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.

52 Weeks of Creative: Week 17

I really, really, really want to not be doing this anymore. :p  WHY?  You say.

1.  I don’t have any ideas.

2.  My life has gotten complicated.

3.  I like sleep.

And really, the ultimate reason;  IT’S JUST SO HARD.

But, we carry on.  I’m not a quitter.  Never have been.  Never will be.

This week we finished a film.  THE film.  What film is this?  Well at the end of March we entered a month-long film contest called The Fiery Wheel-O-Rama.  We were given the genre Vampire Movie, the location A Car in the Woods, and 5 plot points of which we needed to pick 3.  We used:

1. Broken fingers.

2.  A menacing phone call.

3.  A heart attack.

And then they gave us a month to make a film.  Now, this isn’t like the 48, at least, it shouldn’t be.  We’ve done that, here.  But writing, filming and editing a movie in that time frame is still really difficult.  Not bad.  There is no complaining here.  I had an excuse to make a film and have it screened in front of other filmmakers.

Bring.  It.  On.

Preproduction went well.  I wrote a version of the script, thought it was too violent, and rewrote the entire thing.  We had an advantage in this genre, actually, because I wrote a feature last year that was a vampire film.  It was meant to be a web series that when edited together made a feature.  So all the characters, the crime world of vampires, the look and feel and motivations and backstory…All that was done.  I just needed an original plot line for a new short film.

My fear throughout this whole process was that it would be too complicated or only understandable to me and the other people who’ve read the feature.  I wanted to create something that felt like it was part of a greater story and a greater world, but I didn’t want the audience to feel like they weren’t part of the experience or get confused.

You tell me if we succeeded.

The morning of the shoot was early.  But optimism ruled.  We had amazing actors, great equipment, and my crew was ready to do the whole 14 hour thing.

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Then I got a call from my lead actress.  She was sick and unable to come.  There was no way around it.  We couldn’t postpone, we didn’t have time.  I couldn’t bring in another actress that short notice.  We didn’t have time to bring someone new it, anyway.  The light’s only good for a certain amount of time…And it was getting away from us.

So I took a deep breath and stepped in.  I knew the work better than anyone.  I’m the right age and gender.  I didn’t have the look I had wanted–I’m not Italian in any way.  And my personality isn’t as suited to the original version of the character.

But things can be changed.

Directing and acting at the same time is really, really, really difficult.  It’s hard to pay attention to everything that needs attention.  Also, method acting isn’t conducive to happy set experiences.  Why?

We were making a dark film.  Bad things happen.  The same emotions that I needed for the character would come out as I was directing, even if me as a person wasn’t really supposed to be feeling them.  I needed to be sad, grief-stricken, upset, angry, determined, conflicted, in love, fearful…and let a man I had just met drag me all over the woods.  My friends watched all this with rising unease.  I don’t act in films.  I have a history of theater and stage performance, but that ended 6 years ago.

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I had an advantage though.  I knew exactly what I looked like in the view of the lens.  I knew exactly how big my facial expressions needed to be and exactly where to stand or move to stay onscreen.  I am used to cameras and lights and people all around me on set.  I am comfortable with my friends and their various jobs.

I know, this doesn’t sound like acting at all.  But on-camera acting is all about the environment.  You may be a great actor, but if you can’t act in the environment of people in your face and staying within the boundaries of the lens…You can’t act for movies.  A lot of time you’re imagining the entire scene.  There’s no actor sitting there for you to react to.  There’s no woods or gunshot or blood.  It’s the actor’s job to make the audience believe that all those things are real, and are really there.

Acting for the camera is also best when the actor feels safe.  Acting is inherently vulnerability.  You are letting other people see all your emotions, real emotions, even if those aren’t the exact ways that you as a person would normally express them.  Again, I had an advantage over other actors because hey, these were almost all of my closest friends and my boyfriend.  No matter what went down–and some of this stuff was so difficult that my friends found it hard to watch–I knew that I was safe to express everything that needed to be expressed.

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We started the day at 7:30am.  We finished at 10pm, I think.  We took over a week to edit.  We turned it in on time.  The screening happened.

Then I made a trailer.  Soon we’ll post the whole film–it’s about 9 minutes long.  But here’s the trailer:

As always, feel free to comment with feedback, ideas or creative projects of your own!

Into Words

When life is good…

Write songs.

When life gets hard…

Write stories.

When life gets surprising…

Write personal experiences.

When life is just plain horrible…

WRITE MOVIES.

Change your world into words.

Webseries Inceptions

I’ve been working on webseries.  This isn’t news.  A few months ago we filmed the first episode of Things We Do in Public, which turned out great.  This is a silly comedy–really silly.

And I love that.

I have a DP friend.  He wants to make dramas.  HARSH dramas.

This makes me sad.

In ways.  Anyway, I have been working on a serious webseries for him–I mentioned the vampire aspect, yes?–and I have finished the first episode.

Yeah.

It’s not happy.  It’s not even…funny.  It makes me think of one of my favorite films:  Inception.  It’s not like Inception at all.  No dreams or totems or architecture.  But it is like Inception.

Why?

Inception is a great movie.  It’s dramatic, action-packed, has depth of story and amazing visuals.  The actors are all fantastic and solid.  The editing is beyond reproach.  I mean, you have to pay attention to that movie, but it is edited in a way that makes it understandable.

But it lacks comedy.  Almost entirely.

Don’t misunderstand.  I think this movie needs no alteration.  But I find the lack of funny slightly disheartening.  I can’t watch it all the time.

I think movies should entertain.  Also, a friend of mine once said, “Fiction a way is to help us understand life.”  When I write, I try to create something that accomplishes both these things.  But mainly, I try to give you a little bit of sunshine, something that makes you forget or let go.

I hope that in the next episode I can create some moments of comedy.  I hope that we’re not always just making sense of life.  I hope sometimes we’re letting life go and laughing.

And laughing.

Christmas Eve and The Undead

It’s Christmas Eve.

And I am going to work on a vampire webseries.

Which sounds a little…awkward.  But who wants life to be normal, eh?

A few days ago I started researching vampires.  Most people don’t know that vampire legends actually started a lot like zombies are portrayed today.  People died, were buried, then became animated again.  Undead.

The Twilight saga has been beaten to death by now by too many haters, so I won’t add to it.  As a general rule though, vampire tales today do NOT start with someone climbing out of a grave.  Usually someone gets bitten.

And BAM!  They’re attractive, powerful and immortal.  And kinda melodramatic, too.

That’s fine.  I don’t mind creative people using their creative talents to imagine vampires however they want to.  I don’t even take offense at the sparkling.

But I’m ready for some mysterious, freaky, dangerous, demon-like vampire tales.  Gritty, evil, soul-less.  These things are like zombies, except not as crazed and far, far more frightening.  They won’t come at you slowly, and they don’t have to kill you.

They just drain you, little by little, while you sleep.

And no matter how many times you shoot them or try to decapitate them, they always come back.

It’s stake time, baby.

Merry Christmas!

Rain Man

Just watched Rain Man for the first time.

A couple weeks ago I saw a new movie called People Like Us.

These movies start out on the same basis, with similar characters, problems and situations.  A greedy guy in a semi-dishonest relationship gets a call that his estranged father has just died.  He has to fly across the country to go to the funeral, taking his supportive, but dissatisfied girlfriend with him.  After the funeral, the will is read and he finds out that he wasn’t left everything he hoped.  Instead, he comes to the realization that he has a sibling he never knew about and the majority of his father’s inheritance is going to them.  Of course he decides to pursue the money and meet his sibling.

At this point, the movies cease to follow the exact arc.  In Rain Man the protagonist discovers that his brother is a high-functioning autistic savant.  In People Like Us the protagonist meets his half-sister who is a single mom and recovering alcoholic.  These sound like completely different scenarios, but the initial plot is so alike that I had trouble differentiating between them.

I’m not gonna say that Rain Man is a better movie though.  In fact, for something  so well-known, I thought Rain Man had very clear writing problems.  At least one subplot went absolutely nowhere.  The movie is told from Tom Cruise’s character’s point of view–the guy who finds out he has a brother–until half-way through the movie, then it’s all Rain Man’s viewpoint.

Except when it’s not.

This movie breaks a lot of rules.  And I’m a rule-breaker.  I guess I was just disappointed at the way it broke rules.

Themes

What is the theme of your life?  Your career?  Your favorite movies?  Things you’ve written, whether books, screenplays, badly scribbled poetry or bathroom/empty wall graffiti?

Have had several conversations with friends this week on theme.  I made the comment that Christopher Nolan (Inception, Momento, The Prestige) has the same theme in all his movies.

What is it?

Reality.  What is reality?  What do we choose to be reality?  Is reality important?  Why is reality important?  Who decides what is reality?

If you think about his films–Batman movies included–you will discover this theme, over and over.  It is obviously the entire point of Inception and Momento.  I won’t ruin the movies for you if you haven’t seen them.  In The Dark Knight the Joker lives in his own reality, where he has made his own conclusions about the nature and actions of man.  Bruce Wayne’s own perception of the nature of man is sadly mistaken too, which is why this movie is so interesting and haunting.  If the Joker was wrong and Bruce Wayne was wrong, doesn’t that make them both right?  Humanity will ultimately choose evil or good, depending on the people and circumstance.

That got really deep for a second.

Moving on.

I have discovered an alarming theme to my writing.  It became very apparent recently, when I finished a time travel book called Paradox.  Paradox is about a girl who meets someone before she knows him, but he already knows her.  He sends her back to his childhood.  Chaos ensues.

When I finished writing this book, I cried.  Well, got teary.  I was sad.  Not just because it was over.  It’s just a very sad book.

I’m not gonna tell you my theme.  It will become apparent to anyone who reads my work.  But it makes me wonder…

What’s your theme?

Lucasfilm

I went looking for articles about Lucasfilm and the buy-out by Disney.  I wanted to research enough to present an accurate opinion in the post.

Instead, I found a post by Bret D. Asbury, and he said a lot of really good things.  I don’t agree with everything, of course.  Below is a quote from his article.  I found that he approached the subject of new Star Wars movies in the most open-minded, yet fan conscious way I have heard so far.

“I do not mean to suggest that Episodes I-III are cinematic masterpieces, any more so than Episodes IV-VI are. I only wish to point out that the prequels also have their moments of excellence. It follows that the sharp distinction between the original trilogy (wonderful) and the second trilogy (rubbish) is unwarranted—both are flawed, yet for long stretches remarkably entertaining space operas. Today’s kids seem to understand this better than their parents, who are often so concerned with protecting the legacy of their beloved films that they can’t appreciate the new ones. My son and his friends embrace Mace Windu as much as Luke Skywalker and are just as scared of Darth Maul as they are of Darth Vader. To them, Star Wars is a captivating, six-film succession, each episode replete with a healthy dose of quirky characters, action, and mystery.”

(Find the rest of his article here: By Bret D. Asbury)

I grew up with the Star Wars movies.  When the new ones came out I was still a kid.  All my opinions of them were jaded by my older siblings and my dad.  I believed that “Ani” Skywalker was a bad actor because everyone else said he was.

Then I learned to screenwrite.

Have you ever listened to the dialog in the Star Wars movies, regardless of who’s speaking or the episode number?  Have you ever seen Hayden Christensen in another movie besides Star Wars?  What about Mark Hamill?

Then how do you know that these guys are bad actors?  Mark Hamill got in a terrible car accident between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  His face was a bit disfigured.  I mean, they stopped promoting him as the pretty boy in that movie, or didn’t you notice?

Sometimes when we grow up with things we love them like newlyweds.

I suggest you re-watch the Star Wars films.  Watch them like a screenwriter.  You’ll see the bad dialog, plot holes and inconsistencies.  You’ll see the mistakes and 70s weirdness.

Or don’t.

I mean, we all love things unreasonably, don’t we?  Don’t worry, I still love Ferngully, Jurassic ParkLord of the Rings, and the Spiderman cartoon.  And I will defend them forever.

(Here’s a link to interesting Star Wars info: 100 Things You Didn’t Know About The Empire Strikes Back)

Book Writing to Screenwriting to Book Writing

I started writing books.  Then my brother made me run camera for his films when he was a teenager.  I also provided scream noises for one of his horror movies.  And I think I was a vampire victim at some point.

Ketchup on my neck smelled great.

Anyway, I partly blame him for getting me into movies.  When I wrote my first film it was an adaptation of one of my books.  A medieval fantasy story.

In my last semester of Screenwriting, the comment was made in class that it was impossible to work in two writing disciplines at the same time.  Writing a book and writing a screenplay were so different that it would be too hard.  You would fail.

I disagree.

I think it’s entirely possible to write books and screenplays at the same time.  I think some authors write books that are screenplays already.  The technical aspect of writing a screenplay is very different from a book, but writers are technical by nature.  Work hard and you can do it.

The more I learn about screenwriting, the better book writer I become.

A few hours ago I switched from writing on my time-travel adventure book to editing that Stephen King screen adaptation.  I had to remind myself of the story and the medium.  I was able to forge ahead and finish the editing.