Keeping a Full House

Full House was my first Hollywood experience…At the end of last semester, I found myself doing something I had never done before:  sharing with my students my journey to Hollywood. I told them it began with this show called Full House, which ended before any of them were even born. But they oohed and aahed, a group of students who had grown up all over the world. They had all seen it, connected to it, even though it didn’t represent their worlds in terms of race, gender, social structures or socio economics. I, however, did not ooh and ahh when I was told I’d be on the set up Full House. I had won a comedy writing award from Warner Bros as a student, and prize was to intern on a TV show.

I expected to be put on something edgy, not a show that could hardly be raved about for its writing. But edgy writing doesn’t have as wide of an audience, especially if families and kids are the target market. Jack Gilbert, the internship coordinator told me, Full House is what every studio dreams of: a show that lasts years, remains timeless, and thus can be recycled for royalties for generations to come, and doesn’t cost a fortune to make.  “This show’s biggest expense are the actors,” he said. Hearing about Bob Saget’s passing, so soon after remembering those times with my students, has revived the emotional roller coaster of arriving in LA for the first time. John Stamos had been one of the great crushes of my teen years, and I felt a bit star struck in his presence, so it was easier to focus on Bob Saget’s acting. The thing I remember most is when he wanted to change a line in the script, and one of the producers said to him, “No, this laugh is for John; he’s the star in this scene. You play straight.”  Saget was the only one of them who was a stand-up comedian. But he just nodded agreement. That’s how ensemble, in real life or made for TV, lasts so long, and that warmth is the part viewers craved and could connect to, despite the show’s lack of diversity. It’s how you keep the house full, as they say in the movies. (of course, there are negatives to what I saw at that time in terms of the writer’s room, but I leave that for another time)

Go Ahead and Film Me—Nothing Changes

“So what are you here to film?” he asked from his battered bamboo chair, as he exhaled from the stub of the cigarette in his hand, the smoke blending in with the dust sweeping through the camp.  He was about 40, and had been sitting in that dark alley his entire life.   One of my students took his picture.  He looked at her, Shatila“You should ask me to smile,” he said and smiled, revealing crooked and broken teeth.  She got flustered.  He shrugged, “Film whatever you want.  People have been filming me since I was three-years old.  Me, my dead relatives nothing changes.  You make your film, you show everyone the sad poor people and I’m still sitting here in this chair.  Nothing changes.”

Almost anywhere else in the world, you would tell him, “Get a job, any job, have some pride,” but there are few legal jobs for people in the Shatila Refugee Camp.  They can work odd construction gigs under the table in Beirut, which many of them do, or they can operate a small business in the camp, such as a grocery store, where they can sell cheap food to people who can barely afford to pay for it. Or their parents in rare cases can somehow find the money so that they can go to a college outside the camp, and come back to work in a hospital or as a teacher in the declining education system.  Or they can just sit on a bamboo chair.  Nothing changes.  Unless perhaps they get immigration papers to go to Europe or America.   (For statics on life in the camps, check out Franklin Lamb’s article in Counterpunch:

The father of the family we were going to film scavenges through junk piles in Beirut, bartering and trading junk to furnish their dim and dank cramped room/house.  His wife, Sabah, keeps the room meticulous, and we’re asked to take off our shoes as they are covered with dust from outside.  Sabah explains proudly how she decorated with her eldest daughter, Reem, 15, who dreams of being a designer but will not live long enough to realize her dreams would not have been attainable because she would never have had the opportunity or training required.

It’s the women in the camps that hang on to hope, despite being betrayed by either the stupidity or insincerity of the Palestinian leaders of their parents’ generation, who engaged in the Lebanese Civil War for no logical reason and sending them into further isolation and devastation, despite being the keepers of the rusty keys of their family homes in Palestine that their grandparents took with them during their expulsion from what is now is Israel.  They are the third generation born in these camps, and while the hope of a return home is almost beyond their grasp of those old keys, the hope that at least one of their children will find a way out allows them to live.

In Ain Al Helweh Camp, the women sew Palestinian embroidered pillows for sale abroad during the two hours the camp gets electricity.  The bright spring sun barely makes it through the clusters of blocks on top of blocks and even with the electricity, the women squint to see their stitches.  They are undisturbed by the two seven-year old boys outside beating each other up as an affordable form of entertainment.  They are not fazed when the camp goes into lockdown because the Lebanese army suspects a renegade group of having smuggled arms into the camp the night before.  As our Lebanese taxi driver warned us on the way, Ain Al Helweh is where the “criminals of the world” go to hide because there is no law here.  ShatillaCamp

In Bourj Al Barjneh Camp, when a Syrian man came into the crumbling hospital carrying his six-year old wounded son, the female nurses didn’t ask him who shot the boy.  They just did their best to prep him for surgery and calm the father down.  The women of the camps are born and then marry, feed their children and hope.

We were there that week because we were filming patients of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fun, a US organization that sends volunteer medical teams to operate on some of the sickest kids in the camps.  That week the team was two orthopedic surgeons and an anesthesiologist, all from Chile.

You can see the doctors in  “Dreams in Their Eyes” in Los Angeles.  I’m proud of what my students had the courage to explore with this film.  But I will leave you to this blurb.  Otherwise, it is hard to talk about because I always hear the man in the battered bamboo chair.

 The award-winning documentary (UAE/Lebanon)“Dreams in Their Eyes,” will play at the Evolution International Film Festival on Saturday, July 27, at 1.30.   The film portrays the stories of three children in different refugee camps around Lebanon suffering from diseases too costly to treat if not for the help of the US-based Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.  With unprecedented access to operating rooms and family homes, the film was shot over a week when a volunteer team of doctors from Chile came to treat Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian children brought to the Bourj Al Barjneh Camp.  Three young Emirati women directed the film, the first Emiratis to film in the camps, and the film won “Best Emirati Film” at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in addition to having screened at festivals in the UK, India and Spain.

This year over 300 movies out of 26 countries, in 22 different languages were submitted to festival. The final selection includes 24 films in 10 different languages, many with a Middle East theme.

Saturday July 27th, 2013

1.30 to 3.30 pm 

Los Angeles Film School
6363 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028

For more information:

Where are the Actors?

Every year I ask this, and here I go again for the third time, “Know any enthusiastic student filmmakers living in the Middle East?”  If so, please let them know about the Zayed University Middle East Film Festival, which brings

ZUMEFF 2011 winners from Eygpt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine

together student films from across the Middle East to reveal an industry in rebirth, as well as a student population living in times that are  a changin’ for better and worse.

At the end of last year’s film festival, we did a ZUMEFF research project and survey of student filmmakers in the region.  We expected them to say the worst trials they face are self censorship, money, poor equipment, little technical expertise.  Some of that did indeed come up in the research.  But the number one obstacle they face–and this was from all the countries that participated–was that they couldn’t find good actors to work with, and the few they could find wanted ridiculous amounts of money just for a student film.  I’m not in Los Angeles anymore.

For more on ZUMEFF visit–submissions deadline is March 15:

or check out this article from one of our constant sponsor and supporter, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival



FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    Contact: Emily Lavelle
(212) 572-8756

“[Yunis] weaves a colorful tapestry…rich in character and spirit.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Wonderfully imaginative…poignant, hilarious…The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction.…Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”
—Boston Globe

“Little pigs and lost siblings make for decent bedtime story fodder. But the life and times of Fatima Abdullah, the madcap matriarch of Alia Yunis’s charming debut, The Night Counter, is even better.” —Daily Candy

“The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Night Counter
A Novel
By Alia Yunis

When THE NIGHT COUNTER: A Novel (Three Rivers Press; July 13, 2010) by PEN Emerging Voices Fellow Alia Yunis was published in hardcover in 2009, it was chosen as recommended summer reading by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix, received rave reviews across the board, and was praised as “wonderfully imaginative,” (Boston Globe), “emotionally rewarding reading,” (Kirkus, starred review), and a “captivating debut” (Publishers Weekly).

Now available in paperback and perfect for summer reading, THE NIGHT COUNTER crafts a striking tapestry of modern Arab American life. With great comic timing and a touch of magical realism, this quirky and poignant novel centers on the last ten days of Fatima Abdullah’s life and the richly layered, multigenerational stories of her family.

The beautiful and immortal Scheherazade, the legendary character from The Arabian Nights, has been roaming the earth for eleven centuries, and she yearns for a story to distract her. When she follows an American soldier home from Iraq out of curiosity, she runs into Fatima Abdullah in Los Angeles, a cantankerous and fiercely loyal matriarch of a sprawling Arab American clan with two husbands, ten children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild with a great-great-grandchild on the way.

Eager to learn more of her family secrets and why Fatima left her husband—the great love of her life—at the age of eighty-two, Scheherazade visits Fatima each night, coaxing her to divulge more about her past and speculate on her family’s future. THE NIGHT COUNTER begins with Scheherazade’s 992nd visit.  She has already warned Fatima that “when our stories end, so do our lives,” but now, with just nine days left, Fatima has run out of childhood stories of Lebanon and must tell a love story, a story she has run from all her life.

With a zealous FBI agent watching her home, a gay grandson refusing to take her marriage advice, and ten children who make lousy heirs to her house in Lebanon, Fatima is finding her remaining days in Los Angeles quite frustrating. Through Fatima’s stories and through first-person chapter narratives of Fatima’s progeny in Lebanon and across the United States, Yunis unravels four generations of a quirky clan whose members are as desperate as Fatima to find where they belong. Imbued with great humanity and imagination, THE NIGHT COUNTER is a heartwarming tale that proves that storytelling is an act of love.
# # #

The Night Counter
By Alia Yunis
Three Rivers Press
On sale: July 13, 2010
978-0-307-45363-1; $14.00 paperback

For more information or to request an interview with Alia Yunis, please contact
Emily Lavelle at 212-572-8756 or at

Screenplay vs Novel in Seattle

Screenplays vs Novels in Seattle

Screenplays vs Novels in Seattle

Elliot Bay Books in Seattle

Elliot Bay Books in Seattle

I gave a talk in Seattle this weekend at the Pacific Writers Network Association annual conference on taking a novel into a screenplay.  As is fairly typical of me, I got into Seattle with half an hour to spare for set up and then my traditional technological meltdown began –this time actually not my fault, as it was the conference center that didn’t have the hook up to the projector for my Mac.  So, as I frequently do, I found myself looking at roomful of people looking at me and me apologizing for a technical glitch.  In compensation, I said I would e-mail them the notes.  Instead, I’ll blog the basic overview of our conversation on scripts and novels.

1.    The explanation for a novel can be more than a couple of sentences.  The explanation of a screenplay should be done in one quick sentence called a logline.  Know your logline before you take your novel to screenplay because anything that follows out that logline will in all liklihood not belong in your screenplay.
2.    Remember that a novel is largely a solitary activity in its execution and consumption, whereas a screenplay is part of the collaborative effort of filmmaking, with the goal of it being seen in a group, rather than solitary, setting.

3.    Resist the temptation to preserve much of your novel by dumping it into flashbacks and voiceovers, which can be quite deadly to screenplays.

4.    A novel can take any narrative form you like (whether others like it is debatable.  A screenplay follows a very clear three-act structure with three major turning points, a mid-point, a set up, an inciting incident, a climax, and a resolution, which is more elaborately explained in the two screenplay textbook basis, Screenplay by Syd Field and Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seager.  (There are several other good books on screenwriting, but these two in my opinon are the essentials)

5.    Keep in mind that television writers live in LA, with very rare exception.  Film writers could possibly live outside of a LA, but also rare unless they have at least done some time in LA.  A novelist can live anywhere she likes but will find that the business center of publishing is New York City.

6.    Agents are interested in projects that already have a producer, director or actor with expressed interest, and producers are looking for writers attached to agents.  So one of the best bets for getting around this vicious circle if your uncle—or least very distant cousin–isn’t Steven Spielberg, is to enter screenwriting contests. Some great choices, all very competitive but open to the general public, are the Nichol Fellowhips, Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition, Carl Sautter Memorial Award.

7.    If a production company asks for your script, it will probably be read by a reader, a hard working writer who is paid little to critique you script for the company.  Readers are quite savvy and often jaded and busy.  They don’t have patience for scripts that don’t grab their attention quickly.  Readers evaluate scripts for plot, theme, setting, pacing, character development, and dialogue.

8.    Unlike novels, scripts should have short scenes, short dialogue, and short narrative descriptions.  Write and rewrite and rewrite until you get there.  Don’t send out anything but your best work as you only get one chance with an agent or producer.

9.    You can’t write novels or scripts without reading a lot of each.  Novel are at your bookstore.  Scripts can be found a Drew’s Script O Rama (website), French’s Bookstore, and maybe eBay.

10.     Stay on top of what is going on with screenwriters by reading trade magazines such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as magazines such as Scr(I)pt.  Be involved in screenwriter organizations, such as the Scriptwriters Network.  These are great places to workshop your scripts, something perhaps not necessary for novels but in my humble opinion essential to screenwriting.

The Night Counter Sells Out At Book Soup

Book Soup

Reading at Book Soup

With Paul And Scottwith Abbie

Book Soup and The Night Counter

Book Soup and The Night Counter

Thank you to everyone who came to yesterday’s reading at Book Soup.  You didn’t leave a copy in the store!  (More books are on their way)  When I first moved to LA many years ago, it was a terribly clunky move, with lots of test and trials that were not easy, in fact, often very painful.  One of my great escapes was of course the movies, even though it was the movie business I was often trying to escape.  The other was Book Soup, which a very long walk from where I was living at the time, and I liked that walk, even though my roommate said I was just asking to be labeled a tourist walking that walk when I could have just taken my car (small problem there being that someone had nearly totalled that car three days into my arrival in LA and it was out of commission for a while).  Book Soup is one of those bookstores where you can spend hours roaming around and looking up and down the walls at a truly eclectic mix of books.  In fact, aside from picking up The Night Counter, people at the reading also picked up an odd assortment of other titles, from quirky quick reads to oddly-themed coffee table books (David Lynch collection of people shot in shadows, anyone? Or how about the 600-something page book of Tom of Finland I stood next during most of the reading) that reminded me again of what a little oasis Book Soup is–and it is on Sunset Blvd. amongst all the famed clubs, shops and restaurants, so it also gives reading, so sidelined these days, a hipster kick.  It was extra sweet to read from the first chapter of The Night Counter, which is set in West Hollywood, just a few blocks (at least in my imagination) from Book Soup.


It really is true:

Of course, that probably will not be the case next week at Vroman’s, as there are no books left in the store at the moment.  But fear not, more are on the way.  The Night Counter’s sold out status at one of L.A.’s best bookstores—if not one of the country’s–is in part due to my amazing crew of friends who showed up and put the word out.  It was a great reminder to me of the many wonderful people who have been a part of my life in Los Angeles, and who have been the thing I have missed the most in Abu Dhabi.  As I saw the room fill up with all these faces—and faces I had never seen before, including new baby faces–I felt more than a little sad that I would soon be leaving LA again.   A friend on the east coast asked me if they were all writers and actors—nope.  Yes, they were there, sure, and good ones at that, I might add, but LA is also a place where you meet people who do all kinds of amazing things with their days—teachers, musicians, university program directors, engineers, TV reporters, journalists, studio executives, producers, bartenders, body guards, political activists, photographers, graphic designers, parents, accountants, linguists, stand up comedians, geophysicists –not in any particular order of importance.

(I felt a little guilty for all the traffic people had to endure to get there.  But no one seemed to complaining about the traffic.  It was all about the weather.  What weather, I thought.  Apparently they thought 90s and no humidity was hot.  Please, in Abu Dhabi, they call that winter.)

With Joan Johnson, one of my first LA writer pals (and a seasoned TV writer today)

With Joan Johnson, one of my first LA writer pals (and a seasoned TV writer today)

After the Vroman's Reading

After the Vroman's Reading

With Randa and Nizar

With Randa and Nizar

The Differences Between Abu Dhabi and LA, or the lack thereof

Abu DhabiEver since I left Los Angeles nine months ago, I’ve been saying to myself, “That’s something I should blog about.”  Now that the opportunity has reason, I can’t think of any of those somethings.  In fact, there has never been a time when this writer has been left so wordless.   I even left this blog to go take care of some travel things, thinking I would come back with words.  But I still don’t  have any.

So I’ll just make a list, a list of things about L.A. that I miss:

1. The people–not all of them, but the ones I liked and loved I miss more than I thought I would.  The ones I didn’t like so much still make my stomach turn so I can’t even say I miss not liking them.

2.  Aitch, who really knows how to cut my hair, not to mention that of the  Kardashian girls and Monica Lewinsky, and  when the relatively poor and the famous (take your pick between the other tw0) and the infamous (again, you choose) can all share the same hair stylist, that is true L.A.-style democracy.

3. The weather–I no longer think L.A. is stifling in August and September

4.  Rain.  Anyone who says it never rains in Southern California hasn’t been to Abu Dhabi.

5. The food–for a town so terrified of and horrified by fat, it does have the world’s best, based on what I’ve seen of the world, like tacos at Don Antonios, hanging out with friends at Gaby’s in Marina del Rey, all the cake at Doughboys,  annual dinner with my brother at El Cholo, sushi at Asakuma’s, splitting a tuna melt with my mom at the Broadway Deli, just being at Papa Christos, dorso bibimbob (without the egg) at my favorite place in Koreatown whose name I can never remember.

6. All the organic stuff–health and beauty products, especially–they just smell nice.

7.  Green things, like trees and grass and plants:  Abu Dhabi is very beautiful, but as many parks as it has, I still find myself blown away by the greeness of places like Jordan when I get a short vacation, never mind Santa Monica bluff walks with my friends.

Things About L.A. I Don’t Miss Because They’re Right Here:

1.  Americans:  I think there are more of them here than in my neighborhood in L.A.

2.  Quirky People From All Over the World:  They got plenty here, also plenty with big dreams of making it in the film business.

3.  Crazy Drivers and Pedestrians From All Over the World:  The worst being the Pakistani Group Chicken Run on Sheikh Zayed Street

3. The Water:   The Gulf and the Pacific are both pretty quiet, but there are even times here when it’s not too cold to go in.  I just wish certain Europeans would stop wearing those gut-slicing Speedo bikini trunks.

4.  Yoga:  At first I missed the Cirque du Soleil aspect of the yoga in L.A., but I’ve come to appreciate my teacher here, who although he is Indian, never uses the Sanskrit words for the poses, and always makes me smile when he says “Raise your right arm. Now raise another arm.”

5.  MacDonald’s, Popeye’s, TGI Fridays, Burger King, Chilis, Papa John’s, and so forth:  But where is the Taco Bell?

6.  An Apartment Without a View:  But now my view is blocked by a solvent bank building, as opposed Tyrone I’m Still On Parole’s bedroom, so that’s a big upgrade.

7. Students:  Still fascinating, lovely, troubling, disturbing, tiring and inspiring.