Monthly Archives: June 2016

Storytelling 101: The Syllabus

So, there’s this eccentric billionaire, who decides to throw the most lavish party the world has ever known. Guests fly in from all over the world to attend. We’re talking celebrities, foreign dignitaries, titans of industry, you name it. And the only thing more impressive than the guest list is the spread the billionaire puts out from them: the freshest lobster, a sushi bar manned by Jiro himself, caviar, champagne, you name it.splashd-fitzgerald-withtitle

Once the party is well under way, the billionaire asks everyone to join him outside, and the guests gather around the Olympic sized swimming pool in his backyard. And this isn’t just any swimming pool; it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before: it’s filled with every kind of dangerous aquatic creature you can think of. There are piranhas, and crocodiles, and even a few sharks swimming around in this pool. It’s like a nightmare come to life.

Once he has all of his guests’ attention, the eccentric billionaire, who’s had a few flutes of champagne at this point, makes an announcement: “I will give anything to the person who is brave enough to jump into this pool and swim to the other side.”
A buzz goes through the crowd, as all of the guests begin whispering to one another about this crazy billionaire and his crazy proposition. But, of course, no one steps forward to take him up on his offer.

“I’m serious,” the billionaire says, “anything you want in the world will be yours: money, a new car, a house. You name it!”

Suddenly, there’s a loud splash, and everyone looks over to see a man swimming for his life across the pool. Miraculously, the man manages to dodge the sharks, fend off the piranhas, and out-swim the crocodiles to the other side. And somehow, he makes it out of the pool in one piece. The entire crowd is awestruck and erupts in a huge cheer. They’ve just witnessed the impossible.

Delighted, the billionaire rushes over to this brave man with a warm towel and a huge smile. “I can’t believe it,” the billionaire says, “you did it! And because I am a man of my word, I will give you anything your heart desires. So, what will it be, my friend? A briefcase full of cash? My house? My beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage?”

The man, still visibly shaken, finally manages to get to his feet and catch his breath. And when he does, he looks the billionaire dead in the eye, and he says, “All I want is to know the name of the asshole who pushed me in the pool!”


It never hurts to start with a joke, right? Though in this case, the joke in question isn’t just meant to grab a quick laugh or curry favor with my audience. It will hopefully help to illustrate the subject at hand: storytelling.

As you might recall, I’ll be teaching a four-hour workshop on storytelling this week for a group of 30 high-achieving middle-schoolers¹. And as Pixar wizard Andrew Stanton so artfully points out in his TED talk on the subject, storytelling is joke-telling. Everything you’re saying is servicing a singular goal. In the case of a joke, it’s a punchline, of course; but with a story, it’s a theme or idea that confirms some truth about who we are as human beings (even if that truth is being personified by fish).FINDING NEMO 3D

This class I’m teaching is no different. It’s my (very meta) opportunity to tell them the story of storytelling. To (hopefully) have them come away with a better understanding of why we tell stories, what makes a good story, and how they can tell one that might actually hold an audience’s attention.

Obviously, this is a rather ambitious objective when we have just four short hours together (especially since I’m dealing with the collective attention span of a class full of 13-year-olds on a warm summer day). But, I hope that the syllabus I’ve come up with (laid out below) is fun and fast-paced enough to keep them on their toes, while at the same time exposing them to the most fundamental tenants of effective storytelling.

Storytelling Syllabus

First Period: Getting to Know You
We’ll follow up my introductory joke/mission statement with a getting to know you exercise. We’ll go around the room and everyone will introduce themselves and tell the class what their favorite movie is.

As we do this, I’ll write down each movie on a scrap of paper. And when we’re done with introductions, we’ll start our first game of the day: Movie Password. The game is simple. Each volunteer “contestant” will have 60 seconds to get the class to name as many movies as possible (written on the scraps of paper) based solely on their description of the story. No character names. No words from the movie’s title. Just the story.

Second Period: The Definition of a Story
When we’re done with the game, I’ll choose a few of their favorite movies and use them to illustrate what all stories have in common:

A character wants something badly. But they’re having difficulty getting it.

And to really pound this point home, I’ll show them as classic and clear an example of this (in scene form) as there’s ever been: the opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Indy’s goal couldn’t be clearer: get the gold idol. BUT there’s (literally) one obstacle after another standing in his way. So much so that, eventually, his goal shifts from “get the gold idol” to STAY THE FUCK ALIVE!

Of course, as important as a goal — and obstacles standing in the way of achieving that goal — are to a story, there’s something else that’s every bit as necessary: the audience has to care. Whether it’s emotionally (preferred), intellectually, or aesthetically (or, in a perfect world, all three), you have to make your audience care about your character and the pursuit of their goal.

And what better example is there of a movie getting us emotionally engaged in a character’s story than the opening of Up? And to think, they do it without a single word of dialogue²:

Third Period: Character

After a quick exploration of how the filmmakers made us care about Carl, we’ll talk about what makes a great character. We don’t have to like the person, but we do have to understand and relate to them.

To get some practice creating characters of our own, we’ll play the Vernon Hardapple Game. What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Vernon Hardapple Game? Well, allow Michael Douglas, Iron Man, and the o.g. Spider-Man to demonstrate how it works (starting at the 1:25 mark):

The kids will be separated into small groups, and I’ll give each of them a picture of someone. Their job will be to construct a story about that person: who they are, what they do for a living, what their family might be like, etc. And when they’re done, they’ll share their character’s story with the rest of the class…

…but what the kids (hopefully) won’t know until their presentations is that they’ve all been working off of the same photo. So, we’ll get to see how the same photo can produce lots of (great) stories.

Fourth Period: It’s All in the Details

So, what makes a great character? It’s the same thing that makes a great story: the details. The difference between a great movie or book and a forgettable one always comes down to the details. In other words, specificity.

And, of course, in our own lives, a great example of this is when we get in trouble with our parents. If you don’t have a good explanation for why you broke curfew, or why you didn’t clean your room, or why you got a D- on your history test, you’re going to get in trouble. But the story can’t be TOO crazy, of course, otherwise, your parents will see right through it. Just like Goldilocks’ favorite bed, the story has to be jusssst right.

To have some fun with this idea, we’ll play a modified version of The Tonight Show’s “True Confessions” game. Like the one played here by Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver, and J-Law:

We’ll take a few volunteer “contestants” from the crowd, and have the rest of the class ask them questions about their “confession” before deciding whether they’re telling the truth or not.

Fifth Period – Telling Your Story

In an effort to start piecing together what we’ve learned (and loosen them up a bit more), we’ll play a classic improv storytelling game called “Build a Story”, which you can see executed by a group of kids and they’re incredibly enthusiastic instructor³ here:

And this will lead us to climax of our story: a mini-version of The Moth (not to be confused with this version of The Moth), where the students will take turns getting up in front of the class, and telling a short story from their own lives (based on a few possible prompts). Kind of like this one:

My hope is, that by waiting to force them into the role of storyteller until the end, they’ll hopefully be comfortable enough with each other to be a bit more forthcoming. But we shall see…

For a full report on how it all goes, check back next week. Until then…


¹And ironically, I’m about as nervous as I was for my first day of middle school.

²Definitely have some tissues at the ready before watching this clip. It’s gonna get a little dusty in here…

³I can assure you that I will be nowhere near this enthusiastic.

You’re Wrong, I Do Know You

Timecode: 23:25 – 26:47

I don’t think you’re fit to handle the defense.

You don’t even know me. Ordinarily it takes someone hours to discover I’m not fit to handle a defense.
(JO just stares at him)
Oh come on, that was damn funny.

If a genie had granted me three wishes as a 12-year-old, it would’ve taken me all of 20 seconds to rattle off my choices:

1) I wish the Giants would finally win the World Series.
2) I wish I could see Kathy Ireland naked.
3) I wish I could be Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.Jo-Danny confrontation

Well, I still haven’t seen Kathy Ireland naked (and honestly, I think I’d pass if given the chance now). And it ended up being another 18 years before the Giants finally won the big one. But for one magical evening in the Fall of 2005, Wish #3 was granted — for a few minutes, anyway.

I have only one person to thank for that, and no, it wasn’t a genie. It was my friend and USC film school classmate, Katie Wood¹. The scene we shot together (in which I play Kaffee) just happens to be the A Few Good Minutes we’ve arrived at in this week’s breakdown. So, it seemed only appropriate to invite my once (and future?) director to take the reigns this week and evaluate our performance. Take it away, Katie!


* * *

One of the first classes that Mike and I took in the USC MFA writing program was “Directing the Actor” taught by the inimitable (and Academy Award-nominated) Nina Foch. If her long career and trunk full of stories about Hollywood’s Golden Age² weren’t enough to intimidate us, her no-bullshit teaching style took care of the rest. At 81, not only had she seen it all, she saw through it all. Like Jo Galloway, she didn’t let people skate by in some fast-food, slick-ass, Persian bazaar manner.

So, needless to say, anxiety was running high leading into our final project. The task at hand was to direct a scene (from an existing film) within certain limitations: the scene had to be between two characters, and there was no editing allowed. In other words, the entire scene had to be shot in one, continuous take. (You know, like this…but the student film version).

Leading up to the exercise, we learned how to break down scenes like a director, by stating the intention behind every line of dialogue. And while this may sound like a pedantic exercise that would suck all the joy out of a scene, it’s actually really fucking fun! Here’s an excerpt from my breakdown of our AFGM scene:breakdown1crop

Kaffee’s intention is almost always some form of “to show you my dimples.” He’s a charming SOB, after all, and it’s gotten him far in life. In fact, it’s gotten him all the way to JoAnne Galloway: the first person who doesn’t find it particularly cute. Okay, she finds it a little cute, but that just makes him that much more irritating. And for Kaffee, the next best thing to charming someone is irritating them. So, it’s a perfect match, really. I mean, just look at these two going back and forth with one another:

Now, all I had to do was capture that same dynamic with two actors not named Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. Luckily, being in LA, we had easy access to professional(-ish) actors. I mean, they’re everywhere! And they’ll work for free! They don’t even treat you like you’re some idiot kid, either (even though you are some idiot kid!)

But then I remembered that Mike’s favorite movie was AFGM, and I knew that I wanted him to play the part. Why? Well, for one thing, he already knew the dialogue! Plus, he owned softball gear! And he has dimples! I mean, who better to play Kaffee?³

Jo was tougher find. My apologies to the actress, whose name I can’t remember, but she was the only one who could get through Jo’s monologue without stumbling and sound like she had at least some idea of what the words meant. Sorkin really isn’t for the faint of heart. But, in the words of LeVar Burton, don’t take my word for it… Watch for yourself:

Trying our hand at the scene made it that much clearer how perfect the real thing is/was.

There are a few advantages that a Hollywood production has over a student film. Aside from money and talent, there are also Naval uniforms. Of course Jo wouldn’t confront Kaffee out of uniform. Dress whites are the perfect physical representation of Jo’s character. Crisp, spotless, professional (if not severe). The contrast with Kaffee is striking. He’s relaxed and joking and can’t even stop hitting balls to talk to a superior officer. Of course, Kaffee is also in uniform: his softball uniform. He’s dressed for a game, which sums him up perfectly, too.

My choice to set the scene at night was due mostly to scheduling conflicts, but it couldn’t be more wrong. Rather than catching Kaffee shirking his duties, it seems like Jo has stalked him during his off-hours. Our attempt at a classic Sorkin walk-and-talk was somewhat hindered by the length of the sidewalk, lack of a steady cam, and the speed at which I can walk backwards. At the time I was quite pleased with the staging, i.e. which character was leading and which was following. But in the original, every choice speaks perfectly to who the characters are, not just who has the upper hand in the conversation.

Watching the original again, I was especially taken by the way Kaffee doesn’t even take a break from hitting balls when being questioned by a superior officer, though he does miss the ball the first time she questions his work ethic.Jo-Danny confrontation4

Taking on this scene made me appreciate the level of skill of everyone involved in the Reiner/Cruise/Moore version. But I think we did a decent job for some idiot kids.

Now, given that whole preamble I gave you about our no-nonsene instructor, I know you’re dying to know: what did Nina think? Well, her critique of the scene ended up being a simple, “You did the job”, which for her, was a glowing fucking review. And the rest of the class was so impressed that I’d made the grade with her, they bought me drinks at the bar later. And really, isn’t that the goal of any great artist?


* * *

¹“She’s a good woman.” (c) John Norwood, circa ’05

²Most of these stories were about how full of shit most of Hollywood’s greatest actors were. Except Bogie. He was all right.

³Thanks, Katie! Check is in the mail.

The Truth (and Myth) of “Write What You Know”

If you’re a writer (and even if you’re not), you’ve no doubt heard the maxim, “write what you know”. But as is the case with many pithy sayings, taking these words too literally can lead to disastrous results. I mean, let’s be honest, for most of us, the list of things we’ve experienced first-hand (i.e. “know”) would amount to one or two interesting books/movies/puppet shows at the absolute most. The vast majority of our lives are spent sleeping, sitting in traffic, eating unremarkable meals, staring at our phones, working, and having conversations with our friends and family about all of these mundane things. In other words, if your everyday life was the plot of a story you were reading/watching, you’d be fast asleep in less than 10 minutes.Calvin and Hobbes comic on write what you know

But I’m not saying that we should take “write what you know” and throw it off the end of a pier. Because there is great wisdom in the maxim if we use a much less literal interpretation. In fact, the saying might even benefit from a small re-write¹. Something like:

“Write what you know…emotionally.”

Or better yet:

“Write what you’ve felt.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a stream of consciousness novel or the next Marvel movie, the writer’s job is to explore what it means to be a human being. And the human experience is – and always will be – defined by our emotional response to the world around us. Our ability to feel things – or sometimes: our inability to avoid feeling things – is what separates us from everything else on the planet (e.g. plants, animals, mountains, oceans, Styrofoam cups, et al.) In fact, our emotions/feelings are such an indispensable part of what it means to be alive that we often project our emotions/feelings onto plants, animals, Styrofoam cups, and perhaps most famously, volleyballs.

But we don’t have to have been stranded on a desert island for four years to know what loneliness feels like, anymore than we have to be a mutant with superpowers to know what it’s like to feel alienated.Xmen poster

Because people (often) seek out stories to escape the mundanity of everyday life, writers need to construct plots that are dripping with imagination and ingenuity. Plot, after all, is what gets the reader/viewer “in the door”; whether it’s through a movie trailer or the blurb on the inside cover of a book. But aside from the occasional paint-by-numbers mystery or trashy-for-the-sake-of-being-trashy romance novel, plot is never going to be what holds the viewer/reader’s attention. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, the two things that truly engage an audience are relatable characters² and the relationships those characters share with one another.

And that’s where “writing what you know” comes into play. Because the only way to write relatable characters and character relationships that feel authentic is for the writer(s) to draw on their own emotional history.

Whenever I think about this subject, I’m reminded of screenwriter Bob Gale’s impetus for writing Back to the Future. He didn’t set out to write a time travel epic or to explore the differences between being a teenager in the 50’s versus 80’s. The idea came when he was flipping through his father’s high school yearbook, and he thought to himself, “God, there is just no way that my old man and I would be friends if we went to school together.”³

And sure, if you think about BTTF today, I’m sure the first things to pop into your head are the DeLorean, or Marty disappearing in the family photo, or Doc’s favorite two words in the English language. But I would argue that the reason that movie still holds up today (more than 30 years after it was made) is the universality of its emotional core: a boy trying to understand what makes his father (and mother, for that matter) tick. Because while none of us have ever traveled back in time, we all have parents, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re still trying to figure them out.

And this, of course, is just one of about a million emotional chords that resonate within all of us. Our job as writers is simply to choose one close to our own hearts and pour it out onto the page. After all, you know what they say:Quotefancy-4904-3840x2160


¹Just as nearly all writing can.
²Notice I didn’t use the word “likeable”.
³Of course I’m paraphrasing here.

Hal, Is This a Blog?

Timecode: 22:45 – 23:24


Another red-brick building. A few M.P.Is stand out front as the cars pull up. As soon as they come to a stop, all the doors swing open and various uniformed and non-uniformed officers hop out and move to the unmarked sedan where they escort DAWSON and DOWNEY, in handcuffs, out of the car.

HAROLD DAWSON’s a handsome, young, black corporal. Intense, controlled, and utterly professional.

LOUDEN DOWNEY’s a 19-year-old kid off an Iowa farm. He’s happiest when someone is telling him exactly what to do¹. DAWSON’s his hero.

The two prisoners stand still for a moment. They might as we’ll be in Oz.

Hal, is this Washington, D.C.?

Hal, is this Washington D.C.

This week’s short scene seemed like the perfect opportunity to a) highlight a bit of Sorkin’s sensational screenplay (which you see above), b) discuss the high comedy that is Downey’s wide-eyed-ness (which we’ll get to momentarily), and c) take stock of the bigger picture with the first installment of our AFGM Power Rankings² (which you’ll find below). But let’s start with the lovably guileless Louden…

His line in this scene is my pick for the most unintentionally hilarious moment of the movie. While there are certainly naive and unsophisticated people in the world³, there’s something about his delivery of the line that is so broad, it bleeds into caricature. In fact, if this were a different movie, say one directed by the Zucker or Wayans brothers, you could see this turning into a full-on gag if the scene continued:

“Hal, is this prison?”

“Hal, is this a toothbrush?”

“Hal, is this my dick?”

You get the picture.

I think my favorite part about the line, though, is the subtext that I’m (more than likely) projecting upon young Lowden. I like to imagine that the question stems not from naivete but disappointment. He gets out of the car expecting to see The White House, The Capitol Building, and the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington Memorials all at once. After all, this is supposed to be Washington D.C.! Postcard fucking central. It should look something like this:turn around louden mockup

But nooooo! All poor little Louden gets are a couple of nondescript brick buildings and a dinky metal staircase. I mean, what a gyp!

(Quick side-note: given Downey’s Iowa roots and his inquisitive nature, I also can’t help but think of this famous “Where am I?” moment from movie history:

But hey, at least Shoeless Joe had an excuse for being so dense: I mean, ghosts aren’t exactly known for their crack geography skills. End of quick side-note.)


AFGM Power Rankings 1.0

Listed in ascending order from least powerful to most powerful (at this point in the movie):

136) Downey
“Hal, is this last place?”

135) Santiago
Only his fine penmanship (in that letter he wrote) saved him from the cellar.

118) Sherby
If he kept his eyes open, his chances of ranking higher would increase by a factor of ten.

97) Spradling
Was smoked like a dime bag of oregano.

75) Dawson
Definitely outranks Downey (both militarily and in these power rankings), but he’s shown more acumen with duct tape than he has with the English language thus far.

61) Markinson
We just saw him scolded like a small child. I mean, you half-expected the scene to end with him licking Jessep’s boots like he was his dominatrix.

60) Kendrick
Similarly dressed-down in the previous scene, but at least he’s getting a free lunch at the “O” Club out of it.

44) Weinberg
Has no responsibilities here whatsoever.

27) Capt. Whitaker
Pretty sure that dude next to him with his eyes closed is fantasizing about him in a manner that would push the limits of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.Requested by division

* Top 5 *

Drumroll, please…

5) Kaffee
He’s pacing himself.

4) Galloway
Had Kaffee all kinds of turned around by the end of their first meeting.

3) Capt. West
‘Dat mustache, tho.

t-1) Jessep
Took a few innings before they finally brought him out of the bullpen, but he came in throwing absolute gas.

t-1) Tom


¹This sentence provides a classic example of why how-to screenwriting books are (mostly) rubbish. They’ll often tell you that you should never include something in the scene description that we (as the audience) can’t see or hear. But when done artfully (and sparingly) – particularly when describing a character for the first time – it can do wonders to help the reader understand what you’re going for. And at the end of the day, that is the whole point of a screenplay.
²Trademark pending.
³And quite of a few of them are probably Midwestern teenagers.
I had no idea until writing this that it’s “What a gyp!” and not “What a gip!” #stilllearning
Military slang for Officer’s Club.

Storytelling 101

In a few weeks, I’ll be leading a one day workshop filled with 30 middle-schoolers at my old high school¹. I’ve been given four hours to teach them something (hopefully) worth knowing about the only subject I’m even remotely qualified to speak intelligently about²: storytelling.How Storytelling affects the brain

Because I’ve spent the last decade-plus pursuing a career as a professional storyteller (as this blog can attest to), and I hold a masters degree in the subject from the best film school in the country, you’d think I should be able to come up with at least a few nuggets to share with them. But the task is harder than you’d think given that my audience is made up of kids who are incredibly bright³, but likely have little experience studying the subject matter (unless you count the snooze-fest that is a junior high English class). And let’s face it: 240 minutes isn’t a whole lot of time to delve into such rich and nuanced subject matter…or, more importantly, to convince a room full of pubescents that I know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Anyway, after some careful reflection (and intermittent panicking), I think I’ve settled on an approach that just might work. Broad enough to appeal to a group of varied personalities and interests, but hopefully specific enough to, you know, actually teach them something worthwhile. Here’s the blurb we sent them to set the stage:

“Life is made up of stories: everything from your favorite movie or book to the long, boring stories your parents tell at the dinner table. But what makes a good story? And how do you TELL a good story? We’ll figure it out by watching clips from great movies, playing improv games, and sharing our own stories. And don’t worry: it won’t be long or boring. Promise.”

As you can see, in an effort to get them on my side, I’ve relied on two battled-tested tactics:

1) Frame the whole thing as fun, rather than educational (by mentioning movies and games).

2) Make fun of their parents.

Ostensibly, it’s the teaching equivalent of doing crowd work as a stand-up comic. Sure, it may be a little hacky to talk about the shitty weather in [insert city with notoriously shitty weather here], but when you prove to people that you can speak their language, they’re a hell of a lot more likely to listen to what you have to say next.

Because I have such a limited amount of time, I figure it’s in my best interest to keep my message simple. And what could be simpler, really, than spending our time together trying to define what a (good) story entails?

Now, there’s a couple of different ways that you can go with this. One way, which we’ll call “The Overcompensating Grad Student”, is to wax philosophically about the intricacies of artistic expression. To talk about things like subtext and tone and point of view. To use phrases like “an exploration of the human spirit” and/or “trying to make sense out of a senseless world”. You know, kind of like this pony-tailed jackass:

But I don’t need Will Hunting to tell me not to do that. My lack of a pony-tail and regular ski trips as a child pretty much preclude me from taking that path. So, I’m left with the alternative: boiling things down to their essentials. To quote one of my favorite film school professors:

“In every great story, somebody wants something badly…but they’re having difficulty getting it.”

Reductive? Possibly. Irrefutable? Absolutely.

Go ahead, take a second to think about your favorite movie, book, play, puppet show, whatever. If we’re talking about a narrative, it always comes down to that same unassailable truth: somebody wants something badly…but they’re having difficulty getting it.

In the interest of supporting evidence, here is a one sentence breakdown of three randomly selected books and movies currently sitting on my shelf:


The Martian by Andy Weir
A U.S. astronaut fights to stay alive…after being stranded on Mars.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
A high school freshman refuses to participate in the school’s chocolate sale…despite escalating threats from the headmaster and the school’s secret society.

Paper Towns by John Green
A high school senior tries to piece together the cryptic clues left behind by his life-long crush in an effort to find her after she disappears.


Back to the Future
After traveling back in time to the year 1955 and interrupting history, a young man has to figure out a way to get his mom to fall for his sad-sack father before he gets erased from the space-time continuum.

* Rain Man
In order to get his rightful inheritance, a man has to get his estranged, autistic brother across the country by the end of the week.

* Ocean’s Eleven
A recently paroled thief recruits a crew to help him rob three Vegas casinos (while he tries to win back his ex-wife).

Clear want. Something(s) standing in the way.

And the same holds true of the stories we tell around dinner tables and on dates and around campfires. I mean, we all know a terrible story when we hear one. What do they tend to have in common?Campfire story

In order of likelihood:

1. The lack of a clear goal or objective (i.e. “Is there a fucking point to this story, or what?”)

2. A lack of sufficient detail (i.e. “I am not following this at all / Who the fuck is Julie?”)

3. A lack of organization (i.e. “I’d ask you to start over from the beginning, but I lost interest 20 minutes ago.”)

4. A lack of conflict (i.e. “That’s it? That’s the whole fucking story?”)

5. It’s about someone’s fantasy football team.

So, there you have it. A simple objective for my four hours of instruction: teach them what a (good) story entails, and (hopefully) save an entire generation from telling stories as boring as their parents.

And if I should fail? Well, at least it’ll make for a good story, right?


¹As part of a summer program not-so-covertly designed to brainwash impressionable junior high achievers (and their parents) into thinking that paying $30K a year to attend said high school is the only logical choice if they want to secure a notable future.
²Unless you consider A Few Good Men minutiae to be a worthy topic of conversation. And if you do, can I interest you in a little something I like to call A Few Good Minutes?
³Basically they’re the best and brightest from the surrounding area’s parochial schools.
Also, let’s face it: most parents DO tell the worst stories!
Ah, the irony, of pursuing a career as a writer. You’re living this truth every fucking day.
What’ya want from me? I was reading a bunch of YA books as research for writing one of my own!
With your mouth (ideally) full of S’mores.

Enter the Dragon (and Tom)

Timecode: 18:11 – 22:45

We go back a while, [Matthew]. We went to the Academy together, we were commissioned together, we did our tours in Vietnam together. But I’ve been promoted up through the chain with greater speed and success than you have. Now, if that’s a source of tension or embarrassment for you…I don’t give a shit.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Charles, gave the student with the highest score on the previous week’s spelling test the honor of announcing the new spelling words each Monday. Ostensibly, this meant that Brian Schulte announced the new spelling words each week, because that Hooked on Phonics motherfucker never misspelled a word in his goddamn life. The moment I saw the 18 or 19 out of 20 written atop my test, I knew my fate was sealed. I’d come up short – yet again – in my quest to dethrone the King. And despite it happening each and every week, it rankled me to no end.

Brian and I were frenemies long before that term had even been invented, let alone popularized. Not only were we the two best spellers in our grade, we were in the same advanced math and reading groups. We took guitar lessons together as part of the school’s music program. We even played together every recess, usually as part of a one-on-one basketball tournament that the two of us had organized with our other (actual) friends.

If ever there was a living embodiment of the idiom, “familiarity breeds contempt”, it was my “friendship” with Brian. Due to a combination of geography, aptitude, and mutual interests, our life paths had been laid out in parallel. And yet, with every step we took, all I could think about was how much easier my life would be if I could push him off of the road and into a ditch, where he’d never be heard from again.

Which is all to say, I couldn’t be more #TeamMarkinson if I tried. I am Team Markinson¹, okay?Matthew looking up at Jessep

So, it took 18 minutes and change, but our movie finally has its dragon: Col. Nathan R. Jessep. And he starts breathing fire (and chewing up scenery) right outta the gate, as dragons are wont to do. There is so very much to like about this scene, but three things stand out:

1) The Chain of Command (a.k.a. A Military-Sanctioned Pissing Contest)

What this movie does best is populate scenes with incredible actors, supply them with manna from heaven², and then, let them eat. And because the cast is almost entirely male (save for Jo and Aunt Ginny), the vast majority of these scenes devolve into outright pissing contests — this scene merely being the first of many examples. I mean, by the time Lt. Col. Markinson and Lt. Kendrick are done squabbling over the “Curtis Bell incident” and Col. Jessep reminds Markinson that he’s his superior officer, you half expect the three of them to pull out their dicks for a more definitive comparison. Of course, by scene’s end, there’s little confusion about who’s the cock of this walk. Which leads us to…Train the lad

2) Jack (a.k.a. The Cock of the Walk)

In some ways, expanding on this point feels like overkill, given how much weight the man’s name carries. But what is this blog, really, if not one long exercise in overkill?

By arming Jack with an arsenal of Grade-A fucking monologues, you’re essentially serving up Triple X-rated word porn to the viewer. The man can make a meal out of a look, so giving him the chance to lay waste to a well-crafted speech almost seems unfair to his fellow actors. (I’ve always been particularly fond of the way he intonates the line, “Yes, I’m certain that I read that somewhere once.”)

My friend and fellow AFGM-acolyte, Marc, has been known to affectionately refer to Aaron Sorkin as “The (latter day) Bard” (a.k.a. The LDB). And if you think about the marriage between script and actor through that lens, teaming Sorkin’s words with Nicholson’s delivery is the closest we’ve come to dramatic nirvana since Sir Laurence Olivier tackled “The (o.g.) Bard” in Hamlet. At least until…

3) Josh Malina opens the door into our hearts (a.k.a. The Tom Experience!)

In a scene that includes no less than a three-time Oscar winner, one of the greatest character actors of his generation, and Jack fucking Bauer, one man – and one man only – rises above the fray. That man is Joshua Malina.Tom peekabo

You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor more inexorably intertwined with Sorkin’s career. Malina not only made his big screen debut in AFGM, he was also a part of the play’s original cast on Broadway³ three years earlier. Since that time, he’s appeared in two other Sorkin-penned films (Malice and The American President) and starred in Sorkin’s first two television series (Sports Night and The West Wing). I mean, shit, the guy even co-hosts a weekly podcast devoted to The LDB’s magnum opus (The West Wing Weekly).

But none of that would have been possible without this scene. Without his dutiful portrayal of the man described in the script simply as “Orderly”. The man we now know as Tom.

“Sir.” “Yes, Sir.” “Yes, Sir.”

Five words, ladies and gentlemen. That’s all it took to give birth to a Sorkinian legend.


¹Hopefully without the nickel-plated pistol in my mouth, of course.
²a.k.a. Sorkin dialogue
³Playing the pivotal role of “Ensemble”
Who could forget Jeremy dating that porn star, thereby alienating him from Natalie, and keeping him from completely fucking dominating that post-show game of Celebrities?
Though one has to wonder if his reverence is motivated by guilt, given the (possibly apocryphal) story of how Malina once broke three of Sorkin’s ribs while attempting to give him the Heimlich maneuver during their Broadway days.

Chapter Two

Back by popular demand¹ this is the second (and final²) installment of my free book preview³. So, first thing’s first, if you haven’t already, check out Chapter One. And with that out of the way, it’s on to the next chapter…

-MPMVintage Inscription Made By Old Typewriter

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.”
– Oscar Wilde


They’d escaped with only a few minor scrapes and bruises, but the car was totaled. And not even the Jaws of Life could extricate Liza from the wreckage she’d made of her senior year. It was an SAT analogy she could finally understand: trying to have a social life without having a car was like trying to finish a marathon without legs. You’re basically screwed unless a friend agrees to pick you up.

Months had passed since the accident, but Liza still replayed the infamous afternoon on a loop in her head. With hindsight, the entire scene played out like a bad public service announcement warning teenagers about the dangers of texting and driving. Well, Instagramming and driving, if you want to get technical about it.

The idea of “kissing yellow lights” started with Amanda Frazier, the unspoken but unquestioned alpha of Liza’s friend group; though, in truth, the superstition actually dated back generations. It works as follows: when running a yellow light, a driver must touch their fingers to their lips and “raise a kiss to the sky” as they pass through an intersection. By doing so, the driver not only acknowledges the good fortune of their yellow light timing, but curries continued good favor from the traffic gods.

Liza was riding bitch in the backseat of Amanda’s pristine Beamer en route to off-campus lunch when she saw her do it for the first time. And from that point forward, she — and the rest of “The Amandments”, as they were known around school — adopted the practice with an almost religious fervor.

But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, Liza raised the yellow light bar too high. Driving home from school one Friday, immersed in a joyous, pitch perfect sing-along with that overplayed, but irresistible pop anthem (yes, that one), Liza got the bright idea to Instagram her performance. And rather than caution her against such recklessness, Liza’s co-pilot, duet partner and fellow “Amandment”, Vicki Pao, delighted in the hash-tagging opportunity.

“Do it! You have to do it!” Vicki squealed. #itstooperfect

And so, the moment Liza’s Corolla rolled to its next stop, she hit repeat on her iPod and readied her phone. By the time the light changed, the chorus kicked in, and Liza had one hand on the steering wheel and the other recording the moment for Internet posterity.

“Cause we’re young and we’re reckless,” the two girls sing-screamed with their windows down, “We’ll take this way too far!”

As they cruised through the intersection at Jefferson and Birch, their prophetic words gave way to “Amandment” dogma, as they both blew kisses to a yellow light.

“Make a wish!” Vicki squealed. #makeawish

Liza wished, as she always did, for Kevin Millichap to ask her out. It was the wrong wish.

A second later, her car plowed into the back of a UPS truck. Its brake lights had gone unnoticed amid the frenzy of documenting her Taylor Swift sing-a-long for Amanda, Kevin and her other 87 Instagram followers. On impact the Corolla’s front end crumpled like an empty can of Diet Coke, and the driver’s side airbag put an end to both the video and Liza’s iPhone.

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!” #omg

Vicki breathlessly strung together another twenty “oh my god’s” before the reality of the situation finally sunk in. Liza’s car was totaled. Her life was over. And Taylor Swift refused to shut her big, dumb mouth:

Cause we’re young and we’re reckless
We’ll take this way too far
It’ll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar

The hour that followed only rubbed salt in the wound. For starters, the UPS driver, some mustached guy named Dennis, was a real drama queen about the whole thing. He kept yelling things like, “do you know what happens if I don’t I get these parcels delivered by close of business?” and “some of us are out here trying to make a living!”

“I’m sorry,” Liza kept repeating, as she fumbled for the insurance card in her glove compartment.

When a cop car rolled up a few minutes later, Vicki’s freak out reached Defcon-4, and she started blabbering about “being an accessory to the crime.” Liza wanted to strangle her. If anyone should have understood having a brain fart behind the wheel, it was Vicki. This was the same girl who’d once ran over her leg with her own car! (The short version: in the parking lot after school, Vicki hopped out of her car to say goodbye to Amanda, but in her excitement she a) forgot to put the car in park and b) tripped on her seatbelt. Before she could get off the ground, the back left wheel had rolled into her leg, stopping the car but leaving a black tire mark that covered half her thigh. Once she realized that she wasn’t hurt, Vicki laughed so hard that she got the hiccups. #fml #smh)

Officer Fontana, who proved only slightly less condescending than Dennis, interviewed Liza in plain sight of everyone commuting home. Each car that passed got a good long look at her, including a Jeep Grand Cherokee full of four senior cross country runners, one of whom (Dustin Donlan) happened to be best friends with Kevin. The moment they recognized her, Jeff VanDis stuck his head out the back window and yelled, “Hey Liza! What can brown do for you?” #ups #logistics

The Jeep erupted in laughter as they drove off. And Liza could’ve sworn she saw Officer Fontana crack a smile at her expense.

When she finally got home that afternoon, all Liza wanted to do was curl up into a ball and cry. But even that had to wait, as her mom made her suffer through a tedious lecture about responsibility and consequences. The long and short of it was that there would be no replacement car (or phone) on the horizon and all driving (and social media) privileges were revoked until further notice. In other words, Liza would be relegated to the life of a 12-year-old Amish girl. #theamishdontusehashtags

Not having a car turned out to be the least of Liza’s problems. Life without a cell phone, and the “radio silence” that came with it, proved far more devastating. Her foothold inside Amanda’s inner circle slowly crumbled. At first, she’d just be in the dark about some inside joke that’d originated in a group text amongst the girls. Pretty soon, though, she was being left out of plans altogether. Liza knew it was never malicious, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating when she’d hear Amanda say things like, “I feel like I never see you anymore”, even though they had first and second period together four times a week. Every second Liza spent without an iPhone and every day she went without posting on Facebook or Instagram, her social standing eroded a little more. And by the time her mom finally lifted the ban on social media six weeks later, the damage was done. Liza felt like a ghost roaming the halls. A ghost with a flip-phone. That’s right: a fucking flip-phone!

Liza had used every last dime of her summer savings to pay for her now totaled car. So when her punishment finally ended, instead of a new iPhone, she’d settled for her recently deceased grandfather’s cell; the one he’d used as a glorified Medic-Alert system whenever he took a tumble in his apartment. The phone came with three numbers programmed into it: Liza’s mom’s cell phone, 9-1-1, and the deli down the street where he’d ordered a turkey and tongue sandwich from every Saturday for 28 years. It was easily the most depressing piece of technology that Liza had ever held in her hands. #ripgrandpalou

In essence, Liza had traded exile for purgatory. All she could do now was wait for Amanda to let her back into the inner sanctum. Wait for Kevin to see her the way she saw him. Wait for her idiot brother to get home from his driving lesson, so that she could beg her mom to borrow the mini-van. God knows rolling up to Devon Clark’s pre-graduation party in a Honda Odyssey was far from ideal, but it beat the alternative: a bus ride/half-mile walk combo that would have Liza smelling like she’d just crawled out of a Taco Bell dumpster by the time it was over. Surely, sweaty pits and a bus pass weren’t going to pave the road back to social relevance.

And so, Liza stared at her pathetic little flip-phone, willing it to ring. Maybe Vicki would take pity on her and offer to pick her up on the way to the party. Or maybe her mom would call in a good mood to let her know that they were on their way home. Or…

What if her mom and Caleb had died in a tragic accident? #whatif

On the one hand, it’d be incredibly sad. (Obviously). But she’d also (probably) inherit a bunch of money. (Definitely) enough money to buy a new car. Hmm…

Maybe she’d get a BMW like Amanda. Or a Tesla. With built-in GPS. And a sunroof. That’d get everyone’s attention.

And really, in the grand scheme of things, what was more important? The love of a mother and a brother? Or a shiny, new car and the social adulation that was sure to come with it?

Liza had to at least think about it for a minute. Or five. #dontjudge

To be continued…

¹Shut up.

²I can’t very well let you read the whole thing for free, now, can I?

³Almost as exciting as that free HBO preview you’d get once or twice a year as a kid. #pleaseletthismoviehavenudity