Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 5, 2020

Time and the DVD Shortcut

by James Preston

Time is your friend . . . and your enemy.

You can never have enough. Yet it can stretch, minutes to seeming hours, in a boring movie that your date loves. It can race by when you’re writing to meet a deadline.

 . . . Time.

I looked for fiction writing classes on line and got over 65 million hits in less than a second. Let’s assume one out of a thousand,  0.1%, of them are aimed right at your kind of writing, that’s 65,000. Okay, 0.1% of that is 65 and you decide to attend one or more?

You are talking a lot of hours. Not necessarily a bad thing. Our art and craft are not easily mastered. But how many can you attend and still finish the book?

. . . Time

Time Hacks

But are there brief bits to educate and help, to inspire, inform and entertain when you don’t have days for a class? Like a life hack, a shortcut to help get you over those humps? You bet!

It seems to me that all of these classes, books and essays divide into two groups: “how to” and “inspirational.”

The first group is absolutely essential. What we do is both craft and art and you must master the craft before you can begin to grapple with the second. Before you can play in the piano recital you have to learn to run scales.

The inspirational half of this is equally important because we all hit moments when we think of our current WIP, “Arggh! This sucks. I hate it and it hates me.”

Side note: I told my wife about a month ago that my current story was trying to kill me. It was.

Then I took a break and plugged in my DVD of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

And this time I watched the special features, and I listened to Stephen Spielberg talk about the work. And I realized that modern movies on DVD are chock full of great interviews with the people involved, in which they tell stories of how they did it, why they did it (sometimes), and how they kept going when it got tough. And I found a quick way to get a boost, to think, “Yeah, everybody struggles now and then.”

The DVD helped me.

Many DVDs are a rich source of information in four ways: “Making Of” featurettes, liner notes, commentary, and deleted scenes.

Side Note: streaming services also offer movies with extra features, which may vary by service. I’m using DVD examples in this essay, focusing on the “Making Of” featurettes. I’ll throw in a bit of romance, a piece of trivia for your next cocktail party, and I’ll talk about liner notes from one movie that very few, if any, of you have heard of, let alone seen.

Here are a few DVDs that have worthwhile special features. I suggest them because they will convince you that everybody hits rough spots, everybody that succeeds keeps going, and — the best part — they’re relatively short. “Making of” featurettes are usually at most 20 - 30 minutes long. Watching one will expose you to pros grappling with deadlines and story issues.

Temple of Doom

As I’m sure many of you know, Temple of Doom is widely regarded as the weakest of the first Indiana Jones trilogy. It is certainly the darkest. If you watch the special features, Spielberg knew it. But it was a story he wanted to tell, so he did, and don’t think there's no risk involved. Hollywood not only believes you’re only as good as your last work, they’re proud of thinking that way. He has some very interesting things to say.

Star Trek (2009)

Here I’m talking about the reboot, directed by J.J. Abrams. The “Making of..." featurettes are excellent. What comes through to me most is how much the cast and crew enjoyed making the movie. Hard work? You bet. Arguments? I’m sure. But, bottom line, it shows how much they enjoyed the story. It convinced me that if I didn’t love a scene, or a story, something was wrong. It helped to rekindle my enthusiasm for my work.

Romancing the Stone (1984).

Wow, this DVD is a treasure trove of good information and inspiration. My thanks to the folks at WITS for asking me to write because it made me pull out the movie. Look for “Hidden Treasure: the Screenwriter.” If you don’t know her story, be prepared to be surprised.

In the liner notes: this script was “in turnaround” (translation: limbo) for two years. Two years, after the writer, who was working as a waitress when she wrote it, got Michael Douglas interested. Two years! If that doesn’t inspire you I don’t know what will.

Deleted scenes: ask yourself why “At the river” was cut. And for the trivia I promised, look at the very first scene of Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner. A female writer is sitting at her typewriter, hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a Pendleton shirt. Then look at the back cover photo of Grace Metalious on Peyton Place. The Turner scene has got to be an homage.

All of the above are movies that I like a lot. I thought I’d include one that I don’t’ much care for: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. I was watching some of the bonus material preparing for this essay, and the section of “The Director and the Jedi” where they’re working on storyboards is really useful, and it spoke to me because I was struggling with just that for the last fight screen in my WIP. Thoughts in the middle of the night like, “Wait, she can’t do that in the parking lot; she’s on the roof.” These people are working out issues just like that.

I want to close by talking about a movie I bet very few of you have seen — a little gem called (I’m not making this up) The Hideous Sun Demon. This time I'm focusing on the liner notes on the DVD case.

THSD was made in 1957, released in 1958, by a man named Robert Clarke. He’s also the producer and the star, which tells you something. Today it would be direct-to-video or You Tube. At that time it was aimed at an audience of kids in a drive-in, busy drinking beer and making out.

In the liner notes Clarke talks about how he and some of his friends from USC scraped together the cash and made the movie on a shoestring, and how when he was in the hideous sun demon costume, (made out of an old wetsuit), it was so hot that so much sweat was running down his body that there is one still picture of him where it appears he failed to make it to the Men’s Room in time. But they stuck with it. Clarke stuck with it. And they finished the movie, it made some money and they’re proud of their work. Learn from them. You should be proud of yours, too.

I promised romance... Stephen Spielberg has soft spot for Temple of Doom because he says that’s where he met his wife, Kate Capshaw. Not bad, huh?

So, time. Mine’s about up. 

Time is the one resource you can’t get more of. When you’re working on our art and craft, try to use it well. With a free half hour you can learn something from the likes of Spielberg, Abrams — or Clarke.

Now do something for me, for us. Think about quick things from special features that gave you a boost, maybe a deleted scene that made you think one of yours might drag just a bit, maybe a writer’s story from a Making Of featurette. Are there Special Features that moved you? Share them with this writing community that we are all part of. Thanks.

Time. Tick tock, tick tock, tick . . . 

* * * * * *

About James

James Preston writes the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His work is collected by the UC Berkeley University library as part of their special collection, “California Detective Fiction.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com

18 comments on “Time and the DVD Shortcut”

  1. Wow, what an inspiring blog, James, thank you! Made me think of WITS, too - most blogs divide into craft or inspiration. I have never watched a 'making of' (except bloopers, which remind me that even Brando ain't always cool), so I have nothing to add there, but Inspiration? Always.

    I'm 2/3 through my WIP, and something monumental just happened that made the rest of the book a let-down. But I'm only 60k in, so... As always, I'm in despair, knowing I'm not going to be able to pull this out of the dumpster-fire....when a critter (crit group member) of mine suggested a change to my idea for the rest....and EUREKA! I'm in love with the book again.

    Remember, no matter how stuck you are, you're one Eureka from solving it.

    Write on, peeps!

    1. Thanks, Laura. Ms Drake is the RITA-winning author of the Sweet on a Cowboy series, so I doubt that her WIP is a dumpster fire. Yes, one of the points of the essay is that we all hit rough spots and even the Spielbergs of the world work through them.

    1. Oooh, Demon, that's one I don't know. Thanks! So this is lengthy enough that it's on a separate DVD? Wow. I'll keep my eyes out. Are there details you can share?

  2. This is so cool! I love these Making Of .... too. Just watched the one on ALIEN. So interesting and revealing. I had no idea how important that movie was, though it scared the crap out of me back in the day! It was a landmark film. Who knew!

    1. Oh, Lise, you are so right! All unknowing, my friend Bill & I, tasked with watching his daughter, took her to see "Alien." A space movie, right? She was around eleven. About the time the little creature jumped out of that guy's chest, gnashed its teeth and ran away, we knew we were in trouble, but her psyche wasn't permanently damaged. I'll check out that Making of . . . and thanks for the suggestion.

    1. Har de har har, Alice. Jack Bowie is a reformed techie who writes the excellent Adam Braxton technothrillers. I know, Jack, my wife read an early draft and said, "What about streaming?" You're both right, but the platforms are too varied for me to get into the details. However, DVDs are still alive. i just read an extensive article about how the big three producers are planning to keep the format alive.
      However you get it, the good news is that the makers of movies now have a chance to tell the story behind the story.
      Pop quiz: who said "Har de har har, Alice?"

      1. Ralph Kramden? I did watch the SW8 trailers and also enjoyed the storyboard discussion. A great example of the importance of serious plot revision.

        1. Got it in one, Jack. Yeah, watching storyboarding in progress can be very interesting. I just watched a session, for the "Star Trek" reboot I think, that really helped me work out the details of the climax of my WIP. I was dealing with issues like,"Wait, he can't be in the parking lot; hes on the roof." It was great to see how others handled similar issues. Come to think of it, it was good to see that others had the same sort of issues.

  3. Great post. So relatable. To pass the time and keep my brain occupied on the treadmill, I watch movies. And I ALWAYS watch the "making of" special features. They're like mini workshops on creating a compelling and audience-pleasing experience.

    I just finished "The Last Samurai." My WIP takes place in Japan (though later in 1945 and the present, not the 1860s). I want to better understand the historical evolutions of the Japanese culture. While many people dissed the movie in its day, I found it fascinating. ("They" even joked about it while I was Japan last summer.). The special features are even more revealing and enlightening.

    As authors, we need to tap into all types of storytelling to tell OUR stories the best we can. Your post today is a great reinforcement of that idea. Many thanks.

    1. Thanks, Christopher. I'm not familiar with "The Last Samurai" but it sounds like something I need to check out. My hat's off to you -- historical novels are a lot of work. Endless details! And the line about "They're like mini workshops . . . " is excellent. If I ever redo this essay for another audience I plan on stealing it.

  4. I don't tend to watch "behind the scenes" of movies, but when I'm in need of a diversion, I pop in *Bridget Jones's Diary* and it works. Gives me just what I need to get back to the story.


  5. Oooh, good one, Denise! Thanks for sharing it. That's another one I'll have to look for. Is it the movie or a "Behind the Scenes" that gets you back to your story?
    Side Note: for my friend Bill it's "Weekend at Bernie's'" that always makes him laugh no matter what few minutes he watches. Go figure.

  6. I always enjoy your posts, James. When I didn't want to walk into my computer room, I knew I was in trouble with the revision of PRISM 2. Even though I had the final editorial letter and embedded comments from my wonderful editor Tiffany Yates Martin, I just "wasn't feeling it." But I knew I needed to finish the story I'd started in Book One, and slowly that's been happening. I took a deep POV class, read a couple of craft books about revisions and endings, studied my characters' arcs. Talked to Laura. Finally, I can say the joy is back and I'll rolling along again. Thanks for ideas to get me "back" faster!

    1. Thanks, Fae. I'm glad to hear the joy is back. I'm sure PRISM 2 will rock! One of the things that comes through very clearly in many of these "Making of" videos is how much the people involved enjoy their work, despite all the problems. Okay, get back there and type faster!

  7. I always get a lot out of DVD extras. I highly recommend DVD extras that come with the original Star Wars Movies (4, 5, & 6.)

  8. Yes! Thanks, Laurie, those are excellent. So, where so you stand on the final three? I think 7 is ok, don't care for what they did with Luke's character in 8, and thought 9 was all right. I have not looked at any of those special features yet.
    Thanks again.

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