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:

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.

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.