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…

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.

My first student film, “Abstract Origins”

Prepare to be underwhelmed. I finally got around to transferring my very first student film - my first formal film that I’d ever made - to a digital format. I hadn’t seen this for almost twelve years (I made it fourteen years ago), and my cheeks were burning with embarrassment as I watched it.

Not that it’s a bad film, in fact I still quite enjoy it. It’s just so raw, so amateur, so incredibly pretentious (nods to Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage, Emile Durkheim). But it also shows a lot of things that would become a hallmark of how I make films. The first was the theme of parallel worlds and regrets, of lives and loves wasted. It’s something I’m very much drawn to. There is the appearance of an archon, which I wrote about extensively before and has made an appearance in almost all my films.

And finally, it was fun to see the roots of my ambition, my desire to make big films despite budgetary and technical limitations. Abstract Origins had a budget of $100, of which $75 of it went towards 16mm film stock and processing. My script required New York City to be empty, a ghost town. My film professor looked at me and said “you can’t do this.” He told me that Cameron Crowe had just filmed “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise in Times Square, and they’d spent over a million just to clear a few NYC streets. It was the first time any instructor had told me that, and it fueled the beginnings of my blatant disrespect for authority. I told him I could do it. Defiantly. This was a story I needed to tell. I had a way to do it (note this was before digital filmmaking, Final Cut, After Effects, etc., all I had was a 16mm Arriflex and a Steenbeck flatbed editing table at my disposal). He looked at me and said “if you can pull this off, you should quit film school and go and make a feature film right away, and I’ll be the first to support you.” We shook hands, and a few weeks later, an empty NYC showed up onscreen. (The film also has a shot of me at the World Trade Center, exactly two years before 9/11 - I will cherish this footage). My professor wrote my recommendation to the Sundance Institute a few years later.

Everyone’s gotta start somewhere. I’ve come a long way, with still a very long way to go.

Final Episode of Julia Voth’s ‘Project S.E.R.A.’

It all comes to a head (or does it?) in this final installment of Julia Voth’s Resident Evil-universe webseries Project S.E.R.A.. In this final episode, we learn that intrepid agent Gillian Ames has a big heart, and that the world she lives in is a hell of a lot more complicated than what she bargained for.

The series leaves a lot of questions that need answering in Season 2, so let’s make sure there is a season two by sending some serious traffic to the site. Click on the video and watch the video, and help spread the word. Julia, Derek Theler and Ben Howdeshell have worked super hard on this, let’s make their efforts all worth the while! It takes a village!

2013 Resolution: Movies Watched This Week (2.17.13)

Continuing with my resolution to watch more movies, here’s what I took in this week:

Les Miserables, dir. by Tom Hooper, UK, 2011.

I tried. I really did. Despite my abject hatred of musicals (check that- Broadway musicals/ showtunes), I stuck to my goal of trying to watch all of the Oscar Best Film nominees and popped my Academy screener of Les Miserables into my DVD player.

I couldn’t last thirty minutes. It was dreadful, horrible, screechy, wide-angle-camera-up-the-nose bad, just plain awful. I slapped myself in the face a few times during Russell Crowe’s “singing” and then fast forwarded to Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-bait single take song which was one of the most cloying, manipulative and pandering pieces of film I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching and hearing. It’s not for lack of heart or effort on behalf of the performers - they’re trying their hardest, bless their hearts - it’s that they’re burdened with such horrible material and creative decisions that it could be Placido Domingo singing and it wouldn’t make a difference.

Just plain bad. Hollywood at its very worst, and a slap in the face to the original MGM musical spectacles of the heyday. A lie committed to celluloid, built to please those unwilling to think and force-fed feelings, there isn’t a sincere frame in this entire movie (or at least the part that I saw). A misfire on almost every account. Blah.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, dir. by Alison Klayman, USA, 2012.

As a college activist, I knew the gentle art of making a mountain out of a molehill. In 1998 we held a demonstration at the Capitol Building in Colorado over the treatment of the murder case of Matthew Shepard, and we crossed over a boundary and got pushed back by a police officer. The officer was just doing his job, and one of our group took that little incident and spun it to an act of state totalitarianism. We had to temper his political ambitions, but nonetheless it served our cause well.

Of course there are very legitimate acts of police brutality as well, and while it may be a greater indicative of the power dynamics displayed in the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, there’s a very fine line where the acts of the individual are representative of the acts of the entire state. It takes a lot of work and diligence to determine that.

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Which is why my respect for Chinese artist/ activist Ai Weiwei is so tremendous. I’d been aware of his political art after his defiant stand against the Beijing Olympics (he designed the ‘Birds Nest’ stadium, and contended that the management of the Games were in conflict to his desire and design of open democracy and access), but I was not aware of his actions on the ground, outside of his art. Weiwei has waged a very public war on the internet against the Chinese government, using his blog and Twitter account to actively document the supression and censorship of anyone who dares to question the authority of the state.

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Wewei doesn’t reserve his judgement for the Chinese only…

The tipping point is achieved when Weiwei is assaulted by a Chinese police officer, an attack that results in Weiwei having to go to the hospital and having surgery on his skull. In the way Weiwei documents his ordeal, it’s easy to label him as a public martyr or social pariah, but the fact of the matter is that he was there and it happened to him, and it happened to him because he was trying to provide testimony in court to defend a friend and fellow activist.

This makes for a fascinating character study, as Weiwei spins his political activism into his public persona. His image is as important as his cause, and vice versa. A very interesting shade is his own personal ethics, which are subtly challenged in the film. Weiwei challenges the ethics of the state, and yet he himself has crossed an ethical boundary, having fathered a son with another woman, despite being in a committed 16-year marriage. It is an interesting juxtaposition, as director Alison Klayman compares Weiwei’s treatment of two legal institutions - marriage and media - and prods for Weiwei’s infraction of both. He is dismissive of his infidelity as “something that just happens,” a man who simply made a poor judgement. Any opponent of Wewei would suggest he is being a hypocrite, that he holds himself to a different moral standard than others.

It couldn’t be further from the truth. Wewei accepts his infidelity, and celebrates his ability to publicly state his infidelity. He is not proud of it, rather he is proud he can at least express his fallibility, and no government should be able to silence that right.

The reviews of the film call it words like ‘incendiary’ and ‘intense’ and I found it to be neither, rather I found it to be an intriguing character study, one which paints the portrait of a man whose cause to the freedoms of the many is almost an act of digital narcissism. It is unclear whether Weiwei craves the spotlight, but his heart is always in the right place. A fascinating documentary.

Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste; Galaxie 500 1979-1991, Sergio Huidor and Various, UK/ USA, 1979-1991.

I’ve had this 2-disc set sitting on my shelves for almost three years and never got around to watching it. I’d been a fan of Galaxie 500 since high school, amidst my love of all things shoegaze at that time, taking in bands like My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Wire, Jesus and Mary Chain, His Name Is Alive and Miranda Sex Garden. These bands always had such amazing music videos, almost abstract collages of color and ghostly images. The early videos of Galaxie 500 made an impression on me, as they often used rather morbid found footage and used different video techniques to create dirty loops and noisy texture. It fit perfectly to the music, and was one of the earliest pure marriages of sound and image that I’d experienced in my life.

On this set (issued by uber-cool label Plexifilm), there are the handful of videos directed by friend-of-the-band Sergio Huidor, but there’s another disc-and-a-half of live performances by the band, many of which display the beautiful waves of guitar that the band was able to build. The guitar solos, in particular, are of outstanding, simple and transcendent quality. The last time I was so enamored with live guitar playing were the solos by Robert Smith on The Cure’s Live in Orange concert film and the live performance recordings of Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins. These are solos where the guitar doesn’t take center stage, rather it drives the song into a new direction, being as evocative as any vocals or chorus. Galaxie’s solos on the BBC live footage is particularly beautiful, to the point where I felt inspired to write new stories and rewrite my old ones. These are the sounds of emotions. Breathtaking, and a reminder of how absolutely powerful the dwindling (some might argue already lost) medium of the music video and concert film really is.

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Archive:

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

Interpreting Sundance.

First and foremost, massive congrats to Lilith actress Lili Reinhart, as her film Toy’s House, which is in dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance, was just acquired for distribution by CBS Films. Lili’s worked super hard and this is a huge step in her career, and I can’t wait for what the future holds for her.


Toy’s House.

Toy’s House is one of many high-profile acquisitions that have occurred early in the schedule at Sundance, with films fetching prices in the $4-9m range from both major and upstart distributors. The trend is very promising and exciting for all of us involved in film.

Ever since the recession began in 2006 (has it been that long already?), the days of high prices for film acquisition at Sundance and other film markets like AFM, Berlin and Cannes had all but dried up. Distributors didn’t have cash to borrow from banks and what they could pay wasn’t anywhere near able to cover the cost of production. As the years progressed, the number of acquisitions plummeted into the single digits. Not only did this mean that less films were finding quality distribution, it had a much more detrimental effect upon film investment. If films were not able to find distribution, then what possible vote of confidence could be given to an investor to put money in a film. As distribution dried up, so too did confidence - and therefore money - in new films to be made.

I know this because I made Lilith at the peak of the financial desert. My efforts to sell the film were consistently met with the same story - “we like the film, we just don’t have any money to give you for it.” Luckily I found a distributor, but I was indeed lucky. Very lucky. There were so many films - great films - made in the past five years that have fallen victim of the financial landscape. In addition there were so many great scripts that even despite having high-profile directors and actors attached to them, simply could not find funding because of the lack of confidence in film distribution.

This might seem puzzling given that the theatrical movie business has posted a record financial profit in 2012. It blew the previous figure out of the water, this despite fewer films being made, acquired and released. As with every year, ticket prices have gone up, but the real factor of profitability was the foreign market. Films recouped as much as three times their domestic box office abroad, and it’s been an absolute godsend for the studios. With digital delivery and projection, P&A costs were slashed dramatically, and countries that relied upon 35mm projection would simply receive prints cycled through other countries.

But note that this success was seen predominantly by big-budget studio tentpole films, movies that had a pedigree or built-in audience. These movies were relatively easy sells in foreign markets - James Bond is an international commodity and Skyfall bolstered the appeal by being a well-made and well-told story. It also pandered to its target market by setting itself in China. The Avengers was an actioner that could translate across cultures, and reaped the benefit of almost a decade of films that had a built-in audience. These were slam-dunk calculated risks, and as a result of smart choices and smart filmmaking, the profits were there to be taken.


'Skyfall' in China.

But not everyone can afford to make The Avengers or Skyfall, and selling a film like Wuthering Heights or We Need to Talk About Kevin internationally is a deadly proposition. So while the studio tentpoles flourished, smaller and independent films struggled mightily. But despite this, producers got smarter and made films that took a page from the studios, focusing on genre filmmaking and reducing their costs. A film like Looper grabbed science fiction by the horns, leveraged a rising star in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and took advantage of Chinese distribution by incorporating it into the narrative. But for every Looper there are a few dozen Lilith's, small indie genre films that have niche appeal and require niche distribution that is woefully underfunded. In the past six years the number of niche distributors has plummeted, with many of them buckling under financial pressure and closing their doors. With the loss of niche distribution, so too did the money for investment in independent films dry up. Throw in the changing environment of digital / streaming distribution (Netflix pays out little to nothing for indie filmmakers), and it's been a really, really tough ten years for independent film.

But the recent acquisitions at Sundance give a signal that the times are changing. Money is flowing at a rate that is unheard of in the past six years, and when distributors spend money, investors are more inclined to put money into the system. It’s basic business - you put money in places where it can turn a profit. The onus is still on the distributors to make money at the box office, but they wouldn’t pay for these films if they didn’t feel they couldn’t be sold. It also means that filmmakers are getting smart as well, trimming their costs of production and negotiating star salaries down or offering participation on the back end. Lili’s film - besides being reviewed favorably as funny and charming - has a cast that can sell, with Nick Offerman and Alison Brie rounding off a very polished and talented cast. A cast like that five years ago would be unaffordable on an indie budget, but producers have adjusted to challenging times, as have actors, who realize that less films being made means less available work, and to participate on a quality project on a reduced salary means the potential for greater returns is multiplied.

If investors see that smaller budget, smartly made genre films with magnetic, well-assembled casts are making money, they’ll be more inclined to invest in them. And that’s a very, very good thing for independent filmmakers. It makes me excited for the future. I’m glad that I’ve been able to weather the storm and still somehow make quality movies during that time period, and I’m looking forward to the brighter future. It’s no free pass - we’ll have to be smarter than ever because while investor confidence will be rising, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less cautious. In fact investors will be all the more cautious because they have to find projects that fit this current environment. The economy hasn’t recovered, it’s only showing signs of it. But a smart investor knows it’s important to strike early, and strike intelligently. So we have to be intelligent with what we present. Study the trends and make them your own. See what’s selling and innovate on them, make them high concept and low budget, and I guarantee you’ll get a nibble of interest.

Time to strike is not when the iron is hot, but when it’s just heating up. We’re at that stage right now, so let’s get to work!!

Screenwriting: Adapting Comic Books.

So the cat is out of the bag regarding my short. As published in the Hollywood Reporter last week, graphic novelist Paul Pope and I co-directed a sci-fi western called ‘7x6x2.’ The film was shot over two days last month in the Mojave Desert, and we used Sony’s brand spankin’ new 4k digital cinema camera, the F55. We also used the F65 on the shoot, and it turned out really lovely. As soon as we get word, we’ll be releasing it online for free for everyone to see.

During the Sony event, Paul and I were asked frequently about the process of adapting a comic book to film. It became apparent that a majority of the public thinks that comics are a natural transition to film. It’s not difficult to see why people would think this way, because there are sequential images with action and dialogue already mapped out. “Comics are basically storyboards for a film, correct” a young woman asked. After all, isn’t that what Robert Rodriguez and Zac Snyder did with 'Sin City', 300 and 'Watchmen' respectively?

While I like all three of those films immensely, they are literal conversions of comics to film - using the frames as storyboards - and I feel like so much is lost in that process. The films feel flat and two-dimensional, much like the pages they’re drawn upon. They have incredible action and are entertaining, and in that way they are rousing successes. But if we really want to replicate the experience of reading a comic book on film, then we have to be mindful that what we don’t see on a comic book page is far more important than what we do see, and it is what we don’t see that becomes the heart of our cinematic adaptation.

First, let me post two pages from my favorite comic book of all time, Frank Miller’s Elektra: Assassin. It’s one of my top-three dream projects to adapt (Julia Voth as Elektra? Believe me the thought has crossed my mind and trust me, she’s more than capable.) Give it a good read and let it marinate for a few minutes.


Click on the image for the larger version.

It’s a disturbing sequence from a highly provocative book, one where Elektra is imprisoned, assaulted and tortured in an insane asylum. But I chose it because there’s so much going on internally, and it’s beautifully laid out by artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who utilizes every possible tool at his disposal to get the emotional impact across. It’s a stunning sequence.

Now let’s imagine how to adapt this sequence into a film. By far the easiest way would be - as was in Sin City - to film the frames as they are presented and use Elektra’s voice in a voice-over. It would be a pretty good sequence, especially if it were underexposed and frenetically intercut between the perpetrators in the asylum and The Beast.

But truth be told, we wouldn’t be getting anywhere near the impact we desire because the power of comic books is found in the space between frames, and less in the frame itself. We see the sequence where The Beast claws at Elektra’s face, and the sounds and motion of that sequence is told in our minds, and not in the frame itself. The panels are the mere seedling of the idea, and we fill in the gaps in our own minds. That gap - that interpretation - is where our film adaptation begins. Not with the drawn image or the word balloon. This is the power of comics, and this is where the relation between sequential storytelling and cinema is its absolute strongest.

So let’s revisit this page, and try to adapt it cinematically, abandoning the panel images as storyboards, and instead looking at the spaces between the panels for us to tell the story. In the first panel Elektra mentions the “clatter of sharp tools,” and in the next panel we see The Beast lacerating her thigh with sharp claws - in my mind this is a match cut, one that can be expanded further by having Elektra see the tools as extensions of a hand. Once she is gassed, she can see the fat slob perv insane asylum worker himself as the beast - a transformation - with scaled hands and scalpels for nails. The asylum itself can transform, mutating with wet, slimy walls and lit like a cave. When the gas is turned on, we hear it as gas, but in actuality it is MILK that comes pouring from the mask, and Elektra is further assaulted with macabre transformations. This is the feeling I get when I look in the spaces between the panels, and I don’t need a voice over to guide me through it all.


From Adrian Lyne’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’

This is my overriding philosophy towards ANY adaptation, really, be it prose, poetry or comics. It’s the space between words and images and panels where the film story resides. We must always remember that film is a visual medium, and the visions created when we read a great book, hear a great song or read a wonderful comic book is the movie created in our head, and not from the page itself. Our responsibility when we adapt is to capture the essence of the base work. Audiences are paying us to see our adaptation of the works, and not a mere transliteration of the written page. If we compare the artistry of the Harry Potter films to say, The Hunger Games, we see the difference in quality of adaptation. The Hunger Games is a word for word adaptation - there are no surprises and no addition to the story that we hadn’t already experienced in the books. But in Harry Potter, each director put their own perspective on the films, bringing in a level of sophistication and inference that the books merely referenced. In Harry Potter, we were treated with the ability to experience what it meant to be a boy wizard, as opposed to simply observing it. And that’s the major difference.

What would be more interesting - simply watching Elektra, or going through the same anguish and disorientation through the powerful tools of cinema? I’d very much prefer the latter, and as a filmmaker it’s a welcome challenge to do justice to the images and words of comics and making them stand alone as pure cinema, and not as a simple “comic book adaptation.”

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As always, thank you so much for your support, and have a great weekend!

Machines

Soft Moon

Zeros

Played 1,175 times

Music for the Weekend: Machines by The Soft Moon.

Finally, it’s done. My short film - titled '7x6x2' - was delivered a few days ago and was screened at a special event on the Sony lot in Culver City, CA. The screening went very well, the film was universally lauded, and we’re moving on to the release strategy. I initially thought it would be available to release today, but Sony’s got a new release plan and we’ll get it all out soon for everyone to see, and at that point I’ll be able to discuss it in far more detail. In the meantime, here’s a sneak-peek still of the film:

So after five weeks nonstop on the road, I’m officially out of gas. I’m taking the weekend off to recuperate, kicking back with a copy of Alexis De Tocqueville’s 'Democracy in America' and listening to the new record by friend-of-Lilith band extraordinaire, The Soft Moon. (Their track ‘When It’s Over’ is featured on the 'Lilith' trailer.)

In the meantime if you haven’t already, make sure to pick up the ‘Lilith’ DVD or download it for a fun weekend watch. We’ve been incredibly thrilled with the show of support so far, but we still need your diehard support to make this little indie film that could a success. Spread the word, pick up a copy for you and your friends, and be a part of a true-blue grassroots indie film movement. I can’t do it without you!

Order the Lilith DVD and Download by clicking here!

Have a great weekend!

attitudeandsyndicate-deactivate ASKED:

I'm thinking about getting into Directing, do you have any tips for first-timers?


Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been getting around to answering my backlog of messages. Feels good to get back in the game!

First and foremost, the most basic tip I can give you is to prepare, prepare, prepare. You can never, in my opinion, prepare too much. Break down your script, create shot lists, create acting objectives for each scene, storyboard complex sequences in advance, and rehearse if you can. Some argue that preparation kills creative spontaneity, but I’m in the camp that it actually promotes spontaneity because you’ve covered the basics before you’ve even stepped in front of the camera. You are free to make adjustments based upon the moment, of what your actors and environment are giving you, of what your instinct is telling you (more on that later). But to go into a shoot unprepared means you’ll be spending valuable time figuring things out logistically rather than spending time with your actors and key crew. Prepare, prepare, prepare and you’ll be freeing yourself to really be in the moment.

Next tip. I think back to my first film and I think the best thing I learned was to get as much coverage as I could. For the uninitiated, “coverage” is collecting as much footage as possible of each scene, and this includes wides, angles, perspectives, close-ups and inserts. A good wide master-shot will ensure that you’ve filmed the scene in its entirety, and that in a worst-case scenario you’ll have the scene in its full for your edit.

But there’s a downside to master shots, which is that they tend to be flat, long and boring. Unless you incorporate interesting movement, layers of production design or choreographed action into your masters, they will tend to read almost flat. You’ll need to have close-ups and inserts to build narrative and interest. But as a fail safe, a master shot is a great insurance policy for a first time filmmaker.

My next tip is to manage your energy on set. Think of production as a battery. Each day you start at 100% and as the day presses on, people’s energy will drain. As a director you’re going to have to be at 100% all the time, but you have to be mindful that your crew and actors will be fading as the hours pass. Manage their energy wisely through scheduling and pragmatism. Rehearsals are great but avoid doing too many - actors will tend to put their energies into their first few rounds and you’ll want to preserve that raw power. Do a walkthrough at half-speed and if you’re shooting digital, you may even want to film your rehearsals. If it’s a complex sequence, then you’ll want to schedule a rehearsal before the camera shoots so that when you’re on set, you’ll be able to fine tune without expending too much time and energy. Avoid numerous takes on things like inserts - shoot them as a series instead.

The two things you’ll never have enough of are time and money. When you shoot, try to consolidate wherever you can without losing your inherent style or objective. If you can say two things in one shot and still keep it visually interesting (think of using a camera move or having your actors move in the frame as opposed to two shots), then you’re saving both time and money. Each setup costs you precious time, so be judicious with what you can do. Early in the shoot take note of your setup times and keep a mental log of what your shots will demand in terms of time and manpower. That long, single take with a steadicam will take time to light, choreograph and execute, so if you’ve allocated the same amount of time to it as you did for an insert of a man picking up a gun, then you’ll be in trouble, and you’ll fall behind. So either incorporate the man picking up the gun in your steadicam shot, or ditch the steadicam shot and do it as a series of shots under a similar lighting scheme. Know what is important and what can be sacrificed. Be precise but avoid being a perfectionist. As Michael Mann once put it, “a perfectionist is someone who cannot distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant.” Directors should be exacting in their overall vision, but they should have the wherewithal to know what is worth investing in and what can be consolidated or even excised. Those decisions will usually have to be made in the moment as you’re running out of time, you’re losing light, your talent is going into overtime, and a rainstorm is on the horizon. Believe me, it always happens, so be prepared for it.

Of course the very best tip I can give you is to listen to your instinct. Your collaborators will be bringing you thousands of decisions to be made each day, and you really have to go with what feels absolutely right to you. Being decisive is very different from being stubborn. You have a vision for your film, and every decision you make should be in service of that vision. If it doesn’t feel right - and you will know when it doesn’t feel right - then you have to act on it and devise an immediate solution to correct it. And if you don’t have an immediate solution, have the humility to ask your crew for their input. Your cast and crew are there to facilitate your vision - they are working with you, not against you - but it is your responsibility to steer them in the right direction to achieve the results you want. Hence the title of the job - director. Create a situation and environment where your collaborators are able to exercise their talents to the fullest as they bring your vision to life. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that is dependent upon your ability to stick to your convictions and provide directions to making those a reality.

These are just a few tips that I think can help out. There’s tons more tips but I really think these are the utmost important ones.