Screenwriting: Writing Improvised Scripts

I’m currently in the middle of a screenplay for a feature project to direct this summer. It’s a project that I designed to fill in some empty space in my schedule, as my fall is pretty booked up, and a project I was supposed to direct this summer has been delayed. Such is film, there are no predictable schedules and for a project to come to full realization, a million parts must be synchronized at once.

The piece I’m writing is a pure performance piece - six women in one room - and I’ve never written such a complex script before. As is my style, I tend to write everything out. Both the Lilith and One Trick Rip-Off screenplays are filled with details and instructions, they are more like blueprints for a film to be constructed from. When people read those screenplays, they often are able to vividly see the film before them. It’s a way of writing that works for some, not for others. It works for me, as the analytical part of me reassures my creative free spirit. I know that when I get off the path less traveled, I always have a core plan I can go back to and rely upon.

But this script is an entirely different animal. It’s one room, so it’s not like I have to fill the screenplay with descriptions of setting and mood. One and done on the environment, which changes only slightly over the course of the story. This is purely a performance piece, where the six women talk and debate. Ethics. Morality. Mortality. It all comes into play.

I’ve never written a screenplay - let alone a single scene - where six characters interact with one another. Maximum I’ve done is four in one scene, and luckily that was just a scene, it didn’t have to carry out for 90 minutes. After plotting the script out and writing a full treatment, I stared at the blank page, not really knowing where to begin.

Do I just write it all out, just as I would any other screenplay? I started doing this and it didn’t feel right. It felt clinical and lacked spontaneity. Everything was planned, the dialogue was coming off as far too clever and snappy. I was writing in actions for the negative space - the space between the words - and it was reading just as filler. My tried and tested method of screenwriting was not working.

Not that it was bad writing, in fact it was quite good. Very good quality, some of the best I’d written in a long time. The debates between the women were reading more as a transcript of a debate that’s already happened. I imagined that if I was an actress I’d be excited to play the part, but it would be a matter of saying those specific lines in a specific way. I want something that grabs the actress and fills them with immediacy. So I decided to scrap what I’d written and start over.

I started with the characters. I created detailed profiles of each character, not getting into their backstory but rather the salient points that would affect their arguments. After finishing the profiles, I mapped out the five main arguments that transpire over the course of the story. I then created a graph, with the characters names on the horizontal access, and the argument topics on the vertical access. And then came the hard part - at each cross-point, I wrote how each character would respond to each argument. The graph visually presented each argument in proximity of one another, and in this presentation, I saw how each act would initially unfold.

I’d achieved an organic construct, and now I had to get back to writing a script. The dialogue was beckoning, but I decided to take a massive departure and I planned to let my actresses improvise the dialogue.

Improvisation doesn’t mean you don’t have a script, in fact it’s still a very detailed screenplay that must result. But the script is painted in broad strokes with the important details not omitted, but rather concealed. The true power in improvisation is not telling your actors what to say, but rather describing what they should not say. It’s what they’re holding back that will deliver the true meat of the lines.

Everyone’s got secrets, and the core of any drama is the lengths people will go to cover up the truth. In a romance it is the suppression of true feelings, in horror it is one’s mortality, in comedy it is the avoidance of awkwardness, which makes things all the more awkward. In my screenplay I’m focusing on the inner fears and prejudices that drive each woman to a conclusion, so what’s important is that the actors know what it is that they’re hiding. Once they know that, the improvisation to cover up those truths, when in concert with character preparation and immersion, should promise some very interesting results.

I’m about a quarter of the way through, and the screenplay is reading essentially like a prose document, except with some key start and stop points. I’m defining the beginning of an argument, and the idea of the counter argument. The idea is the gift to the opposing actors. There may be a few key lines of dialogue that are to be given not as gospel, but rather as a suggestion, a seedling to a line that will come out organically and in the moment. By the time I’m finished, the screenplay will be about fifty pages.

I’ve never done something like this before, and I have to admit, it’s a little scary. But I also know that an improvised screenplay has more than one author, and in this instance I will have six more once I complete my casting. Casting becomes paramount because not only am I bringing in six performers with great acting capacity, but also six co-writers who must have the intellect and creativity to finish what I started. They will have to come from a place of total immersion, which is undoubtedly a lot of pressure but also a tremendous adventure for an artist. It’s like being sent on a mission - you’ve been given your orders, you have your tools, and now you must execute. My job as a writer and director is to ensure that my actors are safe and comfortable, that they can count on me for direction when they get trapped or lost. We depend upon one another, and trust is key.

This is exciting, a new territory for me. It’s part of my continual growth as a filmmaker, to keep pushing myself and my collaborators into new things. We swing to different ends of the pendulum and arrive in the center with new skills, perspectives and tools. Ultimately I want to achieve the natural ease of improvisation with the composed, artistic formality of my earlier work. I’ve always been a visual and sonic artist, and to get to the very core of performance, to make acting harmonize with the visuals and sound, is to reach the apex of my goal as a filmmaker. Doing this improvised screenplay is an important step in that direction.

I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.

Kurt Cobain

Twenty years ago, Kurt Cobain was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I remember feeling lost and confused. In Cobain and Nirvana I had a voice that could process the pain of being misunderstood, of expressing aggression and anger without misogyny, ego or machismo. He was the one who’d found a way to process the chaff and frustration, and yet he’d succumbed to it, and despite a beautiful and caring last note, he felt the only way to truly deal with the pain was to end his life.

I had a very hard time processing his death. I couldn’t cry because I was angry at him. I felt betrayed by a man I’d never met, but whose art would help define who I would eventually become. He, like so many of my heroes, was unafraid to point the middle finger at the tormentors of the young, the quiet, the different. He fought off bullies of many sorts with his words, his ideas, his sandpaper growl, his art. And yet he collapsed.

After some time, his death imparted another valuable lesson, one which guides me to this day. Kurt Cobain, for all his success, his achievements, his otherworldly talents and his vision, Kurt Cobain was just a man. He was flesh and bone, made plenty of mistakes, and had fears and doubts just like anyone else. His death not only killed my hero-worship, it also obliterated any want for celebrity or to follow it.

Celebrity, whose etymology derives from the Latin celibritatem, or multitudes of fame, is a poison that corrupts the integrity of a man. It froths all that is superficial and covers fears, flaws and all those things which make us real. It is a dam withholding troubled waters. In our current times, celebrity worship has reached unprecedented levels, where the admiration of plastic constructs like Kardashians, anti-vaccination bimbos or the Royal Family not only perpetuate lies on what construes a normal, complete life (nobody is fabulous, rich, skinny, perfect, happy and gets what they want ALL the time, if ever) but also poisons us with disappointment in our own flaws, which many times aren’t even flaws at all. Celebrity not only foments envy, but chisels insecurity into our bones, to the point of self-destruction and self-mutilation.

The day Kurt Cobain died was the day I understood how beautifully fucked up life is, how immensely complex it is, and how it can never be appreciated through a filter of perceived celebrity perfection. It forever changed my interactions with people and how I did business later in my life. I see no one as being more important than the other, we are all flawed, we are all scared, we are all actively making mistakes and we should help one another to solve them, rather than being judgmental of our failures and envious of our successes, which is the very core of celebrity. The saddest part of Cobain’s death was that, despite having friends who loved him dearly, he died alone and in tremendous pain, and it is a thought that brings immense sadness to my soul.

The quote above demonstrates Cobain’s struggle with celebrity, and the best way to honor his death is to love him for being human, for being a real man, and not just for the art he made, which moved so many of a generation in a personal way. I remember, clear as day, the moment Kurt Cobain came into my life, as I recently wrote on my Facebook page:

"I got this EP for my 14th birthday. Wax Trax records in Denver, on Capitol Hill. Compact disc issued by Tupelo, discount marked down written in Sharpie on the case. Threw it on my dad’s CD player and THIS bassline changed my life forever. I couldn’t dance to it, all I could do was pound my fist into my chest and thrash my head. Mom was worried, but she also saw that I was happy. I’d connected."

Boundless Love

Savage Sister

Wild Sleep EP

Played 140 times

Music for the Weekend: Boundless Love by Savage Sister.

We’re on the thaw. Officially it’s been the most brutal (brutalest?) winter in Chicago’s history, with the average temperature from November to the end of March hovering around 22 degrees. That’s almost five months straight of below freezing temperatures, and add to that the third most snow in Chicago’s history (about seven odd feet of it) and it’s a winter for the ages, one to hold above any future kid’s whining about how cold it is outside.

We survived, and it’s given me a lot to experience and think about. Your mind can’t help but go to dark places when it feels like nuclear winter for so long. In the thaw I’m seeing dead animals emerging from the glaciers, trapped and preserved like mammoths, who couldn’t survive the freeze. I see the damage on old wood and structures, I see the effects of expansion on the concrete.

And in the middle of all that, a tuft of green. A blade of grass. A bud on a tree branch. Life perseveres, as it must. It’s still cold outside but the chill has gone from the bones, we’re all ready to shed our weathered skins and bloom. Time to commit to paper all that has been experienced, pondered and formulated. Warmth and sun bring new energy, the rite of Spring.

Have a great weekend.

Study: Carl Theodor Dryer and the Power of White

Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dryer’s Vampyr remains as one of my favorite films of all time, a brooding meditation on death, dreams and aspiration. It is perhaps the single most visually stunning film I’ve ever seen, and its fingerprints can be found in several other films that I’ve admired, from the works of David Lynch to the Brothers Quay, especially with their stunning film Institute Benjamenta.

My favorite sequence from ‘Intitute Benjamenta.’

I’ve been studying Dryer for some time, and no filmmaker’s education is complete without some dedication to his canon. Immediately noticeable are Dryer’s compositions and approach to light - unlike so many silent filmmakers he reveled in using brightness and haze to bring out the darkness of the subject matter. He used light to cast shadow and contrast the darkness, something we’d see later in the work of Kubrick, especially in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.

I’ve long been obsessed with darkness, and when I made Lilith I made sure to plunge the entire film in literal darkness. But what I’ve come to realize is that Dreyer’s brand of darkness is actually quite more affecting, in that there is nothing to hide within. There is nothing lurking in Dreyer’s shadows, the horror is real and upfront.

A study of Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc demonstrates this point brilliantly. In an iconic scene, young Jeanne D’Arc - played by a freshly cropped Renée Jeanne Falconetti - refuses the help of God before she is burned at the stake. The scene is shot in a haunting close-up, Dryer confronts us with Jeanne, and makes us look at her, face-to-face. We see the wrongs of our ways, we cannot turn away from her beauty and innocence. We know what is beset upon her will be a tragedy.

Optimized gif by spetrillo.

Closer study reveals an artistic choice by Dryer which reinforces the horror and tragedy of the sequence, and it is a motif repeated throughout his canon. Dryer keeps the backdrop of Jeanne a pure white - he had the art director paint the background pink so as to avoid any kind of shades being picked up by the black and white film stock - and as a result we are purely confronted by her humanity and our choices put upon her. This is the use of contrast in its most pioneering, as we see her in full detail. She is beautiful but not glamorous, we see her freckles, her small imperfections that reinforce her innocence and bind us to her even stronger. The power of white as a base of contrast, while largely commonplace today, was a massive step in the evolution of cinema, which at the time was reveling in the massive details of epic Hollywood films like The Thief of Baghdad.

Dreyer’s use of this kind of minimalism was selective and done in varying degrees, but remains as one of the few filmmakers dedicated to the use of white, which has now been relegated to films about space travel. Kubrick used Dryer’s technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey and expanded upon it, giving us a set with the bare minimum of iconic dressing, but still using white to a chilling effect, highlighting every element in the room, putting it in our face, and forcing us to connect the dots.

The use of such diametric contrast is difficult to pull off, but when done right and placed within the narrative and edited masterfully, it can be one of the most affecting, powerful things a director, cinematographer and actor can create together. In my most anticipated film of 2014, Under the Skin, I saw in the trailer that Jonathan Glazer bravely attempts this, further cementing him as a spiritual and artistic descendant of Kubrick and Dryer. Glazer does away with the white background and lights the skin of his protagonist, an alien Scarlett Johansson, as uncomfortably pale against a pure black background. The construction is inverse to Dryer, but the effect is nonetheless startling. I absolutely cannot wait to see this film.

One might question this study against my observations of Henri Cartier-Bresson, surrealism and using visually interesting backgrounds for subjects to play in front of, but one has to also accept that a plain white background can be equally visually interesting, and has as much value as one that is overly populated with elements and texture. It’s the middle ground where things get boring and uninteresting. Minimalism is always visually interesting, and Lars Von Trier brilliantly described Dryer’s approach - which can also be applied to Kubrick and Glazer - as cooking down a stock or soup, where elements are removed so that the core flavors become richer, complex and more pronounced. It is complexity by means of subtraction, something even Cartier-Bresson practiced.

Dreyer is a revelation, someone who made movies in the 20s that are still seen as a future vision of cinema today. He demands frame-by-frame analysis, and an even more fruitful exercise is to trace his influence throughout cinema. This is just the tip of that pale, white iceberg.

From Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’

Las Vegas, The Marshall Plan, and Authenticity vs. Approximation.

I’ve just returned from Las Vegas, where I spent the last week on a work assignment. I used to go to Vegas a lot when I was kid, and it’d always held a fascination for me. Seeing guys gamble at 10am in an empty casino is some weird Edward Hopper-ish like nightmare for me, and even darker and sadder is watching people play slot machines in the airport.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid, Las Vegas was truly Sin City, seedy, cheap and dirty, a place that abhorred kids and families, and yet if you were a kid lucky enough to be allowed access to the city as I was, you saw the strangely surrealistic face of America. When I was ten we stayed at the Imperial Hotel, and while my family gambled for most of the day, me and a gaggle of other kids were sequestered in a tiny video arcade game room. My grandfather, perhaps sensing that I was going stir crazy, convinced my parents to let me tag along and see a Vegas show. Being that the show was a topless revue called “Nudes on Ice,” I’m shocked that my parents realized, during the show, that it might be inappropriate for a ten year old kid. But I was there, I loved it, and I saw amazingly beautiful tanned naked bodies, each adorned with vibrant plumage flowing from their heads and arms. I saw drunkards ogling women they could never have, and on the way out from the show I saw a man proposition an escort for an evening.

The next day I had a footlong hot dog for a dollar, and spilled mustard all over my jeans, which in the 110 degree weather caked like yellow building spackle. I had my fortune told to me by a bum on the Strip. I saw the place where Evel Knievel jumped over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. I saw drunken debauchery, lounge singers, male and female prostitutes, and an economy that was completely divorced from the American Dream. It was its own thing. It was incredible.

But then came the Mirage Hotel, and things changed forever. Vegas was no longer hostile to children like me, rather it welcomed them with the promise of entertainment for all. It forgot that it was that hostility which made the city so incredibly unique. Today the city is filled with glass towers and designer fashion boutiques. Within every hotel are the same designers, repeating inventories across three miles of real estate. Celebrity chefs prepare food fit for Manhattan gastonomiques. Hotels take on the personalities of cities, mimicking New York, Venice, Athens and Paris. It’s grand, larger than life, trying desperately to compete with Monte Carlo and Macau.

And it’s all so resoundingly plastic. I would win a bigger jackpot if I found a shred of authenticity on the Las Vegas Strip, instead it is entirely an approximation of the real thing. A facade to placate the masses who no longer have the outlet of sin, rather they drown in a pre-packaged and homogenous vision of affluence through acquisition. Essentially, the Las Vegas Strip has turned into one giant mega mall.

In this sense the Strip has embraced the American Dream of consumerism, i.e. The Marshall Plan, where happiness is inexorably linked to consumerism. Happiness in Vegas is no longer about striking it rich in the face of odds set by the house, it is about sitting in a celebrity chef’s restaurant (where the chef is rarely present, in name only) and thinking that eating their food somehow brings you to the same feeling as eating at their actual kitchen in Manhattan or Napa Valley. Buying a Gucci belt as a different kind of gambling.

Vegas used to be about 80 percent gambling and 20 percent entertainment, and I can say with full confidence that the numbers have flipped. Sin City is dead, The City of Sin Brought to You by MGM and Wynn is what remains, and it’s a mournful passing. It is just another city now, with the same shops, the same restaurants, the same chains. It saddens me deeply.

On my last day I made a trip to the Hoover Dam, as I’d never seen it before. I had low expectations but I came away from it inspired and amazed. What I’d noticed was that the dam, while built purely for function, still had stunningly beautiful elements of Art Deco design. It had personality and purpose. The large bridge across from the dam, only recently completed, was staggering in its scale but it lacked any design outside of its function. If Hoover Dam was Old Vegas, the Pat Tillman Bridge was the New America.

Everything around us is becoming so bland, so uniform, so uninspiring. New construction is built for economic efficiency, as design is an expense relegated to the supremely wealthy. I miss design in America, especially design for the use of the masses. My post office down the street is a granite and marble art deco bunker, with painted murals depicting the Agricultural Revolution inside. My new post office a few blocks away is a prefabricated brick and concrete box which, while clean, is completely lacking in any kind of deference to history, legacy, or style. It is immediately forgettable.

I was so bored in Vegas that I went and saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it encapsulated everything that I was feeling. The film is exquisitely designed and meticulously crafted, one of the most precise films that Anderson has ever made, which is saying a lot. I reveled in its details, its idiosyncrasies, its flourish. Every frame was a thoughtful painting, the work of a true aesthete. It is a film more fit to be shown in the art deco movie palaces of yesterday than in the AMC 8 corrugated steel box that I saw it in.

Design matters. Details make memories. Tactile emotions and personal statements. Details are only expensive if we deem them as luxuries. There was a time in America when details were done out of artisan pride, where it was paid for because it was appreciated. It’s why I bought a vintage home built in 1892. It has designs that can be no longer feasible, not because the technology is obsolete or the design flawed, but because builders just don’t want to do it any more.

When we make films, we must design them. We must be thoughtful and thorough, and make art that, while efficient and cost effective for mass consumption, must always be authentic, and never an approximation. This means additional work, but when you have the pride of an artists, there is no such thing as additional work in your lexicon. You do the work as the design intended, and as a result you will create something memorable, lasting, and worthy of inheritance.

Intuition is the key to everything, in painting, filmmaking, business - everything. I think you could have an intellectual ability, but if you can sharpen your intuition, which they say is emotion and intellect joining together, then a knowingness occurs.

David Lynch

What Lynch means by an intellectual ability is the skills and techniques of your trade. But what good is skill and technique if the hand that wields them is afraid? Instinct will always conquer fear. Always. When you are on a set, when you are directing your crew, when you are acting, when you are making edits, when you are exercising your craft, when you are following your bliss and you come to that repeated, inevitable junction of making a dangerous choice, then remember this mantra.

Technique: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Surrealism and André Breton.

When I go on holiday I actually work. I know there are a lot of people who’s idea of a vacation is sitting on a beach all day and doing nothing, and I’ve tried that and it makes me feel restless. I need to be actively learning something, and I find that learning actually recharges and refreshes my mind. Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, famously said that our minds are like car batteries - when it’s dead you have to run the car to recharge it. I wholeheartedly subscribe to it.

On our trip to Paris, my wife and I stopped in at the Centre Pompidou to see the newly-opened Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit, charting his entire life’s photographic work, his philosophy, and his technique. I was excited beyond bounds - HCB’s work has been a driving influence ever since high school, when as a graduation gift my grandfather presented me with a copy of The Decisive Moment. Every cinematographer I’ve worked with can attest that I reference Cartier-Bresson in all of my documents. He and Robert Frank are the two visual pillars upon which all my cinematic references are built.

But truth be told - and almost shamefully - I never formally studied Cartier-Bresson, I just admired his photographs. I never read up about him other than a topical biography and his founding of Magnum, the international collective of photographers. I always reference a single quote by Cartier-Bresson, which I’ve committed to memory, as an ideology to my approach to showing horror and darkness onscreen:

"We aim to make terror beautiful so that it will become unforgettable, so that it will burn into people’s memories, so that they will do something to stop it, if they can. And if they cannot, they will at least understand what terror means.”

And that was the extent of it. So imagine my joy and fevered anticipation upon entering the Pompidou, to learn in depth about this man who so wholly influenced what I do. I came out a new artist, a new thinker, a new man. My approach to cinema, in my future projects, will forever be altered by what I learned in that extensive and exhaustive exhibit, which took over three hours to navigate.

The first major element I learned was that Cartier-Bresson, who was also a trained illustrator and painter, was adherent to the newly-minted Surrealist movement and the writings of poet/ philosopher André Breton. Breton, who in 1924 drafted the first Manifeste du surréalisme, declared surrealism as “pure psychic automatism,” i.e. a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move randomly and freely across the paper, where chance plays a large role in the final impression, and therefore the surrealist composition is freed of any kind of rational control. Cartier-Bresson, seeing truth in this, applied this to his photographs in a technique which can be seen across all of his compositions. While the human subjects of his photography tend to carry the emotional impact, the real artistic foundation of his work lay in the backgrounds.

Cartier-Bresson, with his naturally gifted artistic eye, selected backgrounds of high visual interest. Textures, proportions, shapes and natural graphics. He would set up his position in front of that selected background, and simply allow life to unfold in front. Rather than searching for people to photograph, he allowed people to traverse that area and photographed them in what he called the decisive moment - a moment where potential energy initially becomes kinetic. Cartier-Bresson applied the idea of automatism, of letting his subjects be free of rational control, and let them move across his canvas, where he would capture a specific moment. The results are powerful and beautiful, a combination of journalistic veracity, surrealist velocity, and pure aesthetic beauty.

It was an absolutely startling revelation to me, and in the exhibit I started scribbling down in my notebook how I could apply this to cinema. I’d realized I’d already started philosophizing about this method on this blog, when I wrote about John Huston’s film Fat City and making muscular, American films. . In that post I wrote that Huston crafted the film with “remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines.” Unknowingly, I recognized that Huston was, essentially, making a film in the way Cartier-Bresson photographed. However recognizing it and doing it are two totally different things, and I want to push the Surrealist vision further by embracing the second important thing I learned from the HCB exhibit, which are the thematic pillars of Surrealism.

Unbeknownst to me, Surrealist compositions have three central themes or focuses. The first is some sort of bondage, with items or people wrapped in fabric, tape, leather, or just about any other material. Cartier-Bresson made extensive use of muslin and transparent, textured materials in both his back and foregrounds, and there is an overriding dark sensuousness towards its use. When fabric or material was not available, he employed the human body.

The second theme is on aberrations of the human form. We see it in the works of Dali, where the human body is stretched, ballooned, fragmented and distorted. Cartier-Bresson, be it through lens selection and exposure or through actual subject matter of bodies shaped by environment, genetics or disease, captured the human form as if a subconscious expression of the inner self. Cartier-Bresson intentionally cropped out body parts, refrained from the full body form, and honed in on bodies to the point of abstraction. He used mannequins, statues and costume to warp our perspectives and proportions.

The third element is the notion of people actively dreaming. In Surrealism this is most often captured by showing people sleeping or with their eyes closed, but as time progressed, Cartier-Bresson expanded the idea of a dream fugue state of being by experimenting with frames within frames, creating three-dimensional objects on a flat plane, and photographing subjects from a higher, omniscient angle. The dream state is altogether bizarre but populated with familiar elements, and in that manner, Cartier-Bresson’s truths are indeed stranger than fiction.

These of course are my observations and are part of a deeper study as Cartier-Bresson continued to evolve, and I do not claim to be an authority on Surrealism or photography for that matter. But when in application to my own art, these are the creative starting points to something that resonates within my own aesthetics and worldview. I’ve longed to capture truth within the surreal and vice versa, and this jaunt into an artist whom I thought I knew exposed my own hubris. There is so much more to learn, and rather being daunted by that, I found it invigorating. I feel like an explorer on the eve of an expedition into dangerous territory, like a soldier armed with a new weapon he’s yet to master, like a kid who thought he knew all about music picking up a guitar for the first time. Cartier-Bresson continues to enrich my life, and I know he will continue to guide me throughout my life and career. A monumental sea change in how I work is afoot.

Hot Topic: Lady Gaga’s SXSW Keynote and Selling Out.

My first trip to SXSW (‘South by Southwest’ for the uninitiated) was in 2004, when I was invited by the organizers. Ten years ago, the festival was a bustling confluence of independent film, indie rock and fringe hip-hop, and a burgeoning interactive / new media sector. It was grassroots, all about the artist, and the empowerment of ideas that would be glossed by the mainstream, only to become the pillars of the future mainstream. It’s an invigorating event, one that mirrors the “keep it weird” ethos of its host city of Austin, which has to be one of the five coolest places on Earth. I’ve been going on and off to SXSW for the past ten years, and it’s been an amazing experience every time.

Ten years on and the festival is bigger, louder, faster and more crowded than ever. I did not attend but I had about a dozen friends and colleagues who did, and they all came back feeling that the festival may have jumped the proverbial shark. The indicators were the presence of Justin Bieber, corporate sponsors for every event, Hollywood productions with distribution peppering the lineup of films, and first and foremost, the inclusion of Lady Gaga as the keynote speaker for the music festival.

I like Lady Gaga. I think she’s a true performer who knows her shit. I saw an interview with her and her knowledge of performance art and music is vast and impressive, more than any recent pop-star. She pushes the envelope of good taste. It was indeed confusing when the festival decided it was to be her to deliver the keynote address. It wasn’t that she was a commercial success and that disqualifies her. Last year, Dave Grohl, who is arguably one of the most commercially successful musicians on the planet, delivered one of the best speeches I’d ever heard about staying true to one’s voice - because it’s the only voice you’ve got - and it always being about the artist first. It remains as one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard, and if you’ve got the time, I’ve included it below. It will, without a doubt, change your life.

Lady Gaga’s keynote address was posted online a few days ago. I watched it with great interest on what insight she would bring to an industry very much in flux. There was already buzz because of her performance of ‘Swine’ a few days earlier, in which she had self-proclaimed ‘vomit artist’ Millie Brown puke green pain all over her chest. Okay. Gaga being Gaga. There was a major hullabaloo that Gaga’s “you don’t fucking own me” vomit performance was sponsored by Doritos.

Next stop, Nikelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards!

But hype will be hype, and in our age of Twitter and instanews, it’s best to get it from the source. Gaga walked on stage, dressed in a melange of white trash bags and a giant white Battlefield Earth wig, and I waited for her keynote address.

First of all, it wasn’t an address. It was an interview. She didn’t prepare a speech, like all the keynote speakers before her had. She was interviewed, asked questions, and spoke off the cuff. I have to admit, it made me mad. You look at the thoughtfulness and immense work that Grohl, Springsteen and the keynote speakers before put in, and she didn’t even take the time to write a speech. Okay, that’s just me. Put it aside. Let her speak.

She was asked about the Doritos thing, and she responded that her critics “don’t have a fucking clue how the music industry works.” She was right. So many artists get flak for selling their music to ad agencies, that they ‘sold out’ for the money. But to Gaga’s point, the sources of revenue for bands have all but shrunk, and if you can get that money, it’s more money and exposure that you can get touring for a few years. It’s a business move, and in many cases a survival move. I don’t begrudge artists for selling their own music. Gaga had a point.

But then she went on and on about how she wants to connect with fans, about it all being heart and soul, and yet the elephant in the room remained: she was being funded by giant corporations and despite her cries that artists should own their own music, she doesn’t own her own music. Gaga works hard, she says that even if she didn’t have a giant record deal she’d still work just as hard for that indescribable high of making art. I believe her, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s being funded and promoted by giant corporations.

Is that a crime? No. But Gaga defended it with a statement of “Don’t sell out, sell in.” So she’s saying to play into a system that clearly doesn’t work for 99% of the music industry, but make the maneuvers to create your art within that system. It doesn’t make sense. Gaga doesn’t need the sponsorship of Doritos to have a girl vomit on her, but she needs Doritos to have that act carry any kind of meaning. The shock is not the act of vomiting (countless musicians and performers regularly engage in body horror / self mutilation), the shock is that a pop star is having it done to her under a corporate sign.

Gaga continues on, and what she seems so oblivious to is that the corporations that fund her and her charity do so not to support her art, they are simply profiting off her image. This where she is wrong about ‘selling in.’

But what does that even mean, to ‘sell in’ or more importantly, to sell out? In the larger sense it is when you give up your voice, your integrity, for a dollar. Has Gaga lost her voice? No. In fact it’s probably stronger than ever. She has every right to make as much money as she can. But she cannot profess to fight the battle of the independent artist - telling them to sell in, to find the Doritos and KIA’s of the world, who will somehow magically support unfettered expression - and maintain any sense of integrity in doing so. Doritos and KIA will latch on to anything that is popular to shill their products. They didn’t seek Lady Gaga because they believe in her art and want it to thrive, they did it because she’s popular, and they’ll drop her the minute she’s unpopular.

When I see films rife with product placement and blockbusters castrated to appeal to the masses, I don’t view that as a singular, unique voice. That’s allowing outside forces to dictate your art, and there’s little to no integrity in that. One might argue that this is a way to finance a film, and this is true, but we have to ask ourselves at what cost. When the revenue source begins to dictate the voice and perspective of the art, the choices made by the artist, then we are selling out. This can be a tough thing to swallow because it’s difficult to imagine popular art without product placement or sponsorships.

Why then, is it such a bad thing to sell out? Because selling out means you are putting your perspective, your voice, and your worldview aside for the benefit of someone who has no interest in making the world a better place. Sure Doritos might contribute to Gaga’s charity, but they do it also as a tax write-off, as a way to curry favor with the public. Can it be that advertising and corporates can be that cruel and heartless? A resounding yes. We wonder how we got into the shape we are today, where corporate greed has become uncontrollable, and by way of people selling out, permissible.

Lady Gaga telling artists to ‘sell in’ simply allows a system that doesn’t support the artist to thrive. She’s supported and justified the wrong guy. If she truly were the artist / entrepreneur deserved of a keynote address at the most influential media conference in the world, then she would have made a statement for companies like Doritos to support musicians on the fringe, to give them just as big a stage as they give her. She would form a record label, like Dave Grohl, to support new artists and have her corporate backers back those artists. This has nothing to do with her advocacy and activism in the LGBT communities, this is about the business of art, which is what she was invited to SXSW to talk about. She failed miserably.

Gaga’s in a rarefied air that so few musicians can even relate to, and while she can parlay stories of her struggles to get signed and noticed, that is a universal story that all artists experience. It’s what she’s doing now that matters, and she’s having her image cashed in upon, and the saddest thing is that she seems oblivious to it.

Ultimately I blame the organizers of SXSW for inviting a corporate popstar to talk about the future of music. She didn’t even bother to write a speech. SXSW, like Sundance, has slowly embraced celebrity worship, when in fact they really didn’t need to. Ten years ago the festival was sold out, and the biggest celebrity to show up was Elijah Wood. It was always about the artist, and now it’s about sponsors and selling tickets, and they’re believing the idea that the more revenue the festival gets, the more independent artists they can help. It’s trickle down economics for the indie set, and it’s going to self-destruct.

I just watched a documentary about Pearl Jam, PJ20, directed by Cameron Crowe. I saw the story of a band, at the height of their powers, take on Ticketmaster because they felt the company was making music undemocratic, that the power of profit overrode the responsibility to bring music to the masses. They fought the company, stayed to their ideals, and never sold out. They continue to tour and make the art they wish to make, on their own terms, and they make a living from it. Those times when they ‘sold in,’ they were smart enough to know what it was doing to them, their art, and their fans. They stayed true. Filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles do the same. They are in control of their art, are in service of their art, and enter agreements with corporate distributors with the sole understanding that the art is to remain undisturbed and unfettered. All of these artists never sold in, and therefore they will never sell out. Integrity and truth to the self is the single most important quality of the artist.




Played 169 times

Music for the Weekend: Nureyev by frustrator.

Another pick for one of the best albums of the year, this record is blowing my mind. You can download it at the band’s Bandcamp page for your own price. Good karma always dictates that you show bands who extend goodwill some love. Pay for great music and films, and they will repay you in spades.

Been a very long and hectic week, many new and exciting events happening in my career. I’ve been offered some exciting directing work which hopefully will find its legs this summer, and I also just secured the film rights to a wonderful comic book by insanely talented writer/artist Sam Alden, which I’m going to produce into a short film, to be directed by a dear friend. More on both as events unfold.

Tireless work pays off. Glad to start seeing some returns. I hope the readers who have been with me from the start will see that film careers indeed do take time to unfold, as two important facets must develop and mature. The first is your experience, which only comes with time and constant creation. The other is your unique voice, which comes through living life. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was toppled overnight. This is a fragile and contradictory balance, one which requires infinite patience, dogged impatience, and the desire to make a practical career out of circumstances that on paper don’t make any practical sense at all. Eyes on the prize, my friends. Eyes on the prize. It is still very, VERY early in our film careers, and we’ve got a long way to go. Stay persistent.

Have a great weekend!