Friday, August 18, 2017

Instagram as a Writer and a Director's Tool

Filmmakers are using technology and social media in surprising ways. Recently, I spoke with Jingyi Shao, a writer/director who was once in my screenwriting class at USC, but is now a peer working with me in a writers’ circle. I share the conversation because I'm interested in how filmmakers use technology in creative ways. Feel free to comment and join the discussion...

Sean:                    So, you mentioned this in our writers’ group, but tell me about how you use Instagram as a creative tool, both as a writer and a director.

Jing:                     Originally I saw Instagram as a visual tool. As a director, I would use it in a multitude of ways. First, most obviously, you can follow your favorite filmmakers - cinematographers especially like to post stills of what they shoot, post pictures of where they are, and post other images that just interest or inspire them. On one level you're looking for what you admire, but you're also seeing what they admire. It’s a very interesting way to quickly scan visual pallets of color, mood and imagery.

                             Then I started using it more as a practical tool for location scouting. Say you are shooting in Los Angeles, and you need a boxing ring. You can very quickly search for “boxing ring” on Instagram and scroll through several hundred pictures within a minute. Many have geo tags, so you can immediately go there. But also, you can see other people’s perspectives of these places. You might walk into that boxing gym and say, "Okay, I want to shoot this punching bag." On Instagram someone might have posted a shot from the floor looking up or from above looking down or from the perspective of the speed bag itself. You know what I mean? The images are both practical and inspirational.

                             Ultimately, Instagram inspires my writing because I can follow people's online “personality,” and see what they're interested in. Sometimes how they tag or how they caption their own posts is interesting and revealing. You get a peek inside their character: how they speak, what places they might go, and what they value. When we populate a screenplay with characters, we have to imagine the details: what foods do they like to eat, what clothes do they like to wear, what friends do they hang out with, what do they do on a Friday night? You can see all this within the app.

                             Of course, we could get into an argument about whether what they post is their “real” selves. We could ask… Is that just a public face? But since we're just fleshing out characters, we can just take the traits and details we need from what these people reveal of themselves.

Sean:                   It seems like Instagram is a great character building tool because regardless whether it is entirely “real,” all sorts of information about Instragram users is conveyed in the pictures they take, and the places they go, and the things they share about themselves. Screenwriters are often asked to write about characters who are nothing like them (the writers) at all, characters we don't have necessarily have an intuitive understanding of, and this is certainly a way to observe people we might otherwise not have direct access to.

Jing:                     Absolutely, and it's always those little details that seem really random, but in the right context, they become very powerful - details that enrich the story. When you approach a character abstractly and break down his reasons, motivations, and “Wants,” the story can become too logical. Every person has an inherent logic, but that logical pattern is revealed over time, with an accumulation of details. I feel like sometimes in writing, we start with that logical breakdown instead of discovering these organic and authentic patterns through observation. On Instagram, I can just observe complete characters.

Instagram is also a pop culture machine that can quickly divulge a lot of information about how people are living, behaving, and speaking right now.

It’s extremely fast. I think we work in a medium that is very, very slow. It's the slowest art form because it takes so much money and it takes so many people and you have to jump through so many hoops to get a thing out there in the world. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the films coming out of Hollywood are remakes. I think the people who have worked for decades to get their films made about what is important to them don't always have a clear idea of what young creators are paying attention to.

By that I mean that older Hollywood filmmakers make things that are important or powerful to them,  but these things might not be as relevant to young people of today as they think. There is more of a generation gap between film/tv leaders than other industries like music, art, fashion.  Because it takes less money and resources to create their music, art and clothes, the development in these other industries seems a bit faster and of the moment.

                             Sometimes I'm on Instagram and surprised by what I find. I'm like, "This has 100,000 likes?" Really? But if you spend a little time and look into it, you realize, "Wow, this is actually what's powerful to people. It’s what people are interested in. You actually start to understand it.

Sean:                   So, you see Instagram as a window into millennial culture, but also a window into pop culture - a kind of culture that isn't necessarily represented in movies yet. Movies are still working from a traditional template of characters. For you, Instagram gives you a whole new pallet of people, imagery, behaviors, and concerns that aren't being reflected in movies and TV right now.

Jing:                      Yes. Especially when you're a writer and you want to create something naturalistic and authentic. You have to be able to operate in that space. You have to include social media and technology in the story. In television, there are multiple episodes of shows like Atlanta and Master of None that deal with social media. It's essential to the experience of the character's lives. So to take that out or to leave that out would make it artificial and dated.

My conversations on this subject will continue…

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Filmmakers Alliance's amazing Master Class is now called INDEPENDENT FILM, NOW! and it returns on Saturday, August 26th at Canon's new facility in Burbank.

I will be part of the first panel discussion of the day.

"If you haven't ever been to one in the past, you've missed a lot of amazing and important information. If you have, come get the latest and most comprehensive overview of making films in the digital age."

Click here for tickets.

Filmmakers Alliance has supported the production of hundreds of independent shorts and features since 1993 and once again brings you INDEPENDENT FILM NOW - a state-of-the-union look at the indie film landscape, as well as an A to Z, step-by-step seminar for independent filmmakers, providing the KEY information needed to get your next project MADE and SEEN. 

INDEPENDENT FILM NOW is a clear, concise and complete view of independent filmmaking, helping you create a blueprint for your life as a filmmaker!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Preposterous Film

Along with Genre Hacks, I've been posting preposterous ideas and storylines for feature films on my spinoff blog...

Preposterous Film

So check it out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 6 -- Let's talk about the First Act!

Hello everyone,

Let's make a quick analysis of the "First Act" and its components. The First Act is composed of the two opening Sequences of your movie. Usually, the First Sequence (the first 12-15 minutes of your script) sets up the the character and the Status Quo. If your script was a fairy-tale, the first sequence would be the "Once upon a time, there was a Hermit who washed his laundry in a river".

Then comes the Point of Attack. This is the "But one day, a GIANT SHARK emerged from the river and prevented the Hermit from washing his laundry!" This is the wrench that's thrown into the machinery, the problem that makes the movie change gears!

The Second Sequence is usually the protagonist grappling with the problem. For example, in our imaginary movie, this is the sequence where The Hermit tries to find different rivers to do his laundry (there are no other rivers!) or calls the cops (the cops laugh at him!) or simply tries to live in his filthy clothes (he can't, his imaginary friend complains about his smell and kicks him out of the house!) or tries to bait the Great Shark to the different part of the river with an otter he found downstream. (The Great Shark is displeased by the taste of the otter! Otter, it turns out, is an acquired taste!)

"The Studio vetoed the scene where the Shark eats the Otter. Apparently Otters are just too cute to be eaten on screen!"
Then comes the End of the First Act. This is a major turning point that launches your movie in a new direction. This is usually a moment of "This is what my movie is!"

Maybe The Hermit wages war against The Great Shark after The Great Shark eats the Hermit's Hut! Your movie is a battle for survival! It's a heart pumping thriller about the Man and the Beast because this little mountain creek is too small for both of them!

Or The Great Shark eats The Hermit's Hut and the rest of your movie is a low-key road movie through the woods, examining the relationship between The Hermit and his imaginary friend Mr. Goldfarb who has an insatiable craving for Oreos! (Mr. Goldfarb and his obsession with Oreos symbolizes The Hermit's desire to go back to living in civilized society.)

Or this is where The Hermit discovers The Great Shark can talk! It's a comedy in the tone of E.T. where the two friends seize each other up and establish a symbiotic relationship! (Watch out for the adorable scene where The Hermit not only gets to wash his laundry again, but he also washes the fins of the Great Shark!)

The Great Shark's name is Mr. Fizzles!
Either way, there needs to be a feeling of "Alright, off we go!" moment at the end of your first act. An explosive launch, a propulsion of momentum! Status-Quo should shift in a real way, your protagonist should commit to a road that s/he can't return from.

For example, there should be no more question of "Oh, The Hermit can just go back to his house..." NO! THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOREVER FOR THE HERMIT! Nothing will ever be the same! Either he has no Hut anymore to go back to or he just discovered a talking fish! Again: Nothing will ever be the same!

And, finally, let's have a quick talk about the Opening Image. This is an underrated tool when it comes to finding out what your movie is supposed to be, especially if you're doing a rewrite. This opening image should, ideally, distill the theme/tone of your movie into a perfect scene.

For example, is your movie a cynical, global biting satire about the gun trade around the world? Why not start it with a montage where we track a single bullet from its inception in an industrial factory in the West to its eventual destination: the head of an African Child Soldier. See it here.

Or your opening could be more dialogue driven. Maybe you're writing a low-key romantic comedy and your main character is a neurotic comedian obsessing over his mortality. Then, maybe, you can have him speak right to the camera and tell a joke that completely captures who he is. See it here.

While I'm at it, here is what I think is a bad example of an opening scene. Here is the opening minute or so of Interstellar. It establishes the world through narrative exposition (a device that will not be used consistently through the movie), introduces Cooper through a weird dream sequence where Cooper's plane is crashing (which makes it seem like the movie is going to be about Cooper dealing with his anxieties of flying or something). Of course it's beautiful as fuck because it's Christopher Nolan we're talking about here, but it's a rather lazy opening to what the movie is eventually about.

We told you never to badmouth Nolan ever again! NOW, PREPARE TO DIE!
Alright, well, that's it from me folks. Hope you've picked up a thing or two and somewhat smiled.

Footnote: Some people have commented that Sharks do not live in rivers. To that, I say, here is a wikipedia entry that might tickle your fancy

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Levin's Tips Week 5 -- Plot

What's the difference between a Song and just Noise? A song is still noise, essentially. It's just orchestrated and conducted to evoke emotion out of you.

Plot, as a concept, is similar. It's just a bunch of events. But if you make them connected and emotionally resonant, then you can make it sing.

So, what makes a good plot? Let's talk about two very simple, fundamental elements.

                               CHARACTER CARES

If it's not personal, it's probably not that good.

There is a reason in all the detective movies the protagonist is looking for his wife's killer. There is a reason Liam Neeson in Taken didn't go all around the world tracking down... just another client. No, he was looking for his child. In the Hangover, our gang aren't tracking down their best friend out of some weird obligation, they're doing it because it's his wedding on the line. In Bridesmaids, the entire premise is based on how our main character feels like she's being frozen out of a real important part of her best friends' life.

We talked about how one of the major objectives you have in your screenplay is to make your characters suffer. This is how you make them suffer. This is how you imbue an "event" with emotional resonance so that your plot sings. This also makes your character ACTIVE as he will WANT that personal thing very, very badly.

Of all movies, James Bond series gives a pretty good glimpse into this phenomenon by the way. When Bond has a personal stake in what's going on in addition to saving the world, the movie is suddenly much better. Golden Eye (his relationship with 006), Casino Royale (his relationship with Vesper Lynd), Skyfall (his relationship with M) are much better movies than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.

So if your character saves the world/does something objectively important and it still feels underwhelming, maybe you need to hit a place closer to your protagonist's heart. Walter White did a plethora of stuff more objectively important than what happened with his family, but very few things hit as hard as that personal story does.

                            ESCALATING OBSTACLES

Here's a sequence of events that really happened to me:

- I was writing in a coffee shop just like any other day.

- Fortunately, the writing was going great. I was writing the final sequence of a script and it was thrilling as intended.

- Unfortunately, my heart started pounding like mad and it got freaky after ten minutes.

- Fortunately, there were other people in the coffee shop and they were helpful and soothing. They said I must have drank too much coffee and that's that!

- Unfortunately, then they started to freak out, saying: "Holy shit, your heart is beating out of your body. I can see your clothes shaking!"

- Fortunately, someone who seemed to know what she was doing approached me and asked if I was feeling okay. I was elated and asked if she was a doctor.

- Unfortunately, she said "kinda" and proceeded to say that she believes in the power of prayer and knelt down and started to speak to Jesus.

- Fortunately, we called 911 and the paramedics arrived promptly.

- Unfortunately, even they were freaked out and put an oxygen mask on my face.

- Fortunately, one of the paramedics said "I know what to do!" and went for his bag.

- Unfortunately, it was the biggest motherfucking needle I ever saw and he said, verbatim: "Now you're gonna feel like something just punched you in the heart. Like in Pulp Fiction. You've seen that movie, right?" which freaked me the fuck out.

- Fortunately, just as the needle touched my sin, my heart rate -- after the needle put the God's Fear in me, I guess -- stabilized and I no longer needed the giant needle.

THE END. (Also, I'm fine. It was a silly thing.)

So, that's not what I would call a great plot (I'm a pretty passive protagonist) but it has one thing you need in a plot that works: Those twists and turns and escalating obstacles.

The audience know there's going to be an "all is lost!" moment in your movie. Your challenge is to make it much worse than they think it's going to be. Like, for example, they could be like: "Hey, at least the paramedics came! He's safe!" but then THAT gets even worse by the revelation of the giant needle.

Also, this doesn't mean make your movie an endless series of defeats. Every story needs to have balance and dynamism. We need victories that bring us to glorious highs and defeats that bring us down to deep, dark lows. Neither can exist without the other.

Alright, that's that. Next week, we're going to talk about the First Act!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 4 -- Structure

Structure is a tricky thing, because it's very easy to mistake the map for the territory. Some of the worst scripts I have ever read were perfectly structured with eight clear sequences, but they had no life to them. It was like watching a funeral procession made of eight little caskets pass by.

Unless you're self-financing your feature, your script will go through some readers and they will write comments to their bosses, or maybe to you directly. Here's a comment that no reader has ever written:

"I loved this script. It made me laugh, it made me cry. The characters are indelible and feel like real people. The ending fucking wrecked me. I hope this gets made by someone who understands the material, it might even be an Oscar contender. BUT I couldn't figure out where the sequence 6 started and ended, plus the mid point turn was unclear. So, unfortunately, I have to PASS on this script."

Your end game is to write something that moves people, makes them laugh, scares them, [insert emotion you mean to evoke]. It's not to write a "perfect" script. So, these terms and concepts are just tools for you to bring life to your script. Not the other way around.

                                On the other hand...

Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself:

"Why is this plot even in the movie? Who cares about that bullet or whatever, go back to Batman!"

"What the fuck, it feels like this movie had 11 different endings! Oh wait, more Hobbits."

"Didn't they already introduce Deadshot? Why do we need a second and a third introduction?!"

"Oh wait, the movie just... ended? Really? I sat through this and it ended on... Joaquin Phoenix fingerbanging a sand woman?"

"Man, I really liked the first half with Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, but this stuff with Eric Bana and the house is really dragging-- Holy shit, why is this movie almost 3 hours?!"

I'm a firm believer that this movie could have been a stone cold classic with just a little bit more structure.

You should know about Structure because that's how you fix all these problems.

For example, what does it mean when a movie "drags"? It means your character has been following the same goal in the same way for a long time, and maybe you need to throw in a curveball. So, the solution is clear: Your sequence/act is running too long. Remember how we need to be switched up every other 15 pages? You didn't do that properly.

Structure is also a good tool to get to that honest, authentic place where you evoke the emotion of your audience. For example, Community and Rick and Morty are deliriously anarchic and it might feel inconceivable that they are actually really tightly plotted... but they are.

So, I know this has been especially on the esoteric side of things but, to me, the Structure part is pretty clear: Keep your audience engaged, 15 pages at a time, build to a First Act Ending where your audience has that "Here we go!" feeling, throw them a curveball at the Mid Point they didn't expect that either focuses your movie or diverts it in an interesting way, then hurt your heroes until they bleed and are forced to change as the Second Act Ending comes in... and build to a satisfying Resolution that addresses the themes you worked through in your story.

So, yeah, do that friend, and you're golden!

See you next week with a discussion about Plot and how that fits into the scheme of things!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 3 -- Character

People fall in love with characters, not stories.

There are dozens of predictable romantic comedies that only work because the characters are so well drawn and we want the central duo to end up together. There are thousands hours of  listless TV shows involving doctors, lawyers and cops that are just... existentially unjustified to exist at this point and time. But they work because the central character is amusing/fascinating/different, take your pick.

There is no easy way to teach people to create indelible, memorable characters. But, hey, here are two "tricks" I use. Maybe they'll work for you too!

                              Online Impersonation

No, no, it's way less sketchier than it sounds, I promise!
There are lots of sites (reddit being the chief one among them) that have personal advice/help forums.

So, let's stay you're writing a thriller about a stay home suburban man with a wild past who discovers an alternate version of himself, the road-not-taken version of himself who did not settle down and kept on roaming, is haunting him.

Let's say you have the structure of the story but this character, you can't quite get into his head. What does he sound like? What are the specific details that differentiate him from the rest of people? What does it mean to have had a crazy past and a serene present?

So, maybe you create an account on reddit and write a post asking for advice. Something like this.

Chances are, you will get a lot of advice from people who have been in your situation. They've been there. As they talk about themselves, you get a better idea of what it must feel like.

I know this sounds a bit morally fucked up or something but I feel like, or maybe I justify it by saying this, we sort of become our characters at the moments when we inhabit them, so it's okay?

So, there you go. That's character-building-exercise number one. Then there is...

                                       MBTI TABLE

If you haven't heard about the Myers-Briggs test, go here first. If you have the time, take the test.

I'm an INTP, my wife is ENTP. So, naturally, we get along... Just like Varys and Tyrion!
Now, I know many people think this is all bullshit, and it might be honestly, but if you have a bunch of characters and you want to figure out their voices, assigning them MBTI types works wonders. Of course, it's all broad outlines and you don't want to write stock characters, but it can be a helpful start in getting into their shoes.

So, let's say you created your characters. Then what? What do we do with them in, you know, the actual screenplay?


Choices reveal character.

Let's say your character is a brave woman.

The best way to convey this to the audience is to put her in a situation that %99 of people would get the fuck out of, but she doesn't. She stays and she helps.

Or, say, your character is logical and introverted. Then maybe you put her into Disneyland, but instead of enjoying the rush of the place like her friends, she chooses to figure out how a certain roller-coaster works on a structural level.

You see the pattern? Give her a choice that contrasts with what anyone else would have done.

And super-bonus points if you put your character in a situation at the beginning of the movie where he/she makes a certain choice, then, at the end of the movie, you put him/her in a similar situation and he/she makes the other choice, conveying to us his/her change.

The poster child for this is Robert De Niro's character in The Deer Hunter. At the beginning of the movie, he has a deer in his sights. He shoots, he scores. After his experience in the War, he goes hunting again. This time, he can't bring himself to shoot the deer.

But change is hard. In fact:

And once they do, they make different choices to prove to us that, yes, they have changed.

Well, that's that for now. Next week, we will talk about more heady stuff like screenplay structure and sequences. Stay tuned!