant CGI robots and Adam Sandler movies either. Like a wise and forbearing Gandalf, Tolkien suffers the reader, gives us sign and sage advice, and leads us with him, and we follow, even to the Fires of Mount Doom (and the appendix on calenders).

4) Little heroes in a great big world. If Superman were never Clark Kent, no one would ever care much about him. Where is the human connection with an indestructible alien? The same holds for the hobbits of the world of Tolkien. We might all admire and wish to be like the heroic men and women, elves (and even dwarves) that populate Middle Earth, but at heart most of us are closer to the hobbit who wishes for nothing more than to sit in his favorite comfy chair by the fire tucking into second breakfast. And here lies the heart of Tolkien. His faith in the essential goodness and decency of common folk to pass through the worst of times may have been forged in the fire and fog of war, and that unwavering faith ultimately forms our bond to the high-flung drama and darkness of his creation. It gives each of us the hope and strength to believe that we too might be able to combat the evils we face in our daily lives, no matter how small we may sometimes feel.

Finally, as writers, Tolkien reminds us that we are the ring-bearers. We must decide. And though it may be a burden that drives us nearly to despair and madness, hopefully we will find along the way a Sam and a Fellowship to keep us on our path and pick us up when we stumble. As for a Gandalf, well, as I said, Professor Tolkien has passed through fire and shadow before us, so that we might know better the way.


BLOCK: Pilot First 7 Pages

Meet CK Block: a modern, female Sherlock Holmes

BLOCK: Pilot “THE HUMAN EQUATION”
EXT. HOLLYWOOD BLVD – DAY

Clayton “Clay” FORRESTER wears a modern desert fatigue jacket with a Marine Corps badge, jeans, aviator shades and cowboy boots. His last name is stenciled above his jacket’s front pocket and across its back. He’s built like a cowboy, lean. He takes long strides, but keeps his fists balled up in his pockets. He’s into his thirties, but his hair has already begun to grey at the temples. His face is handsome, changing from stoic, stone-set jaw, to “aw shucks” charm.

If he walked down the street in any American neighborhood, you’d peg him as a survivalist and try to avoid conversation. But here he blends right in with the rest of the freaks: tourists in loud Disney shirts, guys dressed as Superman, women dressed as Marilyn Monroe in the white dress, X-men and Storm-troopers, junkies, hippies, street performers, tour guides, the occasional ‘incognito’ celebrity, and a dozen other wannabees walking down the street full of people past ‘Old Hollywood’ hotels in varying states of decay or gentrification, garish store fronts and souvenir shops.

CLAY (V.O.) People ain’t born in this town. They all just kinda pour outta the sticks and crap towns. Drain here like a giant toilet. Wanderin’. Looking for somethin’, someone, anyone to notice. Stand out from the herd. Show them the way.

INT. CLAY’S RENTED ROOM – EVENING

A toilet FLUSHES. Clay sits down at an old formica-top table in his Spartan, shabby rented room. All his gear is stowed in a sea-bag with his name stenciled on it. The tiny bed is made to military precision, a military-issue handgun by its side. He looks like he could move out in a minute. He pours some cheap brandy into a bottle of chocolate milk, shakes it up and chugs it down.

Before him lies a sketchbook, pencils and a set of Rapidiograph pens. He has sketched out a page of panels, as in graphic novels, depicting himself on the street amid the sea of people and his room as already seen. He inks in a panel of himself sitting alone at his table with this caption:

CLAY (V.O. as he works) There was this poem we learned back in school. ‘I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?’ Hey, I’m nobody…

Clay’s writing trails off. He leans back in his chair and closes his eyes.

EXT. VENICE BEACH – NEXT DAY

Clay, in his get-up, stands out from the crowd by how much clothing he is wearing. In a place where everyone is showing off their body, their tattoos, piercings, hairstyles, etc. he looks as though he had been dropped into the scene from some other world.

He watches a legless Vet begging from a distance. A VOICE CALLS HIM back to the world.

MAN’S VOICE (O.S) Forrester! Forrester! Yo, Clay!

Clay turns and focuses his eyes on MIGUEL, a young man about Clay’s age wearing cargo shorts and combat boots. Miguel approaches Clay, who still seems lost. Clay submits to a ‘bro-hug’.

MIGUEL Clayton Forrester, what da fuck?

CLAY Aw, hell. Rodriguez? Miguel? Jeez, I thought I was seein’ stuff.

MIGUEL Well there’s no mistaking your dumb, hick ass.

CLAY Yeah, I guess.

MIGUEL So, what landed you in this shit-hole?

CLAY I dunno. I got stuff…things, ya know.

MIGUEL No man, I got no fucking idea what you’re saying, as usual, right? Come on. Let’s get a beer.

CLAY Alright.

INT. BAR – LATER ON

Clay and Miguel sit at a darkened bar having some beers.

MIGUEL You just dropped off the earth, Clay. Med-vacced out. Shipped home. Fucking Keyser Soze-ed, just, poof, disappeared.

CLAY Yeah, I had some…

MIGUEL Stuff?

Clay smiles.

CLAY Yeah…spent some time out ‘Twenty-nine Stumps’.

MIGUEL Just what you needed, more desert.

CLAY Don’t I know it. It was ‘observation’ and all that. Half-way between here n Vegas. Figured I try my luck here.

MIGUEL Your family?

Clay shakes his head.

CLAY Nah…

MIGUEL Sorry dude. I hate to say it, but I had the same idea as you.

CLAY Oh, yeah? What’s that?

MIGUEL Combat engineer, right? Thought I could like be some kind of military adviser or do pyrotechnics for the movies. Turns out you need all kinds of civilian certifications and shit. Besides, well hell, you know what it’s like. The looks, like they think you’re gonna have some kinda Nam flashback any second. ‘But thank you for your service.’ Assholes.

CLAY Yeah…

MIGUEL So at least I figured I got the Bill, right? I never cashed out my benies. So now I’m going to college.

CLAY That so? Good for you.

MIGUEL So, how you doing?

CLAY I can’t afford where I’m stayin’. Seems like you can’t find no place to stay here that’s decent that don’t cost a million dollars.

MIGUEL Huh. That’s funny.

CLAY What?

MIGUEL Nothing, I just heard someone I know on campus say just the opposite.

CLAY Oh, yeah? What’s that?

MIGUEL That she found a decent place cheap, put down the security and all, but can’t find someone to split the rent with her.

CLAY I could.

Miguel turns quiet.

MIGUEL I don’t know, Clay.

CLAY Why not? There something wrong with her?

MIGUEL Not really. She takes a lot of non-requireds. Out of the way stuff. Nerdy, I guess. Sticks to herself.

CLAY To tell the truth, quiet and nerdy seem about right to me just now.

MIGUEL Yeah, well, you don’t know CK Block.

CLAY Why? She some crazy chick? Guys? Drama? All that stuff?

Miguel laughs.

MIGUEL CK? No way, man. She’s just kinda…weird n’ …

CLAY Stuff? Well, I guess I’m ‘weird n’ stuff’ myself. Set up a meet.

MIGUEL Alright, I’ll text her. But whatever happens is on you, got it?

CLAY I got it. Always were a jumpy sonofabitch, ya know that?

EXT. CAMPUS TEA & COFFEE SHOP – SAME DAY

Clay sits waiting on a bench. Miguel shows up.

MIGUEL Glad you found it OK.

CLAY Got here faster’n you.

They walk towards the entrance to the shop. Miguel stops and turns to Clay.

MIGUEL Man, I gotta just tell ya. She beat a dead pig with a baseball bat.

CLAY What?

MIGUEL In the Criminal Science lab.

CLAY Well maybe it was like school stuff…homework. Just quit making excuses n take me to see her. Can you do that?

MIGUEL Right on. But I warned ya…

CLAY I know, wash your hands an’ all that…may we?

MIGUEL Fine.

INT. TEA & COFFEE SHOP – CONTINUOUS

The bright, smartly decorated shop is full of students talking, studying, playing on tablets. Clay takes off his shades. Miguel points to a high, long bar-table against the far wall.

MIGUEL There she is.

Clay moves through the crowd with Miguel following. CATHERINE KINCAID BLOCK has her back to him. She has several cups of tea lined up in front of her on the bar. She studies them intently. Miguel steps up behind her and taps her on her shoulder.

MIGUEL Hey, CK. This is Clayton Forrester? The guy I texted you about?

A pale but animated face turns towards them. CK Block is diminutive with short hair, dressed in vintage/thrift store cast-offs. She has sharp features and an ageless, pixie look. Her eyes are intense and beaming.

CK I have found it! Here. Take a sip.

She pushes one of the cups of tea into Clay’s hands. Clay gives his ‘aw shucks’ smile, shrugs and drinks some.

CK That’s enough. What do you taste?

CLAY Tea? Some kinda orangey flavor?

CK That’s bergamot. Anything else?

CLAY Honey?

CK Thank you! I have to send a quick text.

CK whips out her phone and dashes off a text. As she finishes, Clay mindlessly raises the cup to his mouth again. CK’s hand darts out and grabs the cup from him.

CK I wouldn’t do that.

CLAY Why not?

CK Nothing. Not to worry. Unless you’ve been drinking.

She takes a sip of the tea, smiles, and sits it down on the table.

CK I’m sorry. It’s just impossible for the average individual to poison another anymore. Homeland Security and all that…and the lily of the valley. But you…I’m sorry, who are you?

MIGUEL This is the guy I texted you about the apartment.

CK hops from her stool, wipes her hand on her shirt, and extends it to Clay. He towers over her.

CK Catherine Kincaid Block. I think people call me CK.

Clay takes her hand.

CLAY Pleased to meet you. You can call me Clay…

CK quickly withdraws her hand from the embrace.

CK (interrupting) Lance Corporal Clayton Forrester. US Marine Corps, Combat engineer, specializing in Explosive Ordinance Disposal and Battlefield Clearance. Three tours in Iraq. Diagnosed PTSD. Divorced. (in response to Clay’s questioning look) You should change your social media passwords. ‘Monkey’ is one of the most common, and a fair bet if you use one as your profile pic.

CLAY Hold up now, you hacked…?

CK’s face doesn’t register having committed a violation.

CK When Miguel texted me, I thought it prudent to learn who I’d be living with. Let’s see, you’ll want to know about me: I use an e-cigarette,spend a lot of time on my work. If you find me lying on the sofa not speaking, don’t worry, it’ll pass. I like music. The place has two bedrooms and two baths. I already moved in, but we can swap rooms if you’d like. All you need is half month’s rent, and you can move in tomorrow. Sound good?

CLAY Half month’s rent. Sounds good.

CK Then it’s settled. Give me your number, and I’ll text you the address.

They exchange numbers.

CK Until tomorrow then. Oh, love the Travis Bickle look.

CK turns back to her ‘tea’ before Clay can respond. Clay and Miguel turn towards the exit.

CLAY She just poisoned me.

MIGUEL I’m sorry, man. I’ll make up some excuse for you.

CLAY Why? I’m taking the apartment.

MIGUEL You’re kidding, right?

CLAY She’s the first stranger in this town who’s even looked at me twice. Besides, it’s half-rent.

Clay puts his shades back on as they exit into the sun.

 

Block: The Human Equation, TV Pilot WGA registration: I267101

Jessica Lakis, 2015


Current Projects by Jessica Lakis

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes - Saturn Devouri...

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – Saturn Devouring One of his Children – WGA10109 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recent screenplays by 

Jessica Lakis:

THE BLOOD DHARMA weaves an exotic tale of love, betrayal and revenge during the terror of the Indian Mutiny against the British.

BEISBOL tells a Rocky-like tale of a young American ex-pat living in Costa Rica, who discovers personal redemption through baseball.

CHILDREN OF SATURN focuses on the struggle of a small community to maintain their humanity through a desperate fight to stay alive in the cold isolation of a shipping outpost on Saturn’s moon Titan.

BLOCK, “The Human Equation” Pilot for hour-long series. When broke and lonely Marine Clayton Forrester moves to Los Angeles, he discovers more than just a room-mate in the mysterious, super-nerd extraordinaire, Catherine Kincaid (CK) Block.


Dear Sir, (Letters to a Union Soldier)

Dear Sir, (Letters to a Union Soldier)

20 minute non-traditional narrative. 

by, Jessica Lakis & Michael Mullan

DEAR SIR traces the interconnected stories of a Civil War soldier and a modern young man who shares his name as they struggle with both their common dreams and individual fates.

The impetus for DEAR SIR began when film-maker Michael Mullan discovered a gravestone at the Gettysburg National Cemetery that bore his name. Further research into archives revealed the historical Lt. Michael Mullin to be an Irish immigrant who once lived in Mullan’s old neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Finding this coincidence too great, Mullan and Jessica Lakis set out to create a way for the two men to communicate over time. This resulted in the creation of a “journal” for Lt. Mullin. Writer and co-director/producer, Jessica Lakis, based her writing of his fictitious “journal” on available biographical information, research into the Irish experience of emigration and  the American Civil War, and contemporary writing samples.  The result of this effort often misleads viewers as to the journal’s authenticity.

Filmed mainly in Pennsylvania on a shoe-string budget, DEAR SIR went on to become the only selection of an under-graduate film at the 2000 Student Academy Awards. Among other honors, as well as local and national airing, “Dear Sir,(Letters to a Union Soldier)” continues to catch the attention and hearts of all who watch it. A fitting tribute for a true labor of love.

 


The Blood Dharma: Synopsis

By, Jessica Lakis

Genre: Action-Adventure/Period

Logline: THE BLOOD DHARMA weaves an exotic tale of love, betrayal, and revenge set against the terror of the Indian Mutiny against the British.

Synopsis: Rajput warrior IKSANDER is left for dead at the foot of his beloved’s funeral pyre. Saved by a mysterious stranger, and aided by an unlikely band of confederates — he seeks vengeance on those responsible. THE BLOOD DHARMA is part John Ford/Kurosawa yarn and part David Lean period adventure. The main drama and conflict arise from the clash of the worlds of the native rajputs and that of the British East India Company.

Iksander is a military leader from a noble line He lives to serve his lord, THE RAJAH, but his heart belongs to the Rajah’s sister RADHA. His preordained world is torn from him when the fearful Rajah agrees to sacrifice Iksander’s  life for a treaty with an ambitious East India Company agent to ensure his title. With Iksander left for dead, Radha kills herself in grief. An Untouchable and a mysterious man who live in the mountains rescue Iksander from death. Iksander’s life as a dutiful servant is replaced by the desire for revenge. But Iksander’s journey will do more than test his strength; his beliefs, views on duty and caste, and even his selfish quest must all be challenged if he is to achieve vengeance.

JAMES STUART CAMPBELL is an agent of the quasi-military British East India Company. Unlike the nobly born Iksander,  James has relied on his intellect and cunning to rise to his position in life. He is tasked to make favorable trading terms with the Rajah’s opium-rich kingdom or annex it. From his residence, complete with British-style furnishings and rose bushes, capturing the kingdom is a chess game with the reward of advancement and wealth if he wins. His only human care — frighteningly so — is for his niece and ward, YOUNG ALICE, who he calls his “pet.” But Young Alice is seventeen, and as she begins to become aware of life outside her isolated world with her Uncle, grows harder for James to bend to his will — the first crack in shattering his illusion of control.

Framed as NARRATOR/ALICE’s reminiscences to her daughter later in life, Alice is the bridge, the frame, and our access to both worlds. A chance encounter at a train station brings up disturbing questions about her past and experience of the horrific Indian Mutiny against the British. Alice mixes the legend of Iksander with her own first-hand knowledge to weave the stories, the fates of the characters, and their worlds together — a tale of love, betrayal, destiny, and revenge in the lost world of colonial India.


My “About Me”

One year out of college I was literally thanking the Academy. I got up on that stage and dedicated my award to my recently passed father then went back to my life in Philly. I’ve been working every moment since to get back there.

Maybe I needed the life experience to grow as a writer. After all, as Holden Caulfield observed, writing is not a just knowing where to put the commas. I traveled. Spent three years in Costa Rica teaching English and translating. But, perhaps in a “pura vida” backlash, when I decided to come home, I did so with hardened intent.

I left my husband. Even moved in with Gertrude and Claudius for a time. I got a temp job where I froze in a dusty receiving office in a drug-infested North Philly neighborhood. But I finished a new screenplay. A revenge story. And it’s done well.

I’ve got two screenplays in the works right now. I still live in a bug-ridden, third floor walk-up apartment on one of South Philly‘s louder corners. I keep my dog, plants, books, music, movies and a handsome marine about me like insulation. And often think of a story I heard about my man J. Caesar. His dad died when he was young. Though he came from a good family, they weren’t rich. So he was always in debt as well.

Anyway, on his 32nd birthday, he was stationed in some mud hole in Spain, without prospect of even seeing Rome again, and he wept. He wept because Alexander had conquered the world by his age. He contemplated a good Roman end to it all. Twenty years later he had Gaul under his boot and was on his way to the world’s first, and most famous, point of no return by a stream called Rubicon. His life and death would change the world.

I’m not out for conquest and power, nor do I think the history of the world will hinge on my stay here, but I like the story. There’s a point in there somewhere. Alea iacta esto.


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