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Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds, July 25th Edition!

A blog post by Levin Menekse
Hello folks, welcome to another Friday Filmmaker Finds!

I'm kind of cheating this week and starting with something from a long time ago and something I assume many of you have already seen. But I really think it's something every aspiring artist/filmmaker needs to hear once in a while.

So, you know Ira Glass, right? This American Life. Looks like this:


If you've listened to his program -- it's on NPR and talks about real life stories with a whimsical and melancholic tone -- you know he's a stone-cold genius. If you haven't, here are some samples to establish that this guy knows what he's talking about.

And here is him giving vital, amazing advice. Now, there are more flashy versions of this on the internet with animated letters or in the form of hipsteresque life advice murals, but I think it's important to see the most unadulterated version of it, even if it's dry and in 240p. See it/listen to it/take it to heart.

And here is the "hipsteresque life advice mural" version.
And then here is a huge library of advice from the legends of filmmaking. Go ahead, choose your favorite filmmaker and see what his/her recommendations are for other filmmakers. They have everyone from Ozu to Spielberg, so rest assured, someone you like is on this list. You can hear about Charlie Kauffman talking about how "If you're in Charge, you shouldn't be the Insane One" or you can go for Michael Haneke and take his advice on: "How to Draw Scenes from your Slaughter-Filled, Sheltered Childhood".

This picture marks the only time Michael Haneke ever smiled
And here is the short film of the week. It's called Ice Cream and it's by Louie C.K, whose brilliant TV show you've been watching and admiring for the last 4 seasons. I love this because it's basically that familiar "Louie C.K. voice" in its infancy. This shows you even if you have no money to shoot a movie, your unique voice can still shine through the grainy, black-and-white, student-film-looking shots.

Alright everyone, hope you enjoyed this edition of Friday Filmmaker Finds! See you next week!

Levin Menekse

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Filmmaker's Life: Win A Screenwriter's Package!

So, as part of a screenwriters package that includes a free copy of Final Draft, Dramatica, and a fully cast table read, I'm giving away a free screenwriting consultation. Click the link below for details.

A Filmmaker's Life: Win A Screenwriter's Package!!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds -- July 18th Edition!

Another Blog Post by Levin Menekse


Hello folks,

As you may know, Sean loved Under The Skin and even wrote an article about it. He praised the movie for its creative use of the visual language and its unrelenting refusal to resolve its enigmatic aura. Here is a video essay that details the tools and methods used in the movie and why it's different than other contemporary movies. Beware: The video does give away some of the movie's iconic visuals and its ending, but Under the Skin is really more of an experience than your standard narrative feature film, so I think it will be perfectly fine to watch this video without having had seen the movie. Here you go.



Last week, we took a look at Lance Dustin Black's insanely intimidating creative process. This week, we have a much more free-form approach from Mike White, who is unfortunately known more for Nacho Libre when he should be known for his HBO series Enlightened which was a great show that had a quiet, unique, emphatic tone TV landscape is missing these days. Here, now you can watch him awkwardly sit around his apartment and stare into empty space as he details his creative process!

Lastly, here is some sage advice about how you can develop your unique voice and, to top it off, its wrapped in the delicious comedy of Steven Wright! You're probably going to recognize him when you see him as "that guy who never, ever smiles."


I can't say I loved his Oscar-Winning short film that is featured in this article, but I found the article itself remarkable for its advice. My favorite portion was:

"Some novice filmmakers have always convinced themselves that the way to the top is through so-called ‘production values,’ shorthand usually for sequences that add nothing to the film but which cover up for any narrative deficiency (they hope) and, you know, look “cool.” I will say confidently, here, that the “cool” is the enemy of the “great.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this advice and direct you to the article from which it originated.

The short-film of the week isn't an easy watch. It begins in a deliberate, slow pace but I assure you that it has a chilling pay-off. Simply put: It's about a lonely office drone who finds the suicide video of a man who taped his last day on Earth. Our protagonist, the office drone, gets obsessed with why this man decided to kill himself and starts watching the video over and over again, looking for clues... Without spoiling anything, this eighteen minute short movie's last two minutes filled me with more existential dread than the last 30 feature-length horror movies I watched combined. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Here it is.

Alright folks, hope you have had and will have a great week! Take care!

Levin Menekse

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds - July 10th Edition!

Yet another blog by Levin Menekse

Hello everyone, nice to see you again for another edition of Friday Filmmaker Finds!

This week, we have it all! Inspiration, intimidation and some practical advice!

Let's begin with intimidation because that's just the funnest way, no? Take a look at this picture below:



His name is Dustin Black and he won an Oscar for writing Milk. This is his writing process. He works more than 12 hours a day. He has cabinets full of research documents and talks about how he, on average, researches for a year on each project. This is him talking about his creative process.

Are you intimidated? I am. I feel flimsy compared to this guy's work ethic and dedication.

Well, let's make it more fun: Do you have any colorful quirks or unique ways you approach your creative process? I'll start: I listen to Black Metal to drown out the outside noise and can't write in public because I end up head-banging unconsciously. Your turn!

Secondly, some practical advice. Maybe you've heard of the Potato Salad Guy. Here is the picture with which he raised 45 thousand dollars because he wanted funding to make a Potato Salad:



Are you saying "What the fuck? I couldn't get 5k for my meaningful indie film and this guy gets 45k FOR A POTATO SALAD?!" or "Wow, this guy is a marvelous magician, how the hell did he do it because I sure would like me some 45k worth of Potato Salad!" here is a very practical and insightful essay by Ferrett Steinmetz on this Potato Salad Phenomenon.

By the way, I love that under "Risks and Challenges" the Potato Salad Guy simply states: "It might not be good. It's my first Potato Salad."

Finally, here is some inspiration mixed with intimidation. I've seen it before but I'm highlighting it again because it was on cinearchive over the weekend: Here is Paul Thomas Anderson directing Magnolia.

Now, I know this is more than an hour long and it's not easily consumed. But I genuinely believe it's worth your time. See, Paul Thomas Anderson was 29 when he made Magnolia. Magnolia is definitely one of the most ambitious movies EVER made. It's a 188 minute juggernaut with nine intersecting stories and it balances a variety of tones while touching crazy-hard-to-pull-off subject matters like child molestation, drug addiction and death of an estranged parent. It's such a go-for-broke project that even if you don't like it, you must at least respect the sheer audacity of attempting such an insane thing.

And this documentary really goes into the creative process of such a crazy film; Anderson shares his doubts and hopes and while we will never possess his incredible mind, it might at least inspire us a little bit. Well, and intimidate us, obviously. I'm 27. PTA was nominated for an Academy Award when he was my age. That will keep me up tonight. Here is Tom Cruise quietly judging me.



And, to spare you further rumination and existential aggravation, this week's short is easily consumable, colorful and somewhat fun. I don't want to ruin anything about it, except to say please watch the whole thing because there is a pay-off. Here is Voice Over.

Alright, hope you enjoyed it folks! See you next week! Leave comments, share it with your friends and all that jazz!

- Levin Menekse

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How to Give Feedback

Another Blog by Levin Menekse
Hello guys and gals, welcome to the flip-side of my earlier article: "Getting and Processing Feedback"

On first impression, giving feedback seems like an altruistic thing to do. You're helping someone else, right? It's a good, nice thing, like helping an old lady cross a street. Well, not to appeal to your selfish nature or anything, but it's actually more than that. Giving great feedback is essential to your growth as a screenwriter.

First of all, we have established previously in the "Getting and Processing Feedback" article that you need a collective of Writers to get notes from so that you can become a better writer. And, well, you reap what you sow. People are much more likely to be engaged with your material if you are engaged with theirs. If you are in a Writer's Group situation and you realize that everyone is surfing the web while your script is being discussed, either you are the only decent person in a circle of assholes or... you might be the asshole who does the same while theirs are discussed and what you are getting is your comeuppance.

                                               Pictured: Not a good feedback session.

Secondly, half of the jobs in the industry are "re-write" jobs. This means you will be handed a piece of material and then asked your "take" on it. So, say, a production company is remaking Lord of Rings for the new generation and they already have a script, but they want it to be more "hip" in order to capture the imaginations of young people. What you will need to do is to read the script, deconstruct it and basically tell them what you found lacking and what you would improve. In these situations, you will use the same set of muscles you use when you're giving feedback. So, flex those suckers!


"The script DEFINITELY needs more of Legolas skating down the stairs. Young people love that shit!"

Okay, you convinced me. How about some pointers?

- Respect the Writer's Vision: Some movies are action blockbusters (Transformers), some movies are witty romantic comedies (High Fidelity) and some movies are existential ruminations about our quotidian life and what it means to be a human being. (The Room)

While giving notes, remember that you're trying to support the Writer to achieve his/her particular goal. Don't go into "This is what I would've done" mode and impose your vision onto theirs. Yes, maybe you believe the world doesn't need another Adam Sandler vehicle and you think this particular story would be much better if the protagonist slipped and fell into a volcano filled with battery acid... but don't say that. If the person you're giving feedback to is writing that kind of a movie... Then that's what you're working with. Accept it and do your best. Help the writer make his/her story the best story of its kind.

                                                         Existentialism.

Give your feedback to the Work, not to the Writer: Yes, maybe you don't like the cut of that fucker's jib, but don't be an asshole to his/her writing just to hurt him/her. On the other side of this coin, don't wear kid gloves and treat your best friend's script with utter reverence. Both attitudes are harmful in the long run and the only thing you should be concerned with is how you can improve upon the material you are presented with.

And most people aren't stupid, they know when they are targeted as opposed to their writing. (Pro life-tip: Even stupid people can tell that.) Don't poison the well, don't turn your Writer's Group into a bunch of people sniping at each other. In the professional world, you will work with a lot of people you don't necessarily mesh with, so it's a good idea to get used to it.

Be gentle: When you're giving feedback, it's some fragile shit you're dealing with. Months and months of work and the Writer's self-confidence could be on the line.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't be harsh on your critique, but package it nicely. Instead of saying: "Logically, your script makes no sense. That would be somewhat okay if your protagonist wasn't a deplorable piece of human garbage with whom the audience has no empathy. And, by the way, I enjoyed reading your climactic sequence as much as I enjoyed doing my taxes last year." try to say:

"You know that scene in the first act where Martin takes the eel and uses it as a lasso to choke his girlfriend to death? I kind of felt like that was a moment where my empathy with Martin broke. I think if you could let me glimpse into his mind more and understand why he decided to do that, then I think I could be on board with his journey more..."

Realize I didn't say anything about the problem with the climax or the logic holes in the script. It's because you don't want to just pile on your critique all at once. If a script is a mess, chances are other people are aware of it as well. If they're not, then next time you speak, maybe you talk about a sequence you enjoyed and why you enjoyed it before you point out another problem with the script.

It's phenomenally easy to come off as the "bad guy" in these kind of situations, so avoid that. Tell the truth, but in acceptable doses with a gentle style.

                       According to Google images this is what an "eel lasso" looks like

Tailor your Feedback to the situation at hand: Deadlines are a staple of this industry and to many people's creative processes, so chances are you will be asked to give feedback on a project that has to be delivered in a certain amount of time. Be diligent of this fact while you're delivering your notes. Don't give tectonic, structure-razing notes to someone who has a deadline in two days. Similarly, if someone has only a week to deliver a draft and s/he's on page 60, it's better to give feedback about the future of the script and not that one scene that bugs you back in the first act.

Don't drop big -ist Words: There are sensitive words that become even more sensitive in the context of a feedback session. For example, I've seen people call other people's material sexist, racist and other kind of -ist's. The problem with this is two-fold: First of all, whether you like it or not, you are calling the Writer an -ist of your choice as well and this violates the "Don't critique the Writer, critique the Work" rule. (Best case scenario, you're saying: "I know you're not a racist, but you might have accidentally been one while writing this script.") Secondly, give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they have an endgame in mind that will subvert your expectations or maybe they tried that and failed. Hell, maybe they know more about the subject matter than you do.

There are many works of art that have been called an -ist of some kind -- lately, it's been the FX series Tyrant which has been called both racist and sexist -- and just because you think something is an -ist doesn't mean it is. Just because you're offended doesn't mean you're right. And by dropping a big -ist word, you're essentially derailing the conversation. All of a sudden, anything the Writer is saying is being contextualized around your accusation. So, be very, very careful before saying something like that because it creates a toxic environment. You can definitely bring up your problems with the material without resorting to an -ist word.

Instead of saying: "This pilot is sexist because all women are depicted as sex objects." try to say: "I think your female characters can use more complexity and layers."
                                      Don't be this guy. Nobody likes this guy

And, finally... Share: Be open. If you have a great idea that could improve someone's script... Give it to them. Don't sit on your ideas because you think sometime in the future you might be able to use them for your own material. You have chosen these people to give/get feedback from for a reason and, to bring it back to the beginning, the more you give, the more you're going to get.

Well, that's all I have. Take care friends, hope you enjoyed this journey. If you have any feedback about this article, you're welcome to comment! Who knows, maybe I'll give you a feedback about your feedback and we'll forever be stuck in an everlasting feedback loop!

- Levin Menekse

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tribespeople

In the past month, I've written about Creative Tribalism both in Genre Hacks and in Moviemaker Magazine, and I suggested that 21st century artists need to position themselves at the center of concentric circles of 30-100 people.  This digital tribe becomes the reliable, long-term source of creative fulfillment and spiritual meaning regardless of whether the writer, actor, or musician makes it big.

But how do we form these circles of deeply engaged tribespeople?

It's not easy. American consumers of art and entertainment are passive. They buy books, movie tickets, and downloads only when prompted by multimillion-dollar corporate marketing campaigns. They support the work of superstars with whom they will never interact. Online they are distracted by billions of competing memes, messages, and media-motes - a cacophony of voices all screaming over one another, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!" The biggest obstacle in building an audience is getting anyone to pay attention.

The solution simply can't be more self-promotion, dogged networking and inbound marketing. If we want our audiences to spend a larger slice of their entertainment budget on small artists with whom they can have a direct relationship, we have to take a break from our relentless drive to be the center-of-attention.

Leading by example, we must become supportive and engaged tribespeople in circles other than our own.  As artists we must, first and foremost, show people what it means to be a patron.

A patron is neither a consumer of a product, nor a supporter of a cause, but rather someone who endorses and funds the work of an individual artist.  A patron spends $10 on a download (A book, a song, a movie, whatever) not necessarily for the product itself, but to directly support the people who made it.  What they get for their money is a relationship to the work and to the artists they admire.

Sadly, too many writers, filmmakers, and musicians (and I include myself in this criticism) busily ignore the work of other artists who desperately need their support. We all need to be better models of the kind of audience we want to attract for our own work.

Look around and ask yourself, whose work deserves wider notice?  Whose project needs your collaboration and endorsement? Whose Kickstarter campaign have you promoted other than your own? How many reviews of festival films or web series have you written just to trumpet the achievement of the people who made them? Do you spend time reading rough drafts, watching rough-cuts, and critiquing one-sheets so that you can offer your free advice and feedback?

How often to you post, tweet, comment, and blog about the creative work of others?

Being a patron means taking a break from writing your TV pilot, editing your micro-budget feature, or promoting your next gig. It means looking beyond yourself as the center of the creative universe. It means paying attention and reaching out. This is what we want our collaborators and audiences to do, so we should start by doing it ourselves.

Perhaps I'm writing this very article to challenge myself to practice what I preach: By being better tribespeople we take the first step in forming tribes of our own.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds -- 4th of July Edition!

By Levin Menekse
Hello everyone, glad to have you back. If you are new, feel free to check out last week's edition.

So, this being the 4th of July, let's talk about America. And, well, what's more American than Michael Bay?

Michael Bay takes the center stage in this fascinating video essay by Tony Zhou. I know Michael Bay is a polarizing figure among the cinephiles; he's probably a symbol of everything that's... wrong. But no one can deny his box office report card. He's probably the most reliable moneymaker in Hollywood, second to James Cameron. So, I believe, for this reason alone he probably deserves some critical attention.

The most interesting thing Zhou does in his analysis of Bay's style is to contrast it with his inferior copycats, in this case Battleship, and explain why they fail. It's interesting to note that the director of Battleship, Peter Berg, is a much more acclaimed director compared to Bay. Berg directed the pilot of Friday Night Lights, which is considered one of the best TV pilots ever, and yet it's interesting to see him get contrasted with Bay and fall somehow short.

I also read this reddit comment the other day that made me curious:

" Michael Bay made the Got Milk? ads. He made the iconic Red Cross commercials and won a Clio award for them. Say whatever you want about him, but this guy is off the charts brilliant when it comes to understanding what people want. He's probably the closest thing to the omniscient Don Draper and probably possess an uncanny insight into the human psyche. You just don't get to be this successful to this extent this fast without brilliance. Look at his career. Smash hit after smash hit. He knows what his audience wants and delivers it."

Perhaps, at some level, this is true. Michael Bay is an expert at delivering what his audience wants, but, maybe, that's why most cinephiles hate him: Because he merely gives people what they want and that's not necessarily a good thing. What is your opinion on Bay? Do you like him or hate him? Or do you think he doesn't even deserve this discussion?

Our second link of the week is much more simpler, much more poetic. It's basically the cinematographer's reel of the best cinematographer alive: Roger Deakins. Let your eyes feast, my friends. The song that plays over the video is from the soundtrack of Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is a beautiful and criminally underrated movie. It's the opposite of a Bay Film: It doesn't give the audience what it wants at all and subverts everything you would expect from a Western starring Brad Pitt as a gunslinger. Perhaps because of this, it literally made no money.

And, lastly, here is a filmmaker who have walked the middle-road throughout his career: Rian Johnson. He's going to be helming the next Star Wars movies, but he began his career by writing/directing this little movie called Brick. Which, for my money, is the best movie he's made so far. He also directed the most famous Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias, where, well... Shit happens. In this interview, Rian is extremely open about his artistic process -- he even allows us to take a look at the earliest iteration of the movie, a "novella/long treatment thingy".

As for the Short Film of the Week, here is a horror short that got its director his first high-profile feature. Mama is the name and it's a very simple movie, hell, it's just one scene. But it freaked out Guillermo Del Toro and he basically allowed the filmmakers behind the project to make the feature version.

I can't quite put my finger on why this short scene is so effective. There are so many horror movies made each year and I wonder why this one rises above the rest. It is genuinely scary, to me at least, but why? Maybe Sean the horror maestro can answer this.

Hope you enjoyed this edition of Friday Filmmaker Finds! If you have any thoughts on the Michael Bay situation or why Mama is scary... That's why the comments are for! See you there!