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Friday, October 31, 2014

"Stage Blood" in The Hollywood Journal



Check out a new piece I wrote for The Hollywood Journal to celebrate Halloween!

It begins, "It is twenty years ago, and I am watching Tiffany, apple-faced and wholesome, holding a straight razor and standing in a bathtub filled with blood..." Read on HERE...




It is twenty years ago, and I am watching Tiffany, apple-faced and wholesome, holding a straight razor and standing in a bathtub filled with blood.

“Are you okay? Do we need to stop?”

Soaking wet in only a thin cotton shirt, she trembles. She seems entranced by the blood running down her arms and legs. “No, I’m fine,” she assures me, her eyes suddenly sparkling. “This is perfect.” Then, possessed by something dark and unexpected, Tiffany stares right at me, and slowly runs the straight razor over her tongue.

The blood is fake; the razor is a blunt-edged prop, but several of the film students packed into my apartment bathroom cry out in alarm. I nearly drop the Super-8 camera. Later, when I’m hand-cranking the film, thin as correction tape, through the dim viewer, I re-watch this moment over and over, and each time I shudder.

By day Tiffany is a polite and prudent bank teller, but for that one moment she is Lilith, terrifying and sublime, rising from a crimson lake to take her revenge on the sons of Adam. Somehow, the stage blood has evoked a metamorphosis.

And, somehow this is all connected to the Halloween re-release of The Exorcist in 1979. Now I am thirteen-years-old, sitting in an auditorium with hundreds of civilized adults, watching a girl around my age gleefully abuse herself with a crucifix, splattering her bed-sheets and smearing the blood across her mother’s face. I look at adult faces in the audience, frozen and impassive. How is this happening? How is this okay? Much later, I will wonder if the horror, violence and perversity in my screenplays are just echoes of that primal childhood trauma.

All my memories of Hollywood are soaked in stage blood. I mopped up bloody footprints between takes on Slumber Party Massacre III. I trashed the blood-speckled plastic that wrapped Laura Palmer’s corpse. I combed through a draft of Halloween: Resurrection finding synonyms for “stab.” I counted the number of beheadings in a draft of Conan The Barbarian and decided to limit myself to six. I accidentally spilled a pint on the floor of my brother-in-law’s Jeep so that for years afterwards, every time it rained, his car would bleed.

I have been paid to write around twenty-five screenplays and teleplays, and not one of them didn’t call for stage blood. This really shouldn’t surprise me.

Blood is a metaphor older than language, originating on the walls of caves. Blood evokes ritual sacrifice and the fragility of human flesh. Blood means madness, panic, and transformation. Blood is the puncture of order and the gushing of chaos.

It’s the flood from the elevator doors in The Shining. It’s the stain on the teeth in Jaws. It’s not so much the pig-bloodied prom dress, but the look in Carrie’s eyes. What blood means, what I want stage blood to mean, is terror in the sublime.

But usually, it doesn’t.

Instead of poetic or uncanny, the stage blood that bubbles up in my credited movies and television often turns out campy, unintentionally comic, and only mildly grotesque. Still, I keep a vial of it by my writing desk. For me, Halloween will always be about the feeling I got when Tiffany let blood spill out of her mouth and run down her chin, her lips curling into a ghastly little smile.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds, August 15th Version!

Blog Post written By Levin
Hello everyone, welcome to another Friday Filmmaker Finds!

First off, let's begin with a video essay on one of my favorite films: Blue Valentine. It's probably one of the most truthful movies on love since Annie Hall because it manages to capture both the ecstasy of falling in love and the eventual heartbreak with frightening authenticity. It's one of those movies where you're worried about the actors because it looks just so damn real.

In this video essay, our slightly lethargic but very informative narrator counts the insane things they've done to get to this "frightening authenticity". Or, maybe, really, it's not that insane -- it's just a lot of work that doesn't feel like work. I mean, think about it, in the last movie you shot, did you make the actors rent/decorate a house and then live in it for a month to ensure they established intimacy? I guess a better question is -- why doesn't every movie? Is it that the standard movie doesn't NEED this kind of authenticity or is it because most people are afraid to commit to a movie this much? I don't know. But it sure as hell makes a difference when they do. Check out this video essay here.

Also, this is the most misleading poster for any movie ever. 
Then there's this infographic from Fandor about the history of explicit sex on film. I've always been intrigued by how "low-culture stuff" (sex, violence) could be integrated into a higher form. I mean, hell, HBO made an entire channel out of it. But it's still really interesting to see a cheap exploitation movie like Deep Throat side by side with an acclaimed masterpiece like Midnight Cowboy. Are there stories, good stories, that could only be told through violence and sex? As someone who writes that kind of material, I'll say yes. In my humble estimation, Game of Thrones without the brutality of it all would just feel impotent and Blue Valentine without that sad sex scene would be somewhat toothless.

As for our short movie of the week; I'm somewhat cheating again. (If you remember, the last short movie of the week was the opening of the video game The Last of Us, which you should absolutely see if you still haven't.) This week's movie is technically half of an episode of Louie, but I think it's a great example of simple, efficient storytelling and a tribute to the late Robin Williams. I know most of you will probably watch it thinking about the dark undercurrent of the piece in relation to Robin Williams -- that's how I stumbled upon it -- but also pay attention to the structure of the piece. It's basically a set-up and a punchline but a great, great one at that. Never underestimate the power of simplicity and tremendous execution! Check it out here.

Hope you've had a great week and you have many, many great weeks in your future!

Levin Menekse

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tips on Writing Dialogue

Written by Levin Menekse
I feel like you can fake a lot of things when making movies/television. Illogical plot points can be salvaged by stupendously awesome visuals, subpar writing could be transfigured into powerful scenes through tour-de-force acting by Michael C. Hall and entire TV Shows can be built on just attractive people sniping at each other with witty banter and nothing else.

But you cannot salvage bad acting. Your movie could be the best looking, best written movie in the universe but if the audience doesn't believe your main character is an actual person, you've lost the battle. And the scary thing is ANYONE can spot bad acting. You'd need to be a trained professional to explain why the X camera move on the climactic sequence of Transformers didn't work, but my mom can watch one scene from the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction and figure out that Mr. Lautner doesn't have the "Acting Chops."

This image is displayed under the article: "The Twilight star's breakout role takes on the full gamut of human emotion, including traumatic displeasure at wearing a shirt."
I mean, seriously, there is an entire reddit thread about this phenomenon.

And now you're saying "Why the hell are you going on and on about bad acting? I thought this was going to be about dialogue!" Well, here is my point: Dialogue is a very similar Red Flag on the page. You can tell if someone is a writer or not simply by reading their dialogue. I don't know why exactly, but I probably read 200+ scripts for various studios and I could always, always, tell whether if I should keep reading or not simply by reading the first line of dialogue.

The Tricky Art of Writing Movie Dialogue

Movie dialogue isn't "real-life" dialogue. I bet you've seldom given an inspirational monologue or a triumphant speech, but those things happen by the dozen in every movie. You know how they say, movies are life without the boring parts cut out? Yeah, that includes %98 percent of the shit we say.

Sean likes to say "Movie dialogue is how people would speak if we had the chance to think about it a few seconds before the words left our mouths" and I completely agree with that. Adding onto that, here's something I realized recently: Watch how people talk in documentaries. In documentaries, people try to come off as smart, so they do actually think for a few seconds before they speak. Documentaries also tend to cut out the "boring" parts of the conversations, so you can figure out which parts of your scenes you should focus on.

Make sure your characters sound different from one another. Listen to people around you to nail down their character voices. On surface level, pay attention to their speech affectations -- who uses big words, who uses cockney slang and who uses both.

"I don't give a toss about your ignominious hair, you dippy muppet! Now, fetch me some delectable bangers!" 
Then, on a deeper level, pay attention to how people's interests/life views influence their speech. For example, I am much more likely to reference a video game than last night's football game. If a waiter drops a tray three times during the night, I'm not going to be like: "Hey, that waiter is like the linebacker from USC who wasn't able to hold onto the ball at all!" because I would have no idea what the fuck that means.

Also, something really important: Subtext. Subtext is what people are really saying when they're speaking. I'll give you an example from a movie I've watched the other day. This is a scene from Out of the Furnace which is an okay movie with great performances. All you need to know is that two characters were a couple once upon a time but that changed when he went to prison because of a terrible accident. She couldn't bring herself to see him in prison and broke up with him. Now he's out and she's in a relationship with someone else. This is the scene where he asks her to come back to him. Check it out here.

Now, this scene works wonderfully, for me anyway, because of the subtext. When she announces her pregnancy, Christian Bale doesn't huff and puff and act disappointed. He says "That's wonderful news!" with a broken smile. She replies: "Is it?" despite herself. What he really means is: "I know this means we're never going to be together but I'm glad you're happy." What she really means is: "I don't know if I made a terrible mistake by leaving you." Now imagine if those two lines were the actual dialogue. All of a sudden, something is lost, no? Also, what are the actors supposed to do with those lines? Their job is to bring to life what is between the lines. Give them that depth and they will be thankful.

And here are two big Red Flags you should avoid while you're writing dialogue:

The Crazy Exposition Dump - This usually occurs in crazy complicated science fiction movies with complicated worlds/rules. Either, the rules of the world are utterly labyrinthine and the author has to lay it all out before we embark on our fantastic voyage or the author created such a complicated world and wrote himself/herself into such a corner that watching the last twenty minutes are almost like reading a text book as everything is explained to you. For example, remember this guy?

"I prepared for this scene by reading the Phone Book over and over again."
Mr. Architect bored and disappointed an entire generation of movie-goers. What was supposed to be a 2001 Space Odyssey-ish revelation became a parody of itself. It was unclear, unemotional and visually boring. Trust me, if the original Matrix ended with this fella spouting gibberish, there would have been no second one. But "Hey!" you say, "The first Matrix had PLENTY of exposition! Morpheus basically explains the entire thing to Neo, that's the first half of the movie!"

Well, my dear friend, you are right, but what the first Matrix has is GOOD exposition. When Morpheus explains to Neo the reality of his situation, we're in a surreal, white room. It's visually striking, it upends Neo's world and it's extremely clear. ("The world you lived in all your life was merely a computer program designed to keep your mind enslaved.") Similarly, when Morpheus walks Neo through the crowded city and explains to him that anyone who is not unplugged can turn into an Agent at any second, the scene is visually dynamic -- The Woman in Red, the jarring Pause when she morphs into Agent Smith all of a sudden -- and what is being told is extremely clear. Check it out here.

So, when you need to dump exposition, do so with style. Make it visually awesome. Make it clear. Make it emotional. Bury it into a heated argument. Hell, make a funny situation out of it. Also, if you have to have exposition, have it in places where it would naturally occur. String theory isn't a casual conversation topic between strangers in a bus stop, but it's a natural conversation topic during the theoretical physic department's annual dinner party.

Pro-Tip: Notice how exposition works in real life. Keep your antenna's up for instances where you're in a situation where either you or somebody else is delivering information in an organic manner. You're going to be surprised how many times old friends come together and say: "Do you remember that time when..."

Scenes where people Talk and Talk and Talk: This is a funny thing because the writers of these scenes aren't necessarily writing "bad dialogue", but they are writing bad stories.

You know the saying "Kill your babies"? On a macro level, it means pruning your structure so that there are no tangential characters/unnecessary beats. On a micro level, it means shortening your scenes to their essentials and throwing out the rest. Something that almost all beginner writers do is write a line of dialogue SO AWESOME and SO INSIGHTFUL that they will fight tooth and nail to keep that in there even if this line of dialogue has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Dialogue is only a piece of a Scene. A scene is a piece of a sequence. A sequence is a piece of an act. An act is a piece of your story. Story is what you're striving towards, what you're trying to make good. Story is what's important. Don't lose sight of that. Kill your babies for the larger story if need be.

If you can cut a line of dialogue and nothing changes, then you should probably cut that line of dialogue.

Unless your dialogue is absolutely, positively, indelibly brilliant.
Alright, well, hopefully you got something out of all this, even if it was a chuckle or two. Thanks for reading!

Levin Menekse

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds, August 1st Edition!

A blog post by Levin Menekse
Hello everyone,

This week we're going into the land of video games and animation. First off, let's start with this great analysis of Japanese Animator Satoshi Kon's editing techniques. The video is done by Tony Zhou, who you might know as the guy who analyzed Michael Bay's directorial style in his other video essay Bayhem.

Satoshi Kon isn't someone I'm familiar with. I only watched one of his features, Paprika, and didn't particularly like it, but this video is fascinating because it shows us how the medium of animation allows for some unique editing techniques. Check it out here. Another reason why you should check it out? This guy really influenced Darren Aronofsky:

On the left: A scene from Perfect Blue, one of Satoshi Kon's movies. On the right: A scene from Requiem for a Dream.
Secondly, I would like to direct you to a three part interview with Jim Uhls, who is best known for writing Fight Club. Well, actually, he is only known for writing Fight Club because the only other produced work he has is the Hayden Christensen vehicle Jumper. Considering he was such a pivotal part of Fight Club, which, one might argue, is one of the most influential movies of the past 20 years, it's weird how he never got another screenplay produced and, well, how he never had any ORIGINAL screenplay produced, ever.

I guess that is part of why this interview was intriguing for me, because he seems to be one of those people with a really unique, acerbic, violent voice who somehow exists in the industry but rarely gets to speak. His working habits are also peculiar; he talks about why he doesn't use traditional tools like outlining and how he "interviews" his characters when he's stuck. Bonus points: He also gets to tell a maniacal story involving a cat and an electric chainsaw when he's presented with a raw steak. It's definitely worth listening to.

Okay, so, this is where the video game part comes in. Look, I know there are people who have only seen Resident Evil movies and they are prejudiced when it comes to the artistic merits of video games as a medium. (R.I.P. Roger Ebert, but you were definitely wrong on this one.) On this note, instead of showing you a short movie like usual, I am going to throw you a curve ball and ask you to watch the first 16 minutes of Last of Us, a recent video game that does amazing things with the medium. It's basically your run-out-the-mill Zombie Apocalypse story but it totally elevates the material by using video game conventions and amplifies the emotional intensity. I think it's a great introduction to the medium as well. Here, take a look.

And on the heels of that, I present you this article which talks about how the best summer blockbusters of this year (Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer) were greatly influenced by video games. For my money, I can't wait for more interaction between the two mediums, because I'm halfway through Last of Us and I very much prefer it to, say, The Walking Dead. It's one thing to watch others struggle with a Zombie Apocalypse, it's a completely another thing to struggle with a Zombie Apocalypse yourself.

Take care, and I hope you have a great weekend!

Levin Menekse

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?

Okay, here you go...

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

(For more advise, check out Ken Miyamoto: How To Give Notes on A Screenplay)

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!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Getting and Processing Feedback

Guest Blogger: Levin Meneske
You've toiled on this pilot/screenplay for a long, long time and finally it's complete. You've created this document out of nothing, and you've bled in the process. Now what?

Well, this might be the appropriate time to show your work to a few people you trust and get their opinions. Why? Because chances are your brain has transformed itself into a chrysalis while working on this project, and you have serious tunnel vision.

I mean, just consider the process of writing a story: It's basically talking to yourself in different voices. So, just accept that you're not at the most mentally healthy and objective place right now. Give it a rest, let your brain transform back into its original form and speak with one voice for a while. Meanwhile, let people read your work. 

Who do I get Feedback from?

Good question. Yes, your Mom loves your new pilot and your Dad quite doesn't "get it" and talks about student loans a lot, but are they helpful? Anyone can "love" and "hate" things with passion and you know this acutely if you've ever sat in a focus group for a movie/TV show. Not that these observations are worthless -- if everyone in your audience thinks your protagonist is a pompous asshat whose grandeur ramblings and self-justifications are tiring, then you should probably think about that 1000+ page tome again, Mrs. Rand -- but what you are looking for is the kind of feedback that is a bit more trenchant.

This is not to say that your Mother or your favorite waitress at Corner Bakery Cafe are unable to comprehend "story" at a deep level, but, they probably lack the vocabulary. Words like "structure", "character voices" and "the third act twist" might feel innate to you right now, but most people outside of our little sphere has less of a command of these terms. If I asked my mom about "the third act twist", she would probably yell "I know that one! M. Night Shyamalan!" and she'd be right at some level, but, again, this is your baby and you need people who can transmit their opinions/views/thoughts/notes with clarity and know what they are saying not on "some level" but on all the levels.

So that narrows our net to other writers. But who out of the writers you know?

First of all, do not discriminate on the basis of genre. I honestly don't know why or how this works, but that friend you have who writes gross sex-comedies might have insightful things to say about the dark imagery in your horror-thriller. Similarly, that creepy dude who writes fucked-up horror movies and gives you nightmares might be the best person to pitch you jokes on your absurdist musical about irrational numbers. Again, this is a bit of a mystery to me but maybe it's because this industry tends to pigeon-hole everyone as the "X" guy/gal although we have many stories and tones inside of us and these parts of us tend to emerge during note sessions.

Second of all, it's probably a good idea to give your script to someone who "gets" your writing. Now, this doesn't mean they necessarily "like" your writing or they're your best friends, it means they understand what you're trying to accomplish with your story.

Say that you are David Foster Wallace and you write post-modern but sincere accounts of drug addiction, combining "low culture" with highfalutin language and almost all of your characters are unbearably sad. Some people will be immediately put-off by your subject matter and confused by your style. They will not be in the same frequency as you and you will feel it. This is somewhat ineffable and abstract, but you will know it when the time comes.

(Note: By the way, I'm in no way shaming people who don't "get" DFW. I, for example, watched Raging Bull twice and still don't "get" it, which, I'd argue, could be considered, a cinematic shame of a higher order.)

So, you have your people. Your tribe. You send your material to them, and then you meet up.

What if they hate it?

Look, hey, I know it's not easy when you present someone with a piece of your soul and they just shit on it. It's a similar feeling to asking someone out with great hopes after you've already imagined your beautiful, magical first date and... then receive a crushing "REJECTED!" stamp to your heart that reduces it to a pool of tears. So, hopefully, this doesn't happen, but, probably, it will.

Even if the reception is not as disastrous as I have alluded to, the chances are your first draft is messy and filled with clunky exposition and tangential subplots that are somehow both too long and too short. So, brace yourself and Keep Your Shit Together. Here are a few tips:

Silence is Golden:

Even if you're crumbling inside and you are in unbearable physic pain as you're re-thinking your life choices that led you to this moment... It is best to keep silent. This is for your and your note-giver's sanity, not to mention the quality of his/her thoughts on your script. See, other writers are familiar with the inner-workings of your mind and they know that they are practically criticizing your child. They realize this is a tough endeavor and they will take a step back as soon as they smell your pain. But you don't want them to take a step back, you want them to get to the heart of the matter.

Nothing will eradicate a productive, necessary note session than the writer piping up and filibustering it with excuses or reasons why the person X did not enjoy their work. Do not do this. Nobody likes this.

This is especially important in Writer's Group kind of situations where people are getting a discussion going, bouncing ideas off of one another. The single worst thing the Writer can do in these group discussions is to take the focus off of his/her work and bring it onto himself/herself. Way to cut the circulation and suffocate the discussion, Writer.

Speak softly: 

During an argument with your significant other, it will probably fare better if you said "I feel unappreciated when I see the dishes in the sink after I cook." as opposed to "Why don't YOU wash the dishes when I cooked for YOU all day, YOU LAZY PERSON!"

Similarly, during a discussion about your work, you might realize that people have got something completely wrong. Or they completely did not get the identity of the murderer even though you felt you telegraphed it thirteen different times in the third act. You might felt be compelled to say something like: "It's in there! How could YOU not get that?!" or even a passive-aggressive dig such as: "Did YOU read page 83?"

Doing this will not only antagonize others, it also obfuscates the problems apparent in your writing. If 3 out of 10 people didn't get a major plot point, well, maybe it's because you write huge action paragraphs and you buried your plot point. Maybe it's because your character motivations aren't clear enough, so when Elizabeth turned into a dragon and stabbed Michael, it was utterly confusing because we missed that pivotal "sidelong glance" Elizabeth gave to the mysterious man carrying the Stabby Dragon Statue on page 7.

The onus is on you, friend. So if you spot the conversation is being totally derailed and you want to jump in to course-correct, you can say something like "Oh, I was trying to do X in that scene." If the conversation has ended and you want to gather more information about a specific problem, ask: "I'm wondering, how do you think I can make X clearer?"

All the rules that apply to relationship arguments, apply to these conversations.

Embrace Bad/Outlandish Ideas: 

People will be using "bad" or "outlandish" pitches to illustrate what they mean and point out what they would have liked to see in your story. Even if all your body screams with disbelief and the conviction that your version of the story is far superior to what is being proposed, just... listen. Most of the time people pitching those ideas know their examples are bad (One of my USC professors used to begin his bad pitches with "This is the Belgian TV version of what I mean...") and even if they are sincerely pitching an outlandish idea, look at the "note-behind-the-note". This means that while, yes, you will not probably change your period piece about Dracula into an intergalactic adventure, think about which problems in your story this suggestion addresses. In this case, perhaps your story feels too small and not cinematic enough, so the person thought bringing it into the Space could be the solution. Or, perhaps, it's simply not Fresh enough, God knows we've seen enough Vampire movies to last sixteen generations, so s/he thought that maybe a Science Fiction angle could freshen up your premise.

(S/He would be, unfortunately, wrong due to the existence of this awesome Casper Van Dien vehicle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dracula_3000)

Ultimately, good ideas spring from bad ones. Coherent thoughts are results of long ramblings. It's a process similar to how some people have to write 200 page first drafts in order to get to that 100 page final draft. Don't ridicule these suggestions, try to learn from them.

Alright, so, you've successfully Kept Your Shit Together. But now...

How do I process my feedback?

The overwhelming majority opinion: 

You should probably listen if 8 out of 10 people say that your second act lacks a main tension. If the majority were confused on a plot point, it's probably wise to clear that up or if they were rooting for two characters to end up together, that is probably something to listen to.

By the way, that is not to say that you have to abide by their opinions. I'm pretty sure many people would have loved it if all their favorite Game of Thrones characters survived and the plot of the Twin Peaks was explained in a straight-forward procedural scene, but, boy, I'm glad those didn't happen. However, you should keep these elements in mind and see if they align with your aims. If you were aiming for CSI:Alaska and people keep calling your pilot "surreal", then you should probably take a step back and see why.

The Polarizing Point: 

Sometimes 5/10 people will absolutely love your character Winter, the quirky blonde love interest and your protagonist's childhood sweetheart who shows up at mid-point carrying a snowball she brought from East Coast in an ice-cooler, whereas 5/10 people will absolutely hate her because your screenplay already has two love interests for your main character and Winter's quirkiness is bringing your screenplay into a whimsical territory that is simply out of tone with the rest of your script.

First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. Such passionate disagreement means that people have engaged with your screenplay and there is something there.

Secondly, this stuff is always the trickiest because you will feel torn between the two paths that lie ahead of you. It will be wise to take into account why people are feeling the way they are. Chances are you haven't made a clear choice on what your story is, how everything fits together and which elements are absolutely essential to your story. Try to think back to your initial inspiration, the reason why you want to write this story, and try to figure out which path is best for you.

In my case -- yes, Winter, the quirky snowball carrier is a real example from my work -- I ended up cutting Winter with a heavy heart because I did find that two love interests worked better than three in that particular screenplay.

Ultimately though, you will not be able to please everyone with your changes. Many people who loved Winter found that the new draft was more "dour" without her presence. Well, friends, this is how Real Life differs from being a Pokemon Trainer. You can catch'em all, but you can never please'em all.

Going Forward

It's recommended that you take some time off before returning to your story again. Concentrate on something else, take long walks, clean your mind off of the residue of this particular story so that you can return to it with fresh eyes once again. Try to ingest your story as an audience member and not as The Writer. Once you feel like you can sincerely do this...

Your Journey Begins Anew. Godspeed.

- Levin Menekse

For more on the feedback/rewrite loop read This Is What a Rewrite Looks Like.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds

Hello, denizens of the internet,

On this blog, on Fridays, you will find a selection of links about film-making from all around the web. As you will witness shortly, these will range from informative to whimsical to inspirational. There will also be a short film and the said film could be a drama or a comedy or anything else really, but, hopefully, it will be a great short film that you haven't seen before.
Friday Finder Levin Menekse

Let's begin with the short movie of the week. This week's pick comes to us from Ireland, by the courtesy of Martin McDonagh, who you might know from his great feature In Bruges and, in my humble opinion, his slightly less great sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths. This short film, Six Shooter, is McDonagh's first foray into cinema after decades of play-writing and winning awards all over the place. This short won him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Live Action Short.

McDonagh mixes an impressive array of tones here as the film features both a cod death and a major set-piece about, how does one say it... cow flatulence. It's a dark, dark movie with an unsettling, grotesque but unforgettable character at its center. While Brendan Gleeson is the big name actor in the movie, the thespian who steals the movie is a lesser-known theater actor named Ruaidhri Conroy as "The Kid".

Check out this little gem of a movie here: Six Shooter

This following article is titled "A lesson on Writing Great Characters: Know the difference between Likability and Sympathy". It doesn't re-invent the wheel and the concept might strike you as familiar. However, the video essay linked has an impressive list of examples from numerous movies that will crystallize how even someone like Jordan Belfort from Wolf of the Wallstreet can carry a three hour movie. Bonus points: It might be interesting to see how the elements recounted in this article could be applied to "Six Shooter". Did you like The Kid or did you find him repellent? Did your opinion of him change throughout the movie?

Check this article here: What makes characters sympathetic?

The following link is strictly categorized under the whimsical. It might even be called "quirky" or "adorable". Which are adjectives one usually uses about a Wes Anderson movie. Well, without further ado then, here is your daily dose of Wes Anderson: Wes Anderson Video Series

And, lastly, a little dose of inspiration. May we all have friends who believe in us... and prove that by eating their own footwear: Werner Herzog and a Shoe

Hope you have enjoyed this edition of Friday Filmmaking Finds! See you next week.

by Levin Menekse

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Interview with Melanie Lynskey for MovieMaker Magazine

Here is a link to my interview with Melanie Lynskey. We talked about improvisation, Lena Dunham, and feminism:


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Joe Swanberg and Creative Tribalism

Joe Swanberg is changing the definition of film artist.  He is neither a studio auteur like Hitchcock or Peter Jackson, nor is he a "artist" in the Romantic 19th Century sense of an isolated genius expressing his singular vision, like Bergman or Godard. Working at the center of concentric circles dynamic creative collaborators, the actor-director-writer-cinematographer-editor is more like a tribal craftsman. He has made "creative tribalism" a viable model for filmmakers working both inside and outside Hollywood.

Check out my interview/article on Joe Swanberg in the current issue of MovieMaker magazine.


MovieMaker.com

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Dangers of Success: Isolation and Loneliness

So many us dream of winning an oscar and getting hired to write our ideal movies, but when success means becoming "isolated, frustrated and lonely" - cut off from our closest circles of friends, family and collaborators - it can deadly.

In my last post on Creative Tribalism, I argued that " the absence of a closely knit tribe is precisely what is missing from many "successful" artist's lives. Without these relationships even superstars can become just as depressed, alienated, and unfulfilled as anyone else."

The cover story in a recent Hollywood Reporter was a grim reminder that regardless of whatever opportunities or success come to us, we MUST stay interconnected.

"Malik Bendjelloul, by all accounts, stood out as exceptionally talented, creative and for the most part also happy and well-adjusted. Over the course of the past several months, however, friends say he also had become increasingly lonely and isolated. The Oscar win had catapulted him into the upper reaches of the New York and Los Angeles art worlds, away from his best friends and family"

"Writing for movies was harder than Bendjelloul had anticipated, and he apparently had grown frustrated and anxious. He developed insomnia while in New York. He also had lost touch with some of the people he had been closest to in Sweden and confessed to at least one close friend that he felt lonely."

Oscar to Suicide in One Year: Tracing the 'Searching for Sugar Man' Director's Tragic Final Death.





Monday, June 9, 2014

Creative Tribalism


Rather than count on fame and fortune, 21st-century writers, filmmakers, and artists ought to concentrate on building tribes of 30-100 people who are deeply engaged in their work. 

I do a lot of non-fiction reading in the areas of emerging technology and evolutionary biology, subjects which don't seem to have a direct relationship to creativity.  However, as I consider the deep sense of frustration I see among artists/storytellers trying to "break in" and "make it," I sense a disconnection between our global, technologically-driven economy and the natural psychology of the artist - one that emerged over the last million years.

In a recent book, The Second Machine Age - Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,  Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that we are in a second, digital "machine age" (the first being The Industrial Revolution.)  In this new environment, computer technology has produced an economy that favors superstars over local players.  Generally speaking, The internet and telecommunications technology have allows anyone in the world to take business from players who were once protected by barriers of geography and cultural access.

More specifically, or writers, filmmakers, and artists  this has created a "winner-take-all" marketplace in which a small number of superstars, like billionaire J.K. Rowling or franchise demi-god J.J. Abrams, reach a global audience and the rest of us, millions and millions of us, toil away in relative paucity and obscurity.  The internet may have allowed anyone to publish a book or upload a film, but the global flood of content drowns all but the lucky (and well-marketed) few.  Artists find their work reduced to memes struggling in a environment of survival-of-the-stickiest.

(Success is granted to a few top performers, with small differences in talent, effort or luck often giving rise to enormous differences in incomes.” Frank " and Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society)

Now, I myself loved reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter, and I'll be first in line to see the upcoming Star Wars film.  But, the problem for artists who don't happen to be global superstars is that the creative psyche evolved in a very different environment.

Frontier Magazine, No. 9.6, (2003)
In his books, The Third Chimpanzee and The World Before Yesterday, Jared Diamond reminds us that in terms of our DNA, we are basically a third species of chimpanzee, and for millions of years, until very, very recently, we lived in groups of only 30-100 individuals. Diamond suggests that many of our natural instincts that evolved in these small groups are ill-suited to the 21st Century, and that by looking back to our traditional way of life, we can shed light on basic human needs that are stifled in our technology-rich environment. Diamond covers areas like health, child care, and conflict resolution, but think that his strategy also applies to creativity.

Consider a Paleolithic tribe of about fifty members. Among the hunters and gathers, I'd argue that there were 1-3 individuals who were best suited to contribute to the group as a whole by being storytellers, mask-makers, or cave painters - in other words, artists.  Every tribe had there very own J.J Abrams and J.K Rowling.  I'd argue further that one out of every thirty or so people, has the genetic pre-disposition to be the tribe's "artist" and that this individual isn't likely to feel successful, happy or fulfilled doing anything else.

However, in our "winner-take-all" global environment of media superstars, an awfully large number of people are set up for for disappointment, frustration and even alienation.  For  one out of every thirty people on the planet, the chance of success and fulfillment is literally a million to one.

We all need a different model of success, one that requires creatively minded people to build circles of 30-100 people who are deeply engaged in their work.  Whether or not one "hits it big," this circle becomes the center-of-gravity for creative growth, psychological health, and spiritual meaning. I'm calling this "Creative Tribalism."

 You can think of it as a set of concentric circles. The first circle is 7-10 people, who are your core collaborators, people you have regular, face-to-face contact with.  This is your writer's circle, your acting troupe, or your gang of techies hacking I-phones in your garage.

The next circle is 30-100 people who make up your core audience - people with whom you have a direct two-way relationship and for whom you create your painting-film-whatever. These connections may be primarily internet driven, but this audience is deeply engaged with your work.

Further concentric circles may contain 3,000, 30,000 or even 300,000 passive consumers of your art, and the next ring in particular is necessary to make a living (more on that in future blogs.)

However, because our social behavior and emotional drives evolved in tribes of 30-100 people,  close relationships with the first two circles are what delivers the very sense of fulfillment and purpose that so many creative people crave.

In fact, I'd argue, the absence of a closely knit tribe is precisely what is missing from many "successful" artist's lives.  Without these relationships even superstars can become just as depressed, alienated, and unfulfilled as anyone else.  (This is a subject worthy of it's own blog article.) In order to continue developing and flourishing, artists at all levels must build a tribe.  (For a grim reminder, read
The Dangers of Success: Isolation and Loneliness)
Creative Tribalism is not the same as “networking.” I’m not talking about career advancement, attracting followers or inbound marketing. I’m arguing that direct and collaborative relationships with a small tribe — a group of people who deeply value an artist’s work — are essential to his and her sense of purpose and wellbeing.

In the upcoming summer issue of MovieMaker Magazine, I interviewed filmmaker Joe Swanberg and actress Melanie Lynsky.  In that article I argue that Creative Tribalism is precisely the model ALL emerging filmmakers should be using, whether they aspire to be the next Swanberg or the next Spielberg.

In future blog posts, I'll flesh out these ideas further.  Some might argue that artists-building-tribes is hardly anything new. But, I'll argue that Creative Tribalism is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon in which the artist uses the same globalizing technologies to build relationships and nurture a sense of fulfillment.

Specifically, for the first time, writers, filmmakers and artists have access to:
  • Affordable technology that allows a single individual to create a piece (like a film, a song, or book) that previously required an industry. 
  • The digital connectivity that allows an artist to identify potential collaborators. 
  • The digital distribution needed to reach a widely-dispersed niche audience. 
  • The social networking needed to maintain the engagement of that audience.
But more on that later...


Have thoughts on "Creative Tribalism?" I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Under The Skin" Is Pure Cinema

Call me pretentious if you like, but in this Golden Age of dialogue-driven television,”Under The Skin” gives me an intriguing reason to go to the movies.

Scarlett Johansson

Okay.  Take any of our most beloved cable television series – Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective, and so on.  Now, imagine removing the dialogue track.  What you are left with is mostly just pop music and pictures of people talking.  As sophisticated as our golden age of television has become, it is still a medium in which story is delivered primarily through dialogue - in the manner of a play.

Yes, all of these TV shows have wonderful cinematography, clever sound effects, and purely visual story-beats or metaphors, but the primary storytelling engines are the words characters say and the actors' performances while saying them.

As Alfred Hitchcock said in an interview with Fran├žois Truffaut, "cinema" is more than simply "photographs of people talking." Cinema uses visual imagery, sound design, and creative juxtaposition to tell stories and to give the audience an experience that is unique among all other creative mediums.

Don't roll your eyes yet; stay with me here.  One example of a purely cinematic experience is the movie "Gravity."  If the dialogue were in say, Bulgarian, we could still experience 90% of the visceral impact of the film, as well as it's basic storyline and metaphors.  The problem with most movies today is cinematic devices are used primarily to create empty spectacle.  We get exciting amusement park rides, superhero fantasies, and supernatural intrigues, but for anything with deeper meaning, sophistication, and complexity we have to turn to TV. And, TV means dialogue.

This is why I absolutely loved "Under The Skin" ...and why many others may find it pretentious, confusing, and empty.

The movie is stripped-down almost entirely to its cinematic elements.  The visuals are as startling and impactful as those by Stanley Kubrick.  The sound design creates an eerie sense of dissociation.  The musical score induces almost unbearable levels of engagement, anticipation and dread.  It is a story that
is seen and heard rather than told. What's more, these purely cinematic elements create, for me at least, striking and profound metaphors about alienation, empathy, identity, and sexuality.

The problem is that for people who are used to having meaning and complexity delivered through dialogue, the film offers no easy explanations or exposition.  No one ever tells us why the aliens are abducting men and trapping them in a viscous black fluid.  Nothing the characters say (when they speak at all) gives us any indication of what they are thinking or feeling. No character helpfully sates the movie's "theme" in an easily quotable truism. The devices of the film are exclusively and enigmatically cinematic.

Granted, some people may just simply hate the film on it's own terms.  My heroes are David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Terence Malick - and they may not be yours.  However, I was truly blown away by this film, and I can't wait to see it a second time.  It got under my skin.  At a time when I could be perfectly happy sitting at home we re-watching episodes of "The Wire," movies like this one give me a reason to venture out to a theater.


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