'And best screenplay by a computer goes to...'
You don't need characters or a plot to pen a screenplay. Just $299.99 for software.
SOMEWHERE DEEP INSIDE THE STORY ENGINE — Oscar season is upon us. In full-bore, fed-up-with-the-same-old-stuff mode, my editor and I were casting about for something new to say about the movies.
I told her that a few months ago, when Daniel Handler was trying to turn his "Lemony Snicket" books into a movie, he'd told me that the studio suits had made him use new software that was trying to do his job for him. In truth, David Kelley aside, (the "Ally McBeal" creator is the last, great holdout for the yellow-legal-pad school of writing), it's pretty near impossible to find a writer in Hollywood who doesn't use some sort of computerized help.
"That's it!" she cried. "Most big movies make people want to throw popcorn at the screen anyway. Now, we have proof! It's being done by computer!
"Go find that software," she said, "and tell us all, has technology finally made it possible for ANYBODY to write a movie?"
The short answer is, yes (just remember, nobody said "good"). I mean, how hard can it be when the very first "story box" in the program, which asks what your movie is about, offers this reassurance: "If you do not yet know what your story is about, leave this question blank and return to it later?"
What follows are some of the high - and low - points of my dream to dedicate this award to my computer in the two weeks left before this year's Oscars.
"Dramatica Pro," says the clerk at The Writer's Store, himself a screenwriter. (Surprise! But then, didn't Jay Leno prove it's statistically impossible to find anyone over 18 in L.A. who doesn't have a screenplay stashed somewhere?) "That's what you need."
Why? I ask.
"Gives the most guidance," he says, a man of remarkably few words for a storyteller. The esoteric-sounding title puts me off a bit. "Screenwriting for Dummies," would be more promising.
But guidance is what I want. So I plunk down my $299.99 and carry my new collaborator home to my computer.
The software loads pretty quickly. The first screen offers 12 boxes with options, so I click the first one, called "Story Guide" - and run smack into a tech glitch. I'm supposed to choose a story template, but I can't find one.
I call the tech guy in Pasadena, and he says, "Oh yeah, that's been a problem for a while."
Really? I bought the latest version, I say. He gives me a phone shrug and offers to fix it now. Now I can choose the screenplay template, but I'm worried that there are other things my new partner hasn't fully disclosed.
Another phone shrug, "nope," he says and hangs up. Not exactly Mr. Congeniality. But then, neither is the software, as I discover.
I go back to my story guide and see the magic words, "The Story Guide will handhold you through the creation of your story." How about my acceptance speech, I wonder? And does it have a little-sister piece of software that would help me design my own dress?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I have to answer 385 questions and choose a story form from among the 32,768 possibilities preloaded into Dramatica Pro.
Hold on, Sparky. Call me giddy, but couldn't a lab chimp typing random keys end up with Shakespeare's plays in less time than it would take me to try out 32,768 story forms? Happily, that's where some of that promised handholding comes in. The software will winnow those forms down for me.
Hooray! Since I don't know what my story is about yet, it might be hard to choose.
"What's the title? Make something up, you can always change it later," chirps my new cyberguide, whom I have dubbed Mr. Congeniality.
I don't have a clue about my story name yet, but here I tap some advice from a writer friend. There are only two stories in all of literature, he says: A man goes on a journey or, a stranger comes to town.
Which is easier - describing a world of strangers or just one? Easy. I write, "A Stranger in Town" in that title box.
At this point, I'm feeling a bit antsy. Anyone can ask me questions. Where are the answers I laid out all that loot to get my hands on?
With the next question, Mr. C. promises that help is on the way. "If you have not yet developed characters for your story, assistance will be provided to help you create and develop some."
In case it wasn't obvious earlier, the truth is now clear - you don't need an idea, you don't even need characters. A warm body and cold cash are pretty much the only prerequisites to get in the screenwritng game.
So, I tell ol' Mr. C. that I've actually got a few characters in mind; by name, Dodson, Joli, and Mayor Bob.
"OK," he says. Cast 'em first, then we'll talk about who they are. A library of computer-generated headshots scrolls out, a motley collection of pinky-nail-sized pictures that would fit an episode of "The Simpsons" meets "Lawrence of Arabia."
I choose a man wearing what looks like half a turkey on his head, a generic Japanese animé babe, and a murky mug that wouldn't look out of place on the walls of a Biloxi, Miss., post office.
"OK! Who are they?" asks Mr. C.
Mayor Bob is the bad guy, "the antagonist." Up pop his characteristics: "reconsider and avoidance." Hmmm. Dodson is a "guardian," so his characteristics are "conscience and help." Joli is a reporter, the protagonist.
Her purpose, intones Mr. C., is "knowledge and actuality," and her methodology is "certain and proaction." "Do you want Joli to have a conscience?" he asks me. This sounds like a good thing for a protagonist to have.
I type, "yes."
"Nope," he shoots back, no can do. "You already gave that to Dodson."
Oh. Only one conscience per screenplay. Who knew?
I try to give her one anyway, but the screen goes blank. Mr. Congeniality shows his true colors. I back off. Only one conscience here.
But there is another question. "Do you want her to be the main character as well as the protagonist?"
"Yes," I type in, I do.
"If you do that," says Mr. C solemnly, "she will also be your hero. Is that what you want?"
Well, why not? "OK," I type.
"Fine," he says, almost purring with contentment. "A main character and a protagonist." Excellent hero story in the making. In fact, he adds, you've made such progress, "it's time to print out a story report!" I hit "story report" and out prints all the information we know so far. All made-up stuff, going nowhere that I can tell.
"But a great foundation!" says Mr. C. with pitch-perfect cyberhype.
Today, Mr. C. unveils the secret weapon behind his confidence: the story engine. It churns along beneath the scenes, nabbing every tidbit I type, and, like some giant, cyber-kaleidoscope, reshapes and refocuses the information into some cohesive form.
It takes my answers to questions such as this: "Does Joli resolve her problems and feel good (like Luke in 'Star Wars') or not resolve them and feel bad (like Clarice in 'Silence of the Lambs')?"
Joli resolves her problem, I tell him, but ends up feeling bad because what she achieves is morally dubious.
Oops, up pops a little story window. Mr. C. screams in computer language, "No! She has to resolve it externally, as in being a do-er," doing something external. She can't be a be-er, meaning adapting to something in her thoughts.
But I want Joli to be a be-er! I tell him. Please?!
"Nope," says Mr. C. The story engine has already figured this bit out. Joli, he says, must be a do-er. Find something for her TO DO, not think. No conscience, remember?
These days pass in a haze of testy exchanges with my writing buddy. On Day 9, we hit our creative low, when I try to have my townsfolk worry about the past as well as the future.
Mr. C gives me the computer's version of a raspberry by flatly refusing to record my keystrokes. The screen is jiggling with the force of my pounding fingers, but not a character appears.
"Why not?" I ask. "Can't they hold more than one worry in their tiny heads?"
I can almost hear Mr. C. speaking: "As with the executives who assign this software to new writers, the answer is an emphatic 'No!' "
Mr. C. pronounces me ready with a rough draft, at which point I graduate to the actual writing of a treatment.
He offers all sorts of advice here: Be creative, have fun, and then, put the story in your drawer for two months and go on vacation.
Then, presumably after a Hawaiian cruise has mellowed you sufficiently to take the heat, show it to some friends.
In a refreshing bit of wisdom for software that presumes that if you can move a mouse, you can write a movie, Mr. C. says, "Don't worry, they'll hate it."
Sooo, what to do when this prediction comes true? Remember all those story forms Mr. C. has in his little story engine? Simply click the brainstorming box and ask Mr. C. either to generate some new (presumably, better) characters or "Spin-the Model" for a new form.
I click the character-generator button and get eight new characters, with swell names like Linsy, Vianney, Bristol, and Anirudh. (Am I writing a "Dune" prequel now?) Then I re-sex Mayor Bob, who becomes the groovy Alondra (complete with Penthouse-worthy cartoon icon). Dodson becomes Joycelyn, and Joli becomes Jacob - an 80-year-old black man. Somehow, his (her?) motivations remain the same.
Now, how about a new form? The box promises it will "find a story form that matches questions you've already answered." (Translation: a whole new screenplay at one click of a mouse.) I wind up with story form #25,192, in which all the characters have new goals, new motives - essentially new lives. According to #25,192, Joycelyn (Dodson, rest in peace) has a new flaw: hope. Whoa! Hope is a flaw?
Only 32,766 forms left to try. Call me if that chimp ever gets his hands on a mouse.