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Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: OUR FILMMAKER'S AND WRITER'S RETREAT

I will be blogging about this writer's retreat myself soon. But, anyone who works in creative capacity - actor, writer, director, filmmaker - needs to create a trusted creative community for themselves. This tight group of trusted collaborators will constantly push you to the edge of your potential.

See Jacques' description of the weekend event here:

A Filmmaker's Life: OUR FILMMAKER'S AND WRITER'S RETREAT

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Filmmaker's Life: NAB 2008

I'm always urging genre screenwriters to make there own films (as director or producer). One important element in doing this is creating partnerships with companies that are creating new technologies.

For instance, I'm a big fan of the new RED camera. Read about Jacques' experiences with RED and other companies at NAB in Las Vegas in the link below:

A Filmmaker's Life: NAB 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wrting plays, screenplays, or novels

In Response to my post “Why YOU should write Stigmata 3,” Martin Blank wrote this illuminating comment on the differences between writing screenplays and writing stage plays.

He writes:

I’ve spent most of my creative life as a playwright, exactly because I wanted to write personal stories. And I’ve been very lucky, as all ten of my plays have found a home, and full productions, some multiple productions. Lucky, indeed. As a playwright, I own the copyright and a theater literally has to GET IT IN WRITING FROM ME if they want to change a word. The down side, which I don’t mind at all, is in my best year I made $25,000 as a playwright. Most years it’s more like five to ten.

But I do just fine coaching actors, which I love to do. And it does not hurt that my wife is an executive for a technology company. I did get into the film world by the back door, as a small production company bought one of my plays after they saw a reading in LA. BUT my eyes where wide open. It was more than I ever made as a playwright, and I got lucky since it only went through a first draft, two rewrites, and a polish. I was the only writer. (I think!) And they were really nice.

On the other hand, I was more than happy to do notes. So it worked out fine. I don’t think the film will ever be made, but my agents think I have a fine sample. And if it gets made, well, I know I’ll be rewritten. So? I got to see the play produced twice exactly as I wrote it, before I ever signed over the rights to film. The only reasons I’d write movies again is for the money, which is not to say it can’t be or was not a lot of fun. It is. You just have to know what you’re getting into. Which is your very smart point.

I also teach playwriting from time to time, and tell people if they don’t want to collaborate, write novels! Which would lead me to my final thought: I know Peter Hedges a little, (he was first a playwright), and he wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as a novel. And they don’t get more personal. Then it sold to film. I ran into him on the street in NYC with his novel in hand years ago and he smiled a big smile and said, “Hey, they’re making it into a movie!”

So, while I sneak in to Hollywood from time to time, I would suggest for the most personal stories, a Novel. Maybe a play. On a stage, actors can truly make you better than your are on the page, or it can go the other way. But God love actors who do theater year after year. What makes most sense to me is to know the market you are working in and exactly what it has to give and not. In my experience, in film, theater, novels, if you talk to enough working writers they will tell you the score. My score, my real goal in writing, is TO HAVE FUN. So far, so good.

Cheers,
Martin Blank

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Getting To The Top of The Pile

Mike Le, a member of the Genre Hacks group on facebook, posted another funny story, which I'm reposting here for all to enjoy. Mike's blog, written as an ongoing comic, can be found here.

Mike writes:

Just before last Christmas break, another unsolicited script landed on my desk. Last thing I needed is more to read during my vacation, especially material that just randomly comes in the mail. I intended to simply pass it along to my assistant so she could tell the writer we don't accept unsolicited material.

But taped to the cover of the script was a $25 Starbucks gift card and a note saying: "Hope you enjoy the script and Merry Christmas!"

Granted, the generous gift will not change the quality of the script -- but it did change my mind about reading it. You gotta admire the moxie. It went straight to the top of my pile.

The next day, I was sitting at LAX waiting to board my plane. I was on the phone with a screenwriter friend of mine, whose comedy script I'm producing -- a comedy set in the world of competitive baton twirling. I'm telling her about the script that came with the $25 Starbucks giftcard, thinking she'd get a kick out of it. Her immediate response was, "You gotta send the gift card back."
"What do you mean?" I reacted.
"Either read the script or don't read the script," she continued, "But you can't accept the gift card. You're setting a nasty precedent."
"It was a Christmas gift," I defended.
"No, it was a bribe."
"I'm not a politician whose salary is paid by your tax dollars. It's not illegal to bribe me. In fact, I encourage it."
She didn't find my joke very humorous, awkward silence on the phone.
"Okay, okay," I said, "Let's put it this way -- this writer who submitted the script is an outsider looking in, she's not repped, she has no industry contacts, and she is sending her material to a company that doesn't accept unsolicited material. She is doing whatever humanly possible to get read -- so she used the holiday occasion to thinly disguise a bribe as a gift to appeal to my sense of materialism. Can't that kind of cleverness from a writer be appreciated?" I wanted to use the word "rewarded" instead, but decided to step cautiously.
"No," she flated responded. "It's so transparent on her part, and morally reprehensible on yours. She might as well have sent you cash."
"What if she baked me cookies?"
"That's fine."
"But what if baking cookies would have cost her more than $25? It's more convenient to just go to Starbucks and get a giftcard. She probably saved more time doing that, thus allowing her more time to write."
"You're reaching," my friend said. "I know I'm sounding like your moral compass right now, but I feel strongly about this. And I'm shocked someone such as you, who's a writer first, would be so flippant about it."
"Alright fine, let's say I do read the script and give her feedback. That means this writer is only paying $25 for professional coverage. Most pro coverage runs in the hundreds. Isn't that charity on my part?"
"Not at all," she said. "It's more of an insult to you. It's cheap. Your time is worth more than that. Read it because you want to read it, because it's your job and because it's the thing you claim you love doing. Don't read it because someone sold you on a gimmick."
I was silent, contemplating. "You're making me feel guilty," I said.
"That's my job," she responded, "And that's what I love doing."
We hang up and her words weighed heavily on me. I was going to send the gift card back.

On the plane, I decided to read the script anyways. It was okay, not great. But there was something very interesting about it that made me call my screenwriter friend as soon as I landed. "I read the script," I said into the phone.
"How is it?" My writer friend asked.
"I'm passing."
"You're sending the gift card back, right?"
"Remember when we sent your script to Ben Stiller's company?"
"Yeah, so?"
"And we sent an actual baton with the script? As a gimmick, right? For our project to stand out amongst their stacks of considers?"
"And?"
"So it was okay for Ben Stiller to accept the gift, right?"
"Yeah, because it's a natural extention of the story. What's your point?"
"Well, this script I just read is a musical set in a Starbucks."
Silence on her end.
"I can keep the giftcard, right?"
She grumbled, "Enjoy your vacation." I could tell by her tone she conceded but didn't want to admit she was wrong.

It was a good vacation. I spent most of it writing in a Starbucks.

By Mike Le

Jacques Thelemaque On The Struggle To Stay Creative

This is a great article by my friend and mentor Jacques Thelemaque about the need for filmmakers to continue to make films, despite the obstacles of time and money.

A Filmmaker's Life: Breadwinning vs. Filmmaking - Resolving the battle with a short film

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reality Hacks

Genre Hack, Julie Marsh, wrote and interesting and instructive piece (below) on how genre movies separate the viewer from reality. Budding genre screenwriters, take notes, she's created a new term:

Reality Hack

The moment when a narrative abruptly departs from reasonable expectations of the ordinary.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

Dorothy’s classic utterance shines a light on one of the most powerful opportunities afforded to the writer of fantastical narratives, in any genre, in any medium.

By the time a filmgoer walks into a multiplex, or sits down to munch microwave popcorn with Netflix, he or she has seen trailers, reviews, poster art, and maybe even an SNL parody. Viewers have a whole passel of pre-conceived notions, but when a writer does the job right, that crystalline moment when mundane physics, gravity and reason fall away, can still deliver a gut-punch.

The moment when a narrative departs from the reasonable expectation of reality is absolutely precious. Savor it. Make it sing, sting, or stun. The storyteller’s real job is to master the expectations of the reader/viewer, to move them off their spot and in a direction they might not have imagined or chosen. How better to demonstrate mastery over those expectations than to suddenly bewilder the audience’s sense of normal time and space?

HOW you separate us from our reality is an efficient way to re-enforce clear genre and establish tone. Since genre is where craft meets marketplace, this moment can really anchor your narrative to the climax.

    • Horror looks for a good scare or surprise.
    • Fantasy looks for wonder & escape, usually through a magic portal
    • SciFi looks for realism and a logical extrapolation of the known universe
    • Action looks for reality-bending, escalating thrills
    • Magical Realism wants a poetic or whimsical twist on reality, often linked to a POV
    • Broad Comedy wants an outrageous and/or disgusting set-up & demands a laugh

At some point, you want to firmly yank the “Reality Rug” out from under the viewer. But maybe not all at once. Contemplate WHEN:

OPTION #1: THE TEASE

A tease can be quite tantalizing. Most horror movies protract the very thing we all know is coming. As soon as you buy a ticket to something called ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, you’re gonna be pissed if something doesn’t jump out at you early and slaughter some poor sacrificial lamb we haven’t had time to care about by page 10. Characters early in the story are often heard to whisper: “What was that noise?” Think of the tease offered by the accumulated reaction shots of Haley Joel Osmet’s character in THE SIXTH SENSE. Every look accrues to a sense of dread and curiosity. “What does he see? What’s he so afraid of? How soon do we get to see it? Do I want to see it??” Ah, we do, but we don’t. That’s the beauty of the tease.

OPTION #2: THE HOOK

If you’re shopping for that requisite hook for your first 10 pages, what could be better than pulling off a surprising reversal in the first moments of the film? A solid reversal requires that you set up an expectation, but since this reversal conscripts pre-existing expectations of reality and physics, the audience has entered the theater with these firmly in mind. The more resoundingly you can defy those expectations the better. For some reason, the first moments of BUCKAROO BANSAI come to mind. The over-the-top comic book tone is established by the hero’s prowess as a world-class brain surgeon, a stunt followed by a land-speed world record attempt across a salt flat. The reversal comes when Buckaroo’s rocket car veers toward a head-on collision with solid rock. On purpose. Buckaroo, a recreational physicist, also happens to have discovered a way to pass through solid matter. He plunges into the rock face, entering the space between particles, and emerges unharmed. Not a bad hook.

OPTION #3: THE STRUT

If your science fiction or fantasy piece takes place in a completely alternate reality, time, or world, you may need to establish that boldly, up-front. Still, one must offer some familiar point of reference to create identification for the audience, so they step into the new world with you. If your job is to efficiently cast a whole reality, you better get started right out of the gate. Look at LORD OF THE RINGS, which grounds us lovingly in the Shire and establishes our charming notion of “home” for the next couple of hours. BLADERUNNER, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a stark, polluted skyline, with futuristic vehicles. It seems alien. Moments later we are grounded by the familiar conventions and costumes of Film Noir. Even a musical often opens with a song, and thereby inaugurates an irrational universe in which silly people are free to burst into song and music will mysteriously swell from no where to accompany them.

Whichever option you use, don’t wait too long to establish genre, tone, and degree of irrationality. For the departure from reality to succeed, the audience must be right there with you. If you wait too long, you risk that the audience will no longer be prepared to suspend their disbelief. I once read a script that spent 70+ pages weaving a drug cartel crime intrigue with a hidden agenda. When the hidden agenda turned out to be related to aliens, my jaw dropped.

Take the irrational universe of a Farrelly Brothers comedy. The absurd tone is established spectacularly up front and makes space in the story for just how broad and unreal the situations will get. Otherwise, they risk that the audience will think a late gag is unbelievable and merely dumb. Take the first joke in SOMETHING ABOUT MARY in which Mary’s mentally-challenged brother Warren is the brunt of an impossibly cruel joke. Warren is tricked into asking a cheerleader “Have you seen my wiener?” right in front of her jock boyfriend. Voila. Welcome to the lucrative world of gross-out humor and humiliation at the expense of handicapped people!

And remember, the absolute #1 Rule of Genre is that your job is to selectively break and undermine the “Rules.”

Julie Marsh is a writer, producer and professional story consultant working in all genres for film and games.

Her DVD on writing for Horror,
Genre Works: The Screenwriter's Guide to Horror
is available from Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

Her website is YourBestDraft.com.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Writing NBC's "Fear Itself"

I was recently hired by Industry/Lionsgate/NBC to write an original episode of NBC's upcoming series "Fear Itself." The director I'm working with is Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire, X-files). The episode is a story I've been dieing to tell for years, and I'm glad that all the players involved responded to it. You can read more about "Fear Itself" on Brad Miska’s website Bloody Disgusting.

The biggest challenge for me turns out to be the format. I’m a feature writer and I’m used to telling stories in three unbroken acts over 110 minutes. Even the Masters of Horror episode that I wrote, Sick Girl, was an unbroken 60 minutes. The format for an NBC one-hour episode is 42 minutes, broken into five acts and a teaser. Each act can be no shorter than six pages/minutes and no longer than nine. Of course, between each act will be a story-stopping three minutes of commercials. With each 6-9 minute act, I have to win the audience over again and hold them in their seats through the next break.

This is hard enough to do with a regular series episode where the audience is familiar with the characters and premise, but it is even more challenging in an anthology show where your characters have to be introduced, undergo a life-changing crisis and resolve it, all in a series of 6-9 minute nuggets.

So, I’m thinking of it this way: I’m writing six sequential (or you could say serialized) short films. Each short film has to set and reset the tone, each has to have a beginning, middle and end. Each has to have a kind of independence so that the audience, fresh from a commercial break or tuning in halfway through, will be drawn in.

It’s a tough assignment but I’m eager for the challenge.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Melancholy Baby - A Filmmakers Alliance Short Film

Last weekend I directed a Filmmakers Alliance short film called "Melancholy Baby" (aka "Zachariah," aka "Sounds Through A Wall"). The script, which I also wrote, won the Los Angeles Short Filmmaking Grant a while back, but I was having a lot of trouble finding the right elements to get it on its feet. It was only early this year that the pieces came together.

First of all, I found the right producers. Amanda Swiekow (Plus or Minus) and Cain DeVore (Mitzi & Joe) are not only talented filmmakers, they are long time friends who seemed to make it their personal mission to force me to stop putting-off making the movie. I've never had the experience of working with producers who so completely embraced every indie-film-nightmare and allowed me to focus so completely on directing. They were also fierce advocates of the creative ambitions of the film, refusing to let me compromise, even when I wanted to.

The next difficult element was casting the central character. The piece centers on the point of view of an agoraphobic man who spends most of the film listening to his neighbor through their shared wall. There is almost no dialog. I needed to find a talented and experienced actor who had the ability to play an extremely eccentric man while maintaining a childlike innocence. I wanted to find someone with a face you could look at for ten minutes straight and still find both interesting and empathic. It was a tall order, and I auditioned a number of really wonderful actors who just weren't... quite... right.

Then at a children's birthday party I watched actor Patrick Labyorteaux (Yes Man, JAG) from across the room and it struck me that he would be perfect for the character. I was right. Luckily, he was eager for this kind of intimate leading part, and was willing do it. I'm not sure I can even imagine another actor in the role now that I've seen him play it, but I won't say much more because I want everyone who reads this to see him in the film for themselves.

The minor roles proved no easier to cast. I ended up losing an extremely talented actress, and I had to recast with only a week before shooting. It wasn't until literally the night before that I was finally able to decide on Linda Tomassone (Confessions of A Dangerous Mind), who turned out to be both striking and mysterious in ways I hadn't expected - as well as extremely professional in juggling everything we threw at her on short notice. Likewise Filmmakers Alliance's own Sean Russell took a cliche-violent-ex-boyfriend role and turned it inside out, giving a performance that was both scary and authentic.

Fortunato Procopio
, who shot the Filmmakers Alliance Production "You Turned Back and Held My Hand" by Gabriella Toleman, created haunting visuals using Cain DeVore's famously unfinished house as modeling clay. He was also was admirably calm the night before shooting when we discovered that the brand-new RED camera wouldn't turn on.

Generally, the entire crew worked together with both intensity and focus. I was pleased and amazed by how quickly, professionally, and good-humoredly they all pulled off a surprising number of difficult and complex shots. By the time we wrapped, I was confident that the sound, picture and performances were outstanding, and I was convinced that it all was the result of the creativity of the cast and crew, assembled by the producers, Amanda and Cain.

It took a long time to get here...

My first FA "film" was shot in 1994 on Hi-8, with Filmakers Alliance co-founders Jacques Thelemaque, as the DP, and Diane Gaidry, as the star. Since then I've shot FA films on super-8, on 16mm, on 35mm, and even still photographs. I've been the DP on Sundance shorts; I've supported other FA films as screenwriter, PA, editor, boom operator, creative collaborator, and even sketchbook actor. My short "Shiva's Teardrop" played the first Visionfest event at the DGA over ten years ago.

But last weekend was by far the most rewarding experience I've every had making movies. It was the result of 15 years of FA support, FA workshops, FA collaboration, and FA spirit.

It reminded me that Filmmakers Alliance has always had my back, always pushed me forward, and never let me down.

THANK YOU!!!!!!!!