Screenwriting: The First Scene.

After months of research, outlining and character profiles, you’re finally ready to bust out that first blank piece of paper and begin writing your screenplay. FADE IN.

Screenplays, like so many novels, novellas, short stories, poems and songs can start out in any myriad of ways. Universally they should always start off strong, as this is the point when a reader / viewer / listener will decide to make their investment of time. Of course what constitutes a “strong” opening is highly subjective.

Screenplays, being that they are a visual medium first and foremost, typically benefit from a strong first image. I was taught this by my professors in school, who always told me that the two most important frames of a film are the first and the last. Both frames should encapsulate the spine and theme of the entire story you are going to tell, which seems like one hell of a difficult task. What image could you possibly write that covers the thematic elements of the entire 120 pages you are bound to write?

It takes a lot of thought, but more times than not this process happens organically if you’ve done the work, research and plotting in advance. This is where the study of symbols, semiotics, literature and art will benefit you tremendously, as metaphors will dominate the composition of the first scene.

Think of a film like Star Wars. A small space cruiser enters the frame and it is followed by a massive destroyer that is raining down laser strikes upon the cruiser’s hull. On the surface it is pretty self explanatory - a war, a battle is being waged. It is a hunt. It also is a metaphor of being outmatched, outgunned, out muscled, and yet still finding a way to survive. This opening shot is the theme of the film, which is to overcome insurmountable odds by sheer will - a force. It is David versus Goliath, a story of ingenuity and survival.

As it is written in the original Star Wars screenplay:

The awesome yellow planet of Tatooine emerges from a total eclipse, her two moons glowing against the darkness. A tiny silver spacecraft, a Rebel Blockade Runner firing lasers from the back of the ship, races through space. It is pursed by a giant Imperial Stardestroyer. Hundreds of deadly laserbolts streak from the Imperial Stardestroyer, causing the main solar fin of the Rebel craft to disintegrate.

It may seem like it would be easier to write such metaphors for science fiction or films that have outlandish imagery, but this also applies to more “human” stories or conventional relationship dramas. Take the opening of When Harry Met Sally, which opens with ‘documentary’ footage of an older couple. They’re sitting on a loveseat, holding hands. This is their monologue:

I was sitting with my friend Arthur Cornrom in a restaurant. It was an cafeteria and this beautiful girl walked in and I turned to Arthur and I said, “Arthur, you see that girl? I’m going to marry her, and two weeks later we were married and it’s over fifty years later and we are still married.

The image is telling - a portrait of everlasting love, one that was robust enough to withstand the test of time. The choice of an older couple visually shows the battle of age but they are defiant of that crumbling physical existence. The monologue reaffirms the idea of an epic, singular love, one that is given to us by a spark.

This is not an opening filled with visual pyrotechnics or kinetic energy - so many films today feel the urge to “drop us in” a sequence that gets our hearts racing immediately, but that needn’t be the case. Think of the first shot of There Will Be Blood, which is a simple fade in to a shot of hills. As it is written:

OVER EXTERIOR SHOT OF HUGE MOUNTAINS IN THE B.G., PURE DESERT IN THE F.G. MUSIC BUILDS FROM SMALL TO LOUD, VIOLENT CRESCENDO, THEN OUT. TITLE CARD: There Will Be Blood.

What seems like something quite static and tepid - a lone fade in of a mountain range, is given a metaphorical meaning by its juxtaposition with the harrowing music. The mountains are a barrier, the singular roadblock of Westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The music makes the geography lethal and dangerous, and the cut to the title lets us know that a battle to the death awaits us. Whose death is uncertain, but we know it cannot be good. There is evil in them hills, and as we learn, it is Daniel Plainview.

In these three examples we see screenwriters using all the tools of filmmaking - sound, dialogue, image - to deliver an opening frame that gives us the intent and spine of the stories to follow. One can argue that they are so brief and part of greater whole that it doesn’t make that much of a difference, but it should always be reminded that in film, every shot must count, every shot must dedicate itself to telling the story and moving it forward. There are no throwaway shots in film - if it does not add to the story, plot or character, then it must and will be excised in the edit. With that in mind, save yourself the trouble and don’t write throwaway scenes. Make all of them count, especially the first one because that’s the first thing we’ll be engaging with. It makes both a conscious and subconscious statement of who you are as a writer and demonstrates the level of thoughtfulness and lucidity that you are capable of.

If you’re writing a story about a couple of high school kids in love, and say the boy is mentally handicapped and the girl he loves is coming to terms with his condition, then write a scene that encapsulates the meaning of that struggle. If the whole point of the story is to see the true inner self of someone and get past the broken bodies, then create a stirring sequence that conveys that in as truthful way as possible. I don’t know why but I think of a young girl playing with her barbie doll. The doll is scuffed and the hair has been cut. The girl’s room shows the clear signs of a family without much means, it’s a small, crowded apartment living room. She’s wearing a heavy sweater indoors. The girl places her barbie doll inside a makeshift home made out of pieces of cardboard and tape, and the doll looks warm and happy, a sharp contrast to the apartment. What I’m trying to show is the happiness to be found in a harsh world, true beauty in a scarred shell. It’s off the top of my head and needs work, but hopefully you see where I’m going with it.

It’s important to note that every scene in your film should not be approached this way, if so then your film will be heavy-handed and stuffed with metaphors to the point of becoming arthouse absurd. This approach to scenes will be of most use in scenes of introduction, transition and ending, where a deeper thematic message is meant to be conveyed. Use it wisely and you will find it a powerful and effective tool.

The key to doing this effectively is to understand the story you want to tell long before you formally begin writing. If you start your screenplay with a half-baked idea then you will not have a solid reference to draw upon for the formulation of your images. The myth of “writing from the hip” is a detriment, as few to none writers can write straight from nothing. It’s likely an idea that’s been in the works for a long time, sometimes in the head and most of the time in journals, notes and preparation. Those stories of screenplays written in one week tactfully omit the preparation and long-term thought that went into it, and we’re led to believe in the possibility of writing as an act of spontaneous combustion. I wish.

Screenplays are that strange beast in that they must be spare in their literary density (executives don’t like to read thick pieces of text), but they must deliver images in a few short sentences what a novel might take an entire chapter to achieve. The compression comes in the form of visual language, music, sound and careful dialogue. These are the elements that compress an entire prose paragraph in a novel down to a single frame on film. Think of the introduction of the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien wrote of it as such:

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.

And in the screenplay by Phillipa Boyens, it reads as such:

A HUGE SHADOW, surrounded by flame, falls across the hall..the ground shakes…an unearthly sound rumbles…

Directing: John Huston, ‘Fat City’ and Making Lean American Films

It’s amazing how things change over time. I used to hate olives on my pizza, now I think they’re pretty dope. Same thing with pickles on a burger. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I used to think that everything about the 70s was a big joke. The bell bottom pants, the big collars, disco music and boring movies. Yep. I found the movies of that era to be uninspired, bland, and boring. Having grown up on a steady diet of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull and Blade Runner, stories about people in their natural surroundings dealing with personal issues were just, y’know, kinda boring. The visuals were uninspiring to me, I needed bombast. I was born in the era of the blockbuster and grew up on fantasy. There was no room - or particular need - for reality.


Gif by ghostofcheney.

It’s only until much later when I actually started making movies and studying them for my work that I began to realize that the 70s, in my opinion, was the most productive decade of American art in this country’s young history. Coming off the Vietnam War, racial tensions and a crippling US economy, artists in the 70s used art in its proper function, to serve as a mirror to the human condition, and the condition of humanity at that time was pretty bleak. Artists turned their brushes, guitars and cameras towards themselves, asking the question of where we are going individually and as a part of a greater family of man.

There are always exceptions, and these films, like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood exemplify classic American filmmaking that has evolved from the fundamentals laid down in the 70s. They are personal films about people, their place in the world and their meaning relative to each other.

Perhaps no filmmaker, for me, embodies this more than John Huston, whose career spanned almost five decades, but who for me reached his peak with Fat City, which he made in 1972. I know that had I seen Fat City fifteen years ago I’d dislike it immensely, as I’d be waiting for something over-the-top to happen, some cataclysmic event that will change the course of history.

None of that happens in Fat City, which is the story of Billy Tully, a down-on-his-luck amateur boxer trying to eke out a life in an economically ravaged small city. Based on the eponymous novel by Leon Gardner, the film lacks any kind of spit-polish or grandeur that we see in today’s American filmmaking. Fat City meanders, it’s threadbare in its script and plot, and it contains no coincidences or accidents. It’s inhabitants are not supermodels and poster boys, in fact there is an elegant grotesqueness to their beaten and weathered bodies. Tully, played with equal fire and restraint by a brilliant Stacy Keach (who I am only recently discovering to be one of the truly great acting talents of all-time), has scars and bruises, his hair a hot mess, and yet there is a rugged charm about him, a man with some principles who has hit rock bottom and is trying to claw his way out to a decent life.

Huston crafts the film with remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots (lit by the immortal Conrad Hall in a wash of diffusion and a palette of ochres, turquoise and coral) and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines. It’s a contradiction, but a beautiful one at that, and it lends itself to a very lean and efficient style of filmmaking, one that is, at its core, the very essence of classic American cinema. If we look at the works of Huston, Cassavettes, Coppola and even turning back the clock to the works of Keaton, Chaplin, Mann, Hawkes and Ford, we see this pattern of lean filmmaking - limited shots, meticulously composed, and allowing for exploration through performance. What results is a very muscular style of film, powerful and deceptively elegant, much like an American muscle car.

This is important to acknowledge in moving forward as filmmakers. As we fully begin to embrace digital cinema, our coverage has increased astronomically. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to emerge from their shoots with 35-40 hours of footage, which is both a blessing and a damnation. With so much coverage, what we’re seeing now is more and more films being made in the edit, where performance is crafted by the knife. The downside to this is an unfocused film, filled with thousands of cuts that perforate its foundation like swiss cheese. Today’s American cinema feels more like a salad than a side of beef, and any kind of muscularity is being provided by an overbearing Hans Zimmer score and CGI explosions. It’s all resolutely fake, and that cannot be sustained.

What we can learn from Huston and the films of the 70s is to go back to composition as place for actors to work within. Even an extravagant film like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is spare in its shots - they are allowed to unfold and establish their might, and even with the alien beauty of the jungle, this is still the story of men and their duties to one another. The film is as strong as an I-beam as a result. A fair amount of credit goes to editor Walter Murch, who took the nightmare of hundreds of hours of footage and maintained the lean ethic.

The goal here is to not convey what type of movies to make, that’s nobody’s purview but your own. What is to be impressed upon however is a thoughtfulness in craft, of maintaining simplicity of conveyance and not overburdening our films with unnecessary chaff. This doesn’t mean to omit details - a look at the films of the 70s reveals an immense attention to detail, but it is all done within a restrained number of shots. We cannot establish cinematic power without allowing the time for it to be established.

The best metaphor I can think of for this is a rocket. To lift itself out of orbit - an act of immense power and muscle - there must be a large, focused and maintained blast of rocket fuel. If a rocket were to pulse its blast in small thrusts, it’s expending the same (if not more) amount of energy, but it will lack the power to take off. Think of your edits and compositions in the same way. Allow power and emotion to develop in composed frames, develop your performances in longer takes, and edit your coverage in the leanest way possible. Allow your actors to breathe, to explore, to feel within a meaningful and thoughtfully designed space.

At the end of Fat City, Huston does something quite remarkable. Tully, at the bottom of his barrel and in the haze of alcohol, gazes about a cafe and sees some men talking in the corner. We don’t know what they’re talking about, and they have nothing to do with Tully. But he fixates on them, and there’s a brief freeze frame on Tully’s face. It’s a resoundingly surreal moment, a shock in a film filled with such gritty realism, akin to Truffaut’s freeze frame at the end of The 400 Blows. This is Huston using the power of cinema to undermine all that he has laid down before in one simple move, and it’s a calculated deconstruction. The mighty, muscular film for the past 100 minutes crumbles in a few seconds of a freeze frame, a mirror of the journey of his protagonist. It’s a beautiful moment, akin to when men of iron show vulnerability, and it is calculated and highly risky. I love this kind of filmmaking, which shows no fear and absolute trust in the audience. It’s an irony that Fat City was a studio film (Columbia Pictures) that would never be made by a studio today. My how times have changed, but the silver lining is that with today’s technology, a film like Fat City can be made with little complication as an ultra low-budget independent film. It has to be planned, thoughtful and efficient, and films like it will thrive because they speak to us on a myriad different levels.

I wring my hands at this latest discovery in my journey as a filmmaker, and am ready to reevaluate my plans for The One Trick Rip-Off, to view it through this prism. It will be difficult going back and retooling what I’ve already established, but if it means my growth as an artist and greater benefit to my art, then it is work worth doing and suffering for. Nobody said this was easy.

Melee

Author & Punisher

Women & Children

Played 132 times

Music for the Weekend: Melee by Author & Punisher

It’s fucking freezing here in Chi-city, which means it’s a perfect time to hole up and write. After many months of research I’m ready to start a new screenplay that I’ve been commissioned for. The blank page is always daunting, but I’ve had images and scenes running through my head for a few months now. Very minimal dialogue in this one, and a lot of environment and landscape. Really excited about it.

Also some big news from my producers at Tribeca Films, as they told me they’re planning to release my short film 7x6x2 in January. I co-wrote and co-directed the film with Paul Pope loosely based off one of his THB comics. It’s a weird little sci-fi western set on a distant planet, and is pretty cool. We shot the film in one and a half days and it’s a small marvel - remote desert location, seven prosthetic creatures, one giant robot, CGI and an original score all done in less than four weeks. Once I get the green light from Tribeca I’ll write more about how we made it in greater detail.


Still from the opening sequence of ‘7x6x2.’

I’m also on pins and needles waiting for some new developments on One Trick Rip-Off, something which can be huge for this little film that could. There’s an adage in the film business - hurry up and wait - which applies to pretty much every facet of making movies. You have to scramble to grab hold of opportunities, but then you have to wait for that opportunity to come to fruition. It’s par for the course, and I don’t even play golf.

Things are a happening, it’s a great time to be making movies.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Dreamers of Decadence

Dalhous

An Ambassador for Laing

Played 59 times

Music for the Weekend: Dreamers of Decadence by Dalhouse.

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, it’s been an insanely busy time. Came back from Canada and New York with tons of business, and now the real hard work starts, which is the follow-up and number crunching on soft money and revenue streams. I know. It’s the sexiest part of being a filmmaker.


But not as sexy as a mini donut. Mmmm. Mini donut.

Also got some interesting offers to direct some features, stuff that’s pretty cool. Gotta sit down with the scripts this weekend and really think about it. It’s an interesting time where people are asking me to direct, and I’m not having to go door-to-door. I’m not complaining at all, it’s more that after eleven years in this business, it’s a new feeling. Hence the track I chose this week, its title and aura are apt. Surreal and a little unsettling.

But this is all just baby steps in the marathon of my career. I’ve got such a long way to go - and so much more to learn - before I really start hitting my stride. There’s really no such thing as being a veteran filmmaker, each new project brings us back to a blank slate, staring at the summit from base camp below. If we choose our work wisely then we will be presented with new challenges that will force us to learn our craft anew, and that’s both incredibly daunting and insanely exciting. That’s how we make progress, how we evolve. I don’t want to spin my wheels and make twenty different versions of Lilith. Every film should be an evolution, a series of experiments that lead to somewhere uncharted. Even if the material is pedestrian, and it’s just work for a living, make it interesting within the parameters you have. Try something different, explore areas you’re afraid to venture in. Being bold is scary as hell but it’ll also make your work stand out from the crowd. I’ve taken tons of risks - many successful, many unsuccessful - and that’s likely the reason why I’m having interesting work show up. It also doesn’t mean I stop developing my own work, in fact it means I should push my own work that much more because I’m reaffirmed that there are people and companies out there who are very interested in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

I work back-breakingly hard and I won’t lie that luck plays a role in things. But luck is simply when hard work and opportunity meet, and being in the right place at the right time takes a lot of effort. Eleven years of it.

Have a great weekend!

2013 Resolution: Movies Watched This Week (8.26.13)

After a month-and-a-half hiatus, I’m continuing with my resolution to watch more movies, here’s what I took in this past week:

Elysium, dir. by Neil Blomkamp, USA, 2013.

This was one of my most anticipated films of 2013. I was a huge fan of Blomkamp’s District 9 and his earlier Halo shorts, which were nothing short of remarkable. Blomkamp is one of the driving forces behind my world building in my next feature, Paul Pope’s The One Trick Rip-Off, and we keep going back to him as a reference.

Elysium is as impressive as ever from a sci-fi world standpoint, its details are remarkable and deftly realized. The production design is ace, but unfortunately that’s about all the film has going for it. This despite Blomkamp’s obvious visual talents and Matt Damon’s earnestness.

Where to begin with this mess of a film? Well let’s start with just that - it’s messy and sloppy. Feels like it was edited by a 6-year old on an iPhone, and the ADR on Jodie Foster’s wonky accent takes something that was already bad to downright appalling. Foster - who is likely one of the greatest actresses of her generation - totally phones it in with a lazy, one-note performance. The only time we see any depth in her character is in the seconds before she dies, and that too is contrite and boring.

I also don’t understand the casting of Alice Braga in this or any other Hollywood film. I just don’t think she’s got what it takes to carry big budget films. She was a revelation in City of God and set the screen on fire in Lower City, but her ventures into Hollywood have been flat and uninspired. I can’t put my finger on it, but for some reason I just don’t buy her in any of her roles. Could be just me.

But as is the case with most current sci-fi, the film fails at the script level. An inane story is further dragged down by silly dialogue and a complete disregard for any common sense. Technologies are provided that literally act as god machines, easy fixes that have zero credibility. In one sequence, a completely incomprehensible Sharlto Copley gets his face blown off and in a completely stupid leap-of-faith gets his entire face reconstructed within seconds. Sure it’s sci-fi, but any science within that universe must be rationalized. In Elysium, it’s all effect and zero plausibility.

The fault of all this lies squarely on the shoulders of Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s so overwrought with social metaphors and cloying left-wing politics (and I say this as a bleeding heart liberal myself) that it comes off more as a political parody than social critique, a lefty version of Atlas Shrugged. Ouch. Can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s very, very hard for me to like this film. There’s very little going for it other than pretty visuals.

Murder on the Orient Express, dir. by Sidney Lumet, United Kingdom, 1974.

Hercule Poirot is one of literature’s truly wonderful characters - uptight, snooty, wholly inappropriate and a complete badass. Albert Finney’s version of Agatha Christie’s intrepid inspector is one of the all-time great screen characters, and bolstered by Paul Dehn’s Academy Award-winning screenplay and Sidney Lumet’s impeccable direction.

This is classic Lumet and movie that would never be made today because it is loaded with dialogue and balances a small army of characters with equal aplomb. Poirot digs and pokes and prods each suspect of an overnight murder on a stranded train, using humor and Gallic charm to piece together the evidence. Features an all-century cast with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, and a lethally radiant pair of femme fatales in Jacqueline Bissett and Vanessa Redgrave, this is a pure treat of performance and impeccable direction. The ending is shocking and morally ambiguous, which makes it all the more memorable. We just don’t see movies like this anymore. Sad.

TRON: Uprising, dir. by Charlie Bean, USA, 2012.

Joesph Kozinski’s TRON: Legacy was a visually stunning letdown. It’s improved over repeat viewings but there was just something missing from it, and after seeing Disney’s otherworldly animated series TRON: Uprising I finally realized what that missing factor was: edge.

Kozinski’s film, like his Oblivion is simply too smooth, too slick, and as a result it reads as mechanical and cold. What the original TRON captured - and what the animated series has recaptured - is a hard cyberpunk edge that infuses heart and blood into a cold, mechanical world. This visually stunning animated series is one of the very best things I’ve seen in a long time, cartoon or live action feature combined. And that’s not hyperbole, it’s just that fucking good. Superb voice acting, hyper-stylized animation, impeccable sound design and amazingly solid writing all contribute to what science fiction should be in our age of visual technology, and TRON: Uprising is just firing on all cylinders. It’s violent, sexy, thought-provoking and amazingly executed. Definitely flying under the radar and undeservedly so, this is sci-fi at its very best. Seek it out, support it, and make sure it doesn’t get cancelled.

Archive:

June 6, 2013 - The Invisible War, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fast & Furious 6.

May 26, 2013 - Upstream Color, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

April 21, 2013 - Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum), The Art of the Steal, Repo Man

April 4-14, 2013 - Gate of Hell, White Mane, The Holy Mountain, Scenes From a Marriage, Homeland

March 31, 2013 - Room 237, Strange Circus, The Darkest Hour.

March 24, 2013 - Spring Breakers, The World According to Dick Cheney, Hope Springs.

March 17, 2013 - The Loved Ones, Pink Ribbons Inc., The Seducers.

March 10, 2013 - The Master, Sound City, Perks of Being a Wallflower

March 3, 2013 - Holiday, L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Woman in Black, Savages, Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles

February 17, 2013 - Les Miserables, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste; Galaxie 500 1979-1991,

February 10, 2013 - La Marge (The Margin), The FP, Kill Bill V2

February 3, 2013 - The Night Porter, Gantz, Bitten

January 26, 2013 - Eames: The Architect & The Painter, Luck By Chance, School of Rock

January 19, 2013 - Silver Linings Playbook, We Are Legion, Zero Dark Thirty

DDFH

Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels

Played 89 times

Music for the Weekend: DDFH by Run the Jewels.

Life’s moving at a million miles an hours and I seem to be getting further and further in a hole in terms of my sleep deficit. But that said, I’m thankful to be busy.

Finished my rough cut on my edit for the TV pilot, and it’s looking great. I think I’ve made some breakthroughs on my directing process, and I really need to thank my actors for that. It was a great collaboration, and their trust made it all possible because as all of my actors on any project will attest, I tend to put them in some very interesting and compromising situations.

Screengrab from the pilot; Elizabeth Riegert and Jacob Moore getting hot n’heavy on a very public elevator.

Took a few days away from the edit and this weekend I’m going to take the razorblade to it, trimming and seeing what is absolutely necessary and what needs to go. It’s the most brutal part of filmmaking, which is letting go of something that is beautiful and perfect, but all for the benefit of the story. Egos and sentimentality not allowed, which is why I need albums like Run the Jewels to keep things real and in perspective. EL-P and Killer Mike are absolutely murdering it right now.

Have a great weekend!

Brute

Colin Stetson

New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light

Played 59 times

Music for the Weekend: Brute by Colin Stetson.

There are those moments right before jumping into an edit that need prep. I liken it to high school when I played football and lacrosse, and I used to listen to Pantera or Slayer to get me psyched up and in an engaged frame of mind to fuck some shit up.

I find editing to be no different. It is a highly disruptive practice in its initial phases - you’re tearing down footage into a shambolic mess and from the tinder rises a structure. I’ve spent the past few days watching - and rewatching - the footage from my pilot and have been making extensive notes and diagrams about what works, what needs work, and where things might go. I’ve spent the past few nights tagging workable footage, creating bins and collecting random pieces of music, sound and filters.

Now it’s time to head onto the field and get dirty. I’ve been listening to this Colin Stetson record nonstop and it’s really getting me into a violently creative stir. Heavy metal saxophone? I didn’t think it was possible. Whatever it is, it’s working, and ready to tear into this beast.

I’ve also spent some time reviewing my old posts and given my year of tragic news and also keeping immensely busy, I feel like the blog has suffered a bit in terms of my productivity. I’m going to get back on the horse with my New Year’s resolution of 2-3 movies watched this week, and also getting back to the business posts. I have good reason for the latter, as I’ve just found out that ‘The One Trick Rip-Off,’ coming fresh off its selection by the Producer’s Guild of America as one of the ten best screenplays, has just been selected to the 2013 session of Strategic Partners in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is a huge break, as Strategic Partners is an invite-only symposium where filmmakers get to meet one-on-one with financing companies who have money and are actively looking to invest. Four days of these meetings, which is huge and a gigantic compression of time and effort.

Beyond the editing of the pilot, I’m also going to be busy revising my business plan as well as doing a revision on the “Rip-Off” script, something which I’ve been meaning to do for awhile. We’re also finally getting clarity on the theatrical release date of ‘Lilith’ and also the release of my short ‘7x6x2’ that I directed with Paul Pope. A lot of things coming up on the fall horizon.

So despite my emotional rollercoaster for the past few months, work is good. I’m busy, thankfully getting paid, and the horizon looks very promising. I need to bring that back into the blog, and will most certainly do that. I thank you for your patience and understanding, and will strive to do better for you.

Totally psyched, ready to edit. Become the butcher.

My Filmmaking Gear and the DIY Studio.

Every month I get about a dozen or so messages about what kind of filmmaking gear I use. As many of my longtime readers know, I’m not much of a gearhead, and fact of the matter is that the gear is always changing. I also tend to emphasize that it’s is the operator’s skill, ideas and resourcefulness that is far more important than the gear itself; some of the most beautiful moving images I’ve ever seen were made on iPhones, but they were made in conjunction with practical lighting effects and imaginative framing. Some of the 6-second videos I’ve seen on Vine are absolutely amazing works of art.

But that said, gear is important. You can’t make a movie without it, and many times the advancements made are going to empower us to make amazing things. If I had 15k to spare I’d love to pick up a Freefly MoVI M10 gimbal and really push where my camera can go. It was the star of this year’s NAB show and I’m sure every filmmaker wants one, yours truly included. It’s seems incredibly liberating.

There are all kinds of cameras, lenses, stabilization rigs and audio equipment that I’d love to own, but I tend to temper myself on making these purchases for two reasons. The first reason is obvious - cost. This stuff is expensive, and many times when I get a project together, it’s more cost effective for me to simply rent this gear and make a movie rather than have it sitting in my office, waiting to be used. The second reason ties in closely to this, in that there is an additional expense tied into owning gear which is gear maintenance. Cameras and the like are precision instruments, and to work at their optimal, they need regular maintenance. I lack both the wherewithal and the finances to do regular maintenance on so many items, which is also why I choose to rent. Camera houses regularly maintain their wares, and they often keep everything updated with the latest builds and configurations.

Of course, I speak from the perspective of the narrative filmmaker. If you are in the business of doing things like wedding and event photography, then it behooves you to have your own gear, because that’s the core of your business and the volume of use is very high. My advice to anyone wanting to pursue this very viable filmmaking route is to do your research before you buy, and before you buy also take as many classes you can on how to operate and maintain your chosen gear.


Things can get complicated, really quickly.

I’m somewhere inbetween - I shoot narrative features every few years and I shoot four to five shorts per year, and my commercial work is always using the gear of a production house. So my needs aren’t so rigorous that they demand I have the top-of-the-line gear to make my career sustain. But just as a painter needs a sketchpad and basic tools to jot down their ideas and try new techniques, so too should a filmmaker have the tools to explore, experiment and doodle. Over the years I’ve built a home studio that I can technically make a feature film with, and I did the majority of Lilith, save for sound design/ mix and color correction, in my home studio.

I break my gear down into three categories: visual, assembly and audio. Visual comprises of everything I need to record an image, assembly is everything I need to put things together, and audio is pretty self explanatory. A lot of times these categories will overlap. Depending on the frequency of use, I tend to buy a lot of my gear used, and I have enough technical knowledge to assess a piece of equipment in terms of its quality and durability. If you don’t have the knowledge and are just getting into filmmaking, you’re likely better off buying new or from someone you trust. These are expensive purchases, and you don’t want to throw down a wad for a lemon.

The core of the visual is of course the camera. I use a Canon 7D DSLR as my primary camera, and this is a matter of taste. Every sensor will give you a different quality image - I quite like the Canon 5D Mark II the best, but I liked the versatility that the 7D provided. In hindsight I should have plonked down the extra cash to get a 5D, but I’m more than happy with the 7D. I do not own a set of fancy lenses, in fact I just use the stock zoom lens that came with the camera, and it’s served me well to this point. There are many times I longed for a set of primes to give me exactly what I wanted, but my usage doesn’t justify that kind of purchase.

The main issue with using a DSLR is stabilization. The cameras are so lightweight and small that I find I need to add weight and size to really get rid of that herky-jerky feel. I have three tools for stabilization. The first is a very basic handheld rig by Cowboy Studios. I’ve tried many handheld setups and this one is just nuts-and-bolts basic, and probably the only downside is that it doesn’t have a follow focus, but I’m pretty good with focusing. It takes a lot of practice, and following my cat around with a camera is a pretty challenging focus pulling exercise.


Cats are amazingly non-interactive.

I’ve wanted to expand my language so I saved up and purchased a 4-foot slider and a carbon crane, both from GlideTrack in the UK. I use a Manfrotto MVH502 fluid video head and 577qr sliding plate for ease of use. Very happy with both, but on the carbon crane, focus pulling becomes a bit of a hassle.

I’m not a cinematographer so I don’t have a huge lighting setup. I tend to use available light as much as I can, which is something I can do because of the amazing light sensitivity of today’s sensors. I make manipulations on speed and f-stops and work with exposure, but sometimes you need a light source for mood and highlights. I keep it simple and use three portable Neewer Pro CN-160 LED panels and a piece of flat styrofoam for bounce. The LEDs are battery powered and can get pretty bright, and I have the advantage of having a ton of gels and black foil from my feature shoots. If you don’t have gels and foil, then find a filmmaker and ask them if they have some - everyone does. The caveat with these small lights is that the brackets are made of plastic, and at some point they will break. I’ve already super-glued two brackets back together, and they actually seem stronger than before. Weird.

And here’s the first overlap - I’ve said it many times on this blog, and that’s to never, ever use the built-in microphone on your DSLR/ camera. They are straight up awful. I record production sound using a Zoom H4N and a RODE Shotgun Video Mic. It’s a pricey mic but it’s paid for itself tenfold, and you should never skimp on sound. Ever. I can either connect the mic to the Zoom or directly into the camera - I prefer the former because I can do some basic mixing and adjustments through the Zoom, but that also entails more work in the form of syncing in post and making sure I do a clapboard/ hand clap before every take. For interviews I use a very basic Audio-Technica Lavaliere Mic that I can clip onto the interviewee’s lapel, out of sight. This plugs into the Zoom.

Assembly is basically done in a single computer. I use a 13” 2.7Ghz MacBook Pro that’s connected to a 27” Thunderbolt display. I run Final Cut Studio 3 (tried the new Final Cut and it blows), After Effects and Photoshop. For audio I use Ableton Live. I’ve used ProTools and like it, but Ableton gives me a more organic feel, and with sound I’m all about organic and natural. Using audio software requires a preamp audio interface, and I use a very basic Scarlett 2i2 USB to connect any MIDI / instruments to my computer.

Memory. All of this requires memory, and a ton of it. I stock up on G-Raid Drives and also use a 4TB Seagate Thunderbolt drive for backup. I use 32GB cards in both my camera and audio recorders, and use a USB card reader to transfer data. These add up in cost significantly, so be weary of this.

When it comes to audio, I tend to go old school. Sound is my passion, and I tend to spend more time on sound than on image in all of my projects. But I have an issue with digital recording - it’s just too clean. It lacks personality, depth and small imperfections that I think adds life to sound. I used to record directly into my PC and mix it there, but as of recent I’ve decided to revert to analog. It’s not a goofy DIY-hipster thing, but more that analog recordings have an inherent warmth to them, and aesthetically that’s where I reside. During Lilith we had to add artificial noise and imperfections to give me that analog feel, so I figured in my home studio rather I should just go for the real thing.

After doing a ton of research I located and purchased a Tascam 388 Studio 8 console. It’s a mammoth 8-track from 1987 that uses 1/4” magnetic tape and has its own mixing console with built-in effects. A ton of big bands like The Black Keys have recorded their albums on the Tascam, and I love the quality of those records. The Tascam’s got its own sound to it - just like every digital sensor has a personality, so to do magnetic recording heads. I record music and SFX into the Tascam and mix it there, and then import those into Ableton for final assembly and mix. It’s a labor intensive process, but I love the quality it gives me.


Messin’ around on the Tascam is a lot of fun.

I have two guitars - a Gibson Sheridan hollow-body and a customized Fender Strat - and a bass guitar - a Gibson Thunderbird - all from years before of a musical career that never materialized, that I use to lay down basic sounds through a Line6 amp that I can manipulate using FX modulators in the amp. I use two machines for samples and percussion - an AKAI MPC-2000 and a small Yamaha SU-10 handheld sampler. I bought both when I lived in the UK during the explosion of drum-and-bass and trip-hop in Bristol, and both machines are still incredible in their range and ease-of-use. I multitrack all of these into the Tascam, mix it onboard, and then import stems into Ableton.

Lastly, I use a studio monitor system for sound. For so long I’d been doing all of my audio work through a set of headphones, which is a slippery slope to go down. Headphones never give you the actual feel of hearing sound in a room - loudness and subtlety can be completely lost in the process. Quality studio monitors can be ridiculously expensive, especially if you want to step up to 5.1 mixing (for the uninitiated, 5.1 means five speakers - two in front, two in back and one in the center, and the .1 is the subwoofer) then you’re in for a world of expense.

My needs being as they are, I’m good with a simple 2.1 stereo setup. If I need to go more than that then I’m going to go over to my homies at HOBO Audio in NYC and let them do their magic. I’d been shopping around for years for a good set of monitors, and luck smiled upon me a few months ago in the form of a fire sale from a recording studio that had gone under in a podunk town in Michigan. I picked up a set of Genelec 8020a monitors and a 7050b subwoofer for a fraction of the cost. I spent good money on the best quality XLR cables and a very good surge protector, and built a proper nearfield audio setup. The system kills, and it’s such a more accurate way to build audio. If you don’t have the funds to go professional with the audio, KRK makes amazing ROKIT monitors that are uniformly excellent.

I’m in the process of sound-proofing my studio, which is going to take some time and ingenuity. Baby steps. All of the aforementioned wasn’t built overnight, it’s been a six-year process thus far, but I’ve pretty much got all the components I need to make a high-quality feature film. What is ongoing is my education - I’m always enrolling in classes and reading up on studio engineering, and making small tweaks to my setup. And as technology progresses, so too will my gear change. Maybe not overnight or immediately, but over time and as funds become available.

I hope this answers in length what gear I use. There are so many wonderful blogs on Tumblr that really get into the nuts-and-bolts of gear and techniques, and one of my favorites is Stephen Diaz’ blog. He’s always got his finger on the pulse on all the things that upstart indie filmmakers need to really take off, I highly recommend checking it out and bookmarking/ following his work. Happy hunting!

New Personal Website!

So I’ve created my own personal directing website that has a ton of my filmmaking info, my bio, my reel and other cool stuff like storyboards, concept and comic book art, and some photography. There’s also a link to buy the Lilith DVD or download. It’s a work in progress, but it’s pretty fun.

sridharreddy.squarespace.com

And don’t worry, this doesn’t mean I’ll be posting less on this blog. Getting ready for the next business plan installment tomorrow. Thanks for your support!

Business Plans, Part 2: READINESS.

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.

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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.

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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.