I promise I’ll get back on track with the business plan entries, I know many of you have been asking about it.
In the meantime providing me some peace of mind and fueling my creative energies is the new album Shaking the Habitual by electronic pioneers The Knife. This record is turning out to be a modern masterpiece in my head, it’s forming all kinds of new imagery and designs that I’d never seen before. This track in particular is something quite special, and I keep coming back to it. I’m completely mesmerized and inspired.
Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), dir. by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1953.
Gate of Hell has long been out-of-print and unavailable to the public, so when I heard Criterion was releasing it, I was beyond excited. Way back in film school I’d read about the early Eastman Kodak technicolor process, and studied Jack Cardiff’s use of it on the iconic The Red Shoes. There were two other films mentioned in the readings, which was Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - a film which, despite being a musical, I adore - and the other was Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, which won the Palme D’Or at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. It was widely claimed as one of the most visually stunning films ever made, and yet for more than half a century, no one has been able to see it.
As the adage goes, good things come to those that wait. What a magnificent film, a Shakespearean melodrama of obsession and honor. A noble samurai loses his sanity after becoming obsessed with a woman he saved during a military coup, and his madness tests the decency and nobility of the bushido code. It’s one of those movies that on the surface could have been made simple if the characters just were open and honest with one another, but then in real life how open and honest are we as a whole? Hey, I watched Catfish - we’re all collectively a bunch of liars.
But the real stars in this film are the cinematography, production design and costumes. Kinugasa never relies solely upon the photochemical process to deliver vibrant color and texture, rather he lets the costumes and set design do the heavy lifting, and leaves the technicolor sheen for mood.
From a technical standpoint, this film is the precursor to Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Christopher Doyle’s expressionistic camera. While the film has the traditional Noh-style acting that contemporary viewers might find a bit over-the-top, the film is nonetheless striking and moving.
White Mane (Crin Blanc, Cheval Sauvage), dir. by Albert Lamorisse, France, 1953.
Like Gate of Hell, White Mane won the Palme D’Or at the 1954 edition of Cannes, but for Best Short Film. Clocking in at 47 minutes, the film is breathtaking, the story of a wild horse that refuses to be domesticated, and the young boy who befriends him. Like Lamorisse’s more well-known film The Red Balloon, White Mane was intended as a children’s parable, and yet it has very dark adult themes that boil under the surface, notions of abandonment, cynicism and human bondage. Shot in striking black-and-white on location in the gorgeous marshes of Camargue, France, White Mane is one of the most visually arresting films I’d seen in a long time, part nature documentary and part fable. It reminded me so much of Sweetgrass, my pick for the best film of 2010. A gem for the archives, one that should be shared with both children and children-at-heart.
The Holy Mountain (La Montaña Sagrada), dir. by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1973.
Paul Pope, the author of my next film The One Trick Rip-Off, and I have a mutual love of Westerns, and we’ve often described The Rip Off as a futuristic Western, one of credo and prisoner’s dilemmas. We both honor the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and for me in particular I’m a huge fan of Jodorowsky’s El Topo.
In a recent script session, Paul referred to the use of animal spirits in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, which I’d never seen. I’d been leery of it, as what I’d read of the film described it as an incomprehensible mess, arthouse drivel and cinema that’s a little too personal. I had the box set of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films sitting on my shelf, and popped The Holy Mountain in at around 2am, sleep deprived and loaded with meds to treat my cold.
Bad idea. Never do this, unless you enjoy having Kafka dreams about turning human shit into gold and watching frogs getting blown to bits. The movie’s like watching an acid trip on acid, but for all it’s ridiculously weird and overtly symbolic metaphors, there’s a strange beauty in the film. It feels like a confluence of performance art and cinema, and I can appreciate it for that.The soundtrack is magnificent, the cinematography striking and the performances are committed, and the sheer earnestness of the film is what keeps it compelling. It’s one of those films that just keeps getting weirder with every setup, laced with a cheeky sense of humor and an obsession to push all of our buttons, all at the same time. A sensory overload and not for the faint of heart. It’s worth noting that the film was financed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as The Beatles were huge fans of El Topo and basically gave Alejandro Jodorowsky free reign to create The Holy Mountain. Strange. Beautiful, but strange.
Scenes From a Marriage, dir. by Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1973.
So I’ve been hired to direct a pilot this summer, and I’ve been watching Bergman’s epic 6-hour television serial Scenes From a Marriage for research. I didn’t think much of it initially, but as the films progressed, it began to dawn on me that Scenes From a Marriage might very well be Bergman’s masterpiece, which is saying a lot considering his canon of impeccable films.
I feel this because of an unlikely influence for Bergman when he made this series of films, which was the work of John Cassavettes, particularly the film Faces. Where classic Bergman was about composure and rigid formality, he imbues this newfound energy of Cassavetes into both his camera and performance, and what we get is the perfect balance of European formalism and American rawness. But Scenes From a Marriage is a film that only Bergman could make, just as Faces is uniquely Cassavettes, uniquely American.
What we have is the tale of the dissolving of the formal structure of marriage, a challenge of social and personal mores, and the brutally honest mirror to our choices. It’s deep, riveting and quite often humorous stuff, and it’s all played to perfection by it’s two extremely photogenic leads, Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, who both reveal their souls to the camera and the audience.
This is filmmaking of the absolute highest order, and is instantly pushing itself into my top films of all-time. A must-see for all.
Homeland (Season 1), dir. by Various, United States, 2011.
I’m always behind on my television watching, and I tend to wait for things to come out on DVD or Netflix so that I just binge watch something for hours on end for an entire weekend. I still haven’s seen Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards or the last two seasons of The Walking Dead. And while my resolution was to watch more movies, the quality of writing, acting and production of these shows are like watching theatrical films. It’s hard to call something like The Wire or Scenes From a Marriage just another television show, as it packs in so much more than just episodic entertainment. These seem to be the elevation of movies into something much more expansive, and share the same DNA as cinematic storytelling.
I jumped back into the pool by devouring the first season of Homeland, and I was riveted from the first minute to the very last. This is brilliant writing that hearkens back to Sorkin’s best in The West Wing, and it feels current and important. Over time there are loopholes in the logic, but it works because it reveals the imperfections and human element of governance. There are moral ambiguities everywhere, and how we respond to them, and how the show responds to them, are very telling of our human nature. Homeland asks us that burning question of what is justice versus what is simply right, and it posits this question from both sides of the terror conflict. The show was as riveting as Zero Dark Thirty, and what it lacked in production scale it made up for in character development and plot. Claire Danes (my first crush - Angela Chase from My So-Called Life was my television girlfriend) is simply relentless and razor sharp, and is balanced out with a perfectly played simmer from Mandy Patinkin. But the real star here is Damian Lewis, who plays a turned soldier with an incomprehensible poker face. We’re never allowed to get inside his head, and that’s what makes him so fascinating.
This is top-notch writing, and a pure joy to experience. I’m hooked, and I feel like revisiting The West Wing for good times’ sake. Excellent.
I’ve been holding back on this for some time, trying to process it all. I’m still torn up about it, but I need to get it out.
Last week I lost - we all lost - a dear friend and champion of art in Roger Ebert. I had a history with Roger, which I wrote about before. You can read our history by clicking here.
Basically Roger was the first person in my life - beyond my family, friends and mentors - who told me to become a filmmaker. He believed in my passion for the artform, and felt I had something important to say. He is the reason why everything I’ve made so far exists, he’s the reason why I took the path I did. He showed me my path. He cared enough to give me that support. He continued to support me and my friends until his dying breath.
And now he’s gone. And while I’ve read every loving tribute to him and cherish his life, contributions and the overwhelming change he created for the artform, I’m still angry. I’m angry as fuck. Not at Roger, not at the cancer that first took his brilliant voice, then his smile, and then his life.
Truth be told, I’m angry at god. Or whatever the fuck is up there. I apologize for what I’m about to write, but it’s how I feel. How cruel is it - by what twisted, fucked-up and deranged design is it to take a man who is blessed with humility and honesty, a man who made mistakes in his life but who also took accountability, a man who loved his wife, children, and children of art equally with every cell in his being, and then give him cancer and take it all away.
There is no justice in that. I can’t find peace in this arrangement. I fucking hate god for what he’s done to my friend, my mentor, my guide. Roger always fought back from whatever shit end of the stick that was handed to him. He had his voice taken away, but came back stronger through his relentless and honest writing. He had his face taken away, but Roger refused to hide, telling us to love and accept him as he is. Roger was honest about his alcoholism and wore his sobriety with humility and thankfulness. And finally god had enough of Roger’s determination and just said “fuck it, you gotta go.”
Fuck you. Fuck you for all your tests, your plans, your litmus of faith and goodness. You took a good, humble man away from us, someone who did not deserve to suffer the way you made him suffer. Fuck you, asshole. I fucking hate you. We’re done. We’re done. WE”RE DONE.
I…I know…I know this is not how Roger would want me to feel. Not about god, but about having this anger in my heart. But in this way I’m being faithful to what Roger always taught me, which was to be honest about how I feel, to never cower to the expectations of the many. Roger’s writing was imbued with unapologetic honesty. He felt what he felt, and never backed down from what he knew in his heart to be true. And he did it with imaginative wit, humor and eloquence. A guardian of the written word, a champion of expression.
I know this to be true. Everyone dies. I am going to die. I hope to join Roger someday and he’ll pat me on the back and tell me that I stayed true to myself, that I took the right path, that I made the world a more interesting place to live in. He did that, and I only desire to live in his example. I will die with that in my heart.
But to die the way Roger did, to have to go through what he had to, to have the things he needed to thrive slowly, one by one, taken away from him, I simply cannot accept that. He had Chaz by his side and he went without pain, and I at least take some solace in that. But the rest is bullshit. Pure, unadulterated bullshit.
What the fuck. This is the worst eulogy anyone could ever deliver. I’m sorry.
No. I’m not sorry. Roger would’ve told me to fucking grow a spine and say what my heart feels. And what my heart feels is this:
I miss my friend. I feel like he was taken away from us too soon. I hate that he had to go through so much pain, simply for doing what he loved, for helping little shits like me find their way, for supporting the strength and integrity of the free voice. I know everyone has to kick the bucket at some point, but not this way, not the way he did, not at this time. It’s a fucking mistake, a clusterfuck of gigantic proportions carried out by one of the biggest frauds in existence. I am fucking shaken, not stirred. There’s some Ebertian wit for you.
I miss you, Roger. I wanted to show you my next work, and the works after that. I honored your opinion, even though sometimes it hurt. Because it always came from the right place. Because it was honest. Because you were honest, and you only wanted us to be better, to live up to the potential that you saw in us.
It’s been awhile since my last entry so it’s worth the time to revisit my first entry on business plans, discussing THE BIG IDEA. With our business plans our main objective is to stand out from the crowd. Why are our movies worth attention? Why are they special? What makes them different?
It’s not enough to simply write a screenplay that no one’s ever seen before. That’s the central pillar, the main building block, but it’s insufficient to present to someone and have them invest money into. The environment of the industry and audience must be in prime position for your film to really work from a business standpoint. You have to create a compelling argument that there is a small, moving window of opportunity that your film can capitalize upon.
As an example, I’ll use the remarkable film Upstream Color by Shane Carruth. I met Shane in 2005 at the Sundance Institute, a year after he’d won the grand jury prize for his $7,000 masterpiece Primer. He had a lot of ideas in his head and he was clearly an extremely intelligent man, and I couldn’t help but get excited about what he was proposing. Shane told me that before he made Primer he’d met with an accident and spent a significant amount of time in the hospital, and it was in that solitude where he watched classic films on Turner Classics, and they collided with his background in mathematics. Over lunch he described an idea of separate people building a collective being, a type of Modern Prometheus. Hard core science fiction stuff, but with the spiritual energy of a Malick, Tarkovsky or Bergman. It was the nascent seeds of what would become his project A Topiary, which, eight years after I met Shane, was still struggling to find funding, despite the support of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher. Word is that the film’s gotten a new life.
Shane is a smart fucking dude.
With A Topiary in flux, Shane instead made Upstream Color, a remarkable meditation on the interconnected spiritual energies of beings. It’s a film that, had I been an investor, I would have casually dismissed as arthouse filler, a “movie” in the loosest sense of the word, and a film from a recluse Sundance-wunderkind whose previous work made a tiny profit and has a cult following.
Upstream Color is a movie that has no precedent, something like it doesn’t exist, and it’s screenplay is so unconventional that it takes little to no effort for it to differentiate itself from the pack. But it’s also too unconventional, to the point where its obtuseness can scare off investors because perplexing, reflexive and highly-artistic work has limited boxoffice appeal. At least that’s what one’s initial reaction to the screenplay would be.
But this is where Shane is also a smart businessman. He’s presented us Upstream Color (which he is self-distributing, out of choice) at a very special time, in a small window of opportunity where it can thrive.
I come from the food industry - my dad worked in fermentations and I worked in genetics - and one constant barometer as to the readiness of a product was the mantra of “time, temperature, and pH.” I find that this also applies to assessing the readiness of a film.
Time. Pretty self-explanatory. There has to be a time for everything. In food terms it’s how long something has to ferment, ripen, age or come to peak condition. One can look at the current environment and see that the timing for a well-made science fiction film is perfect. We’re absolutely on the cusp of a scientific renaissance, and interest in space, physics and astrophysics has reached an all-time high. Be it from Sheldon Cooper joking about condensates on The Big Bang Theory to last week’s discovery of DARK MATTER (no big deal, right?), space and the old notions of science fiction are on the tips of everyone’s tongue. Throw in a dose of nuclear Armageddon via North Korea and we’re in full science fiction prophesying mode.
The trend is there - the trailers for two major releases Joseph Kosinki’s Oblivion and Neil Blomkamps’s Elysium have dawned upon us and it’s a sign that the money people feel science fiction is bankable, if for a brief time as we don’t know how these films will perform. Upstream Color is being released at a time when the anticipation for new science fiction is at a fever pitch, which makes it ideal.
Temperature. Hot or cold? Not so literally. The temperature is the general emotional landscape of an audience, whether or not they are ready to take on heavy material, or if they want something twee and escapist. Two years ago I would have judged the audience not ready for heavy, introspective fare, because only mindless offerings of action and CGI were proving profitable. The game-changer was the release of Tree of Life, which despite its metaphysical bent and Malickian musings, managed to turn a healthy profit and sell tickets. The years saw successful films that questioned morality and ethics (Zero Dark Thirty) and that were meditative in nature (The Life of Pi), so if I were stretch out on a limb, I could, at reasonable expense, think that audiences are indeed in a place for a reflective piece. Even films like Django Unchained and Lincoln, despite the former’s blood-splattered action and the latter’s overwhelming star power, are both mirrors upon society and the choices we collectively make.
I look at the trends in television, where Game of Thrones, Homeland and Boardwalk Empire - three very engaging programs that are all more about inherent nature than spectacle, are telling me that human/ humane stories are the current temperature. In Upstream Color we are tapping this degree, delving into the human heart and its place in the greater fold.
pH. This can be a little more difficult to ascertain. In scientific terms, pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a given substance, ranging from 0 to 14. Swing to either end of the spectrum and you have an extremely corrosive substance, and at 7 you are at perfect neutrality (i.e. water). In terms of film, the pH of an environment, to me, is the measure of provocativeness - how much can you push an audience before they revolt. On the acidic scale, we have films like Irreversible, movies that are prickly and eat away at everything we know. On the caustic side we have movies like Spring Breakers, gooey and yet still corrosive. In the middle we have movies like The King’s Speech, inoffensive to anyone and smooth like water.
Where are we now? I’d say somewhere right before Spring Breakers, not quite 14 but rather a 10-11. I make this assessment because we’re being inundated with terrible news everyday. Our economy sucks, we’re on the precipice of nuclear war with North Korea, our debt is increasing, our air toxic, our citizens shooting one another and our schools failing. The news is acidic, and our basic desire is to reach a stable place, a neutrality. So to make something acidic into water, you have to add something that is basic in nature. Something that is corrosive to eat away the nastiness but yet still has the potential to reach neutrality.
A film like Upstream Color is that. It’s a film that eats at you, but in a gentle way. It asks provocative questions of existence and compatibility and does so to rid ourselves of acidic anxiety.
In assessing pH, determine if your film is the element that will drive an audience towards neutrality, which is appeasement. If the audience is already neutral, then is it the kick in the ass to knock it out of the comfort zone?
So with the combination of these three elements, you will find the readiness of your work, the window of opportunity that has a limited time to capitalize upon. As of this writing, my business sense tells me that Upstream Color will be a resounding success because it has a great idea, and it addresses all three of the aforementioned elements of readiness. I would invest in it and stand behind it wholeheartedly. It is ready, and was determined to be ready by its maker.
This is super important to determine because you want to present a confluence of elements in the environment that will exist only for a short time. Invest now, or lose this opportunity forever. Time limits and small windows light a fire under the asses of both the filmmakers and investors alike. You’ll want to present your film as something that needs to be be made now, and if an investor sleeps on it, a smarter one will pick it up and make a ton of money because they took advantage of the market forces that the film was so primed to take advantage of.
Note again that we haven’t even written a single word of our business plan yet. This is all prep work for the writing, which is actually the least labor intensive part. Once you have your idea and strategy figured out, the writing will be the easiest part of all. But you have to have a good idea and strategy, or else you’ll be wasting your time. Spend time on these, because they are the crux of your work. A screenplay cannot be financed if it has no purpose (the idea) or place (readiness) in the world. Rationally justify your screenplay’s existence and you’ll find people to be convinced to take a look at it. To simply birth a story and declare it important just because it’s yours will mean years and years of knocking on doors and being met with failure. You have to make people care about your work, and for them to care, they must have a rationalized incentive to get involved.
In our next installment, we’ll start gathering empirical data and a strategy, and then maybe, MAYBE we’ll actually start writing this thing.
Been traveling a bunch and recently came down with a nasty bug, so I haven’t been able to write or work much. Should bounce back in a day or so, and will get back to writing about business plans and such.
True to my resolution I did see three movies last week, and I’ll write about them plus the films I plan to see this week as a single entry. Thanks for your patience.
Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for perfection incorrectly paints him as a cold, calculating and draconian film figure. What’s not generally known is that Kubrick was a massive supporter of improvisation, something which seems contradictory when you have 100 takes of a single shot. But despite this embracing of spontaneity, there is little in the oeuvre of Kubrick that doesn’t have the filmmaker’s fingerprints all over each and every frame. He was simply too smart to leave anything to chance, and anything that was born from spontaneity was later placed within a context entirely of Kubrick’s conception and lucidity.
If it is posited then that there are no coincidences in a Kubrick film, that it’s all the product of his mind and his mind alone, then the premise of the riveting conspiracy theory documentary Room 237 is entirely chilling. The film purports that Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining is overflowing with symbols, metaphors and duplicitous meanings ranging from the annihilation of the Native American and Jewish peoples, all the way to the faking of the Apollo lunar moon landings.
Throughout the movie I kept thinking of these theories as biased - the tenet that if you look in the clouds long enough you’ll see what you want to see. Many of the theories such as Kubrick’s frame matching and edits can be attributed to Kubrick’s penchant for framing his subjects exactly in the center of the image. With that, any connection between images and frames can be made. The film makes many far reaches, including the correlation between Calumet baking powder cans in the Overlook hotel to the genocide of the Native American people. Other leaps of faith include a skiing poster in the background being interpreted as a minotaur and Kubrick’s own face being airbrushed into the clouds of the opening outdoor sequences.
It’s all hogwash on the surface, but given what we know of Kubrick’s ultra-intelligence and his propensity for tremendous research and textured meanings, there is always that small part of our brain that believes that Kubrick could very well have done all of this. What is most compelling is Kubrick’s depiction of the Overlook Hotel, which plays as a metaphor for consciousness and Danny’s connection to his parents. It’s a fascinating and convincing argument, supported in the documentary by animated maps and infographics.
As a fan and student of Kubrick I couldn’t be more impressed, and it reflects my own work ethic as to the layers of symbols and meanings I embedded into Lilith (there are even references to The Shining in Lilith, from dolly movements, to the use of the Minotaur and Native American iconography lifted directly from The Shining, and finally the use of an axe and actor Jeremy Kendall’s performance, which has Jack written all over it). I want to believe that Kubrick was so thorough in his work to the point of obsession, a factor which makes me revere him as the greatest filmmaker of our times. It’s entirely possible and impossible at the same time, an ambiguity that makes for questions and queries, something that is the absolute most vital function of art. Kubrick is art, and his art will always be open to our interpretation. The fact that we can interpret The Shining on so many different levels, be they far-fetched or scientifically rationalized, is sheer display of the film and its creator’s brilliance. A must-watch for cinephiles.
Strange Circus, dir. by Sion Sono, Japan, 2005.
So a young girl walks in on her parents doing it, and as punishment her dad locks her in a cello case and forces her to watch him rape her mother. Then dad, being the upstanding individual that he is, moves his “affections” on to his daughter. Lovely.
I don’t know what to make of this movie. Sono directed one of my favorite movies in the brilliant Suicide Circle (Suicide Club), a movie filled with arcane metaphors and absolutely gorgeous imagery. Sono’s visual prowess is just as strong in Strange Circus and his penchant for taboo subjects is just as prevalent, but something just feels wrong with this one. It starts out with an all-out assault on our morals and mores, and then it slowly spins out of control, flooding us with bizarre behavior that was difficult to classify. I can’t say I disliked this film, but I didn’t like it either. Sort of in the same place as Spring Breakers - a gorgeous meditation on something but I haven’t the foggiest as to what that is, nor am I compelled to dig deeper because there’s nothing to suggest that there is something deeper to be found. Puzzling and frustrating.
The Darkest Hour, dir. by Chris Gorak, USA-Russia, 2011.
Late-night cable filler, plus it featured one of my favorite young actresses, Olivia Thirlby, whom I praised immensely for her work in DREDD, calling it even Oscar-worthy.
Definitely not Oscar-worthy here. But it’s not her fault. It’s the inanely stupid script that’s so full of plot holes even a pregnant Kim Kardashian can slip through unnoticed. There’s some alien race that’s feeding off the planet blah blah blah but hey! They’re invisible! That’s something new. Too bad that it’s never competently handled. Kind of a wasted opportunity.
The film is directed by a former art director and it shows - it’s beautifully staged and photographed, it’s just unfortunate that it has no idea where its going. It’s not to say that the movie didn’t have potential, but then just about every movie has potential to be great, even Norbit. Watch it for Thirlby and the production design/ art direction (minus the dreadful Russian soldier accouterments - you’ll know it when you see it). Watchable dreck, but not for lack of effort.
For those of you who followed up on the release of my article in this month’s issue of American Cinematographer, you’ll have read that indeed my next feature film is an adaptation of Paul Pope’s New York Times-bestselling graphic novel The One Trick Rip-Off. Paul and I have been working on it since 2009 and the script is simply one of the best things I’ve ever written. It’s super-violent, ultra-sexy and is basically The Warriors with Jedi Mind Tricks, all set in the world of Blade Runner. I’m incredibly amped about it and finally feel that I’m ready to hit the pavement running to put the film together. We’re gunning for the end of the year to start production.
Meet Vim, our intrepid heroine of ‘The One Trick Rip-Off.’
With the cat out of the bag on both 7x6x2 and The One Trick Rip-Off, I’ll have more liberty to write about them. You’ll be able to follow the gestation of The One Trick Rip-Off on this blog, which will remain as Lilithfilm, although I might change the headline banner of the blog to reflect the shift in projects.
I’ve been requested to do some more posts on how to go about doing a business plan for film, so I’m going to spend the next few posts going REALLY in-depth into the nuts and bolts. Please note that this is my way of doing a business plan - there are the standard templates that you can find in the appendices of film business books, but I want to encourage young producers to start from scratch and approach business in a far more holistic and existential way. Stick with me on this one, because these posts are long. Informative, but long.
Note: I’d previously written two posts on business plans, and I think they’re a great place to start before getting into this article. Take a few minutes and give them a quick read:
So it’s best to think of your business plan as a pitch - you’re trying to sell a product (your film) to a prospective buyer (a production company) who will finance or help you finance your endeavor. Your business plan is an encapsulation of the energy, vigor and vision that you have for this project, and is the take-home version of what you would say to any prospective buyer.
But before we get to actually writing our business plan, we have to figure out what it is we’re trying to sell. Yes, it is a film, but it has to be so much more than just a film. There are tens of thousands of scripts being pitched every year, and what makes your film script worthy of being financed over theirs?
At its nascent core, a script is an idea. If compared to the task of building a new skyscraper, the script is the equivalent to the architect’s plans - it’s the architect’s idea for a building. In terms of screenwriting, the idea of a film is storytelling-based. The idea for Lilith was to capture the feeling of regret, to make my audience go through the push-pull of lingering feelings.
But in the framework of a business plan, the idea is very different. It has to be the BIG idea, which is the statement of why your film is so important to be financed, RIGHT NOW.
People finance films for one of two reasons. One reason is for the prestige and honor of supporting an artistic endeavor. For some this is an exercise in ego, for others it’s an act of philanthropy. I can tell you that these people are very rare.
It tales a special kind of investor to make a ‘Holy Motors.’
But the primary reason for anyone to invest in film is to make money. The odds are incredibly slim, but if a film hits, its returns can be phenomenal. It’s a gamble, but a true investor always takes an educated risk. She will know that it is the right time to throw the dice when the economic, social and technological factors are just right.
When your film - your big idea - fits those three criteria, then it is read to be made because it’s existing in a very limited window of time where all conditions are favorable for it to succeed. Let’s look in-depth at the three pillars:
Economic: This is not just the condition of the economy - films have been made in terrible economies - but it’s more about trends in spending. What are people putting their money on? What genres and formats are attracting the most financial attention? Where are production companies putting their money these days? How much are they spending?
And ask yourself - does your idea fit into those trends? Is it contrary to them? Would you invest in an idea that is swimming against the economic current? I might do it, but only if the idea is damn good, and if it more than meets the next pillar.
Social: Think of this as an itch that needs to be scratched. What are audiences seeking in films right now, and more importantly, why are they seeking them? It’s not enough to say that audiences are flocking to science fiction films, we have to deduce why they are going to sci-fi. Look into social factors. We are a country coming off two extremely expensive wars, in a recession, and ideologically divided in terms of governance and social policy. Division - of haves and have nots, of the ability to equally marry - is highly prevalent. Violence, particularly gun violence, is reaching epidemic proportions. Abroad, there is massive social upheaval and a new form of economic manifest destiny in China and India. We’ve reached new scientific plateaus of the discovery of the Higgs-Boson and the Curiosity Rover on Mars.
What this tells me, socially, is that audiences are seeking escapism, but not of the fantasy variety. What sci-fi films like Avatar, Cloud Atlas, The Hunger Games, Oblivion and Looper are telling me is that audiences want to see new worlds that are products of our current decisions. This is the dystopian sci-fi, the opposite of utopia, that serves as a cautionary tale. People are frightened by the future, and want to see characters fighting for a better one.
What we’re extrapolating is a social need that is to be addressed. An itch that needs a scratch. I recall that post 9/11, the most successful film was Zoolander, because after months of being glued to televisions and images of death and destruction, people just needed a good laugh. And Zoolander was there to provide it. It filled a social need and was timely.
Technological: This is more a question of capture and delivery. Is there a new, innovative way to make your film, one that is cost-effective and yet delivers maximum value? The digital sensor was a game changer, and so too was the digital projector, which cut into delivery costs. You have online streaming and non-traditional theatrical distributors like Tugg that are creating access for non-studio films to enter and be competitive in the marketplace. Where do you see your film in this technological landscape? Is it wise to make a $10 million film and release it on Netflix? The makers of House of Cards seem to think so.
If your film - your idea - addresses these three pillars, then you’re presenting an idea that is ready to be made right now. You’re also demonstrating that because your idea is primed and ready, it is an inevitability that it is going to be made, and time is of the essence for someone to seize the moment before another investor does.
It’s time now to put these three pillars into a single statement. It’s a framework which I’ve adopted from master pitchman Oren Klaff, which he calls “The Idea Introduction Pattern.” It goes exactly like this:
“For [target customers] who are dissatisfied with [the current offerings in the market], my idea/ product is a [new idea or product category] that provides [key problem/ solution features]. Unlike [the competing product], my idea/ product is [describe key features]. “
That’s it. That’s the framework of your big idea. Klaff gives an example of a pitch for solar panels as to how the framework functions:
For companies with large buildings in California and Arizona who are dissatisfied with their aging solar panels, my product is a plug-and-play solar accelerator that provides 35 percent more energy from old panels. And unlike the cost of replacing panels,
my product is inexpensive and has no moving parts.”
It’s pretty brilliant, really - it’s an itch [expensive, old solar panels] being scratched [more efficient, less costly, easy to install panels] during a time of green revolution. The format applies to just about any venture, including film. Try it out. It takes some elbow grease, but you’ll get there. For me my first few rounds tend to be very long-winded and too detailed, and I work consecutive rounds to whittle it down to very simple sentences. It’s not easy, but it’s well worth the investment of time because this is your big idea, your livelihood, your food on the table.
Also remember that you haven’t even started writing your business plan yet. You’re still just formulating your main idea, and without your main idea, your plan will just be another one of many, filled with droll numbers and figures that’ll put people to sleep. It’s not enough that you’ve got a great script that can be made on the cheap - trust me, you’re not the only one out there - you’ve got to have something that addresses and capitalizes upon specific, insightful needs.
Do you have a relationship drama set in Brooklyn? What economic, social and technological needs is it addressing, ones that are not already being addressed by Girls or any of the myriad of Sundance indie Brooklyn relationship dramas? Think long and hard about this. If your idea is not addressing any of these needs, then understand you’re going to have that much of a harder time raising money - you’ll need to have some expensive star casting, etc. - but if you are addressing the bigger issues from the outset with an excellent script that reads beautifully, then you’re firing out the gate with an immediate advantage.
Does this mean you have to change your script to fit the three pillars of the big idea? If your script is outstanding and written from the heart, and is authentic to your vision, then not really. You’ll just have to find out where your script fits into the bigger scheme. By its conception alone it’s scratching an itch within you - that’s why you wrote it in the first place. You sell to the market, the market doesn’t sell to you. As my hero Tim Gunn would say, “make it work!”
Amen, Tim Gunn. Amen.
Spend a lot of time on this before you write a single word of your business plan. The idea is the foundation for everything, and all your comps, budget and market analysis will stem from the idea and be a reflection of it. Its importance cannot be understated.
Spring Breakers, dir. by Harmony Korine, USA, 2013.
This was one of my must-see films for 2013, for more reasons than one. I’ve long been a fan of cinematographer Benoit Debie, ever since I saw the horror film Calvaire I had this feeling that he was going to be the next truly great maverick cinematographer behind Christopher Doyle and Darius Khondji. After seeing Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void and Spring Breakers, my hunch was confirmed - Debie is the real deal.
Conversely I’ve never been a huge fan of Harmony Korine, but I’ve always had immense respect for him because he’s a filmmaker without fear. He’s raw, uncompromising, and is one of the few taboo-smashers remaining in film. We need more people like Harmony Korine to blow the lid off of what we can and cannot discuss in art. For that reason alone I will always support and see a Harmony Korine film whenever it comes out, and to have Korine’s explosive polemics, Debie’s epic camera, and James Franco (whom I respect immensely) all collide in Spring Breakers, well that’s what got me dizzy with anticipation to go see it.
I came out of the theater angry and frustrated, primarily at Korine. Spring Breakers is a technical marvel - its visuals are stunning, the score and soundtrack by the duo of Skrillex and Cliff Martinez is one of the best of the year, and Franco is absolutely Oscar-worthy as Alien, a hip-hop MC / drug pusher with a heart (and grill) of gold. But Spring Breakers has nothing to say, it’s neither a story or a satire/ critique of society. It has absolutely no idea what kind of movie it wants to be, and seems completely devoid of a script. The only two characters we remotely invest in are Alien and the god-fearing Faith, played with impressive nuance by Selena Gomez. We care about Alien and Faith because they are the only two characters in the entire film that are given at least five minutes of backstory. The remaining three breakers - Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson and a resoundingly talentless Vanessa Hudgens - and the antagonist played by Gucci Mane, are all meandering without purpose, spewing lines that sound like dialogue that have absolutely zero context. The film, because it lacks a cohesive story or purpose, repeats itself endlessly, even literally rehashing lines of dialogue in progression. It reeks of an editor’s nightmare, which is to be handed a ton of absolutely beautiful footage and having no idea what to do with it. The default ‘dream fugue’ is a result.
It’s a shame that the work of Franco and Debie are drowning on this sinking ship. The failure of the film lays squarely on Korine as a writer and director - Spring Breakers is a movie that deserved to be made, but only with a competent script and a director who actually knows what he wants to say. I say see it for Franco and Debie’s camera, but know you’ll walk out frustrated, laughing at the movie and not with it, and feeling completely cheated of something that had the potential to be truly great.
The World According to Dick Cheney, dir. by R.J> Cutler, USA, 2013.
Dick Cheney is evil. We all know that. He can’t be killed, won’t die (four - count ‘em - FOUR fucking heart attacks), and has an incredible ability to rationalize the most heinous and self-serving of actions as being done for the greater good. It’s all these things that also make him one of the most fascinating human beings on the planet, and while we all are aware that it was he who commandeered the Bush presidency, to hear it from his own mouth would be absolutely fascinating as an insight into the nature of pure evil. Curiosity abound with this one - did he have regrets? Have the clear, inarguable failures of the Iraq War humbled him? This documentary promised to be “the world according to Dick Cheney,” and we’d get to hear it all from his mouth, warts, horns, bifurcated tongue and all.
This is where the documentary falters, in that we’re given only a dose of His Evilness allowed to speak from himself, and we get a whole lot of Cheney historians and critics commenting on his tenure. Unlike Errol Morris’ brilliant The Fog of War, which served as a one-on-one confessional for controversial Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Cheney is about as open as Fort Knox, giving us the same nonsense spin that he gave us for eight years of tyranny. If the message is that Dick Cheney has zero regrets, has not changed one iota, and would do it all over again the same way, then why watch a two hour documentary to reiterate what we already know? A noble attempt and exceptionally well made, but we’re treading water here.
Hope Springs, dir. by David Frankel, USA, 2012.
A fluff romantic dramedy about an older couple who’s lost that flame of passion for one another. It’s anchored by two of history’s greatest actors in Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, and despite a predictable, well-written screenplay, there are genuine moments of sincerity between the leads throughout the film. Steve Carell delivers an earnest but ultimately one-note performance as a sex therapist in a small, idyllic Maine town, and his character has no arc or transformation. He’s just the Dungeon Master. Hope Springs is classic Hollywood studio feel-good filler, and doesn’t harm anyone unless you’re sensitive to seeing older people trying to give each other blowjobs. For real. Equally puzzling is the appearance of Elizabeth Shue - a legitimate highly paid actress - who shows up for all of two minutes in the film. It reeked of the bloated, agent-driven approach to studio filmmaking. All I kept thinking was how much money this VERY simple little film cost to make. I looked it up. It cost $30 million. Kill me now.
Music for the Weekend:In and Out of Harm’s Way by The Jim Jones Revue.
Chose this song because in a few days, the cat’s going to be let out of the bag as to my Paul Pope feature film project. Our short film that we co-directed, 7x6x2, is going to be featured in a multi-page article in the April issue of American Cinematographer magazine, which is a huge coup. AC is one of the oldest, most respected, and widely read film publications in the world. It’s been a dream milestone for me to be published in the magazine, as it’s besically been my film school since I was a kid. Looks like that dream has finally come true.
The article looks pretty badass. It goes pretty in-depth into how Paul and I made 7x6x2, and there’s even a mention of Lilith. The article also announces my next film, which is an adaptation of one of Paul’s graphic novels. This song, In and Out of Trouble by The Jim Jones Revue, will be featured prominently in the new film. It also aptly describes Paul and mine’s relationship with the film industry. We tend to be troublemakers, but in entirely good ways.
Make sure to pick up the new issue of American Cinematographer, which hits stands next week. Here’s a sneak peek of the article, which is from a pic sent to me by the amazing editors at AC Magazine.
So happy about this. As Paul would say, this is the year of Electric 13. Have a great weekend!
Sundance Institute trained, journeyman molecular biologist with bonus producing, writing, editing and directing skills. Amateur film historian, unapologetic liberal Tarkovskite with fierce cooking skills and a penchant for unusual stories. I hope you like my writing and find it useful.