12-08-12 Pre-Production

    Writing a screenplay, for me, is really about finding the right story at the right time. I've got a bunch of story ideas, but how many of them can be made with the resources I've got at the time? THE ROOT KIT is not my first screenplay. It's not my second or third. In fact, I don't even know how many screenplays I've written. I know there's THE ACADEMY, HUNGER, A GROWING CITY, and those are just the feature-length ones. There were a bunch of short films, commercials, a few music videos, and then there are the outlines of ideas. 

    For instance, A GROWING CITY, which a near-future dystopia, is the first story in what could easily be a ten-movie series. Most of those are completely plotted out. But, I don't have the budget to make those. Also, AGC will probably take another major rewrite before it's anywhere near good enough to go into pre-production. I don't even know what they major problem is, or if there is one. It could be that the Early Readers I sent it to are simply not familiar with the uniqueness of my voice. I just don't know. All of that puts AGC and the WORTH series on hold, indefinitely.

    The rest of the projects have been shelved for similar reasons.

    That brings me to THE ROOT KIT (henceforth referred to as: TRK). I went to university for over nine years. I don't have a degree. My problem is that nearly everything fascinates me. I couldn't chose a major, and when I did, I couldn't stick with it because there were so many other interesting things to study. I changed my major ten times, for a total of eleven majors, not including the periods where I was undeclared.

    One of those majors was Computer Science. I've loved computers since I was in junior high. But, I was never really that good in school. It was boring. But, worse than that, my brain doesn't store information the way most people's do. That made learning things in a traditional setting nearly impossible. That, compounded with the fact that I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do with my life until my early 30's... but I digress.

    Computer Science.

    I had not done well in school, that includes Math. Math is required for Computer Science. And I don't mean algebra, though that comes in too. I mean Multi-variant calculus, Set Theory, Linear Algebra, Combinatorial math (which I don't believe they even teach to undergrads, at least, not that the universities I attended). Really complex stuff.

    So, on the second or third week when the professor told us to write a program that figured out the area of a circle, a formula I didn't know at the time. (pi r2) I knew I had chosen the wrong major. It would take me two years to catch up to the other students, or so I thought. The really good coders, like the guys who helped me consult on TRK were reprogramming Atari video games in the 2nd grade. Yeah. I was out of my league.

    So, it was back to philosophy for me.

    But, that being totally out-gunned on every level didn't change my love for computers. When I realized a good hacker movie hadn't been made for over 20 years, SNEAKERS, I knew it was about time (THE SOCIAL NETWORK is technically a hacker movie, but the hacking isn't really central to the plot, hence my reference to SNEAKERS).

*           *           *

    As I wrote earlier, TRK isn't my first script. I'd been learning story structure for the past eight years, even since I wrote the novel version of THE ACADEMY. I don't know if I agree with the whole 10k hours of work to master something, but I know it takes a lot. I had to format my mind in such a way that thinking about structure ceased being about following certain prescribed (though, whether it's inferred or implied is unclear) , and started to become almost intuitive. 

    I could come up with a story and know it wouldn't work. One of the techniques I use in writing (read: rewriting) a script is to do a quick read-through. Any time my mind drifts, I make a comment on the script, letting me know that it's either boring, slow, or whatever. Something needs to change in the pace. The fact that I'm ADD really makes for some fast-paced scripts. So, my weakness becomes my strength.

    When I came up with the key plot points for TRK, I knew it would be a non-stop, can't put it down story. I knew it would sell in Hollywood for two reasons: 1) Its a good story; 2) A good hacker movie hasn't been made for a while; 3) Computer security is trending, and will only become more so as we continue integrating technology into our lives.

    The premise of TRK: Will (a computer hacker) takes a job to break into a man's wife's computer to find proof that she's cheating. Will finds she is cheating, but she's cheating with the Chief Technical Officer of a major top-secret government contractor. Will takes the bate, breaks into the contractor and slurps some of their projects. And, as you might imagine, down that way is trouble. And, people trouble is good story-telling.

    As good as that premise is, I couldn't make it. It felt too formulaic, too Hollywood. I felt, deep inside, that people are ready for more. I decided to let the project sit. It didn't take long, maybe a month, before the key came to me: The hacking is interesting, as a story, but if I could use the movie to actually change the way the audience sees computers, and the world at large, that was worth it.

    That's where the voice over came into being. Most screenwriting books say to avoid voice-overs. That they are cheats that bad screenwriters use as crutches to artificially prop up stories that don't stand on their own. 

    I agree. 

    But, just because a tool can be misused, doesn't mean it can't be used properly. There are some truly amazing movies that use V.O. to perfection: APOCALYPSE NOW and ADAPTATION immediately come to mind. I'm sure there are others, but the fact that they work so well proves that V.O.'s shouldn't be entirely dismissed. Of course, even if no really good example did exist, I might be the first one to get it to work. That's just the way my brain thinks.

    With the V.O. I set up Will as a sort of instructor. The story of TRK then becomes an object lesson in thinking outside the box. That sold me. That kind of movie, the kind that has the capacity to change our world for the better, that's well-worth my time.

    Not only that, but the idea of entertaining the audience while simultaneously socially engineering them, fits in with the overall story of hackers. It also allowed the story to have bookends, which, as you now know, makes the whole thing almost an endless loop.

*           *           *

    I don’t remember exactly how long it took me to write the really early first draft of the script. Maybe a couple weeks. Maybe as long as a month. I sat down every day and wrote until I felt like the words were forced. Then I stopped.

    Much of writing, for me, is what I’ve heard called “Soft writing.” It’s basically every part of writing except actually sitting down and writing the real words of the project. It’s taking notes or doing research. It’s sitting down and thinking, or taking a break to let my mind rest. It’s watching movies to try and find the right pacing, or listening to conversations to see if I can find the right cadence, the right voice, watching people to see their physical mannerisms. All of those things are valid writing and I would argue that doing them makes the hard writing that much better.

    So, I wrote the first draft.

    When I was a computer science major for two months, there was a guy on campus, long goatee, shorts, hat that looks like he stole it from Paul Hogan, and always a Leatherman on his belt. He was the definition of a geek. He was also rumored to be one of the best computer people on campus. So, I sought him out.

    I was nowhere near to Kevin in computer skills, but I had plenty of deviance in me. I guess that appealed to him because we quickly became inseparable friends. We would often stay up late into the night, talking, hacking computer games to make them do what we wanted, going out for burritos at the local hole-in-the-wall. 

    While at this particular educational institution, I took up smoking a pipe for while. But, not tobacco. I would grind up cinnamon and smoke that. It burned too hot, but it gave a really nice cherry flavor. I also turned Kevin on to Martinelli’s apple cider. I even explained how it looked worse if he drank it while the bottle was in a paper bag. It was funny.

    One night, probably around 11:00pm, he and I were in a local park, I was wearing my black leather jacket, he was drinking his Martinelli’s from a paper bag and the cops showed up. As it happens, being in a public park in the city of San Diego after 10:00pm is a misdemeanor. And, as it also turns out, Cinnamon tests positive for drugs.

    So, the police were standing at a safe distance. I reached into my jacket to show them the bag of ground up cinnamon and the nearest officer instantly reached for her pistol. Well, I didn’t notice and kept pulling out the bag. We were let off with a warning. But, apearently Kevin thought it was fun because he’s been telling the story ever since.

    What’s all this got to do with making TRK? Kevin and I became close friends. He moved up to the San Francisco Bay Area and got a job. He is now very good at computer security. When I needed to run my hacks past a guy who is both smart and takes a small amount of pleasure from creating possible deviance, well, who else am I going to call?

    The situation was better than that. Kevin was friends with a very famous early hacker named Larry Wall. Larry has done a lot to advance computers. He was one of the first guys to participate in the open-source movement. He also wrote a programming language (I don’t mean he wrote in a language. I actually created the language) called Perl. Perl was one of the programming languages that made the Internet possible in its early days.

    Since I was friends with Kevin, I sometimes hung out with he and Larry.

    I’m going to have to digress a moment again, but it’s germane to the story, so don’t nod off.

    When I met the woman who would become my wife I was working in San Francisco, but living in Cupertino, staying with Kevin. It’s about a fifty minute commute, with no traffic. I was attending a lecture and she was sitting on the other side of the auditorium. I couldn’t take my eyes off her (cliche but true).

    Anyway, she was amazing. A year to the day of our first date we got married. And, Larry Wall did the sound. See, not only was Kevin friends with Larry, but my wife babysat his kids. She’d known Larry for the past ten years.

    I had an instant in. 

    When I asked him for an interview, it wasn’t like some random guy off the street. He and I had chatted about things, but it’s quite possible he did it as a favor to my wife, or to Kevin. Either way….

    I went up to stay with Kevin after I had finished an early draft. I knew where all the hacks were and he helped me make sure they were actually all viable. He also helped me come up with a few more than I hadn’t thought of.

    The Larry Wall interview went spectacularly well. Before I pressed record on the camera, I told him what I was after, that TRK is about information being power, that people today can take control of their own lives if they simply take an active role. I guess that appealed to Larry’s hacker mentality because he opened up and I got what was at the time, the best interview of my career.

    When we were done I took Larry, his son, Kevin and we went out to eat. We may not become millionaires off of TRK but at least I like to make sure my cast and crew eat well. Besides, good food seems to make everyone happier.

*           *           *

    While I was still in the very early stages of writing the script, I attended a lighting seminar about how to light a set using only tools acquired from Home Depot (read: on a very low budget) hosted by Jay Holben. 

    I took a front-row seat because I’m ADD and anything in front of me is going to distract me. Because I didn’t really know anyone else there, the seat next to me was empty. In fact, as the place filled up, it turned out to be the only seat available.

    Jay started the seminar by asking everyone to talk about who we were and what we were doing. About half-way through, another guy walks in. He looks for a seat and the only seat left was the one right next to me. He sat there. He introduced himself. It was Miles Maker.

    I don’t know how it’s possible to be an independent filmmaker on Twitter and not to have at least heard Mile’s name mentioned. He seems to be everywhere. At the time, his most famous project he had helped produce was PARIAH. It did very well. You can imagine how I felt when I heard his name. I believe my exclamatory tweet was, “I’m sitting next to @milesmaker. I WIN!” I showed it to him and he got a kick out of it.

    There was a fifteen minute break half-way through the seminar and Miles and I got to talking. He asked me what I was working on. I told him. He asked me why I was the right person to make it, I told him about my computer science background and my list of experts. He asked me about the story, I told him a bit more details. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that is basically a textbook pitch session. At the end of it, he said he really wanted to read it and he gave me his email address.

    I was excited for days because of that.

    Miles and I have had some interesting conversations on Twitter since then and he’s always got useful things to say. I hope he’s into TRK because he’s definitely someone I’d like to work with.