Filmmaking is for Warriors: How to Break a Filmmaker

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Empty white tables. 9 students shuffling in, at least 3 of them super early for class, and at least 3 of them walking in about a minute late. The teacher, a distinguished man with an uncanny resemblance to Tony Stark, sits at the side of a large white board hanging on the wall in front of the pressed-together tables.

The students settle into their normal spots – when you only have to deal with 8 other people, keeping your sacred seat is easy. The majority of these students are graduate students in writing. The rest are split up between undergrads in Communications or English.

I am one of the students that is majoring in Communications, Film Emphasis, and I always feel like everyone else thinks I’m a few dollars short of full-on eccentric weirdo status. I’m the one who wrote the short film about my brother leaving the kitchen cabinets open. I’m the one who dislikes reading aloud in class. I’m the one who did a presentation of the definition of “chick flicks.” (Which is actually an interesting topic that I’d be happy to explore later.)

Let’s be clear: No classmate ever bullied me or said anything malicious in the entire 2 years I attended that school for my Bachelors. Or, if they did, it was done in such a way that I didn’t take it as an insult.

But I was very shy.

And, for the sake of reality, I am a little bit short of normal.

Class starts when Tony Stark begins interacting with the students. He’s fairly informal, but it’s clear that he is in charge, has a plan, and knows what he is talking about. Today is a criticism day, so the format of class is already known to the students. Basically, the first 10 pages of a student’s script are going to be dissected in front of the group, shredded to bits with choice words and “feedback” and then left for dead out on the cold, white tabletop.

How do you break a filmmaker? Enroll them in a screenwriting class and let the games begin.

Here’s the drill: each student has 3 months to finish writing a feature film, a short film script or a TV series script with a full series bible. Since I always worked on a feature screenplay, I won’t waste time explaining the other two concepts in this post.

A feature film is typically between 90 to 120 pages. It must adhere to script guidelines, which are very specific, but if you have Celtx or Final Draft the program has your back on most of that formatting. Script formatting is not something that the teacher devised to ruin your life, though, as opposed to other scholarly guidelines. Script formatting is in place to paint the pictures of your story into the heads of every person on the production crew. By refusing to follow script formatting you are not making a statement about your individuality, you are giving the potential director, cinematographer, set designer and a host of other people a headache.

I wanted to be a professional screenwriter, so I always worked on features (that’s not a commentary on short film writing – generally shorts are harder). I took screenwriting 4 semesters in a row, in addition to other writing classes. The first semester was the easiest, in a way, because I don’t think we actually had to complete a full feature for that one.

Now, imagine this, you have 3 months to write at least a solid 90 pages of workable script. After the first 4-6 weeks you have to have something to be reviewed in class, because your classmates and teacher are there to help you become a better screenwriter. So you write and you write and you write. And those weeks fly by until it’s the night of your work, and everyone has been sent the first 10 pages of your script. As Tony explained, if you haven’t created all the expectations and set-up in the first 10 pages, you better revise.

So me, shy me, introvert me, I bring copies of my script to be read aloud in class. And when the dust settles, all the prose and dialog finished, I stare down at the white pages with black print in horrified anticipation of the reactions.

Tony Stark starts with an opening line like,

“Jessie, I want to like your script…”

(Brace yourselves, he’s about to shoot  me in the heart, and add a double tap to the head for good measure.)

“…But I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“Yeah.”

Agreement surrounds me. I wait, patiently, the blood pumping out of my heart, as Tony Stark continues, his words carefully chosen for maximum punch.

The descriptions are falling flat. The characters are too cartoony. Motives are unclear. The environment is difficult to grasp. The plot is too complex.

By the end of the class period I’ve nodded and thanked everyone for their feedback, and I stand awkwardly to gather all of my things. The 9 file out, but I’m waiting til the last, not even a Hobbit in their fellowship. My work of the last month has been reduced to a few lines of a concept, and every bit of my soul that I poured into those 10 pages is withered and gasping, a fish that survived the Pelican, but was dropped on the dry beach to breathe itself to death.

There will always be a time for constructive criticism, but the surest way of breaking a filmmaker is to show them what that really means.

But in the breaking, that filmmaker will be re-made. And the new creation will be far better than the one that was broken.

I left that night, and I contemplated giving it all up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a screenwriter. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. Maybe this was my sign to stop killing myself and become an FBI agent instead.

So I went home. And I rewrote that whole script. And I let them tear it apart again. And I signed up for the next semester of direct hits from the man who made billionaire status cool again (or his look-alike anyway).

Because this created better scripts.

And no matter how hard they broke me, this filmmaker never gave up. Because writers write, filmmakers make films, and we do it all the better when we listen to constructive criticism and refuse to give up.

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Story

“By the 1990s script development in Hollywood climbed to over $500 million per annum, three quarters of which is paid to writers for options and rewrites on films that will never be made.  Despite a half-billion dollars and the exhaustive efforts of development personnel, Hollywood cannot find better material than it produces.  The hard-to-believe truth is that what we see on the screen each year is a reasonable reflection of the best writing of the last few years.

Many screenwriters, however, cannot face this downtown fact and live in the exurbs of illusion, convinced that Hollywood is blind to their talent.  With rare exceptions, unrecognized genius is a myth.  First-rate screenplays are at least optioned if not made.  For writers who can tell a quality story, it’s a seller’s market–always has been, always will be.  Hollywood has a secure international business for hundreds of films each year, and they will be made.  Most will open, run a few weeks, close, and be mercifully forgotten.”

~Robert McKee, Story

My DP friend has forcibly loaned me his copy of Story.  I have a lot of trouble reading non-fiction, which is why I didn’t read it in film school when my teacher repeatedly recommended it.

Well I’m reading it.

Thanks.

And I take great comfort in the above passage.  To some people this may sound depressing–a lot of my friends have little respect for most of the movies coming out of Hollywood.  If this lot is the top-of-the-line, what hope do we have for future films?

That’s where my own self-conceitedness takes flight.  I know I can write better or at least as good as those films.  I was taught screenwriting by an expert.  Mentored by genius writers and storytellers.  Critiqued by friends and family and you, whoever you are.

But mostly, I really, really, really want to make films.  That will be seen.  And you can’t stop someone when they really want something.

Hollywood taught me that.

Movie Tastes

My dad trusts no one’s opinion on movies anymore.  He said tonight, “Who’s opinion can I trust?  You all hated Battleship, and I thought that movie was a lot of fun.”

I proceeded to tell him that Battleship was fun, at least after the first half hour, but it would’ve been a lot better if it had a different main actor.  Either that or the writer and director were just awful.  But it could’ve been much better, I know.  It had Rihanna, after all.

Throughout film school, I struggled with this idea of a “good” movie.  What makes a movie good?  The technical aspects of the film?

Citizen Kane is listed as one of the best films of all time.  One of my teachers taught that the technical advancements made during that film were astounding.  One of the scenes was so complicated to shoot that they had to remove the floor on one side of the room and mount the camera on a track.

I wanted to shoot myself when I was watching it.

Then I found out that it tanked when it was released.  The studio lost a ton of money on that film.  It wasn’t until much later that people started describing it as amazing.

What’s the deal with that?

Okay, let’s try another way of judging.  A good movie is a movie you enjoy.

Hey, I enjoyed New York Minute.  If I asked my brother if that was a good movie…He’d laugh in my face.  That doesn’t make me enjoy that movie any less, even though I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

What I wanted to tell my dad tonight: “Don’t listen to everyone’s opinions on movies, just find out who you trust.  Who likes the same kind of movies that you do?  If I say I hate something, and you watch it and love it, maybe you should remember that when I hate something, you might like it.”

It works for me.

What makes a good movie for you?  Can you enjoy movies and never want to watch them again?  Who do you trust when it comes to movies?

Wal-Land and the Duck

I took animation my last semester of film school.  I loved it, but I didn’t have a lot of time to invest in it right then.  My teacher guided me through Flash and an intro to After Effects, but I haven’t touched either program since.

I was given an assignment to create a short animation.  So I did.  And this is what I made.  Keep in mind, I’d never animated before.

Screenwriting for the third time

I’m in the midst of modifying a Stephen King short story into a screenplay.  It presents some challenges.  Remember what I said about books being internal and movies being external?  Yeah, this story is a prime example of that.

It’s first person, for starters.

Much of the story takes place in flashbacks and narration.  Some of the story contains references to things that I don’t understand or am too young to know about.  Part of the story is so disturbing that I’m not sure how much should be shown in a film.

But, it’s a great experience so far.

My teacher taught us that in screenwriting you have to make choices.  I teach my acting students to “commit.”  Basically, in all writing and acting once you make a decision you need to stick with it.  Go to the place that is inevitable with that kind of decision.

When modifying any other medium into a screenplay, there are things that have to change.  Choices are not just important, but necessary.  I had a lot of friends who got all annoyed about LOTR and the changes that Peter Jackson made to the story.  But I even if I don’t agree with every change he made, I see that the changes made a better movie.

Let’s get back to what I learned before my last semester of film school.

There was a second magic thing that I discovered about screenwriting while on Christmas vacation.  It was: Write the screenplay however the heck you want and break all the rules, as long as you show the story.

Yup.

I learned to be a rebel.

Screenwriting

Screenwriting was my favorite class in college.  It was a brutal class, too.  I kept at it, and eventually I made it into a group of writers who were all Master’s students, except one.  This was a big deal for me, who was in the last year of my Bachelor’s degree.

At the start of the semester of screenwriting 3 we pitched a screenplay idea and then spent the next 2 and 1/2 months writing a feature.  Most screenwriters take six months to a year to write a feature.  If they’re fast.  (Christopher Nolan took 10 years writing Inception with his brother.)

A feature is between 90 and 120 pages long.  My teacher was kind and preferred scripts to be about 95 pages.  Mid-way through 2 and 1/2 months, we had to present the first 10 pages.  That meant my teacher read the prose out loud and my classmates read the dialog out loud.

Then everyone had a chance to tear the script to shreds and stomp on it, all with a smile.  Sometimes with great relish.  If you survived this first presentation–in screenwriting 2 we had a student get completely trashed that night–you would return to class a few weeks later with the finished script, modified per suggestions.

Round 2.

This is me after class.

At the end of the semester, I had a screenplay that no one understood except me and a deepening resolve to quit before my last semester of film school.  But over Christmas break something clicked.  Something changed.

I came back.  Screenwriting 4 wasn’t even ready for me.  I tore up that semester with a sci-fi script that succeeded in smashing all my classmates’ expectations.

And it was fun.

Next post I will share some of the things that occurred to me over that break, but until then, keep writing.  Just because you’re the only one who gets it now doesn’t mean it will always be that way.