SPOILER WARNING: This blog assumes you've seen the titled work and discusses plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a member of the Independent Writers Caucus of the WGA. However, all opinions expressed here are completely my own.

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Isaac Ho's books on Goodreads
The Repatriation Of Henry Chin: A Novel The Repatriation Of Henry Chin: A Novel
reviews: 1
ratings: 5 (avg rating 4.20)

Death in Chinatown Death in Chinatown
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)

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Summer '11 Writing Project

First Draft

19,446 of 80,000 words (24%) complete

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Made on a Mac

So that happened…

A few months ago this blog crashed and was resurrected after a few hours on the phone with tech support rebuilding the database. While on hold and waiting for the changes and updates to propagate, I did some soul searching about the purpose of this blog.

I’ve always been candid about sharing what insight I’ve learned about screenwriting. I’ve always believed that any advice is like a tool and becomes a function unique to its user. Nearly all the advice I’ve posted has been from my own observations about my own struggles as a screenwriter.

For those of you who know me, know that for the last year my focus on writing has changed. I am wonderfully blessed with talented friends who are working as established screenwriters and for the past three years have struggled to pay their bills. The number of opportunities for screenwriters has diminished as the number of films produced has declined.

I’ve also taken a hard look at the kind of material I was writing and know that it’s a much harder sell today than it ever was before. But, as Steve Jobs said, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” How do you poll the public acceptance of something that doesn’t exist yet?

One criticism that I’ve received over the years is that my stories are too narrow, that they would barely attract a niche audience let alone a wide one. That I should stop writing Asian American stories and use my skills for stories that are more universal (read: white). In my defense I’d like to quote James Joyce who said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

My screenplay productivity has declined dramatically as I have concentrated my energies on novel writing. It’s a great challenge for me as all the tools of storytelling are in play. Also, I’m free from the constraints of marketers, budgeting and attracting stars. It is as close to a pure artistic expression as I am able to achieve. I will also admit there is great satisfaction in having your work out in the public market.

Some people will like what I’ve done, some won’t. That is reality. But no one can judge my work if it sits gathering dust on a CE’s shelf or archived on a hard drive unproduced.

I’ll still check in here from time to time with my thoughts on screenwriting but my path will be a different one from the trajectory initiated with this blog. This isn’t the first time I’ve started a new blog with a new purpose: My first blog was writing movie reviews. My interests have been slowly evolving as I have been maturing both as a person and as an artist. I hope our paths will cross again. The door is always open.

For those who want to follow my travails as a novelist, you can find my random thoughts at IsaacHoWriter.com.

See you on the other side.

Isaac

Apple II Forever

Steve Jobs Apple II-sm2

My first computer was an Apple //e. The computers that stocked our high school’s computer lab were almost all Apple ][+ machines that had no ability to display lower case. I think my parents bought me an Apple so I would spend more time at home than at the computer lab.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the impact computers had on me. Today we think of them as tools to help us do our work, communicate or entertain. Today, I probably watch more television on my computer than I do on my television. Today, there’s a few generations that have no concept of what life was like without computers. I consider myself fortunate to have come of age at the same time our culture moved from analog to digital.

The Apple //e came with Applesoft BASIC installed. What it allowed me to do was program animated vignettes in lo-res and later hi-res graphics. I was able to write a program that could quiz the user about states and capitals, shoot down crude flying saucers, and break down physical ed test scores into percentiles. Most of these programs weren’t school assignments but rather my attempt to see what I could make the computer do.

But beneath all that, what the Apple //e taught me was how to break down large projects into small manageable tasks. Programming on the Apple //e taught me how to solve problems. It taught me how to think.

The approach I used to create computer programs back then I still use today in my writing. It’s impossible to think of writing a novel. It’s much easier to think of writing a chapter or a paragraph or a sentence. It’s impossible to think of writing a screenplay. It’s much easier to think of writing an act, a scene, or an exchange. The skills I obtained learning how to program an asymptote on a Cartesian plane are the same skills I use to breakdown and organize my storytelling. The Apple computer was my playground to explore anything my imagination wanted to explore. I wasn’t the first person to draw a graph (people had done that for centuries with pencil and paper) but there was a thrill typing “RUN” and then sitting back to watch the program you wrote turn on pixel after pixel until the graph of y=1/x was complete.

That was what was so special about Apple. The technology was there but it didn’t get in your way. You were able to spend all your energy on creativity while IBM-PC users slaved away at rewriting AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to load TSR programs into upper memory so there was enough main memory to run WordPerfect.

With an Apple computer, I (and many of my contemporaries) felt there was nothing in the world that could stop us. That sentiment wasn’t a pipe dream. Steve Jobs was living proof of that. The Apple was invented in a garage by two guys who loved to tinker and impress their friends. We all dreamed of being the next Steve Jobs.

But Steve Jobs wasn’t done being Steve Jobs yet. And while we watched in awe as his innovations changed the world, I continued to dream of accomplishing even a small fraction of what he did.

It’s weird to categorize a man I’ve never met as one of the greatest influences in my life. Usually you reserve that honorific for someone you know and communicate with on a regular basis… a parent, a teacher, or a friend. Steve Jobs inspired us to dream about how insanely great we could be and then gave us the tools to accomplish that.

The Describer’s Dictionary

The Describer's Dictionary

On of the luxuries of writing screenplays is brevity. You can use a lot of shorthand to give the flavor of the location and then depend on an art director to make it real. When you’re writing a novel you have only the words to create the reality. As a result, you often ask yourself, “What the heck to you call that?”

A good thesaurus can only take you so far. One tool I’ve found extremely useful is The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs. Especially useful to me were the sections covering landscapes and architecture. Sure you can use Google, but leafing through a few pages is educational, fun and may shake some additional creativity loose.

Exposition tips

I’m currently adapting an unproduced screenplay into a novel. I’ve already done it once and enjoyed the process (and income) so much I’m dusting off another one.

These are screenplays I’ve written on spec – meaning I chose the story, background and characters to write about without any commitment from buyers. The risk is that you’ll commit several weeks (or months) of your life without any guarantee that someone will buy. Why take the risk? You’ll have and enjoy more unfettered artistic freedom than if you were writing on assignment.

The upside is that you’ll pick a story that you really can sink your teeth into as well as emotionally invest yourself. You’ll take artistic risks and let the story be what you believe it needs to be. To hell with what other people think!!!

The downside is that the marketing department will say the audience for your story is too narrow for them to make it worth their while. Well, no wonder since the cost of turning your script into a movie is about $100 million on average. That includes P&A. Their concern is after they’ve spent all that money to make and market the film, will they make a profit? It’s not enough that you have a million dollar idea… it must be a one hundred million dollar idea.

Novelizing your screenplay and selling it as an e-novel is now a viable alternative.

One piece of advice that I’ve gotten as a writer is that your characters need a past. They need to have a sense that they’ve come from somewhere. Usually in a screenplay this is done poorly in screenplays with flashbacks. That’s why flashbacks have gotten such a bad rap over the years.

The reason why flashbacks tends to not work is that you bring your story to a complete halt to reveal something that has already happened. Usually it’s only to generate sympathy for your characters but doesn’t always inform or drive the action.

In the process of novelizing this screenplay I need that backstory to give a sense of weight to the conflict. It’s one thing to watch two men fighting but how do you convey the sense that they are the latest feud in a feud that has gone on for more than fifty years?

The solution I’ve come up with is using the backstory as part of the story.

This is hardly an original idea. From the Greeks through Eugene O’Neill, the theme “The sins of the Fathers are the sins of the sons” has a prominent place in literature. The Godfather II makes masterful use of this. The story of Vito Corleone’s coming of age is a compelling story of his rise to power that also informs Michael’s fall from grace.

Because movies are written in the present tense, including events from the past takes away from the immediacy of the conflict in front of you. Movies are great at creating the illusion that the events of the story are unfolding right before your eyes. Revealing the past breaks that illusion.

Unless that exposition has an immediacy of its own.

By giving your exposition its own story, you give it its own sense of immediacy and suspense. Now you have at your disposal all the tools of a storyteller (e.g., plot twists, reveals, conflict) to reveal background and backstory through observed behavior.

The usual MO in a screenplay is to grit your teeth and get the exposition over with as quickly as possible. This is usually a factor of time and money. 120 pages is a very compact parameter for storytelling.

The danger in a novel is that all that exposition comes across as dry information. Exposition is much more effective if it feels like it’s leading you somewhere dangerous.

<<==SPOILER ALERT==>>

In The Repatriation of Henry Chin, I did create an entire story arc for the novel that was not in the screenplay. In the screenplay, Henry’s past as ex-military was revealed in a background check by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The intent was to show that Henry was capable of killing and raise the stakes for his pursuers. For the novel I decided to dramatize his military experience.

In Henry’s present day story, Henry seems to have a sixth sense when trouble is about to erupt. By turning his military background into what is essentially a coming of age story Henry’s present day ability to sense danger seems more organic.

Here’s how I tied the past and the present together to create that sense of immediacy. As a youth, Henry was pushed to make a regrettable choice. In his present, he is pushed to make the same choice. Will he do what he did in the past or will he make a different choice… or will there be other consequences?

I’ll let you judge how well I did.

I Wrote a Book

I wrote a book.

Four words I never thought I’d ever say.  Writing a book was always intimidating to me.  Ever since I was a kid, authors always seemed like super geniuses.  Back then, a ten page, handwritten book report was nearly impossible and that attitude remained in place firmly until well into my adulthood.

Stage plays and screenplays seemed less intimidating to me.  I am one of those many many people who would watch a movie and think, “I can’t write a novel but I can write a movie.”

The first play I wrote was pretty shitty but what distinguished me from most of my contemporaries was that I actually finished the play and moved onto another writing project.  Two of my stage plays were produced before I switched to screenwriting.

Fast forward to today.  I have an MFA in Screenwriting and about a dozen unproduced spec screenplays under my belt and yet, I felt like I was standing still.  An unproduced screenplay just sits in a drawer (or archived on a hard drive), completely unknown to the world.  Writing a good screenplay is important but it’s not the prize.  The dream of filming  my screenplay was quickly moving beyond my grasp.  [One of my screenplays was produced as an indie film, but that's another blog post.]

Throw a rock in Los Angeles and you stand a 100% chance of hitting someone who’s writing a screenplay.  However, the odds of any screenplay getting made into a film has gone down significantly in the past two decades for a few significant reasons.

  • The consolidation of the entertainment industry into about a half a dozen media conglomerates means fewer buyers for screenplays.
  • The reduction of output per studio to about a dozen films per year means fewer projects coming through the pipeline.
  • The loss of various funding sources (such as hedge funds) due to the economic collapse.
  • The dependence on large international box office receipts as a revenue stream dictates a certain kind of film that can be made (ie, action, star dependent vehicles).

When the cost of an average studio picture (including P&A) exceeds $100 million dollars, producers have to consider if your screenplay will have enough domestic and international appeal to make that money back and then some.  Indie films have an uphill battle not only to raise funding to make the film, but to find distribution so audiences can see the finished product.

We’re living in an age when even well-established writers and producers are having difficulty getting their films made.  Projects with A-list stars attached are getting shut down by nervous, cost conscious studios.

I had to come up with a different strategy.  Fortunately, a UCLA MFA Screenwriting buddy of mine, Jody Wheeler, provided me with one.

“Hey Isaac, I just created Digital Fabulists, an e-publishing company.  Have you written any books you want published?”

“No, but give me a couple of weeks.”

Jody and I had entered the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program at the same time.  I’ve always admired his chops as a writer but I envied his ability to see into the future.  Creating his own e-publishing company was just another example of his clairvoyance.

Every screenwriter I know became a writer because they wanted to tell stories.  They wanted to share their love, fascination or obsession with a world, a character or an obscure moment in history.  Of course we all aspired to make a living at it but wealth and fame was never the sole motivation for writing.

One of the nice things about writing original screenplays on spec is that I don’t need permission to change them to another form.  This particular screenplay I’d written had been recycled a few times to suit what agents and producers were looking for.

The Repatriation of Henry Chin began life as an original pitch for a television pilot, born out of my fascination with conspiracy theories, Constitutional law and a few dark chapters from our nation’s history.  When that pitch failed to get any attention, I stuck it in a drawer until I was searching for an idea for a feature film spec.  Working on the treatment. I discovered major revisions were needed to change the open ended story engine of a TV pilot into a transformative closed ending for a feature film.

Once the treatment was done, I began producing the script pages.  After vetting the completed draft with my writers group and some trusted friends I began pitching the script to agents and producers.

I had gotten some feedback about the script and why it wasn’t right for this producer or that production company.  Some of the feedback was encouraging, some wasn’t.  Ultimately, the script failed to get any attention, so I stuck it back in a drawer.

Until the email from Jody I had never seriously considered writing a book.  It was intimidating and it was frightening.  I am and always have been an avid reader but realized I knew virtually nothing about the business of books.

Being a science fiction fan, I had consumed a fairly large quantity of Star Trek novelizations and movie tie-ins.  My thought was that if novelists could adapt films into a novel, how hard could it be to adapt a screenplay for a film into a novel?  As a child I had recreated my favorite movies and TV shows as stick figure drawings (and sometimes Lego fortresses) based on my imperfect recollections (we didn’t have home video back then).  I figured that was great preparation for adapting a screenplay into a novel.

It wasn’t… well, maybe it was.

I had to trick myself into believing that writing a novel was easy.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had a mere 77,325 words.  A Tale of Two Cities had 135,420 words (though it seemed much longer back in high school).  One of my favorite thrillers was Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle which had 103,655 words.  I looked at my collection of movie tie-in novels and calculated that a typical one ran about 80,000 words.  My screenplay weighed in at 20,000 words. Generating four words for every word in my screenplay didn’t seem insurmountable.  I had all the confidence in the world I could do it.  You can easily  convince yourself you’re the world’s greatest lover until you lose your virginity.

Making the conversion wasn’t as simple as adding fat and bloat to an existing story.  A screenplay contains only the elements of the story that you can see and hear.  What a novel has room for is the inclusion of what the characters think and feel.

Screenplays are incredibly condensed versions of the story.  Characters that appeared in one scene in the screenplay were given full arcs and personalities in the novel.  Subplots that were hinted at in the screenplay were now fully dramatized.  Events that happened in the past could be brought into the present to comfort or haunt the characters.

And then there is detail.  Describing the landscape, the vehicles, the technology, the clothes and the behavior so the story becomes vivid and real rather than a recitation of facts and events is a necessity for novels but not always required in screenplays.  Following Ken Follett’s advice to thriller writers in a lecture at the 92nd Street Y he said, “Putting in a great deal of authentic detail about something … is a terrific way to distract the reader’s attention from the essential implausibility of the story.”

Having the story all plotted out in the screenplay, the action was already in place.  Moments of reflection could be added and distributed throughout the novel to help set the pacing, build the tension and communicate the stakes.  Motivations became important as well as painting word pictures to immerse you in the world.

I had created these characters for the screenplay but now I could show you much more about them in the novel without requiring the high cost of hiring on an actor or a director to interpret the experience for you.

Writing the novel was singularly the most difficult and most ambitious writing project I’ve attempted to date.  Without knowing how it will be received, it has already proved to be the most rewarding.  Not because Hollywood seems more impressed by novelists than with screenwriters (a nice perk) but because characters I loved are no longer destined to die a dusty death at the bottom of a desk drawer.

I wrote a book.  Four words that seem command as much respect in Hollywood as as “We got funding” or “We have distribution.”

I wrote a book… and I’ll write another.

1,001 Ways to Enjoy the Missionary Position – Los Angeles Premiere

Our film, 1,001 Ways to Enjoy the Missionary Position will have its Los Angeles debut as part of the FirstGlance Film Festival on April 9 at 8:00pm.  Hope you can make it.

WHAT: 1,001 Ways to Enjoy the Missionary Position
Los Angeles Premiere, FirstGlance Film Festival, Directed by Alan Chu, Written by Isaac Ho, Produced by Rebecca Hu, Executive Producer – Peter C. Godwin

Starring Amanda Plummer, William Russ, Richard Riehle, Natasha Melnick, Anthem Moss, Helen Wilson.

WHEN: April 9, 2011, 8:00 PM

WHERE: Raleigh Studios, Chaplin Theater, 5300 Melrose, Hollywood

TICKETS: For the screening and Bodega Wine Bar after-party $25

For the screening only $10 + service fee

Regarded as “one of the most creative and unique films to hit the festival trail this year” by examiner.com, 1,001 Ways to Enjoy the Missionary Position makes its Los Angeles Premiere April 9 as part of the FirstGlance Film Festival.  Eric Shlapack, writing for examiner.com, calls the film “truly a work of art that illuminates a complex understanding of humanity few films can match.”

The story takes place in the future when government regulations are so restrictive our most intimate acts are considered acts of rebellion. One woman tries to break out of a lifetime of strict thought and sexual repression before it’s too late.  Meanwhile, a young couple struggles with an acerbic auditor for their marriage approval.

What makes 1,001 Ways to Enjoy the Missionary Position unique is the joining of veteran performers Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction, The Fisher King), William Russ (American History X, The West Wing) and Richard Riehle (The Laramie Project, Star Trek: TNG) with a production team whose key creative members were all making their first feature.

First time feature director Alan Chu and former Creative Executive says, “I felt that this script had all the elements to stand out not only from studio pictures but also from other indie movies.  Since none of us had done this before, we felt we might be crazy enough to pull it off.”

First time feature screenwriter and playwright Isaac Ho goes on to say, “Hollywood is addicted to these giant effects spectacles.  We wanted to prove that good stories and good characters would also attract audiences.”

“It really felt like we were doing something different and the acclaim 1,001 Ways has received at film festivals has proven us right,” says producer Rebecca Hu.  Says Executive Producer Peter C. Godwin, an intellectual property attorney by trade, “It was a breath of fresh air to work on something so positive at a time when everyone was governed by fear.”

Veteran entertainment attorney and 1,001 Ways co-producer Lee Rudnicki says, “I’ve worked on many films and there was something definitely audacious about what these guys were doing.  I had to be a part of it.”

Awarded the Accolade Award of Merit, the film’s Director of Photography is Keiko Nakahara and original music by prolific film composer Nathan Wang.

To date, FirstGlance has produced twenty two festivals, shown over 1100 award winning films to over 26,000 attendees and has grown to 250 seat venues with state of the art projection capabilities.  In addition to producing their award winning bi-coastal film festivals, FirstGlance has year round activities that include Feature & Short Screenplay Competitions, On-line Film Competitions, Show Us Your Shorts Screenings, Short Film Productions, and Online Distribution.

Vasquez Rocks

If you’ve known me for more than 10 minutes, then you probably know I’m a huge Star Trek fan.  One of the thrills of living in LA are all the iconic film locations that are in my backyard.

VR - Hike

Vasquez Rocks is probably familiar to most Star Trek fans.  My visits here are more like pilgrimages, though I haven’t worked up the nerve to go in costume.

Here are some screengrabs of Vasquez Rocks and not all of them are from Star Trek.  Enjoy.

Vasquez Rocks sm